I once took a class in college called “Youth and Film,” in which the professor, a large queen with a pierced eyebrow, screened Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, The Doom Generation and Totally F***ed Up, in addition to some Larry Clark works. Today, the image of this professor still largely informs my impression of Araki fans: militant queers with bland lives who wish that youth were a drama-filled, drug-fueled, sexually depraved existence in nighttime Los Angeles.
Araki’s ’90s films were always slipping into cliché (TV is just a form of social control!), the obvious (sex is craaaazy!), self-righteous indignation (suburban heterosexuals are evil!) and just plain inaccuracy (Ecstasy is a big deal!). I considered him just another gay man passing off his appetite for jailbait as a form of subversive art.
But aside from its hipster wardrobe and transparent symbolism (sex on spilled children’s breakfast cereal . . . oh, I see), Araki’s latest, Mysterious Skin, is alarming in its authenticity and non-hysterical take on the country’s current number-one crime. Children are presented as sexual beings, semi-complicit in their exploitation. The script forces us to defend our instincts regarding the age of consent, and to question whether they’re our instincts at all.
Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt deliver as teenagers who were sexually plumbed by a little-league coach in the wastelands of suburban Kansas. One turns sexually inert while the other goes hustler, eventually moving to New York, where his fuckability turns him from empowered sex object to prey. Unlike Kansas — which is literally presented as a fantasy world of UFOs and daytime television — the city offers disease, disorientation and sexual brutality.
The story, based on a Scott Heim novel, is not Araki’s (although he does take a screenplay credit). But the direction clearly is. For the first time, he’s made a movie about characters, not his desperate need to shock. There’s drugs, there’s sex, there’s drama. There’s just no Gregg Araki screaming, “I’m here! Get used to it!” All this time he’s been trying to create my professor’s fantasy. But reality, he seems to have realized, is far more outrageous. — Will Doig
| The first sequence in Matthew Vaughn’s crime flick about Ecstasy dealers is a brilliant gimmick, but it’s also false advertising. In the opening minutes, Daniel Craig intones a cocky, Brit-bastard monologue about the future prospects of drug-peddling and a sly CGI effect illustrates his story. Shelves pile up with narcotics, uppers, downers and E, all in tasteful packages that wouldn’t look out of place in Sephora. It’s lightly satirical, the slightest bit futuristic, stylish as Craig’s bespoke suits.
But Vaughn gets lazy after that, or maybe he ran out of money for effects. That sly vignette soon bleeds into a dated gangland tale about cocky pushers (including Michael Gambon) and hot girls (including Sienna Miller), adding little to a genre already mined by Vaughn as producer of Guy Ritchie’s too-fondly-remembered Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The rest of Layer Cake unspools in the standard idiom of One Last Score, in which a Gangster of Conscience finds that he can’t cut the unbreakable Apron Strings of Crime without delivering one more deal for The Big Guy, and then, well, you know . . .
Films like this don’t have to reinvent the tango; they just have to dance it with grace. Luckily, Daniel Craig (rumored to be the future James Bond) has plenty of cut in his strut. He’s a suave brute who executes all the necessary moves. He’s also gruff, handsome and huge, and it’s a relief to see a bruiser played by a man who could actually hurt somebody (unlike, say, Orlando Bloom). You just wish he’d found a better dancefloor. Logan Hill
| Arnaud Desplechin makes movies the way neurotics pack suitcases cramming everything in for fear of leaving something essential out. Critics of a certain stripe have a tendency to forgive the sloppy excesses of filmmakers prone to the grandiose gesture, and Desplechin’s latest, Kings & Queen, is being hailed as a sprawling, vibrant masterpiece. In fact, like most of his other films, it’s an epic trifle, amounting to little more than a handful of sublime moments in search of a credible context.
To an extent, Desplechin gets away with it simply because he’s smart enough to consistently cast two of the wiliest, most fascinating actors in France. Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips) plays Nora, a weirdly beatific art dealer tending to her persnickety father, who’s dying of cancer. A parallel story follows Nora’s ex-husband, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), as he’s committed to a mental institution following the latest in a series of manic episodes. It’s some time before we learn of the connection between our dual protagonists (the film runs about two-and-a-half hours), but then, narrative isn’t really Desplechin’s primary concern, or even his tertiary concern. Rather, he’s keen to tackle the nature of identity itself, revealing new facets of his characters‚ personalities in virtually every scene with a tonal shift to match.
Such ambition is commendable, to be sure. Unfortunately, as a medium, cinema isn’t especially suited to this particular task, what with its restrictions on duration (you’d need about a thirty-hour film to achieve what Desplechin means to), and its limited ability to convey thought as well as behavior. Even in the hands of actors as superlative as Devos and Amalric, both Nora and Ismael come across as clunky conceits, their separate tales dramatically muddled and self-consciously quirky, respectively. Rather than characters far richer and more complicated then they first appeared, they come across as arbitrary reinventions marionettes whose strings are constantly being grabbed by different puppeteers with wildly conflicting agendas. There’s a terrific movie maybe several terrific movies buried somewhere within the emotional rubble that is Kings & Queen. All Desplechin needs to find it, or them, is a paring knife. Mike D’Angelo
| This week, David Gordon Green’s stylish southern parable Undertow makes its DVD debut, but it’s not great date material (unless you think you’ll both enjoy seeing Jamie Bell stagger through a forest with a rusty nail struck through his foot). Instead, go for his 2003 romance All the Real Girls, a film with no puncture wounds but one heartbreaking performance from Zooey Deschanel, the geeky lust object in the new Hitchhiker’s Guide.
An unabashed Southern romance, Green’s story follows small-town lothario Paul (Paul Schneider), who falls head-over-heels for the virginal boarding-school girl Noel (Deschanel), who happens to be Paul’s wingman. The slow, halting flirtations between Paul and Noel are some of the most genuine I’ve ever seen, but Green isn’t making some fetish out of Southern Authenticity. In fact, he’s often critiqued for just how sophisticated his films look, as if such halting, naturalistic dialogue should only be shot with a Super 8 and lit with a flashlight (and as if only places like Brooklyn, say, deserve visual vernaculars as stylish as their dialects).
But I love the way Green lovingly frames his characters within artful shots of bowling alleys and backyards, because the shots themselves are so very seductive. Green may write ineloquent dialogue and frame awkward pauses, but he doesn’t settle for some too-simple idea of stripped-bare authenticity. He embraces the storytelling and flat-out goes for it. I admire the pragmatic bravado of a filmmaker like Green and a lothario like Paul: the honesty it takes to look someone straight in the face, and tell them, in the words of like-minded romantic studio band Wilco: I am trying to break your heart. Logan Hill