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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "25th Hour"

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Ed Norton as Montgomery Brogan
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Spike Lee's "25th Hour" has so many interesting qualities to it, both as a movie and as a sociological perspective of the director himself, that it's a shame the film's weaker elements keep it from being more profound. It's essentially a "portrait film", where it's more about painting interesting character profiles and seeing how they respond to situations, than it is about plot or character development. To Lee's credit, he not only painted clear, believable characters, but was additionally ambitious in his desire to profile a subculture outside of his own. But, the film's effectiveness in the end couldn't rely solely on the portraits he painted, despite how well they were done. It required more storytelling elements to breath life into the project.

Ed Norton and Rosario Dawson
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As for the portraits, the hero is Montgomery Brogan, played by Ed Norton, an unsuspecting drug dealer, who reevaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term. Brogan is an Irish-Catholic with an upper-middle-class background - not exactly the kind of person one immediately thinks of when someone says, "drug dealer." In his last hours, he reaches out to friends from years past, philosophizes with them about life, how he got where he is, and what kind of frightful future awaits him behind bars. The movie follows him throughout a day, and we watch as he finishes unfinished business, ties loose ends in his family life, and reaches out to those he considered to be his "best friends," now that he's come to terms with his fate.

Anna Paquin
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Where Lee takes his risk is by placing all his eggs in this one basket: portraits. There is enough plot to give characters reason for their self-examinations, but character development is virtually non-existent. That's ok, the goal of "portrait films" is to paint a still life picture that profiles a character so as to examine aspects of them in different life situations. Lee has always been good at character portrayals, but the departure here is the singular focus on nothing but portraiture. Indeed, he's begging audiences to evaluate not just the film, but Lee himself: what's his racial view of a subculture that's not his own? Is he making a political statement, airing his discontent, or genuinely interested in his characters by depicting them fairly and authentically. It's almost too obvious that Lee is keenly aware that we are aware of his branching out.

Rosario Dawson
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As far as the portraits go, Lee's risk pays off. Norton's portrayal not only seems believable to us for what we do know about such characters, but we believe what we're told of what we don't know about them. That's hard to do, not just because gaining insight into others' cultures is hard, but if you do it well, you often bring upon yourself more controversy than if you'd done it poorly. A perfect example is the 1994 film, "Fresh", which depicted a very realistic black drug culture in New York, and a young 11-year-old's struggle to escape it. The film gained notoriety, not just because of its shocking and disturbing authenticity, but because the writer/director was Jewish emigree from a well-to-do background. By showing a subculture in less-than-flattering light, you're sure to get attacked as being racist or exploitive, especially if you're an outsider.

Yet, despite Lee's seemingly accurate portrayal of his characters, he's going to be safe from controversy for a few reasons. First, unlike "Fresh", which had a compelling and disturbing plot line, "25th Hour" will likely leave many audience members looking at their watches, as the film does tend to go on for a while without much development. Here, Lee's existential commentaries could have either been pruned back a little, or given a wider array of ideas to consider.

Barry Pepper, Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman
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More importantly, none of the characters have an important enough purpose to each other. Their relationships don't contribute to a better insight into the existential questions Brogan asks or faces, nor do they have discussions of such ideas, beyond a few introductory observations. Their screen time is used solely to paint more detailed pictures of these people, but without a tighter connection between them in the storyline, it's like viewing a set of incongruent pictures in a gallery: they're fine as individual works, but where's the coherency? To make matters worse, the medium of film provides a wider canvas than portraiture, so you either have to fill the emptiness, or have characters punctuate through it. (In other words, give them meaning.)

Brian Cox Norton
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It's hard for me to pan "25th Hour" because its qualities are noteworthy and the performances are great. However, I resist more enthusiastic praise because Lee didn't take advantage of his opportunities for multi-dimensionality. He could have chosen to develop more aspects to the film without compromising its "portrait" quality, rendering it dryly forgettable in the end.

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