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Knight at the Movies: Bully; The Cabin in the Woods; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-04-11

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"I don't believe in luck but I believe in hope," 12-year-old Alex says at the conclusion of Lee Hirsch's devastating documentary, Bully. To hear that Alex, who we have witnessed enduring repeated verbal and psychological bullying for the duration of Hirsch's film, can still find a bright spot in the numbing, daily torture that has become life for him is to find inspiration—and heartbreak at the indifference and injustice to this easily overlooked practice. The same can be said of Kelby, a shy but quietly determined 16-year-old lesbian who has weathered three suicide attempts and other self-inflicted psychological damage as a response to prolonged bullying.

But several of the other kids in Hirsch's film—from an 11-year-old boy to 17 year-old Tyler—died before the filmmaker began work on his documentary. Parents, friends and other family members are left to recall the heartbreaking events that led to the suicides of these disparate victims who seemed to only have the tag of being "different" in common. In a dumbed-down culture that increasingly feels no compunction or remorse about resorting to all manner of violence when faced with these societal "outcasts," these victims represent a lot of kids like themselves.

The young teenagers who form the basis for Hirsch's movie—with Alex its central focus—all faced their worse experiences of bullying during the junior high school years, when the need to conform seems to be at its psychological height. Kids with developmental problems, and cultural and religious variations, as well as those who are gay (or perceived as gay) are singled out for the worst treatment. Being perceived as different in an urban environment, one would suspect, probably doesn't have the same impact as it does in the rural and suburban communities (all proudly espousing their Christian values) where Hirsch's subjects live—or lived.

However, bullying is bullying no matter the location, and the shocking tolerance of the practice, the lazy response to it and the "hit back and it will stop" attitude from parents and authorities are endemic. Hirsch's movie observes all these behaviors, which quickly bring his audience to a boiling point. When he intervenes after he films Alex being physically hurt one day on the bus, the response of Alex's parents is tentative at first. There's a real blame-the-victim mentality behind it and a subsequent encounter with the sunny, "hear no evil/see no evil" assistant principal is as horribly frustrating for the audience as it must have been for Alex's parents.

This observational approach would seem to be the biggest drawback of the movie; rather than use the confrontational techniques of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, Hirsch simply watches. And while that method picks up fascinating details—we really find ourselves immersed in the outside culture these put-upon kids have formed—it's also maddening. Time and again, we wait for the filmmaker to train his camera on Alex's bus driver, who clearly witnesses the attacks but never intervenes (or even attempts to); or on that assistant principal, with her bland smile and band-aid solutions; the upper-echelon school officials; or the bullies themselves.

However, Bully does not go for the jugular—it's a movie that literally turns the other cheek and refuses to take up arms. When I first saw the movie I thought the final sequence—in which a large, mournful crowd silently observes the anniversary suicide of a victim of bullying—was powerful but wanting; I felt it sidestepped the anger and need for revenge on behalf of the movie's victims that I was feeling. I wanted Hirsch to bully the bullies and their de facto defenders with his camera. But, on reflection, I think Hirsch's portrait imbues his everyday heroes with a dignity and grace that their tormenters obviously are too short-sighted to see and which shines in every frame of the film.

Bringing the epidemic of this social cancer to the forefront is certainly one of the triumphs of Bully—a big one (and the ratings controversy surrounding the film has certainly kicked the social discourse up 10 notches). But it's Hirsch's innate gentleness and respect for Alex, Kelby and his other subjects that will hopefully be the movie's lasting legacy.

A quick, very positive shout-out to fans of the horror genre: You are highly encouraged to take a jaunt into the forest and visit The Cabin in the Woods, the truly scary, truly hilarious mash-up of horror and sci-fi from Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield, Lost, and Alias fame) and frequent collaborator Joss Whedon. The movie—in the vaults for nearly three years, tied up in MGM's bankruptcy—is finally seeing the light of day (or, rather, dark of night), and the wait has been worth it.

It follows the familiar path of dozens of similar horror movies—with Evil Dead being the most prominent—but then takes a turn in the road (literally) and never looks back. For sheer inventiveness and for spinning the tired genre on its head, this big funhouse of a movie with no exit in sight really rewards your attention—and welcomes your delighted screams.

Film notes:

—Patrick Wang, the openly gay writer-director-star of the LGBT custody-battle drama In the Family, will appear at a screening of his movie on Saturday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., as part of its 17th Annual Asian American Film Showcase. My full review of the film appears next week to coincide with the movie's theatrical run at the Music Box theatre. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

—A number of LGBT-themed films are playing at the 28th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival, which runs April 13-26. See my separate overview article on the fest in this week's issue of WCT and be sure to make time to see the Chicago premiere of Mariachi Gringo ,from queer writer-director Tom Gustafson (again collaborating with his partner Corey James Krueckeberg) on Monday, April 16. This is the duo's follow-up to the delightful gay fantasia Were the World Mine. www.chicagolatinofilmfestival.org

—The Farrelly brothers' joint directorial attempt to revive the physical slapstick of The Three Stooges is opening in theaters this Friday. The film was not screened in time for WCT deadlines and, frankly, this kind of lowbrow stuff has never been my cinematic cup of tea. But for LGBT audiences, the presence of Sean Hayes in one of the leading roles and supporting turns by Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Sofia Vergara, et al, might be just enough to lure you into theatres.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.

Barrowman to

be at C2E2

The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) has announced John Barrowman—the out gay actor best known as Captain Jack Harkness in the BBC's Torchwood and Doctor Who—will be appearing at this year's event as a spotlight guest.

C2E2, from the creators of New York Comic Con, is April 13-15 at McCormick Place in Chicago. The event is a pop-culture convention covering the worlds of comics, movies, television, toys, anime, manga and games.

Barrowman will appear April 14-15. Previously announced guests include actor Chad Michael Murray (TV's One Tree Hill), writer Anne Rice, actor John Cusack, actress Maggie Q, singer Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), local chef Stephanie Izard and Chris Hardwick (Nerdist).

See www.C2E2.com .


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