Continuing his long string of occasionally artful, but mostly exploitative gay roles, James Franco has given us King Cobra, the tawdry and dopey story of the porn star and San Diego gay celebrity Brent Corrigan, his Svengali director at Cobra Video, and the dumb-as-dirt couple who murdered the latter. As most know, Franco, who produced and co-stars as one of the killers, is not gay, but he loves playing gay and teasing us with vaguely gay antics. I can see why he was drawn to the story of Brent Corrigan, because it’s scandalous and ridiculous. But as directed and written by Justin Kelly, it’s those things, and that’s it. Unclear whether it’s a comedy, a thriller or a gay Lifetime film, King Cobra ends up being mostly silly. I was entertained, but not for the right reasons.
I kept wondering if James Franco and Travis Mathews’s odd faux documentary Interior. Leather Bar. would ever make it to San Diego, and that’s moot since it’s now available on demand at Vimeo.com. The idea for the film is brilliantly titillating. Rumor has it that 40 minutes of graphic sex in a gay leather bar were shot and cut for the infamous 1980 Al Pacino thriller Cruising, and Franco and Mathews (the writer and director of art-porn sensation I Want Your Love) have decided to recreate those scenes and make a documentary about that re-creation.
We watch as they discuss the idea with Val Lauren, who they cast as the Al Pacino role, and we watch as the extras are given motivation and direction. We watch Lauren, who is almost aggressively heterosexual, fret about what this film will do for his fledgling career, and we watch as everyone says over and over again that they’re only on set because of how much they love and respect Franco. And then we watch as they all watch the extras have sex – very graphic sex – for scenes that would be totally strange non sequiturs in Williams Friedkin’s gritty, somewhat unnerving original film.
When I saw the movie a few months ago in Los Angeles, I was delighted by it because it was, in the end, a cruel bait-and-switch. I laughed at the irritation of the audience because they were expecting something else. They were expecting what the film purports to be, a documentary about the making of something fascinating and lost to the homophobia of the late 1970s. (Spoiler alert!)
And, honestly, I wish they had made that movie, because it would have been fascinating and much more entertaining. And they would have at least made an attempt to ask Friedkin, who is still alive and making movies, and what actually is true about the rumors. But Franco and Mathews instead made a fictional, narrative film about making such a documentary. Everything was scripted (or at least ad-libbed with fictional goals in mind) and, eventually, it rings rather false.
For some reason, the audience is meant to sympathize with Lauren and his plight, to feel for his clear discomfort with gay sex and to learn, along with him, about where that discomfort comes from and how it hurts gay men. I felt as if Franco and Mathews had a conversation about queer theory and film psychology while very high and came up with this weird experiment in audience expectations. The problem with that is I cannot imagine that any more than a tiny fraction of the audience for Interior. Leather Bar. will be straight men, who are the only people I can imagine who could identify with Lauren’s portrayal of a more homophobic version of himself.
I saw Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s perverse exploitation art film, with five bears and a couple hundred teen-agers who thought they were seeing a Tarentino-fied Where the Boys Are. That said, I doubt any of those kids have ever heard of Where the Boys Are, the 1960 film starring George Hamilton and Yvette Mimieux, but they definitely know the genre: college girls go to Florida on spring break and hilarity ensues. It’s not the kids’ fault they were wrong. The trailer for Spring Breakers makes it seem to exist in that somewhat beloved genre, just with added guns and a sleazy white rapper played by James Franco. The gays I went to see Spring Breakers with knew that they were going to see something else; we knew that Harmony Korine wrote Kids and wrote and directed Gummo, two of the most perversely exploitative art films of the 1990s. We were actually hoping to be horrified by the wrongness of the movie, and the kids in theater were simply surprised by how horrifying, pornographic, disturbing, and weirdly funny Spring Breakers is. To say that the movie is bad is true, but that’s too straightforward. It’s too effective – too deliberately funny, titillating, and discomfiting – to be just be bad. It’s also a little bit brilliant. Continue…
When I was a kid, CBS would show The Wizard of Oz every March, and my parents would let my brother and me stay up way past our bedtime to see it. (We had to brush our teeth and get into our pajamas first.) While Star Wars, Superman, and ET were all released and re-released during my early childhood, they did not – and no other movie has – match the sheer wonder and joy that The Wizard of Oz brought to me. The moment that Dorothy opens the door of her house, after it was been thrown through the sky by a Kansas tornado and landed in Oz, and the black, white, and very gray world becomes not just Technicolor, but incandescent and utterly alive is, to me, one of the greatest moments in film history. That Sam Raimi, in his quite wonderful and extraordinarily gorgeous prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, is able to pay homage to that moment and nearly equal its experience is the greatest surprise I’ve had at the movies in many months. Continue…
But: “They’re not monkeys! They’re apes!” So spoketh the chimp wrangler in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I thought was pretty damn entertaining. My review will be in print next Thursday, but here it is, early:
If your jaw dropped at how realistic, how life-like and creepy Gollum was when you first saw him in The Fellowship of the Ring ten years ago, it will fall open again and your mouth will dry out when you see Caesar, the super smart chimpanzee at the center of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The rise of CGI (computer generated imagery) has been derided as much as it has been hailed; the detractors need only point to Green Lantern or The Last Airbender or any original film on SyFy, while the supporters have Jurassic Park and all three films in The Lord of the Rings. And now the CGI cheerleaders have Rise, which I think is a new benchmark in the use of computers to create non-human characters who are not just believable, but whose digital origins become forgettable seconds after first view. Caesar’s movements are performed by Andy Serkis; the motions are captured on camera and then technicians use them around which to draw and animate a chimpanzee. Caesar’s acting, then, is a collaboration between Sirkis, who voiced and moved Gollum, and the effects team put together by director Rupert Wyatt. Too bad you can’t give a Best Actor Oscar to four dozen people.
Planet of the Apes, to which Rise is the ninth film sequel or remake (there was also a TV series), was groundbreaking in 1968 because of its special effects, in particular the costumes and make-up for the super smart simians who lorded over mute humans in the distant future. None of the films that followed were remotely as well-made, neither technically nor in their stories, and some were just terrible, even though they have their camp appeal. Tim Burton’s remake of the first film ten years ago wasn’t even campy, just a mess of terrible acting, a dumb-downed screenplay, and weak effects – though the ape costumes weren’t that bad. Rise’s special effects alone make it probably the best since the first film, and it’s definitely the most entertaining, despite its faults.
One of the reasons gay audiences might be drawn to the movie is James Franco, who plays the present-day scientist responsible for making Caesar, and by extension, every other ape, way too smart. Franco loves to play gay or gay-ish (Milk, Pineapple Express) and is strikingly handsome, and he can be an intensely great actor, as he was in 127 Hours and James Dean. But he has been known to phone it in, becoming wooden and distracted. See, for instance, his bizarrely unfocused and terrible hosting of the last Acadamy Awards show. And in Rise, while he’s believable, he’s much less intense – he’s almost lazy – than I would expect from his character.
Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Testing the cure on chimps, one of them becomes smarter, showing that the drug is working. But she goes berserk, and is killed, and the study is shut down. It turns out it wasn’t the drug making her crazy; she was just protecting her baby. This baby is Caesar, who Will takes in, raises, and discovers to be even smarter than a human. But Caesar still has some wild animal in him, and after he attacks a man threatening Lithgow, he’s sent to a primate sanctuary, which is really a prison for problematic apes. The rest of the film is a prison break revenge story crossed with a “Don’t play God!” cautionary tale. Science doesn’t end up looking too hot by the end.
And science is represented by a cartoonishly evil drug company exec (David Oyelowo), a dull Franco, and Frieda Pinto, who has the thankless role of Will’s veterinarian girlfriend and voice of reason. I was thrilled when the humans were off-screen, because Caesar and his fellow apes, communicating almost entirely in grunts and body language, starred in scenes as fascinating, entertaining, suspenseful, and action-packed as the human scenes were dreary. By the end, as Caesar and his pals are marauding through San Francisco, you cheer for their dominance. These computer-generated apes just seem so much more alive.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver
Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, and John Lithgow
At your local multiplex
Oh, and the title of this post is from the musical Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off! which was depicted in the episode “A Fish Called Selma” of The Simpsons. Ha.