Hunger chronicles the 1981 Irish hunger strike, the final encore of a five-year protest by Irish Republican prisoners in northern Ireland. The protest began in 1976 when the British government withdrew political status for paramilitary prisoners, which paved the way for Provisional IRA volunteer Bobby Sands to starve himself while incarcerated in Her Majesty's Prison Maze. Prison is a filthy, nightmarish place in Hunger, though it's not all the fault of the brutal guards or the corrupt "system" -- some prisoners engage in a "dirty protest" as well, in which they cover the walls of their cell with their own crap. An impressive portrait of idealistic passion under horrific circumstances (some of which are self-inflicted), Hunger is kept from spiraling completely into the gutter by Michael Fassbender's excellent performance as Sands, who starved himself to death after 53 days on hunger strike. Sands was actually elected a Member of Parliament during the strike, which sparked media interest in the protest -- his funeral was later attended by over 100,000 people.
Director Nicholas Wending Refn's searing biopic follows the life and (hard) times of Michael Gordon Peterson, a British lad from a decent middle class family who became one of England's most notorious criminals and spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement. Re-named "Charles Bronson" by his fight promoter during his brief stint as a bareknuckle boxer and often referred to by the press as "the most violent prisoner in Britain," Peterson was always looking for a fight, gaining notoriety and respect in the prison world as the man who was never afraid to take on the guards. Bronson starts hitting early on and never lets up, with Tom Hardy joining the ranks of heavyweight thespians with his astonishing performance in the title role -- you can see why Christopher Nolan wanted to cast him in his new Batman film as Bane, the hulking villain who "broke the Bat" with his bare hands. Hardy's amazing, but the real key to the film's success is the tonal tightrope act that director Refn is somehow able to pull off, delivering a film that's both horrifically harrowing and downright hilarious, often at the same time. A fascinating piece of entertainment for those who can take a few nasty punches to the gut… and the head, and the balls, and pretty much everywhere else you can imagine, too.
Dun-dun-dun-DA-dun. Da-dun-dun-dun-DUH-dun. You can hear that glorious electronic John Carpenter score, can't you? Carpenter followed up his spaced-out space adventure Dark Star with this down and dirty urban thriller in which a policeman and a convicted killer join forces to defend a defunct police station when it's targeted by a vicious street gang. A sort of mix of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 introduces us to the endlessly creative and cleverly economical director that would go on to change the face of horror with Halloween a couple of years later. The movie is definitely rough around the edges and the acting ain't so hot, but Carpenter creates a sense of ever-escalating tension and dread that hits an almost unbearable boiling point by the film's climax -- when the gang finally gets inside, you'll want to grab a baseball bat and start defending your turf yourself. JC took the basic premise of this movie and explored variations on it several times throughout the course of his career, most notably in Ghosts of Mars and the Masters of Horror episode, "Pro-Life" -- though Assault on Precinct 13 remains the best of what it is.
A sometimes hokey yet always inspiring tale of The Little Guy vs. The System, Brubaker stars Robert Redford (in one of his most underrated performances) as Henry Brubaker, the new warden at perhaps the worst prison on the planet (really, kudos to the art department for making every single square inch of the place look like complete and utter hell). Brubaker attempts to rid the prison of rampant corruption, torture, sexual assault, worm-ridden food, insurance fraud, broken laundry machines, you name it -- a crusade that doesn't make him very popular with the higher-ups on the prison board who have profited from graft for years. Brubaker is eventually fired, but not before he's made considerable progress in fixing this dump -- his actions inspired two dozen inmates to sue the prison, which leads to the court ruling that the treatment of the prisoners was unconstitutional. Redford rules with his fist-shaking performance, and he has quite the impressive supporting cast backing him up, including Yaphet Kotto, Everett McGill, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, M. Emmet Walsh, Jane Alexander, Morgan Freeman and even Nicolas Cage, who appears as an extra in his very first movie gig.
One of the most controversial British films of the early '80s that still packs a punch today, Scum shows us life (or almost-death, rather) inside a British borstal (youth prison), a place of unimaginable corruption and violence where Carlin (a young Ray Winstone) rises in power through the brutality he dishes out simply as a means to survive ("In borstal, survival rules!" is one of the film's taglines). Even the cafeteria trays seem dangerous in this scrappy, impressive piece of work from director Alan Clarke, who unflinchingly depicts the violence, racism, rape and suicide that runs rampant through the borstal, a place where there's little to no hope for reform. It gets a little extremist and perhaps even indulgent every now and then, but Winstone keeps things on track with his intense, force-of-nature performance -- it's fascinating to watch such an early chapter in the career of one of the best British actors working today (and probably of all time). Kids, be good -- you really don't want to go to prison, 'cause there are people there who want to do horrible things to you in the bathroom.