It's sexy times in movie theaters this week with both the provocative The Paperboy and the erotically charged About Cherry opening this Friday in Chicago.
The former is a lopsided, deep-fried piece of Southern gothic that never finds its center yet gives us Nicole Kidman going for broke as a white-trash tart and copious shots of hunky Zac Efron in tighty whities. The latter, which follows the young blonde stunner of the title as she descends into the world of S&M porn, certainly doesn't skimp on the salaciousnessnot to mention a nice turn by Heather Graham playing lesbian. Although neither filmwhich both have queer directors at the helm (Lee Daniels, following up his 2009 Oscar-nominated drama Precious, and Stephen Elliott making his feature debut, respectively)quite lives up to its steamy plotlines, each has its own merits.
Lee Daniels is noted for his oddball casting, and he goes the same route in The Paperboy, which is based on Pete Dexter's novel. In addition to Kidman as a slutty sexpot whose passions can barely be contained within her capri pants and Efron as her ardent and openly horny admirer (hence the white underwear), Daniels casts Matthew McConaughey as Efron's older brother, Scott Glenn as their father, Macy Gray as the family maid (who narrates and is, to be kind, out of her element) and John Cusack, wildly over the top, as an incarcerated murderer. Set in the Florida bayou in the 1960s, the plot, such as it is, hinges on McConaughey as a journalist who, along with his Black partner (David Oyelowo), sets out to prove that Cusack was wrongly convicted years earlier of murdering the local sheriff. Kidman plays Cusack's hot-to-trot prison pen pal who arrives on the scene determined to help get her man out of prison.
Part lurid murder mystery, part civil-rights commentary, part tale of sibling rivalry between the two brothers and full-on melodrama, the movie is a misshapen mess in which none of the undeniably entertaining pieces seems to fit. Yet, between Kidman's trashy sexpot with her single-minded determination, series of peek-a-boo outfits, her teased blonde hair, spider eyelashes and white eye makeup; Efron dancing around his room, mostly out of his clothes; Cusack's wild-eyed, backwoods menace; and Roberto Schafer's spot-on cinematography (the movie looks like it was made to be shown at small-town drive-ins circa 1966), The Paperboywith its mixture of noir and campish nods to Tennessee Williamsis one very diverting hybrid.
The film also has its share of thrill-seeking violence a la Quentin Tarantino (including a bizarre episode in which McConaughey's character is revealed to be a closeted homosexual with a taste for really, really rough, interracial sex) mixed with domestic scenes in which all the characters talk over one another (in the Altman tradition) that have an improvisatory feel and the whole thing is overlaid with that sultry overtone.
All of this, however, is overshadowed by the jaw-dropping scene (that has already become infamous) in which Efron's character, stung by jellyfish during a visit to the beach, is saved by Kidman, who straddles the unconscious Efron and urinates on him. The scene adds nothing to the picture beyond queasy titillation but again offers proof of an ability that Daniels has shown in the past: getting his actorsespecially his female onesto throw emotional caution to the wind and take a leap of faith for him. Kidman's leap especially works, and it's not just the twisted logic of her character that holds you but the bravery of the actress as well. Not unlike Mo'Nique's work in Precious, Kidman's willingness to plumb the depths for her director elevates The Paperboy into something much more thrilling than the torrid settings from which it springs.
Surprisingly much less lurid is Elliott's About Cherry, which follows Ashley Hinshaw as the title character, a pretty blonde with a great figure whoquickly and without an ounce of guiltmoves into a prosperous career in the porn industry when opportunity comes a-knockin'. Cherry, all of 18, lives with her drunken mother (Lili Taylor, playing with her usual finesse), a younger sister (that one instinctively feels will end up in porn as well) and mom's latest violent paramour.
Working at a dead end job in a laundry, it doesn't take much of a push for Cherry to talk her good friend, Andrew (Dev Patel), into moving to San Francisco with her. A waitress job at a strip club leads to nudie pictures and porn, where Cherry is soon the rising star. Dilemma comes in the form of a tug of warbetween Cherry's stockbroker, drug-addled boyfriend (James Franco in a nothing role) and the obvious interest of her porn director (Heather Graham), who's about to break up with her girlfriend of eight years thanks to her infatuation with Cherry.
Elliott, an acclaimed author and onetime sex worker himself, wrote the screenplay with Lorelei Lee, a porn vet, and one would think with all this on-the-job expertise that the movie would have something fresh to show us about the world of porn and its effectgood and/or badon those who make their living within its environs. But Elliottwho shows real ability in his pacinghas better luck with the earlier sequences before the typical drug/sex/liquor-slicked road-to-ruin scenes kick in. Hinshaw has, naturally enough, a sensational body but the porn sex scenes are almost laughably unsexy (perhaps that was Elliott's point) while a bout of rough sex between Graham and her soon-to-be-jealous ex fares better. (Its combo of violence and desire is ably captured.) Observing Cherry and her mom and sister and their humdrum lives is where Elliott's real abilities lie.
About Cherry plays exclusively in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Elliott will be present Friday, Oct. 5 (opening night) for an 8:30 p.m. book-signing and after the 9:20 p.m. screening for a Q&A with New City film critic Ray Pride. www.musicboxtheatre.com
On Friday, Oct. 5, Chicago Filmmakers presents Expressions of Self: New Films by Doug Ischar. The evening, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in Hokin Hall at Columbia College, 623 S. Wabash Ave., will feature four short experimental films by the openly gay Ischar, an artist and photographer who teaches photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Ischar's photographs usually center on the male figure, often photographed within gay culture social settings while his films are assemblages that combine vintage footage, graphics and recordings. His work focuses on gay identity, desire and loss. The line-up for the evening includes the world premiere of Ischar's latest work, Tristes Tarzan. Ischar will be present. www.chicagofilmmakers.org
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