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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

In America - The Review (Text)

First published Sept 2009

Jim Sheridan does direct some weird as sex sequences. And by that, I don’t mean the characters are doing anything weird, he doesn’t have anything on guys like Lynch or Cronenberg who actually make the sex itself fucked up (2 female television executives sprouting penises and raping James Woods, for example), but he still manages to make you wonder what the fuck he was thinking. Case in point, the sex scene from ‘In America’; an otherwise slow, emotional, feel-good movie, for some reason he decided that for the love-making scene, he wanted to change the pace of the film completely, so we are met with a montage of quick shots of the two main characters, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and Johnny (Some Irish guy I hadn’t heard of before, but who was really, really good), having sex on their bed, whilst a lightning storm goes on around them. Not that weird you’re thinking? That’s because I’m still getting to it, I’m well aware that bad weather doesn’t constitute a weird scene. Give me some credit here, will you? Anyway, what’s bizarre about the scene is that the sex is intercut with two other scenes. The first is of the couple’s daughters, who at the time have been sent out to get Ice Cream at the parlour their mother works in. This makes sense, because the girls were sent out, and we want to know they’re ok, but what’s strange is that Jim Sheridan decides to have a group of Transvestites walk into the Ice Cream place for no reason and smile at the girls. Now, I understand he’s trying to show the neighbourhood is a bit dodgy, and a bit different to where they grew up in Ireland, but this is just random. On top of that, we are also treated to shots of the black artist who lives below them painting a picture out of his own blood, in a manner extremely reminiscent of Brian from Spaced, when he first explains to Tim and Daisy the different types of art he does. Now, don’t get me wrong, the scene is well shot and everything, and is significant to the plot (unlike the thousands of films where the producers seem to just say “fuck it, let’s throw in a sex scene, I wanna see TITS!”), but it’s so different to the rest of the movie, in pace and in feeling, it just doesn’t seem to fit. Also, to be honest, if you start thinking about Spaced whilst watching a non-comedy movie, there’s got to be something wrong with it (unless, you know, it’s one of the million movies that was parodied by Spaced). And the thing is, this isn’t the only time Sheridan’s had a retarded idea for a sex scene (though luckily, it’s the only one I’ve seen where the stupid idea made it to the final cut). Watching the special features on my Get Rich or Die Tryin’ DVD, I saw him talking with 50 Cent about his ideas for the soundtrack to use for the second sex scene in that movie, and was saying he wanted to use “I’ll Whip Yo Head Boy” for the sequence. If to you that track sounds even remotely like it could fit a sex scene (unless it was a gay sex scene and whip is slang for “enjoy” or something?), then I guess we just have completely different views on how relevant to a scene the soundtrack needs to be. What’s next? Yakety Sax playing over the end credits of Saving Private Ryan? Fat Boy by Bizarre and King Gordy playing over the opening scene of The Machinist? Odd choices for sex scenes and soundtracks aside, however, Sheridan had gained more than enough respect from me after somehow managing to make an actually decent, non-hilarious movie with 50 Cent playing the lead (to this day I still don’t know how he did it, but I do love that movie), so when I saw In America was playing on Film 4 (+1, actually), I figured I might as well give it a watch, and I was not disappointed.
In America is a film about an Irish family who move to America after their 5 year old son dies of brain cancer. Now, unfortunately, I missed the first ten minutes of the movie, but from what I gathered later on in the film, the father has shut down almost completely emotionally since, and the eldest of the two daughters believes her dead brother, Frankie, still speaks to her, and before he left, granted her three wishes from beyond the grave, to use when she needed to.
When they reach America (expending one wish to get through customs safely), the family head into Manhattan, hoping to start a new life, with the father pursuing his dream of becoming an actor on Broadway. However, they soon realize that it may not be as easy as they had hoped, when they find it impossible to get an apartment in a good neighbourhood, through a combination of their lack of money, and nationality, and so are forced to trade in their car for a run-down flat in a tower full of Junkies in a bad neighbourhood. Still, their spirits remain high, and there are some nice scenes of them painting and decorating the flat to make it feel like home. We then move on to learn that the mother got a job working at the Ice Cream Parlour across the street, so her husband would be able to concentrate on his acting, and have time to go to auditions. The first Audition we see John at is absolutely brilliant, mainly because at one point, after it becomes clear he won’t get the part of the American he wants to play, the guy auditioning him asks “can you do a London accent?”, and John replies in a flawless ‘London accent’ (fucked if I can tell the difference between them, but his was brilliant) “You’re havin’ a laugh, mate, he’s only got two lines in the whole thing, do you want me to come over there and sort you out?”, which left me thinking ‘why the fuck didn’t he get that part?’ (though possibly contributed to the actual actor getting this role in the film?). This, however, is revealed to us moments later when he is told by the auditioner backstage that no matter how good his accents are, that’s not all there is to acting, and he needs to show more feeling, a reference back to how he seems to have lost his feelings since his son’s death, and is showing how it still affects him.
After this, the story evolves, and we get scenes of the family learning to adapt to living in America. First learning to deal with the heat and humidity New York Summers bring, then with the discrimination the Irish face living in New York (Junkies informing John that “All Irish are cops” as an excuse to mistrust him), and finally learning more about American customs when the kids go to a school Halloween party. Before this, however, we are given possibly the most tense scene in the entire movie when, after taking the kids to see E.T. at the cinema, the family is walking through a fair ground when the youngest of the girls notices they have a game where you can win an ET doll, if you can throw 7 tennis balls through a hole. The guy running the stall states that these balls do not all need to be in one go, and you can take as many turns as you wish, but each time you want to carry on, will have to double the amount of money you put down. However, when you do reach seven, you not only get the doll, but also get all the money you put down back. Providing you reach seven. At first, this doesn’t seem so bad, John gets the first couple of balls in, and manages to get all the way up to 5 balls on just $16. However, that’s when it all goes wrong, and his misses take him up to $32 dollars, and then $64. We see the scammer behind the stall grinning, and telling people who are around how much money is on the game, trying to draw a bigger crowd to put John off. John gets the sixth ball in, but misses on the next one. After this next miss, he is forced to take the family’s rent money out to try and cover the ever-growing amount he is betting on the game, and after another 2 misses, he is up to $256, all the rent money for that month. Having seen Get Rich or Die Tryin’, I would not have been surprised at this point if the family had lost everything, and had to fight to survive. However, the eldest girl expends her second wish, and her father makes the throw, winning the doll and all their money back. They return home triumphantly, even though John knows perfectly well he just risked everything on one E.T. Doll, and we are then treated to the previously mentioned bizarre sex scene, at the end of which we learn that Sarah is pregnant with another child.
The Halloween party does not go well for the kids, who turn up in outfits their mother made them, but realize to their horror that every other child at their school has had their outfits bought for them, and consequently look much better. After winning the prizes for “best home-made costumes”, the girls walk home with their father, annoyed that they don’t fit in, and that they were given “made-up prizes” because the teachers felt sorry for them. They complain to their parents that they want to act more like American kids do so they’ll fit in, and insist they’re allowed to go trick or treating. John and Sarah eventually give in, and tell the girls they can go trick or treating, but only in their own building, because it’s a dangerous neighbourhood. At is at this point that we are first properly introduced to the artist downstairs. Having knocked on numerous doors and received no response, the girls go to his door, which has “Keep Away” painted on it in big letters, and knock on it, shouting “trick or treat!”. Eventually, Mateo, the artist, answers the door, and this is how he is introduced to the family.
Mateo is played by Djimon Hounsou, whose name I cannot pronounce, but who I can tell you played Maximus’s best friend in Gladiator, and has been in numerous other films including Blood Diamond and The Island. His performance in this movie is absolutely outstanding, and even from this first scene, he is incredible (which explains the Oscar nomintation, I guess. Not that they know brilliance when they see it *cough* Robert Downey, jr. for Natural Born Killers, Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas, Leo for The Departed, Doug Hutchison for War Zone, Tom Hanks for Saving Private Ryan, and about a thousand others. Though I may need to check out who really did win best supporting actor in ’94, cos if it was Samuel L. Jackson for Pulp then I could live with him beating out Rob Downey. And I guess since hanks has already won it twice, it might be a bit unfair on the other actors to give him another. But, I digress...) Anyway, the girls go into Mateo’s apartment whilst he looks for “treats” to give them (speech marks on treats because they’re trick or treating, not to imply some fucked up innuendo. I really need to stop listening to “Rape Me” by Nirvana when I’m trying to write. Bastards!), and during this time, they reveal to him what happened to their brother. He is really moved by their story, and by their strength to carry on, and he decides to give them his pot of change, as he doesn’t have any sweets for them. The girls thank him and go home, to find there are several dollars in the change jar. Sarah, grateful to him for this, suggests they invite Mateo over for dinner, and he agrees to come. However, there is some apparent tension between Mateo and John, and after the girls sneak presents (a coin and a ring, representing future wealth and marriage) into Mateo’s dinner, John leaves the table, looking angry. At first, I was worried because Mateo didn’t appear to have done anything to upset him, and I thought that John just disliked him because he was black, but later on, we find out this isn’t the case. Sarah and John discover at the hospital that the Foetus Sarah is carrying is damaged, and there was a good chance either it or she would die if the pregnancy was allowed to continue. Sarah puts on a brave face for the girls, and tells them it’s going to be fine, but John, having already lost one son, can’t handle it, and storms out. On his way out, he runs into Mateo, and starts asking him aggressively if he’s in love with Sarah. Mateo tells John that he is, in fact, in love with him, and (oh wait, that explains the Oscar thing, actually, playing the gay card always works; Philadelphia, Capote, Milk...) then states that he is in love with everything in the world, and when John tells him how bad his life it, Mateo simply informs him that he would happily switch places with him anytime if he could. This calms John, and he walks back home, deciding to try harder to appreciate what he has. It also, unfortunately lets us know something is up with Mateo. Although we can pretty well guess it at this point (Yep, it’s AIDS. Don’t worry, you’re not a homophobe if you guessed that... well, you might be, I just mean the two aren’t related), we only know it for certain much later when the eldest daughter finds Mateo collapsed, and gives him mouth-to-mouth whilst a nearby junkie pleads with her not to.
After this point, we see the effect of Mateo’s illness, and Sarah’s pregnancy take a toll on all the characters, and John struggles to make money to pay the hospital bills. Mateo keeps on playing with the girls for as long as he can, but eventually is admitted to hospital, too ill to carry on. The movie starts to get really dark at this point, and after the baby is born, it looks as though it might die. The doctors say it needs a transfusion to survive, and that the only member of the family with the same blood type is the eldest daughter, who fears she may now have aids. At this point, the movie could have gone either way, and either become one of the darkest, most painful to watch movies ever, or been one of the greatest feel-good movies of all time. Thankfully, Sheridan chose the latter, and gives us the happy ending everyone wanted (though the other way still would have been one hell of an interesting film, and still definitely worth a watch). The ending is incredibly powerful, and very moving, even if it does seem like a cheap trick to try and get audiences to cry (So if you’re trying to work the “sensitive guy” angle, try watching this movie with the girl you’re into, I guarantee it’ll work. Well, unless you’re too macho to cry, like I am...). Fuck it, I didn’t want to say it, but I will, so Spoiler Alert for the next paragraph – The baby lives, but Mateo dies. However, he leaves the family the money to pay off their $30,000 medical bills (Yeah, turns out he was really rich but just lived in a crappy apartment cos it helped his art or something...). We then see a shot of the dad and the girls on the balcony, and the father tells the youngest he can see Mateo waving goodbye to them, riding past the moon like E.T. did (E.T. was her favourite movie, and they saw it earlier, remember?). At the same time, the eldest girl uses her last wish to convince John to say goodbye to her dead brother, Frankie, and he does this. Then, the icing on the cake is that the eldest girl spends the whole movie videotaping everything, and right at the end we see a shot of Mateo smiling and laughing, playing with the girls. Cheap but effective, cinema 101. And Hounsou’s performance was so realistic that it does feel as though you are watching the character himself, rather than just watching an actor play him, so this makes it all the more powerful.
Overall, then, I would say this is an amazing, feel-good story (unlike last year’s “Feel-good movie”, Slumdog Millionaire, which involved a kid getting his fucking eye burned out! Not even War Zone had something that bad in – though it did have a dude get a chairleg through the eye... Rock), and I would definitely recommend watching it. The plot is great, the acting is amazing (especially Hounsou – I might have to watch Mystic River now, see if Robbins really did deserve to beat him. Still, I’m glad it didn’t go to Lord of the Rings instead, like 90% of the Oscars that year did...), and the cinematography is brilliant. Remember how I said I loved the way in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that Sheridan filmed a lot of scenes looking in mirrors, and I especially loved at the start of the film when he’s filming through the car’s wing mirror and the bas makes the whole shot jump? Well, in this movie, he intercuts the actual footage of the movie with shots from the eldest daughter’s videocamera throughout, and this gives the movie a more personal, and more real, feel. There is also a brilliant scene of comedic relief in which John, realizing he will have another child to support, and failing at his auditions, starts to drive a cab around New York, and a business man in the back of the cab starts telling him that, even though he knows he’s white, he’s a rapper, and starts busting an endless stream of mad rhymes. John responds eventually by getting out the cab, opening the back door, and pulling the guy out by his feet into the street. I had to wonder whether Sheridan wrote this rap himself, given I know he wrote one of the ones used in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and even though this scene did have a far more surreal comedic feel than the rest of the movie, I still really enjoyed it, which is good since often when directors try to put in random comic relief, it just ends up ruining the movie (looking at you, Wes ‘Ok, so we’ve got a really dark movie about two girls being abducted and murdered, let’s throw in a scene where the incompetent cops on the case try and get a lift with a black woman in a truck full of chickens, and she stalls it and they go flying off the roof because the truck can’t take their weight, plus the weight of the chickens, how funny will that be?’ Craven). So, yeah, even the random stuff was highly enjoyable, and actually added to the movie, rather than detract from it.
Oh, one more thing, at the end we are told that the movie is “dedicated to the memory of Frankie Sheridan”, so it is possible that the dead son was based around either Jim Sheridan’s brother, or son, or someone, which just makes the whole thing seem so more real. Plus, the film was written by three members of the Sheridan family, so is clearly a very personal movie for them.
Time to rate this film, I guess...

RATING

****

4/5

This movie is simply brilliant, and you can’t help but smile at the end, even if just seconds before you felt like you wanted to cry (yeah, I know - shut up...). I will definitely be looking out for any other movies by Jim Sheridan, as the two I have seen so far are so damn good. Watch this film!

Oh, and sorry there are no links to videos in this review – My laptop isn’t connected to the internet at the time of writing, and I doubt I’ll be bothered to add any when I do upload this. Oh, but if anyone knows a big movie where a well known actor played a gay character (along the lines of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, not Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding – uh, not that I’ve watched that, or anything...), and wasn’t nominated, please private message me. And I just came up with another, Ledger for Brokeback mountain (and for The Dark Knight as well. Come on – the make-up and tailor-made suits are a dead giveaway). Man, this seems like the easiest way ever to get an Oscar Nomination...

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