Friday, October 31, 2008

13 FOR HALLOWEEN


Year in and year out, autumn and winter are the seasons that I see the most new movies. So it's hardly surprising that I've been keeping myself pretty busy at the multiplex these past two months. But this year is different: I've seen so many new movies since the beginning of September that I can scarcely keep em' straight, or tell my Mike Leigh joints from my Spike Lee ones. In addition to regular trips to the Landmark, the Music Box. the Gene Siskel, River East, and Piper's Alley, I managed to score a few passes for the Chicago International Film Festival. Due to a rapidly approaching (and wallet-shrinking) real international excursion, I saw just four at the fest this year, as opposed to the ten I caught last October. No matter: most of the selections will open stateside by next fall.

I'd love to find more time to write about all these films, which have ranged wildly in content and quality. I suppose it's going to come down to actually sometimes taking a night off to write-- surely the time I spent sighing my way through Ridley Scott's chronically dull Body of Lies could have been better spent jotting down some thoughts on, say, the magnificent masterpiece that was Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata. Bad Alex. Must learn discipline.

Next on my viewing schedule: Fear(s) of the Dark this afternoon, a press screening of Ashes of Time Redux (the last Wong Kar Wai movie I've yet to see) on Monday morning, and, with any luck, Charlie Kaufman's Synedoche, New York in about a week. In the meantime, in lieu of actually writing about something I've caught in the last 6 weeks or so, I've drummed up this Halloween-inspired list, a collection of capsules on my 13 favorite horror movies. These are not the best horror movies ever (though one is) or the scariest (though another one is), but simply my flat-out faves, the ones I've come back to again and again, with friends or alone in a darkened room or theater. Narrowing this down to 13 was tough, as a lot of pretty beloved movies had to get the axe-- oh, if I could only find space for Vincent Price's Theatre of Blood, anything from Hammer or Universal, or 1981's twin lycan gems The Howling and An American Werewolf In London. Maybe next year. Feel free in the comments section to post your own list, or to berate me for the exclusion of some personal fave. I'm always up for a good round of sparring. Oh, and some SPOILERS herein, though if you don't know Psycho's big reveal, you probably don't have a computer under that rock of yours. Without further digression, listed in chronological order, my 13 FAVORITE HORROR MOVIES OF ALL TIME.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920): With the possible exception of Carl Dreyer's Vampyr and a few of David Lynch's deeper plunges down the rabbit hole, no other film has, in my eyes, so successfully evoked the irrational unease and dislocation of a nightmare. A major influence on Universal's classic monster franchises, Robert Wiene's silent masterpiece employs the stylistic hallmarks of German Expressionism—jagged architecture, hard pools of light and thick expanses of shadow—to sketch a warped landscape of the mind, a damaged headspace splattered dramatically onto shanties and skyscrapers and cramped interior spaces. Caesar, Wiene's gaunt, staggering boogeyman, is no match for the vermin-wretch villain of Nosferatu—a better film, all things considered—but if there's anything scarier than the creeping specter of death and decay, it's the haunting realization that you're not dreaming, you're just losing your mind. Even with the sound off, that's a hard one to shake.

Psycho (1960): So ingrained is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in our collective film consciousness, in the very fabric of everything we watch today, that thinking about it as just a horror movie is almost impossible—when Norman Bates rips back that shower curtain, disrupting the course of the film’s assumed narrative, he might well be tearing a vast dividing line between Old and New cinema. But whatever else it may be, Psycho most definitely is a horror movie, one that’s lost little of its disquieting power and jarring unpredictability. If the shower sequence is, by now, almost too iconic to inspire much more than film-buff reverence, the other Big Scares—the staircase ambush, the swinging light-bulb in the basement—remain surprisingly effective. As for Bates, he isn’t just the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, a stab-happy lunatic hiding behind an aww-shucks friendly veneer and shock wig. He’s also the reality-shattering demigod of Hitchcock’s sick practical joke, a fascinating fiend who can steal the movie out from under its sitting-duck heroine and make us forget her instantly, our interest shifting at once to some perverse backstory born of scandalous implication and our own gutter-bound imaginations. Does Bates screw the corpse or was his incest a strictly live flesh affair? YOU decide.

Onibaba (1964): Lost soldiers wandering through a field of long, wild reeds. A deep and dark pit, a nest of ghosts and secrets and guilt and shame. A demon-apparition standing silent in the pouring rain. Onibaba is one striking image after another, its vision of the evil lurking in the human heart—or in desolate swamps, or behind baroque war masks—conveyed almost exclusively through movement and composition. Some might balk at the notion that this lyrical psychodrama from Japanese writer-director Kaneto Shindô is even really a horror movie. Those who prefer a thick dose of suffocating dread to shock tactics and pure repulsion know better. For a shuddery double feature, watch this back-to-back with Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur’s similarly oblique tone poem chiller.

Don’t Look Now (1973): Another menacing mood piece, all implication and atmosphere—are we noticing a pattern here? To be fair, Nicolas Roeg’s often-overlooked classic has something of a shocking ace up its sleeve, a real mind-fuck of a payoff, but you have to wade through a seductive haze of maddening misdirection to get there. Mourning the sudden loss of their daughter, married couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie travel to Venice, hoping to sleep and eat and fuck their grief away. Instead, they get mixed up with a pair of psychic sisters, and the line between reality and premonitory fantasy begins to blur. Don’t Look Now defies expectation at every turn, eschewing logic in favor of escalating tension, creeping under your skin and burrowing its way into your subconscious. And then that total corker of an ending. “Wait,” whispers a terrified and bewildered Sutherland. He might well be speaking for all of us in the dark, not yet ready for the reveal, the face of mysterious fate, the figure in the red raincoat. Ready or not, here it comes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): In a walk, still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. Twenty five years of bad knockoffs, of brutal encounters with savage locals and hungry hillbillies, hasn’t diminished by even the smallest margin the sheer, reptilian intensity of Tobe Hooper’s screaming backwoods nightmare. With its snuff-film aesthetic and slaughterhouse milieu—you can practically smell the decay and taste the viscera—this seminal shocker never lets up, commencing with that first unsettling encounter in the backseat and culminating in the unbridled, wide-eyed insanity of the infamous dinner table scene. The end isn’t so much an escape as a promise of the bad dreams to come, a screeching-off into a mad, mad future, a closed-loop cycle of unshakable terror—no, she won’t be okay, she’ll never be okay ever again. In the dead of night or the light of day, this puppy will fray your nerves like a power tool tearing through raw meat. You have been warned.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): Is there anything more terrifying than the mere suggestion that your loved ones, your nearest and dearest, those closest to you in life, aren’t who you think they are? How about going to sleep one person and waking up someone else entirely? More so even than its celebrated predecessor, the anti-McCarthy parable that was Don Siegel’s 1956 Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman’s fantastic remake taps into that deep and potent fear of being swallowed up by a faceless majority, of losing one’s very identity to a culture of mass conformism. Put into context, the film traces the almost imperceptible shift from the radical 60s to the Me Generation 70s—hippies mutating into yuppies, almost overnight—but its pervasive mood of they’re-all-out-to-get-us anxiety is damn near universal, making it as great a 70s paranoid thriller as The Conversation or All the President’s Men. And, oh my sweet God, that denouement: a blood curdling screech that bleeds into terrible silence, probably the most terrifying last shot in film history. Really. That’s two great endings featuring Donald Sutherland. Coincidence or pact with the devil?

Dawn of the Dead (1979): As a diehard fan of Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s superlative sequel to his equally-terrific Night of the Living Dead, I naturally own a copy of Anchor Bay’s four-disc, bells-and-whistles DVD set. And yet I’ve never gotten more than ten minutes into either the extended Director’s Cut or the ballyhooed European Cut before switching immediately back to the unrated theatrical version. It’s too perfect. There’s just the right amount of loud carnage and quiet conversation, of slapstick humor and poignant character drama, of severed limbs and lasagna-orange innards. Oh, and there’s plenty of sharply pronounced social commentary too (it’s set in a shopping mall, for pete’s sake!) but I’ll leave that exploration to the term-paper-writing college students. As is, Dawn remains the greatest zombie movie of all time. Why mess with a winning formula? That wasn’t a rhetorical question, Zack Snyder.

The Shining (1980): It’s hard to believe this towering achievement was ever considered anything less than a masterpiece of the genre. Were moviegoers expecting a more manageable, less alienating spookfest, or did people really care that Stephen King hated what Stanley Kubrick did to his novel? Hindsight being what it is, The Shining is now rightfully regarded as something of a Scariest Scenes hits collection, with each jump-out-your-seat moment—Redrum! Dead twins! Room 237! Here’s Johnny!—connected by Kubrick’s peerless, cold-blooded aesthetic design and Jack Nicholson’s slow-burn descent into bellowing madman hysterics. Yet the star of the show really isn’t Wacky Jack or his perfectionist director, but the film’s great, looming locale, the grand and stately Overlook Hotel. Spend a winter in that oversized haunted house, with its impossibly long hallways and ominously empty foyers, and you’d start taking axes to doors, too.

Creepshow (1982): A couple of years ago, I went to a midnight screening of George Romero’s funny-scary, EC-comics inspired anthology. It was almost exactly as I remembered it from my youth: a colorful, spirited blast of macabre entertainment, populated by vengeful ghouls, veracious monsters, and gleefully hammy B-list performers. (Special props to Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, and Stephen “Meteor Shit” King.) The first four segments blew by on a breeze of pleasant nostalgia. Then the fifth one began, and I remembered why I hadn’t seen Creepshow in ten years, why I had likely avoided it, actively and with much conviction, ever since. Entitled “They’re Creeping Up On You,” this final chapter concerns a cold-hearted billionaire (E.G. Marshall) whose penthouse is invaded by millions and millions of cockroaches. My most primal and paralyzing phobia, filmed in glorious Technicolor, blown up and projected onto a 30’ by 20’ screen. Five nights of sleep and ten years of repression right down the drain.

The Fly (1986): “I was an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it,” muses Jeff Goldblum’s hideous but still-eloquent Brundle-Fly. “But the dream is over and the insect is awake.” We really haven’t been taught to expect such poetry from our genre movies, particularly those featuring half-man, half-bug creatures. Yet writer-director David Cronenberg, the thinking-man's provocateur behind Naked Lunch and Videodrome, has always toed the line between high and low culture, bringing a little art to the grind-house and a little grind to the art-house. And The Fly remains his greatest balancing act, not so much a remake of its B-movie source material as a dramatic and disturbing re-invention of it. In Cronenberg’s eccentric hands, the story of Seth Brundle, a scientist who accidentally merges his own DNA with that of a housefly, is bursting with metaphoric possibility. Obscenely gross, but also richly romantic and deeply melancholy, his Fly is about the way our bodies betray us, the horrors of degeneration—courtesy drugs, disease, or old-age—and the tragedy of watching a loved one waste away before you. Of course, it’s also about inside-out baboons, maggot babies, and a monster that eats donuts by vomiting acid on them and sucking up the slop with a straw. In other words, something for everyone.

Puppetmaster (1989): In this straight-to-video franchise-launcher, a band of murderous marionettes—colorful characters like the knife wielding, skull-faced Blade, and the aptly named Pinhead—stalk psychic investigators through an abandoned, seaside hotel. The acting is bad, the production values are worse, and all moments not featuring the bloodthirsty star attractions are deadly dull. Without a doubt the single worst movie on this list, Puppetmaster secures its position almost by virtue of nostalgia alone—in other words, the film, along with its numerous shoddy sequels, was a well-worn staple of my pre-teen VHS collection. Yet there’s also something endearingly quaint and imaginative about this low-budget affair, which recalls both the ramshackle resourcefulness of Roger Corman and the blood-and-boobs, give-the-people-what-they-came-to-see trash spectacles of Jack Hill. Producer/co-writer Charles Band, whose Full Moon Entertainment churned out dozens of pulpy genre throwaways in the early 90s, lends the movie a carnival-like ambiance and a bevy of tongue-in-cheek references to classic cinema. And the puppets themselves? They’re marvels of FX ingenuity, possessing a life and personality sorely missing from most CGI creations. What’s a horror list without at least one piece of honest-to-God schlock? Anyway, it’s better than Child’s Play.

Ôdishon (1999): Everyone who’s watched it talks about “the scene.” Few of us had ever witnessed such a prolonged depiction of exquisite pain and suffering, such severe physical torment dragged center stage. What makes the genuinely horrifying Audition linger in your mind like a bad dream—and what puts it miles and miles above the torture-porn rubbish it subsequently inspired—is not that cathartic, sadistic centerpiece, but the spring-loaded booby-trap of a movie built around it. This is a love story, a terrible and bleak and devastating one, but a love story nonetheless. It starts peacefully, with tentative courtship and awkward-sweet advances, a slow blossoming romance cast just an inch or two off center. And then the bag moves, and we begin our descent into hell. Like Psycho, Takashi Miike’s masterpiece radically redefines its trajectory half-way through, steering us suddenly into the realm of awful family secrets and festering psychological wounds. By the time we reach that Grand Guignol climax, it’s clear what we’re really seeing: a twisted and depraved expression of romantic desire, love as only this damaged soul understands it. Kiri kiri kiri indeed.

May (2003): In some ways, here’s a thematic companion piece to Audition, in that both films demonstrate the dangerous affects loneliness, isolation, and fleeting companionship can have on a fragile mind. Yet if Miike’s tune is a gentle ballad that explodes into avant-garde noise, May is more like an earnest indie rock anthem, a valentine for introverted hipster sociopaths everywhere. Funny, sad, and deeply disturbing in about equal measure, Lucky McKee’s scrappy debut defies classification, its stitch-up collaging of genre tropes as seamless as it is refreshing. And in the fiercely talented Angela Bettis, a mousy oddball with a volcanic crazy streak, contemporary horror gets its new leading lady, a post-modern avenger and psycho-icon in training. The best scary movies reflect and inflate our greatest fears, anxieties and cultural hang-ups. May whistles in tune with the beating of a million wounded hearts, its slice-and-dice refrain pitched at a new generation of fashionably jaded lovers. Behold, the horrors of modern romance!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO


Minor SPOILERS herein.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO

The funniest thing—the only funny thing, really—about Clerks 2, Kevin Smith’s noisy backslide into his own sloppy seconds, was the unflattering irony woven right into its dirt-cheap fabric. Here was a belated, cash-grab sequel, a return to the same characters and situations Smith began his career chronicling, that actually had the audacity to extol the virtues of growing up and moving forward with one’s life. Why should convenience slaves Dante and Randall abandon their eternal adolescence when the man putting the bawdy barbs and catchy zingers in their dirty mouths wasn’t ready to do so himself? Truth is, Smith has spent the better part of his career wrestling with the burden of “growing up,” apologizing for his most foolish follies, making half-hearted stabs at artistic maturation and then retreating immediately to the safety and comfort of his fan-approved juvenilia. After the anything-goes, inside-joke fest that was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith officially closed the door on his insular world of reoccurring jackasses and jerkoffs… only to swing it wide open again when his stab at more nuanced, less sophomoric fare (2004’s admittedly-pretty-terrible Jersey Girl) didn’t do so hot at the box-office.

Sometimes a return to basics is exactly what a flailing artist needs to pull himself out of a creative slump. Yet, contrary to everything a weepy Ben Affleck learned in that aforementioned detour to Grown Up Land, sometimes you can’t go home again. The Smith of today, whose dirty jokes now belie his soggy sentiments, bears little resemblance to the hungry and vulgar wiseass-geek the Weinsteins took under their wing way back in the dog days of the early 90s. Willfully regressive though it is, no one’s going to mistake Clerks 2 for its scrappy, fifteen-year-old predecessor—between its garish song-and-dance number, butt-ugly color photography, and wholly conventional love-triangle narrative, the former has less in common with the latter than it does with, again, Jersey Girl. Totally consistent with the path Smith has clumsily forged since the dawn of this new millennium, Zack and Miri Make a Porno confirms what the writer-director's notion of artistic maturation has really always been about: chasing his dick-and-fart joke cocktails with straight shots of thick and syrupy sentimentality.

Blessed with a premise that promises both an abundance of raunchy sex quips and a “redemptive” adherence to sappy rom-com requisites, Smith’s latest exercise in stunted adolescence begins with sizzling taint hair, but ends with solemn declarations of undying affection. If that awkward blend of the profane and the cuddly sounds awfully familiar, that's because it's more or less the modus operandi of the Judd Apatow laugh factory, a shrewd, splitting-the-difference approach that's come to define American comedy circa 2008. Though Apatow's name is nowhere to be found here, his presence is felt in ways both big and small, as though Smith, like David Gordon Green before him, were simply the latest auteur drafted into the Knocked Up mogul’s pratfalls fraternity. (Never mind that Smith could conceivably be considered an influence on Apatow and Co., or that, to be fair to Green, Zack and Miri makes Pineapple Express look like Annie Hall.) Doing Smith-inflected variations on their Apatow-approved personas, everyschlub Seth Rogen and go-to hottie Elizabeth Banks are roommates, BFFs, and fellow wage slaves fighting the slacker good fight in snow-and-grime coated Pittsburgh. Facing certain eviction from their rat’s nest apartment, the two cook up a novel (if totally contrived) get rich quick scheme: they’ll write, direct, and star in an amateur porno, a sex tape they can hock to their ten-years-removed graduating class or, with any luck, to legions of horny, curious, or simply bored web-surfers.

If Zack and Miri’s heart, soul, and central dramatic tension hinges on the will-they-or-won’t-they (screw on camera) tension between Rogen and Banks, Smith scarcely trusts his capable stars to do the broad comedic lifting. That thankless task is left to the supporting cast, the stars of the film’s home-made blue movie, a motley crew of colorful characters embodied by Smith’s regular collaborators (like Jason Mewes, half-way credible as Not Jay), a few familiar faces from the Apatow camp (like “The Office’s” scene-stealing Craig Robinson, easily the funniest person on screen here), and a couple of former, real-life porn stars. With the right material, this spirited band of auxiliary players—an oddball ensemble, with not even a Jason Lee-caliber star in the mix—might have scored some modest laughs. But they’re stranded by a script that reduces all of them to one-trick-pony caricatures, mere mouthpieces for the writer-director’s retrograde, naughty-boy riffs. Like a wide-eyed 14-year-old snickering his way through Sex Ed class, Smith seems convinced that the mere mention of bodily functions and bedroom activities is wildly, hilariously transgressive. Yet none of his foul-mouthed verbiage will elicit even a blush from anyone weaned on the weekly obscenities of “South Park,” the daily dirty talk of Howard Stern, or the gross-out American comedy tropes of a post-Animal House wasteland.

It was probably too much to ask of Smith that he tap into the pleasures and challenges and go-for-broke ingenuity of guerilla filmmaking—even smut has an artistic force behind it, as Boogie Nights joyously reminded us. But did his satirizing of amateur skin flicks have to be so SNL obvious? (The acting is stilted! The dialogue is artless and un-sexy! The plots are contrived!) In the film’s one moment of funny and fleeting insight, Smith suggests that, in this web-obsessed, viral video age, screwing on camera is a potentially viable path to fame and fortune—“Everybody wants to see anybody fuck,” Rogen amusingly asserts. But such relevant cultural commentary seems well out of reach for a filmmaker firmly fixed in the last decade, when he was still an important (albeit hotly debated) figure of the American indie movie scene. Were it not for a couple of references to YouTube and flatscreen TVs, Zack and Miri might well be some lost relic of the mid-90s, Mallrats drenched in date movie schmaltz. Smith’s Pittsburgh is not unlike his New Jersey: a Land That Time Forgot, or, one imagines, an approximation of his own grunge-slacker teen years. The soundtrack is even peppered with songs from that era, though at only one point—the painfully long high school reunion scene, nestled into the film’s chronically unfunny first act—do such dated cultural signifiers make a lick of sense. Jason Mewes may have finally shed his tired stoner-idiot shtick and Jeff Anderson may have ditched the Randall-ready polyester uniform, but make no mistake: we are safely and firmly entrenched in the View Askew universe.

And Smith preaches to his adoring choir in the only way he knows how. There are jokes about hand-jobs and gay sex, bare asses and granny panties, constipation and masturbation. Oh, and Star Wars, of course—the big guy’s always fancied himself one part potty-mouthed provocateur, two parts uber-geek fanboy. What makes Zack and Miri so insufferable is the healthy helping of Apatow cheese drizzled on top, the sensitive-guy sealant filling in the cracks between the porno-title puns and the faux-risqué sight gags. It’s a market-tested balancing act, and it makes one seriously long for the endearing awkwardness of Chasing Amy, still Smith’s most personal film. Though it hasn’t exactly aged well, the filmmaker’s messy, damaged-heart third feature—his first and most genuine attempt to “grow up”—at least challenged the conventions of contemporary romantic comedies, defying the expected trajectory of its boy-meets-girl narrative. Expel all the tittering sex talk, and Zack and Miri is just another Regular-Joe-nabs-Gorgeous-Best-Friend fantasy fable—business as usual in the Apatow Era. Still, Rogen and Banks, never completely neutered by the strained comic banter Smith makes them recite, almost transform this formula romance into something worth fretting over. The film’s centerpiece is their on-camera sex scene, an uncomfortable encounter that becomes a euphoric one, and the two stars damn near sell it as the transformative experience it’s meant to be. “We went in to fuck, and we ended up making love,” declares Rogen. It’s a sweet sentiment, but one that rings just a bit false when followed, not two minutes later, by Anderson getting a big face-full of feces. I guess you can take the boy out of the Quick Stop, but you can’t take the Quick Stop out of the boy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

CUL DE SAC: TROPICAL MALADY


A male soldier openly woos a village boy, and nobody bats an eye or whispers a word—is rural Thailand really this refreshingly progressive, or are we in the realm of fantasy from frame one? Torn between reality and myth, naturalism and allegoric poeticism, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s strange and wondrous Tropical Malady treats its central gay romance with a matter-of-factness that borders on abstraction: free of societal oppression and disapproval, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) bond on an almost spiritual level, their slowly blossoming love affair born of mysterious, unspoken natural forces. Schizophrenically split right down the middle, Weerasethakul’s film begins simply enough, charting the men’s tentative courtship, their gentle flirtation, their earnest romantic gestures and sweet declarations of affection. Then, after a daytrip to a cavernous mine—the symbolism is clear—Tropical Malady pulls a 180, veering off into the jungle for a bit of beguiling folklore, the wordless tale of a soldier hunting a tiger through the deep, tangled foliage. Contrary to what many have written, the second half is not a metaphoric reflection of the first, but a continuation: hesitant attraction gives way to a full-blown sexual pursuit, with the erotic escalation of Keng and Tong’s relationship suggested through image and motion, mysterious desire painted grand on a mythic canvas. Reconciling the oppositional halves of Weerasethakul’s confounding mood piece is no simple task. Thankfully, the through line they share—two souls connecting in an idyllic land where their love is not taboo—couldn’t be clearer.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

CUL DE SAC: Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN


BIG SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't seen Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuarón's hilarious, moving, and totally profound coming-of-age fable, read no further. For my money, this probably remains the greatest film of the new millennium. No lie and no hyperbole. This review's got some major plot points spilled, and I'd really hate to ruin the narrative pleasures the movie has to offer. You have been warned.

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN

Long before their platonic bromance blossoms into a sexual romance, forbidden desire joyfully consummated in one alcohol-fueled night of reckless passion, it’s painfully clear that Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) just want to fuck each other. When they’re not having buck-naked towel fights and poolside jerk sessions, these textbook closet cases are screwing each other’s girlfriends and competing for the same way-out-of-their-league senoritas. Raunchy sex farces don’t come much funnier and more honest than this, but Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuarón’s boisterous and bittersweet ode to accidental self-discovery, aspires to a hell of a lot more than a bi-curious American Pie for the art house set. Attempting, rather transparently, to seduce an older woman, the mysterious Maria (Ana López Mercado), our idiot-horndog heroes chart a random course to an imaginary utopia, some made-up beach getaway on the Mexican coast. Somehow, this ill-conceived road-trip does get them laid, but that’s merely the prelude to a pricklier and more profound journey: with Maria as their no-bullshit guide, Julio and Tenoch stumble upon a whole world—a history, a culture, and a community—outside of the selfish and insular one they’ve built for themselves. And then they stumble, suddenly and ecstatically, into each other. By Cuaron’s radical estimation, sexual awakening goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a social conscience—only when we truly know ourselves can we finally feel the pulse of the planet and its people. Of course, retreat is always an option and enlightenment can be fleeting. Tragic, to choose the darkness we know over the blinding, terrifying light we need.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

CUL DE SAC: BOYS DON'T CRY


It's the movie that made an actress, a star, and an Oscar winner out of that scrawny, spunky girl from "90210" and The Next Karate Kid. But take Hillary Swank and her revelatory tour de force out of the equation, and what's to be made, in this new era of palatable American indies, of Boys Don't Cry? Nearly a decade after the awards frenzy and year's-best hoopla, Kimberly Pierce’s harrowing howl of social outrage is frequently regarded as something of an Important Bummer—in other words, as the type of work you swallow like bad medicine, enduring its horrors out of some sense of noble, civic responsibility and then vowing to never suffer through them again. It's an understandable reaction. Casting an unflinching eye on the real-life tragedy of Teena Brandon, a young Nebraskan transgender raped and murdered by his friends after they discover his female parts, Boys Don't Cry is grueling in its stark depiction of hate-crime atrocity. What people often forget is everything leading up to that heart-and-stomach-wrenching finale. Released just one year after the murder of Matthew Shepherd, Pierce’s debut offers both rage and consolation, attempting, in one fell swoop, to both harshly expose and empathetically heal the festering wounds of an ideologically divided nation. And, in the swagger and soul and joy—yes, joy—of Swank’s live-wire performance, the film mourns Teena’s death by celebrating his life, selling his nervy gender deception as an essential journey of self-discovery. As such, the defining moment of Boys Don’t Cry is not its devastating climax, but the scene in which a smirking Swank, her hair-cropped short and her masculine features accentuated, whispers “You’re an asshole” at her own reflection. Teena Brandon has become Brandon Teena. And finally, if only for a brief while, he soars.