FS, Contributing Writer
One of the most remarkable documentary projects in all of film began in 1964, when England’s Granada Television broadcast a program called 7 Up, in which fourteen seven-year-olds from various social and economic backgrounds were interviewed about their hopes and dreams. Director Michael Apted has returned to talk with those who agreed to continue participating (only one dropped out permanently) every seven years since, and the latest installment is 56 Up (Magnolia).
One of the basic ideas behind the series was to test the old Jesuit maxim about the first seven years of a child’s upbringing controlling his future, but an ancillary purpose was obviously to show the pervasive power of the entrenched British class system. Taken as a whole, the eight films produced until now can be used to support both points, but they’re not simply deterministic.
Rather they show a wide range of outcomes, from the poignancy of a bright, ebullient young boy who descends into mental disorder and homelessness, only to recoup somewhat in his later years, to a son of privilege who predictably rises to the highest rank of a royal barrister.
This latest film, with the thirteen all in mellow middle age, isn’t as revelatory as some of the earlier ones, but it’s continually fascinating.
And though it will be most compelling for those who have been following the series, by mixing footage from the previous installments with the new interviews to provide mini-biographies of all the subjects, it’s quite accessible to new viewers as well.
“Bless Me, Ultima”
Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel about a young boy’s coming-of-age in 1944 Mexico has become a classic of Chicano literature, and Carl Franklin’s dignified adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima (wide release) treats the book with affection and respect.
The crux of the tale is the arrival of six-year-old Antonio’s aged grandmother to live out her last days with her family. Over the course of two years the two bond, and the old woman – a curandera, or medicine woman, whom many take to be a witch – teaches her grandson the old native ways, which are contrasted with the rigidly legalistic instruction the lad is receiving in preparation for his first communion.
A threat is also posed to them both by a wealthy tavern owner whose daughters – dark witches – are defeated by Ultima’s good magic. He tries to take vengeance in a melodramatic finale.
In many respects Anaya’s tale is comparable to To Kill a Mockingbird in focusing on children forced to confront the reality of evil and tragedy in the world.
Franklin’s film isn’t as successful as Robert Mulligan’s 1962 version of Harper Lee’s novel was – it retains too many of the book’s subplots and is sometimes stilted and dilatory, feeling like a cable-TV movie.
But at least it grapples honestly with the issues the book raises, and uses the vistas of New Mexico to optimal visual effect.
The corrupting effect that mandatory sentencing guidelines have had on the enforcement of U.S. drug laws is dramatized in Snitch (wide release), in which a father goes undercover to get information on actual dealers in order to secure reduced jail time for his son, an innocent kid who was framed by a supposed friend attempting to get his own sentence shortened.
Ex-wrestler Dwayne Johnson gives probably his best performance in the lead role. But his very presence helps to turn the film into a by-the-numbers action flick that ultimately subordinates its message to explosive road chases and shootouts with automatic weapons. Snitch deserves credit for tackling one of the major problems in current drug policy, but it loses its way in a cascade of action-movie clichés.