Icarus File No. 7: Last Days (dir by Gus Van Sant)

From 2002 to 2005, director Gus Van Sant offered audiences what he called his “Death Trilogy.”  2002’s Gerry followed two friends as they got lost in the desert and it featured what appeared to be a mercy killing.  2003’s Elephant was a mediation on the Columbine High School massacre and it featured several murders.  Finally, with 2005’s Last Days, Van Sant ended the trilogy with a film about a suicide.

Michael Pitt plays a world-famous musician who is suffering from depression.  Though the character is named Blake, no attempt is made to disguise the fact that he is meant to be Kurt Cobain.  When we first see Blake, he has just escaped from a rehab clinic and is walking through a forest.  There are no other human beings around and, perhaps not coincidentally, this is the only moment in the film in which Blake seems to be happy.  He even sings Home on the Range, shouting the lyrics like a little kid.

When he reaches his home, Blake’s demeanor changes.  He walks around the house with a rifle and pretends to shoot the four other people — Luke (Lukas Haas), Scott (Scott Patrick Green), Asia (Asia Argento), and Nicole (Nicole Vicius) — who are sleeping in his house.  Later, when those people wake up and attempt to speak to him, Blake is largely unresponsive.  When a detective comes to the door and asks if anyone has seen Blake, Blake hides.  When a record company exec calls to tell Blake that it’s time for him to tour again and that he’ll be letting down both his band and the label if he doesn’t, Blake hangs up on her.

Who are the people staying in Blake’s house?  Luke and Scott are both musicians but apparently neither one of them are in Blake’s band.  When Luke asks Blake to help him finish a song, Blake can only mutter a few vague words of encouragement.  Scott, meanwhile, appears to be more interested in Blake’s money.  Everyone in the film wants something from Blake but Blake wants to be alone.  In the one moment when Blake actually gets to work on his own music, his talent is obvious but so is his frustration.  With everyone demanding something from him, when will he ever have time to create?  With everyone telling him that it is now his job to be a rock star, how will he ever again feel the joy that came from performing just to perform?   

As one would expect from a Van Sant film, Last Days is often visually striking, especially in the early forest scenes.  In many ways, it feels like a combination of Gerry and Elephant.  Like those previous two films, it is fixated on death but stubbornly refuses to provide any answers to any larger, metaphysical  questions.  Like Elephant, it uses a jumbled timeline to tell its story and scenes are often repeated from a different perspective.  However, it eschews Elephant‘s use of an amateur cast and instead, Last Days follows Gerry’s lead of featuring familiar actors like Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, and Asia Argento.  Unfortunately, though, Last Days doesn’t work as well as either one of the two previous entries in the Death Trilogy.

Last Days runs into the same problem that afflicts many films about pop cultural icons.  Kurt Cobain has become such a larger-than-life figure and his suicide is viewed as being such a momentous cultural moment that any attempt to portray it on film is going to feel inadequate.  No recreation can live up to the mythology.  The film itself feels as if it is somewhat intimidated by the task of doing justice to the near religious reverence that many have for Cobain.  As enigmatic as Gerry and Elephant were, one could still tell that Van Sant knew where he wanted to take those films.  He knew what he wanted to say and he had confidence that at least a few members of the audience would understand as well.  With Last Days, Van Sant himself seems to be a bit lost when it comes to whatever it may be that he’s trying to say about Cobain.  This leads to a rather embarrassing scene in which Blake’s ghost is seen literally climbing its way towards what I guess would be the immortality of being an icon.  One might wonder how Cobain himself would feel about such a sentimental coda to his suicide.

Last Days is a film that I respect, even if I don’t think it really works.  It does do a good job of capturing the ennui of depression and one cannot fault Van Sant for his ambition or his willingness to run the risk of alienating the audience by allowing the story to play out at its own slow and deliberate pace.  But ultimately, the film cannot compete with the mythology that has sprung up around its subject.

Previous Icarus Files:

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Maximum Overdrive
  3. Glass
  4. Captive State
  5. Mother!
  6. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #9: Rob the Mob (dir by Raymond De Felitta)

The 2014 film, Rob the Mob, tells the true story of a young couple in love who became minor celebrities when they robbed the mob.  Of course, they also ended up with a huge target on their back, which tends to happen when you repeatedly humiliate a bunch of angry men who have weapons at their disposal.

The year is 1992 and Tommy Uva (Michael Pitt) and his wife, Rosemarie (Nina Arianda) are professional criminals who, after getting busted for trying to rob a florist on Valentine’s Day, end up working at a debt collection agency.  Their boss (played by Griffin Dunne) spent time in prison for insider trading and he believes in giving convicts a second chance.  The problem is that Tommy doesn’t really want a second chance.  He’s actually pretty happy being a criminal.

Tommy has some issues with the Mafia, largely due to the fact that his father borrowed money from the mob to open up a shop and spent the rest of his short life being beaten and humiliated by loan sharks.  Tommy believes that the pressure is what led his father to an early grave.  Tommy’s mother (Cathy Moriarty), on the other hand, claims that it was the stress caused by Tommy being a criminal.  Regardless, seeing his father repeatedly mistreated has definitely left Tommy with some anger issues.

Even though Tommy claims that he hates the Mafia, he still seems to be rather obsessed with them.  At times, it’s hard to tell if Tommy is angry with the Mafia or if he’s just jealous about the fact that he’ll never be as rich or as powerful as the local neighborhood mobster.  Tommy starts to skip work so that he can observe the trial of John Gotti.  It’s while doing this that Tommy hears that guns are not allowed in Mafia social clubs.

Soon, Tommy is robbing those same clubs, taking all of the money that he can and humiliating the mobsters at the same time.  (He forces one group of paunchy gangsters to march outside in their underwear.)  With Rosemarie serving as his getaway driver, Tommy soon becomes something of a legend.  The mobsters even nickname the pair “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Because the Mafia doesn’t want to attract any unnecessary attention during the Gotti trial, Tommy and Rosemarie are able to get away with their activities for a while.  But then they make the mistake of stealing a list that could bring down the entire New York Mafia….

Rob the Mob is a bit of an uneven film.  The film starts with Tommy and Rosemarie getting high and then attempting to rob a florist and, in that scene, they both seemed like such idiots that I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend 104 minutes of my life watching a film about them.  Even after Tommy got out of a prison and got a legitimate job, he still seemed like such an unsympathetic loser that I found myself wondering why I should care.

However, once Tommy and Rosemarie start actually robbing the mob, the film picks up.  We meet Big Al, the temporary head of the New York mafia, and he’s played by Andy Garcia, who gives an intelligent and understated performance.  Big Al may be a mobster but he’s not an unsympathetic character.  The film presents him as being someone who has been unexpectedly thrust into a position of power and who is doing his best to keep everything from falling apart.  Then, as the robberies continue, Ray Romano shows up as Jerry Cardozo, a reporter who makes “Bonnie and Clyde” famous but who realizes too late that he’s also put their lives in even greater danger than they were before.  Over the past few years, Romano has gone from being a former sitcom star to being a surprisingly effective character actor and his performance here gives Rob the Mob its conscience.

Perhaps even more importantly, during the second half of the film, the chemistry of Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda finally won me over and I actually started to care about what would happen to Tommy and Rosemarie.  Tommy and Rosemarie find a reason for living in their criminal activities.  They go from being losers to being minor New York celebrities, even if they can’t reveal their actual identities.  They may be idiots but their love is real and there’s something very touching about how much they actually do care about each other.  It’s hard not to be happy for them, even if it’s obvious from the start that their story is not going to have a happy ending.

Rob the Mob is uneven but, in the end, it’s more than worth watching.  This is an offer you should not refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil

Film Review: Murder by Numbers (dir by Barbet Schroeder)

First released in 2002, Murder by Numbers is one of those films that seems to be pop up on Cinemax every couple of months.  It’s not really that good, though it has its fans because if features Sandra Bullock being all self-destructive and one of the film’s villains is played by a young Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling is Richard Haywood, child of privilege.  He’s handsome.  He’s funny.  He’s popular.  He’s spoiled.  He’s often high.  And he’s totally psychotic.  Richard wants to commit the perfect crime and, fortunately, so does his classmate, Justin (Michael Pitt).  Justin is a fiercely intelligent introvert who spends most of his time reading and writing and playing with his computer.  He’s got a crush on Richard’s ex, Lisa (Agnes Buckner).  From the minute that Lisa showed up and started talking to Justin, I was concerned.  I was like, “Is this another movie that’s going to feature someone named Lisa being murdered?  CHERISH ALL OF THE LISAS IN YOUR LIFE, PEOPLE!”

Anyway, Richard and Justin do end up killing a woman, though not Lisa.  They go through a lot of effort to frame the school’s pervy janitor, Ray (Chris Penn), for the crime.  And they nearly succeed, though Detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is way too smart to fall for their tricks.  Unfortunately, no one believes anything that Cassie says because she has a shady past and a drinking problem.  Even her sympathetic new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), thinks that it was probably Ray.

Literally everyone on the police force tells Sam that Cassie is unstable and not to be trusted, which leads to an interesting question.  If everyone’s convinced that everything Cassie says is wrong, why does she still have a job?  Why do they still assign her to cases?  It’s like, “We’ve got a murder that we have to solve!  Let’s give it to that detective who we think never gets anything right!”

Sandra Bullock does her best to bring the self-destructive Cassie to life but she kind of runs into the huge problem that she’s Sandra Bullock and she has such a firmly entrenched screen presence that it’s difficult to take her seriously as someone who spend her free time sitting on a houseboat, getting drunk, and obsessing on the past.  You really want her to give a good performance because it’s impossible not to root for Sandra Bulllock but she’s just too miscast.  You keep expecting Matthew McConaughey to show up, playing a bongo drum and trying to cheer her up.

Far more convincing is Ryan Gosling, who plays Richard as the type of guy that we all knew in high school.  You know he’s a jerk.  You know you should stay away from him.  But he’s just so much fun and he has so much money!  Unfortunately, Gosling is so charismatic that Richard quickly becomes the only compelling character in the film.  I mean, if you have the choice between watching Michael Pitt, Ben Chaplin, or Ryan Gosling, who are you going to go with?  You’re supposed to hate Richard and hope that justice catches up with him but instead, you find yourself hoping that he’ll sneak out of the country and spend the rest of his hiding out in South America or something.

So, as a result, the film really doesn’t work.  (It also doesn’t help matters that it’s directed in a rather detached fashion by the king of ennui, Barbet Schroeder.)  But it’s interesting to watch, just for a chance to see a future star in the making.  Gosling steps into a rather underwritten role and basically takes over the entire damn movie.

It’s also worth seeing for the scene in which Sandra Bullock gets attacked by a baboon.  It’s a weird moment and Schroeder screws things up by mixing in a flashback to Cassie’s past but still, it’s a baboon attacking Sandra Bullock.  That’s not something you see every day.

Film Review: Ghost in the Shell (dir by Rupert Sanders)

Last night, I finally saw Ghost in the Shell.

Now, before I start in on this review, I should admit that I’m hardly an expert on the manga on which Ghost in the Shell was based.  (In fact, as soon as I wrote that previous sentence, I called my boyfriend over and had him read it, just to make sure that I was using the term manga correctly.)  A few years ago, I did watch Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film version.  And while I don’t remember a whole lot about the animated Ghost in the Shell, I do remember that I was never bored while watching it.  I wish I could say the same about the live action Ghost in the Shell.

Don’t get me wrong.  The live action, Westernized Ghost In The Shell is truly a visually impressive film.  It takes place in the near future, in the fictional Japanese city of New Port City.  New Port City basically looks like the city from Blade Runner, just with a somewhat more colorful visual scheme.  Everywhere you look, there are gigantic holographic advertisements and sleek, neon buildings.  But, as advanced as New Port City may look at first sight, it’s also full of dark allies, cramped apartments, and gray cemeteries.  Visually, it’s a perfect mix of  outlandish science fiction and brooding film noir.

Or, at least, it is the first time that you see it.  Unfortunately, director Rupert Sanders has a habit of using the visuals as a crutch.  It seemed as if, every time a new plot point was clumsily introduced, we would suddenly cut to another shot of New Port City at night, as if the film was saying, “Don’t worry about narrative coherence!  Look at the city!”

After about 15 minutes, I decided to take the film up on its suggestion.  I stopped paying attention to the slow-moving story and I focused almost exclusively on the visuals.  That’s a shame really because, from what I understand, both the manga and the original film are deeply philosophical works that balance style with thematic depth.  Unfortunately, since there’s no real depth to the live action Ghost in the Shell, you really have no choice but to focus almost exclusively on the style.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world where the line between human and machine has become blurred.  Everyone is getting cybernetic upgrades done.  One character, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), even gets new eyes halfway through the film.  Major (Scarlett Johansson) is unique because, while her brain is human, her body is totally cybernetic.  She is a member of Section 9, an anti-terrorism task force.  Major has only vague flashes of memory of who she used to be.  She’s been told that her parents were killed by terrorists but she doesn’t know if that’s true or if that’s just more manipulation from Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).  (It’s no spoiler to say that Cutter turns out to be a not nice guy.  He’s the CEO of a Hanka Robotics and when was the last time you saw a movie where a robotics CEO didn’t turn out to be a not nice guy?)  After Section 9 thwarts a cyberterrorist attack against Hanka Robotics, Major starts to wonder who she is and who she can trust.  Everyone tells her that, because she has a human brain, she’s also a human.  But Major still feels lost and without an identity.  When she starts to get too close to discovering her past, Cutter sets out to not only destroy her but all of Section 9 as well…

There’s a really good movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays a lost soul looking for her identity in Japan.  It’s called Lost in Translation.  Or, if you just want to see Scarlett playing someone who is learning more and more about herself and what she’s capable of, you could go watch Lucy.  (I don’t care much for that movie but some people seemed to like it.)  Or, if you want to see Scarlett play an enigmatic being who explores the world while hiding her true form in a human shell, you can always go watch Under the Skin.

(I highly recommend Under the Skin, which is as thought-provoking as Ghost in the Shell is shallow.)

This is what’s frustrating.  Scarlett Johansson gives a really good performance in Ghost in the Shell but she’s continually let down by a script that refuses to take the time to really explore anything.  We get a scene or two of Major wondering what it means to be truly human but the movie is always more interested in getting to the next action scene.  There’s a lot of talk about what it means to be human but there’s no real exploration.  Ghost in the Shell has all the depth of one of those old sci-fi shows where aliens (and, occasionally, androids) approach bemused humans and ask, “What is this thing that you call laughter?”

Ghost in the Shell ends with the hint of more films to come.  Personally, I’d rather see Scarlett Johansson in a Black Widow solo film.  When is that going to happen, Marvel Studios!?  Let’s get to it!  As for the live action Ghost in the Shell, it’s just frustrating and forgettable.

But the city looks really good!

Embracing the Melodrama #52: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (dir by Asia Argento)


Based on a controversial collection of short stories by JT LeRoy (which was a pen name used by the writer Laura Albert), The Heart is Deceitful About All Things covers three years in the life of Jeremiah and his dug addict mother Sarah.  Over the course of the film, Jeremiah is played by thee different actors — Jimmy Bennett at age 7 and, at age 10, Cole and Dylan Sprouse.  Sarah is fearlessly played by the film’s director, Asia Argento.

Partially in response to her extremely religious upbringing, Sarah spends most of her time drinking, smoking meth, and moving from man to man, the majority of whom treat both her and her son badly.  It looks like things are going to get better when Sarah marries the seemingly stable Emerson (Jeremy Renner) but, when Sarah suddenly abandons both her husband and her son so that she can go to Atlantic City, Emerson rapes Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is sent to live with his grandfather (Peter Fonda) and grandmother (Ornella Muti) who, it turns out, are members of an ultra-religious cult.  Thought Jeremiah initially manages to bond with his cousin Buddy (Michael Pitt), life in the cult proves to be no safer than life with his mother.  After three years with the cult, Jeremiah is standing on a street corner and yelling that everyone is going to go to Hell unless they repent when he is suddenly approached by Sarah.  Sarah grabs him and carries him over to a nearby truck that is being driven by her current boyfriend.

Sarah now supports herself as a dancer and as a prostitute.  When she realizes that the presence of her son is making men reluctant to pay for her, Sarah grows out Jeremiah’s hair and starts to dress him in her old clothes so that she can pass him off as being her younger sister.

Eventually, Sarah and Jeremiah find themselves living with amiable but slow-witted meth addict Jackson (Marilyn Manson) and that’s when things really start to head down hill…

In some ways, The Heart Is Deceitful About All Things is a difficult film to recommend because it is so extremely dark and depressing.  Much as in her debut film, Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento refuses to compromise on the bleakness of her vision.  She set out to make a realistic portrait of what it’s like to live on the fringes of American society and that’s exactly what she did.  If the end result is depressing…well, the fringes aren’t exactly a happy place.  In the end, you’re actually happy that the film is full of familiar actors like Argento, Michael Pitt, Peter Fonda, and Winona Ryder because you need that reminder that, ultimately, you’re watching a movie and that everyone was able to go home after they finished filming.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things may not be easy to enjoy but it is a film that, as a result of its uncompromising vision,  ultimately wins your respect.


My 2012 Emmy Nominations

So, for the past few days, I’ve been happily hopping around my section of the Shattered Lens Bunker and do you know why? 

Because it’s awards season, that’s why!  With the conclusion of the 2011-2012 TV season, Emmy ballots have been mailed and votes are being cast and, come July, we’ll know which shows and performers have been nominated for the 2012 Emmys. 

Before that happens, however, I would like to play a little game called “What if Lisa Was Solely Responsible For Picking the Nominees.”  Here’s how it works — I looked over and studied the complete list of the shows and performances that have been submitted this year for Emmy consideration.  And then, from that list, I picked my personal nominees.

(A complete list of every show and performer that’s been submitted for Emmy consideration can be found here.)

Below are my personal nominations in the major Emmy categories.  Again, note that these are not necessarily the shows and performers that I believe will be nominated.  Instead, these are the shows and performers that I would nominate if I was solely responsible for picking the nominees.

A complete list of my nominations in every single Emmy category can be found here.  (And yes, there’s a lot of Lifetime on the list.  There’s also a lot of Community.)

Best Comedy Series

Bored to Death (HBO)

Community (NBC)

Girls (HBO)

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX)

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Raising Hope (Fox)

Veep (HBO)

Best Drama Series

Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Breaking Bad (AMC)

The Client List (Lifetime)

Downton Abbey (PBS)

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Homeland (Showtime)

Pan Am (ABC)

Ringer (The CW)

True Blood (HBO)

The Walking Dead (AMC)

Outstanding Miniseries or Movie

Blue-Eyed Butcher (Lifetime)

Cyberbully (ABC Family)

Drew Peterson: Untouchable (Lifetime)

Five (Lifetime)

Girl Fight (Lifetime)

Hatfields & McCoys (History Channel)

The Hour (BBC America)

Of Two Minds (Lifetime)

Outstanding Variety Series

Conan (TBS)

Fashion Police (E)

Key and Peele (Comedy Central)

The Soup (E)

Tosh .O (Comedy Central)

Outstanding Variety Special

Betty White’s 90th Birthday Party (NBC)

Celtic Women: Believe (PBS)

The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen (Comedy Central)

TV Land Awards (TV Land)

Wendy Liebman: Taller on TV (Showtime)

Outstanding Nonfiction Special

Bobby Fischer Against The World (HBO)

Catholicism: Amazed and Afraid (PBS)

Crime After Crime (OWN)

God Is The Bigger Elvis (HBO)

6 Days To Air: The Making of South Park (Comedy Central)

Outstanding Nonfiction Series

America in Primetime (PBS)

American Masters (PBS)

America’s Most Wanted (Lifetime)

Beyond Scared Straight (A&E)

Inside Story (Biography)

Outstanding Reality Program

Antiques Roadshow (PBS)

Dance Moms (Lifetime)

Kitchen Nightmares (Fox)

Scouted (E)

Storage Wars (A&E)

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program

The Amazing Race (CBS)

The Bachelor (ABC)

Big Brother (CBS)

The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC)

Hell’s Kitchen (Fox)

Project Runway (Lifetime)

So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)

Survivor (CBS)

Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

Johnny Galecki in The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Danny McBride in Eastbound and Down (HBO)

Joel McHale in Community (NBC)

Lucas Neff in Raising Hope (Fox)

Jason Schwartzman in Bored To Death (HBO)

Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (AMC)

Jeffrey Donavon in Burn Notice (USA)

Damian Lewis in Homeland (Showtime)

Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead (AMC)

Timothy Olyphant in Justified (FX)

Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries or Movie

Idris Elba in Luther (BBC America)

Rob Lowe in Drew Peterson: Untouchable (Lifetime)

Steven Weber in Duke (Hallmark Movie Channel)

Dominic West in The Hour (BBC America)

Ben Whishaw in The Hour (BBC America)

Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy

Zooey Deschanel in New Girl (Fox)

Lena Dunham in Girls (HBO)

Tina Fey in 30 Rock  (NBC)

Julia Louis Dreyfuss in Veep (HBO)

Mary-Louis Parker in Weeds (Showtime)

Martha Plimpton in Raising Hope (Fox)

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Claire Danes in Homeland (Showtime)

Sarah Michelle Gellar in Ringer (The CW)

Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Client List (Lifetime)

Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife (CBS)

Elizabeth McGovern in Downton Abbey (PBS)

Anna Paquin in True Blood (HBO)

Outstanding Lead Actress In A Miniseries or Movie

Kristin Davis in Of Two Minds (Lifetime)

Anne Heche in Girl Fight (Lifetime)

Rose McGowan in The Pastor’s Wife (Lifetime)

Emily Osment in Cyberbully (ABC Family)

Sara Paxton in Blue Eyed Butcher (Lifetime)

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series

Charlie Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

Danny DeVito in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX)

Donald Glover in Community (NBC)

Nick Offerman in Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Danny Pudi in Community (NBC)

Matt Walsh in Veep (HBO)

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama

Bruce Campbell in Burn Notice (USA)

Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones (HBO)

Giancarlo Espositto in Breaking Bad (AMC)

Michael Pitt in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Alexander Skarsgard in True Blood (HBO)

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Miniseries or Movie

Powers Boothe in Hatfields and McCoys (History Channel)

Justin Bruening in Blue-Eyed Butcher (Lifetime)

Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Hide (TNT)

Sir Roger Moore in A Princess For Christmas (Hallmark Movie Channel)

Tony Shalhoub in Five (Lifetime)

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy

Alison Brie in Community (NBC)

Kristen Chenoweth in GCB (ABC)

Anna Chlumsky in Veep (HBO)

Gillian Jacobs in Community (NBC)

Cloris Leachman in Raising Hope (Fox)

Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in Drama

Christine Baranski in The Good Wife (CBS)

Kristen Bauer Von Straten in True Blood (HBO)

Kelly MacDonald in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Christina Ricci in Pan Am (ABC)

Sophia Turner in Game of Thrones (HBO)

Deborah Ann Woll in True Blood (HBO)

Supporting Actress In A Miniseries or Movie

Tammy Blanchard in Of Two Minds (Lifetime)

Kaley Cuoco in Drew Peterson: Untouchable (Lifetime)

Lisa Edelstein in Blue-Eyed Butcher (Lifetime)

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story (FX)

Jena Malone in Hatfields and McCoy (History Channel)

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.