29 September, 2008

Anticipating MILK

Gus Van Sant, the openly gay auteur behind My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, and Good Will Hunting is releasing a biopic in the next few months about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official from San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978. Sean Penn's playing the title role, and I'm really excited about the trailer and the film, which also stars Emile Hersch, Diego Luna, and Josh Brolin.

Anyway, the trailer has gotten me thinking about gay films and how there really aren't many good gay films for us, by us, and about us. In fact, this might be the first masterpiece, assuming it's as good as the preview suggests. Queer people have always ruled literature, theater, art, fashion, and cuisine, and we've had some occasional breaks in television and music (I'm talking Elton John, not techno), but in the cinematic world we've always been left far behind, with lots of offensive, inaccurate, and just plain badly made portrayals. See my review of Dressed to Kill, where transsexuals are psychotic schizophrenics (see also Psycho, Silence of the Lambs...), or In & Out, where a man just suddenly (and comedically!) discovers that because he's effeminate he's also gay (much to the chagrin of the poor, helpless straight fiancee caught in the middle, who's just trying to find a nice man who doesn't take it up the ass). Or Philadelphia, with a straight director and a straight cast convincing a straight audience that gay people can be interesting when they're suffering to death from headline-grabbing illnesses. I won't even go into the insipid genre of gay-targeted movies, the kind you find in the showcase window of Lambda Rising, where there's always a shirtless twink on the cover, if not several, all abs and pectoral muscles and bedroom eyes, as if a film can't possibly be interesting if there's not a serious fuck factor. Another Gay Sequel, The Fluffer, Edge of Seventeen. God knows, most gay-themed films are as interesting as most teen sex comedies. How unique can the story of discovering you're attracted to boys, much to the possible disagreement of your mother, possibly be? Either that or you make it controversial, throwing in AIDS and prostitution, as if that's an integral part in every queer person's life.

Anyway, I thought I'd examine the few good gay movies that we have been offered in the past....

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001): There may be very few good queer films, but at least one of them is flawless. This rock musical by and starring John Cameron Mitchell is about a confused, young, effeminate East Berlin boy who sees an out from the bland, communist world of oppressive mothers and colorless Gummi Bears by marrying an older American Marine. One catch, though: in order to get the proper marriage certificate and visa he has to become a woman, undergoing a brutal surgery that leaves him with one angry, bleeding inch of mutilated crotch. Abandoned in a Kansas City trailer park (the center of the country, a character who's in the center of a lot of dichotomies...), having become a woman without really wanting or needing to be one, Hedwig launches a quest of self-discovery that involves fucking a spineless, Bible thumping teenager (Michael Pitt) and starting a failed rock band. In the end, the film's about loving yourself--discovering who you are inside and learning to accept it, and how loving oneself is essential to loving and accepting everyone else. Forgiveness, wholeness within self-identity, sexual freedom... it's all embraced within a flawless film that's rounded out by great rock music, artful cinematography, a hilarious script, and powerful, convincing acting.

Queer as Folk (UK, 1999): Technically this was a television series, but its production, content, and running time suggest more of a very long, episodic film to American audiences. A not very physically attractive yet confident and personality-rich gay sex machine (Stuart) fuels his ego by constantly alluring his best friend of over a decade, an insecure and nerdy yet lovable gay man who loves science fiction and is actually more attractive but doesn't seem so because of his confidence issues (Vince). They get drunk, go to drug-drenched clubs, and hook up with strangers while dealing with judgmental parents, friends who die of drug overdoses, lesbian parent friends, and societal oppression. But, unlike the horrible American remake (which replaced hot scenes of pornography for actual content), it never came off as silly, pointless, forced, or sensational. Meanwhile, Vince stares longingly at Stuart and longs for the unrequited love affair that can never really happen, the tug-and-pull that enriches them both because of its inchoate quality. A break occurs when Vince meets a flawed Australian who actually gives him reciprocated love and attention (but, self-deriding Vince thinks, how genuine can that love and attention be if it's directed toward me?), the friendship dissolves when Stuart becomes jealous and Vince finally gives up on his impossible teases, and they end up in a cafe trying to speak truthfully to each other for the first time since meeting at age fourteen: "You can't [love him]. You can't even respect him. He loves Vince Tyler, so that makes him stupid. The moment he said it, it all just died.... You've done nothing, Vince. You go to work. You have a drink. You sit and watch cheap science fiction. Small world. What's there that's so impressive about that? What is there to love?" At which point depressed but knowing Vince shies off and agrees, "Yeah..." only to be rebutted by a dead-certain Stuart: "It was good enough for me." No consummation, no swelling score, no steamy sex, just one sad, reflective homo admitting that love is more than methamphetamines and techno music, political anarchy and taut abs. An emotional and realistic scene in an evocative and compelling series, and one that the American show comes nowhere close to.

Elephant (2003): This low-budget Gus Van Sant film, full of amateur high school actors (some of them quite bad), is loosely about the Columbine massacre. It's a strangely paced film that a few people adore and a lot of people hate, and I think its one of the most misunderstood movies of recent history. It's smart because it doesn't follow Hollywood formulae. Case in point: toward the end of the film, after the bloodshed begins, an intimidating-looking black character is introduced (Benny, with a title screen and everything) who looks prepared to save the day. He walks tall and strong toward the gunner, only to be as quickly and mercilessly shot down as everyone else who gets in the way. What the movie's really about, though, is gay alienation and how the current gay culture is failing gay children. What is The Fluffer really doing to advance self-esteem and gay rights? One point early on we witness a meeting of a gay-straight alliance, where the hip, well-adjusted students in attendance are discussing fashion and other frivolous topics. Meanwhile, the gay students who end up becoming the gunmen are having awkward sexual encounters, denying their deep-rooted feelings, and plotting acts of violence while enduring bullying for reasons they can't understand. Being gay might be fashionable these days for those who have the cajones to embrace it, but we're still a long way from teaching people not to hate themselves for being unable to understand their feelings of sexual attraction.

Capote (2005): A movie about an openly gay historical figure who's neither a tragic martyr nor a schizophrenic villain... a complex person grappling with issues of self-importance, deception, insecurity, fame... a complex person who also happens to be gay... just like many complex people in reality!

Angels in America (2003): An HBO original film based on Tony Kushner's Pullitzer Prize winning play about the AIDS epidemic: arch-conservative Ray Cohn (Al Pacino), despite getting AIDS from bareback fucking gay prostitutes, denies being a faggot because faggots are weak, unorganized, and pitiful, whereas he is strong, well-organized, and powerful. It's a statement on the origins of the AIDS epidemic, when Reagan refused to do anything to prevent it because it only affected drug addicts and homosexuals, that the rich conservative is able to dismiss his Kaposi sarcoma as liver disease and help fight it with the most expensive drug treatments while sincere, hardworking homosexuals with the same illness shit and bleed themselves to death because they're actual "faggots." This play/film is very "issue-oriented"--AIDS, Mormonism, etc.--but it works because of the poetic writing, the fantastic acting, the emotive direction. Jeffrey Wright as Belize (a country midway between north and south), Roy's genuine nurse who operates somewhere between male and female, black and white, bitter and compassionate, past and present, is the epitome of progress away from oppression, and is description of Heaven to a dying, frightened Cohn is one of the most beautiful passages of prose-poetry: "Bit city, overgrown with weeds. But flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like teeth, gritty wind, and a gray, high sky full of ravens. Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste, and history finally overcome. And you ain't there."

The Laramie Project (2002): Another HBO original film, this one about the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's homophobic murder in Laramie, Wyoming, based on a Broadway play based on interviews with actual citizens from Laramie following the murder and trial. Matthew's lesbian best friend (Christina Ricci) reflects on his angelic qualities and her coping with his death. His sometime chaffeur (Steve Buscemi) muses that instead of dying in the pitch black barrenness that is rural Wyoming at night, he may have found solace in the shining stars and the flickering city lights in the distance. A closeted gay man with a broken leg watches the memorial march seen from the window on one side of his apartment expand to a massive movement by the time he limps to the window on the other side. And numerous other people, all completely real, struggle through the anger, sadness, and confusion of a despicable crime.

Happy Birthday (2002): I can't in good faith call this a "good" film, but I do have a strong soft-spot for it. This unheard-of feature debut from gay, Malaysian director Yen Tan is a ponderous, black-and-white, ensemble piece held together by the unnecessary fact that all of the main characters (half a dozen or so) happen to be celebrating birthdays on the date when most of the action falls. The budget was nonexistent, some of the actors seem to have been pulled from the street, a few of the subplots are distracting, and the birthday gimmick that ties it together is strange, but a few notable strengths stand out: some courageous new themes, some very talented unknown faces, and dialogue that, overall, is sharp and moving. Benjamin Patrick (who, according to IMDb, hasn't been in anything else--which is very unfortunate) plays an Overeater Anonymous who sells diet pills over the phone and yearns to not be ashamed of himself. Devashish Saxena plays a gay, Pakistani refugee who finds peace and love in the United States only to be deported by an INS that doesn't consider constant homophobic assaults from family and neighbors to be a justified foundation for refugee status. Ethel Lung portrays a young, Asian lesbian trying to conceal all the minutiae of her queer life from her visiting, conservative mother. The stories are humane, intimate, and unique, and the multilingual, ensemble direction is fascinating. With some hard script-editing and a larger budget, Tan could turn this noble first draft into a mesmerizing film. Unfortunately, I don't think that'll happen. Of the mere 47 people who have voted for it on IMDb, the average is only 5.6 stars; even Paul didn't bother to sit past the first few minutes. I guess it's too hard to overlook a ten-dollar budget.

My Own Private Idaho (1991): In this eccentric update of Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, Keanu Reeves plays a confident, wealthy sex idol who slums it up in the gay, urban underground, fucking around with the affections of a hustling, destitute River Phoenix (in a career-defining, Oscar-worthy role). When his magnate father suddenly passes, though, he must reject his silly faggot nonsense and embrace the straight, conservative, whitebread lifestyle, abandoning all of the loves and friends he's known in the past. It's the Shakespearian equivalent of Roy Cohn's "Republicans don't get AIDS." An emotional, humorous, and highly stylistic film, worthy of several viewings.

The Birdcage (1996): Surprisingly, I'm not a fan of the French original (La Cage aux folles, 1978), but the Americanized remake with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams is hysterical screwball comedy with a queer twist. Williams and Lane play a long-term gay couple on the outs who live above the night club (The Birdcage) they own. Williams has a grown son from a former straight relationship (one treated with the proper complexities of love), and the son intends to marry the daughter of a conservative politician up for election, who insists on meeting the groom-to-be's lovely parents. When the real mother gets caught in traffic, the drag-dressing Lane--having been unfairly cut out of the picture to conceal the homo element--steps in (cognito) to assume the maternal role, in a dawdling, traditional, Barbara Bush style. Things unravel, hijinx ensue. It's a mainstream comedy with serious hetero-input, aimed at a broad crowd (my ex-stepfather saw it and loved it, for example), but unlike I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Boat Trip, it manages to avoid condescension and spite. In the end, it's Williams and Lane who are loving, clever, and likable, and Gene Hackman as the uptight father-in-law-to-be must rectify himself.

Boys Don't Cry (1999): It's hard to express an enjoyment for this film when it's as bleak as it is, but this true story of a female-to-male transsexual's love affair and subsequent arrest, rape, and murder in 1993 Lincoln, Nebraska, is powerful, important, emotionally-wrought, and unforgettable. Hilary Swank won a deserved Oscar as the skinny, shy boy just trying to live his life as innocently, compassionately, and inoffensively as possible, and Chloe Sevigny gives a fine performance as his confused but loving girlfriend. The movie is disturbing, but sometimes that's how our lives are.

Nico and Dani (2000, Krampack): A simple, coming-of-age gay tale from Spain that manages to add a little bit more than the typical genre film. High schooler Dani (Fernando Ramallo) has the hots for his skinny, cool friend Nico (Jordi Vilches), an ambiguous tease who desperately wants to bang as many chicks as possible while on vacation at the beach. Dani's unrequited infatuation reaches a breaking point, throwing the friendship into confusion and drama. It's a standard film (with beautiful settings, actors, and cinematography) with a plot that every gay boy has undergone, but a few touching scenes rise it above the rest.

Some Honorable Mentions that don't quite count: American Beauty, Dog Day Afternoon, Mysterious Skin, Monster, Todo sobre mi madre, Gods and Monsters (which, to be fair, I haven't seen in a long time, so I can't really comment on)

The Commuter

I occasionally see an old woman schlupping up and down Connecticut Avenue, her head painfully cocked askew, her eyes cautiously glued to the sidewalk, her back humped and limbs arthritic. She'd be a depressing sight if she had let herself fall to shambles, but instead she's always impeccably dressed. Not fashionable exactly, but grandma fashionable. Colorful blouses and clean holiday vests and shiny broaches, everything exquisitely laundered and pressed, well-tailored and appropriately adorned. I wonder how difficult it must be for her to dress so primly, but she's never disappointed.

The other morning, during rainfall, I saw her walking to the Metro at seven, a floppy American flag hat pulled over her head and a photographic identification card dangling around her neck. I'd never realized she was going to a job everytime she trekked to the busstop, but I can picture her at her desk, working slowly but surely, never complaining. All the young employees call her Granma affectionately, and at Christmas time she buys a Hallmark ornament for everyone without prejudice, and for the really special coworkers a stuffed reindeer. Maybe sometimes she makes jokes that would be scandalous by 1940s standards, letting them out in a slow and small but very precise voice.

Anyway, I love this woman.

I've been sick the past few days, but going to work in spite of it (as if I had a choice). I've watched some movies (Parents, Tropic Thunder, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), King of the Zombies, Burn After Reading, Trouble the Water), and some reviews for some of them should be coming soon. I've been studying Spanish, keeping up (however angrily and bemusedly) with the news, and slogging my way through Gravity's Rainbow, which I'll also one day post an analysis of if I ever actually finish it (I've read 632 of 887 pages, and there's no telling how many of those pages I understood, though I've enjoyed enough of it, I guess). Things are good.

p.s. Paul just told me he saw the old lady with the floppy hat this morning, hunching down to pet a pedestrian's Pomeranian. "She sounded just as nice as you'd imagine," he tells me. Maybe I can lure her into starting a conversation by walking someone's dog up and down the street....

22 September, 2008

Movie Review: Dressed to Kill (1980)

Brian De Palma's 1980 sexual thriller is as schizophrenic as its transgendered antagonist, a mishmash film that juxtaposes masterful, taut scenes of suspense with implausible, poorly acted moments of happenstance and illogic. Never before or since have terrible and wonderful scenes coexisted so seamlessly in one film.

The movie opens with a starch-haired Angie Dickinson and her pornographic body double arousing herself in a shower while gazing with opium eyes at a shirtless, shaving Michael Caine. It's an erotic dream, of course; in reality, Dickinson's character Kate is married to a clumsily sexual businessman and Dr. Robert Elliott is merely her married, ethical psychiatrist in the Upper East Side, whom she sees frequently to talk about her sexual frustrations. Women are all about sex in Dressed to Kill, with money as a side interest. Kate wants to screw doctors and Wall Street brokers, while the only other female character, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), is a high end escort who brokers stock deals on one phone while arranging $500 "hot lunch" dates on another and who collects art only as a financial investment (you see, the price rises when the artist dies).

One morning, after a session of miserable, marital sex; an expository conversation with her teenage Harry Potter-look-alike son Peter, a manic inventor developing a room-sized supercomputer that both "carries" and "stores" binary numbers (thousands of them!); and a visit to Dr. Elliott in which she offers her body up only to be rejected, Kate goes to the art museum to stare at paintings of gorillas, people watch, record entries like "egg nog" in her schedule, and cruise for sex with strangers. She's a classy broad dressed all in white with white gloves on, and when a possible sexmate ignores her advances, she removes her left glove to reveal her enormous wedding ring, proving to him that she wasn't interested in the first place while also giving him the cue to make the next move. He hastily runs off, and she forgets her glove on the bench while she chases him through the museum's various rooms and corridors.

This is the first scene in which De Palma reveals that he's not just a hack. Ten minutes without dialogue (overlaid with an outdated score) ensue as the two engage in a cat-and-mouse game of flirtatious stalking. He feigns indifference and disgust at her advances. She gives up in frustration. He smiles and stares and follows her. She approaches; he ducks away and disappears. Finally, he discovers her glove, puts it on his own hand, and lays it on her shoulder from behind--contact! She screams. It's more than she bargained before, and she runs out of the museum, only later realizing that he was trying to return her glove. In the end, he's in a taxicab, waving her glove out the backseat window, and as she approaches he all but rapes her, much to her delight.

Aggressive fucking in his opulent apartment follows, and as she rifles through his stuff while dressing, she discovers his letter from the health department confirming his syphilis ("You have contracted a venereal disease!"). The story has a moral after all: a single act of extramarital sex leads to blindness, dementia, and death, though her death is instantaneous. A bulky blond has been following her and waits outside the elevator for no good reason (if she's stalking Kate, she should be running down the stairs she was hiding in during the afternoon of fucking, not waiting for the elevator to descend seven floors and then ascend seven more floors on the oft-chance that Kate has coincidentally happened to forget her wedding ring on the syphilitic businessman's end table, returning to the seventh floor where the bulky blond stands awkwardly poised with a straight razor, somehow knowing that Kate would be coming back up) and enters, hacking her to death in a poorly-edited, fakey death scene. Like I said, an illogical moment of ineffective sensationalism follows immediately on the heels of ten flawless minutes.

Anyway, the elevator stops on the sixth floor while the blond's still hacking away, exposing the grisly sight to a cowardly businessman who instantly flees down the stairs and Liz Blake the high-end whore, whose hands-almost-on-the-frozen-face-while-eyes-shake-and-widen reaction is one of the worst "I'm witnessing a murder" expressions I've ever seen.

The blond gets away (nobody tries to stop her--nobody ever tries to stop her throughout the movie), and everyone ends up in the office of Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, who's sometimes good and sometimes awful, like everything else in this movie), including Dr. Elliott, whose reasons for being called there are valid--he was one of the last people known to have seen Kate and also knew a lot about her mental condition on that day--but who is harassed by Marino for no good reason in a poorly written moment of unrealistic plotting and directorial misdirection. Marino wants to know about the "weirdos" that Robert consults because he's convinced that even though the murder happened hours and miles away from her appointment at his office the murderer must have been one of his crazy patients. (You see, the only people who go to expensive psychiatrists in New York are psychopaths.)

And guess what!, the good doctor keeps getting calls from one of his patients, Bobbi, a whining, pathetic man trapped in a woman's body who admits she stole Robert's razor, fears she might be a naughty girl, and intends to murder his little "cocktease" patient, all because he won't sign some papers to help her get her official sex reassignment surgery. But Dr. Elliott doesn't tell the police this; he wants to get in touch with her first, make amends, make certain that she really committed the murder that she predicts and then confesses to in her voicemails before getting her in trouble. WTF?

It makes sense in the end--you see, Robert predictably is Bobbi--but before the outrageously offensive climax and resolution, the movie has one more minority group to insult--those black men, all of whom, from gangbangers to security guards, just want to attack and rape silly, sex-starved white women. But that's just an added bonus, in case demeaning caricatures of women and transgendered people weren't quite enough.

Back to Bobbi/Robert, who is finally caught and shot one stormy night in his office, having been tracked down and duped by Liz in conjunction with the technologically savvy Peter (who uses everything from stopwatches to video cameras to homemade mace in his detective work). You see, Dr. Elliott is schizophrenically torn between two sides, his natural "male side" (vain, ragingly heterosexual, hormonally-charged) and his optimal "female side" (petty, jealous, violent). When the male side gets aroused--say, by Kate's cockteasing advances or Liz's prostitute beauty--the envious female side tries to compensate by killing the intruder and shrinking his enormous boner. This laughable explanation is offered by the reputed Dr. Levy in the final scene, who's introduced simply to make it all official.

De Palma attempts to one-up Psycho. He doesn't.

Still don't buy it? Well, a light-hearted bonus scene is thrown in during which Liz reductively explains transsexual behavior and surgery to Peter during a hot lunch at an exquisite restaurant while a staunch old woman eavesdrops in the background while exaggeratedly expressing her shock and disgust. We're supposed to sympathize with this old woman--it's all rather unsettling, isn't it!--or at best see ourselves as more "progressive" (read: jaded) than her--yes, yes, it is unsettling, but it's just a part of this crazy, mixed-up world we live in!

Out of context, a handful of well-executed scenes occupy this clumsy, insulting film. De Palma can evoke tension and even some good acting and witty dialogue when he's focused; it's just the sum of the parts that don't cohere, and the gaps between them are massive. He also uses unfair trickery to aid his twist. Bobbi is played by not one, not two, but three characters--Michael Caine, a male voice on the phone, and a female body double for the murder and stalking scenes. How are we supposed to figure out the twist when we're presented with lies? (Oh yeah, because it's extremely predictable.) A really good mystery shouldn't have to resort to that.

Dressed to Kill (1980)
d/w: Brian De Palma
(Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson, Dennis Franz)

18 September, 2008

Movie Review: Righteous Kill (2008)

There's a scene in Throw Momma From the Train, a largely forgotten but very enjoyable comedy remake of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, where Billy Crystal's character, a writing workshop professor, gives some harsh criticism to Danny Devito, an aspiring mystery writer. See, Billy says, the problem with your three-page story is that it has two characters, and one of those characters gets murdered on the first page. So where's the mystery when there's only one character other than the murder victim?

Righteous Kill begins with Robert DeNiro's "Turk" confessing to being a murderous vigilante, having killed over a dozen pimps, drug dealers, and pedophile priests (because the only sin a priest is capable of committing is gay, pedophiliac rape, of course).

We then proceed to meet a ragtag cast of completely forgettable characters.... John Leguizamo's Officer Somethingorother, Brian Dennehy's Lieutenant Hardasscaricature, Carla Gugino's sexy someone, 50 Cent's hoodlum who does bad things. And, of course, Al Pacino's "Rooster," Turk's shady cohort in crimesolving, with whom he swaps numerous poorly scripted witticisms that almost approach something of liveliness. He's the only remotely rounded other character in this whole film, about a moralistic vigilante who executes criminals who have escaped justice and then leaves handwritten, miserable attempts at poetry on their corpses (or sometimes, for some reason, inside their corpses, as in the instance where he inserts the piece of paper into the gay priest's asshole because... well, I don't know, I guess because inserting a small piece of paper into a gay man's asshole is more offensive to the dead, gay man than it is to whoever has to touch the dead, gay man's asshole (by this point probably covered in shit since murder victims supposedly shit themselves upon death)).

So here's the setup. 1.) This is a pop culture crime mystery, so in this day and age you know there has to be some twist at the end. 2.) Turk is confessing to all the crimes in the opening scene, which means that can't possibly be all true since there has to be a surprise revelation at some point. 3.) It becomes evident very early to both the audience and the characters that the killer is probably a police officer. 4.) There's only one other character (Rooster) who is even remotely interesting, who has any shred of history or motivation or emotion.

So who do you think the killer is?

Is it Carla Gugino, whoever the hell she is? If it turns out that she's the killer, and they slap on some explanation as to why at the very end, then who really gives a damn? Nobody cares; the killer might as well be a complete stranger, like in the atrocious The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington, when it turns out that the killer was some bit player at the very beginning who doesn't really say or do anything, who is completely forgettable, and whom we know nothing about until the very end. (I remember watching this movie with my aunt and then having to rewind the tape to the beginning to find the killer's trivial scene, since neither of us could remember anything about it.)

So yeah, of course it's Rooster, and Turk's confession at the beginning was a deceptive bit of plot trickery that serves no purpose other than to fool the audience. See, Turk was always a good cop with high morals and Rooster always respected him until one day Turk's actions became a little less than stellar and Rooster, unable to live in a world with shades of gray (because apparently he hadn't by that point encountered hundreds of people who were less than ideal... girlfriends and parents and teachers and so forth... apparently it wasn't until his admirable coworker did something complex that this police officer's Manichean world view became shattered), decided to throw all principles out the window and become a serial killer. Sure, that makes sense.

In the end, these two overaged, slightly effeminate detectives prance around, fire bullets at each other, throw up ham fists, and masturbate each other's tear ducts. It's a bizarre bromance that reeks of artificiality, attempting profound complexities but with no humanity, subtlety, wit, or insight to back up such attempts. It's not even campy enough to be fun. On a scale of negative ten to ten, with ten being a masterpiece and negative ten being so, so bad it's actually very good (like Troll 2), this is a flat zero.

I don't know what's become of the careers of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, but this disgusting "mystery" by Jon Avnet (who also directed the even more terrible but more enjoyable 88 Minutes, also starring Al Pacino, earlier this year) is an obvious lowpoint.

Righteous Kill (2008)
d: Jon Avnet w: Russell Gewirtz
(Robert De Niro, Al Pacino)

14 September, 2008


They waited in the car, the windows rolled down, peering up at the dusty signs and dark windows of the admissions booth. The cost was one dollar for adults, fifty cents for kids under 15, and free for those under five, but the sign was smudged with layers of dirt and no ticket collector was coming from the battered, wooden door. The door was heavy and fixed, had probably been stationary for decades, and a hole in the bottom corner of the window splintered outward in spider cracks.

“Get out and knock,” she said.

“There’s no one in there.”

He tapped on the horn.

The ghost town attraction was open from dawn to dusk and the dry sun was beating down one hundred and five degrees, but there was no one to be seen. There had been no cars, no buildings, no life or sign of life since they’d seen the billboard ten miles back on the highway. As touristy as it seemed, they didn’t expect it to actually be empty, to actually be populated solely by ghosts. They’d expected hokey reenactments and exaggerated museum attractions, slackjawed guides and fat wayfarers with overzealous camera triggers.

He shifted gears and proceeded down the dirt road, the baked gravel crunching beneath the tires.

“No,” she said. “Wait. We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t pay. We’re trespassing.”

“There’s no one here,” he said. He kept driving. “Nobody at all.”

The road inclined and snaked to a three-pronged fork, where a signpost pointed one finger toward Town Hall, another to the mines, and a third to the cemetery. He turned left, a narrow path flanked by hills of sediment. Drought-blighted sagebrush sprouted thorny fingers to the white sky, their tiny yellow leaves not quite dead, begging the question of what worth was in living. The path rose and turned, and they passed through a massive wrought-iron gate, an inauthentic recreation, the town’s name sculpted atop in gothic curls. The town lay before them like an abandoned movie set, sandblasted by windblown debris. Everything was a shade of brown. The original buildings, over one hundred years old, were distinct in their stoic postures, stolid with dementia. The recreations, so obviously refabricated from newer materials and cheaper designs, were the decaying structures, weeded and gaping. A patina of tourism gilded everything with exuberant, sunbleached signs and Wild West themed kiddie rides from the world of imagination.

He pulled up to the general store and parked, climbed out and stretched his legs. She followed, leaving her door and her options open.

“You don’t think it’s unsafe?” he asked. “Maybe they had to shut it down?”

She scoped everything, walked to the store and approached the window. The glass was warped like melting, slightly less than transparent. She touched the cool panes and sniffed the black spots on her fingertips, then cupped her hands and peered through. Stillness resonated inside. Empty chairs and unmanned counters, mostly bare shelves with vintage cans and tins or with nothing at all on display. A life-size painting of a lady and a gentleman, their faces two cut-out ovals, stood against one wall. In a back corner was a Coke machine, at most only ten years, and she could imagine she heard it whirring still. She shivered.

A handwritten paper sign on the door read, “Sorry, we’re Open,” but it was locked. She turned around and folded her arms tight to her chest.

He was trying to maneuver a rusted wheelbarrow across the road.

She returned to the car and closed the door. A few seconds later, he joined her. The beeping of the seatbelt reminder, the hum of the engine, and the blast of the air conditioner were startling. She turned off the vents.

They drove back to the fork. “The mines?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

He drove to the cemetery, a small, pebble-strewn mound of a lot overlooked by the red mountains. They parked and walked through the murmuring gate. Human-length rock cairns lay over the dozens of graves, marked by planks of shellacked wood, knotted and unadorned. She crouched at the foot of one pile, laying her hands on the warm stones. A tiny American flag, battered and mudcaked, was wedged between two jutting rocks. She gazed around, took in the symmetry and even spacing of the unnamed graves, the care that went into the finding and carrying and stacking of the stones, the orderliness that reigned even after the abandonment. Not one grave was disrupted, not one stone out of place. The sanguine sun was low in the western sky, and long shadows followed the wooden planks across the dry land. She gazed and saw tiny yellow flowers barely emerging from the ground. It was too much.

He was higher, toward the back of the lot, and she walked to him. He stared down at six graves, six six-foot-long piles of stones with actual granite tombstones instead of wooden planks, their polished, flat faces engraved with real names and official dates. The deaths were scattered across the past fifteen years. Mary “Mary Lou” Ellerbee, “Postmaster General.” Joseph “Ole Buck” Hanson, “Six Shootin’ Sheriff.” Ronald Tyler, “Town Crier.” The most recent grave was less than two years old, and on it was engraved a sketching of the cemetery they were standing in, the mountains in the background, a cross atop one, and the sun setting behind, spewing forth crepuscular rays.

“They’re dead,” he said. “These are the people who ran the tourist stop. The ghost town died. It died back in the day and they rebuilt it, turned it into an amusement park. And then all those people died. There’s two eras of ghosts here.”

The new placards were the cleanest and brightest artifacts in the whole town, the most untinged by dust and commercialism, the most chilling and intimate.

“Should we say a prayer?” she asked.

He smiled.

Ronald Tyler, “Son of Amaranth” aged 91 at the time of his death four years past, had tiny words of verse beneath his dates:

And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven

Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:

With these that never fade the spirits elect

Bind their resplendent locks.

They drove south and east, further into night, the sun sinking behind them.