Monday, April 4, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Dark Knights


Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe achieved a degree of notoriety in his relatively brief life. It became all the greater though in the wake of his death from AIDS complications in 1989 at the age of 42. Memorial retrospectives of his work in several major US cities were confronted by angry protests and legal challenges due to the sexually-explicit nature of several of the photos on display. That they depicted homosexual acts, aroused penises and/or fetish behavior, and that their exhibition was being partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, only made them that much more controversial.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is the first comprehensive documentary about the artist and it is superb. The film premieres tonight on HBO. Veteran gay documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Becoming Chaz, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Party Monster) utilize a generous selection of Mapplethorpe's works in exploring what made him tick. Their result is being shown in conjunction with a new Mapplethorpe exhibition that just opened in Los Angeles. It is the first such presentation since the Getty Museum and LA County Museum of Art were bequeathed $38 million worth of the artist's work in 2011, and serves as the first-ever joint exhibition by the two institutions.

Bob, as he was known to his friends, was raised in a devoutly Catholic family. As a boy, he painted icons of the saints for their parish priest, Fr. George. Fr. George, now retired, was interviewed for the documentary and offers considerable insight into Mapplethorpe's religious struggle. The priest also observed early on that Bob "never quite fit in with other boys" and wasn't surprised when he eventually came out as gay, although the adult Mapplethorpe's frank openness about his sexuality proved a source of embarrassment to his father, Harry (who is also interviewed in the film along with Bob's older sister Nancy and younger brother, Edward).

After graduating high school at the age of 16, Mapplethorpe moved to New York and went to art school. While he had long wanted to be an artist, he was initially averse to photography. However, he was given a Polaroid camera and began to take pictures of his then-girlfriend Patti Smith (who would herself become a famed artist and musician) as well as of existing gay porn images, fetish objects and flowers. These would remain his subjects of interest as well as self-portraits, African-American men and the occasional woman or celebrity.

Mapplethorpe's work sold consistently throughout the 1980's but, ironically, did not command the high prices he craved until news broke that he was dying of AIDS. The photos and videos of an AIDS-ravaged Mapplethorpe used in the documentary are heartbreaking, as is Edward's account of caring for his older brother during his final days. Bailey and Barbato's latest is their best film to date and is not to be missed by anyone interested in photography, LGBT history, and the ongoing struggle for some artists and viewers between sanctity and obscenity.

It is interesting to fantasize that if Mapplethorpe had ever become a filmmaker himself and lived to the present day, he could have potentially directed the current superhero smash-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The movie has been controversial in its own right due to its grim tone and dark palette, not to mention the casting of Ben Affleck as an older, world-weary Caped Crusader and Jesse Eisenberg's wildly unhinged portrayal of Superman's archnemesis Lex Luthor. Its actual director, Zack Snyder, has a recurring tendency toward fetish images not unlike Mapplethorpe's if not as sexually explicit. Snyder, though heterosexual, consistently shoots both his male and female stars in pseudo-erotic stages of undress or poses (especially during fight scenes in his previous films 300, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel), and Batman v Superman is no exception to this.

The new film basically begins during Man of Steel's climactic battle between Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and General Zod but literally throws Bruce Wayne/Batman into the mix. As he careens through the streets of Metropolis in his Land Rover, Wayne is horrified to witness the destruction of his office tower there along with much of the rest of the city. It leads him to question the world's safety with the advent of Superman's powers, and the life-altering injury of one of Wayne's employees only furthers this.

Enter the villainous Luthor, who introduces Wayne and Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego, at one of his parties only to begin manipulating the heroes against one another. This rather slowly (the film runs more than 2 1/2 hours) builds up to the showdown of the title, which also ends up entailing the big-screen debut of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (the best thing in the movie) and the death-dealing monster, Doomsday.

To call Batman v Superman overstuffed would be an understatement, but much of it is necessary in light of Warner Brothers' long-term plan to turn more classic DC Comics characters into lucrative box office draws (Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg have brief cameos here too). And while she doesn't play a superhero, Oscar-winner Holly Hunter makes a welcome, memorable appearance as a principled US senator who suffers Luthor's wrath. At minimum, the sequel is better written and more entertaining than Man of Steel. It is indeed too dark and apocalyptic for kids, in my and other critics' likely-to-be-ignored opinion, but teen and adult filmgoers should at least come out of it feeling they've gotten their money's worth.

Graphic violence is the name of the game in many American movies nowadays, but the Turkish horror film Baskin (now playing theatrically in LA and NYC) proves the US doesn't hold an exclusive license to this. In it, a group of cops have the misfortune of stumbling across occult rituals in a spooky, abandoned police station. The youngest among them, Arda (played by the attractive Gorkem Kasal), has had a prior encounter with the supernatural that informs some of their experience but nothing prepares him or his fellow officers for the dismemberment, sodomy, eye-gouging and human sacrifice that await them. As one of their creepy persecutors reveals, "Hell is not a place you go; you carry Hell with you at all times."

Rising young director Can Evrenol employs great filmmaking style, especially a striking use of color and ceiling fans, and the screenplay co-written by him and three others features an interesting structure as well as intriguing historical tidbits about Turkey's previously long-reigning Ottoman Empire. Also of note is the movie's pulsing, occasionally funkadelic music score by Ulas Pakkan. In the end, though, Baskin is too disturbingly gruesome to recommend to anyone other than hardcore horror/gore movie fans.

Reverend's Ratings:
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures: A
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: B
Baskin: C+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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