The House I Live In
dir Eugene Jarecki; with David Simon, Nannie Jeter 12/US *****
Important documentaries like this one can spark a range of responses: righteous anger, informed action or exhausted hopelessness. And we experience all three in Jarecki's lucid, engaging, staggeringly urgent film. It traces the history of the war on drugs, which Richard Nixon declared in the late-60s but which actually dates back to the 19th century. And by interviewing historians, politicians, policemen, prisoners and all kinds of other people affected by the situation, Jarecki reveals some seriously chilling historical facts. Everyone knows that the war hasn't worked, but most don't realise the real damage it has done to America as a society, driving it down a dangerous path that has caused much more destruction than good. It has also left America with 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the prisoners. Many of whom are victims of overly tough sentencing that has taken them out of the economic engine of the country. Yes, it's a harrowing film, but it's also thoroughly involving. And honestly it should be mandatory viewing.
dir So Yong Kim; with Paul Dano, Jon Heder 12/US ***
There's a terrific performance by Dano at the centre of this film, which is so focused on him that everything else kind of blurs into significance, including the plot. It's very well made, but feels rather thin. The story centres on Joby (Dano), a rocker who travels back to his small town to sort out a divorce and child-custody settlement. His inexperienced lawyer (Heder) tries to help, but it's Joby who will need to figure out what he wants. The film is like a long journey into his soul, as all of the other characters are so peripheral that we never remotely care about them (even Shaylena Mandigo as his soulful little girl Ellen). Director Kim shoots the film in the dead of winter, and the snowy townscapes give the story an intriguingly icy atmosphere. Dano is of course terrific in the role, all jangling limbs and breathless introspection. He makes the film utterly gripping, even as we begin to wonder why he can't snap out of it and just decide on a few priorities in his life. Sure, it's not easy, but this film feels like it barely cracks the surface.
dir Youssef Delara, Michael D Olmos; with Gina Rodriguez, Lou Diamond Phillips 12/US **
There are rather too many searing themes in this uneven Los Angeles-set Hispanic drama, which mixes the criminal underworld with the rap music scene. The plot is in need of major surgery to make it less overwrought, and a few dodgy performances don't help either. But it's still quite watchable as young wannabe rapper Majo (the terrific Rodriguez) turns herself into Filly Brown to record angry songs about her community. But she's in need of cash to help her imprisoned mother (Jenni Rivera), so she tries to take a shortcut to fame and fortune, which means getting caught up in the crime and nastiness that is causing so much trouble in her community. The story is packed with interesting characters, but trying to wedge in all of their stories leaves the film's message decidedly mixed.