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Steven Silver’s
The Bang Bang Club
2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Screenplay by Steven Silver, based on the book The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War by Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva.

Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Akerman, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Bang Bang Club is a powerful and affecting look at the world of the modern photojournalist via the true-life saga of four adrenaline-infused paparazzi (but don’t dare call them that) who covered the last four years of apartheid (1990-1994) in war-torn South Africa.

Early on in the pic we meet Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe who keeps getting better with each role), a newbie photog who tosses himself head first into the muck by risking his life to interview and photograph the anti-Mandela Zulus, who are being used as pawn by the South African government. When asked why he did it he replies: “Because it scared me.” This move gets him respect from his fellow journalists and a spot free-lancing for the newspaper "The Star," where he, of course, romances the female photojournalist editor (a terrific Malin Akerman).

Greg’s gaggle of good looking colleagues, nicknamed The Bang Bang Club, include: Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights); Joao Silver ((Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach).

Emmy Award winning docu-filmmaker Steven Silver does an astute and impressive job with his first narrative feature allowing his audience a first hand peek into this lunatic world and showing them just how a touch of madness is needed to actually be out there doing what these guys do. He and his wonderful cameraman, Miroslaw Baszak, perfectly capture the period and atmosphere.

Silver also depicts some harrowing images of the gruesome ways people behave towards others. And in a particularly gut wrenching and insane scene, we watch as someone is set on fire while Greg gets right in there capturing the moment with his camera. This kind of defiant, daredevil attitude is presented over and over again but the reasons why these men do what they do isn’t explored as much as it could be. Still, do the male species really need a reason for thrill seeking? As a male I can answer an easy: no. But to be able to witness such cruelty and not do anything to stop it, well, that takes an entirely different kind of species.

The film does ask some tough questions like whether these men have a moral duty to help the wounded or even stop atrocities from actually happening. Are they complicit simply by being there, taking pictures and doing nothing? Are they no better than paparazzi, who take advantage of their subjects for personal gain or is their work really reporting the truth and therefore trying to tell the world about it and hopefully stop it?

I applaud Silver for asking these questions. He may not spend enough time on searching for answers but—without giving too much away—the fate of two of the four speaks volumes to addressing just how this particular occupation messes with a person’s humanity.

Having not read the book (written by two of the four “Bang Bang Club” members) which the film is based on, I don’t know what liberties were taken but I do know that the narrative remains focused on the foursome and how they are affected by their chosen line of work.

I would have liked a little more development with the Silver and Oosterbroek characters and a little less of watching them all party in order to not have to think about what they experience earlier in the day, but that’s a miner fault.

Regardless, all four actors have their moments to shine.

The most searing, touching and memorable performance is by Kitsch. His Kevin appears to be the life of the party but we soon see he is so disturbed by what he’s experienced that he has no choice but to self-medicate. Kitsch embodies the paradoxical lives these guys lead and he conveys all the angst and bewilderment without any grandstanding. It’s a mesmerizing turn.

And there’s a homoerotic element to the relationship between Kevin and Greg that isn’t really explored (God forbid in a film about REAL men) but is definitely hinted at.

At different times the film invoked The Killing Fields and Salvador, a high complement; and, of course, it could also be a companion piece with The Hurt Locker.

The Bang Bang Club is a fascinating film and one of the most unsettling I have seen in a while. Near the end, Kevin Carter takes a photo of a vulture stalking a dying girl. I remember seeing that picture in the New York Times in the mid-90s.
At the press conference that followed he was asked what happened to the girl. Did he help her? He never responds, but we know the answer.

Silver had an opportunity to end his film in a devastatingly potent manner. He chose not to and that’s the film’s only real misstep.

Two of these brave, deranged men won Pulitzers for their work in South Africa, but at what cost? Two went on to cover many more perilous areas of the world. What kind of journalist gets off on going to the most dangerous places on the planet and tossing themselves smackdab into the mayhem? And what exactly is their reason for doing what they do? Silver may not answer these questions but he certainly shines a light on the type of person who signs up for this kind of assignment.


Philip Gelatt’s
The Bleeding House
2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Starring: Patrick Breen, Alexandra Chando, Betsy Aidem, Richard Bekins, Nina Lisandrello, Charlie Hewson.

Screenplay by Philip Gelatt.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Creepy. Lurid. Suspenseful. Confounding. That sums up my feelings about Philip Gelatt’s directorial debut, The Bleeding House, which wants to be an atypical thriller and ends up borrowing some of the most annoying elements from the horror genre while adding a welcome twist with the character of Gloria “Blackbird” Smith.

The Smith family lives way off the beaten path, somewhere in the Midwest. And there’s a reason they have isolated themselves from the rest of the world. The “secret” is hinted at early on but the viewer slowly realizes there is more to it than we are being led to believe. Mom (Betsy Aidem) is angry and appears to be the cause of the familial ostracization. Dad (Richard Bekins) tries his best to be peacekeeper. Quentin (Charlie Hewson), the brother, is fed up and otherwise preoccupied with his girlfriend (Nina Lisandrello). Gloria (Alexandra Chando), the sister, is an oddball who insists on being called “Blackbird” and who appears to have a preoccupation with dead things.

A fast-talking and freaky stranger by the name of Nick (a very exuberant Patrick Breen) arrives on their front doorstep claiming his car has broken down and requesting shelter for the night. And what do the Smiths do? Why they invite him in, of course—breaking the cardinal life-rule of any sane person. To say they get what they deserve isn’t nice, but it’s accurate. See Nick is on a mission to cleanse the world of sin and punish those who have strayed from the moral path of righteousness. Basically, he’s a thundering murderous loon who delights in torture.

An uneasiness and quease-inducing sense sets in early and never really lets up—which is probably one of the filmmaker’s goals. But along the way a brutality is displayed onscreen that feels gratuitous and were it not for the satisfying ending, would have overwhelmed the experience.

Alexandra Chando is perfectly disturbed and disturbing. She keeps the audience interested by not giving us too much but allowing us to slowly figure out who she may be.

The Bleeding House is an interesting first effort by Gelatt. He’s certainly a skilled filmmaker but the script is a bit too simplistic and lackluster. Still, the man knows how to make a viewer squirm in his/her seat.

Lee Hirsch’s
The Bully Project
2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Bully Project, Lee Hirsch’s honest and disturbing new documentary, depicts the difficulties and despair inherent in the lives of a group of individual teens trying to simply exist in this world. In two cases, the subjects have committed suicide and their stories are told by the surviving parents and friends.

From Iowa to Georgia to Oklahoma to Missouri, Hirsch’s camera captures a world where ‘fitting in’ is paramount as kids are harassed because of their sexuality or because they look different or because they don’t act the way they’re expected or because they happen to be the wrong color.

Hirsch manages to actually film bullying as it occurs by taking his camera on a school bus as we watch Alex, a thirteen-year old boy, get smacked and called names while no one does anything to stop it, including the bus driver. More frightening, Alex seems to have gotten used to being teased and stabbed with pencils. When his parents are shown the footage, they are outraged and met with indifference from school administrators. And as Hirsch’s narrative shows, the powers that be are sometimes complicit in the bullying using phrases, as “kids will be kids."

The incomprehensible ways in which officials try and handle bullying (when they bother to at all) is highlighted in a scene where a high school principal (spelled on screen incorrectly as “principle”) confronts a boy who is being bullied and asks him to shake the hand of the bully, saying to him, “Can’t you just get along?”—almost blaming him for the fact that he’s being picked on. The “what-an-idiot” factor is high with this “principle.” She may be trying, but she’s going about it all wrong.

Even Alex’s mother admits her son comes off as “weird,” and she offers, “he can’t fit in, but he tries.”

What no one seems to wonder is why should he have to “fit in.” Why do we still live in a country where “fitting in” is important? Shouldn’t we celebrate uniqueness and individuality? Why is being different even an issue? This cuts to the core of what is wrong with the US school system and their approach to teaching—they set the stage for bullying by demanding conformity and “normalcy”—whatever that word means.

One of the most compelling segments in The Bully Project involves a fourteen-year old African-American girl from Missouri who gets so fed up with being bullied every day that she brings a gun on board the school bus. The way she is subsequently treated and the ridiculous amount of charges brought against her makes the viewer wonder if things would have been different if she happened to be white.

The most devastating scenes involve the survivors of the two suicide victims (one seventeen, one eleven) who no longer have a chance to heal but who have amazing parents who have made the anti-bullying campaign a crusade.

The film benefits greatly from its timely and important subject matter but Hirsch’s approach is occasionally muddled and dwells on minutiae instead of moving forward with these powerful stories. Still, the film is more than worthwhile.

In a town meeting scene, someone stands up and wonders. “If bartenders are responsible for a drunk killing another person, why aren’t bullies also responsible?”--a valid, if controversial, question that is currently being asked all over the nation—including New Jersey.

Kudos to Hirsch for bringing these questions out in the open and for showing his audience just how horrific it is out there for many teens.


The Vicious Brothers’
Grave Encounters
2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Screenplay by The Vicious Brothers.

Starring: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Borrowing elements, themes and structure from The Blair Witch Project and both Paranormal Activity films and peppering it with some Session 9 and Series 7: The Contenders indie style, The Vicious Brothers have created a respectable entry into the mock-reality horror flick genre.

I’ll be honest, the first third of the film had me a bit bored. It wasn’t until the character of Matt disappears that I was truly sucked into the narrative. At the very end of the film, though, I began to appreciate the set-up more for setting the mood of what was to come as well as providing exposition that would be vital to understanding and appreciating the denoument.

Admittance #2: not a big fan of horror-especially this new thriller sub-genre, but Grave Encounters captivated me and actually spooked me a few times—but it also did something that so many horror films don’t bother to do—it made sense!

The film’s opening tricks the viewer into believing they’re about to witness a movie that satirizes reality TV shows suck as Ghost Hunters. We are told that what we’re about to see is a true story. We then are introduced to the gaggle of investigators that host the show and quickly know they are charlatans who will manufacture anything for ratings.

The team embark on an abandoned psychiatric hospital where unexplained activities have been reported. The crew deliberately lock themselves in the building and one of them offers: “This place is about as haunted as a sock drawer.” They soom find out that the building is crawling with ghosts of former patients who were experimented on and have no intention of resting easy. Our gang must now try and escape the mazy and chilling premises with their lives and sanities intact.

The film is a shaky-cam treat as we watch the lunacy unfold. The actors are mostly good with standout Sean Rogerson as the egotistical yet slightly vapid host. Juan Riedinger impresses as well. The only exception is Mackenzie Gray delivering a grating and annoying shriek of a performance.

I could have also lived without the rodents and maggots—my least favorite species on Earth (except for Sarah Palin and her tea-baggers) but they certainly had an effect on me!

Grave Encounters is quite clever. The Vicious Brothers show great promise as filmmakers just giving enough to scare the viewer and advance the plot but never allowing any ghostly overkill.

Jasmine McGlade Chazelle’s
Maria My Love

2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Screenplay by: Jasmine McGlade Chazelle
Story By: Jasmine McGlade Chazelle, Lauren Fales

Starring: Judy Marte, Karen Black, Brian Rieger, Lauren Fales.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Judy Marte (Raising Victor Vargas) plays Ana, a young woman whose mother has recently died after a long illness. Ana is still not over the experience nor is she speaking to her father, who apparently cheated on his wife while she was dying. Ana meets Ben, played by a winning Brian Rieger, while waiting for a train and they quickly (really quickly—too quickly) become an item.

One day Ana comes to the aid of an odd, homeless-looking woman, played by Oscar nominee Karen Black. Ana feels the need to help this woman; a strange hoarder who is not homeless but lives the kind of life the two Edie Beales (of Grey Gardens fame) lived. These deeply wounded women form the unlikely bond at the heart of Jasmine McGlade Chazelle’s Maria My Love. The film is based on the real life journey of Lauren Fales who sweetly plays Ana’s sister in the film.

“I’m not gonna change my ways for anyone,” shrieks Black’s Maria (who happens to share the same name as Ana’s mother), yet Ana keeps trying and the two reach an understanding of sorts that is rather lovely.

Marte has a natural presence onscreen. She’s lovely (resembling a young J-Lo) and underplays her part wonderfully.

Karen Black, who works like a son-of-a-bitch, has been giving great supporting performances in indie films for decades now—and they usually go unrecognized. She was terrific in The Blue Tooth Virgin and Gypsy 83 to name just two. Her magic lies in her ability to make very distinct and different acting choices and here she delivers a poignant and unexpectedly revelatory portrayal of a woman who realizes she is stuck in a rut and yet has no way to get herself out of it. She’s alienated everyone in her life and yet cannot change. Black manages to hint at a deep want to relent but she is stymied by a psychological barrier.

Black was one of busiest and most promising actresses of the 1970s with deservedly lauded turns in Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Nashville and the cult classic Trilogy of Terror (for TV). But her deliberately bizarre and indelible style flummoxed Hollywood execs and she quickly became the go-to gal for “eccentric.” It’s a damn shame because her type of leading lady could have yielded many original creations. Thank God she hasn’t let thwarted superstardom stop her. At the age of 71 she looks good and keeps surprising us with fascinating performances. The industry should finally take notice.


Peter Mullan’s

2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Written by: Peter Mullan

Starring: Conor McCarron, Gary Milligan, Joe Szula, John Joe Hay, Mhairi Anderson, Peter Mullan.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Peter Mullan is a terrific actor. His performance in Michael Winterbottom’s extraordinary film The Claim is a testament to his acting talents. Of late, Mullan has worked more behind the camera.

Earlier in the decade Mullan wrote and directed The Magdalene Sisters, a harsh film about Catholic repression set in an Irish girls school in the 1960s. The film was potent and disturbing.

With NEDS, his third-helmed feature, Mullan increases the savagery quotient, amps the anger and ups the upset-factor to give us a portrait of a boy growing up in an ultra-violent part of Glasgow, Scotland in the 1970s.

NEDS stands for Non-Educated Delinquents and when we first meet 10-year old Catholic John McGill (Gregg Forrest), he’s a dedicated egghead bent on academic achievement. His life is ablaze with violence. His brother is in and out of prison and his father is a nasty ineffectual drunk who terrorizes his mother. In school, his teachers like to embarrass and beat students who fall out of line.

Outside, there are bullies and gangs galore ready to pounce. It’s a brutal world but young McGill seems bent on transcending his surroundings—that is until a richer mate is forced to drop him as a friend, presumably because he is of a lesser class. McGill does a complete 180. Then he easily becomes a full-blown thug, with a nasty temper and more psychotic tendencies than his father.

Conor McCarron effectively plays the boy as a destructive and self-destructive teen.

I can appreciate what Mullan is trying to depict but it is near impossible to give a good damn about McGill after a certain point.

The director captures the Catholic repression inherent in every aspect of life for the devout working classes but he misses the mark on showing us why we should care about someone who can so easily strike another boy until he is brain damaged.

Even Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in the uber-violent A Clockwork Orange had charm and charisma; those traits are never displayed by McGill. And by the time we are given a redemptive scene with his father (a frightening Mullan), it’s a well-framed and lovely moment, but it’s also too late.

The movie is presented with much needed subtitles since the accents make a lot of the dialogue impossible to understand. Even with the subtitles, the slang makes a second viewing almost a requirement (if you can masochistically put yourself through it). I can tell you that I have never heard the c-word used so much in any film ever!

NEDS does contain some fantastic moments, the best is a sequence where McGill hallucinates Christ coming off the cross and doing what many viewers probably desperately want to do to McGill.


The final safari scene where McGill and the brain-damaged boy have to walk through the lion’s den hand-in-hand to survive should have been a transcendent moment, had I cared about the protagonist. And I wanted to. I tried. But in the end, I was hoping the lion was hungry.

Brady Kiernan’s
Stuck Between Stations
2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Screenplay by Nat Bennett & Sam Rosen.

Starring: Sam Rosen, Zoe Lister-Jones, Josh Hartnett, Michael Imperioli.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Reminiscent of Before Sunrise and After Hours, but nowhere near as compelling, Stuck Between Stations is a commendable feature debut by director Brady Kiernan.

The story is simple: Casper, a soldier on leave from Afghanistan, encounters Becky, an old school crush who has no immediate recollection of him. They proceed to spend the entire night sharing stories and learning about one another. Casper’s father has just died. Becky is going through trauma involving a married man she’s been dating.

Set in Minneapolis, Stuck Between Stations is one of those romantic dramas that wants the audience to get to know and fall in love with the couple as they do same, then debate their potential with one another before deciding they deserve a chance together. And, for the most part it works, although we are cheated out of a real ending.

Kiernan and his cameraman (Bo Hakala) enjoy playing with framing and do quite a bit of effective split screen work. They also give Minneapolis quite a striking look.

The script is a bit too slight. For instance, we are taken on an odyssey as the couple attend a party and even an indoor circus but we don’t spend enough time at any one location and we aren’t given any real reason for their going—other than providing some fun visuals. The party, in particular, is supposed to be filled with former high schoolers, but none of them have any lines except for the host.

By the time we get to the movie’s most potent sequence--around a campfire where both characters get their respective revelatory moments--we wish we had been given more backstory.

The best boon the film has is its lead actor, Sam Rosen, who is immensely endearing as Casper. This guy’s hidden psychological wounds have more to do with his father than his tour of duty and Rosen underplays it deftly and effectively.

Zoe Lister-Jones’s performance is more of a conundrum. Becky is very hard to like—which is fine—but Lister-Jones does very little to even make us understand why Casper would care…until the final scene. It’s also difficult to believe that in high school she was the popular one and he was the nearly invisible crybaby. To be fair, Lister-Jones is interesting to watch and most of the problem with Becky has to do with the sketchy script.

Josh Hartnett makes a brief but welcome appearance as a townie friend of Casper’s. He provides a nutty breath of fresh ‘n nasty air and I kept hoping the couple would run into him again. Alas, I’m still hoping…





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