Sunday, September 09, 2012

Red Hook Summer/Lawless

On the surface Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer and John Hillcoat's Lawless have no resemblance to each other. Lee's film is another in a series of Brooklyn tales, this one alternating a coming-of-age story with an almost compulsive raising of issues as diverse as the state of black men, gentrification, and asthma in the area's housing projects that (Lee and co-writer James McBride assert) is caused by the nearby docking of cruise ships. Hillcoat, best known in America for The Road, celebrates American obstinacy in a fact-based tale of 1930's bootleggers who won't knuckle under for a corrupt district attorney because they simply don't want to. What makes it possible to review these two disparate films in one post is the attitude that each takes towards its main character; both feature men who for long stretches of screen time we aren't quite sure why we're watching.

Red Hook Summer is supposed to be the story of Flik (Jules Brown), a middle-schooler from Atlanta spending the summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn with his grandfather "Bishop" Enoch (Clarke Peters, a familiar face from The Wire and Treme). Flik is a shy young man, used to private school and hiding behind his iPad2, who isn't at at all sure he wants to spend the summer with a man he has never met working at the small church his where his grandfather is the minister. Enoch doesn't let up with the Gospel at home either, and Flik's only escape seems to be a new friendship with a girl named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). I don't know if Lee intended Red Hook Summer to become Enoch's movie, but Peters does remarkable work in making Enoch winning despite his single-mindedness. Brown and Lysaith, both new to film, are appealing but Peters' Enoch is the show here, along with a gospel/jazz score from Bruce Hornsby. Peters gets some sermons of prodigious length and the chance to lead some gospel numbers that come close to something ecstatic. We're interested in whether Flik will connect with his grandfather, but it's Enoch who we hope will change and grow. 

If you've read about Red Hook Summer and are viewing it attentively, you'll notice that Flik's mother (De'Adre Aziza) doesn't have much time for Enoch and that Enoch doesn't even know that Flik's father has been killed in Afghanistan. That's right, there's a secret, and it is delivered in a loud, tumultuous revelation scene that raises the question of how we're supposed to feel about Enoch and what exactly we're all doing at this movie in the first place. I'm not sure what Lee had in mind here as he ends things with Enoch's future in doubt and Flik headed back home, and I'm not sure even Peters' performance is enough to have made the effort worthwhile. Spike Lee is as socially aware a filmmaker as America has ever produced, but in Red Hook Summer an ungainly story gets in the way of his still-needed voice. 

Lawless is the story of the Bondurant brothers, Virginia bootleggers who in the early 1930's ran the best moonshine operation in a county where everyone was either selling or buying. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains with brass knuckles, Howard (Jason Clarke) the muscle, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) the youngster with ambition. LaBeouf is good here; Jack has a sweaty energy and smarts that are almost betrayed by his youth, and LaBeouf doesn't overplay a good hand. But like everyone else Jack looks up to Forrest, and the central problem with Lawless is that Forrest is a smart man who is almost totally inarticulate. When Forrest does talk, writer Nick Cave (working from a novel by Bondurant grandson Matt) gives him overblown metaphors or aphorisms about controlling fear. I also wanted more when Forrest is being seduced by the Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain, underused) who takes up residence around the Bondurant place. Forrest is interesting for one reason only: he won't pay protection to the psychotic lawman (Guy Pearce) hired to make the county's bootleggers a cash machine for the local D.A. The rest is violence; Gary Oldman turns up briefly as a gangster who becomes Jack's ally and the Bondurant's fellow bootleggers come to the family's aid in a climactic shootout. Lawless is handsomely made and strongly cast, but Hardy can't quite make Forrest into a real person and the forces arrayed against the Bondurants are caricatured too broadly. A story of Americans standing up might have been better served by filmmakers not so impressed by their own main character. 

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