Sundance Film Review: Blue Caprice (dir by Alexandre Moors)

(The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah.  This week, I am reviewing films that premiered at and/or received a prize at Sundance.  Tonight, I take a look at the 2013 film, Blue Caprice.)

When we first meet Lee (Tequan Richmond), he is fifteen years old and living in poverty in Antigua.  One morning, he watches as his mother gets in a car with a strange man.  Before she goes, she tells Lee that she has no choice but to leave and that she will return.  Lee says nothing as his mother is driven away.

Lee’s mother doesn’t return.  Lee spends his time sitting in an empty house.  He wanders through the nearby woods.  Sometimes, he goes to a nearby town and walks around aimlessly.  It’s in that town where he first sees John (Isaiah Washington).  John is an American who is living on the island with his three children.  John spots Lee watching him and soon, Lee is eating dinner at John’s house.  John’s children ask if Lee is going to be living with them.  John says that he doesn’t know.  They ask if they can see their mother.  John explains that, if they see their mother, they’ll no longer be able to spend time with him.

Months later, John and Lee are in Tacoma, Washington.  The children are back with their mother.  John tells Lee that America is full of lies.  He says that all women lie.  He says that the army lied to him.  John says that he just wants to get his children back.  John tells everyone that they meet that Lee is his son.  John says that he loves Lee but, when John visits an old girlfriend, he has no hesitation about telling Lee to go walk around for a while.  Lee ends up staring at the speaker at a fast food drive-through in amazement.  “Do you have cheap burgers?” he asks.

John and Lee keep moving and eventually end up living with an old army friend of John’s.  Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) is a good-natured redneck.  He enjoys playing video games, smoking weed, and shooting guns.  When Lee shoots one of Ray’s guns, Ray declares Lee to be a natural.  John stares at the gun in Lee’s hand.

When he’s not trying to track down his ex-wife and children, John trains Lee.  He ties Lee up and abandons him in the woods, forcing Lee to figure out how to escape.  (“DAD!” Lee shouts as John walks away from him.)  He gives Lee a sniper manual to study.  He explains to Lee that the first step to destroying society is to make people panic.  He says that it’s important to kill random people.  After killing a man, they’ll kill a woman.  After killing a woman, they’ll kill a child.  No one will feel safe.  When Lee shows reluctance about John’s plans, John demands to know if Lee loves him…

Blue Caprice is based on a true story.  In 2002, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo shot 27 people in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., killing 17 of them.  The title of the film comes from the car that Muhammad and Malvo lived in during their shooting spree.  Significantly, throughout the film, John and Lee are referred to only by their first names. Though the film may have been inspired by their actual crimes, Blue Caprice never claims to be an exact recreation of what happened.  Instead, the film speculates about how John was able to turn a directionless teenager into a killer.

It makes for a chilling film.  Isaiah Washington plays John as being a chameleon, a man who is so empty on the inside that he’s become very good at fooling people into believing that he’s whatever they want him to be.  John is the type who can spend the morning plotting to overthrow the government, the afternoon trying to fool a school principal into telling him where his children are now living, and the evening grilling burgers and laughing with the neighbors.  The film leaves no doubt to John’s evil but it’s attitude towards Lee is more ambiguous.  Tequan Richmond captures the transformation of Lee from being a withdrawn teenager to a cold-blooded killer.  Was Lee capable of being a killer before he met John or was he transformed by the older man?  That’s the question that both the film and the audience struggles with.

Blue Caprice got good reviews when it played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, thought it was ultimately overshadowed by Fruitvale Station.  It’s a disturbing film and not an optimistic one, which is perhaps why, post-Sundance, it never received quite as much attention as it deserved.  It may not be a pleasant film to watch but it is one that definitely leaves an impression.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough

Back to School Part II #32: Kids (dir by Larry Clark)


The first time that I ever saw Kids, the 1995 directorial debut of Larry Clark, my initial response was to wonder what the Hell everyone was talking about.

Seriously, I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying.  The two main characters — 15 year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) — talked almost constantly.  In fact, Telly even narrated the film.  But both of them had such thick Northern accents and both of them were so inarticulate that I spent 75% of the movie trying to understand what they were going on about.  (Add to that, Casper is pretty much either drunk or stoned through the entire film.)  Don’t get me wrong.  I understood enough to know what was going on in the movie.  I knew that Telly was obsessed with having sex with virgins and that he didn’t know that he was HIV positive.  I knew that Casper considered himself to be the “dopest ghost in town,” and that he ended the film by coming out of his daze long enough to look straight at the camera and ask, “What the fuck happened?”  But a lot of the dialogue in-between got lost as a result of Telly growling and Casper slurring.

So, when I rewatched Kids for this review, I turned on the close captioning so that I could read what it was that Telly and Casper were actually saying to each other while they were walking around New York City.  After a few minutes, I started to really wish that I had just remained ignorant.  Seriously, you may hate Telly but you’ll hate even more once you understand everything that he actually says during the opening scenes of the film.  Telly is literally one of the most disgusting pervs to ever be at the center of a motion picture.  “Virgins,” he announces at the start of the film, “I love them!”  He also infects them and what’s truly disturbing is that you get the feeling that, even if he knew he was HIV positive, Telly wouldn’t change his behavior at all.

Reportedly, Leo Fitzpatrick got death threats after starring in Kids.  Because he was making his film debut in Kids and because the film’s cast was reportedly made up of actual street kids, many viewers assumed that Fitzpatrick was playing himself.  Fitzpatrick is one of the few members of the cast to have actually maintained an acting career after Kids and, by most accounts, he’s not Telly.  That said, Telly is such a demonic character and Fitzpatrick does such a good job playing him that, admittedly, it is strange to see him subsequently play characters who are far different from Telly.  (His performance as faux hitman in Clark’s Bully is one of the highlights of that film.)

Justin Pierce also continued to act after Kids, though his efforts to maintain a career were reportedly hampered by his own personal demons.  Sadly, Pierce committed suicide in 2000, hanging himself in Las Vegas.  As raw as it may be, Pierce probably gives the best performance in Kids.  I’m sure that some would be tempted to say that Pierce was just playing himself but there’s also a sly humor to his performance that isn’t necessarily present in the script.  Casper is a despicable character who not only possibly beats a man to death but who also rapes one of his so-called friends when she’s passed out on a coach.  At times, Casper seems to almost be brain-dead.  (We’re told that he’s been sniffing glue since the 4th grade.)  But then there’s a few scenes where we get hints of who Casper could have been if he hadn’t fried his brain.

(For instance, it’s interesting to note that, alone among the male characters, Casper is the only one who occasionally behaves in a generous manner.  He may steal a piece of fruit but he then gives it to a young girl waiting outside of a dilapidated building.  In the famous scene in which a legless man asks for money while singing, “I have no legs/I have no legs,” Casper gives him money while Telly rolls his eyes.  Casper may be awful but, unlike Telly, he’s not a total sociopath.)

(It’s also interesting to note that, while we meet Telly’s mom and hear from her that Telly has a strained relationship with his dad, we never meet or hear about Casper’s family.  While Kids may be critical of Telly and Casper and their friends, it’s true scorn is reserved for the frequently unseen adults who all either seem to either be in denial or just incredibly callous as far as their children are concerned.)

And then there’s Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, both making their film debut in Kids.  They play friends who, at the start of the movie, both go to a clinic to get the results of their HIV tests.  The promiscuous Ruby (Dawson) is negative.  Jennie (Sevigny), however, is positive.  Since she’s only had sex with one person, she knows that she caught it from Telly.  What little plot that Kids has deals with Jennie’s efforts to track down Telly before he has sex with another virgin.  From the minute that Jennie starts searching for Telly, you know that it’s a pointless mission.  Even if Jennie did manage to track down Telly, it’s doubtful he would listen to her.

Kids was the directorial debut of Larry Clark.  It was also the screenwriting debut of Harmony Korine and reportedly, it was considered to be very shocking and controversial when it was first released.  I have to admit that, even speaking as someone who grew up far away from the streets of New York on which Kids was cast and filmed, I’ve never been that shocked by Kids.  Don’t get me wrong — it’s a raw and powerful film and the scene where Sevigny sits in a cab and repeats to herself that she’s not going to die brought tears to my eyes.  But, no — the idea of kids and teenagers having sex, doing drugs, and getting violent is no longer shocking (if it ever was).

It’s just another day.

Film Review: Bully (dir. by Larry Clark)

Bullying has been in the news a lot lately.  The fact that some people are bullies is hardly a new development, it’s just that now people are actually paying attention to the possible consequences of cruelty.  Tragically, it appears it takes people killing themselves for the rest of the world to consider that “Hey, maybe concentrated, socially accepted sadism isn’t a harmless thing.”  With so many people finally admitting what they had to have known was true all along, now seems like a good time to reconsider Larry Clark’s controversial and much-maligned 2001 film, Bully.

I can still remember the night, five years ago, that I first saw Bully.  I was at a party with a group of friends.  Nine of us ended up in a random bedroom, drinking, smoking, and going through all the closets and dressers.  I might add, we found some very interesting things while searching.  Anyway, someone eventually turned on the TV and there was Bully, playing on one of the movie stations.  Since we knew Bully was supposed to be a very explicit, very controversial movie, we left the TV playing and hung out in a stranger’s bedroom for two more hours.  There was, obviously, a lot going on in that room and I have to admit that I only paid attention to bits and pieces of the movie.  But what I saw stuck with me enough that the next chance I got, I bought the movie on DVD so I could actually devote my full attention to it.  In the years since, Bully is not a film that I revisit frequently because, to be honest, it’s the type of movie that makes you take a shower after watching it.  It’s also an unusually powerful and disturbing film that sticks with you for a long time after it ends.  It’s not a film that I would recommend anyone watch a hundred times.  But it’s definitely worth viewing at least once (or maybe even four times if you’re like me).

The bully of the title is 20 year-old Bobby Kent (played by Nick Stahl).  Bobby’s “best friend” is passive, blank-faced Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro).  Despite being physically stronger, Marty allows himself to be totally dominated by Bobby.  Marty accepts Bobby’s constant insults and physical abuse with the meek acceptance of a battered spouse.  Bobby, who is on the verge of starting college and presumably making a life for himself that high school dropout Marty could never dream of, even forces Marty to moonlight as a male stripper and to take part in making cheap, gay-themed porn videos.  (Bobby insists that he’s not gay himself and, like most guys in denial, goes out of his way to act as much like an insensitive asshole as possible as if to scream to the world, “I’m straight!” despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

As the film begins, Ali (Bijou Philips) and her friend Lisa Marie Connelly (Rachel Miner) step into sandwich shop where both Bobby and Marty work.  (Bobby, of course, is the boss.)  Apparently, they are appropriately impressed by the sight of Bobby slamming Marty’s head against a refrigerator because soon, all four of them are going out on a double date.  While Ali’s content to just give Bobby a blow job, the far more insecure Lisa decides that Marty is the love of her life and starts a relationship with him that the ever-passive Marty simple accepts.  However, what Lisa has failed to take into account, is that Marty is already in a relationship and Bobby isn’t ready to just let go.  Bobby expresses this by walking in on Marty and Lisa while they’re having sex, beating Marty up, and then (unlike everything else in this movie, this is never explicitly shown) raping Lisa.  After this, Lisa discovers that she’s pregnant but she doesn’t know if the baby’s father is the man she claims to love or the man who raped her.

(One thing that surprised me, that night I first watched Bully out of the corner of my eye while me and my friends searched through a stranger’s lingerie, was just how little sympathy most of my friends had for Lisa.  While I wasn’t surprised that the majority of guys in the room seemed to feel that Lisa was somehow to blame for disrupting all that precious male bonding, it was the reaction of some of the other girls that truly caught my off guard.  While none of them went as far as to say that Lisa deserved to be raped by Bobby, quite a few of them took the attitude that she either brought it on herself or she was lying.  Unlike the boys, these girls also felt the need to make several snide remarks about Rachel Miner’s physical appearance.  At the time, their attitude really bothered me and I have to admit that I wasn’t as close to any of them afterward.)

(Of course, we Lisa Maries have to stick together…)

Despite having raped his girlfriend, Bobby still considers himself to be Marty’s best friend and Marty — again like an addicted spouse — proves himself to be incapable to simply cut off all ties with Bobby even as the abuse gets worse and Bobby grows increasingly unstable.  In one of the film’s more controversial scenes, Bobby and Ali are about to have sex when Bobby decides that the only thing the scene is missing is a gay porn video playing in the background.  Ali finds the idea to be disgusting and insinuates that Bobby must be gay.  Bobby responds by raping Ali.

Finally, Lisa tells Marty and Ali that they have little choice but to murder Bobby.  While this starts out as a somewhat innocent suggestion of the “I wish he was dead,” kind, Lisa soon begins to insist that Bobby must die.  Ali recruits her friend Heather (Kelli Garner) and an ex-boyfriend named Donny (a truly scary Michael Pitt) into the conspiracy.  (Heather and Donny both agree that Bobby must die though neither one has ever met him.)  Lisa, meanwhile, brings in her cousin, video-game geek Derek.  Finally, and most fatefully, they decide to get some pointers from the neighborhood hitman (Leo Fitzpatrick).

That’s right.  The neighborhood hitman.  He’s actually a pretty familiar figure in the suburbs.  He’s the 17 year-old white boy who tries to stare out at the world with hateful eyes.  He brags to you about how he’s a member of a gang.  He tries to rap and speaks in dialogue lifted from Grand Theft Auto.  In short, he’s the guy that everyone laughs at whenever he’s not around.  His lies should be obvious to anyone with a brain which is exactly why Lisa, Marty, and Ali all assume that he’s an actual hitman.  The Hitman agrees to direct their murder and help them kill a person who (like almost everyone else now involved in the conspiracy) he has never actually met.

It all climaxes in one of the most disturbingly graphic and harrowing murder scenes I’ve ever seen, one that manages to snap the audience back into reality after the (needed) comic relief of Fitzpatrick’s absurd wannabe gangster.  As he’s repeatedly attacked by this group of made up of bumbling strangers and his “best” friend, Bobby proves himself to be not quite as powerful a figure as everyone had assumed.  Instead, he’s revealed as a pathetic, frightened teenager who begs Marty to forgive him (for “whatever I did”) even as Marty savagely stabs him to death.

Unlike the standard rape-revenge flick (and have no doubt, that’s what Bully essentially is), the film’s climatic act of violence doesn’t provide any sort of satisfaction or wish-fulfillment empowerment.   Instead, it just sets up the chain of events that leads to the film’s inevitable and disturbing conclusion.

When it first came out, Bully was controversial because of its explicit sex and violence.  As a director, Clark employs his customary documentary approach while, at the same time, allowing his camera to frequently linger over the frequently naked bodies of his cast.  More than one reviewer has referred to Clark as “a dirty old man” while reviewing this film.  (More on that in a minute.)  What those critics often seem to fail to notice is that, as explicit as the movie is, some of the most powerful and disturbing elements (like Bobby’s repressed homosexuality) are never explicitly stated.

After seeing this movie a few more times, the thing that gets me is that — in the end — the film’s nominal villains — Bobby and Lisa — are also the only two compelling characters in the entire movie.  While all the other characters are essentially passive, Bobby and Lisa are the only ones actually capable of instigating any type of action.  As such, they become — almost by default — the heroes of the movie.  On repeat viewings, it’s apparent that Bobby and Lisa are really two sides of the same coin.  The film’s title could refer to either one of them.  They are both insecure, unhappy with who they are, and both of them seem to find a personal redemption by dominating Marty.  One of the great ironies of the film is that Bobby and Lisa are essentially fighting a war for the soul of a guy who is eventually revealed to be empty inside.    For his part, Marty simply shifts his “forbidden” relationship with Bobby over to Lisa, a relationship that is just as exploitive and destructive as his friendship with Bobby but which is also more socially acceptable because it’s so heterosexual in nature that he’s even knocked up his girlfriend.  When Marty finally does kill Bobby, he’s not only killing a bully but he’s attempting to kill of his own doubts about his sexual identity.  It’s his way of letting the world know that he’s a “real” man.  As for the other characters — Ali, Donny, Heather, and even the swaggering hitman — they are all defined by their utter shallowness.  While its clear that none of them are murderous on their own, it also becomes clear that none of them have enough of an individual identity to resist the Bobbys and Lisas of the world.

Despite playing shallow characters, nobody in the cast gives a shallow performance.  Down to the smallest role, the actors are all believable in their roles.  Whether it’s Michael Pitt’s blank-faced aggression or Leo Fitzpatrick’s comedic swagger, all of the actors inhabit these characters and give performances that are disturbingly authentic.  The late Brad Renfro gave one of his best performances as Marty, just hinting at the anger boiling below the abused surface.  However, the film belongs to Miner and Stahl.  Stahl displays a sordid charm that makes his character likable if never sympathetic while Miner manages to do something even more difficult.  She makes Lisa into a character who is sympathetic yet never quite likable.  When Bully first came out, critics spent so much time fixating on the fact that Miner’s frequently naked on the film that they forgot to mention that she also proves herself to be an excellent actress.

As I stated, Bully is not a universally beloved film.  Most of the reviews out there are negative with a few of the more self-righteous critics accusing the film of being “pornographic” as if the whole thing was filled with close-up money shots of Brad Renfro ejaculating on Rachel Miner’s ass.  Strangely enough, you can find hundreds of critics complaining that Clark filmed full frontal nudity but next to none complaining that Clark filmed a brutal and realistic murder scene.

The two most frequent criticisms of Bully are that 1) it plays fast and loose with the true story that it’s based on and 2) that the film is exploitive.

Both criticisms are valid but the first one is the only one that would really bother me.  I have to admit that I don’t really know much about the real life murder of Bobby Kent.  I just know the version presented in this movie and in the Jim Schultze book that the movie was based on.  Of course, everyone arrested and convicted for Kent’s murder has been quick to claim that the movie makes them look more guilty than they actually are.  That’s to be expected.  However, the main difference between the film and the reality — for me — was that, in reality, victim Bobby Kent did not look a thing like Nick Stahl.  Whereas Stahl is clearly no physical match for any of the characters in the film (and hence, it’s easier to feel sorry for him when everyone attacks him at once), pictures of the real-life Bobby Kent reveal an intimidating, muscular, young man who few people would probably ever chose to mess with.  Stahl’s Bobby is a bully because everyone else in the film is too passive to stand up to him.  The real Bobby could probably get away with being a bully because he literally looked like he could rip another man’s arm off.

The other criticism is that this movie — with its combination of tits and blood — is essentially just an “exploitation” film.  Well, it is.  But as I’ve explained elsewhere, just because a film is exploitive, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good movie.  Art and exploitation, more often than not, are clandestine lovers and not bitter enemies.  Yes, all of the characters — male and female — do spend a good deal of time showing off their bodies but then again, what else would these otherwise empty characters do?  Their surface appearance is really all they have.  Yes, the camera does linger over all the exposed flesh but then again, so do most people.  If anything, critics attempted to punish Clark for openly acknowledging that majority of his audience is waiting to either see Bijou Phillips’ twat or Nick Stahl’s dick.  Yes, Bully is exploitation but it’s exploitation in the best grindhouse tradition.  It’s a film that’s honest specifically because it is so sordid and exploitive.

When all is said and done, Bully is the epitome of a movie that is too sordid to ever be corrupted.