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Harry Brown goes to town, while ambitious In/Significant Others falls short

by Mark Burger

The indefatigable Michael Caine’s in fine form in Harry Brown, a knee-jerk vigilante melodrama that benefits immeasurably from his persuasive, powerful performance. If there’s a single primary reason to see Harry Brown, it’s because of the man who plays him.

 

A long-retired, blue-collar working stiff Londoner who saw action with the Royal Marines, Harry is understandably dismayed to see that his neighborhood has become a crimeinfested ghetto lorded over by muggers, drug dealers and thugs — a rogues’ gallery so sleazy and sadistic that there’s an undeniably satisfying and vicarious thrill in watching them get their comeuppance.

Harry first loses his wife, who dies after a long illness in the hospital, and then his best friend Leonard (David Bradley), killed in an altercation with the gang of toughs who have been terrorizing the neighborhood. Understandably frustrated and angered by the slow-moving wheels of justice, Harry decides to take matters, and the law, into his own hands, his previous military training returning to the fore.

There’s an unvarnished pleasure in watching Caine transform from a soft-spoken, shuffling old codger to a methodical, precise killer. At this stage in his career, the 77-year-old Caine can do no wrong, and in the case of Harry Brown, he does so right by the character to make it a tour-de-force — not the first (and hopefully not the last) of his career.

There are other pluses, including Martin Ruhe’s cinematography and an expressive score by Martin Phipps and Ruth Barrett. Also prominent in the cast are Emily Mortimer, doing well by the stock role of the local police inspector who takes a keen interest in the suddenly high mortality rate in Harry’s neighborhood, Iain Glen as a police supervisor more interested in talk than action, and reliable Liam Cunningham as a seemingly unassuming local barkeep.

When Harry Brown comes to town, evildoers had better watch out, because he doesn’t suffer fools gladly — or any which way, for that matter.

Writer/producer/director John Schwert’s award-winning In/Significant Others (opening Friday at the a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem) is an encouraging film that doesn’t want for ambition, but occasionally stalls because of it.

Filmed on location in Charlotte, the film follows a group of characters whose lives intersect in direct and indirect ways, chief among them Jack (Brian Lafontaine), an aspiring stand-up comedian who lives in the shadow of his more successful brother, Greg (Mark Scarboro). Brett Gentile plays a filmmaker who’s ostensibly

making a cable-access documentary about Jack — one that seems to entail extensive, soulsearching, on-camera interviews with everyone he’s in contact with.

This ensemble mystery/psycho-melodrama works overtime to create a brooding atmosphere in the spirit of Dennis Lehane, punctuated by those interviews with the principal characters — a technique more than vaguely reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s 1989 breakthrough sex, lies and videotape, although not as effective.

These “confessional scenes” are certainly good for and to the actors, giving them ample opportunity to display their abilities, but too often these scenes are used to plug holes in a complicated, ultimately convoluted storyline.

Some of the actors (a number of them familiar to local audiences) fare better than others, including Burgess Jenkins as Bruce, an embittered Gulf War veteran, and Tiffany Montgomery as his troubled wife, curiously named Salem. Lafontaine and Scarboro manage to convey a reasonably convincing (if unspoken) sibling rivalry, and Ashlee Payne (Jenkins’ real-life wife) has some nice moments as the former’s wife, not necessarily the biggest fan of her husband’s career change.

Gentile brings conviction to his role as the driven filmmaker, although his motivations are never made clear. Scott Miles plays his cameraman, who’s rapidly losing faith in the project.

Andrea Powell plays something of a latter-day femme fatale (perhaps the film’s least convincing character), while R Keith Harris and Calvin Walton are relegated to doing the “Law & Order” two-step as a pair of homicide cops.

The film always seems to be building, if somewhat unsteadily, toward a big catharsis or revelation, particularly as the principal characters begin to divulge their secrets, which include drug-dealing, drug addiction, blackmail, sexual indiscretions, post-traumatic stress syndrome and at least one murder. There are points of interest (too many), but In/Signficant Others can’t comfortably accommodate them all.

Writer/producer/director S Pearl Sharp’s documentary feature The Healing Passage/Voices from the Water (screening Friday; details below) is a contemplative and compassionate reflection upon the trans-Atlantic African slave trade, and how this legacy has found expression in poetry, music, dance and other forms of art.

The sincerity of the film, which was years in the making, is plainly evident, and there are informative (and concise) interviews with artists and historians on the topic at hand, yet as the film’s timeline expands into the era of Jim Crow and then the civil rights movement, it loses some of its original focus and momentum.

Nevertheless, there are some haunting moments and images here, not the least of which is the final scene, of ornate dolls, symbolizing the Africans taken into slavery, planted on the coastline as the surf rolls in. Moments like these truly do have a sense of healing — and artistry.

The Healing Passage/Voices from the Water will be screened 6:30 pm Friday at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, 134 S. Elm St., Greensboro. The filmmaker will be on hand for a post-screening discussion. Admission is free. For more information, call 336.274.1999 or see www.sitinmovement.org.

S Pearl Sharp will also be signing her book, Black Women for Beginners, from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Borders Books, 3605 High Point Road, Greensboro.

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