Film Review: American Me (1992, directed by Edward James Olmos)


American Me tells the story of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos).  Conceived during the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s, Santana is first arrested when he’s just 14 years old.  It’s only a breaking-and-entering charge but, on his first night in juvenile hall, Santana is raped by another inmate.  When Santana retaliates by murdering his rapist, his fate is set.  As soon as he’s 18, he’s transferred to Folsom Prison but, by that time, he and his friend J.D. (William Forsythe) have already formed what will become La Eme, the Mexican Mafia.  Running things from their cells, Santana and J.D. not only control the prison’s drug trade but they also keep an eye on who, from their old neighborhood, is going to be joining them behind bars.  Santana establishes early on that the punishment for any sign of weakness or disloyalty is death.

When Santana is finally released from prison, he finds that the world has changed since he was first incarcerated.  La Eme has become powerful both inside and outside of prison and nearly everyone in Santana’s old neighborhood looks up to him.  But Santana, himself, is lost.  In prison, Santana was feared and respected but, on the outside, he’s a 34 year-old man who has never had a job or a relationship.  He’s never even learned how to drive.

After meeting and falling in love with Julie (Evelina Fernandez) and seeing firsthand the damage that the drug trade is doing to his community, Santana starts to have second thoughts about La Eme.  But, according to the rules that he previously established, trying to leave La Eme is punishable by death.

American Me is a classic gangster film and I’m always surprised that it doesn’t have a bigger following than it does.  Along with starring in the film, Olmos made his directorial debut with American Me and he provides an unflinchingly brutal look at the drug trade and the violence that goes along with it.  Olmos was allowed to film inside Folsom Prison and even used actual prisoners are extras, bringing a touch of neorealist verisimilitude to the prison scenes. Early on, there’s a sequence that follows a baggie of heroin from one orifice to another until it finally reaches it destination in the prison.  It leaves you with no doubt that if people are willing to go through that much trouble to get drugs, it’s going to take something more than just zero tolerance laws to dissuade them.

Once Santana is released, Olmos does a good job, as both an actor and director, of showing just how lost he is.  In prison, Santana was in charge and feared but, when dealing with people in the real world, he’s just as awkward as he was when he was a teenager on his way to juvenile hall.  Olmos gives a tightly-wound, subtle performance as a man who is as much a prisoner of his outlook as he is of the state of California.

The men who served as the real-life inspiration for Olmos’s film were reportedly outraged by American Me.  They weren’t upset by the film’s portrayal of the drug trade or their callous disregard for the members of their community.  Instead, the film’s crime was suggesting that their organization was founded by someone who had been previously raped in prison.  (That Santana subsequently killed his rapist made no difference.)  Three people associated with the Mexican Mafia, all of whom has served as consultants to American Me, were subsequently murdered in the days immediately following the release of the film.

As for Edward James Olmos, he has remained busy as an actor.  One generation got know him on Miami Vice and then the next came to know him from Battlestar Galactica.  He’s subsequently directed four other films.  For me, his strongest work, as both an actor and a director, remains American Me.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Boulevard Nights (dir by Michael Pressman)


(I recorded the 1979 film, Boulevard Nights, off of TCM on December 14th, 2017).

Boulevard Nights tells the story of two brothers, living in East Los Angeles.

Raymond Avila (Richard Yniguez) used to be involved with the street gangs but he’s gone straight.  He still likes to cruise the boulevard.  He still likes to make his lowrider hop up and down.  He still knows better than to trust outsiders and he always makes sure that he’s not around whenever the cops show up.  But, unlike many of his old friends, Raymond is now determined to stay out of trouble.  He’s got a job working at a garage and he dreams of the day when he’ll have his own auto shop.  He takes care of his mother.  He keeps an eye on the neighborhood.

Chuco Avila (Danny De La Paz) is Raymond’s younger brother and also his opposite.  Chuco is a high school drop out who doesn’t want to cause trouble but who says that he can’t stop getting angry.  Chuco always carries a switchblade with him, even bringing it to a job interview.  Chuco only feels secure when he’s a member of a gang.  Chuco steals.  Chuco fights.  Chuco huffs paint and gets a snake tattooed on his arm.  Whenever Chuco has to hide out, he goes to a graffiti-covered shack that he shares with a stray cat.

There’s a war coming as random skirmishes between two separate neighborhoods lead to greater and greater violence.  Chuco is looking forward to it.  Raymond just wants to avoid it.  He’s got a good job and he’s planning on marrying Shady Londeros (Marta DuBois).  But, as Raymond explains it to Shady, if a war does break out, he’s going to have his brother’s back.

The plot of Boulevard Nights is a familiar one.  Stories about good and bad brothers have been told since ancient times and anyone who has ever seen a “gang” movie should be able to guess everything that’s going to happen in Boulevard Nights.  It’s not a spoiler to say that the war between the two gangs leads to tragedy.  You can see that tragedy coming from the first five minutes of the film.  It also doesn’t take a psychic to predict that one brother will survive while one brother definitely will not.  The only question is whether the film will end with either Raymond or Chuco wistfully staring out at the Los Angeles skyline.

What does set Boulevard Nights apart from other gang films is that it never glamorizes its violence and it was also shot on location in East Los Angeles.  When Raymond and Chuco drive through their neighborhood, the small and dilapidated houses that they see are the houses that were actually there in 1979 (and which might still be there today).  The use of real locations brought a grittiness to the film that the by-the-numbers script failed to provide.  Boulevard Nights also featured a cast largely made up of amateurs.  Members of the gang were played by actual gang members.  Needless to say, this led to some noticeably uneven performances but it also created an authenticity that would otherwise be lacking.

Boulevard Nights is an uneven film but, because it was shot on location, it functions as a bit of time capsule.  If you want to know what East L.A. looked (and sounded) like in the late 70s, you can either purchase a time machine or you can watch this movie.  For many viewers, watching the movie will be probably be the more practical choice.

Last year, Boulevard Nights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Back to School Part II #21: Brotherhood of Justice (dir by Charles Braverman)


Brotherhood_of_Justice_FilmPoster

For my next back to school review, I want to take a look at one of the best films that you’ve probably never heard of, the 1986 made-for-TV film Brotherhood Justice!

Brotherhood of Justice takes place at a California high school.  It’s a school that is pretty much ruled by the football team and the divide between the children of the upper and the working class is often violently apparent.  After several acts of violence, drug dealing, and vandalism, the school’s principal (Joe Spano) is left with a choice.  He can either hire full-time security guards and turn his school into an armed camp or he can meet with the most popular seniors and ask them to do their part to maintain order at the school.

He goes with the latter option.

At first, quarterback Derek (Keanu Reeves) is excited about doing his part to make the school a better place.  He and his friends quickly form the Brotherhood of Justice and make out a list of trouble makers.  At first, Derek and his friends are just roughing up drug dealers and demanding that all students show some school pride.  (In order to maintain their anonymity, they all wear masks to hide their faces.  However, no effort is made to disguise anyone’s voice, which means that this film takes place in a world where no one can recognize the voice of Keanu Reeves.)  However, things quickly escalate.  One member of the Brotherhood — Les (Billy Zane) — is especially enthusiastic and he has a thing for knives.

Meanwhile, Derek is having issues with his girlfriend, Christie (Lori Loughlin).  Christie, who is apparently incapable of recognizing her boyfriend’s voice whenever he’s wearing a mask, thinks that the Brotherhood is idiotic.  Christie also has a new job as a waitress and one of her co-workers is Victor (Kiefer Sutherland).  Victor obviously likes Christie and he also bravely stands up to the Brotherhood when they try to harass a student who is named Pasty.  (I kid you not.)

When Derek grows disillusioned with the Brotherhood, they decide that the situation with Christie must be distracting him.  So, they decide to blow up Victor’s car…

It’s all in the name of justice!

Obviously, one of the best things about Brotherhood of Justice is that it’s a chance to see Neo and Jack Bauer compete over Aunt Becky while Cal Hockley plays with a switch blade in the background.  (Oddly enough, Derek’s younger brother is played by Danny Nucci, who later appeared with Zane in Titanic.)  But there’s more to Brotherhood of Justice than just the curiosity value of the cast.

That plot hole about the voices aside, Brotherhood of Justice is actually a really good movie and one that everyone should watch.  If anything, it’s even more relevant today than it probably was when it was originally made.  It’s easy to be dismissive of the self-righteous and judgmental Brotherhood but actually, how different are they from the outrage brigade who show up everyday on twitter?  When the Brotherhood demands that everyone follow the rules and love their school, how different are they from those assholes who, today, claim that anyone who disagrees with the president or questions the moral authority of the government is somehow guilty of treason?  If the Brotherhood existed today, they would be cyberbullying and doxxing anyone who they felt had failed to say or think the right thing.

Let’s face it — we currently live in a fascist culture.  In its own modest but important way, Brotherhood of Justice is one of those films that can tell us why.

And you can watch it below!