Monday, October 14, 2013

Parkland, Concussion, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, A Touch of Sin


The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
A Touch of Sin

I have time only for very brief capsules on a few small films from this weekend.

"Parkland" takes its name from the Dallas hospital where JFK and, the next day, Lee Harvey Oswald died fifty years ago this November. Much of the action is set in the emergency and operating rooms, with Zac Efron as Dr. "Jim" Carrico and Marcia Gay Harden as nurse Doris Nelson. But what I'll remember most are the performances of Billy Bob Thornton as lead Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels; Paul Giamatti, unusually good as Abraham Zapruder; James Badge Dale as Oswald's brother Robert; and especially Jacki Weaver as Oswald's delusional mother Marguerite, who always maintained her son was a secret agent of the U.S. government and suggested, after the assassination, that he be buried alongside Kennedy at Arlington. I'm glad Weaver has found regular work in Hollywood. She's unforgettable in this part.

Boy, is there a lot of bad queer cinema out there. Most of it, like the new "Concussion," fails at the script level. You're gonna love this one: Abby (Robin Weigert) and Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) are a longtime lesbian couple in New York (though they have about as much chemistry as a doorknob and a paper clip). Kate's the successful professional (though I couldn't tell you her line of work), while Abby raises their two kids and keeps house. Abby, feeling what my late friend Patty Gadicke would call "a vague sense of ennui," takes a second (very large) apartment, to be used as a workspace. What kind of work? Well, you may not know this, but apparently there's a huge market for lesbian prostitutes in the Big Apple, and Abby's in luck because - though Weigert's quite meese - the handyman who set up her space (Jonathan Tchaikovsky) also happens to date a law student who moonlights as the madam of an escort service. And not only do women line up for Abby, they agree to meet her for coffee before getting to have sex. And, though Abby purposefully took a space far from home, one of them just happens to be the cute gal from Goldman Sachs on whom she has a secret crush. What planet are we on here?

"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" is a great title in search of a commensurate movie. George Tillman, Jr. sets his film in the housing projects of Brooklyn, where Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), out of work, spends her days getting high on crack. When the cops come for her, her 14-year-old son, Mister (Skylan Brooks), teams up with his younger Korean neighbor Pete (Ethan Dizon), to run a gauntlet of Child Protective Service workers, cops, angry convenience store owners (yeah, they shoplift), bums, pimps, and snitches to survive the summer. Anthony Mackie, Jordin Sparks and Jeffrey Wright appear in small parts. It's the sort of movie where nobody's quite as hard-boiled as they try to come off. There's lots of crying, and moralizing, and gooey sentiment where clear eyes and a hard edge are called for. Tillman has shot the film in a Spike Lee visual style, but his palette lacks Lee's vibrancy. There's nothing in here as good as the Rosie Perez-"Fight the Power" opening credits to "Do the Right Thing," and while Brooks is passable in the lead, Dizon's performance is pretty poor.

Finally, Jia Zhangke's Chinese import "A Touch of Sin," which won a screenwriting award at Cannes. It's told as four interconnected stories - a structure I usually like - designed to demonstrate the corruption and crass commercialism of contemporary China. But it oscillates fairly wildly between long stretches in which nothing happens and moments of disproportionately brutal violence (and several hard-to-watch scenes of animal cruelty). At over two hours, it's a pretty tough slog.

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