1917 (2019)

Film Reviews

1917 is much, much more than just another war film. When I think about it, it doesn’t feel like it is really about war at all. War may be a major player and the natural setting, sure. But at its core, this really is a film about perseverance. About strength and about the kind of loyalty between men we can only ever imagine in today’s fast, cold, dog eat dog life we’re living. It is about finding what you really stand for in a world which can be described in no better way than a festering trench of shit and bone.

It is about finding what you really stand for in a world which can be described in no better way than a festering trench of shit and bone.

There isn’t a story to spoil, as such, so I’ll happily steer clear of the few moments that are actually unexpected. That is, if there’s anything that can still be described as unexpected in today’s world. Given the chance, the internet easily manages to spoil our every cinematic outing. That’s why this time round I never gave it a chance and resisted every behind the scenes or making of featurette it threw my way before today. All I can say about the main plot is that it shares similarities with what can be described as the  quintessential war film of all time, Saving Private Ryan (1998), especially as far as gritty realism goes. Having said all this, it actually is the how-its-made gimmick that gives it its strenght.

Similarities between this movie and Spielberg’s WW2 epic start and stop at the (on the surface) simple missions at the characters of both movies are assigned.

1917 will unfortunately always be referred to as the ‘one-shot war film.’ Technically, this description wouldn’t really be true. It is no secret that the one-take gimmick is in reality a sequence of takes seamlessly edited to look as if it was all connected. We’ve seen this before (Birdman, anyone?), and in any other case, the application of this technique alone wouldn’t have merited my cinema ticket.

We’ve all got busy lives, haven’t we?

“I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.”

But it is precisely this gimmick that gives this cinematic experience such a realistic touch. Having the camera circle all around our main characters and letting all the hopelessness and tragedy of battle seep in. In it’s almost two-hour running time, we can notice no obvious camera cuts. It just hovers around. In front of, behind above and below our characters. It can be said that the surroundings are as important characters as their human counterparts, if not more so. They’re suffused with the most gut wrenching, morbid visions which as if by accident, appear out of nowhere with alarming casualness. And yes, even though such a language has also been spoken time and time again by auteurs such as Gaspar Noe (Irriversible, 2002) and Lars Von Trier (Antichrist, 2009, amongst others), it is still understood as intended. The cool, casual manner in which horror is scattered throughout our time in these trenches is what makes it true. No jump scares drill through to the marrow so effortlessly. Through this filming style, Mendes effectively showed us, that in a war zone, death really is all around. There is no escaping it. If this was filmed in a conventional manner, this film wouldn’t have survived on the weak plot-line alone. The constant cuts and different angles between this shot and the next would have given the game away early on and made it just another war film. Good as it may have been.   

Our hero’s resolve shines through the blood soaked shroud of mud and bone. It eclipses the futility of senseless death and desperate, animalistic application of survival instincts. His resolve is fueled by his loyalty. And that makes any horror story beautiful in my book.

Fear and defiance in equal measure make for solid characters we can root for

1917 cast me face first, smack in the guts of Wilfred Owen’s grimiest poems.

But it was the beauty that really threw me.

Catch it at the cinema. The experience at Eden was especially rewarding as, for this one, they decided to manage to forgo the dreaded intermission. Sense prevailed, for the sake of this fantastic piece of art. An unexpected gesture, but appreciated nonetheless.

KILLER JOE (2012)

Film Reviews

Killer Joe has to be the coolest, darkest, most twisted popcorn movie ever. It’s vulgar, violent and totally offensive. It can be loosely classified as a crime film which tells the story of Killer Joe; a contract-killer assigned to kill a woman by her own beloved son and dim-witted husband.

So, why should you watch Killer Joe? Or the question would more appropriately be – Should you watch Killer Joe? Let’s be clear : it’s a depraved little film. Watch a couple of hours worth of Jerry Springer and you’ll get an idea of where the Smiths are coming from. And as the film wastes no time beating around the bush introducing us to the true nature of these characters, neither will I.

In an early scene where Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) awakens his somewhat-estranged family in the middle of the night, shouting and banging on their caravan door – the door swings open and he is instantly treated to his step-(thank God for little mercies) mother’s (Sharla) naked crotch within an inch of his face. And her reason for opening the door in this unorthodox fashion – “I didn’t know it was you.”

“Put some clothes on for Chrissakes!”

If by this time I still had any doubts about where this film was going to take me, I had completely quashed them by the time Chris tries to shield his eyes from Sharla’s genitals and begs her to put some clothes on. “It’s a bit distracting…your bush staring me in the face,” he explains. Careful with that popcorn!

All the actors obviously had a ball with their characters. The sweet surprise was Juno Temple, who I had only known from Mr.Nobody (2009) where she had a much smaller role. As the young Dottie Smith, she manages to convey such innocence one almost feels sad for her.

The best thing about this film has to be Thomas Hayden Church as Ansel, the dysfunctional head of the family. Hayden Church is one fantastic character actor; his performance was undoubtedly the bee’s knees. Here he succeeded in portraying the ultimate brain-dead hillbilly. His best line had to be his response to when Joe asks him what he thinks about him ramming the chicken drumstick down Ansel’s wife’s throat; “I DON’T!”

Ansel Smith has to be the most gullible, naïve and yet lovable loser I have ever encountered. And then there’s Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe himself; who we hadn’t heard of for quite a while. Not counting his role as Dallas in Magic Mike realeased in the same year Killer Joe was, he was mainly known as the hunk in all those famous romcoms starring alongside Sarah Jessica Parker (Failure to Launch, 2006) Kate Hudson, (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Jennifer Lopez (The Wedding Planner, 2001).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, most of these films are news to today’s Beiber & One Direction generation, but in his day, McConaughey’s fans were mostly female and keener on his dashing smile and flawless backside than on his acting abilities. Today, Matthew McConaughey is a totally different ball-game than what he used to be. He has gone to great lengths to reinvent himself – (see Mud (2012), The Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

 

He has suddenly made his name one of the most revered in Hollywood, up there alongside DiCaprio and Crowe, and seems to have murdered his heartthrob image with gusto.

The transition between yesterday’s McConaughey and today’s has to be his minor role in Tropic Thunder (2008) and clearly in that as Killer Joe. Thankfully, this is a film which does not take itself seriously, so McConaughey was allowed to poke fun at himself. One of the best moments, for me, was when Chris interrupts Killer Joe during an … intimate moment (which happens off-screen). Mistaking Chris for somebody else, a stark naked McConaughey attacks him and almost shoots him in the face. Once he recognizes the intruder for who he really is, Killer Joe coolly stands up, does a slow turn and walks away from the camera, flaunting his naked derrière almost in slow-motion.

I mean all that was missing from that scene was a Marvin Gaye riff. I loved how this film managed to be so dark and twisted and still peppered with funny little moments. The inclusion of Clarence Carter’s Strokin’ on the soundtrack was a stroke of pure genius. It’s a film you’re unlikely to ever forget. And good luck next time you attempt to eat that Kentucky Fried chicken leg…

 

Originally written for Eyeskreen and published on the 22nd of September, 2013 

Captain Phillips (2013)

Film Reviews

Captain Phillips’ (2013) formula is a tired one – we have a seemingly ordinary bloke up against odds that seem impossible to beat. We’re supposed to kid ourselves into wondering who’s going to emerge victorious – although we know the answer to that all along.

It was partly shot in Malta and stars Tom Hanks. This was enough reason for me to buy that middle-of-the-theatre ticket. Captain Phillips is one of those films which have you willfully suspending disbelief for the most part and simply enjoying the ride, taking solace in the knowledge that a happy ending is imminent and the bad guys will be getting their comeuppance in the end. This is no spoiler as to some extent, Captain Phillips is real and alive today, silver goatee and all.

A realistic portrayal of fiction?

As much as I may have wanted to experience the antagonists’ humanistic side and be sympathetic to them, it was next to impossible to do so. The story was presented in a blatantly biased dish of white against black, night against day, and heroes with clean-cut, conventional appearances up against scrawny villains who could have been the faces for a Save Africa campaign.

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Enter Somali Pirates

The film plays like a show of strength between the all-mighty God-fearing USA and any barbarian who dares stand in her way. From the moment they first appear, villains are clearly destined to lose.  The audience in the theatre (which numbered forty-something), played along and reacted as was expected of it.

On the whole, the film worked with this audience. During particularly quiet sequences of the film, I could hear the sound of my own breathing. On film review websites, Captain Phillips’ audiences are quite divided, the main reason being that rather than based on the actual events themselves, the film is based on the interpretation of these events as documented in Richard Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (2010), published less than a year after these events took place.

In his description of the events, Phillips drew a more than flattering self portrait. Interestingly, his take on what happened (which were what this film is based on) contrasted heavily with what his real-life crew had to say about him and his attitude regarding their personal safety. Without a doubt, Tom Hanks portrayed the Phillips from the book, aptly hollering “Don’t shoot him, shoot me!” in the face of the dangerous though bedraggled Somali pirates. This is something the actual crew adamantly denies happened in real life.

Thankfully, I got to know this information after watching the film, so I was unburdened by the thought that I may be watching the cinematic version of the pompous ramblings of a narcissist. No doubt, that would have surely affected my overall experience. Instead, through most of the film I was able to forget Tom Hanks and remain awe-struck by Richard Phillips’ apparent extraordinary feats of bravery, constant clarity of mind and all in all, good luck.

On the other hand, I now feel somewhat sorry for those who dismissed the idea of enjoying the film solely on the possibility that it might be based on a lie. At the end of the day, is the fidelity to what really happened so important? A well-made film simply works on its own merits. I percieve the notion that regular movie-going audiences, who constantly gorge on fantasies conjured up and molded by screenwriters find it easy to hate a film only because ‘that wasn’t what really happened,’ quite amusing. I find it’s the reality presented to us that ultimately matters.

This debate on how ‘truthful’ is Paul Greengrass’s telling of Captain Phillips’ ordeal reminded me of similar discussions that came about in 2011. Just after The Devil’s Double came out, the story’s authenticity began being doubted. Like Captain Phillips, the film is based on the written memoirs by the heroic survivor of tragedies of epic proportions. And also like Captain Phillips, what really happened did not ultimately matter much; it does not change the fact that The Devil’s Double is an explosive roller-coaster ride which does not cease to entertain.

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Captain Phillips can be segmented in three acts, the unfortunate who happen to watch the film in Malta, the first two happening in the first half of the film and the final act taking place after the intermission. Act 1 shows the Captain as a (as Jon LaJoie would put it) regular-everyday-normal-guy.

‘I’m just a regular, everyday, normal guy!’

Phillips is a family man who is looking forward to his retirement, growing disenchanted with the tiresome routine his job imposes on him. The second act brings the film to life, focusing on the pirates’ initial and second attempt at taking over the ship. This was effectively executed in a much subtler manner than expected. The film doesn’t resort to incorporating any special effects or placing its characters in unbelievable scenarios.

The script flowed freely, the pirate’s reactions to the crew’s actions were believable, and the audience knew it was in for a great time. The film’s second act is reminiscent of Die Hard (1988), broken glass and all.

The film slowed down considerably in its third act. This might have alienated those who were hooked on the second act’s promise of adrenaline fuelled, machine-gun toting interactions between crew and pirates.

This final segment (which actually takes up about half of the film’s running time) is mostly about what happened between the pirates and the captain in a very confined space. These moments feel much more intimate than the interactions that take place earlier on the ship. Suddenly, physical scale of the set shrinks considerably while emotions sky-rocket. Tensions are high. In addition, everything and everyone is largely shrouded in darkness – effectively going for realism and succeeding. Here I was left somewhat confused by the cinematography. The television film look (slightly whitewashed, I might add) was there throughout. Compared to the usual color grading we gave grown used to seeing in most cinematic productions, (including the aforementioned Devil’s Double, which coincidentally was also partly filmed in Malta), saturation was lacking.

While this may have heightened realism, I felt the film suffered because of inadequate lighting during the night-time (and engine room) scenes. Another technique that helped distinguish the third act from the first two was the way the camera was used. All means of image stabilizing equipment (dollies, tripods and what have you) seem to have been discarded. I generally enjoy watching films which are competently filmed using handheld, as when a film’s going for realism, (especially when capturing tense situations), a handheld camera can be effectively used to highlight emotion and mood. This technique can be effectively used to change the tone of narration in a film (eg. Dancer in the Dark, 2000) or simply to heighten realism (Open Water, 2003). In Captain Phillips, though, some jerks and shakes should have been substantially toned down. In some instances, they seemed a tad forced and almost patronized the audience; it almost had the same effect as if a crew-member was holding up a placard saying – THIS IS A TENSE MOMENT IN THE FILM. FEEL THE NAUSEA.

The acting was authentic throughout, definitely one of the film’s strong points. I don’t think Tom Hanks needs any praise from my end, but the performances from the men playing the pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi as their ever-confounded leader Muse, were top-notch. Abdi knew the character inside out. It was clear in the constant pain communicated through his eyes, while his projected frailty was carefully counteracted with rare cold bursts of violence. His unpredictability made him terrifying.

Abdi’s performance stole the whole show; he is clearly a sincere actor who knows his art, even though juxtaposed with Hanks (and most of the supporting cast), he is definitely a newcomer. I felt the irony throughout. As overblown as Captain Phillips’ heroic deeds may have been written, he was undoubtedly unanimously rooted for. He was the innocent white guy played by a fat Forrest Gump, who everybody loves more than they ever loved Raymond.

Muse is skeletal, unattractive by the standards the likes of Spielberg and Zemeckis have helped enforce, who although makes for the audience’s sympathy a number of times, he is restricted by a script which is clearly tailor-made to please paying audiences. A hint of immediate back story is given to his character, his situation and what drives him to do what he does, but not enough is given to fully explain him or to really give him a chance at redemption. Muse is destined to lose from the beginning.


Muse is portrayed as a savage, dim-witted weakling turned pirate, who simply deserves to die or rot in jail, with perhaps a million of his brethren thrown in with him. The film portrays Somalis as having no alternative but to pursue the criminal life. This is clearly spelled out when Captain Phillips, being a kind-hearted soul, tries to play (in an ever belittling fashion) the guidance teacher with Muse. Philips says, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people”, to what Muse sadly replies, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

This may just be the impression I got, but the film clearly does not even try to give the Somalis a fair shot. What may be even more ironic/sad is that Tom Hanks’ name will live on for hundreds of years, while I’m constantly having to alt-tab imdb.com to re-check Barkhad’s name. Something I feel will be an unnecessary action after finishing today’s review, as talented as Mr.Bakhard may be, his schedule doesn’t seem to be too full with imminent projects. I wonder why.

Each worthy Tom Hanks performance has its memorable Oscar moment. For me, in Saving Private Ryan(1998) it was the ‘Earn it’ line. In Cast Away (2000) it was the ‘Wilson! Wilson!’ scene. Captain Philips also has Hanks’ big oscar moment (which happens quite late in the film). It will certainly become the moment most of us will remember Captain Phillips by, and which will no doubt be immortalized in a Best Tom Hanks Performances Compilation Youtube video.

Captain Phillips: *** / *****

 

Originally written for Eyeskreen and published on the 22nd of October, 2013

The Shuttered Room (1967)

Film Reviews

The Shuttered Room (also released as Blood Island) is your typical late 60s Hammer Gothic-Horror flick – in Technicolor!

The story follows Susannah (by Carol Lynley – performance so wooden it screams Pinocchio) and her (old enough to be her father) Mike (if you could believe it, even more dispassionately played by Gig Young), as a newly married city couple, on their return to Susannah’s childhood home.

For the first few years of her life, Susannah had been raised in a mill on a green but disquietingly eerie island. She doesn’t remember much of this life as she was sent to New York (due to unclear, but indubitably superstitious   logic) when she was about four.

It is equally unclear why she would want to return to this godforsaken island when she has no actual recollection of her childhood, apart from the fact that she is traumatized by events she cannot really recall.

Anyway…once the couple set foot on the island, they are told time and time again to turn tail and run back to their modern (and sane) way of life, but being the modern, open minded city folk they are, they wouldn’t bow to superstition. So, naturally, they remained. And naturally, chaos ensues. What kinda horror film it would be if it didn’t?

While, some aspects of The Shuttered Room have clearly not aged well at all, there are aspects of it that are still very effective today.

Shuttered’s pacing works as well as a modern-day James Wan horror does.  The plot may be predictable and the genre acting (it is a late 60s Hammer after all) couldn’t be hammier – but the film as a whole succeeds in building suspense. The 1960s overblown jazz music accompanying mesmerizing imagery of green virgin hills took me back to those delicious childhood afternoons reading Shivers. You kinda felt safe reading in the afternoon sunshine, but knew evil was just around the bend, waiting for the opportune moment to scare the wits out of you. So yes, even by today’s standards, the overall execution works. Good storytelling is, after all, ageless.

 Bad acting, however, remains bad acting, even a hundred years later. And the acting in this film isn’t only bad, it’s actually non-existent. Gig Young (in the first and I presume last performance I will ever watch) phones in a Roger Moore impression. But Young is no Moore. Moore effortlessly embodied sophistication and British suaveness through a simple glance. Young’s Mike is more castrated than collected as he remains cool as a cucumber even while his wife is being molested by a gang of village morons in front of his eyes. How could an audience respect such a leading character? Was he supposed to be a loving husband, or a sadist with a twisted sense of humour? I honestly do not know.

 

 Another example – early on in the film, while they’re on the way to the island, Susannah instructs him to stop the car. He complies and she just walks out and stands in the middle of the road. She proceeds to inform him that she’s very afraid of going back to her homeland. But what does he do? Waits for her to calm down and takes her anyway. And once on the island, Susannah’s Aunt Agatha, her own flesh and blood instructs them… pleads with them over and over again to go back whence they came if their safety means anything to them. She even goes as far as to hint that, should they insist on staying there, death would swiftly come to them. They laugh and shrug it off as superstition.

 

I mean…what the hell!

In some ways, the Shuttered Room is reminiscent of another classic mood piece – Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). In this movie, the good looking, just married city couple find themselves isolated in the unknown backwoods, constantly persecuted and molested by hicks. As in The Shuttered Room, the man conveniently leaves the beautiful young wife home alone, for the gang to attack.

 Film Society of Lincoln Center oh hell no dustin hoffman straw dogs sam peckinpah

Straw Dogs, though, was a different film made in a different era and even though it was released only four years after The Shuttered Room, the latter’s campy period Gothic horror mood doesn’t light a candle to Straw Dogs’ brutal realism, especially acting wise.

Even Oliver Reed who is usually such a sensitive, soulful actor comes across as weak in parts and over-the-top in others, in his last role for Hammer. He seems so adamant on giving the character that extra layer of psycho that he comes across as a insecure doofus with a clearly fake American accent. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

Questions left Unanswered

I thought I’d close this review by going through the most popular / prevailing questions this film leaves unanswered, as The Shuttered Room’s main flaws are simply weaknesses in the screenplay.

One: Why, after seeing the kind of character Ethan he first runs into them (quite literally – by ramming their classic car with his truck over and over again), do the couple trust him enough to follow him to Aunt Agatha’s?

 

Two: Why, when first entering the old rundown mill, and Susannah is so obviously terrified of the traumatic events she kinda recalls from her childhood, does Mike ask her in soothing concern – ‘Sure you’ll be ok here all alone?’ She might have answered in the negative for all he cared, cos off he went, leaving her alone in the possibly Satanic, cobweb laden old mill.

 

Three: Why, after Mike does grow a pair and shows Ethan a thing or two using his Karate skills set to the mandatory ‘60s jazz drum rolls (where did that come from?) does he offer one the most suspicious-looking member of his gang a lift in his car? Not only that, but he also engages in small-talk about electricity poles or whatnot with him.  Only to get the shit beaten out of him, tied up and almost run over with his own car. Twice. Well…serves him right I guess.

And why, oh why did Susannah think that she would stop Ethan, who incidentally also happens to be her cousin  (as if this character wasn’t creepy enough in the first place, they decided to add incestual overtones to boot) from raping her, by actually stripping half naked and almost shoving her chest in his face? Come to think of it, he seemed so traumatized by this, I kinda felt sorry for him. Yep, you heard that right. He was traumatized by her.

 

Why would –

Oh what the hell. Why can’t I just enjoy this peace of ham for what it is and leave the unanswerable questions for scholars?

Saving Mr.Banks (2013)

Film Reviews

Saving Mr.Banks (2013) is, in essence, the story of what went on behind the scenes while Walt Disney was trying to secure the film rights for Mary Poppins (1964). Stylistically, it may remind one of The Godfather: Part II (1974), where we have a squeaky clean, sober looking (in a Back To The Future kind of way) present day (1960s) story riddled with yellowed-out, nostalgic flashbacks – two different stories set in two different times which are very much interrelated with each other.

To better understand and fully appreciate all the ways Mr.Bank’s story perfectly mimics that of Travers’ father’s, a suggestion would be to re-watch Mary Poppins (1964) before watching this; Tomlinson’s brilliant performance in that film made the disillusioned Mr.Banks seem human, even while spouting phrases like,

“I’m the lord of my castle
The sov’reign, the liege!
I treat my subjects: servants, children, wife
With a firm but gentle hand
Noblesse oblige!”

Watching Mary Poppins (1964) before Saving Mr.Banks will also make it easier for the audience to recognize the undeniable traces of Travers’ Father (played by Colin Farrel) there are is Mr.Banks. Hanks does not look or sound like Disney, but, what the hey, he gives a top-notch performance, so do not let that alone keep you from enjoying the film. Watching B.J Novak and Jason Shwartzman as the legendary ‘boys’ is also a real treat. Saving Mr.Banks may not be historically correct, and at times, might come across as feature length advert for the Disney Corporation. It is, though, no denying a proper Disney film with adults and Poppins fans as the primarily intended audience.

A good point to keep in mind would be that the Disney Corporation has given this film it’s go-ahead, therefore Disney is presented as the ultimate magical, all-around good guy, while Travers is depicted as an uptight bitch who did not like penguins, silly cartoons, and especially hated Dick Van Dyke. So just enjoy this and wait for Disney to produce their Bobby Driscoll, or wait…better still, Tommy Kirk biopic…

Originally written for Eyeskreen and published on the 17th of August, 2014

Shun Li and The Poet (Io Sono Li) (2011)

Film Reviews

I was lucky to be able to catch Io Sono Li in (what’s left of) our Royal Opera House in Valletta. It was screened as part of the Pjazza Kino Festival last Friday 25th. In the same festival, two other nautical-themed films were shown Kon-Tiki (2012) and The Deep, (2012). The festival was curated by Rebecca Cremona, who also directed and co-wrote Malta’s  sea-adventure film, Simshar (you can re-visit our reaction to this film here!)

The strength of Shun Li and the Poet (Io Sono Li) (2011), a France-Italy production, lies in it’s ability to appeal to your softer side. It is a sentimental story of budding love between two very unlikely people, a Yugoslavian fisherman and a Chinese barmaid, in Italy. Both people are united by one factor – neither truly belong in the place they live in.

While it’s disarming humility might be the reason we may not have heard of it before, Shun’s romantic, poetic verses (expressed through the film’s salty, Mediterranean imagery) are what stay with the viewer.

Originally written for Eyeskreen and posted on the 28th of July 2014

The Tin Drum (1979)

Film Reviews

The Tin Drum (Die Belchtrommel) (1979) can easily be categorized as a war film – although most of the battles occur between Oskar (David Bennent) and the rest of humanity.

While most of what happens in the film is allegorical, the imagery is sometimes too powerful to permit the viewer to read beyond the symbolism. The Tin Drum tells the story of Oskar, a young boy who rebels against the corrupted world he’s born into, and decides to defy it by stinting his growth at age 3. He is born to a Kashubian mother (an ethnic group neither German nor Polish enough to be classified as such), in the WW2 era in Bazing.


Throughout the film, Oskar (who narrates his story) justifies his actions – as blatantly damnable as they might be – and presents himself as a righteous victim of circumstance living in a morally decayed society. Always offbeat and many times bizarre, he introduces his story by describing how his mother was conceived … in a potato field. As enigmatic as it may be, (mostly due to the film being peppered with surreal imagery) through Oskar, The Tin Drum still feels like it’s screaming to be understood. But what does the child’s stinted growth really mean? Is he really as innocent as he perceives himself to be? Or is he as rotten as the adults he so despises?

Originally written for Eyeskreen and published on the 12th of August, 2014