queue de grâce begins day two with a pair of ruminations on the elusive nature of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
the first movie on our list today is barry levinson's sleepers (1996). based on lorenzo carcaterra's autobiographical source novel, it tells the story of a group of four childhood friends growing up in hell's kitchen in the late sixties. they're just regular neighborhood kids, like you've seen a dozen times, and we pick up with them shortly before the terrible accident that changes their lives irrevocably. after running out of things to do to stave off the boredom of another new york summer day, they settle on a prank scamming a hot dog vendor out of free lunch. they swipe the cart but their scheme goes awry and they end up almost killing a man. in the aftermath, they are sent to a correctional facility for boys whereupon they are subjected to a seemingly endless cycle of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by a group of sadistic guards led by kevin bacon. flash forward over a decade and two of the boys, now full grown gangsters, stumble across bacon having dinner at a pub one night. they exact their revenge by emptying their revolvers into him and are put on trial for murder. the remaining pair of friends, including one who is the assistant d.a. now prosecuting the case, put together an elaborate scheme to ensure the boys walk while simultaneously exposing the vile practices that went on at the institution that left this black mark on their souls. the linchpin in this whole plan is the parish priest, played by robert de niro, who is asked to lie to provide the boys with an unassailable alibi and help them obtain some measure of justice for the horrific crimes they suffered at the hands of the guards.
i am divided on this one. as a film, it is obviously technically competent. the hell's kitchen segments in the sixties are as evocative and nostalgic as they should be. the kids are normal, funny and flawed but not delinquents, so you pull for them. they serve as a sobering reminder that the only thing that stands between the kids in the sandlot (1993) and hell on earth is one bad decision. de niro doesn't really get the chance to work at full power but half a de niro is better than a lot of other whole actors. had i known nothing about about the source material, i would say this is a good, not great, film and leave it at that.
the problem is i am too familiar with the controversy surrounding the veracity of carcaterra's book and it causes some problems for me. it proved distracting while watching the film. i don't necessarily doubt the recollection of abuse. i am well aware of the monstrous things that have gone on in institutions like that and the things you find in the darker corners of human nature ceased to surprise me long ago. the problem comes with the second half of the film and novel. murder trial transcripts are readily available public records and yet not one investigator/reporter was able to turn up evidence that this trial ever happened (and, in 1995/6, a lot of people were looking). so i have to wonder, why do something as irresponsible and damaging to your credibility as claim an elaborate revenge fantasy as a true story when it undermines your overall aim? i don't know why you would go to the trouble to concoct this thing, put your real name on it, and then dilute the power of exposing these animals by amending the story with what you wish would have happened positing it to be a "true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood". it just doesn't add up to me and it took away from the impact of the film. de niro's priest also strikes a bit of a false note with me. not the performance, but the motivations and final actions of the character. he seemed far too much of a pragmatist to lie just to free a pair of boys who would doubtlessly kill again, and soon, no matter how much he cared for them. he seemed far too reverent to violate the sanctity of his office with this lie. he seemed far too even-handed to think that murder and abuse are equivalent crimes. i applaud carcaterra's dedication to kicking over rocks and shining a light in these places, i just question his execution.
we don't have to stray too far from this territory to get to our next film, andrew jarecki's excellent documentary, capturing the friedmans (2003).
what began as a documentary about children's entertainers in new york evolved into an entirely different project when jarecki began to notice something disturbing in the interviews with david friedman, a prominent birthday party clown. there were hints of something dark in his family history and it turns out that was a child pornography, incest and sexual abuse scandal that occurred in the eighties. david's brother jesse and father were imprisoned for it, his father dying there, but was it a clear cut case or was it a bit of a witch hunt? there is compelling evidence just about everywhere you look but none of it points to the same conclusion. the father, arnold, did possess child pornography. no one disputes that. in an autobiographical story he wrote in the late eighties, he claims to have experimented with sex with his younger brother. both his and jesse's statements were amended and recanted more than once. i did this. i didn't do this. i didn't do this but i said i did because i thought it would be better for my dad/son. in their defense, jesse raises a legitimate question about why a kid who claimed to have been the victim of 31 instances of sexual abuse during one season's computer class would sign up for a second season. just when you think you have a fix on the answer, the documentary shifts under your feet and you are faced with a new conundrum. on a gut level, the ample amount of home video footage that this family created over the years strikes me as odd. in fact, everything about them does. they are obviously dysfunctional but it's not just in the usual ways. it's a way that, had i ever had occasion to visit that house as friend of one of the sons, i would have never gone back. too much noise, too much filming, too much instability and peculiar need. you just get a vibe from some people and the friedmans have that vibe in spades. this is not to say, however, that it makes them all criminals. obviously, the father was, at least with the child pornography. the molestation charges and their extent, though, i still have reservations about. overall, it is a fascinating document about what we regard to be true and not true in the people we love and how sheer force of will can swing that pendulum, regardless of evidence. i highly recommend it.
can't say the same for this:
jesus, i hate the fifth element (1997). how in the world did luc besson convince anyone to spend 90 million dollars on this self-indulgent, cacophonous mess that hadn't advanced, philosophically, beyond when he first started writing it at age sixteen? oh, to be a fly on the wall in that pitch meeting - "it's like demolition man (1993) on ecstasy!" sounds great! when do i get to shoot myself?
thanks, gary. just make it quick.
what a mess. it steals from any number of superior science fiction films before it and strains out everything pure until all that's left are the annoying drippings. bruce willis might as well be wearing a shirt that says "i'm just cashing a check". oldman's arms-dealing, inverted hitler is only notable because of his neck-and-neck competition with ian holm to see how much talent can go to waste. cheap latex-masked catfish orcs mug to the camera when they get hit on the head. i half expected little birdies to fly around. the keystone cops are subtle next to the mangalores. the plot, such as it is, is completely unfocused. and glowsticks in the police car? now you are just trying to piss me off. i didn't freeze the frame because i was afraid if i had there would also have been whistles and pacifiers hanging from the rearview mirror. rave kids simply shouldn't make movies. it may not be the worst science fiction film i have ever seen. there are plenty of sprint-to-video titles that qualify for that. it is, though, without a doubt, the single worst 90 million dollar science fiction film i have ever seen. bad sets, bad special effects, a remedial, yet sometimes incomprehensible, plot and horrible acting. and this:
OHMYGODKORBENDALLAS!! OHMYGODKORBENDALLAS!! OHMYGODKORBENDALLAS!!
there, now you don't have to watch any scene this insufferable clown is in. you're welcome.
usually i can find at least one good thing to say about a film and in this case it is that besson shows the proper reverence for girls with freckles. that's it. and, in case you were wondering, i consulted the periodic table on this to see just what the fifth element is.
whew. that one took it out of me but i shall prevail. i have it on good authority that tomorrow france is sending an emissary to apologize for luc besson.
i accept your apology. oh, france, you know i couldn't stay mad at you.