Thursday, September 5, 2013

Short Term 12 and Closed Circuit

          It’s Not So Much About Who Do You Love 
        But More About Who Can You Trust?

                       Review by Ken Burke              Short Term 12

A riveting drama set in a foster care group home, exploring the wanton abuse of children by their biological parents and those who choose a career in helping other kids.
                                                                                Closed Circuit
Thought-provoking espionage/courtroom drama about 2 lawyers recruited to defend a London terrorist who find that their real adversary may well be their own government.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

Short Term 12  (Deston Cretton) is a gripping, disconcerting drama about a foster group home for kids under 18, the traumas that led to their assignment to this facility, the parallel traumas endured by their supervisors in trying to bring stability to themselves and their young charges, and the difficult task of breaking the cycles that so needlessly lead to ruined lives.  This excellent film has a bit more of a plot than the typical 1940s-‘50s Italian Neorealist exposé of social atrocities that clearly serves as its inspiration—and offers more hope in its conclusion than most of those heartbreaking European looks at the dark side of the human condition—but such adjustments provide no distraction from the insightful power presented in this debut feature from young Maui (probably my favorite of the magnificent Hawaiian Islands, but that’s like trying to pick your favorite work by Michelangelo or Picasso)-born cinema artist Cretton (you can explore more about him in the suggested interview clip connected to his film at the end of this review).  Hopefully, you’ve learned to accept my ongoing attempts to forewarn you about plot spoilers popping up in these Two Guys reviews, but please take heed with both films under exploration this week because their impact will be severely compromised if you read all of my revelations before making a choice to attend what’s being offered on screen.  So, with that redundant warning securely in place let’s proceed to the heart of Short Term 12, which is focused on 4 primary characters:  caregivers Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.)—shown in the above photo—and care-needers Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), although as we’ll come to understand everyone needs care in this film because of the burdens placed on them by a society where intra-family atrocities rage on largely unheeded, leading to wrecked lives that we can only hope will by reclaimed by those with the fierce-yet-fragile-determination of Grace and Mason.  Filmmaker Cretton explains that this story was inspired by his time working in such a foster group home as what’s depicted here, where his good intentions were quickly and constantly challenged by the limits-testing behavior of the kids whom he naïvely assumed would embrace his offers of help.  The key situation in Short Term 12 (a title which seems to refer to the state-mandated structure of these facilities where these kids can live only into the end of their 17th year and the sad reality that there need to be so many of these “homes” that this one is merely #12 of I don’t know how many in this district/county alignment) is about such a clashing dynamic between Grace and new-arrival Jayden, but in the process we learn a lot about Grace’s off-site life as well and the reasons for her pull-toward/push-away romance and living situation with coworker Mason.

Jayden is riding behind Grace in this gloomy photo (although you can barely see either one of them, somewhat balancing out the shadowy image of Mason in the shot above, as if the film’s publicity folks don’t want you to see who’s in it—there are some other image options with more inviting exposures in the background photos used in the film’s official site [first listing under the Short Term 12 suggested links below] but none of these were available to me so just squint and bear it, knowing that these murky images are appropriate to the dark-toned subject matter of the film and the symbolic reality that many important scenes occur at night just as many of the characters are confronting the related opacity of their various “dark nights of the soul”)—despite Grace’s generally sunny disposition with “her” foster kids, except when they challenge the rules needed to maintain stability within this emotional-hand-grenade-with-the-pin-already-partially-pulled environment—with Grace as the one who has already faced and attempted to apply needed crisis-management to her own young life (she’s somewhere in her mid-20s, at a point when her desire for social investment is still high and the weary cynicism that comes from the reality that her type of career will be constantly needed because more abused children will just keep walking through Short Term 12’s front door hasn’t fully set in yet), but paralleling situations shared with Mason and Jayden have Grace in a constant state of turmoil that gives the film its life blood of relatable drama, especially when it’s being delivered by actors that infuse their characters with such an effective degree of genuine plausibility.  Grace and Mason have been together on- and off-duty for 3 years, but her pregnancy catches her by surprise, resulting in a rejection of his willingness toward parenthood and an un-discussed abortion scheduling.  Later we learn that Grace’s chief stimulus for working so all-out at the group home is that she was abused herself by her father (not clear to me if it was before or after her mother died), impregnated by him at some point, and is facing the crisis that he’s soon to be released from his 10-year prison sentence.  We never see “dear old Dad” nor know what comes of the anticipated confrontation between father and daughter when he’s free to impose upon her life again because Short Term 12 occurs over just a few days, but we quickly understand when all has finally been revealed to us why Grace’s pregnancy has made her so agitated and withdrawn toward Mason, as well as why she takes such a personal interest in the slowly-presented situation of Jayden’s abuse by her father, which has led to this girl being as withdrawn toward everyone as Grace becomes with Mason, along with the anxiety-born habit of cutting herself with her own fingernails (a further parallel of Grace’s own former cutting problem, which left her with scars on her legs that she always covers up with pants even during the warm summer setting of this film).  Ironically, Jayden acts out in a physically-aggressive way when her father seemingly forgets to get her for a weekend release to celebrate her birthday, then commits the high-level “crime” of sneaking out of the group home so as to walk the long distance to her own house only to find no one there (Grace commits her own “crime” by following Jayden and then bringing her back to #12 because once an escapee is over the fence then the staff members have no authority to take any further action), but Jayden’s relationship with her father is so miserably mixed-up with confused emotions (she tells Grace this heartbreaking story of a shark who eats all 8 of an octopus’ legs because unlimited taking and giving is all that either of them understands about love, a sad symbolic representation of her own relationship with her dad) that it takes everything in Grace’s power to convince her young friend to finally report the abuse to the senior staff at #12 (after Grace has taken it upon herself to intrude on Jayden’s home when Dad does take her out the following weekend, leaving him unmolested in his sleep but his car windows smashed out with her baseball bat swings as she unleashes her pent-up anger on something that won’t get her convicted of homicide—as Jayden insightfully helps her to understand, despite the desire of both of them to turn Dad’s head into meatloaf).

We also find out casually that Mason was raised in a foster home (nothing is spelled out in melodramatic revelation scenes in Short Term 12 but instead comes to us organically in characters’ conversation or, in the case of allusions to Mason’s backstory, a simple celebration of the Hispanic family who raised Mason—despite his likely Anglo heritage—and, apparently, a good number of others), which allows us to better understand his determination to get at the unspoken traumas that are haunting the kids at #12 (even though his frustration with Grace’s refusal to divulge her own horror story leads to him temporarily breaking up with her, especially when she reveals her one-sided abortion plan).  There’s a particularly good scene where he encourages Marcus to voice in hip-hop performance the poem that he’s written to acknowledge his own frustrations with a society that leaves him feeling there’s no place for him (“To live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like”), just as he’s trying to deny the fear that accompanies his soon-to-be 18th birthday which will force him out of #12 as over the age limit and into some unknown destiny imposed by the county.  The fire of Marcus’ barely-below-the-surface-anger isn’t quenched by one poetry reading but he’s helped by accepting that Mason truly wants to better understand and appreciate what this not-really-a-boy-any-longer-outcast is going through, just as Cretton wants all of us to better internalize what goes on behind the mental fences of these emotionally-locked-down kids living behind the actual fences that separate them from us, a necessity of comprehension for those in the audience lucky enough to have never suffered such unearned, unjustified abuse and/or never had to live through the daily uncertainties and lack of anchoring that constitutes life in foster homes not as dedicated to generating familial love as the one that Mason grew up in or the one that Mason, Grace, and their coworkers try so constantly to achieve in regularly-stormy #12.  Cretton even gives us a character, Nate (Rami Malek), to serve as our perceptual entryway into the lives lived behind all of these various fences, as Nate has a good heart but no idea yet what he’s getting into with these troubled youths, even as he’s willing to try to learn as best he can while evolving out of his own misguided prejudice that he’s taking a year off from college (or other job hunting) to help “underprivileged kids” (an attitude that almost brings him to blows with Marcus even before lunchtime his first day on the job)Short Term 12 is just brutally honest about the largely unknown, misunderstood, and—at far too many times in their lives—unloved kids who find themselves in these publically-funded halfway houses (for those lucky [or not, depending on the motivations of foster parents] enough to go into actual homes rather than simply being wards of the state until adulthood, the ones who might never know something like #12 as “halfway” because they find no other destination—except possibly the unemployment office and/or prison) and the dedicated personnel who sacrifice better incomes and less-overwhelmingly-stressful working conditions in order to bring some stability and caring to those kids who need it most.

Hopefully without being too presumptive here, I speak from some sense of empathy about the situations of the characters in this film (and the realities that they reflect), because as a baby who was born to be put up for adoption I was remarkably lucky to have gone to a permanent home on the day of my birth where 2 loving people did the best they knew how to give me a decent life—and one that ended up far eclipsing anything they had known from their own educational or financial perspectives—whereas if no prior chance circumstances had set me in my appointed direction I could easily have spent part or all of my childhood in state agencies or foster homes of some sort, where I can only imagine what my chances of growth and success might have been, although I offer my highest respect to those who grew up in such systems and persevered, just as Grace and Mason come to respect and connect with each other better when each of them learns more of their mate’s backgrounds and makes firmer commitments to a shared life together, not so burdened with secrets and assumptions.  If any of you have had to live through any of the specific traumas that haunt the main characters of Short Term 12, I caution that you may not want to revisit these in a movie theatre, even for a well-crafted 96 min. of penetratingly-presented encounters.  However, if you do feel up to being challenged with insights not often seen in public entertainment (nor discussed much in public discourse) then I encourage you to see Short Term 12 if it happens to be playing somewhere near you (it’s only in 16 theatres so far after 2 weeks in release and is just under the $200,000 mark in total gross; I can only hope that increases in all directions) I heartedly encourage you to seek it out, but if it's not available for you please consider putting it on your DVD/streaming queue because its intentional lack of cinematic dynamics and constant use of closeup and medium shots will play very effectively on a video screen in a couple of months.  (When I hope it’s generated some Best Actress and Original Screenplay buzz—although I doubt it could beat Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine in either category [my review at http://filmreviewsfromtwo] but it would still make a fine nominee or at least a strong contender—or just a valuable introduction to life situations rarely explored in the public arts [although you can contribute to Internet arts—a format increasingly recognized as a form of mass media— at http://shortterm12project., the home page for the Short Term 12 Project, described as “A national, collaborative web-based art project that explores the themes in the film SHORT TERM 12 through creative work by fans and supporters.”])

Something else that you may not get a chance to see at a theatre near you is Closed Circuit (John Crowley), which is currently playing on 870 screens but managed to pull in only about $3.6 million in its first week in release so its location options may be as short-lived as those of Short Term 12(Its critical status isn’t helping either, with only 43% from Rotten Tomatoes and 53% from Metacritic [more specifics if you want them at the suggested links below], so just like with The Lone Ranger [my contrarian review at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthedark.] I’m way out of line with my fellow critics by thinking so highly of Closed Circuit, but in case I can’t convince you of its worth I’ll take the unusual tactic of referring you to another film writer, a guy I’ve read and admired for years, James Berardinelli, at who might be more persuasive; however, maybe I like his opinions because according to Metacritic he grades on average 6 pts. higher than other critics and is about 65% higher most of the time [more details on him at if you like], which is similar to my tendency to give a lot of 3 ½ or 4 star ratings on my scale of 5 [where only the rarified master works rise above 4; see a summary of my decisions at http://filmreviews], but, unlike in his case where he reviews a wide range of stuff, I make an effort to avoid what seems like a waste of time so I don’t expose myself to as many duds as the average full-time movie critic does—although that can be a bad strategy as well because if I’d gone with the consensus on Closed Circuit I’d never have bothered, which would have been a shame because I think it’s a damn fine film well worth anyone’s time to see and contemplate its larger ramifications.)  The main plot here would seem to be about bringing justice to an accused terrorist in response to a horrible truck-bomb attack in central London’s Borough Market on Nov. 30, 2012, which kills and injures well over 100 people; however, the real concern is about what was snidely referred to as “a failure to communicate” in the great nonconformity-vs.-oppression-Paul-Newman-classic, Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), but the failure in this case is on the part of the British government in not supporting the very lawyers that it has assigned (Special Advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe, played by Rebecca Hall) and encouraged (Martin Rose, played by Eric Bana) to defend the accused, Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), who wants to plead guilty (hoping it will spare his life, for complicated reasons explained below).  Because of the involved national security concerns, certain aspects of the evidence against Farroukh will be kept from the public and not be allowed to enter the trial proceedings except in a closed courtroom, but in a twist that confounds the whole concept of fair jurisprudence some of those same evidentiary materials will also be kept from the defendant and his primary lawyer, Martin, with only Claudia and the prosecution being aware of those details.  Further complicating the whole process is our knowledge that these lawyers are recently recovering from a failed clandestine love affair (but one that was known enough to Martin’s wife so as to lead to a nasty divorce, further burdening his life at a point when even bigger problems are overwhelming him and Claudia), so they further compromise the entire concept of acceptable procedure by going forward with their mutual defense tasks (because neither wants their career arcs to be hindered by not being part of this high-visibility case) despite lying about the fact that neither of them has any reason to step away from the proceedings based on personal conflicts.  Soon, though, circumstances force them to work together for mutual self-protection as well as attempting to understand why the very government that has brought them into this case seems to be intent on allowing nothing but a predetermined result.

Surveillance is a constant sub-theme in this film, a concern illustrated by the frequent use of images from public cameras, shown either singularly, two at a time, or up to 16 juxtaposed, giving us the ongoing sense not only of intrusive spying by a government on its own citizens (Sound familiar?  But even the relevance of a plot that may appear like it was dashed off by Edward Snowden while waiting to get out of the Moscow airport hasn’t connected very well yet with American audiences.  Maybe we get enough of that chatter on the nightly news to not want to see it dramatized, or maybe the problem is that a finely-crafted film once again gives away enough of its major plot points in the preview trailer—in this case that Farroukh is a double-agent working for the British government—that there seems to be no need to actually view all of the workings-out at $10 a pop.) but also the disturbing realization that when we see all of those views of the chosen doomed location in the film’s opening minutes we also realize that just because there are cameras pointed everywhere at us (yes, this is in another country, but it’s clear the parallel implications for virtually any high-tech society such as ours) doesn’t mean that the information revealed can always be analyzed and acted upon in time to stop the tragedies that the vast surveillance apparatus is intended to spot and prevent.  Certainly the visual-after-the-fact evidence of the truck’s intrusion in this highly-populated area was helpful in leading investigators back to the perpetrators, but it did nothing to halt the awful event, possibly giving us pause in all of the current legitimate concern about “invasion of privacy” to acknowledge that while the information-gathering net thrown wide over a nation’s populace may result in far too much being known by “Big Brother” about the innocent actions of millions it’s also possible even with all that data accumulation there may still not be enough pertinent findings to achieve the intended results of protecting citizens from the hostile acts of terrorists.  We’re given plenty of reason throughout the main flow of the film to criticize or demand action against less-than-noble (or even legal) government strategies that are intended to cover up official mistakes and to be horrified at the rationalizations used to obscure, manipulate, and direct the outcome of the legal process (which seem to include killing journalist Joanna Reece [Julia Styles] who surmises in the plot—and explicates in the trailer, so maybe she was actually killed by irritated audiences—that Farroukh was absolved of past crimes so that he could be used as a British government mole in the terror cell that carried out the bombing, then he needed to be set up as the perp so that he could be executed without anyone realizing that he was simply the patsy needed to cover up the situation of a plot gone wrong [a plan carried out effectively when he’s killed in prison but made to look like a suicide—but don’t complain to me about spoiler alerts, please, because in addition to all of my forewarnings this is about the only thing you wouldn’t already know from simply watching that aforementioned tell-all trailer] where it seems the informant was given bad info in order that the attack could actually be carried out, with the horrible irony that it was paid for with government funds) but when our various governments' secret activities are exposed we also have to realize that along with their mistakes and misjudgments that they also do save us from a good number of foiled vicious attacks, so when are their hidden activities necessary and when have they gone too far?.  

Everything that the initial incidents would seem to lead toward—especially the proper punishment of those who planned and carried out the bomb plot—is intentionally lost when the emphasis shifts to how MI5 (often referred to as the British “secret service,” but as I understand it more like a combination of the U.S. FBI and Homeland Security agencies devoted to domestic protection [while James Bond’s MI6 seems to me more like our CIA, focused on international spying and associated actions]) planned to use Farroukh’s 14-year-old son, Emir (Hasancan Cifci), as their “state’s secret” witness that his father was the accused terrorist so Claudia would encourage Martin to offer little of substance in the defense, even though MI5 has good reason to believe Emir hacked his father’s computer and understands how he was used as the victim in this mess so the boy’s fate at his MI5 “safe” house isn’t really very safe either.  Emir manages to escape his confinement (not unlike Jayden in Short Term 12, with both children in perilous circumstances due to their fathers, although Emir’s dad was merely a pawn in a game far beyond his control), Martin comes to understand why his predecessor as Farroukh’s defense lawyer actually committed suicide so as to find a way to remove himself from the legal travesties that had engulfed him and why Martin himself was almost killed as a van smashed into a MI5-controlled cab he was in, while Claudia barely escapes her own assassination attempt, leading to all 3 of them desperately trying to get Emir to a session with the trail judge to expose the runaway government actions before they’re all dead at the hands of MI5 "home security" assassins.

A marvelous aspect of Closed Circuit is that it manages to combine many successful elements: a topical conspiracy situation where much needs to be revealed in order for the audience to finally understand the strategy and practices behind the subversive plot devices, yet it all comes across clearly and with a proper amount of suspense (unless you’d just recently watched that damn spill-the-beans-trailer before seeing the film, which fortunately had faded enough from my memory that I could properly enjoy the intended revelation then rediscover the troublesome spoiler after the fact); the concept of relative degree of “sin” involved in these crimes (actual terrorist attack on innocent civilians in a major metropolitan area vs. insidious government cover-up where the protectors of innocent lives act like their decision to kill some of those innocent people is justified) is presented for our contemplation without a lot of overt moralizing about it; the acting is marvelously effective throughout, enlivening a fine group of very interesting characters (including those brought to life by other well-known performers, including the fine Irishman Ciarán Hinds [pictured above with Bana; probably known better by face than name from such films as Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows—Part 1 and …Part 2 (David Yates, 2010 and 2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011; a fascinating film also about spies, intrigue, and deception—my review at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthedark.blogspot .com/2012/01/dangerous-method-and-tinker-tailor.html—although one considerably harder to follow than Closed Circuit), There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007), and Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005), among many others] as Martin’s confidant Delvin [who turns out to be traitorously working with MI5 also] and the distinguished Englishman Jim Broadbent [likewise in …The Deadly Hallows—Part 2, along with numerous other notable roles such as in The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011) and Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)]  as the British Attorney General who drags Martin into this whole mess then explains to him in harsh terms why it’s necessary for him to accept either the subterfuge of his government or the penalty that will accompany refusal); just as the technical execution is well-conceived with lots of cool blue tonality to many of the shots indicating the estrangement felt by the leads from the legal system they’re sworn to protect and effective editing throughout, such as the sharp intercutting between Martin’s interrogation of Farroukh and Claudia’s questioning of Emir and his mother, Ilkay (Pinar Ögün), with neither attorney getting much response to their inquiries.  The critical brotherhood may not have collectively cared too much for Closed Circuit, but it worked quite well for me, combining mystery (if you could keep yourself safe from the preview giveaway), suspense, action, and political commentary (without any triumphant last-minute victories by the downtrodden, although 3 months after the principal events there are rumors about the Attorney General’s office covering up Farroukh’s death so we’re left with some hope that a headline-happy scandal might offer some revenge for our put-upon protagonists).

At the end of Closed Circuit we get a hopeful reconnection between Martin and Claudia, just as I hope audiences will find a first connection with this very satisfying film, although I admit that if you prefer that Edward Snowden, Bradley (or Chelsea, if you honor this turn of events) Manning, Julian Assange, and their ilk should be locked up until hell freezes over then the prime focus of Closed Circuit may not satisfy you much; either way, if I had to make a choice I’d say that Short Term 12  will likely take you to places that the cinema doesn’t often visit in a most unforgettable manner, but I’ll stand by my support for either of these films, despite their situation of being a bit difficult to find amid the butlers (congrats, Lee Daniels, for 3 weeks on top), boy bands, drug runners, and animated airplanes that are currently dominating the box-office scene.  If you can’t find either or these 2 films now, take note for later catch-up mode in video because both will still be effective in home-theatre display as well.  Oh, by the way, if you’re missing my usual brilliant/intrusive (you pick) musical interludes, I saved that for the last, with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” (from his 1981 Face Value album and used to great impact in the soundtrack of the mid-to-late-1980s TV cult classic Miami Vice) at, to speak to the troublesome activities that occur under the cover of darkness in these films, the sense of committed atrocities, and the attitude of disgusted revenge that lurks beneath and pushes above the surface in both Short Term 12 and Closed Circuit; this song may be more of a metaphor than a direct illumination of the events of our focused films this week, but when have you ever met a metaphor that didn’t expand your consciousness?  So, soak in some stimulation and  “Party on, Garth. Party on, Wayne” (… at least until next week when I call you back to order again for a focused examination of the evidence.

If you’d like to know more about Short Term 12 here are some suggested links: (30:35 interview with director/screenwriter Destin Cretton and actors Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.)

If you’d like to know more about Closed Circuit here are some suggested links: (very short interview with director John Crowley [very low audio]) and (a longer interview [7:28] of actors Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall by Houston’s own Jake Hamilton, probably the most energetic host on the planet, but it does fully incorporate the above trailer again so maybe you can save yourself the extra viewing by just watching this one; however, if you prefer not to have main plot points from a suspense movie revealed in the trailers then avoid both of these for now because a key bit of information is tossed out at you as if it didn’t matter—but I’ve already detailed it in the review above so if you’re reading any of this at all you’ve already been contaminated with the key piece of “secret” information)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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