Yes, it’s another set of mini-reviews. Once again I paired a newly viewed flick with a revisited DVD as a double-feature: 4 + 4 this time.
The Doom Generation (1995)
Back in July I reviewed cult director Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which caroms from good to bad to so-bad-it’s-good and back around again. It is one of those films that make me waggle my thumb in both directions, so I was prompted to look at a couple more movies by Araki in order to make up my mind about his filmmaking. The first was The Doom Generation, and I’m still of two minds. He’d probably approve of that.
Movies with over-the-top violence have been commonplace since the 60s – often “sex-and-violence,” which is a puzzling combination really. (This, for whatever reason, is a rare combination in out-and-out porn, which is more likely to be totally violence-free than a PG movie.) Bonnie and Clyde is often cited as a game changer. In the 90s, in addition to the usual indie slasher flicks, there was a bumper crop of ultraviolent films from mainstream directors and studios: Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, and more. Few of the films were mindless; most had something to say amid all the blood and gore. Nonetheless, I get the feeling Gregg Araki found what they had to say pretentious. The Doom Generation by contrast is simply nihilistic. The meaning of its sex-and-violence is that it is without meaning. While the three main characters (two young men and a young woman) don’t go seeking violence, violence finds them. It fazes them very little. Nor do they take sex or sexual orientation seriously enough to evince even a twinge of jealousy in one another despite their intimate triangle. Their lives are frequently hell – whenever they buy something the price is $6.66 – but they shrug at that too. All the actors do their jobs well enough, but Rose McGowan (Jawbreaker) steals every scene. The film shouldn’t be taken altogether seriously, yet it is not quite a parody. I’d recommend this movie only to those with a particular kind of off-beat world view. A look on Rotten Tomatoes shows it has 61% approval, but those who hate it do so with a passion.
Kalifornia is one of those 90s mainstream violent movies with a message. It is a very good one starring Brad Pitt, David Duchovny and Juliette Lewis. Its theme is the nature of evil. The difference between a “normal” person and a sociopath is not always obvious. Most of the time, they look, act, and talk alike. All of us can behave kindly, even sociopaths. All of us are capable of cruelty to another human being and of lethal violence if pushed sufficiently. But there is a difference. Not all of us are self-motivated to cruelty. Not all of us kill casually. Not all of us do it for fun. The distinction between those who do and the rest of us may be smaller than we generally like to think, but it is a crucial distinction nonetheless.
On a drive to California, a writer (Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend (Michelle Forbes) plan to visit the sites of famous murders so they can publish a book about them. To save money on the trip, they split costs by sharing their car with a classless couple, not knowing that one of them (Brad Pitt) is as ruthless a killer as any about whom they plan to write. Brad Pitt perfectly portrays a truly terrifying character who seems unthreatening at first meeting but who easily can commit any violence. Duchovny’s character near the end (*spoiler*) himself commits what technically is murder, but at that point we don’t blame him. Neither do we worry he ever would murder casually or for profit.
Mysterious Skin (2004)
This is the Gregg Araki film best regarded by critics. Two young boys are molested by their coach. As is often the case in such circumstances, their feelings toward the coach are complicated; their admiration for him is what made his exploitation possible. Years later, the two boys as they near adulthood are on very different life courses. One (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has become a male prostitute, apparently because pleasing older men is something he knows he can do well. The other (Brady Corbet) has repressed all recollection of those childhood events, avoids sex altogether, and has concluded that he was abducted by aliens during the blank in his memory; his belief is reinforced by dreams of a blue light and of a blurry presence. This defense mechanism fails when he seeks out Gordon-Levitt, hoping to find confirmation of the abduction, but instead learns the truth. (The blue light was a porch light that shone through the window.) Once again, choose the audience with whom you share this uncomfortable movie carefully, but it deserves its critical praise.
Nurse Betty (2000)
Aaron Eckhart steals drugs and then foolishly tries to sell them back to their previous owners. Unsurprisingly, he is visited by enforcer/hit-men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). Aaron’s wife is Renee Zellweger, who is oblivious to her husband’s criminal activities but chances to witness his murder. She instantly represses her memory of the murder and of her own identity, too; instead, she convinces herself she is Nurse Betty, a character on her favorite TV soap opera. She heads off to California in a car in which, unknown to her, the stolen drugs are hidden; she plans to take up her position in the fictional hospital. In LA she encounters actors from the soap opera, but her delusion doesn’t break; the actors just assume she is a persistent actress angling for a part on the show by staying in character. Her husband’s killers have followed her to LA but they – Morgan Freeman in particular – are reluctant to cause her harm. The moral apparently is that it pays to be cute if you’re crazy. One suspects that if she didn’t look like Renee Zellweger no one from the soap opera would have talked to her and the hit men would have had less reluctance.
Adult World (2013)
This is the kind of indie film for which Sundance exists. Amy (Emma Roberts) is a Syracuse University student whose ambition is to be a published poet. Poetry is not a remunerative profession, generally speaking, and her middle – not a jot above middle – class parents are no longer willing to subsidize her. So, she gets a job in Adult World, a shop selling sex paraphernalia. She also starts to stalk a poet she admires (John Cusack), but for literary rather than romantic reasons. Whatever her motives, he still, understandably, is creeped out. At bottom, the film is a coming-of-age story, and it works. In the course of the film Amy grows up enough to know she still has more growing up to do, that her poetry is for herself, and that recognition if it ever comes is just a lagniappe. Thumbs up.
Rich and Famous (1981)
This film follows the evolution and maturing of a friendship over years. Pleasant but air-headed Candice Bergen always has looked up to her literary and academic friend Jacqueline Bisset, especially when Bisset becomes a critically well-received, albeit commercially unsuccessful, author. Bergen, almost on a lark, dashes out a novel of her own; the novel is utter trash, but it becomes wildly successful, landing her TV talk-show interviews. Their relationship somehow has to weather the different types of success and failure each experiences. This is a remake of the 1943 Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins film Old Acquaintance, and both versions are worth a look.
The Pretty One (2013)
There is no shortage of movies in which one twin is mistaken for another. This one works better than most, in large part due to the engaging young actress Zoe Kazan who plays both twins. Zoe is best known for writing and starring in 2012’s well-regarded Ruby Sparks. Laurel is meek and a homebody while her sister Audrey is flamboyant and worldly. In an auto accident Audrey is killed; Laurel survives but for reasons that make sense in context she is mistaken for Audrey at the hospital. At first Laurel suffers traumatic amnesia and really doesn’t remember who she is, but on the day of the funeral her memory comes back to her. Because of the way people talk (and don’t talk) about the supposedly deceased Laurel, however, she decides to let everyone continue to believe she is Audrey. She leaves home and takes over Audrey’s life. But, of course, she isn’t Audrey and ultimately she only can live her own life. The trailer (below) is misleading: it makes The Pretty One look like a saccharine love story, but it is darker than that, which is to say it is better than that.
I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
This movie was released when Lindsay Lohan was splashed across the tabloids almost daily. Perhaps the old line “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is wrong, because I Know Who Killed Me bombed at the box office. When I first saw the movie in the theater on a Friday night, there were no more than a dozen other people in the audience. Most critics savaged the film, yet it is important to remember that this type of horror film is disliked by most critics on principle; had it starred a lesser known actress it wouldn’t have been reviewed at all in mainstream publications. Stephen Hunter at the Washington Post got this, and gave the movie a rare break: “So much notoriety fogs the drama of Lindsay Lohan's life these days that it's probably easier to review that than her actual movie. But, surprise, the not-screened-in-advance-for-press ‘I Know Who Killed Me’ is a credible piece of pop entertainment of the hottie-in-distress genre.”
So it is. I Know Who Killed Me is a gruesome little film that sticks to the standards of the genre, which is the whole point of genre films. Lindsay Lohan plays twins separated at birth. Though they are ignorant of each other’s existence, they retain a psychic connection so strong that physical injury to one manifests itself in the other. When one is kidnapped by a sadist, the other is the only hope of rescue. I’m not always patient with paranormal plot elements, but these too are a common feature of horror films. Lindsay gives a convincing performance within the (limited) possibilities of the script in both her roles. It isn’t actually a good movie, but it isn’t terrible. Far worse than this play on the Chiller channel almost every night of the week; if that’s your alternative some evening, try I Know Who Killed Me instead.
If I had to pick just one of each set of 4 to recommend, it would be (oddly enough) The Pretty One from the new-views and Kalifornia from the revisits.