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Jailbait

Michael Pitt ("Last Days"), whose angelic good looks are well suited to his role as the young man who becomes catnip to his cellmate, plays Randy, who's been sentenced to 25 years for the minor crime of vandalism. He finds himself locked in with Jake (Stephen Adly Guirgis, better known as an acclaimed off-Broadway playwright), who casually informs him that he's in jail for slitting his wife's throat after she cheated on him.

It isn't long before Jake's initially friendly overtures take on a far more menacing edge, with the inevitable mind games and physical threats geared to making Randy his sexual slave.

Thanks to the innumerable similarly themed stage and film dramas that have preceded it, not to mention the multiple seasons of HBO's "Oz," there's little here that's unfamiliar, and writer-director Leonard is unable to provide any fresh variations. While the stars deliver highly committed performances, the static nature of the proceedings ultimately defeats them. The film is perhaps most effective as a cautionary tale regarding California's controversial "three strikes" law, but even on that front it seems heavy-handed.

Shock to the System

Reprising the role he originated in "Third Man Out," Chad Allen stars as the central character, here hired by a young man who almost immediately turns up dead. Investigating the suspicious suicide at the behest of the victim's mother (a well-preserved Morgan Fairchild), Strachey goes undercover to pose as a patient at the Phoenix Foundation, a gay conversion clinic led by a charismatic but shady doctor (Michael Woods).

While the idea would certainly seem to hold promise for interesting social commentary, the script by Ron McGee lacks the necessary bite, as does the rote direction of Ron Oliver. As with many mystery films, the convoluted plot is ultimately less interesting than the gallery of supporting characters, which here include Strachey's loving boyfriend (Sebastian Spence) and enthusiastic assistant (Nelson Wong).

Not helping matters is the earnest but not terribly interesting turn by Allen as the gay shamus. Clearly reluctant to invest the character with any possibly stereotypical attributes, the actor instead delivers a performance that is as bland as the film's outdoor locations.

America: From Freedom to Fascism

Unfortunately, while the film -- which Russo produced, directed, edited and wrote -- has some fascinating and compelling arguments, it quickly assumes the tone of an angry diatribe rather than a well-reasoned political discussion.

It is most effective in its first half, when the Libertarian filmmaker methodically examines the controversies surrounding the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, most notably its lack of legal specificity when it comes to actually collecting tax revenue. Utilizing interviews with a variety of expert witnesses, including a Texan congressman, a former IRS commissioner, former IRS agents, attorneys, authors, etc., Russo makes provocative, albeit scattershot arguments about the system.

Unfortunately, the film's passionate arguments are undercut by its general air of hysteria, and matters are not helped by a free-form second half in which Russo attacks a wide variety of targets, including the Federal Reserve System, election laws, the Patriot Act, the proposed national identity card and even the abolition of the gold standard.

Russo is an ingratiatingly folksy on-camera presence, though clearly not lacking a hard edge when it comes to making his case. But while the ideas his film brings up are more than worthy of serious discussion, one gets the feeling that they require a more analytical, objective approach than they receive here.

Room

It's easy to see why Julia (Cyndi Williams) would want to escape her existence. Struggling to make ends meet with various humdrum jobs, including working at a seedy bingo parlor, she must also cope with a surly husband and troublesome kids. The background soundtrack of her life consists of news broadcasts describing endless world crises and natural disasters.

She also is plagued by a recurring series of blackouts, headaches and nightmares, the latter marked by visions of a strange empty space. One day, she impulsively decides to rob her employer, and proceeds to board a plane (at George Bush International Airport, no less) and travel to New York in search of its inspiration.

Director-screenwriter Henry expertly uses his chilly visuals and ominous soundtrack to suggest Julia's unsettled emotional state. Adding greatly to the film's power is Williams' intense performance. Never succumbing to histrionics, the actress compellingly conveys her character's despair with a minimum of flourishes but with absolute conviction, even while the meanings and symbolisms of the film surrounding her remain somewhat murky.

Another Gay Movie

While theatrical prospects look iffy, the film should clean up on video, where it can be enjoyed sans embarrassment.

This is the sort of comedic effort whose idea of giving the audience what it wants is providing a gratuitous, full-frontal nude shot of ex-"Survivor" Richard Hatch. The tale of four high school friends desperate to lose their anal virginity before summer's end, it features cameo appearances by the likes of British talk show host Graham Norton as a randy foreign teacher, Lysinka as one of the teen's Joan Crawford-like moms and "Boy Meets Boy" reality star James Getzlaff, among others.

The ramshackle plot follows the four boys, all attending San Torum High School (these are the jokes, folks), as they embark on their quest, encouraged by their "bull-dyke" lesbian friend Muffler (Ashlie Atkinson). They include Andy (Michael Carbonaro), whose father (Scott Thompson) seems all too eager to help his son explore the world of butt plugs; the buff Jarod (Jonathan Chase); the nerdy Griff (Mitch Morris); and the outrageous, pierced Nico (Jonah Blechman).

The gags come fast and furious during the course of the proceedings, and anyone with an aversion to humor involving gerbils, bondage, NAMBLA, diarrhea, and similar topics would do well to steer clear. More of the jokes fall flat than not, but the film is so relentlessly and cheerfully vulgar that it almost doesn't matter. From its cartoonish visual style to its use of the iconic Nancy Sinatra to sing its theme song "Another Gay Sunshine Day," the film revels in its silliness in such an unabashed fashion that it is ultimately hard to resist.

The Book of Revelation

The premise is provocative -- a male dancer is forced into sexual slavery by a trio of women -- but the film lingers too long on the scenes of imprisonment, turning them into a kind of soft-porn performance art and leaving the emotional aftershocks less satisfyingly explored.

Art house audiences will appreciate the film's stylish veneer, courtesy of cinematographer Tristan Milani, and carefully framed compositions, as well as Paul Heath's funky, minimalist production design, but mainstream viewers will probably find the whole thing too pretentious. "Revelation" opens next month in Australia, after its premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Along with Andrew Bovell, co-writer on her in-your-face feature debut "Head On," Kokkinos has adapted a novel by English author Rupert Thomson, transplanting the story from Amsterdam to Melbourne, a cosmopolitan city with a distinctly European flavor.

Daniel (the androgynous Tom Long), a successful male dancer, is introduced rehearsing a tempestuous piece with his dancer girlfriend, Bridget (Anna Torv), for choreographer Isabel (Greta Scacchi), who cautions that he must learn "to dance without ego." This admonition, along with a brief scene in which Daniel flirts overtly with another dancer, establishes the protagonist as someone who could do with a personality makeover.

But what happens to him next is extreme.

During a break in rehearsals, Daniel goes out to buy cigarettes for Bridget and disappears, surfacing 12 days later a broken man. The reason is revealed in splintered flashbacks, a particularly effective tactic in that it mirrors the jumbled recollections of a trauma victim.

We see that Daniel was drugged and abducted in a back alley, before being locked up in a shipping container down by the docks. He is chained and stripped naked while three women -- their faces hidden behind bondage masks and heavy cowls -- indulge in mind games and power plays as they rape him.

The complexity of the victim's responses -- deftly explained in the novel as ranging from confusion and defiance, through humiliation to fatigued resignation -- don't translate well to the screen, making the heavy concentration of explicit sex scenes seem prurient.

Nearly two weeks later, Daniel is dumped blindfolded on the outskirts of town, and the long process of psychological recovery begins. His girlfriend leaves him, the police mock him, and so he flees his old life, taking on work as a bartender and embarking on a quest to learn the identity of his tormentors.

This involves sleeping with an awful lot of women, looking for the distinguishing marks he remembers such as the butterfly tattoo of one, the red lacquered nails of another.

Daniel plunges headlong into self-loathing debauchery, pulled back from the brink only by a student named Julie (Deborah Mailman), whose serene smile and quiet manner soothe his restless spirit. But the physical violation he suffered has left deep scars, and the past won't leave him alone.

Kokkinos leans too heavily on the shock value of the gender role reversal at the expense of exploring the fallout of the abuse, and the decision to give Scacchi's character a subplot is perplexing. There's also a certain affectation to montages and edgy camera angles that keeps us at a distance from the protagonist's pain.

Director: Ana Kokkinos
Screenwriters: Ana Kokkinos, Andrew Bovell, Rupert Thomson
Producer: Al Clark
Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael, Graham Begg
Director of photography: Tristan Milani
Production designer: Paul Heath
Music: Cezary Skubiskzewski
Choreographer: Meryl Tankard
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Editor: Martin Connor
Cast:
 Daniel: Tom Long
 Isabel: Greta Scacchi
 Olsen: Colin Friels
 Bridget: Anna Torv
 Julie: Deborah Mailman

Brothers of the Head

The film bases its delicious conceit on Brian Aldiss' 1977 novella, a memory piece in which interviewees recall the Howe brothers. Fulton and Pepe likewise create interviews and extant film documents to tell the tale, but the central characters are very much present in the movie, and well-cast newcomers Harry and Luke Treadaway, who are identical twins, bring a sullen, slightly stunned energy to their roles.

The lean adaptation by screenwriter Tony Grisoni ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "In This World") is elliptical and fragmented, a double mystery at its core: the secret place between twins and a singularly bizarre showbiz chapter. The man behind the Howe brothers' career is an unctuous impresario, Zak Bedderwick (Howard Attfield), who buys the boys from their father when they're 18. "He wanted singing Siamese twins, and he wanted them pop," one observer notes.

Zak gets more than he bargained for as the boys fashion a proto-punk band, the Bang Bang. The film unfolds mainly during 1974 and 1975, when the brothers are "groomed" for the spotlight at Bedderwick's run-down country house, a process that involves a good degree of physical abuse from their manager, Nick (Sean Harris). They're joined at the waist and can perform side by side, with the more compliant Tom (Harry Treadaway) taking up the guitar and the more withholding Barry (Luke Treadaway) channeling his volatility into furious vocals, with eye makeup and vodka bottle as accouterments.

The film cleverly uses raw footage from a never-completed documentary by American filmmaker Eddie Pasqua (Tom Bower) to provide glimpses of rehearsals, manic club shows and far more intimate moments. And in a brilliant touch, Ken Russell's abandoned fictional version of the boys' story, dubbed "Two-Way Romeo" after their signature tune, offers a more burnished commentary. In an especially striking sequence, Jonathan Pryce plays an actor playing an attorney who crosses the bogs to the Howes' remote childhood home. Russell appears as himself, one of the film's present-day talking heads, and in a lovely bit of meta-meta-fictionalizing, Bower's Eddie comments on Russell's would-be biopic: Like most such films, he says, it misses the essence of its subject.

Not so "Brothers of the Head," which strikes not a false note and never condescends to spell out its rich ideas about art, exploitation and the mysteries of human connection. The film makes perfectly credible how, with their exultation and primal rage, the Bang Bang inspired other kids even as they wrestled with their own troubled fate. For all its extraordinary elements, essentially this is a familiar rock 'n' roll arc, from the drugs and bad behavior to the woman who complicates the relationship between bandmates.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle creates the masterful effect of mixed film stocks and vintages, crucial to the haunting tale's immediacy, and Clive Langer's music is the real thing.

Directors: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
Screenwriter: Tony Grisoni
Producers: Simon Channing Williams, Gail Egan
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Jon Henson
Music: Clive Langer
Costume designer: Marianne Agertoft
Editor: Nic Gaster
Cast:
 Tom Howe: Harry Treadaway
 Barry Howe: Luke Treadaway
 Paul Day: Bryan Dick
 Nick Sidney: Sean Harris
 Zak Bedderwick: Howard Attfield
 Himself: Ken Russell
 Eddie Pasqua: Tom Bower
 Laura Ashworth (1970s): Tania Emery
 Laura Ashworth (Present): Diana Kent
 Henry Couling: Jonathan Pryce

Pope Dreams

"Pope Dreams" boasts sensitive performances, direction and dialogue, though perhaps too sensitive for its own good -- the film ultimately lacks the sharp-edged observational acuity to propel it to memorable status. Lacking commercial theatrical elements, "Pope," which recently received its premiere at the Stony Brook Film Festival, should find a more receptive audience on video.

The central character is 19-year-old Andy Venable (newcomer Phillip Vaden), a personable young man who works at his father's electronics store and plays drums in a neighborhood rock band. Andy's mother (Julie Hagerty) has cancer, and what he most wants to do to help her is somehow find a way to have her meet the pope before she dies.

Meanwhile, he becomes ro-mantically involved with the beautiful Brady (Marnette Patterson), a young woman he normally would have considered far out of his league. Turns out he's right, as she is only using him as part of a plot to get back at her father for keeping her away from her real boyfriend. It doesn't take long, however, for Andy's sincerity and warmth to overcome her resistance. As a result of their relationship, Andy's nascent songwriting talents are discovered by Brady's father, a collaborator on Broadway musicals.

Hogan's screenplay has trouble keeping the tonally different elements of his plot in balance, with the result that the film never quite achieves the dramatic or comedic focus that it needs. But it has many engaging moments along the way as well as several fine performances. Stephen Tobolowsky as Carl Venable and Hagerty, better known for their broad comic turns, are quite moving here, and young Vaden displays an easygoing warmth and charisma that makes his character highly sympathetic.

Azumi

The samurai epic depicts the adventures of its titular character, one of 10 teen orphans raised by a master swordsman (Yoshio Harada) to become assassins and thwart the plans of an evil warlord (Naoto Takenaka). Azumi soon comes to question the ethics of her mission, but her moral qualms are quickly irrelevant when it comes to her eventual nemesis, the twisted Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri).

The plot, though, is not the main element in this kinetic action film, which in contemporary fashion uses plenty of wire work and CGI enhancements for its often highly gory fight sequences. Indeed, so much blood and so many limbs go flying towards the camera that it's a wonder that it wasn't made in 3-D.

The sheer accumulation of outrageous villains and wildly choreographed fight sequences ultimately proves more exhausting than exhilarating, though certainly the climactic sequence, a massive set piece featuring hundreds of extras that took two weeks to film, is one that will not quickly be forgotten. Takumi Furuya's stellar widescreen lensing ensures that all the action is rendered with the utmost visual clarity.

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Depicting one of the most important and seminal cases in the history of psychoanalysis, "Memoirs of My Nervous Illness" is an accomplished and stylistically audacious effort that all too accurately conveys the confusion and mental disarray of its subject's illness, ultimately to its detriment. The film recently had its world premiere at the 2006 NewFest Film Festival.

Jefferson Mays, a recent Tony winner for his amazing solo performance in "I Am My Own Wife," has a similarly superb, gender bending turn here as Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber, an esteemed German judge at the turn of the century, was incarcerated in an asylum after he began suffering from various delusions, which were methodically charted in the journal upon which the film's screenplay is based.

Among Schreber's obsessions was his belief that he was communicating with God and his strong desire to become a woman, the latter typified by fantasies in which he imagined himself assuming a feminine role during sex. He was cared for by Dr. Emil Flechsig (Bob Cucuzza), whose primitive methods of treatment ultimately led his patient to petition the courts for his release.

The filmmaker utilizes a fragmented, hallucinatory style to depict the bizarreness of Schreber's delusions, a technique that, while evocative, often makes for difficult viewing. The film is indeed visually stunning, using sepia tones to infuse the proceedings with a vintage quality, and there are many imaginative tricks of camerawork, editing and sound design. But while the true-life case is indeed a fascinating one, newcomers to the story often will find themselves as confused and frustrated as its principal figures.
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