It has been a clarifying year for young auteurs. Smokin' Aces showed Joe Carnahan as a flailing vaudevillian, Breach reinforced Billy Ray as a stolid analyst of true-life enigmas, now Black Snake Moan establishes Craig Brewer as a faux-provocateur and resolute wigger cineaste. His follow-up to Hustle & Flow continues the white-guy infatuation with the South as a heated canvas of music and black bravado, consistent not just thematically but stylistically: The low-angled camera which gave an upskirt view of Taryn Manning in Hustle has been expanded into a full tour of Christina Ricci's undies. Brewer kicks off with Ricci and beau Justin Timberlake in a feverish bout of goodbye-sex as he's about to head over to the Army, he vomits in a toilet before leaving and she drops to her knees as his van pulls away; elsewhere in the same Tennessee burg, Samuel L. Jackson experiences a harsh parting of his own, losing his religion after being dumped by a two-timing wife. The fucking, the puking, the squabbling, everything is slathered with vivid, Elia Kazan-type physicality, one of Brewer's strengths -- Jackson pins his cuckolding brother on a pool table with a cracked beer bottle and wipes the blood from his hand on his white beard, while Ricci marches her itchy cooch into town, gets smashed at a beer keg party, and collapses out of the frame as the whole screen is drenched blue. The meeting of the two wounded creatures is arranged when Ricci is left battered and half-naked in a ditch near Jackson's place; he breaks her fever and, since she's a nympho who can't keep from diddling herself, chains her -- I literally mean chains her-- to his radiator, "I aim to cure you of yo wickedness."
"Ain't no cure for the blues like some good pussy," some barfly intones, and for a patch Black Snake Moan snaps and crackles with comic verve. The serpentine chain wrapped around Ricci's waist is a brazen joke that feeds on intimations of bondage, slavery, and kinky sex, richly flaunted in the confrontational poster; Jackson yanks the scrawny bobcat in heat into the living room, Ricci yanks back after stretching just enough to reveal the skin underneath her Dixie-adorned tanktop. Had the atmosphere -- fraught with the tension of power plays and the still-taboo possibility of interracial sex -- been pushed further, the picture might have burned like Larry Cohen's Bone or Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, vehement comedies of cultural anxiety brought to the surface. But Brewer's provocation is hollow, so he hides unearthed raw nerves behind humdrum humanism, with any real danger safely circumscribed for viewers: The town slut just needs a bit of exorcism from a churchy father figure, the embittered blues singer just needs to tend to some wounds before being able to pick up his guitar again; "Git yo shit together," the chaste healing is clinched as Jackson rasps out the title song with Ricci hugging his leg, Miss Daisy lives! (About Brewer's use of the blues -- footage of the legendary Son House opens the picture, but anybody who lets "Stagolee" be ad-libbed with "motherfuckers" has about as soulful an understanding of the music's raunchy force as John Landis in The Blues Brothers.) The gal who at the outset flipped off the tractor looming behind her is "cured" into docility, and passed from one man to another, climactically. It's not so hard out here for a pimp, not in Hollywood.
The Black Snake Moan poster might be a tough sell in Hicksville, but the one for 300 should play like gangbusters -- an ecstatically sunburst vision of bodies being pushed off a cliff, "Prepare for glory" as ad copy. It's fascinating to watch the two back to back. An aestheticized massacre will always be less threatening than miscegenation in a society where violence is still more acceptable than sexuality, yet both pictures are equally neck-deep in racial and sexual tensions; the difference is that Snake flashes them like the floozy at the ballroom while 300 keeps them leashed like the athlete prior to the big game, or like the rifleman who inexorably goes postal. Life from birth onwards is a boot camp to ancient Spartans, that is if they are lucky not to be tossed in the pit reserved for those lacking perfection; no wonder Sparta is peopled exclusively by well-oiled weightlifters, although such Valhalla is reserved to those who pass the prepubescent ritual of slaying the Big Bad Wolf under the full moon. When this game was played in Conan the Barbarian, it was at least given the kind of knowingly absurdist vigor that made John Milius less a preening reactionary than a lyrical anarchist. But enough about the 1980s, the setting here is another dark age, 480 B.C. as "a beast approaches" -- the Persian Empire is spreading towards Ancient Greece, subjugation is demanded from Sparta. No "boy lovers" like the Athenians (ah, those faggots!), the Spartan men have "no room for softness" and are eager to march "for freedom... till death" to "rid the world of mysticism and tyranny," and so on. The Persian armies are numbered at roughly a million, but all King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) needs are 299 Spartans drunk on patriotism and snugly fitted into leather codpieces, off to the Battle of Thermopylae .
I guess I should note that Frank Miller's graphic novel is 300's basis, and that Zack Snyder's film adaptation aims for the slavish, panel-to-screen reverence paraded by Sin City. Both films use the same actors-pinned-to-a-green-screen technique, and both films are soul-crushing glimpses into a future where cinema has been flattened, drained and embalmed by digital perfection. Fanboys herald the awesomeness of their originality, but all this technology is doing is cutting and pasting from one medium to another, with whatever life the comics had expiring along the way -- Snyder, director of the not uninteresting Dawn of the Dead remake, just replicates from Miller's pages, adding the cavalcade of perversions from Caligula here, the storm of arrows from Hero there, wanton Braveheart thwacks everywhere. Heroes are bronze statuary arranged into Playstation poses, villains are degenerate darkies led by pierced, Carole Lombard-browed Xerxes (Brazil-born Rodrigo Santoro, dispensing epicene sadism -- way to represent, dude), even a lively performer like Lena Headey is pressed and folded until it's impossible to tell her from the asscrack-ugly computer graphics. Yet blaming Snyder for the inanities is like Leonidas pushing a Persian messenger into a bottomless pit: He's just serving Miller's stunted fantasies, which should be grounded in flesh and questioned instead of turned metallic and intoned like the Holy Writ. Unhappily, 300 has been made with the nerd's obsession and the lackey's fidelity, meaning that all its xenophobia, fascism, and repressed man-love go unexplored in favor of slow-mo decapitations and enough risible screaming about "freedom" to warm Bush's heart, or Mel Gibson's.
The artless framing and high estrogen levels of Puccini for Beginners make it more appealing than it really is after the onslaught of high-tech testosterone that is 300. Nevertheless, Maria Maggenti's comedy about a lesbian author (Elizabeth Reaser) juggling lovers both female (Gretchen Mol) and male (Justin Kirk) is another evocation of a distant past -- not Ancient Greece, but the Manhattan of late-1970s Woody Allen, or at least Sundance circa 1994, where her previous The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love premiered. How else to account for the bit about the answering machine that talks back to the heroine, or things like "paradigm shifts" sprinkled like pixie dust over the clunkiest dialogue this side of Kevin Smith? With all due respect to Maggenti's swing at Sapphic screwball, The Host opens up a much tastier can of tuna. The marauding creature in Bong Joon-ho's wacky horror opus is a silvery fanged squid, born out of U.S.-dumped toxic sludge to menace Seoul "underneath... in the water!" A grid of churning ecological concern and South Korean disquiet is deftly drawn in between the mutant's attacks, but Bong keeps things off-center and funny, anchoring inspired chaos on a frazzled family who insists on trumping blockbuster definitions of unity and heroism. It would have been a masterpiece if the gooey leviathan reached American shores and wolfed down Rex Reed, yet it's a subversive blast all the same.
Reviewed March 15, 2007.