King Cobra

(USA 2016)

Well now, Justin Kelly’s King Cobra looks like a film with some serious bang: it depicts the salacious, sensational, and supposedly true story of tres popular real-life gay porn actor Sean Lockhart b/k/a Brent Corrigan’s messy entry into the porn industry. Packing loads of scandal and suspense, it comes with a denouncement of sorts from Lockhart himself (https://www.google.com/amp/www.gaystarnews.com/article/brent-corrigan-condemns-gay-drama-king-cobra-bastardising-story-life/amp/?client=safari). Oh, and the money shot: a wad of bona fide Hollywood stars all in on the action. Hot yet? Not so fast, Jack: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from many an opportunity to view gay porn, it’s that looks are deceiving and the movies rarely live up to their promise. Assessing King Cobra therefore demands some deeper probing to get to the bottom of it.

Taken from Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway’s true crime exposé Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice, Kelly’s screenplay gets into the real 2007 murder of Bryan Kocis, the owner and operator of Cobra Video, a real gay porn production company. As such, it makes sense that Kelly doesn’t focus on Corrigan as much as he does on Stephen (Christian Slater), a thinly fictionalized version of Kocis. A forty-something professional photographer turned producer of twink skin flicks, Stephen “discovers” Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) and signs him to make videos in a room of his suburban home in Dallas Township, Pennsylvania. Lockhart becomes Brent Corrigan, a name he plucks from the phone book, and proves to be an internet superstar as a bareback bottom. Things are strained—Stephen is clearly smitten with Lockhart, who moves in with him and does menial chores like yard work and scrubbing toilets around the house shirtless when he’s not shooting porn. Plus, Stephen is doughy and creepy. Lockhart realizes he’s being exploited and sees his potential to make a lot more money on his own. The shit hits the fan when he walks away from his contract with Cobra only to find that he can’t use his porn name because Stephen trademarked it.

Enter psychotic couple Harlow (Keegan Allen), a porn actor and rent boy, and his intense, overbearing boyfriend, Joe Kerekes (James Franco), owner of Viper Boyz, a smaller porn production company. Kerekes is a half million dollars in debt thanks to their ridiculously expensive lifestyle, which is starting to disintegrate. He’s got an idea for a sure moneymaker: Harlow and Corrigan together in a porn. They meet Lockhart, who wants to work with them but can’t use his lucrative name. Desperate to make it happen, they come up with a way to solve Lockhart’s dilemma: get rid of Stephen.

Although I didn’t love it, King Cobra is not terrible. In fact, it’s a noticeable improvement over Kelly’s first film, last year’s I Am Michael (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/i-am-michael/). That said, it still suffers from the same deficiencies. If anything, it feels underdeveloped. The two subplots—the storyline with Stephen and Lockhart, and the one with Joe and Harlow—take too long to intersect; when they do, King Cobra devolves into a gay slasher flick. Ho hum. Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone are okay in their roles as Stephen’s sister and Lockhart’s mother, respectively. However, their characters are superfluous and don’t fit into the story—it’s as though they’re dropped in just to give the actors a part in the film so their names can be included on the poster. Oh yeah: another film with Franco playing a gay guy, only this time he gets his butt plowed. Big wow. For a film about the gay porn industry, King Cobra is shy about nudity; it comes off as sanitized cable soft core lite. It’s not even the whole true story; Rolling Stone ran a story about the murder of Kocis in a September 2007 issue: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/death-of-a-porn-king-20070920. Kelly takes some generous artistic license, leaving out parts of what happened (and thus arousing the real Lockhart’s ire).

Kelly’s script is so overboard on gay clichés that it rings hollow. Just as he did in I Am Michael, he again gives superficial treatment to his characters here and doesn’t quite get into their heads, leaving them flat—though he does a better job with Stephen and to a somewhat lesser degree Lockhart. Kelly seems drawn to the dark side of the gays, and I won’t fault him for that. However, his way of portraying this dark side is amateurish and uninformed, recalling films like Cruising and Basic Instinct. Having seen the only two films he’s made, I have to wonder whether he knows any gay people.

I’ll end this on a positive note: Clayton is the real star of this picture. He plays Lockhart as a diva hustler, one with an agenda that no one is getting in the way of. He’s pouty, arrogant, bitchy, so stuck on himself, and unapologetic about it all. He’s brilliant! The scene where a makeup artist touches up his butt says it all.

92 minutes
Not rated

(Home via iTunes) C-

http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/king-cobra

http://gowatchit.com/microsite/4274?gwi_origin=tracking_link&gwi_origin_context=microsite#upcoming_theaters-11402

Goat

(USA 2016)

Son of Saul remains one of the more memorable films from last year, and it’s because of how it was done: it’s harrowing to watch because it shoves the viewer front and center into its violence—physical and psychological. Goat, the film adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir about his experience with fraternity hazing, deals with a different subject altogether but works the same way: it’s difficult to watch, and it makes its points exactly because it’s difficult to watch.

High school senior Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is sensitive, naive, and kind of aimless. After leaving a party at his older brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) frat house because it’s “getting weird”—he wants no part in pounding booze, snorting blow, or watching a live sex show—Brad agrees to give a lift to a sketchy townie (Will Pullen) who approaches him as he’s walking alone to his car. It’s just up the street in a small college town, so what can happen? Sketchy townie has a friend (Jamar Jackson), and the encounter goes somewhere Brad wasn’t expecting: they make him pull off the road, beat the shit out of him, and run off with his ATM card and his car.

The investigating officer (Kevin Crowley) is skeptical when Brad reports the incident—he suspects Brad is not telling him the whole story. The experience doesn’t sit well. On the fence about college and feeling like a self-described “pussy,” Brad decides to enroll at the school where Brett goes—and pledge his fraternity, Phi Sigma Mu. The guys in the house talk a lot about brotherhood, but something is off. Brad goes forward with rush week, anyway—and even motivates his dorm roommate, Will (Danny Flaherty), to rush (a.k.a. pledge) along with him. They become “goats,” which we learn is another word for pledges. Led by their “master” Dixon (Jake Picking), things get increasingly degrading and barbaric for the goats as they move through “hell week.” What is Brad trying to prove, and to whom?

Goat is brutal. With the opening shot—a pack of shirtless college boys jumping up and down in slow motion, participating in some fraternity ritual and looking more like a troop of apes than a group of students—director Andrew Neel sets the tone and sticks to it all the way through. The hazing rituals involve a slew of nastiness: face slapping, mudwrestling, and cages are the least of it. James Franco, one of the film’s producers, makes an appearance as Mitch, an older Phi Sig alum who never left town. Amusing on the surface, it doesn’t take long to see that Mitch is pathetic. The best thing about the film is Brad and Brett’s relationship, which becomes strained once the latter sees the former going through hell week. The whole cast is impressive—particularly Jonas, who’s made some strides since his stint on last season’s Scream Queens.

Goat emits a whiff of Reefer Madness sensationalism—I was never in a frat so I’ve never gone through anything like hell week and can’t speak to it with any personal experience (though I have friends who were in fraternities, and most of them withdrew for one reason or another). Regardless, I found Goat provocative not so much for taking on hazing and asking why anyone would put up with it, but for raising questions about bigger and broader things like groupthink and pack mentality, societal permissiveness, what “brotherhood” means, masculinity, and how it all interacts with the primal instinct inside each of us. If nothing else, Goat serves as a springboard for discussing a number of topics after the show.

96 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

Date Night

(USA 2010)

I love me some Tina Fey, I usually like Steve Carell, and I certainly won’t complain if Mark Wahlberg is shirtless in every scene. Add James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, and even Common, and you’d expect to have a winner on your hands. Right? Wrong.

Date Night is a cute adventure film, but it’s certainly not an adventurous undertaking. It’s formulaic, predictable Hollywood milquetoast aimed at married suburban couples—director Shawn Levy’s specialty. Fey and Carell play the Fosters, a normal, middle-aged, overworked New Jersey couple whose longtime marriage has lost its mojo. They do date night periodically to keep things alive—it doesn’t seem to be working. One night, they decide to be adventurous and head to Manhattan. When they learn that the wait for a table at an exclusively hip restaurant will be a few hours because they don’t have a reservation, they pretend to be another couple, the Tripplehorns, to snag theirs. The Fosters end up with way more excitement than either of them bargained for after a pair of mobsters (Common and Jimmi Simpson) confronts them about a jump drive their boss (Ray Liotta) wants.

Fey and Carell have a sort of chemistry, but it’s benign. They do this thing where they imagine the conversations that patrons at other tables are having—it’s cute and very Seinfeldian. The Maitre D’ (Nick Kroll) is funny because he is such an asshole—in a David Spade way. Other than that, the laughs here are far and few between. The problem isn’t the actors—it’s Josh Klausner’s lame script, which plays out like a bland and weird ripoff of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting, and True Romance. Date Night has a few good lines and a few good scenes, but not enough to make it funny for very long.

88 minutes
Rated PG-13

(TBS) D+

I Am Michael

(USA 2015)

In the late Nineties and early 2000s, I picked up XY Magazine whenever I saw it on the news rack, usually at Borders, Tower Records, or Unabridged. It was a sort of gay culture Sassy meets Star Hits—I’m showing my age here, I know. Unbeknownst to me, XY contributor Michael Glatze went from “out” in San Francisco to poster boy for Evangelical conversion therapy in a matter of years. This film chronicles his seemingly bizarre change of heart.

I Am Michael has the makings of a winner: a complicated and interesting true story, a star cast, and timely subject matter. Sadly, it’s a big disappointment. James Franco is just okay as Glatze—never mind that his real-life sexual ambiguity rings tired these days. However true to life the events in the film may be, so many gay cliches—circuit parties, techno music, three-ways, drugs, fake blonde hair—are thrown in that it feels flat, hollow, and insulting after awhile. Worse, cowriter/director Justin Kelly gives short, superficial treatment to what drives Glatze’s metamorphosis; he provides a basic explanation but fails to get inside the guy’s head in any meaningful way. On top of all that, the film has the cheap look of a made-for-television movie. Surely, a gay can do better than this.

On the positive side, Zachary Quinto as Glatze’s suffering partner, Bennet, is great; he expertly builds his character’s frustration and weariness with Glatze’s constant angst and Bible diving while remaining tender when he needs to (for example, as he does when Glatze calls him out of the blue). Emma Roberts as Rebekah, the girl Glatze meets at Bible school and eventually marries, is also great; she plays a “nice girl” really well, and she makes us feel her confused uneasiness with his past. Both are memorable high points in a forgettable film.

(AMC River East) D

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.justink.me