Monday, March 29, 2010

Boys Don't Cry

I forgot how great “Boys Don’t Cry” is. It’s a movie where everything clicks. The casting and the performances, the camera moves, and the choices of music. It all comes together in a way that is spellbinding. You can’t take your eyes off the screen, even as things turn violent during the final reel.

Re-visiting the movie for the first time since its release in 1999 made it painfully clear that the movie represents two tragedies. It chronicles the final days and violent death of transgendered Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon. It also marks, essentially, the beginning and the end of director Kimberly Pierce’s career.

Teena was born in Lincoln and moved to the small rural Nebraska town of Humboldt as a late teenager to pursue life as a man with the hope of gender-change surgery eventually leading to a happily married life.

Teena coped by engaging in dangerous, self-destructive behavior. Moving to a small town where “they lynch gays” is a symptom, but Teena complicated things by hooking up with teenage girls in skating rinks, drinking, drag racing, and picking fights, wearing the resulting bruises as badges of honor.

Teena could be held up as a poster child, warning your teenagers about running with the wrong crowd. “Boys” begins as a “hanging out and getting into trouble” comedy like “Dazed and Confused.” There are many memorable scenes of partying and karaoke singing and trying to evade police.

But, also like “Dazed,” it quickly turns horrific. We watch as Teena is clearly just one slipup away from serious trouble and can barely watch as his/her “friends” reveal their true natures.

Teena comes across as a very charismatic personality struggling for acceptance in a world not quite ready for him/her. (I’ve even struggled with pronouns throughout this entire review.)

The movie sadly also makes a case for female directors being treated as second class in the movie business – and it’s a double-whammy if she chooses subject matter that is sexually anything other than straight.

Pierce’s filmmaking is as exhilarating as that of Gus Van Sant. But he followed a wiser course, making his first splash with “Drugstore Cowboy” (a movie without explicit gay elements) before eventually making the Oscar winning “Milk.”

Pierce should’ve been on her way to becoming the first female Best Director Oscar winner a decade before Kathryn Bigelow. Instead, she spent almost a decade getting her second movie “Stop-Loss” made and did unheralded work on the television series “The L Word.”

The movie did score big at the Oscars though. The amazing ChloĆ« Sevigny (who is rapidly becoming my favorite actress) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Teena’s lover, Lana. And Hillary Swank won her first Best Actress award for her dazzling work as Teena. After seeing images of the real Teena, I can tell you Swank really nailed it.

The movie was appropriately selected for inclusion in our series by “The Group That Opened the Box.” They consist of teenage girls from the Bismarck area and are led by Dr. Kathy Blohm and Karen Van Fossan. Together, they co-created a full-length play that addresses an array of “hush-hush” topics in humorous ways. Their mission: to explore public silence about adolescent sexuality, desire, and mental health.

“Boys Don’t Cry” is rated R for violence including an intense brutal rape scene, sexuality, language, and drug use.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, April 8 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Monty Python's Life of Brian

“What did he say?”
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’”
“What’s so special about the cheese makers?”
“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

That exchange occurs in the very back row of the audience at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is just a speck on the horizon, barely audible. The characters are straining to hear him. Some can’t wait to leave so they can attend a nearby stoning.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about “Monty Python’s Life of Brian?” It’s one of the funniest, most endlessly quotable, and most irreverent comedies of all time. Maybe it doesn’t have moments to quite compare with the Black Knight or the killer rabbit from their “Holy Grail,” but it is overall the Python’s most consistently grand outing.

It tells the tale of a man named Brian, who once was a baby and boy and a teenager named Brian (so the hilarious title song tells us). His misfortune was to be born at the same time and in the same place as Jesus and he’ll never be able to live it down. His is a life of being forever mistaken for the Messiah.

It all begins with his being born in a stable – just adjacent to a more famous one. A bit lost, the Three Wise Men stop by bearing gifts. Brian’s mother tells them, “If you’re dropping by again, do pop in. And thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time.”

His travails continue during his rebellious days. As an initiation to the revolutionary group the People’s Front of Judea, he’s ordered to paint “Romans go home” on the palace walls. But, when he’s caught in the act by guards, he isn’t arrested. He’s schooled in Latin. Guard: “But ‘Domus’ takes the locative, which is…?” Brian: “Er, ‘Domum!’” Guard: “Understand? Now, write it a hundred times.”

Brian also has run-ins with an ex-leper who’s upset because Jesus cured him, taking away his begging occupation. In need of a disguise, he tries to buy a fake beard from a merchant who insists that they haggle over a price. He even gets whisked away briefly into outer space by an alien spaceship in the movie’s most deliciously absurd moment.

Ultimately, it ends as the story must, I suppose, with a crucifixion. And it’s a great, unforgettable, classic ending. Every time I’ve rented the movie on VHS or DVD over the years, I’ve watched the final moments repeatedly. Remember, “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke; it’s true. So, always look on the bright side of life…”

The movie has many fans, but few of them have seen it on the big screen. And it will look especially grand this Thursday at the Grand Theater. Don’t miss this opportunity. It’s certainly the best movie in town this week.

“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” doesn’t currently have a rating from the MPAA. Back in 1978, it was rated R for language and brief nudity. I know. It was my first ‘R’ rated movie when I was 17 and I remember feeling disappointed. I thought, “I’ve waited 17 years to see ‘R’ rated movies and that’s it – some swear words and a shot of a naked guy?”

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 25 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I’ve taken a liking to the television series “Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts.” It sends pampered young adults to places like Dharivi, India to try their hands at working in sweatshops. They learn firsthand how much hardship goes into the making of trendy shirts and jackets.

“Moon,” directed by Duncan Jones (rock star David Bowie’s son), is cut from the same cloth. It opens with a promo for Lunar Industries, describing their revolutionary solution to the world’s “dirty energy” problem. They’ve established a base on the moon for strip-mining surface rocks. The Helium-3 gas extracted from them is sent back to Earth in pods to fuel fusion reactors.

The story focuses on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell in one of the finest performances of the year) as he goes about his lonely day-to-day routine of keeping the base operating smoothly. In homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he spends most of his time exercising, burning his fingers on food packets, and talking to a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

There’s nothing glamorous about Sam’s days. He babysits rock harvesting machines. But Rockwell imbues the character with limitless charm. The emotions that ripple through his face as he watches his wife and young daughter on a transmission from Earth are filled with love, sadness, happiness, concern, and longing for his three year assignment to be over, the sooner the better.

Things get complicated when Sam, while servicing a runaway harvester, crashes his lunar rover, loses consciousness, and is believed dead. The movie fades in on Sam, looking spritely and strangely healthy, reclining on a medical bed. He is being examined by GERTY. He has no memory of the accident.

Then, on a service mission, something happens to him that changes everything. The tagline is: “The last place you'd ever expect to find yourself.” As we discover the sly meaning behind that tagline, Sam learns that his “three year assignment” isn’t quite as it had seemed when he read his training manual.

Lunar Industries is gradually revealed as a ruthless corporation operating under the guise of “Green” awareness. Like children working in sweat shops sewing inseams and testing buttons for pennies an hour, Sam performs filthy, dangerous tasks for no money at all – in the name of “clean” energy. Both Sam and those children are slaves lining the pockets of a few fat cats.

Jones fondly recalls the days when science fiction was for grownups. He has stated in interviews that “Outland” and “Silent Running” and the original “Alien” were foremost in his mind while creating “Moon.” I also wonder. How much are his dad’s Major Tom and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” fueling his visions and firing his imagination? He already has a sequel in the works, continuing Sam’s story after returning home.

Jones clearly has a love for science fiction flowing through his veins. “Moon” is the real deal. It’s smart and compelling and remarkably strong visually for its shoe-string budget.

Yes, Sam’s is a rare sequel that I can’t wait to see.

“Moon” is rated R for language. It is a terrific work of “hard” science fiction, but its emphasis on the reality of living alone on the moon – both in terms of science and of desolation and boredom – will make it a trying experience for the young – and probably some older folks as well.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 11 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.