RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 17: Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (2002)


25th Hour


The Players…

Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.


The Story…

After years of making a mint in the drug trade, Monty Brogan’s luck has run out. The cops were tipped off to his crimes, and now Monty’s facing a stint for seven years up river. With only one day of freedom left, Monty wants to reconnect with his estranged friends for one last night on the town.


The Rant…

Sometimes I get the feeling that Spike Lee gets a bad rap, and for the life of me I can’t understand why.

I say “feeling,” being based on his years in the industry, Lee’s personality tends to override his artistic credentials. That and I think his terse, naked, in-yo-face directorial style makes folks uncomfortable. This isn’t because Lee’s films are no-holds-barred social commentary (which they often are), but more the tenor of his films makes the general public look inside themselves in trying to identify with Lee’s characters. And Lee’s characters are seldom flat, easy to understand stereotypes. Almost his entire dramatis personae are hard-edged, conflicted, very real people with very real issues, both emotional and situational. Lee’s work has always held up a mirror for America’s audiences, and sometimes America doesn’t like what it sees. At least, what they see in themselves.

For example—probably the primary one—take Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing (duh, of course I’m gonna start there). That volatile, long, hot summer day of antagonism and racial prejudice really smacked people around back in the 80s. These days the film might come across a little preachy for today’s audiences, and at times may been seen as comical, sometimes delving perilously close into self-parody.

Regardless of how Thing was or might be perceived, it can’t be denied that the movie struck a chord with audiences of all stripes, and not in some squishy, Forrest Gump kind of way. That subtle-as-a-flying-mallet delivery Lee’s been engaging in for over a quarter century is his stock in trade. Like I said, perhaps audiences and Hollywood alike attach his confrontational nature and perceived vitriol directly with his public image and/or dire filmography. It’s no secret that Lee is outspoken, sometimes brash and very opinionated (for all the right reasons), but beyond that he’s a storyteller with something to say, and obviously a man with a lot on his mind.

I think Lee’s rep is yet another example of both Hollywood’s mill-churning, entertainment media’s less than objective marketing or image and a hostile, ignorant audience who can’t face the man in the mirror. I’ve watched a lot of Lee’s movies—not all. There are only so many hours in a life—and what I’ve walked away with from all of them is being entertained (granted in a discomforting way), having some thoughts provoked, some really 3D character acting and the feeling the guy never gets his due. Sure, Lee’s respected in the film world, but not so much within the glitzy Hollywood club. In fact, Lee’s CV reads as anti-Hollywood, especially since almost all his work is set in and around NYC. Being removed from Tinsel Town’s ethos of bigger, better, faster, shinier, more Lee’s carved out a unique voice in the filmmaking community. And all that being outspoken has done him good as well as earned some derision.

I want to talk about that in specific. Okay, I said that Lee’s adept in holding up the mirror. Also the general public doesn’t like that too much; they’d rather sit in their comfy couches of ignorance and judgment and not have their coats tugged on. I think that’s where the often naked hostility towards Lee’s films in general and Lee in specific comes into play. As the media hypes it, we’re being told to confuse the artist with the art. Again, Lee’s obstinate and firm in his beliefs, and his movies illustrate that, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that whenever he gets in front of the camera to talk at—not to, at—ET or Hollywood Insider two faces are being shown. One of the man and his muse, and the other the social mirror. Lee’s canny in this light; the whole “no such thing as bad press” bullish*t. Give the buzzards what they want to hear and give the plovers the chance to hear what he has to say.

Do I have to explain the “plover” metaphor? It’s a positive one. Let’s leave it at that. You go f*ck around on Wikipedia on your own time.

At the end of the day, discounting all the media muck that gets shoveled Lee’s way, his work is vital, seminal, intriguing and always well-shot and well-acted. It’s also ugly, but in a good way. People need the mirror now and again, and Lee is adept at polishing it.

Part of the skill is directly related to where he shoots most of all his movies: NYC. Growing up in Brooklyn you can be sure as eggs is eggs that Lee quickly gained a significant view on the City’s ebbing and flowing, the millions of souls. There is no other city on Earth where such a diverse, disparate population converge and, more often, collide. Do The Right Thing was the penultimate sentiment regarding this dynamic, and the film’s outcome was all too common, the message all too biting.

There is a bitter, brittle undercurrent to Lee’s films. Despite the City being a melange of cultures, ostensibly trying to cohabitate with one another, it seldom works out that way. With all those differences, things just don’t seem to want to iron out. The endgame is more often conflict and further aggression than “Kumbaya.” But that’s how it goes. No pity in the big City.

This bitterness seems to be all well and good for Lee’s films that primarily star black characters. Here we go with the mirror again. It’s all too easy for Middle America to accept black characters as aggressive, fractured and torn. I mean, that’s how its been for centuries in the good ol’ USA, right? Blacks are marginalized and naturally are pissed off and unafraid to make their voices heard (at least within the past 50 years). More or less, this has been Lee’s oeuvre, for good and for ill. Despite all the feathers ruffled from Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X—his best movie, IMHO. Awesome—Jungle Fever, and Bamboolzed (okay, that was one deliberate ruffling, with ridges), folks have grown to accept, albeit not completely by any means, Lee’s characters being disenfranchised. It’s as if average white audiences who take in Lee’s films are either doing so out of curiosity, bleeding heart liberal guilt or the movies’ reputation.

That itself is curious, because whenever Lee’s flips the coin and has a primarily white cast, there’s an uproar from the other side of the fence. Even if all of Lee’s trademarks are present, no matter how well the movie is executed, no matter how f*cking good it is, the guy can’t win (although he never comes across as wanting it both ways). In such a case, that outspoken social critic takes even more flak now for having fractured, alienated white characters face struggles and prejudices within their own ranks.

It’s probably an open secret that black audiences have embraced Lee’s work as their own. And just their own. After years of Lee filming stories of inner city blacks with all the strife and triumph so keenly, to cast a bunch of white folks in a Lee movie may be perceived as betrayal, as well as more passive fuel for a fire. Same goes for the entertainment media. What business does Lee have in filming a movie about whites’ issues? He ain’t white. So says most of his black fans, too, I’ll bet.

When Lee’s urban historical Summer Of Sam dropped in 1999 there came this unnecessary foofaraw about, “Hey, where are all the black people?” This came from audiences and reporters alike, like Lee was unqualified to shoot a film about a very real piece of immediate history in his hometown (one which he lived through). I guess the whole race thing got stuck to Lee’s ass like an infected carbuncle so much he shouldn’t be allowed to “branch out.”

It’s not as if Sam deviated so far from Lee’s style as to be an affront. For those who haven’t seen the movie here’s a simple synopsis: a docudrama illustrating the social climate and paranoia in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the murder spree by the serial killer the Son Of Sam. It had a predominantly white cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, John Leguizamo and Jennifer Esposito. And Lee got grief for this.

Why? The movie was pointed and great, with all Lee’s hallmarks of social commentary and culture clash. It still rolled like a Lee film, and with all great directors, don’t they usually have an élan that reeks of a signature style? I mean, Scorsese didn’t get much friction for The Age Of Innocence (a film about classism) and critical acclaim for Taxi Driver (a film with quite a few racial undertones). It’s not like he took a lefty and cut a Sandler lowbrow comedy (I know, redundant). So why did Lee get grief?

He went and held the mirror directly in front of white people, and white people only. And him being a black man? The nerve! Just when you think you understood Spike Lee—whoops!—he goes and turns the tables. But not really; you just had your attention elsewhere.

Without going too far into it (that’s what the later gnashing is for), 25th Hour saw the same bullish*t. It’s why it fell under The Standard. That and the low score at the box office. Here were have another New York Story, featuring troubled white folks. But this is Spike Lee, and the cast doesn’t overall matter. Hour, like Sam (like Do The Right Thing, etc) is about NYC, the people who live there and what they must do to survive, race and class serving as the wallpaper. It’s still signature Lee commentary and story all the way, regardless of who starred in it.

All in all it really doesn’t matter; the race relations, the urban blight, the classism, etc. Lee’s been all about the City first, and whatever social issues he wants to address rides on the five boroughs’ back. Black or white (or Asian of Latino or Muslim or what have you), Lee’s muse has always been the people of New York and how they (try to) relate to one another. Seems to me that’s Lee’s whole raison d’être, regardless of what his audiences—the media or the ticket holders—feel. Lee’s main character has always been the City.

Not some drug dealer losing his freedom. Not really…


Busted.

Monty Brogan (Norton) has led a pretty good life. Nice apartment. Cool car. Loyal pooch. And his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Naturelle (Dawson), has been nothing but loving and committed for years.

Has.

Monty’s lived the good life at his own peril. Dealing drugs to make a living can do that. Someone tipped off the cops, and after a raid on Monty’s apartment—yielding a discovery of a crazy stash of heroin and an even crazier amount of laundered money—the smooth operator gets dragged downtown.

Busted.

“Don’t even think of leaving town,” comes the order. Monty’s now facing at least seven years for his misdeeds. At least that. The evidence is damning, and the likelihood of Monty throwing himself at the mercy of the court for a wrist slap is not looking too good. With all that dope and cash? Pipe dream.

So now looking down the barrel of pulling hard time—and with his soft looks and cocky personality—losing his freedom for his crimes might be the easier thing about being incarcerated. The possibility of Monty ending up being married to the man with the most cigarettes seems more likely. The whole notion of “not leaving town” feels increasingly more laughable.

Monty chooses the only sensible thing to do with his last day of freedom. He rounds up his buddies Jake (Hoffman) and Frank (Pepper) for one last night on the town. Monty and his childhood friends’ lives diverged in very different ways, to say the least. Jake is a respected, albeit milquetoast English teacher with a Lolita complex. Frank is a manic, smarmy day trader who routinely mainlines Red Bull into his femoral artery and ego. Well aware of Monty’s fate, both feel it proper—nay, necessary—to pay a kind of favor to Monty. Call it for old times’ sake. Perhaps the last time.

Beyond this final boys’ night out Monty has a few, final loose ends to tie up. Show his wingmen the perks of an exclusive, underworld nightclub. Make some sort of amends with his brittle Pop (Cox) who tried and failed to steer Monty right. Most importantly, figure out who the f*ck ratted him out.

It’s gonna feel like a short night for Monty Brogan, but not long enough…


Feels like I got a bit too academic with the intro. I mean, there’s a lot to dig into regarding Spike Lee’s moviemaking. A lot to break down. Still, I needn’t throw one of Ebert’s many, many books at your face. But you gotta admit, with Lee’s stuff there’s a lot to plumb, even with his less than even hand at storytelling.

Lee’s got this knack—or curse, deepening on whom you ask—for being blunt. His sledgehammer-like delivery is what knocks audiences to the floor. Now I know I quail on and off and on again about my favorite aspect about a movie’s narrative (and no, I’m actually not talking about pacing for once) a lot, but here it really matters. As far as Lee’s style goes.

Subtlety. The kind of stuff in a movie like a Highlights For Children‘s “Hidden Pictures” segment. You know, pictures within pictures. I know that sounds like a Rush lyric, but noodle it out. Lee’s work is always up in your grill, next to no subtlety. It’s all there for you. In Hour, Lee affects a sort of Hitchcock-esque method of dropping the dime without placing the call. Hour is rife with obvious bits and pieces alluding to the undercurrents of the story, but delivered in an, “Oh, I get it” kind of way.

Call it “overt subtlety.” Yeah, I know. A contradiction in terms. Shut it. The devils in Hour are not just the details, but like chess pieces, how they are placed. Played.

At the opening of the film (hell, even before the movie properly starts) we see the Touchstone logo backed by the sounds of a dog being pummeled. The opening scene? Monty rescues said dog who later becomes his pet. Not sure of the symbolism, but it’s there. Maybe it relates to the whole post-9/11 NYC seam that wends its way in and out of the ensuing movie. Maybe. I dunno.

Other bits of Lee’s overt subtlety; his approach at restraint? Well, we all probably remember the symbolic spotlights strategically placed and shining where WTC 1 and 2 once stood. There’s the scene where Monty’s sitting on a bench denying one of his “customers” a fix while we see out protag staring balefully out at the river, the bars of the railing framing his face. Bars? Hmm. Also the trophy scene, towards the rear. The way out, Monty. You took it. It’s all excellent framing, and it’s maintained throughout the duration of the film. It’s a tad chewier than any trash can thrown through a window.

All such scenes are delicious wallpaper—bookends, rather—to the acting. No one in the world of Hour is an empty shell, waiting for the audience to pour all their pathos into the actors like some sort of emotional canteen. They’re all solidly, fully-formed people right out of the gate. Norton’s portrayal of Monty, despite all shiny on the outside is showing signs of tarnish, wears his heart on his sleeve regardless of his trashy circumstances (slick drug dealer and a guy trying to be decent alike). He knows his life’s been sh*t, but he keeps his cool. Until he can’t.

The late Hoffman as Jake. God, he was a good actor, what with his honest, melty face. Very versatile, despite the roles he got dealt (either louts or effete snobs. Sometimes both). Here in Hour, he excels at playing the innocent, even in a winking manner. His Jake is Humbert Humbert, minus the outright perviness yet still broken and creepy (despite the object of his misplaced affection, Paquin’s Mary, his modern day bipolar Lolita). Jake should be the kind of guy within Monty’s circle that has earned the most esteem. But for all his image of scholarly reticence, Jake is desperate, fragile and quite f*cked up. He wears that ball cap as a shroud. You want to put your arm around him, reassure him everything’s gonna be okay. Jake needs a few stiff drinks in him, but you know just one’s gonna make him toss his cookies.

It’s the unexpected opposite of what you’d get out of Pepper’s Frank. Within the first 30 seconds of his appearance, Pepper is totally forgiven for playing a part in Battlefield: Earth. His fast-talking, greasy, unshaven Frank is the proper emotional crutch Monty leans on. Despite his whiplash delivery (and strung-out temperament), Frank plays d’Artagnan to Jake’s schlumpy Porthos, always Monty’s biggest booster no matter what’s gone down in the past, for better or worse. His sharp features with that glare illustrates the realist (his make-up job is crucial), and is at times not so subtle about reminding Monty of what’s at stake. Been at stake. For better or worse? Feels like worse here, but it’s never going to be truly over with this guy. All these guys.

Frank’s role here may also be part of the post 9/11 undercurrent I mentioned earlier. Sure, he’s slicker than snot, but look where his apartment’s located. Overlooking Ground Zero (that little chat he has with Jake burns, and all the more crucial for it). Seems like Frank’s edginess is deliberately forced, a carefully assumed stance. It was the World Trade Centers that were knocked down. Is the stricken trader the post-9/11 straw man? Is the allegory in overdrive, despite the time frame? You decide.

Amongst Monty, Frank and Jake we get the classic balance of id/ego/superego. Think Star Trek. Frank is irascible Dr McCoy, Jake is the thoughtful Spock and Monty is our relatable everyman Kirk. I’m not aware of many movies that work this triad so well as is done with Hour. We had Ferris, Cameron and Sloane, Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. Even Harry, Ron and Hermoine. All good examples of movie trios bouncing their personalities off one another creating great tension, humor and unity. Monty, Jake and Frank is another fine example. Despite their obvious differences, and where the paths of their lives took them, these guys are friends.

This friendship is like a fresh dartboard. All the shots are clean. Sure, Monty’s frayed friendships feel like their failing further (especially when Jake and Frank become passive sounding boards), but putting Monty’s plight and his interactions on the back burner, Hour‘s alpha plot is really just a vehicle to drive through Lee’s true muse here: New York. Like I said earlier, this film isn’t really about Monty’s waning freedom. It’s about the City, a character in and of itself trying to deal with the wounds inflicted in the fall of 2001. Hour is a post-9/11 snapshot, plain and simple. Sure, there’s a lot of great pathos and intriguing characters, but all that is merely a device for Lee to convey his signature social commentary. And his commentary is always about “us.” In this case, the us isn’t just Monty and Co. It’s the tapestry of people, a microcosm of the planet as a whole, that is New York in relation to “them.” It’s the intangible them that upset the balance of the City and the country? No, it’s always been us according to Lee. And he may be right.

I’m gonna segue into the tech stuff of Hour now (I know you’ve been wringing your greasy, little hands in anticipation). Lee’s always been adept in using cinematography. Hour‘s no less exceptional, and we’re not just talking the skyline here. All the close-ups and face time are wonderfully framed. It’s like every conversation had let’s us in on a secret, being it intimate details, heartfelt hands on the shoulder or screeching rants.

Speaking of rants—which serve as Lee’s aforementioned social critique and plea for understanding—Monty’s (infamous) racist soliloquy in the mirror deriding every single minority group in the City (and perhaps outside of it, too) is reminiscent of Do The Right Thing‘s endless racial criticism. Hour‘s tirade-cum-montage is another piece of Lee’s post-9/11 deconstruction. The City is fractured, but it needs everyone to make it right again. Or at least tolerable.

However Lee isn’t without a reflective side here (for once). The opposite of Monty’s screed comes in the form of his Pop’s homily towards the end of the film regarding REDACTED. Like the City, the rest of the country is a crazy quilt of humanity, and by Lee’s lens the answers don’t necessarily lie outside New York, but maybe an idea does (by the way, I feel Brian Cox is a highly underrated character actor. Hey, if the guy was the first to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen doesn’t count for something, I can’t say what would).

Other cool technical flourishes I dug about Hour are many, but since we’re heading into a length that would give Tolstoy a run for his rubles I’ll try and reel it back. This film has some of the best flashback editing I haven’t seen since the original Highlander. That’s a complement. Most of the time in movies, the need to show backstory rather than tell it can be abrupt if not jarring. No so with Hour. In fact, scene moves from scene so deftly it takes a moment or two to understand we’ve shifted the story back a few years (or forward in some cases). All of it enriches Monty’s tale of rising and falling and perhaps heading towards redemption. There’s a definite trail of breadcrumbs here, but where it leads is uncertain. I like that.

We got some smart music going on here. I’m a Terence Blanchard fan, so sue me. The opening theme is menacing as well as insinuating. Let’s prime the pump for our ensuing voyage into the belly of the broken beast that is post-9/11 New York. The soundtrack creeps and crawls in and out of the scenes, almost a character unto itself. Sure, sometimes the music gets cranked up to 11 needlessly (barring club scenes and antisocial activities), but overall Blanchard’s score, well, scores the goal of wry grunge that accompanies the movie’s heavy story.

There are some aspects of the story that even Lee couldn’t resist pressing his thumbs into. Like all the small social interactions. It was kind of hard to separate the everyday things from happening anywhere else but New York. Maybe it’s Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve again. I don’t know, but I got the suspicion that a lot of the more intimate dialogue in the movie (e.g.: the excellent bar chat, the strategic humor, etc) could only have happened in the City. Lee’s got a keen ear for New York patois, and it’s adding to the ambience just reinforces the director’s entrenched affinity for his hometown. Call it soft Spike, and it’s a balm to the near relentless stress of the alpha plot. It’s where the humanity comes through, which is the sub-theme of the story proper.

The final act of Hour (save the mirror rant) was considered the most controversial by the general public (as far I know from Twitter feeds). There were the three crucial scenes strung together. First, Monty uncovering who the stooge was and discovers his lost humor and honor in the process; second, the “rescue brawl” between Frank and Monty, and; third, Pop’s montage. All three are intense, and all three fail to wrap up the story. This is a good thing, if not the inevitable.

One last time, the underlying message of Hour is about how the City and its denizens are trying to recover from 9/11. All is uncertain. When Monty finally learns who the stooge is, it doesn’t rectify his impending prison sentence. Sure, he rediscovers a sense of humor about things, and maybe some sense of honor lost along the way, but it don’t get him any closer to regaining a life. It’s a tad obvious if you pay attention.

When Monty begs Frank to beat the stuffing out of him so to appear “hard” to his future inmates (good make-up artist. Blech), how’s that for a direct punch (sorry) about a wounded city? I’d like to think we all have a bit of fight in them like Frank: reluctant but was always brewing. When we are hurt, we want to lash out, swing at ghosts, but it never leads to anything. Only desperation and a feeling of emptiness and futility. Especially so when even after you release it all that’s left is a lingering sense of hurt.

I adored the final montage. It’s the opposite en toto of the mirror scene. Pop’s bittersweet monologue paints a picture of hope to be found within the future; the possibilities that could be in moving forward and getting on with life, even if that life isn’t “yours.” It’s a beautifully etched notion of “life goes on.” And it does, but sometimes painfully and reluctantly.

Downbeat, I know. But Lee’s snapshot does not lend a silver lining. Nor should it. Sometimes his brusque, outspoken, mirror-holding style works wonders, especially for a painfully real illustration of a broken man, broken friendships and a broken city. I guess at the end of the day, Hour tells not only a story of loss but also of possible recovery. Lee’s mirror is still reflecting, but this time out there’s a little grime smeared on its surface. Not unlike the view from Frank’s apartment.

Let’s leave it at that. I’ve already gone on too long with this installment. I think all the bases were covered, and maybe re-covered three times over. Sorry. I guess I did too much navel-gazing dissecting Hour, but there was a lot going on here. The movie was engaging, thought-provoking and more than a little disturbing. And all for the better.

One more thing. It was hard to take apart Hour while being a smartass. I know my trademark snark was all but absent this time out. Too bad.

I didn’t feel the movie deserved it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Big shocker, there. Despite the heavy atmosphere, Hour had an engaging story, great acting and all the hard-angled, poignant hallmarks of a Spike Lee film. With or without black people.


Stray Observations…

  • “Just curious…”
  • What was with the double shot embrace thing? I mean, I took apart virtually every nut and bolt in Hour, yet this obvious bloop escaped me.
  • “I wanna be that girl in the X-Men.” She’ll be by in the next scene.
  • BTW, Paquin does not look 17.
  • “You got all kinds of nights.”
  • Two phones.
  • “Look out for your field trip.”
  • This film illustrates all the proper scenarios for taking a drink. Some things are a dying art.
  • “You’re not gonna be there tomorrow, and there’s only tomorrow.”
  • There was something about the bathroom scene in the club, besides the obvious Hitchcock element.
  • “The leash is yours.” Enjoy your life.
  • First saw this movie as part of my wife’s Ed Norton binge years ago. He’s her have actor.
  • “Cool dog.”

Next Installment…

We pay a visit to Jeff, Who Lives At Home with his Mom. Still.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 4: Gus Van Zant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000)


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The Players…

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F Murray Abraham and Anna Paquin, with Busta Rhymes, Michael Pitt and Michael Nouri.


The Story…

Reclusive, award-winning novelist William Forrester wants to have nothing to do with the outside world, at least as far as the other side of his apartment’s window. It’s only when literally a thief in the night loses his bag of writings in his flat that William considers reaching out. Turns out the burglar is named Jamal, and he has considerable writing talent. William decides to mentor the youngster, who harbors a passion not usually associated with the thug kids in the neighborhood. Sure, Jamal likes basketball well enough, but William fast discovers the kid’s real muse: he’s obsessed with words.


The Rant…

Let me tell you the first truth about writing. It’s f*cking hard. Don’t let any dilettante tell you that it’s easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just let your emotions flooow, like a smooth river of caramel dotted with the sweet, sweet morsels of words and words and words. Ah, you can practically hear birds chirping.

A big firm no. Trying to drum up, coax and often cleave words onto a page takes one part crazy, one part driven and one very big part passion. To hole yourself up for hours—days—manipulating those words and create a cohesive narrative takes time, time, practice, effort, coffee, time, barbiturates and time. The life of a writer is not easy, and f*cking all writers say that. Those that like to go rafting down the Cadbury Creek say nay-nay and it’s all about what you feel and stuff. This is the romantic twaddle that gets foisted onto authors by the readers, wishing they could do what they won’t. Which all leads back to cleaving bullsh*t.

But when it’s cut well, like a surgeon with a hawkeye, then all that bourbony sweat and coffee breath and a lion tamer-like will to get the words onto the paper, then yeah, it feels that breezy…to the reader. The hardest part about performing an art is to make it look effortless. That’s why it’s called art. Craft is a better term actually regarding writing. Craft is the job. The story is the art, the throughput. And in writing, a flowing story is tirelessly hewn from that rugged block of the English language.

So how does such a chore of a craft make for a decent movie? Well, to start to answer that we first gotta read between the lines…


Jamal Wallace (Brown) is your average, likable kid. Middling high school student, down with basketball and bumming with his crew. It’s kind of a façade though. Jamal is privately bookish and always scribbling in his journals, hauling them around with him in his omnipresent backpack. He harbors a desire to be a writer, and all those journals serve to get out all those words that so plague his adolescent mind about life, love and leaving.

There are all sorts of pockets of humanity hidden away in the tenements in Jamal’s Bronx neighborhood. The local haunts for all the kids, the basketball court, the high school and the creepy apartment with the even creepier recluse who spies on everybody with binocs via a curiously clear window.

One night, Jamal’s crew puts him up to a dare: sneak into “The Window’s” flat and steal some goodie to prove he was there. Of course this does not go well. Jamal is chased out of the apartment leaving his backpack—and all his journals—behind. When he eventually does retrieve his pack (or rather  unceremoniously dropped on him) and his treasured journals, he finds “The Window” has given them the red pen treatment, scrawling literary criticism across the crinkled pages.

After timidly trying to apologize for his trespassing, Jamal discovers “The Window” is a rather unpleasant, very reclusive crank who goes by the name of William Forrester (Connery). The guy’s got some hefty opinions on writing in general and Jamal’s writings in specific. After taking in the criticism and with some coaxing, Jamal asks Forrester for some tips and tricks. And boy, does he have some.

Turns out that Forrester is a writer of some repute, who successfully wrote his Great American decades ago and has been pulling a Thomas Pynchon ever since. He never goes out, whiles the days away bird watching, spying on the neighborhood and writing missives that no one will ever read all the while curled up with his handy rocks glass of scotch. Unsurprisingly, he has no real friends to speak of outside of his personal library. Jamal’s conciliatory visit comes as more an incursion to the cloistered writer.

Maybe a little guidance should be in order. A little help from Forrester might give Jamal the boost he needs in his budding writing career. And a little boost from Jamal might give crotchety Forrester a little attitude adjustment. Maybe he’ll even get out of the house more. Here’s hoping…


Oooooo, the critics hated this movie.

It was lacerated for being too derivative of Van Zant’s previous Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting (maybe you’ve heard of it). True, Forrester was released barely three years after Will and their plotlines are very similar. Forrester has often touted at Van Zant’s other feel good mentor picture, which sounds kind of disparaging. It is, seeing how both films follow the same pattern; no awards for originality here. This mentor/protégé dynamic has been used before. It’s also sort of timeless and sometimes tiresome, too. So sure, the movie is derivative.

But it’s good derivative.

Unlike Will, Foresster has two things going for it: a lot less melodrama and no Ben Affleck. Also, it’s got Sean Connery! I love Sean Connery. He’s my favorite actor. You can always count on him to deliver the goods. Sure, a lot of his films have sucked big donkey d*ck, but he’s always good—solid, engaging and humorous. What else could you ask for from an actor? And he was James Bond, after all. Street cred. His performance as Forrester here was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s a guy asked to portray what has to be the utmost perfect stereotype of the wise reclusive writer, from being surrounded by books, wearing the robe all day and nursing a nice little drinking problem. And yet it works, because Connery makes the role his own. He plays irascible well as he does thoughtful. His character follows the basic tenet that all writers strive to follow: he shows, not tells. He delivers his lines with wit and sincerity that you could swear it was his own words, not a script. When you think about it, with his 50-plus acting career, Connery really has nothing left to prove. He can and has chosen roles that simply please him. If indeed he had anything left to prove, he could’ve hung up his hat with You Only Live Twice (my fave 007 movie. It’s got karate!). At this point in his vaunted career, Connery’s chosen roles are being Connery. He’s an icon, and he’s aware of it. Just hand him the script and he’ll take the movie from there.

My fawning explains why the Forrester stereotype worked here. You would be correct in claiming that Connery’s titular role is a cipher. To my immediate memory, I can’t recall any movie about writers that didn’t showcase the “the brilliant author” as anything else but quirky, private, antisocial, phobic and (perhaps) harboring an addiction (e.g.: Wonder Boys, Adaptation, Shakespeare In Love, American Splendor, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard and on and on). Connery apparently does, and does it quite well. So how now, Brown Cow? Why doesn’t his Forrester come off as a total caricature?

In a word, earnestness. Sean believes in the man that is Forrester, but not so seriously to make him a man made from stone. Connery injects just enough snark here—almost as a wink to the audience—to make him grounded, relatable. Sure, some could even regard Forrester as a hipster (and I f*cking hate hipsters), but Connery is too sharp to play that card so close to his chest. Remember what I said about him choosing his own roles? He knows what’s going on, his career being so long. In sum, Sean’s self-consciously hamming it up. He understands the stereotype. He understands himself and his acting style. He understands what audiences expect of him. He understands not to give a f*ck and just have some fun. Sean ain’t gonna win no awards here in Forrester, and he don’t give a sh*t anyway. We’re all here to have fun, Ms. Moneypenny (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Now here’s the part where I’m gonna employ my best impression of Roger Ebert crawling up his own ass. Ready?

At the other end of the table, Rob Brown’s performance is noteworthy in that this was his first movie, and had next to no training for the role, the polar opposite of our leading man and the perfect foil. Story goes that Brown tried out for the part just to earn some cash to pay a cell phone bill. It paid off, if you’ll pardon the pun. So by way of overages, we got ourselves a pretty decent young actor. Brown’s Jamal is totally relatable without ever being stereotypical or boring. Sure, Jamal could be any black teen hailing from a crappy neighborhood in the Bronx. Therein lies the key. Even if Brown had no formal training, he picked up pretty quick the paradoxical way of Jamal’s personality. On the outside, yeah, Jamal is average in every sense. Another black kid from the inner city who plays basketball like countless black kids from the inner city who play basketball. Big deal. It’s Jamal’s mannerisms that carefully give away where his real comfort zone lies, but because of his surroundings, it’s not really attainable. Since we understand at the outset that Jamal is a closet bookworm and quite smart, it’s easy to see why he kind of keeps his intellect in check—keeps it under wraps is more like it. His hiding comes across sort of like a social survival skill. Where Jamal lives, being wise is not wise. It’s not appreciated, let alone wanted. It’s only in fits and starts—where a situation moves him—that he expresses himself naturally. Jamal is keenly aware of this outsider status, and goes to certain lengths to hide it. Watching Brown’s expressive facials are paramount to understanding the character as opposed to dialogue and body language. You can’t teach this; it’s a natural gift, and it takes years for a seasoned actor to hone this skill. Some nobody that spent his bucket of minutes trumped dozens of child actors catching 10 percent.

The only times when Jamal’s hidden personality fuses with reality is around Forrester. Not at first, of course. Since this movie is a character study/buddy movie, we need to have that “getting to know you” tension established in order to find the eventual mutual camaraderie and (sometimes sappy, even here) friendship that the audience craves for movies like Forrester. To claim that Forrester brings Jamal out of his shell is a bit of a truism. Such a dynamic is expected here; it’s what the movie’s all about, not writing. Writing is the shared passion of our two leads, and like with most friendships first we establish a common ground, then we explore it further (farther, sorry). Once this is set down, the inevitable happens. Here in Forrester, thanks to our tenderfoot/veteran balance of actors, an otherwise derivative plot is elevated to a really fun character study. Slowly under Forrester’s acerbic tutelage Jamal comes out of the proverbial shell, both with his writing and understanding that it’s okay to be brilliant in fits and starts. After all, Forrester is “brilliant,” but also antisocial and harboring a not so subtle drinking habit. I guess Van Sant’s trying to drive the point home that all creative types have their vices, whether it being scotch, basketball or an inability to express oneself in a emotionally productive manner. In the cloister of “The Window’s” labyrinthine apartment of books, typewriters and multiple TVs, I also guess that Jamal understands it’s okay to explore that stifled part of his personality, and maybe it might be his key to his way out of…something.

*readers stir from their snoring and drooling*

Welcome back. Your fly’s open.

Back to the technical stuff. Regarding the character that is Brown’s Jamal: that’s this trouble with the label “relatable”; it’s a tag that often means cookie-cutter. C’mon, that whole “relatable” tag has been so bandied about so much regarding leading men that it has ceased to maintain relevance. I already went on and on and on about Brown’s excellent delivery, and what made it excellently relatable was Jamal’s insecurities and uncertainty. It was naked, but only if you had a keen eye. Forrester’s schtick was as subtle as neon. With his expressive eyes, honest curiosity and truly down-to-earth demeanor, Brown is a delight. In short, good job kid. You won me over, and this coming from an ardent Connery fan.

Okay, now any story about stories needs a foil, a dastardly villain. We need an Iago here, a Moriarty, a Milton-esque Satan. F Murray Abraham’s Dr Crawford fits the bill here. Abraham is an accomplished, Oscar-winning actor. His Professor Crawford villain here is ham-fisted, greasy and utterly laughable. He’s fun to dislike. Small wonder here that the guy probably relished the role. Crawford is all moustache-twirling and effete and offers a performance so eye-rolling it provide a great deal of unintentional humor. I think we’ve all probably had a teacher along the way like him. All of such credentials lend Abraham into the Velveeta wing of Hollywood’s best worst overactors. Like I implied, I think the guy knew what he was getting into as Forrester’s Salieri (had to mention it at least once. Now shaddap), so I’d also like to think the guy’s attitude to approaching the project was more or less, “What the hell?” So he got all campy and Snidely Whiplash and we were all there to lap it up like fresh cream. Cheesy? Sure. But no less fun.

There are a lot of other little perks to this movie. Devil in the details and all. Jamal’s hidden library. The “ghost” story. Delivering groceries. Jeopardy! Busta as the voice of reason. Crawford’s stupid tea ritual. Paquin’s perky boobs. And something else quite noteworthy? The soundtrack. Painted with the tunes of Miles Davis with the guitar stylings of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist (don’t have one? Get one), the music plays layers of jaunty groove and accents all over the urban landscape. It plays as an actor in its own right. And it only gets played when Brown is on screen, usually alone. Representative of our conflicted hero’s mind? You decide.

You got to have a really hard heart to dislike this movie. I for the life of me failed to see any overt issues with Forrester‘s storytelling. The words from the critics seemed like a lot of nitpicking to me. I will admit, Forrester does get treacly at times, but’s often redeemed by our two leads’ hard-won, mutual respect and snappy dialogue. I mean, it’s just a buddy flick, pure and simple, with no pretenses to win any awards. Lighten up. Connery and Brown have a really good chemistry, totally believable. The script is simple, streamlined and deft, and if missing lofty goals about the human condition in the abstract ruins a character study, I say with Forrester let it be ruined. The direction is economical with a minimum of pandering. Forrester might get a bit touchy-feely and maudlin at times, but it’s got Sean Connery. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll be honest, if you don’t like this film you’re a cynical dickhead. And I’m a cynical dickhead.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Call me biased but I’m a sucker for both buddy movies and films about writing. Moreover, it’s one of my guilty pleasure favorite films. Sorry for the hoodwink, but not really.


Stray Observations…

  • Forrester’s apartment looks a lot like my old place during my post-grad days. I didn’t want many visitors either.
  • “Not exactly a soup question.”
  • Punch the keys for God’s sake!” Not as easy with a PC. Or with a typewriter either, those first few pages.
  • There is the scene where Forrester slides a book back into its proper place on the shelf. When I showed my girlfriend the movie, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” We broke up.
  • What the hell is that fiddle at the party? I want one.
  • “You’re the man now, dawg!”

Next Installment…

We’re gonna be rollin’ in Cloverfield, as found footage films go super-sized.