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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lachrymose in Technicolor: Tears

I don't know what most people say when they hear the words "Thai Western" uttered cheek-by-jowl, but here at Telecommuniculturey, we say: Hell, yeah! And I'M GOING TO COUNT TO SIX!

Fah talai jone, the original Thai title, doesn't mean anything like "Tears of the Black Tiger." But the title is probably easiest thing to translate about the whole endeavor. This was released in Thailand in 2000 and made the festival circuit (including Cannes) for a few years. The film was later purchased by Miramax, which cut the film considerably, changed the ending, then shelved it entirely. As is becoming increasingly typical, it was Magnolia to the rescue and a limited release in the US.

About the only thing that I can tell you about Wisit Sasanatieng is that he definitely did not direct King Arthur, but then again, he's not Spanish. (Incidentally, my sister-in-law recently asked me a tricky question: Was King Arthur, in fact, worse than, as she put it "that movie with Richard Gere as Lancelot." After thinking about it for a moment, I have decided that yes, yes it is. And I saw First Knight IN THE THEATER, people.) Likewise, I think my exposure to Thai cinema is limited to my two beloved Tony Jaa films.

The Village Voice seems to indicate that TotBT is hearkening back to the style of Thai independent filmmaker Ratana Pestonji. I really don't know what that means, but I am reassured that I can "just dig." I am relieved, likewise, to note that VV is not, like many other wrong-headed and possibly color-blind reviewers, referring to the color palette of the movie as "pastel." You want pastels, go to Latin America. Thailand is apparently your go-to nation for nuclear turquoise, pink, and red. The Voice reviewer is only referring to the opening piece of scenery when he uses the phrase "Monet by Warhol," but the metaphor extends handily.

In other marketing shortcomings, Tears of the Black Tiger is billed variously as a "Western," "A Parody of Westerns," and "An Homage to Westerns." Each of those is perfectly true and each falls short. In addition to the Western framework, Sasanatieng is working within the bounds of Teenage Exploitation/Scare movies, flat-out Gangster movies, Gross-Out Ultraviolent movies, and the tried and true Tearjerker tradition.

The central focus is the love story of Rumpoey and Dum (The Black Tiger, although the rest of his gang are also "tigers"). The two meet in childhood: She is the daughter of a well-to-do regional official; he is the son of a peasant, although he's some kind of "district chief" peasant, for what that's worth. Despite the fact that she suffers from a severe case of Early Buttercup syndrome (fetch that pitcher yourself, you snotty little brat), Dum falls in love with her. She reciprocates when he tells her a tragic romance story about the "Sala Awaiting the Maiden," and then defends her honor and is severely punished for it.

Rumpoey and her family leave the countryside for Bangkok, and the lovers do not meet again until both are in college. Dum initially denies that he knows Rumpoey, presumably because his scars remind him what happens to peasant boys who aspire to high-class girls. However, he reveals his true identity when, once again, her honor is threatened. This time, he is expelled from college for brawling. Rumpoey takes him to a beach as a consolation prize and they affirm their love for one another. In vague (and probably poorly subtitled) terms, they promise to pursue their relationship, and if Rumpoey's father will not assent to their marriage, the Sala will no longer be Awaiting the Maiden, and they'll run away together.

When Dum returns home, however, he finds that his entire family has been slaughtered by someone in the neighborhood who is jealous of Dum's father's less-scabby-than-thou status and aspires to be district chief peasant. Dum takes his father's rifle and rushes off to avenge his father's murder. in media bloodbath, Dum is intercepted by Fai who—and this is so funny, you'll never believe it—is also out to avenge Dum's father's death, because Dum's father once saved Fai's life.

Dum, naturally, joins Fai's gang of tigers and becomes his number-one gun, because he mystically cannot miss. This does not endear Dum to Mahesuan, former number-one gun of Fai. In fact, Mahesuan's hide eventually gets chapped enough that he seeks out Dum and challenges him to a draw. Dum only accepts when Mahesuan snatches a memento from Rumpoey out of his hand. The two stare one another down and, eventually, Dum gets off about eleventy million shots before Mahesuan can remember what a trigger is. However, this ends up making them fast friends (and not even fast Thai Zombie friends), because Dum has, in fact, shot up the killer snake that was just about to fall on Mahesuan's head!The two head off to a dilapidated Buddhist temple, drink one another's blood (no, really), and have a psychadelic freakout after swearing life-long allegiance to one another.

Their timing couldn't have been worse, though, because Fai's gang has been outed by an informer. A battalion of police, led by Rumpoey's new fiancé, Captain Kumjorn. (I am linearizing because I love, but that has its downsides, too. Basically, Dum has missed his meeting with Rumpoey at the Sala, quite possibly because he has no way of knowing when the hell her father might've nixed their marriage and what the hell is that bitch's problem anyway? Is he's already a psychadelic peasant cowboy gangster and now he's supposed to be a goddamned telepath? Sheesh. Chycks. Anyhoo, Rumpoey is engaged to Kumjorn because her father has decided that Kumjorn is a good match.)

Because of their hangovers, Dum and Mahesuan miss all the killing off of the comic relief and only arrive just in time with their crates of ammo and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers (come on, like I'd make that up. If I were making that up, it would have been atlatls or something). And, no, I don't know where the crates of ammo, etc., came from or why they might have toted those out to the temple for their male-bonding ritual. I suspect we may have been the victims of some of the 6 remaining minutes of missing footage there. Anyway, they save the day for Fai and all but Kumjorn are killed.

Fai tells Dum to go finish off Kumjorn and then no one who knows the location of their hideout will remain alive. Dum accedes to Kumjorn's request for a little dignity and unties him. Kumjorn decides to push his luck and to ask Dum if he, personally, will inform Rumpoey of his death (of course, he just calls her his fianceé). He pulls out her picture and Dum is Dumstruck (c'mon, you'd have done it, too). Hearing the gunshots and assuming that Dum has done his duty, Mahesuan saunters in to find that Kumjorn has shot his way out of the building (a Kumjorn-sized hole with three shots of a pistol—not too shabby) and Dum has a knife in his chest. Because we haven't seen what happened, we don't know if Kumjorn is a scrappy, resourceful little Thai policeman or Dum is particularly butch in the "make it look convincing" facets of his plans. Alas, we are never really to know.

Kumjorn, it seems, will live to marry Rumpoey. Rumpoey, however, has determined that she will not live to marry Kumjorn. When her Captain returns to her and she learns that Dum has spared Kumjorn's life, she decides to take her own (thinking, no doubt, of the original Maiden in the story who kills herself when she realizes that she can't be with her humble woodcutter, Lawks!). The nurse derails her plans for picturesque suicide, and it seems as if the wedding will go on.

Fai has no objections to the wedding happening: In fact, it provides him the ideal opportunity to take out a substantial portion of the local constabulary. Dum reflexively objects to the plan (on account of incomprehensible and durable attachment to Rumpoey), and poorly covers by saying that it's too dangerous. Fai cares not and sense Dum, Mahesuan, and a few tigers out to plan the ambush. Dum slinks off to play a little Morrissey on his harmonica (which happens to be inscribed with Rumpoeys' name, because her narcissism interferes with her grasp of things like "gifts" and "monograms"). He's deep into "Girlfriend in a Coma" when Mahesuan calls for help. The Tigers have turned on Fai and have the loyal Mahesuan at gunpoint. Dum drops his gun to save his blood-brother's life and oh what's this? Could it be a trap?!

Fai was not, apparently, a fan of Dum's screw up, reluctance to ambush, or his cover story and has ordered him killed. Mahesuan and Dum, naturally, end up in a very talky gunfight. Mahesuan assures Dum that he's not only going to ambush Rumpoey's wedding, he's then going to take Herself as his wife. This, unsurprisingly, ends badly with Mahesuan's shot to Dum's chest throwing Dum enough off balance that he shoots a hole in the brim of Mahesuan's hat, rather than through his skull. Can our hero have missed for the very first time?! Can this be the end of Dum?

Not bloody likely. Dum shows up at the prewedding festivities dressed as Tom Wolfe to wish them both happiness and to warn Kumjorn of the impending ambush. Naturally, he's chased out by gunfire for his trouble. At the wedding (or possibly at the reception), Kumjorn finally picks up on the fact that Rumpoey is just not into him just before she turns her metaphorical kicking of his testicles into literal kicking of same. He is a real student of the human fuckin' condition, is our Kumjorn. Although he's been a pretty good guy (and one who seems well and truly smitten with Rumpoey) up until this point, Kumjorn looks into a grim future full of cock-blocking and does a heel turn. He decides that he's ok not having Rumpoey's heart, because he has her body.

It's not clear if there is having of any kind, though, because all Rumpoey seems to have suffered is a tasteful tear in the shoulder of her highly complicated pink dress when we cut back and Kumjorn appears to be getting re-dressed. The Tigers finally make their move and all the police are drunk. Kumjorn very nearly buys it, but is saved by the timely bayonet of his new father-in-law.

Surely we have all forgotten about Kumjorn's persistent aliveness while Mahesuan and Dum are having their standoff (he's been hiding in the attic in his wonderful ice cream suit, being annoyed by rats and, no doubt longing for the harmonica that saved his life by taking the chest bullet). Mahesuan puts Rumpoey down on the ground and they have another long staredown. Nature has obliged the melodrama of it all by providing a thunderstorm to accompany the whole affair. As Dum and Mahesuan each wait for the other to blink, a drop of rain runs down the crown of Mahesuan's hat, through the hole previously left by Dum, and into his eye. He blinks frantically and Dum guns him down, his bullet, spiritually, if not literally, finding its mark at last.

Rumpoey, who is still, confusingly, unconscious from a blow to the stomach, gets picked up once again, this time by Dum. But who could possibly piss in our lovers' Cheerios now? Oh, that's right, Kumjorn is still alive and has apparently been wandering the grounds trying to find the source of the yelling and the gunfire, the only noise in the whole damned province, given that most everyone else is dead. He instructs Dum to put Rumpoey down. This, for whatever reason, rouses her, and she calls for Dum. Dum, although seemingly resigned to losing Rumpoey in the end, tragically decides to go for the grand symbolic gesture by handing Rumpoey's picture back to Kumjorn. As he reaches for it, Kumjorn fires. Dum has already redeemed his miraculous-save-by-item-in-breast-pocket coupon and dies in Rumpoey's arms.

The goofy story is pretty uniformly entertaining, thanks to the cast. Chartchai Ngamsan (left in that picture) is admirably suited to pretty brooding and dead-eyed detachment from the violence in which he's steeped. Supakorn Kitsuwon swaggers and blusters and is not at all hindered in his moustache-twirling by the pencil-thin, migratory, uneven nature of said pasted-on facial hair. Stella Malucchi is voluptuous and picturesque, and although it initially seems that she might have been cast entirely on the merits of her lips and eyebrows, she's got a lot more going on than just the absolutely right look. Veteran Thai actor Sombat Methanee is creepily avuncular in Dum's origin story, which is enough of a contrast to his sleaze leading up to it (remember, nonlinear!) that it's a pleasant surprise to find that Dum's decision to join the gang is not wholly unbelievable. Arawat Ruangvuth is so believable as the dull-but-forthright police captain that his turn for the worse at the end provides a real frisson of fear and excitement.

Stylistically, the absurdity is mostly a good time. The bright colors are actually quite lovely and effective, for the most part and hardly ever made me think of Vegas, which is more than I can say for The Curse of the Golden Flower. The colors were used to funny effect in tandem with a rear projection gag, too: Rumpoey and Dum are in a fancy car with a brightly colored interior. Behind and to the side of them, Bangkok is suddenly seen in black-and-white as they "drive by." Similarly, the lurid colors work to infuse the male-bonding psychadelic cowboy trip with that added boost of absurdity.

For the most part, I enjoyed the genre mishmash, too, although the flashback-based narrative sometimes interfered with the pacing of how these were interspersed. For example, the long Teeange Exploitation/Weepy interlude in Bangkok pretty much made me forget that there were any Western elements at all; thus it was jarring to go from that to gangster, and back to Western.

A lot of the over-the-top homage/parody techniques also worked handily. The ultra-flat, against-a-white-wall close ups intercut haphazardly with long two shots was a nice fond, poke at some of the techniques that all these genres have in common. The obviously-fake-backdrop gag was gone to a few times too frequently.

Actually, upon thinking about it, it's not the frequency that bothered, but the fact that the first time the device was used, it was brilliantly carried off: I believe it's after Dum has pulled off his first trick-shot and left Mahesuan saying "I have a plan" (I assume that the subtitle just sucks and he was really saying "I have an appointment" or something along those lines). Text rolls on the screen (maybe even the credits) on a sunset-over-an-open-field backdrop. For a backdrop of this type, it's not so bad, but then Dum rides from right to left across, rather than toward the camera, and it's instantly revealed that there's no depth at all to the set. I laughed out loud at that, but got pretty impatient later at the use of a similar technique in the first would-be gunfight between Dum and Mahesuan (Although Mahesuan walking-in-place backwards was kind of funny.)

The complete refusal to settle on any kind of time period was a lot of fun, too. It allowed for Rumpoey and her father to arrive by 19th-century colonial train and for all the cowboy gangsters to use a ridiculously varied array of guns and ammunition, ranging from very old rifles to grenades, WWI-era pistols, and the aforementioned rocket launchers. (Everybody loves a rocket launcher!)

I'm a gore gal, and this movie certainly delivers. The blood reaches Kurosawa levels of both quantity and impressive fluid dynamics. But although Sasanatieng clearly admires Kurosawa's commitment to the sanguinity index, he also seems to think that Akira just didn't go far enough, and has therefore added a gobbet index. In fact, if Kurosawa is anywhere these days, I can just picture him slapping his thigh and wishing he'd thought of it. We see disembodied arms, brains before and after explosion, shattered teeth, and in perhaps the sequence that established the Here-And-No-Farther Boundary for the entire movie, a policeman propelled up a flight of stairs and into a wall by a rocket that then explodes, sending his extremities to the four cardinal directions.

The absurdity and pastiche of Tears of the Black Tiger are already inviting comparisons to Stephen Chow's work (e.g., Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer). In fairness to Sasanatieng, his work is something different entirely, I think, as he is really intending to honor and parody these genres by completely decontextualizing them in the story, but faithfully employing the techniques dear to them. He doesn't make me laugh nearly as much as Chow does, but then again, he's not always trying to. Tears of the Black Tiger is absolutely fun and stands up to a fair amount of ex post facto dissection, which makes it a score in my book.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Chain Don't Hurt? Road House II OR Black Snake Moan

Dear Roger Ebert:

I know that you have not been well, but I've been thinking you should get out more, and now I know I'm right. I quote from your review of Black Snake Moan:
"Black Snake Moan" is the oddest, most peculiar movie I've seen about sex and race and redemption in the Deep South. It may be the most peculiar recent movie ever except for "Road House," but then what can you say about "Road House"?

It's not that I object to leading with Road House.

No, indeed, I would never object to the prominent mention of Road House alongside the work of any Oscar-nominated director (Dude, I am so high. I'd have sworn that Brewer got a nomination for Hustle & Flow, but I'm now reminded that the whole film, except for Terrence Howard and the song got, you should excuse the expression, the shaft---Ed.). But really, the "oddest, most peculiar movie"? You might think you're covering your ass with "sex and race and redemption in the Deep South. You may even think that "recent" will stun and disorient your readers. Not this reader, Mr. Ebert. I will often note and long remember that you spent time in the presence of—and here I quote from the pure marketing poetry of 20th century Fox—"220 lbs of creative energy" known as Russ Meyer. You, sir, gave up your right to find anything peculiar when you wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

In all seriousness, I'm glad that Ebert is well enough to be back in the saddle again. I've missed picking on him. But in the case of his rather quaintly befuddled, and shocked, and overall positive, but shocked, review of Black Snake Moan, he's not alone. That depresses me, because it implies that no one watches the classics anymore. As a connoisseur of exploitation films, about the only thing shocking to me about Black Snake Moan was the audience reasonably full off (but nearly so full as the audience for Wild Hogs, which sold out) standard-issue suburban, overwhelmingly White folk.

Make no mistake: Black Snake Moan is a loving homage to the exploitation film, and is itself a new generation of exploitation film. (I mean, hello, poster!) But as critic after critic after critic asks "What were they thinking?"—with they being everyone from the money men (whose mere existence is maybe worth an eyebrow quirk in the exploitation context, but Brewer's proved his mettle and Quentin Tarantino's entry into the genre will surely accelerate it into passé) to Brewer himself, to every character on the canvas—I wonder how it is that these people have missed the delights of The Female Bunch, Moonshine Mountain, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill (which, I would like to remind you all, is the finest film ever made), The Warriors,Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song , and a host of others? One is moved to make up an Exploitation 101 Syllabus. (For the curious, start with David Friedman's Youth in Babylon.)

So I'll be the first to go on record and say that nothing in Black Snake Moan particularly shocked me, which is not meant as a criticism. It is, however, a lie: I was shocked by Christina Ricci's magical panties, which kept reverting to sparkling white, no matter how dirty they'd gotten, and remained in place no matter how much wedgie-inducing wiggling she did.

Anyway, a brief synopsis:

  1. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a damaged individual. Possible culprits include three verses of 12-bar blues:

    • Being alive while black
    • Being alive while black and male
    • Being alive while black and male in small-town America
    • Unfaithful wife
    • Abandonment by unfaithful wife
    • Being abandoned by unfaithful wife for brother
    • Boozing during bluesman days
    • Abandonment of the blues
    • Life as a marginal cash cropper

  2. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a damaged individual. More definite culprits include

    • Sexual abuse by mother's boyfriend
    • Mother's cognitive dissonance about/active denial of said abuse
    • Posttraumatic nymphomania
    • More general posttraumatic self-destructive behavior
    • Having Justin Timberlake mack on her (with all respect to my girl and Memphis native, C, he is nasty and a painfully bad actor to boot)
    • Abandonment by Justin Timberlake
    • Having to listen to Justin Timberlake's justifications about how it's a good kind of abandonment
    • Failure to celebrate being well-rid of Justin Timberlake

Inevitably, Lazarus's dysfunctional chocolate gets in Rae's dysfunctional peanut butter, and voila! An exploitation film erupts. To be more literal about it, Lazarus retires to his fortress of solitude after an extremely nasty and very public pair of confrontations with his ex-wife and younger brother, both of whom have been trying to make peace. Poised between a violent, alcoholic, self-destructive (with potential for an impressive blast radius) bender and a religious revival, he finds a bloodied, still-stoned, mostly naked Rae lying in the road near his farm.

Very aware that his being-alive-while-blackness has been compounded by the town's most recent impressions of him, he is torn between basic human compassion and the fact that he seriously does not need this shit. His decision ultimately to take her in is gradually revealed to have been born of an impulse that comes from a confusing and (unsurprsingly) deeply fucked up place.

For her part, Rae is delirious with fever from a preexisting (and never-to-rear-its-phlegmy-head-again) cough, residual drugs and alcohol from a night spent trying to forget Justin Timberlake, and a head injury and then some (courtesy of Justin Timberlake's best friend, who is resentful at (a) being the only guy in town she hasn't jumped and (b) being told that his penis compares unfavorably to that of her preferrerd go-to guy [PGTG]). For the first part of her sojourn at Laz's House of Redemption, she is consumed by nightmares featuring her abuser and the mercifully absent Justin Timberlake. Laz chases her down the first few times, but eventually grows tired of the somnambulism and deploys The Chain. Really, it makes sense at the time.

Ok, it doesn't make a lick of sense, except that Samuel L. Jackson makes me believe that it makes sense in Laz's head, which he's half out of anyway. And lest we place the crazy entirely inside Laz's weather-beaten skull, his mission to gather information on Rae lays bare the wonky social context that has shaped him. A social context in which the town pimp and crack dealer (who happens to be Rae's PGTG) has an ethical code that involves extending his protection (from overt physical violence) to Rae (whom he, arguably, verbally and emotionally abuses). Certainly we got a glimpse of the Kingdom of Pitiably Low Standards for Human Interaction earlier when Laz pats himself on the back for never having hit his wife, "not even when he was drinking." But the scene with Tehronne just grabs you by the priorities and twists so that you're thinking that his menacing assertion that Rae is "in his favor" is kind of sweet.

On a similarly skewed note, Ricci manages to convey that waking up, chained, on Laz's suspiciously-Pottery-Barn-like couch, on the face of it, doesn't make Rae's top 10 list of weird situations in which she's found herself upon waking. In fact, asleep or awake, delirious or not, she expects to be sexually used, then discarded, so she can't be bothered over much by either Laz or his chain. When he proclaims that he's determined to cure her of her wickedness, Rae assumes that he has the standard-issue male confidence in the healing power of his own penis.

In a weird way, the audience is inured to the chain by the time Rae's fear and rage begin to build, which buys Brewer the latitude for a relatively extended, intensely physical montage of Rae attempting to run away and Lazarus reeling her back in. It starts with full-on Stooges physical comedy as Rae races out and takes a slo-mo ass-over-tea-kettle spill as she is pulled up short at the chain's full extension. From there, she claws and clings and scratches for every inch away from Laz, every second outside his house and physical control. It's squirm (not the good kind) inducing and hair raising, but also gratifying and something of a relief to the not-entirely-charitable small internal voice that's been waiting for her to fight back.

From the point that Rae is back inside, the bizarre nature of the objective reality observed by the audience is nothing to the shit going on in the headspace in which each of them lives. Even as Laz is tending to Rae's self-inflicted (um, kind of) wounds, his rage at his wife, his life, and everything grabs hold of him and whips him (and, very nearly, Rae with him) around. Rae proves utterly unable to distinguish between his violent rage and sexual arousal, and is unable to react in any way other than craving her usual role on the receiving end of a rage-fuelled dick. There's no forward progress, just frantic, too-mindful oscillation. The black snake devours its own tail.

But they're trying real hard to be the shepherd.

Rae finds a modicum of comfort and self-control in the baggage-laden symbol of the chain. Laz braves the townfolks' scorn to obtain some self-esteem-building clothing for Rae. Crisis comes (so to speak) in the form of the only boy left in town with a cherry to pop. Rae does her best to stay both out of sight and under the ubercoochie radar. But Lincoln (the respectful, for lo! the respectful, virginal young man is named after the liberator of his Race) is so intent on returning with the butterbeans promised his mother that he tries the door.

Rae's outbreak of wickedness drives Lazarus to his own breaking point. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Reverend R. L. (the wonderful John Cothran, Jr.) is on the other end of the literal barrel. But he succeeds in peeling Laz off the ceiling as effectively as Laz has peeled Lincoln off Rae. He has a chat with Rae about life and Heaven. Like everything else in the nearly note-perfect script, it's platitudinous fare straight from the denouement/coda of any given exploitation film. But, overall, it works here. The timing is quirky enough that this won't be any kind of simple solution. Cothran is so charmingly uncertain of himself and radiates compassion and determination to listen to Rae and to see Lazarus clear of whatever the frilly heck might be going on. Ricci conveys such a sore, festering pain made bearable only by sheer exhaustion. She simultaneously manages to look 12 and 120. And, when the Reverend asks her what her heaven is, she answers "Ronnie" with such achingly timid hope, I managed to forget for a moment that Ronnie = the repellant, useless Justin Timberlake. That may be the highest compliment I've ever paid to any actor.

Many of the more positive reviews I've seen allow that the first half of Black Snake Moan is bold, daring, shocking, true, but bemoan the fact that it goes to the Hallmark-costumed dogs as soon as Rae's chain comes off (as it does shortly after the wholesome family supper with the Reverend and the recently deflowered Lincoln). I can't really agree, or at least I disagree with both degree to which the story takes a nosedive and which elements are dragging it down.

I'm willing to entertain arguments that the events immediately post-un-chaining tend toward the painfully stagey. Lazarus recognizes that beam in his own eye and decides to stop trying to help Rae with hers. She asks a favor of him and we cutaway to Laz retrieving his berry-pink electric Gibson. He slides off his wedding ring and slides on his slide. She reclines on the floor at his feet (but in a voluntary, totally unchained way, I"m sure). He verbally vamps, leading up to the titular song as a storm rages outside. The power flicks off, drawing a moan from the amp. Rae edges closer, wrapping herself around Laz's leg as she begs him to keep playing. It is goofy. It is over the top. It's exploitation. And it works for me.

One frequently raised objection is the fact that Brewer fails to follow through on the sexual tension he's carefully crafted between Jackson and Ricci. I'm afraid that I find myself inching away from those for whom this would have been groundbreaking and norm shattering. I'm absolutely not denying that interracial sex—particularly Black man/tiny-White-fragile woman—isn't a flagrant standing taboo in American popular culture. (In fact, I'm willing to bet that David Banner taking Christina Ricci roughly from behind is first on the lips of everyone "shocked" by the movie.) But sometimes you break on through to the other side and find a 36-car pile-up of other stereotypes. And a fucked-up, older man who exerts both physical and psychological power over a woman winning her sexual favors for his trouble is just not my preferred flavor of iconoclasm. I'd also add that it's to Brewer's credit that, for most of the movie, he avoids casting the two characters in either the mold of lovers or that of father and daughter. (He does lapse into the latter later in the film, unfortunately. But blame Timberlake.)

Another whinge I've seen is that Brewer neatly resolves his plot by having Rae cured of the grievous sin of female sexuality. I'm not sure if there was some kind of widespread fugue state afflicting opening-weekend audiences, but happily I dodged that bullet. First of all, if it's Laz who's supposed to be doing the curing, I've got to wonder when in the 2 hours in the theater anyone holding this opinion came to the conclusion that Brewer, Jackson, or anyone within a 50-mile radius of the film thinks that Lazarus is any shape to do any curing of any kind. Lazarus is not a good man. (He's not a bad man, either, although he certainly seems to have been a bad husband for his wife._ He's not a sane man. He's not a wronged man. He's a man whose marriage went up in an ignominious blaze fueled in equal parts by him, his wife, and his brother.

I'll allow that Brewer's approach to Rae and Laz being "fixed" after huddling in his living room and defying the elements with electric blues is a bit pat and decidedly simplistic. But it was sufficient to convince me that Brewer has no delusions that these two can really be fixed, but neither is he convinced that the habits that have brought them to grief are hopelessly destructive. As Laz says, "There's no sense fightin' it: We're night owls."

At the road house (see, Roger, it's a road house, not the Road House), Laz and Rae make their way through a house packed by Laz's good friends. Laz's shouts, moans, and wails blend with those of his guitar, the crowd, and Son House, who introduces the film (in archival footage) and provides commentary midway through. Rae bumps and grinds and gets down with men and women, Black and White, young and old. Her sexuality is appreciated, applauded, and matched, hump for hump. And yes, it errs a bit on the shiny, happy, sexy, singing bluesmen side, but it's a far cry from "the only good woman is a chaste woman" or, for that matter, "the only good Black man is a teetotaling, stoic schlub who honestly scrapes a living off the land and don't make no trouble with his race music."

And Brewer does parlay the experimental, consensual dance with the devil into some attempts at personal growth, more successfully for Rae than for Laz, it's true. Fortified by their night on the town, the pair decides to try the town in daylight on for size. Rae is, no doubt, motivated by her old self-sabotaging demons to some extent when she makes an attempt to reconnect with her mother. And the not-entirely-admirable, not-entirely-charitable, not-entirely-pro-Rae-warts-and-all voice makes a triumphant return her taking a mop to her mother's complicit, cognitively dissonant, seriously-needs-to-be-murdered (tm blondeheroine) face is infinitely more satisfying than the cup of coffee she meekly suggested they have moments before.

Meanwhile, Laz inches closer to sealing a deal with the age-and-race-appropriate Miss Angie (S. Epatha Merkeson), the pharmacist from whom he sweet talked fraudulent medicine for Rae's mysterious cough. She shyly shares that she's been thinking of singing in the church choir and he coaxes her into a girlish snippet of "There is a Balm in Gilead." But Laz is forced to bow out before the encore to engage in what I choose to believe is a conscious reenactment and excellent send up (oh hell, I tragically cannot find a picture online) of the iconic scene in The Bodyguard.

If the movie does go south (very poor choice of metaphor for something going bad in this case, but I'll cop to it and leave it), it's when Ronnie and his vomit return. I really don't know what Ronnie's problem is, and Justin Timberlake is not the icky, talentless, skinhead to make me care. He vomits a lot. And he sticks his head entirely into the toilet when he does so, which is just not sanitary. And I think he might be trying to do a Quentin Tarantino impression, but I can't be any surer of that than I can be that there's an autonomic nervous system, rather than, say, some extremely poorly maintained, talentless, rusty clockwork, making him go.

But return he must, so I shall report faithfully the events that ensue. He stops off at a bar and runs into his best friend, the guy all the other guys in town keep around to make them look like Sir Fucking Galahad. (I should note here that M brought up a point about Ronnie's vomit-filled panic attacks: In this scene it may be implied that Ronnie himself is the victim of sexual abuse, but they don't really go anywhere with it.) He and said scumbag return to Rae's trailer, where there's no sign of her or of her having been there of late. The scumbag, still frustrated by Rae's rejection (or possibly spit repressing lust for Ronnie [uh, you understand that that is spit on Timberlake, not spit on boy-boy lust, right?]), reveals to Ronnie that Rae has been humping everything in sight, but most especially him (scumbag, not Timberlake) while he's been away at once-a-week-soldier-sleepaway camp.

Ronnie takes this at face value and defaces the scumbag's face. For good measure, he grabs a gun and steals his truck, then heads off in search of Rae. They very nearly run into one another outside the road house (there's rather a syrupy gag with synchronized digital watches), but instead, he presses his face to the window as Rae dances and Laz calls down the music. I don't know if this is supposed to be poignant or chilling or what. All I can tell you is that he looks a lot more Charlie-Brown-got-a-rock than Heathcliffe-missing-the-"whatever-our-souls-are-made-of" bit of Cathy's rejection. He courteously waits until the morning when Rae is attempting to pick out the lone hymn she knows on Laz's acoustic. Laz laughingly tells her to close her eyes and sing while he picks. Probably because I was feeling grumpy about Timberlake SUCKING and sucking up my screentime, this scene seemed long and clunky, right up to the "why whoever could the out-of-focus-person-with-a-gun-pointed-at-Laz be? " reveal.

Naturally, Laz steps in front of Rae and does all kinds of manly things that read as patriarchal for the first time. Just as naturally, he slaps the gun free of Ronnie's hand and calls for the Reverend. He looks on as Rae and Ronnie receive the pastoral counseling he and his wife never got. Ronnie weepingly says that Rae fixed him, but he can't fix her. (Seriously, right now there are two things that have me on the verge of murderous rampage: Fucking gauchos and fiction that romanticizes this notion that one person in a relationship "fixes" the other.) Rae, in her turn, says she thinks that they're both fucked up, and she'll understand if Ronnie wants to give up on her, "But please don't." And with those three words, Ricci very nearly makes the entire scene work.

But the denouement is just a little too silly, and ends up shading to creepy. Laz, of course, goes to beg Miss Angie's help with his "niece" one more time. Lincoln helps Ronnie tie his tie, turning him so that they're both facing the side mirror of the car. Rae emerges from Laz's house in a teeny, strapless white dress and ridiculously over-the-top veil. But worst of all, in addition to exchanging rings, Ronnie fastens a gold belly chain around Rae's waist. And all the problematic, fucked-up symbolism and the baggage is watered down to a chastity belt. (Again, M was able to buy it as a "fetish" in the most literal sense of the word—a physical object imbued with power that can be transfered to the one who holds it, but I was just too comprehensively grumped out to entertain this possibility.)

But all this stuff and nonsense is really only about 10 or 15 minutes of the whole film. And rather than leaving us on a feel-good note, Brewer shows us Rae and Ronnie finally escaping their small-town prison. They're barely out on the highway before the trucks bearing down from the side and behind send Ronnie into a panic attack. Rae's black snake moans come for her shortly thereafter, but she gets it under enough control that soon she's pulling Ronnie out of his attack. The final shot is devoted to Ricci whose look of oh-shit desperation outdoes the combined we-are-so-screwed power that closes The Graduate.

So I seem to have thought the movie considerably stronger than many, and my complaints (those not trivial) are confined to the very end of the film. I think the preceding 2 hours or so argue forcefully that this was a movie worth making and worth seeing: The music, of course, is phenomenal: The perfect sweaty, gritty, scissoring soundtrack for a story that is all angles. Most of the story is complex and challenging, and even when Brewer goes for the glossy shortcut, it's not to the usual resolution. But most of all, the performances of Ricci and Jackson (and many of the supporting players) are truly not to be missed.

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