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My thought on today

Review: “25th Hour” (2003)

Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” opens with Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, low-key and smoldering as ever) rescuing a half-dead dog from a New York City alley. Curious. Is it a fond memory? Does it speak to some innate goodness in Monty’s nature? It could be both. Or it could point to a less happy ending, a twist of fate. Both are, in a sense, sitting ducks — the dog in the beginning, Monty in the end. The key difference is that the dog didn’t do anything to deserve his circumstances. He is innocent. Monty, we will learn, is not.

Even if Monty’s not innocent, he’s a genial enough guy. He’s strong-willed, street smart, cordial but never overly familiar with his clients — all good qualities for a drug dealer to have. Greed turns out to be his undoing. It’s Monty’s last night of freedom before he starts a seven-year prison term for cocaine possession/intent to distribute, so at times “25th Hour” feels like a death march with one probable ending. Monty’s childhood friend Frank (Barry Pepper) reasons that he actually has three choices: He can do the time and come out broken, commit suicide or run. Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Monty’s other best friend, has a more hopeful (possibly “delusional”) outlook: He will visit Monty in prison; he will care for his dog; and when Monty’s sentence is over, life will go back the way it was. Jacob wonders why prison has to change things. That Frank and Jacob discuss this in an apartment with a window overlooking ground zero is telling, an atmospheric touch to underscore the grim mood of this evening. Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) can’t think seven years ahead; she’s just worried that Monty’s gradually pulling away from her. His fater, James (Brian Cox), alternately tries to bolster Monty’s spirits and wonders aloud how Monty let himself get into this situation. Monty’s quick to remind his father that he wasn’t so critical when the drug money kept his bar afloat.

Unusual about “25th Hour” is the way the secondary characters’ motivations and lives are more intriguing than the protagonist’s. This could be seen as a flaw, or a subversion of expectations. Monty has an expiration date stamped on his freedom; the course of his life has been decided. There’s little room for spontaneity. What’s surprising is the way his friends deal with this looming expiration date. Hoffman’s Jacob is a poor schlub, a teacher besotted with one of his students,  Mary (Anna Paquin). He channels his frustration over Monty’s situation into an ill-advised kiss with the 17-year-old, whose expression is a silent scream. Pepper, all bravado and suppressed hostility, needs someone to blame for Monty’s fall. Naturelle is an easy, vulnerable target (a “gold-digging spic,” he calls her). Dawson reacts like a wounded animal, making it clear she understands that Monty’s friends and associates suspect. No one has to say it. And why not? She’s as guilty as everybody else — guilty of enjoying Monty’s steady cash flow, of waiting too long to urge him to get out of the business. Dawson is terrific in the part, determined to make Naturelle deeper than a trophy girlfriend in a skin-tight silver dress.

The subtext Spike Lee infuses into “25th Hour” is that everyone is looking for someone to blame for Monty’s mistake, which provides a natural — and artfully rendered — metaphor for post-9/11 New York City. Lee certainly doesn’t hide this, even beginning “25th Hour” with a shot of NYC’s skyline with the twin beams of blue light is striking. It’s a doozy of a mood setter that suggests Lee will chronicle how those attacks knocked New York City’s people flat, stumbling and furious like bees stunned by smoke. He illustrates all that frustration, all that anger no one knows where to direct, in a breathtaking scene where Norton spies “fuck you!” scrawled on a pub’s bathroom mirror and launches into a powerful, no-holds-barred tirade against everyone he can think of: Korean grocers, blacks, Indian cab drivers, Enron-styled rich crooks. It’s a moment where one rant captures the collective anger of millions of people. For that scene alone, “25th Hour” may be the definitive portrait of New York City reeling back after 9/11.

Grade: B+

Review: “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

It would be inaccurate to say 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is shouldering the weight of the world. It’s more that she’s shouldering the weight of raising her younger brother (Isaiah Stone) and baby sister (Ashlee Thompson) while caring for her mute, near-catatonic mother (Shelley Waggener) and keeping her family home running despite abject poverty and her meth-cooking father’s disappearance. That’s hardly miraculous. The remarkable thing is that Ree has seen very little to give her faith in people (and certainly not in her mistrusting, insular family). And still she believes people are good, or at least decent. Her circumstances may have hardened her, but they haven’t hardened her heart.

In this way, “Winter’s Bone” shares some commonalities with director Debra Granik’s first feature, “Down to the Bone,” a decidedly undramatic look at the unremarkable life of Irene, a checkout clerk sinking deeper into drug addiction. Irene is unremarkable, but her circumstances force her into limbo; she must choose to climb or fall. Though “Winter’s Bone” is a creative step beyond that film’s simplicity, Ree, within her world, is living an average life. But Granik’s adaptation is stylized, given the unnerving feel of the best of film noir — even though “Winter’s Bone” is set in the forbidding Ozarks. Or maybe it’s the setting that amplifies the noir, since the best films of the genre turn setting into a character all its own. The elements are there: the conflicted, dogged hero; the crime in the past that thrives in the present; the bystanders who know more than they’ll say; the truth that’s dredged up no matter how deep the criminals buried it or how closely they guard the grounds. Even the dialogue, in its abrupt mountain way, has its place. There are no one-liners, but the characters choose their words with the utmost care. Every word means what it means, and it means something more.

Ree has learned the value of not saying a syllable more than she has to. Silence keeps people breathing. Members of the Dolly clan may be Ree’s family in blood, but they abide their own codes of behavior. They will not endanger themselves to help one of their own. And Jessup Dolly, Ree’s father, has done some things his relatives cannot forgive. So Ree finds herself hitting wall after wall as she searches for her father, who put the family homestead up for bond to get out of jail and then vanished. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), a volatile tweaker, warns her to stop asking questions. Her attempts to speak with Thump (Ronnie Hall), the Dolly family mafioso, are met with stony silence and then violence arranged by Merab (a wonderfully scary Dale Dickey). Ree, Merab reasons, deserves it: She’s an upstart, a nuisance who demands that the Dolly clan help her siblings and her mother. She does not respect the unspoken behavioral code. Still, as angry as her behavior makes Merab, Thump and their underlings, it also impresses them. Ree, just 17, has the grit of a woman twice that age. She refuses to back down when her family’s welfare is on the line.

Based on her fierce performance, it would appear the same could be said of 20-year-old Kentucky-born actress Jennifer Lawrence. She supplies Ree with an amazing, iron-tough will and also vulnerability, which she knows instinctively she must hide if she wants to survive her quest to find Jessup dead or alive. Whatever praise critics have heaped on her for this role, Lawrence deserves it. Dickey and Hawkes deserve equal amounts of kudos. Dickey’s Merab is a fascinating enigma — a woman made hard by her surroundings, but one still capable of showing kindness (however bizarre) to those who deserve it. Hawkes, a character actor of brilliant subtlety, allows Teardrop, known as a screw-up and wild card, to undergo a believable transformation. Teardrop’s motivations run deeper than scoring his next fix; he’s torn between the need to keep in line and his desire to find his brother and protect Ree and her siblings. Doing right by Ree’s family doesn’t necessarily mean doing the right thing. In this oft-overlooked world Granik turns the camera on, “right” and “wrong,” sometimes, are one and the same.

Grade: A+

My thought on today

My thought on today