The Kid with a Bike

March 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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DVD.  After seeing this brilliant little film, I have to declare 2012 the year of the French film as my two favorite films last year (“Amour” and this one) were both based there.  Both films show the telltale lack of “Hollywoodness” that I love in European films: a smallness of scope and authenticity of acting and the potential for any type of ending.  When this movie starts, 11 year old Cyril has been placed at a group home by his father (his mother is gone for reasons we don’t know) and now his dad has moved and left no information.  A kind woman from his old neighborhood agrees to take him for the weekends.  What unfolds is a beautiful and utterly believable story.  Cyril is a scared, lonely and very angry child and he is played with virtual perfection by Thomas Doret in his first film.  Every look, every guarded statement, every violent outburst feels completely real to me; I cannot remember a more believable portrayal of an emotionally damaged kid.  The film rests on him and his relationship with Samantha, who is played by Cécile de France (“Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” “Hereafter,” and countless others).  Her calm compassion helps to ground Doret’s performance and give the audience a connection to the world of the story.   The well-established French director/producer team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne pace the film perfectly and have a knack for creating believable situations and genuine dialogue.  In the sign of great film making, simple moments can be unbelievably heartbreaking.  This film has no easy answers or pat resolutions but it also is not morose.  It ends on a (probably) upbeat note; things won’t be easy but will likely turn out okay.  I like that.  I feels like life.

Bully

March 25, 2013 at 11:32 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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DVD.  I finally got around to seeing this documentary.  With all the buzz it received, I really felt like I had to see it but I kept putting it off; who’s ever “in the mood” to see a movie about real kids getting picked on?  Well, I was right to think it was going to be hard to watch.  There were times when my chest was tight and I had to get up and walk away from the screen for a moment.  I think anyone with any compassion will find this film heartbreaking.  We meet several picked on kids including a very awkward boy, who probably has Asperger’s, and an FTM transgendered boy.  We also meet two sets of parents whose son’s committed suicide because of bullying.  They are brave but they are broken people and watching them was devastating.  What was remarkable was to see how honest everyone was on camera: bullies kept on bullying, kids and parents went on complaining and school officials went on making unbelievable excuses.  It was as though nobody thought the cameras mattered.  I must say that I do feel more empathy for both the bullies and the school officials than this film allows.  Everyone is caught in a broken system that limits districts’ options and allows chaotic kids to continue to lash out because there is no boundary to help them contain themselves; nobody wins and nobody is happy (including the bullies).  Can something be done within these schools?  Yes, of course, but I think it takes a very strong personality who is willing to be hated by everyone (kids, parents, their bosses) to transform an individual school (they make movies out of people like that).  Unfortunately, I think it is unrealistic to expect your everyday teacher, principal or superintendent to be that person.   Real change will come only if there is a systemic shift.  In the meantime, I think anyone with kids in or going into middle or high school should watch this documentary, as painful as it is and, if they suspect for one moment their child is a bully, they should make that child watch it too.  Bullies are not heartless; they just need somebody to help them find the strength to address why they bully.

2012 Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Well, with only days to spare, I thought I would share my Oscar Predictions with you this year.  Please be aware that if I end up being mostly wrong, I will of course delete this post and, if I am mostly right, I will gloat.  Just so you’re clear on my rules.

Best Picture

Should be:  Amour.  Far and away, this was the best film of the year and a truly breathtaking work.  Unfortunately, the Academy has a poor track record for rewarding little seen subtitled films.

Will be:  Argo.  Of the big, obvious choices, it has all the momentum, even though it is almost my least favorite in this category (that goes that miserable musical).  It was fine but all of the hype just really feels like a bit much for me.

Directing

Should be:  Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of The Southern Wild.  Really, he should win just based on the performance he managed to get out of young Quvenzhané Wallis.  That was a feat of pure directing skill; I mean, what does a 6 year old really know about acting.

Will be:  Probably Ang Lee for Life of Pi.  This is a hard call because David O. Russell may take it for Silver Linings Playbook.  However, I think the whole meme about Lee filming the unfilmable book is really giving him the momentum right now.

Lead Actress

Should be:  Emmanuelle Riva in Amour.  This French actress (who turns 86 on Oscar night) gave a truly beautiful and heart wrenching performance.  If there was any justice in the Academy, there would be no contest.  And, if it could not be her, then it should be Helen Hunt, who is wrongly nominated in the Supporting Actress category.

Will be:  Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook or Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.  This one is too close for me to call.  Jessica Chastain is a Hollywood darling right now who exploded onto the screen in 2011 with ferocious and much praised performances in The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Coriolanus and The Tree of Life, yet did not get an Oscar nod for a single one of them.  However, I think Lawrence has the edge.  She has kind of developed that “America’s Sweetheart” vibe this past year and she is much more known by a wider audience.

Lead Actor

Should be:  Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.  This one is obvious.  No one else even came close.  In a year where I was not generally that impressed by male actors, D. Day put in a truly brilliant performance that would have been the star of any year.

Will be:  Daniel Day-Lewis.  No doubt.  This is the one guarantee of the night.  If he doesn’t win, I will eat this stone (sorry, Survivor reference).

Supporting Actress

Should be:  Helen Hunt in The Sessions.  As I said above, she should really be in the Best Actress category but, here, in this category, she really outshines everyone else.  Her performance was so real and so vulnerable, I can’t see how anyone else could win.  Yet… not enough people saw this film and, so, because The Oscars is all about ratings, she will not get acknowledged.

Will be:  Probably Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.  Sally Field could steal it from her for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln and I would be happy with that but I suspect that Hathaway’s weeping close ups as she sang the only song from that musical that most people know will give her an insurmountable edge.  “I dreamed a dream in times gone by, when hopes were high, that this category was worth watching…”

Supporting Actor

Should be:  Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook.  To my mind, this is a really weak category this year and I don’t really feel strongly about any of the performances.  The only person who should win in this category is not even nominated: Jean-Louis Trintignant for Amour.  Of those on the list, I probably liked De Niro’s the best.  His felt the most like acting to me.  Though, I must admit, it is hard to judge Phillip Seymour Hoffman through the difficult source material.

Will be:  Robert De Niro.  Most likely.  Though I hold out that Alan Arkin could sneak in there if Argo is having a run-away night.

Adapted Screenplay

Should be:  Lincoln.  Tony Kushner’s beautiful use of language was poetic and kept a long and ponderous film from ever becoming boring.

Will be:  Lincoln.  I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.  I think this is the consolation prize for  not winning Best Picture.  But, again, if Argo is having a great night…

Original Screenplay

Should be:  Moonrise Kingdom.  No question.  None.  Far and away the most original screenplay of the year.  Nothing even comes close to its quirky brilliance.  But, I guarantee it won’t win.  It is, honestly, probably the least likely of the 5 choices.

Will be:  Zero Dark Thirty.  Lucky for them that Argo is not in this category and that there is no option for a write-in.  This is probably Zero Dark Thirty’s only opportunity to take home anything and, as such, this will probably be its consolation prize.

Best Animated Film

Should be:  ParaNorman.  This stop-motion film was lovely and chock full of funny movie references and other adult humor to keep me entertained throughout.

Will be:  Brave.  Why?  Well, because it’s Pixar, stupid.  Although, I admit, her hair was really cool.

Best Foreign Language Film

Should be:  Amour.  I should think my opinion on that should be obvious by now.

Will be:  Amour.  This one is almost as locked up as Best Actor.

Best Documentary

Should be:  Searching For Sugarman.  This film was one of the unexpected joys of this movie season.  It was a film I almost missed because it really didn’t look worth bothering with but it was such a pure pleasure from start to finish.  A rousing, encouraging, optimistic film with beautiful music, it really is the must-see feel-good movie of the year.

Will be:  Searching For Sugarman or The Gatekeepers.  These are absolutely the only two possibilities.  The Gatekeepers is a super-serious and highly praised film that interviews every single past and present leader of Shin Bet, the Jewish secret service.  It is dark and sobering and apparently worth watching (it is the only film on this list I have not see because it has not been released yet) but it is the opposite of “Sugarman.”  The question is: “which tone of film does the Academy want to reward?”  I’m betting on feel-good.

2012 – The Year In Review

January 23, 2013 at 10:25 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Well, with “Amour,” I have wrapped up my reviews of the films of 2012 and, I must say, it was a better than average year (a really good year, actually).  I saw 71 of the 2012 films (as opposed to 72 in 2011) and there were only 18 that I really should have skipped.  For those who are interested, I have ranked my Top 10 below:

1- Amour – Really, I cannot say how touching and remarkable I thought this film was.

2- Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson at his best.

3- Lincoln – Almost entirely for the force of D. Day Lewis’s performance.

4- Beasts of the Southern Wild – Visually evocative, wildly phantasmagorical, and beautifully acted.

5- The Sessions – An amazing performance by Helen Hunt.

6- Compliance – This film may stick with me more than any other this year.

7- The Imposter – Like “Compliance” it really made me think about why we humans do what we do.

8- The Life of Pi – I loved the book and this was a beautiful take on it.

9 – Zero Dark Thirty – For as controversial as this film is, I think Kathryn Bigelow is going to be a hugely influential director.

10 – The Impossible – I know, I know.  I’m almost embarrassed to include this film but, as manipulative as it was, it made me cry like a baby and I loved it.  So there.

Honorable Mentions: I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage folks to see two largely ignored documentaries that I absolutely loved.  “Marwencol” and “Waiting for Sugerman” are must sees.  I don’t think you’ll regret renting them.

Amour

January 23, 2013 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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When you think of a love story on film, what comes to mind?  “When Harry Met Sally?”  “Pretty Woman?”  That list can go on and on but no film on that list tells us anything real about love.  This is what makes “Amour” a minor miracle.  For everything else you might hear about this movie, it is a love story, and as true a one as I have seen on the screen.  Controversial German film maker Michael Haneke (“The White Ribbon,” “Funny Games,” “Caché”) has made a beautiful, painful film about the last few months in the life of a French couple.  With the minimalist style he is famous for, Haneke shows us the steady deterioration of Anne’s health after she suffers a series of strokes and the way in which her devoted husband, George, soldiers on in the face of grim reality.  This is not an easy film to watch; the story matter is difficult but it is made more difficult, and ultimately much more touching, because it is played wholly without sentiment.  There is no score in the entire film.  There are no grand gestures or epiphanies and no final catharsis.  This is life as it is lived, and as it ends, for one modest couple.  The film takes place almost entirely in their small but beautiful Paris apartment, which is so fully realized, right down to the clutter, as to feel absolutely real.   While Isabelle Huppert is wonderful as their distressed daughter, the movie rests entirely on the two leads.  Much has been said, quite rightly, about the almost 90 year old Emmanuelle Riva in her role as Anne (she should win the Oscar, though Jessica Chastain or Jennifer Lawrence will).  Her skill at showing Anne’s deterioration is remarkable, particularly once she can no longer speak and has to convey everything on her face.  There is a scene where George is singing to her and she tries to sing along and the emotions that play across her face in that moment are remarkable to watch; that may be the most profound scene I have seen in film this year.  For all of the praise Riva has gotten, however, I was even more taken by Jean-Louis Trintignant as her husband.  He played that character perfectly.  Never once did I doubt the truth of what his character did and said.  Through everything deeply sad that we must watch in this story, he anchors us to why we are watching it.  We should all do so well to be so loved in the end.

Zero Dark Thirty

January 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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I find it hard to know how to interpret a movie this embedded in recent history.  I use that word “embedded” deliberately because, for much of the film, it feels like the audience is a journalist tagging along on this very real journey.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) is not John Woo; there are no scenes of people falling in slow motion while firing with both hands.  Nothing feels larger than life in her films.  Her great talent as a film maker has been to remove the Hollywood from a Hollywood film and leave behind the essential story.  In this film, that essence is Jessica Chastain’s character, “Maya,” who is on a one-woman mission to get UBL (that’s code for Osama Bin Laden.  Why U and not O?  They never say).  If the film is to be believed, neither Bush and his administration nor Obama and his can take responsibility for getting Bin Laden; it is all the doing of one very determined redhead.  In fact, the superhero trope is so present here, it does make me question the overall accuracy of the film.  Much has been made of the alleged use of classified materials and, in particular, the use of torture to garner information.  I would be curious what the average viewer thinks of “enhanced interrogation” after leaving the theater but I suspect that most people would find it justified, at least in this context.  I don’t think that is the film makers’ agenda and I do think one could have a lively debate about ends justifying the means after watching this movie.  Chastain will almost certainly win the Oscar in a field that seems almost set up for her to win.  Not that she doesn’t do well; she’s a brilliant actress who was one of the stars of my favorite film of 2011 (“Take Shelter”) and she is the centerpiece of this entire movie.  Circling all around her is a solid cast made up of James Gandolfini and a bunch of people you will vaguely remember as having been on TV at some point (“wait, isn’t that the dude from ‘Boston Legal’?”).  Some might complain that, at 2 hours 37 minutes, the film runs too long but I was never bored.  I found the inter-workings of our intelligence agencies (however accurate) to be fascinating to watch.  Though the action scenes are few, they are where Bigelow’s skill really shows through; she keeps the scenes taut and minimalist in a way that gives them so much more impact for seeming so real.  The final scenes really are brilliantly done.  But, for all that, I will say that there is also something cold about this movie.  I am never drawn in or feel connected to the characters.  Bigelow’s characters, both in this and “Hurt Locker” are fully realized but they are not warm; I don’t feel for them the way I do other characters in other films.  I was fascinated by this film and I respect the skill of it immensely but I was never moved by it.

Les Miserables

December 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Okay, look.  I have to admit, right at the outset, that I am not a musical fan.  With very, very few exceptions, I tend to find them to be varying degrees of insufferable.  This is because  1) singing in the middle of a film tends to break the 3rd wall for me   2) the songs are usually saccharin   3) and the sappy stories are one-dimensional and obvious.  That said, a musical can work for me if the plot is realistic or dark enough and it finds a way to fit the singing into the story in a realistic way (“Once”) or is so over-the-top ridiculous that I don’t mind the singing (“Moulin Rouge” or “Romance and Cigarettes”).  While, “Les Miserables” could never be accused of being an Oscar and Hammerstein, rainbows and unicorns sing-a-long, it is still a musical in the worst sense.  In fact, it’s really opera-lite; there is no spoken dialogue and every bit of dialogue is sung.  For two hundred and thirty-seven minutes.  I was done at ninety.  For many people, the singing has a way of drawing them into the emotions being portrayed (there were plenty of sniffles in the theater) but I find my emotions shut down by the singing, instead of engaging with the characters and becoming invested in their plight, I am reminded that none of it is real (we just don’t break into song in real life).  It’s a shame; the story of young people rising up against injustice, facing impossible odds, but standing together despite the cost is a powerful one and I wish I had been more moved than I was.  The sets were beautiful and the cast is a strong one.  Some critics have attacked the quality of the singing but I am wholly unqualified to comment.  The little boy who had a bit too large a part for me sounded a bit whiny when he sang and Russel Crowe sounded more like he was yelling his lines than singing them but everyone else sounded good to me.  If you are a musical kind of person and like to get weepy at the cinema, I think this has your name all over it.

The Impossible

December 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Posted in 2012 | 2 Comments
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As a lesson in the film making truism that less is more, I would suggest comparing the use of blood and gore in this film vs “Django Unchained.”  The graphic explosions of blood in that film were too comical to take too seriously (as was the intention).  This film was so much more harrowing because it seemed so much more real.  From about 15 minutes into the movie until about that far from the end, “The Impossible” is an emotionally exhausting ride of constant fear, sadness and horror.  It is loosely based on the story of a Spanish family who survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, where they were vacationing.  In the film, the family is British and, beyond having two parents and three boys, I wonder how much else in the movie is factual.  Apparently, the family did get separated, the mother was badly injured and they were reunited.  Was the reunion as dramatic as in the film?  How could it possibly be?  That scene was Hollywood at it’s finest.  But, for all that, I was still in tears, as I was for most of the film.  Whether the details are true or not, the film has an emotional truth that resonates deeply.  This is in no small part to the virtually unknown British actor, Tom Holland, who played the 12 year old son.  Most of the film was focused on his face and he had to carry off a complex range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, grief, hope.  These are not easy to generate on demand (even for an adult professional) and yet he really shined.  He was the audience’s window into that world and the film had the weight it had in large part because of his performance.  It was the best child performance I have seen this year.  This is in no way a light movie and you should not see it if you go to the movies to relax or escape.  I was exhausted when it was over but I also felt a catharsis that comes from that sort of emotional release.  This is a beautifully made and deeply touching film.  If you want to be moved by a film, you won’t see anything better this year.

Django Unchained

December 30, 2012 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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My rating is somewhat provocative  but perhaps I will get to that later.  Much has been said in the press about Spike Lee’s refusal to see this film; so much, in fact, that one could almost think that Lee was on Quentin Tarantino’s payroll.  Lee, himself, is very familiar with the way moral outrage can help sell a movie and has commented on the mileage he got out of David Denby’s near hysterical race-baiting rant in the New Yorker against “Do The Right Thing.”  While Lee’s disapproval is nowhere near the irrationality of Denby’s, there is something ironic about his criticism of Tarantino’s portrayals of racial tension and his obvious infatuation with the word which dare not speak it’s name (that would be n*****, ending “a” or “er” as you choose).  It was Lee’s own seminal work that paved the way for Tarantino and so many others.  “Django Unchained” stands firmly on Lee’s shoulders, whether he wants it to or not.  Having said that, I acknowledge that I come to this film through my own racial experiences, which are radically different than Lee’s (as my site name might suggest), and I cannot know what it feels like for him to witness how easily Tarantino co-opts  Black rage.  From my perspective, Tarantino is simply a provocateur, who has done with “Django Unchained” exactly what he did with “Inglourious Basterds.”  The question is, is there more to recommend than just provocation here?  I think so.  Much like his acolyte, RZA, did early this year with “The Man With The Iron Fists,” Tarantino fuses blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns to great effect.  His brilliant sound track sounds much like RZA’s, blending contemporary Black artists (including one song written by lead actor Jamie Foxx) with the likes of Ennio Morricone, Pat Methany and Jim Croce.  The resulting film scarcely touches ground in the real world; it is more allegory than history and, in fact, makes this point abundantly clear when Christoph Waltz’s character presents the German fable of Broomhilda to Django (but really to us) as the story arc of the movie.  This film is the classic movie trope: the hero rescues the girl and punishes evil, as run through Tarantino’s meat grinder.  And it resembles nothing so much as Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”  Through my eyes, Tarantino has made the film Van Peebles would have if he could 40 years ago; it justifies the angry Black man in a way few films ever have (Lee’s works being the most notable exceptions).  That this film comes from a White man is part of what makes it so provocative.  But, do you care about any of this if you are going to see the movie?  Or, does it only matter if you are entertained?  The film is all Tarantino aesthetic.   It flows with so much blood as to be ludicrous at times; more blood comes from some gunshots than would be humanly possible; they sometimes look like fat men hitting a swimming pool.  The mix of music, camera styles, and the careful arrangement of scenes all speak to his love of blending the modern and the classic, sometimes to make us laugh, sometimes to disturb us.  Tarantino’s name can get great acting talent and it shows here  as even small, non-speaking roles are played by known talent (though I will say that I wish he would learn from Hitchcock and be silent and brief when he himself appears on screen).  Foxx’s Django smolders with a raw power that White audiences wouldn’t have known how to tolerate a couple of decades ago.  Waltz is hardly the scene stealer he was in “Basterds” (that honor goes to DiCaprio for relentless portrayal of Calvin Candie) but his congenial bounty-hunter gave Django balance.  Don Johnson could easily breathe new life into his career after this turn as a plantation owner (perhaps, he could be Tarantino’s next John Travolta).  The real star of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson.  If anyone could be Tarantino’s muse (his “Johnny Depp,” if you will), it would be Jackson, whose love of provocation rivals Tarantino’s.   With a gusto that I was unprepared for, he embraces the character of Stephen (Candie’s “Stepin’ Fetchit” head slave) and turns him into something so over the top that he manages to shock the audience, even in a Tarantino film.  He will undoubtedly be a polarizing figure for audiences but that is precisely what Tarantino is trying to accomplish.  Twenty years ago, Tarantino transformed American cinema with two films and, as with many ground-breaking artists, he has been living in his own shadow ever since.  After floundering around for a few films, he seems to have settled into a new role, using the camp excess of his films to pick at our most painful cultural scabs.  Is there value in that?  Yes, I definitely think there can be.  Is there value in how Tarantino chooses to do it?  I think I’ll leave that question open.  Ultimately, it may depend on who you are and through which eyes you are looking.  So, why four lozenges?  I suppose, to be provocative in my own way.  I felt this film was better than most of my three and a halves and not as good as most of my fours.  So, I decided to keep with the spirit of the movie and push some buttons, as I have done with this entire review.

 

The Central Park Five

December 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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The great tv documentarian, Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “Prohibition,” etc.), has turned his eyes to the failures of the criminal justice system with this powerful documentary.  In 1989, a young white woman jogging in Central Park was brutally raped.  A precinct full of cops with a reputation of success to protect and a young prosecutor with career advancement plans (aided by a DA, a mayor, and a host of others) doggedly pursued the case with a blindness bordering on malpractice.  The end result was that five African American boys (ages 14 to 16) were convicted and spent between 6 and 12 1/2 years in prison.  Oh, in case you hadn’t guessed, they did not commit the crime.  This story is hardly new (in fact, this very case is a famous one) and we have heard its like before.  Think, The West Memphis 3.  Think, Leonard Peltier.  Think “Hurricane” Carter.  In the past 40 years, more than 140 people in the United States have been exonerated of capital convictions alone.  In this case, the boys were questioned for hours and hours without sleep or their parents present; they were lied to and told that the others were all writing statements naming them; they were told if they gave a statement they could go home and then they were spoonfed exactly what to say.  Their “confessions” were then used against them in court.  Even though their statements contradicted each other, even though witnesses placed them in another part of the park while the rape was occurring, and even though DNA evidence suggested a different perpetrator, those confessions were all that counted.  The newspapers had labelled them “The Wolf Pack” in a clear example of race baiting not unlike when Arkansas prosecutors called the West Memphis 3 satanists, playing off of fears in that rural community about gothic teens.  While the West Memphis teens were white, what they shared with these boys was that they were poor and under-educated and, thus, perfect patsies for a lazy criminal justice system.  But, then, the criminal justice system isn’t really about protection, nor is it even really about punishment; it is a pay-to-play system that is about social control.  Those who can only get public defenders spend years in prison for the same crimes that the wealthy walk free on.  Those who are middle class and can afford your average attorney, pay a middling price for their defense and get a middling “punishment” for the same crime.  But that’s okay, because the goal of the system is to manage social unrest.  “How do we restore order?”  “How do we send a message?” etc.  And it does that very well.

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