Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 20: Nerd Vomit with a Vengeance

It's my birthday and here's a new episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show.

Here's our second Nerd Vomit episode this summer and our third overall. You might as well call this one the "Man of Steel" episode, as that's what we talk about for most of the recording. As we did with "Iron Man 3," we recorded some pre-show thoughts as well as our first impressions of the film after seeing it. This would have been far more relevant if it had gone up a week ago but, you know me. I've got to edit like crazy. (And it shows.) So here's us discussing a week old movie like it's still brand new.

Aside from Superman, we cover all sorts of topics, from Bruce Lee, the Loony Tunes, Alan Moore, Akira Kurosawa and William Shakespeare, not to mention a heaping helping of Nerd News! But it all comes back to Superman. We'll only do one more Nerd Vomit this summer, I promise. And horror next time! Seriously!

Concerning this blog specifically, I have two large Report Cards in the work. Hopefully, I will start posting one of those within the month, though no guarantees. Odds are good that you won't see me again until July.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 19: Dudes

This actually went up nearly two weeks ago. You can tell I'm real invested in posting these to my blog.

If it wasn't all ready apparent, I do "The Bangers n' Mash Show" strictly because my brain forces me too. I frequently don't enjoy the long hours I put into editing each episodes. (Something like 12 hours to cut 2 1/2 hours of audio.) And it's obvious that I don't do it for my fans. As you can see, as of now, this latest episode has exactly 9 views. I keep hoping that, if I stick it out long enough, eventually a following will form. But to be honest, I'm not holding my breath for that to happen.

No, I work on the Podcast Nobody Likes or Listens To strictly because the demons that live in my brain tell me I have too. Neither my co-host or I are willing to give up on it as of now. It's become a weird part of my daily life, along with all the other nerdy busy body I do every day. The point of this rant is that this latest episode has an audience-isolating topic: Dude movies. Some of you probably don't even know what a "dude movie" is, exactly. We explain in the audio but the short version is they are comedies revolving around a pair (or more) of young men going on wacky adventures. The "Bill and Ted" and "Wayne's World" series are probably the prime example. Guessing by the number of views, this isn't a topic we'll be returning to anytime soon.

Anyway, another episode is all ready half-way finished, another Nerd Vomit where we rant about "Man of Steel." (Short version: I liked it.) That should be out in a few days. Horror after that, promise.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2012)

7. Marfa Girl

Six years is a long hiatus for any filmmaker, especially since Larry Clark was popping movies out almost annually there for a while. After that much of a break, you’d expect a filmmaker to come back with something new, engaged with different subjects. But then again, this is Larry Clark we’re talking about. Yep, the guy is still at it, making movies about teenagers fucking. All of his work is a variation on a theme. “Marfa Girl” takes a few new turns even if it’s firmly rooted in the director’s obsessions.

The title is somewhat misleading. Yeah, the movie is set in Marfa, Texas, a place I’ve only ever heard of in relation to the Marfa lights spook-light phenomenon. That’s not the misleading part. Instead, the movie is actually about a boy, not a girl. Fifteen year old Adam, about to turn sixteen, is the protagonist. He skates, is in a band, occasionally enjoys a pot cigarette, is friends with a sexually liberated young mother, and is currently trying to get into his girlfriend’s pants. His mom rehabilitates parrots and is heavily involved in the local spiritualist and art scene. She’s friends with a twenty-something artist, the titular Marfa Girl, a young lady who believes in free love and equality of genders. Connecting all the story threads is Tom, a border patrol cop with sadomasochistic fantasies, misogynistic tendencies, and an unhealthy obsession with Adam and his mom.

“Marfa Girl” is edgier then “Wassup Rockers” but is still more gentle then the majority of the director’s films. As you’d expect, the film is loosely plotted, rolling from one encounter to another. The pacing is relaxed, instead of belabored. Once again, Clark has successfully put us into these kids’ lives. There’s not much of a score and what is there is odd, chiptune music. The film is named after its setting because Marfa is a character onto itself. It’s clear that the odd mixture of artists, spiritualists, disaffected kids, and border patrol cops that makes up the town was Clark’s main inspiration. After watching the film, you feel like you know what a day in the sleepy town must feel like.

As is expected with Clark by this point, among the teenage sex scenes, drugs, and violence, are genuinely touching or intriguing moments. An early moment, when Adam’s mom talks with a friend about loosing pets and reincarnation, really impressed me. Though the movie seems to implicitly suggest that the whole conversation is ridiculous, the emotion the moment sums up is true. Another stand-out moment is Adam and the Marfa Girl’s discussion about sexism and double standards. This leads to an encounter with two Mexican border patrol cops, starting a heated conversation. Clark continues to do intimate conversation well. The Girl has a revealing conversation with the mellower of the two cops, about his military history. An earlier date with another artist is charmingly awkward. Even the villainous Tom gets a revealing monologue near the end. Surprisingly, the sex scenes, only a few of which involve teenagers, have a gentle, romantic tone to them, making this, perhaps, Clark’s first legitimately erotic film.

Adam is your standard Clark protagonist: Obsessed with sex with no clear direction in life. His sweet relationship with his Mom makes him different though. Adam Mediano has a natural charisma as an actor and it’s not impossible to see him going on to a real acting career. Drake Burnette as the titular character does very well, being spunky and lovable. She can’t make all her heavy dialogue work but the actress is still likable. I didn’t care for what happens to her in the last act though. That felt unnecessary. I especially liked Indigo Rael as Adam’s friend Donna. She’s a complex character, a mother, a teen, and sexually open. Mary Farley is also strong as Adam’s mom.

Tom is the most fascinating character in the film. He’s a total creep. Aside from needlessly harassing Adam, he makes sexist remarks to a young waitress, tricks a fast food clerk into a date that transforms into a possible sexual assault, and shows Adam’s mom disturbing “blue waffle” pictures. For most of the film, he comes off as a thinly developed villain. His eventual acts of violence and sexual assault aren’t surprising. Frankly, his admittance of getting turned on by violence is awkwardly presented and Clark falling back on shock value and boners. However, the character’s monologue, were he discusses his past and his relationship with his father, are oddly powerful. Jeremy St. James actually gives a fantastic performance, making Tom an ugly creep but also, oddly easy to watch.

The movie concludes with violence. You could say this is lazy. However, the middle section of the movie, which includes a long drug trip in a school gym, drags on. The whole movie sets up this conflict between Adam and Tom. The ending is a fine pay-off to this. The resolution puts a nice emotional bow on the story.

So “Marfa Girl” is about half/half. It’s a lot of the same stuff you’d expect from the director by now. Its dreamy tone is sometimes entrancing, sometimes boring. The script is unbalanced between captivating character study and directionless location piece. I both like the town and have no desire to ever visit it. All things considered, it’s what I would expect from the director at this point in his career.

Clark released the movie independently as a streaming rental through his website, with no intention of ever releasing it to theaters or home video. He hopes to reach the kids this way. Maybe he will. I don’t know what young people will think out of "Marfa Girl." It won’t change detractors mind and it could potentially either surprise or bore Clark defenders. Despite it's issues, it's still the filmmaker's best work in years. [Grade: B-]

Clark might be busier now then ever before. He all ready has another film in development called "The Smell of Us," has hinted that the long-gestating "Savage Innocent" could shoot soon, and seems serious about developing "Marfa Girl" into a trilogy of films somehow. Internet distribution and streaming rental might be the filmmaker's salvation. Just by going on the titles, I think it's safe to assume this tiger isn't going to change its stripes any time soon. Larry Clark will continue to make movies about teenagers fucking until the day he dies or gets thrown in jail. He is cinema's most persistent dirty old man.

His movies aren't always great and are frequently not worth what they ask of the audience to put into them. Yet I can't help but like the guy, his indie spirit, his unwavering interest in specific subjects. Larry Clark might not be a great filmmaker but he is a true American original. You've got to give him that much.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2005)

6. Wassup Rockers

Every one of Larry Clark’s film has a distinct aesthetic and caters to the filmmaker’s fetishes. Since “Kids,” he has worked with professional actors in every one of his films. There are always plenty of young unknowns present but even “Ken Park” had a bit part for Amanda Plummer. In that regard, “Wassup Rockers” represent the directors trying to get back to his roots. It’s a film cast entirely with young kids right off the streets, with zero professional training.

Going into “Wassup Rockers,” I was expecting the same-old, same-old from the director. The movie opens with a shirtless teenage boy delivering a rambling monologue about his friends. This segues into a kid on the sidewalk getting shot in the head. Oh hai, Larry. However, “Wassup Rockers” slowly reveals itself as a slightly different beast. The story revolves around seven Latino and Hispanic boys living in South Central. The friends break stereotypes by being into skateboarding, punk rock, and tight jeans, something they are constantly challenged for every day. After a while, the group find themselves stuck in Beverley Hills. The boys just want to skate but adversity waits around every corner. Two long days follow before they finally wander back home.

The kids of “Wassup Rockers” are different then the lot Clark usually deals with. They pass around a beer in one scene and the boys are constantly trying to get laid. Beyond that? No drugs. No brutal beatings. No teenage orgies. The Rockers don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble finds them. The escalating encounters frequently come off as comic when they aren’t tragic. Clark is always as interested in his young actors’ personality as he is their bodies but, for once, the ratio seems to skew towards personality.

There are some amusing, insightful moments throughout “Wassup Rockers.” The early scenes of the boys starting their days contrast the potty-mouth teens with their still juvenile bedrooms. The scenes of the boys partying and hanging out have a playful, naturalistic charm to them. They play with their pet dogs, practice their punk rock music, and reminisce about past girlfriends. Long scenes of the gang skateboarding from one location to another don’t add much to the plot but they are powered by quick-paced, energetic punk music.

The movie has a comic vein not usually seen in Clark’s work. An encounter with a racist police officer quickly escalates to humor, when the kids finally get fed up with the man’s bullshit. One of the best reoccurring jokes involves two of the boys’ constant attempts to get laid. Each time they come close but are interrupted before getting pass second base. Bicycle cops cut a car trunk rendezvous short, in a nice, visual gag. The guys drawl the attention of a pair of preppy, white Beverly Hills girls. This seems to be going well enough, until the girls’ brothers come home, forcing a sudden escape. The best moment in the film is buried here: An intimate discussion between a boy raised in the ghetto and a girl living in luxury, illustrating the differences between their two lives.

The movie takes several shots at celebrity culture. The boys stumble into a party filled with arty type hipsters. The partiers are depicted as shallow and surface-obsessed. One, in particular, takes a predatory, sexual interest in Jonathan, the lead rocker. (Whether or not this is Larry Clark commenting on his own films depends on how self-aware you think the filmmaker is.) These scenes are funny and brisk. However, immediately following that, the movie takes a sharp turn. Violence suddenly, shockingly erupts during an encounter with an old actor obviously meant to be Clint Eastwood. The movie zags back to comedy with Janice Dickinson’s cameo as an alcoholic version of herself. This ends in violence too and it’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to laugh or cringe.

The script is typically loose which slowly becomes a problem. Jonathan repeats “and then” during his long monologue at the beginning of the film. Similarly, the movie feels like our cast just stumbling from one encounter to another. The pace burns out before the run time is up, leading to a dragging last half-hour.

The kids themselves are a problem. Some are given distinct personalities. Jonathan is the leader and sexually irresistible to everyone around him. Kico is his best friend, sarcastic and humorous. Porky is depressive, love-lorn, and prone to ineffectual suicide attempts. Milton, who has the embarrassing nickname “Spermball,” is trying to loose weight and reinvent himself as a serious young man. Many of the characters aren’t even given that much personally. Sadly, there aren’t any Rosario Dawsons, Chloe Sevignys, or even a Leo Fitzpatrick in this cast. The performances are frequently rough. Jonathan and Milton show a certain charm but even their line-readings can be stilted and unnatural. It takes the viewer out of what is supposed to be a street-level, reality-based film.

That’s “Wassup Rockers” biggest flaws. If it weren’t for the inexperienced cast or lagging pace, this would be a good introduction to Clark’s work, as it generally lacks the transgressive edge of his other films. Had the film been a little better written and a little better acted, it would probably rank among the filmmaker’s best work. As it is, “Wassup Rockers” is an interesting, though not entirely successful, experiment. [Grade: C+]

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2002) Part 2

5. Ken Park

Though Larry Clark and Harmony Korine collaborated on “Kids” together, their subsequent careers went off in very different directions. Clark continued to make his indie-drama-exploitation movies, while the majority of Korine’s films revolve around white-trash grotesques in sometimes surreal environments. Despite this, the two collaborated again for Clark’s fifth film, “Ken Park.” The result was one of Clark’s most controversial films in a career that has courted controversy continuously. It’s also one of the director’s most uneven works. I never thought I’d be complaining about the lack of subtly in a Larry Clark film and yet....

The film follows the life of five teens, some in the skateboarding culture, over the course of more or less a day. Though the teens are all friends, there’s very little interaction among them for the majority of the run time. Shawn is having sex with his girlfriend’s mom, his girlfriend and her family completely unaware of it. Claude is close to his pregnant mother but his father is belligerent towards him, attacking his sensitive son because he’s not “manly” enough. Peaches, at first, appears to be doing all right, even if her father is very religious and stuck on her dead mother. Not so much, it turns out. Meanwhile Tate is a complete psychopath, verbally abusing his sweet grandparents, physically threatening his three-legged dog and scrap-booking pictures of starving Ethiopian orphans. The titular Ken Park kills himself in the opening scene and doesn’t come up again until the very end. His death provides a context for the dysfunctional stories to follow.

More then any of Clark’s previous films, “Ken Park” is focused on the relationship between children and parents. Claude’s story is probably the most captivating. While he is at odds with his father from the beginning, the films drawls numerous parallels between them. Dad complains about his son while watching an episode of “Jerry Springer” and swilling a beer. Son complains about his dad while getting high with his friends. While Father drives around town, looking for action with hookers, Son tries to get a female friend to come over for some fun. Claude doesn’t understand his father’s interest in weight-lifting, while Dad is antagonistic towards his son’s skateboarding habit. As is often the case with rocky child/parent relationships, the two have more in common then either party would like to admit. One of Claude’s friends delivering a moving monologue about the value of a father easily ranks among the film’s best moments.

We don’t spend a lot of time with Shawn’s parents but his girlfriend’s family provides a perverse surrogate of sorts. We aren’t given a good reason why Rhonda, his girlfriend’s mother, is having a sexual relationship with the boy. Even while intimate, there is an oddly maternal tone to her actions. His first proposition of her is delayed until she finishes folding clothes. She undresses him like a mother undressing a young child. She instructs him on performing cunnilingus on her like a parent teaches a kid to ride a bike. Shawn is clearly in love with Rhonda but she’s cautious about the boy’s affections, talking around his probing questions. Later on, she invites the boy to family dinner. Rhonda casually repels her husband’s own sexual advances. Whether or not he’s aware of his wife’s affair is left ambiguous, though his suspicion is implied, providing some minor suspense during a later scene.

Unfortunately, many of the film’s intriguing, subtle themes are overshadowed by its focus on shock value. This is when Korine’s influence becomes most apparent. From the moment it’s revealed that Peaches’ father is hyper-religious, it’s obvious he’s going to freak out over his daughter’s inevitable sexual escapades. I had hoped the movie wouldn’t go down that obvious, ham-fisted route. Early scenes of Peaches introducing her dad to her boyfriend are, while a little odd, still somewhat sweet. The man misses his dead wife dearly and puts a lot of faith in his intelligent, observant daughter. However, because this is a Larry Clark film, as soon as the teens are left alone, kinky sex ensues. We know the parent is going to walk in on it. The results are sadly predictable, with expected bible bashing and religious reeducation. Even the bizarre, pseudo-incestuous mock-marriage that closes Peaches’ storyline is heavily foreshadowed.

This doesn’t compare to the entire Tate subplot, which is just obnoxious from beginning to end. The character is cartoonish and grotesque. His grandparents are painted as unrealistic simply because they put up with the kid’s behavior at all. Tate’s psychosis is immediately apparent. The story ending in murder, mutilation, and inappropriate boners isn’t surprising. Not that you care about the hateful little shit at all. Clark’s shock tendencies go into overdrive during these sequences. There is a graphic, extended, seemingly unsimulated scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation. You see absolutely everything. It’s completely unnecessary. Moreover, since Tate has no interaction with the rest of the cast, the entire subplot is unnecessary. It’s shrill, annoying, and, frankly, gross.

Other potentially insightful scenes are ruined by the desire to shock. After a night of binge drinking, Claude’s Dad reflects on his own life and his son’s. He lies down in bed with the boy, sleeping next to him. It’s a sad, poignant moment but one that suggests a possible, emotional resolution. Instead, Clark takes the scene to a weird, creepy place. Even then, Wade Williams’ delivery of the line “Nobody loves me” is great, even if it doesn’t make up for the blind attempt to shock. This is all clearly Harmony Korine’s work and I wish Clark had scripted the film by himself. (The long scenes devoted to toenail clipping and scab picking are probably Korine’s work too.)

The movie wraps up with a long, very graphic threesome scene. Like all the sex in the movie, it is unsimulated. Up to this point, I was able to see some sort of artistry behind Clark’s love of young flesh. For the first time, his pervy obsession with teenagers fucking has made me uncomfortable. The scene attempts to provide emotional catharsis to the troubled young characters but the sheer graphic quality overshadows this.

Despite the explicit content, Clark has rounded up a few recognizable actors. Amanda Plummer is very good as Claude’s kind, forgiving mother. Richard Riehle, one of those great “know the face, not the name” character actors, has a memorable if small supporting role. The young actors are unknowns and give naturalistic but believable performances. Stephen Jasso, concealing a lot of sensitivity and insight under a misleading appearance, probably does the best of the lot. Tiffany Limos, so terrible in "Teenage Caveman," is a close second and seems very comfortable with the uncomfortable material.

The last scene returns us to Ken Park, revealing the motivation for his suicide and confirming this as a movie about parents and children. There is potentially rich material here but Clark’s desire to "not cut away” instead makes “Ken Park” a shock movie. Maybe the filmmaker was just looking to see how far he could push it. Considering the film was widely banned and has yet to receive an official state-side release, maybe he pushed it too far. Valuable content can be gleamed among all the shock, semen, dicks and pussies but it might be too far a bridge to travel. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2002) Part 1

4. Teenage Caveman

The “Creature Feature” series was a great idea and a total failure. Five monster movies, each a remake of a 1950s sci-fi creature flick from the American International Pictures vaults. Each film was the loosest of remakes, in-name-only, and helmed by edgy, fresh talent. Creature and make-up effects master Stan Winston produced the whole lot and each one prominently featured work from his studio. The films were shown over the period of a month on Cinemax. There was even a series of high quality, detailed action figures. Sadly, most of the movies were pretty shitty and the whole experiment is more-or-less forgotten these days. (I still have the action figures though! Because I’m a nerd!) Weirdly, it was just announced that a new set of producers are going to try the same thing again, producing a third version of “Teenage Caveman!”

Larry Clark, talent that he questionably is, probably isn’t the first name you’d think of to be involved with such a project. No surprise, “Teenage Caveman” is more in line with his sensibilities then what you’d expect from a typical monster movie. So, naturally, we get lots of naked teenage boys and girls having sex, doing drugs, lounging around in their underwear, and getting splattered with blood. The director even manages to sneak in a reference to skate-boarding.

After some sort of apocalyptic cataclysm has destroyed the world as we know it, society has retreated back into caves. The story follows a group of young people, rebelling against the corrupt and asshole-ish adults who control life in the caverns, because some thing’s never change, even after the apocalypse. After David, the default leader of the group, is thrown out of the caves for stabbing his hypocrite dad in the eye, him and five of his friend set out on a journey into the world beyond. Finding the ruins of New York City, the guys and gals are quickly caught in a freak sand storm. They are rescued by a pair of immortals, Neil and Judith, waking up in their swanky apocalypse bunker in their underwear. The two quickly introduce the group to sex, drugs, and alcohol. However, duh duh dun-duh!, their keepers are not what they appear to be.

It probably says a lot about the quality of the rest of the movie that the first thing I think of to compliment is the production design. When living in the caves, everyone dresses in leftover rags from the previous age. Spears and weapons are similarly fashioned. It’s also intriguing that modern religion has survived into this new world. David’s asshole dad, the leader of the cave folk, uses the Bible to manipulate his people and supply himself with fresh virgins. Kids struggling against puritanical parents is hardly a new idea and, in Clark’s hands, probably would have come off as shrill and overdone. However, it still proves more interesting then the movie that follows.

Clark indulges his fetishes to the point where it becomes distracting. When David is expelled from the cave, his punishment is to be striped naked and tied to a post, the camera paying a bit too much attention to his nude chest. When retrieve by the immortals, the young cast wake up in their underwear. The teens spend, more or less, the rest of the movie in various states of undress, totally nude when not in their tighty-whities. An extended dip in a hot tub leads up to what can only be refer to as the orgy scene. The kids snort coke and swill booze before falling on each other. While Clark skips the male frontal nudity, the kids still get a graphic crash course in sexual gymnastics.

Some time after this, “Teenage Caveman” remembers it’s supposes to be a horror movie. Though it’s apparent to the audience immediately, the kids slowly come to realize their hosts aren’t exactly human. Clark takes a quite literal “sex can kill” message here as, following their enthusiastic fucking session with the hosts, some of the teens explode. The special effects in these sequences are awkward, mixing practical effects and CGI in a non-convincing manner. The cast is slowly widdled away, characters getting guts slashed open, heads ripped off, and hearts torn out. Some of these effects, like a decapitated head still blinking, work quite well. Others, like a hand awkwardly getting CGI-shoved through someone’s chest or a normal forehead rippling into a monster brow, look awful. When the Future Mutant finally shows up, looking nothing like the awesome action figure or illustration on the DVD cover, it definitely proves to not be the Stan Winston Studio’s strongest work. Besides, it’s hard to take a Neanderthal monster seriously in tight, shiny, silver pants.

Probably the biggest, though far from the only, problem with the film is its cast. The actors in this are just plain awful. The majority of the kids are indistinct. Heather is the busty redhead. Joshua is black and romantic. Elizabeth is black and sexually adventurous. Vincent (Stephen Jasso, who Clark would use much better in “Ken Park”) is the one who gets a little too excited about the events that follow. The guys do okay, though Jasso overplays it, but both of the girls give awkward, at best, performances. Even the lead kids, Andrew Keegan as David and Tara Subkoff as Sarah, are frequently weak. Keegan bounces back and forth between the noble leader type and as much of a debauched partier as everyone else. Sarah is the virginal one and, I think, supposes to be the reasonable, smart one. However, Subkoff is shrill and, even when it makes sense, comes off as petty and bitchy.

As bad as the kids are, they can’t compare to Richard Hillman and Tiffany Limos as the immortals. Hillman is doing the world’s worse Jason Mewes impersonation. His character is incredibly petty for somebody who has lived for a hundred years. Everyone he does is for stupid, tiny reasons and, by the time he's slashing his unslashable wrists just to feel alive, any chance of him coming off as a realistic, believable character has gone south. Hillman is terrible. Limos is worse. It, honestly, might be one of the worse performances I’ve ever seen. She is stiff and sleepy during most of the movie, barely emoting. Later on, she starts going way over the top. A shouting match between Hillman and Limos is insanely bad and completely laughable. Everything that comes out of Limos’ mouth is terrible.

The script is loaded with holes. The unkillable mutants are never as invulnerable as they claim.  The sound design is especially bad. Every time somebody gets slapped, which occurs a lot, the same overly loud, obviously canned slap sound effect is used. After the tenth time we hear it, I can only assume it was some sort of in-joke on the filmmaker’s behalf. The pacing is, as is sadly typical with Clark, haphazard. After the orgy scene, the director’s interest weans and the movie wanders aimlessly from plot point to plot point. The
resolution is quick and muddled.

Ultimately, it’s clear that sci-fi-horror isn’t Larry Clark’s forte. “Teenage Caveman” is a bore when it isn’t hilariously bad. The pithy tagline is “The Future Sucks.” So does this movie. [Grade: D]

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2001)

3. Bully

“Bully” establishes many of its themes in the opening minutes. This is a movie that begins with Brad Renfo looking directly into the camera requesting the audience perform passionate fellatio on him. That’s not the theme-establishing moment. Instead, it comes a second later when, from off-screen, his mother calls him to dinner, blissfully unaware of what’s happening in his bedroom. The opening credits play over one of Clark’s trademark, rolling tracking shots, showing dark clouds looming over suburbia.

Based on a true story, the film shows why a group of teenagers made the decision to murder one of their own. Marty is frequently physically beaten and cruelly manipulated by his “best friend,” Bobby Kent. Bobby is smart, educated, and motivated. Marty is a high school drop-out with a dead-end job, surfing being his only passion. When Marty meets Lisa, and promptly rolls into a serious, romantic relationship with her, Lisa and her friend Ali quickly become new targets of Bobby’s abuse. It’s not long before Lisa decides Bobby has to die, drawling her friends into the scheme.

The movie’s biggest asset is its fascinating central characters. Bobby Kent is a nuanced, complex sociopath. Much of his abuse towards Marty seems to steam from misdirected homoerotic desires. This idea is presented fairly blatantly. Bobby ogles Marty as he has sex, forces him to dance at a gay bar, makes a gay porn video with the intention of selling it, and, most blatantly, watches gay porn while sexually assaulting a girl. When Lisa enters the relationship, she becomes Bobby’s new favorite target of abuse. We don’t see much of it but we do see the bruises lining her body. Bobby is a dick to everyone. Despite his sadism, he is a smart kid, studying piano, about to enter college. Some times, his friendship with Marty seems genuine. Nick Stahl allows all the character’s contrasting details to coexist.

Marty and Lisa’s relationship is almost pure, in a way. Lisa loves him almost immediately and it’s a deep, uncompromised love. When trying to motivate the other kids into murder, Bobby’s abuse of Marty is given far more attention then Bobby’s raping of either girls. Her love is either perfect or deeply delusional, especially since Marty is borderline abusive a few times himself and openly hits on another girl in one scene.

The movie is exhibit one for the late Brad Renfo’s ability as an actor. After sex with Lisa, he talks about his first experience with pot. It starts out funny but quickly becomes heart-breaking, as he describes Bobby abusing him even at an early age. Later on, Marty breaks down at the beach, weeping. The character hides sensitivity under a typical macho bravado. Renfo’s angst seems realistic. He flinches whenever Bobby moves towards him or when desperately arguing with his parents about moving. He’s trapped and, as the movie continues, he remains trapped. Rachel Miner is similarly fantastic as Lisa. In order to make the motivation for the murder seem realistic, we have to buy Lisa’s love for Bobby. Miner succeeds at this. As her nerves crack her up near the end, Miner is similarly successful, such as when she freaks out while burying a sandal. Both young actors are fantastic.

The supporting cast isn’t as strong. Bijou Philips doesn’t have a lot of range as an actress. While she does fine as a slutty, drugged-up party girl, she doesn’t carry a lot of dramatic weight. One of the movie’s biggest problems is that she’s weirdly nonchalant about her character’s sexual assault. Clark eventually uses Philips’ well during her nervous breakdown at the end, where her crack-up is intentionally played as a childish temper tantrum. Donny and Heather, the additional friends, are more-or-less comic relief. Donny is a perpetually stoned-out, sexed-up, tanned beach bunny with a totally empty head. His drug-addled attempts to accomplish anything are frequently amusing. Heather gets out of rehab and immediately gets high again. That character’s reaction to the murder is a fantastic moment though. Kelli Swaller is generally a stronger actor then Michael Pitt.

Leo Fitzpatrick, from “Kids,” has evolved greatly as an actor in the years between the two films. He plays the quote-unqoute “Hitman.” Even though the audience immediately recognizes him as a poser and a fake, he’s still the only guy who truly understands what’s happening. His monologue about working out alibis is intense. He even gets a few laughs, such as when sneering at the other teens or delivering the oddball line “Nature sucks.”

Though briefly pursued in his previous two films, “Bully” focuses a lot on parents’ relationships with their kids. The Moms and Dads are hopelessly clueless about what their kids are up too. Lisa’s Mom pokes her head in on the kids as they sit around, planning murder. Later, Marty’s mom, calling him “lover bug,” ask what the kids are up to as they hash out the details of the crime. (The movie has fun contrasting suburbia with the crime, such as when the kids talk details in a Pizza Hut.) Lisa’s mother is concerned about her choice in friends and the kids’ futures yet she does nothing to change them. Donny mentions his mother planning a kiddy birthday party for her perpetually stoned, horny son.

The movie never directly states that the kids’ behavior is a direct result of the irresponsible parents. Bobby’s sadism seems to be partially the result of his father being an authoritative, bossy jack-ass. He is brow-beaten by his father, folding under dad’s commands. Yet Dad never raises a finger, instead controlling his son with strong words and occasionally coming off as oddly affectionate. Heather delivers a fantastic monologue about her psychotic grandfather murdering her grandmother, directly connecting the incident with her own mother’s poor choice in men. Yet Clark seems to suggest the teens’ behavior is ultimately their own responsibility. He has a cameo in the film, playing a minor character’s dad, letting the teens know that they deserve whatever they get, much the same way Bobby “deserved to die” as a character said earlier.

The movie is also one of Clark’s most smoothly constructed films. It has none of the flagging pacing of that his other films. “Bully” builds extremely well. He maintains the gritty realism of his other films, such as in Ali’s harrowing rape scene where the punches hit extra hard. His direction is very smooth. The camera rotates around the teens when they first meet with the Hitman. The sequence of the murder is fantastically constructed. The music starts mounting as they plan on the beach, the tension rising the longer it goes on. Each act of violence is accompanied by a sickening note in the score. One of the girls crawls into the back of the car, the camera looking down at it, womb-like. Bobby is legitimately baffled by his best friend turning on him. Clark cuts away to hand-held, far-off shots of the city, adding to the frenzy. Voices shout, headlights go off and, finally, a baseball bat slams down. The music cuts out, ending one of the most disturbing and effectively made moment in the director’s entire career.

The lack of pacing problems might be because David McKeena and Roger Pullis’ screenplay. “Bully” has a great last act. After the crime is committed, all of the kids immediately begin denying guilt. Lisa and Marty nervously joke about the crime while having sex the next morning. Marty says he feels like a weight is off his shoulders but his body language says otherwise. Each one of the kids confess the crime to the first person that listens, which includes parents, friends, or random people they run into at the mall. Marty hugs his little brother, innately aware of what is coming. The kids blame each other, everyone but themselves. Fatboy Slim’s “Song for Shelter” is used extremely well here, the upbeat music contrasting with the teens’ growing suspicion and ultimate fate.

Clark’s direction is studio movie slick, while still maintaining his trademark grittiness. When his camera (inevitably) turns on the kids’ bodies, the movie can’t help but come off as exploitative. Clark seems particularly obsessed with Bijou Philip. Her crotch and ass are thrust into the camera blatantly on at least two occasions each. The one sex scene involving candle wax lingers on especially long. Young flesh is blatantly displayed during the gay club scene. There’s brief male full frontal nudity and repeated female full frontal nudity, including many long, sensual pans up Rachel Miner’s body. Whether the constant nudity comes as as skeezy, genuinely erotic, or distracting from the film’s more serious points is probably a matter of personal taste.

“Bully” works for me, as a character study, a thriller, and a meditation on criminal motivation. Clark’s pacing and direction is at its strongest. The young cast does incredible work. All the pieces come together to make it the filmmaker’s best film. [Grade: B+]

Friday, June 7, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (1998)

2. Another Day in Paradise

The first shot in “Another Day in Paradise” is of half-nude young people entwined in each other arms. As if you had any doubt about who directed this. Despite this, “Another Day in Paradise” is something like Clark’s play for mainstream success.  There’s comparatively little teenage humping and nudity. (Comparatively.) It stars well-known actors James Wood and Melanie Griffin. For the majority of its runtime, it works like a straight genre picture, a crime film, something the filmmaker generally avoids.

Clark didn’t write the script either. Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin adapted it from the novel by Eddie Little. Set in the 1970s, the story follows Bobbie and Rosie, two teenage junkies who have to commit petty theft in order to support their habit. Their roommate’s Uncle Mel, a drug dealer and professional robber, decides to recruit the kids into his business. Along with Mel’s girlfriend Sid, the four form an odd family of sorts. The group travel the country, stealing, selling drugs to increasingly dangerous criminals, doing drugs themselves, and occasionally partying. Life on the road eventually proves more difficult then either youth imagined.

Though adapted from pre-existing material and written by other hands, it’s clear to see Clark’s interest in the material. The first act features two young, thin teenage boys lounging around in their tighty-whities together. Bobbie and Rosie celebrate being accepted into Mel’s gang with an enthusiastic session of teenage sex. A brief flashback gives you an idea about Bobbie’s abusive, dysfunctional childhood. Moreover, the two kids inject and snort heroin with abandon. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of drug abuse. Characters tie off arms with rubber tubes, graphically probe around for veins, injecting themselves in the arms, legs, and even the neck. Had Woods and Griffin never walked into the story, this probably would have far more in common with “Kids” or “Bully.”

The middle section of the film, where the quartet gets their drug stealing and selling business going, is probably “Another Day in Paradise” at its most entertaining. The scenes of the gang celebrating their job with a day of clothes shopping and a night in a jazz club are infectiously entertaining. The two buy guns from a scripture-quoting weapons dealer, an endearingly odd touch. An attempt by two skinny goofs to turn the tide on their dealers goes hilariously awry. Things get ugly when a group of white supremacists attempt to rob Mel and the others. Behold, the only time Larry Clark could ever be called an “action” director. Melanie Griffin diving under a bed with a shotgun and blowing a thug’s leg off recalls a similar moment in “Miller’s Crossing,” which would later be referenced more famously in “Kill Bill.” For a director more famous for long scenes of teenage boys wandering around and chatting about pussy, sequences like this are odd, if energetic.

The pacing, Clark’s worst attribute, begins to falter not long after that. The group recuperates at a farm before heading back into the life, before anybody is ready for it. The second half of the movie is a lot less fun, even if an oddly uncredited Lou Diamond Philips camping it up as a flamboyant gay crime boss is a nice touch. The second heist goes wrong, completely off-screen, leading to a messy climax. Characters make several dramatic-for-dramatic’s sake decision and the film wraps up without resolving much. Clark’s lack of interest in the crime plot is more obvious here, as a major character’s sudden death is much more effective and upsetting.

What keeps the film afloat is James Woods and Melanie Griffin’s performances. Woods has played this type of character many times before. Mel is a fast-talking con man, with a sharp sense of humor and, ultimately, only interested in himself. Woods provides loads of personality to the part just by being himself. Whether harping other characters about their lack of experience, swinging guns around, or making snide asides about the cost of clothes, Woods is a delight. Griffin is also very good. Her Cyndi Lauper accent might push it a little far but Griffin invests genuine emotion in her motherly role. Natasha Gregson Wagner is also very good as Rosie, playing a wide range of emotional ups and downs easily.

It’s Vincent Kartheiser I’m not too sure about. In the early-going, as a smart-ass street thug, he does fine. After Woods tells him the money they’ll be making, he looks over his shoulder, into the car window, making an excited face, making sure Mel doesn’t see. Later on, as the script gets heavier, he becomes less believable. Woods doesn’t buy him bossing people around and neither do I. The character is not entirely sympathetic either. By the end, you’re supposed to believe that has learned that the criminal life isn’t for him. Either Kartheiser, the script, or both, can’t sell this, leading to the unsatisfying ending.

Clark’s direction includes a handful of interesting, hand-held shots and one or two visual flourishes. The period authentic soundtrack is excellent and, along with the costumes, help convincingly sell the setting. An interesting hybrid of traditional crime film and typical Larry Clark shenanigans, “Another Day in Paradise” starts strong but looses steam before the end. It would be the director’s first, and last, flirtation with mainstream Hollywood. [Grade: B-]

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (1995)

Some filmmakers court controversy their entire careers. Larry Clark might be one of the most controversial filmmakers to ever live. All of his movies revolve around young people partaking in drugs, violence, and wanton sexuality, with few punches pulled. He is frequently criticized for his obsession with teenagers' bodies, which he has never been shy about showing. However, his movies are also, rightfully, lauded for their realism and keen sense of time and place. I may, perhaps, be creating some controversy of mine own by coming out as a Larry Clark defender even if, as this report card will reveal, his career is highly uneven.

1. Kids

In the mid-nineties, the indie film scene exploded. Low budget filmmakers came out of nowhere and made a huge splash. Quentin Tarrantino with “Reservoir Dogs.” Robert Rodriguez with “El Mariachi.” Kevin Smith with “Clerks.” And, finally, Larry Clark with “Kids.” While those other films were exciting genre riffs or chatty comedies, and led all the filmmakers to wide commercial success, “Kids” is a depressing, aggravating, naturalistic, occasionally powerful, and certainly memorable docu-drama.

The film is nearly plotless. Telly is a teenage scumbag obsessed with sex. In particular, he is obsessed with bedding virgins, fooling gullible young girls, some of them very young, in to having their first sexual experience with him. Unbeknownst to him, he is also HIV-positive. This is discovered when one of his victims, Jennie, gets tested on a whim. She spends the rest of the film grappling with this information while also trying to track Telly down. Otherwise, the movie simply follows a day in the life of these teens, as well as their various friends. They swear endlessly, steal, drink, pop pills, smoke dope, engage in violence, party themselves senseless, and generally hang out and talk.

Clark’s artistic background is in photography. “Kids” is shot in a gritty, naturalistic fashion and, at moments, feels like a documentary. Clark frequently points the camera at the kids and just lets them go. Long takes are cut up with almost invisible edits. A scene of Telly and Casper walking around the city and talking, as well as the ending party sequence, play out in real time. If the movie’s goal was to put the audience in the mind-set and world-view of these characters, it is wildly successful.

Aside from Clark’s docu-drama direction, another factor contributes to the movie’s naturalistic, improvised feel. None of the actors in the film were professionals. They were all actual kids scooped up off of the streets of New York City. Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce as Telly and Casper, the main boys, are both despicable and unlikable. Both discuss sex endlessly and say many crude, disturbing things. Both of the scenes in which Telly seduce girls with blatant, obvious lies are painful to watch. Aside from his near-pedophilic desire for virginal girls, Telly lies to his mother and steals her medication. Casper is probably even more obnoxious. He shouts homophobic slurs to a gay couple that wanders by. He degrades into a sloppy drunk at the end in a moment that goes on forever and are almost unwatchable in their crassness. The movie’s most shocking moment is when the two boys and their gang beat a random man nearly to death.

Yet the film resists painting the boys are soulless monsters. In an odd moment, they both pause to admire a street performer’s accordion-assisted rendition of “Danny Boy.” A few minutes later, Casper gives money to a legless beggar on the subway. A long scene where the two boys undress in front of each other recalls the latent homoeroticism present in many young, male friendships.  The girls are generally much more fleshed out then the boys. They express themselves in clearer fashions. Though both genders are vulgar and sex-obsessed, the girls lack the macho bravado and posturing seen in the boys. Jennie is the soul of the movie, the only true victim and the only one seemingly aware of the consequences of her actions. This is best seen in two heart-breaking cab rides the character goes on.

Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson would go on to become known, successful actors. It’s easy to see why. Both give the best performances in the film. Dawson’s Ruby is promiscuous (though not in any sort of comparative way) but never lets that get in the way of her innate likable. Sevigny carries weight and pain on her face. Near the end, the film cuts from the debauchery of the young party to elderly New Yorkers going about their days. As if to suggests, these are the lives our protagonists will never get to live. The final shot of the film even shows one of the previously unaware characters seemingly having a moment of clarity, though it’s kept ambiguous.

The movie, for the most part, resists Larry Clark’s trademark eroticism. There’s plenty of casual nudity and long sequences of young people in various states of undress. However, it’s not “fun” or sexy. The three sex scenes are far from titillating. They are deeply unpleasant, due to how young the girls look and how ruthless Telly treats them. A scene of a young boy stripping down in front of a group of girls and dancing around pushes way past good taste to the point where the audience is as uncomfortable as the girls must be. Though it’s easy to read into the numerous sequences of shirtless boys lounging around each other, only one scene in the movie pushes towards exploitative sexuality. Even then, the scene of two girls in a swimming pool making out quickly goes dark when one of the boys just about forces himself on them. A shade of dread and unpleasantness hangs over the entire film. The sad finale plays out in an inevitable fashion.

So what is the film’s intention? The script is laced with ironic elements. A room full of boys discusses the opposite sex’s opinion on various intimate issues. Cut to: A room full of girls discussing the same topics with very different opinions. There are other small, notable moments. When Telly and Casper are walking down the street, discussing sex frankly, you notice the looks of disgust on the passing adults’ faces. Most implicitly, the movie never provides any explanation for why the kids are so fucked up. The parents are clueless, non-presences but none are shown as abusive. Everyone lives in near poverty but this isn’t focused on much either. Perhaps “Kids” greatest attribute is that it doesn’t preach. Though it’s widely interpreted as a movie about “what is wrong with these kids today,” I honestly don’t think that’s the case.

Instead, “Kids” is a mood piece. It places the audience in the world of these lost, sad, misguided young people. Clark is sympathetic and rarely seems judgmental. The movie is a painful, distressing, and above all else frank discussion of a world that undeniably exists. By the end of the film, the characters are burnt out and so is the viewer. “Kids” isn’t easy viewing. It’s almost uniformly uncomfortable. However, it succeeds one-hundred percent at what it sets out to do. And, on an up note, the soundtrack is excellent. [Grade: B]