Film Threat Review: 96 Minutes

2011 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL NARRATIVE COMPETITION SELECTION!
Unrated
93 minutes

**

At SXSW, Aimee Lagos introduced “96 Minutes” by saying that it was about the people who “don’t normally have their stories told.” In actuality, these people she refers to have their stories told frequently, but it’s usually from a morally superior and monochromatic Caucasian point of view. Audiences and critics will inevitably (and rightfully) compare this film to Paul Haggis’ “Crash.” Depending on whom you ask, this is either a compliment or an insult. As far as I’m concerned, “Crash” is the most racist, condescending movie ever to win an Academy Award. Knowing that, you can probably surmise my position on “96 Minutes.”

Worlds collide when co-eds, Carley and Lena, are carjacked by two troubled boys named Kevin and Dre who hail from the wrong side of the tracks (LITERALLY). The story is told in the ever-popular non-linear style, cutting between the present drama and the events in their respective lives that brought them to this point. Kevin is a poor white boy who fancies himself a gangsta-in-training. Dre is Kevin’s African American cousin who just wants to trade in his A-to-the-mothafuckin-K for a cap and gown. Dre only had one more day till retirement…I mean, GRADUATION…when Kevin got him involved in these shenanigans. The boys are in a bit of a pickle because Lena is bleeding from a bullet hole in her face, a semi-accidental love letter that Kevin sent her when she wouldn’t cooperate. Dre really wants to do the right thing, but for some reason, he isn’t sure what that is.

Some have argued that these characters aren’t stereotypes because people like them actually exist. I’m not denying that gangs and gang violence are real issues. People get carjacked. Young middle-class women feel neglected by their business-obsessed fathers. Young hooligans listen to violent music, play first-person shooter games and fantasize about popping a cap in the ass of the man who beats their mom. It’s just that when you bring all of these people together, it starts to feel like a very special episode of “Beverly Hills 90210.” I’m still not sure what Lagos is getting at with this film. Is it that kids who grow up in the ghetto will inevitably join a gang? Is it that all a troubled kid needs is to listen to the middle-class, educated, white woman when she tells him, “You don’t have to do this”? Or maybe Lagos just wants to know why we can’t all just get along, man. At times, it definitely feels as if she is comparing the problems of these college students with the troubles of the ghetto, as though they could really learn something from each other and maybe aren’t that different. As though an inattentive father or unfaithful boyfriend is on par with being abused by your mother’s boyfriend or having no dad at all.

It’s not just the stereotypes that are the problem. The ham-fisted dialog is straight from an after school special. The big, menacing ganstas who coerce Kevin into jacking a car as an initiation warn him, “This ain’t playtime. This shit here’s fo real.” At one point, Dre argues, “I got a gun in my hand cos I don’t see any other way out.” It’s a real seat-squirmer but not because shit gets too real. It’s because of lines like that and the borderline cartoon racism on screen. When Dre is walking home from school, two cops jump him. One is black and one is white. They both beat him down, claiming that he looked suspicious, but the black cop is much more violent with Dre. You might say that the black police officer was showing off for the white one. I guess Lagos has heard that N.W.A. song too. Meanwhile, an old woman watches from her window and when Dre looks to her for help, she closes the curtain. Later, some other cops question a kindly BBQ restaurant owner named Duane (David Oyelowo), and they appear to accuse him of the crime he is reporting to them. He rolls his eyes and I can’t help but think there was a little bit of actor commentary in his performance.

The acting is the only thing I can’t complain about. Everyone does their best with what they’re given. The mean old thugs try to instill more than just black-hat villainy into their characters. Evan Ross won an award at SXSW for his role as Dre. I wish it had been for something a bit more worthy of his talents. For my money, David Oyelowo is the best of the bunch, owning every scene he’s in and somehow selling a particularly sappy phone call to his nephew.

Lagos does her best to distract from her shoddy storytelling with a couple of popular indie filmmaking tricks. She uses color-coding, contrasting the washed out, gritty ghetto with the colorful, sunny college campus and the white bread town in which it sits. The scenes in the car are a dim yellow, lit only by streetlamps and stoplights, keeping the audience as well as the characters in the dark. The non-linear narrative does hold your attention, at least until the time line catches up. You can’t deny the tension of a girl bleeding out in the backseat of a moving car. But Lagos is a conjurer of cheap tricks. Whenever the story jumps to the events pre-jacking, we’re painfully reminded what kind of movie this is. It’s the unfortunate outcome of misplaced white guilt. When the ride is finally over, that’s when the preaching kicks into high gear. I too suffer from white guilt. It’s over the fact that films like this get made. I’m SO sorry.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

Film Threat Review: The Other F Word

2011 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL SPOTLIGHT PREMIERES SELECTION!
Unrated
98 minutes

****

Full disclosure: I AM the target audience for “The Other F Word.” I grew up on punk music and I have a one-year-old daughter at home. That said I’m a tough sell on sentimental documentaries. The movies that have brought tears to my eyes are few and far between. This one had me using my hoodie for a tissue every time one of those tatted-up daddies talked about their crappy childhoods or how much they love their kids. Director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins has made a raw, honest, hilarious and extremely heartrending film. Besides, how can you be expected to keep a dry face when these punk rock icons don’t?

Almost everyone who turns to punk does so because they need it. It’s not just music to them. It’s a home to them when their real homes are unwelcoming or their peers have ostracized them. In the punk scene, kids could find the unconditional love they couldn’t get elsewhere. But the scene is a bit like Neverland. Eventually, the punks grow up. They get adult jobs, mortgages and IRAs. They file away their punk rock pasts in their iPods’ shuffle. The musicians are the Peter Pans of the punk scene, but they couldn’t stay young either. They also can’t leave Neverland. Not if they wanted to keep playing music. When they found themselves with kids and mortgages, punk was no longer just an attitude to them. It had become a job. Brett Gurewitz, (Bad Religion, Epitaph Records) quips, “Punk rock was never meant to grow up. But it did. So too bad.”

There are some ideals of the punk world you never shake: Freethinking, questioning authority, pressing boundaries. Eventually, if you expect to have a happy family, you have to make some compromises. The film’s through line follows Jim Lindberg, front man for the legendary band, Pennywise. He’s preparing to go back on the road, where he spends over 200 days a year. He packs hair dye and studded belts. He’s trying to keep the dream alive but it’s clear that his heart just isn’t in it anymore. Unfortunately, the other, childfree band members want to keep touring forever, and partying like it’s 1989. The fans are still rabid for the music. Besides, his kids need food, clothing and electricity and those things cost money. He’s become a traveling salesman, schlepping anarchy door-to-door.

The film features numerous punk notables including Ron “Chavo” Reyes (Black Flag), Joe Escalante (The Vandals) and Mark Mothersbaugh (DEVO). All of them are dads. Some of them seem a little surprised by it. None of them expected to be around this long. They didn’t have death wishes or anything. It’s just that Fat Mike (NOFX) couldn’t have imagined that he’d become an indentured servant to a little girl, carrying her from room to room and making her breakfast. Mark Hoppus (Blink 182) never would have guessed that he’d be buying the edited versions of his albums to play in the car for his kids. Lars Fredrickson (Rancid) didn’t think about what the other moms at the park would think when he got that tattoo on his forehead. A young Jim Lindberg probably wouldn’t have believed you if you told him he’d one day be haggling with his daughters about how many of their Barbies he would bring on the road with him. These guys aren’t unhappy with the unexpected turns their lives have taken. On the contrary, they seem blissfully happy whenever they spend time with their offspring (in a hilarious twist, they are mostly daughters). They just don’t want to fuck it up.

Almost everyone interviewed has an asshole dad story. They tell harrowing tales of men breaking their sons’ hearts. In some ways, it was generational. Being a good father meant putting food on the table and that was basically all that was required of them. Many couldn’t even handle that and abandoned their families. Others stayed but used a belt or a fist on those that loved them most, an attempt to exorcise their resentment. “When I had my daughter,” Fat Mike confesses, “that’s when I really started to get angry at my dad.”

Art Alexakis of Everclear tells perhaps the saddest tale of paternal failure. Anyone who’s heard “Father of Mine,” knows that Alexakis has daddy issues. He discusses the horrifying details in between clips of a heartfelt acoustic performance of his song. Alexakis also wins the award for most priceless face by a scared-shitless new father.

“The Other F Word” isn’t all punk rock therapy. There are also many comical moments in a day in the life of a punk rock parent. One of more amusing elements is the way their children regard them. In the punk world, their fans revere and emulate them. But when they’re at home, they’re just lame old dads. Still, better to be a lame dad than a negligent one.

Fat Mike admits that he and his wife assumed that their child would just join their lives, already in progress. It’s easy to forget that they will be their own people and come with a completely unique set of opinions and desires. This generation of dads is desperate to improve upon the last. And it’s not just punk dads but any dad who just wants his children to be happy. You have to give up a lot to be a good parent. You don’t have to lose yourself entirely, but you have to make a lot of compromises that you never expected or possibly even vowed against. Jim summarizes the theme of “The Other F Word” nicely. “[Punk rock] is about doing everything your parents didn’t want you to do… How did we go from saying ‘Fuck your parents’ to being parents ourselves?”

Some of the sacrifices they make are lamentable, like having to hang out with the awful parents of their kid’s friends. Some are improvements, like cutting back on their partying and curbing their potty mouths. Jim suggests that the most important thing a punk can do might not be writing an anthem. “Maybe the way we change the world,” he says, “is by being better parents.”

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).