POSTED ON FEBRUARY 22, 2012:
Dealing with the Alter Natural
Genuine emotional draw puts finishing touches on films about the fringes
Director Dee Rees feature debut, Pariah, is a great little slice-of-life picture directed with preternatural skill from an auteur worth keeping an eye on.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is teenager in Brooklyn who is living a double life. The daughter of solidly middle class parents--her policeman father (Charles Parnell) and over protective, pious mother (Kim Wayans) -- Alike lives a closeted life amongst them as a secret lesbian.
Her struggles to find a balance between her sexuality and her home life are made less easy by her meddling mother, who does her best to sabotage Alike's relationship to her best--and obviously butch -- friend Laura and engineer a more approved friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis), which backfires in ways none of them could have anticipated.
Alike's father, the more understanding of the two, doesn't want to believe his daughter is gay, but driven by the devout rigidity of his wife, finds himself living his own secret life, as well. The obviously strained marriage is made even more of a tinderbox as it becomes obvious that Alike is embracing her sexuality and asserting her independence, despite the consequences that her mother seems all too eager to enforce.
All of which makes Pariah an unexpectedly moving, tightly paced and fairly compelling drama, driven by Adepero Oduye's completely transparent performance and great turn in a role that barely seems like fiction.
Written and directed by Dee Rees, the economical narrative is told with immediacy, great assuredness and the tangibility of a wonderful filmmaker who takes the audience by the hand and submerges them in a completely organic story. We come to know and like Alike almost immediately and it's due to Rees' skill with characters that each one feels completely real and unique -- rarely becoming clichéd.
That's in no small part due to the uniformly great performances from the cast. Oduye as Alike anchors the film with her naturalism and sincerity, pulling us to root for her, particularly in the face of her mother's rigid, overprotective nature, which is ultimately a sign of her self-centered awfulness.
The Little Things.
Charles Parnell is also a treat, imbuing Alike's father with layers of dissatisfaction and humor that render the character with fine depth. Wayans is also great, in the same way Sharon Stone was in Casino. A detestable character played to perfection, almost to the point that you actively dislike the actress playing it as much as the character itself. Great work bolstered by memorable performances from Aasha Davis and Parnell Walker, rounds out a uniformly superb cast.
Dees wraps the gamely told story in the gorgeous cinematography of Bradford Young, whose frame pops with vibrancy and deft compositions -- with the occasionally arty flair for the visually abstract -- and a great soundtrack that feels as organic as every other element of Pariah.
With Pariah Ree Dees has crafted an incredible, moving and exciting first feature. Keep an eye out for it, and whatever comes after.
Released in Japan 13 years ago, Battle Royale, directed by the then aging (and now dead) Kinji Fukasaku, didn't have much of a chance at US distribution. The Columbine massacre had just happened and a story of high school students -- albeit Japanese -- killing each other off until only one was left standing was not a selling point in a post-Klebold America, full of pop culture hand-wringing over Marilyn Manson and violent video games. What made those seemingly normal, relatively privileged Colorado kids go off? Michael Moore supposed (satirically) that it was bowling.
But had Columbine happened in post-9/11 America the perpetrators might as well be suspected Muslim terrorists instead of Doom-loving, goth Manson fans, despite all evidence to the contrary. Just another ill-defined threat exploited by a government, and embossed by the media, to gain another level of totalitarian control over the body politic.
Based on the 1999 novel by Kshun Takami--ironically influenced by required school curriculum, "The Most Dangerous Game"--Battle Royale sets itself in a typically dystopian, Japanese future world where the economy has gone to shit (mirroring the Japan's Lost Decade of the '90s) with millions unemployed. Losing faith in the system the students boycott school and the system, fearing the children, passes the Millennium Education Reform Act -- aka Battle Royale -- wherein one class is chosen by random lottery, kidnapped to a 10 square mile island and forced to slaughter each other one by one.
Class 3-B, headed by Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) is selected; a nice group of kids -- the BR Act seems hardly meant for them -- and, after being gassed on a school bus, they wake up on the island. Kitano has gone from headmaster to head hunter, as he explains the uncompromising rules to the stunned, disbelieving kids.
The class of 40 is outfitted with collars that track their movements, which also sport an explosive charge that kills almost instantly. If they try to escape, linger to long in a danger zone or if they try to remove the collar...boom. Also, if after three days more than one student is left alive all of the collars detonate.
Given a number, a bag with some simple supplies and a random weapon (ranging from machine guns to a pot lid) the kids are dispatched one by one, helped along by Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) a deadly exchange student who has seemingly signed up for the fun of it.
The students all have different reactions to their plight, many banding together to try and resist while still others, driven by fear -- or even deep desire -- become cold-cold blooded killers.
The way Battle Royale plays the characters off of each other is the films real strength. The mayhem might quickly grow dull with repetition without the emotional connection to the characters that the film tries to forge. True, it can't go that deep (there are 40 kids and some of them just aren't around long enough to get to know) but director Fukasaku displays great economy in getting the emotional beats across in a film that's as much satire as it is action drama.
And one that doesn't make the utmost sense. What effect the BR Act is supposed to have on school attendance is debatable since it seems like people would be less likely to want to come back to class. Then there's Kitano's character, a teacher who strongly supports the BR Act because the kids have turned "no good" but who develops an emotional connection to two of the kids that might be meant to fill the void of his own sons contempt for him.
But hey, it's really the kills that we're after here and Battle Royale does not disappoint. Whether it's by accident or design, the flies start dropping quickly -- machine gunned down by Kiriyama, sliced and diced by the vengeful Chiguusa (Kill Bill's Go-Go Yubari herself, Chiaki Kuriyama) or eventually, out of desperation or shame, committing that most Japanese of past times, suicide. Title cards perfunctorily count off the dead.
Fukasaku drapes the proceedings with gory violence and dark visuals, rich with cobalt lighting and wonderfully framed compositions that capture the carnage with painterly detail. Subdued, deft and visually coherent, Battle Royale is made with the sensibilities of an old school director unleashed with great effectiveness on a modern tale that only benefits from his steady, experienced skill at storytelling.
But in the end, Battle Royale is exploitation flick, through and through -- Japanese school girls with machine guns, anyone? But how Fukasaku bridges the grindhouse mayhem with some genuine emotional weight is what sets Battle Royale apart from its more salacious brethren.
Battle Royale and Pariah both open at the Circle Cinema.
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