I’m Stuck on L.I.E.

Now that the worst summer anyone can remember at the movies

is thankfully over, a new season opens with great promise, and I can think of

no better way to start it than with L.I.E.

Resist all temptations to avoid this exceptional film because of its subject

matter (pedophilia) and see L.I.E.

fast. Trust me on this. You will experience one of the most profoundly moving

motion pictures of the year.

A bored, alienated and lonely teenager walks the narrow

rails above the Long Island Expressway. Sylvia Plath said that we live and die

alone, and 15-year-old Howie Blitzer (played with all the querulous

introspection of youth by the extraordinary young actor Paul Franklin Dano) is

daring death to prove it. His mom died in a crash at Exit 52, and he’s been

obsessed with the dangers of the L.I.E. ever since. Howie lacks the emotional

guidance at home that helps most kids negotiate the precipitous path between

childhood and the real world. His father, occupied with a new girlfriend and

facing arrest for a shady business deal, is rarely home, and at night Howie

hears the sounds of sex echoing through the bedroom walls. His friends are a

distraction, but they spend their time robbing houses and roughing each other

up. Howie is not like the rest of the herd. Not a jerk, a jock or a clown, he’s

sensitive and sexually confused.

It seems almost inevitable that this troubled kid should

fall into the hands of a child molester named Big John Harrigan, played by the

bulky, sensational British actor Brian Cox. Thanks to the exemplary, finely

tuned writing of Stephen Ryder, Gerald Cuesta and his brother, Michael Cuesta

(who also directed, with the throbbing accuracy of a tuning fork), and the

fresh, fascinating and always surprising performance by Mr. Cox, Big John is

not the kind of pervert you hear described in police reports. He doesn’t hang

around bus stations or surf the Internet looking for victims. Like that

infamous Chicago pederast John

Wayne Gacy-a neighborhood parent-pleaser who dressed like a clown to entertain

kids at birthday parties-Big John is a garrulous, smooth-talking surrogate

father to the boys he lures home. He sings Irish show tunes, dotes on his

elderly mother and cruises the Long Island suburbs in a

flashy convertible, dispensing advice and pocket change.

In his wet, pudgy hands,

Howie is easy, vulnerable prey. Big John seduces him emotionally with lethal

doses of affection and intimidation. When his Dad is imprisoned for fraud,

leaving Howie alone and more bewildered than ever, he turns more and more to

the protection and guidance the old reprobate offers. Howie needs a friend and

a roof over his head, but the storylines are so subtly drawn that it’s hard to

tell who the seducer really is-the man or the boy. Howie is playing a cruel

adult game without a moral compass. His father replaced his dead mom with a

bimbo. Now Howie is replacing his dad with a different kind of parent. But this

movie has another surprise in store for an audience that is already rendered

breathless. Through a twist of fate, Howie faces yet another challenge in a

shocking finale that will make you gasp.

This is a very unsettling film that left me shaking long

after I left the theater. Carefully written and meticulously directed, with

marvelously calibrated performances by the entire cast, it’s an impossible film

to dismiss on grounds of repulsion. These things are happening to kids in

perilous times like these. You read about them daily. That doesn’t

automatically guarantee much entertainment value, and this is not a frivolous

lark at the mall between Slurpees and Double Whoppers. (Never before has a

parental-guidance warning seemed so urgent.) But rational, questioning and

mature filmgoers owe it to themselves to see L.I.E. , not only for its socially relevant content, but for its

honesty, truthfulness, conviction and artful execution. Nothing sexually

explicit is shown, yet the moment Big John shows the kid how to shave-tenderly

moving the razor over the first signs of peach fuzz on his neck-is one of the

most erotically charged scenes ever captured on film. Big John’s arousal is

only implied, but the sexual tension is so palpable the woman sitting next to

me almost fainted.

And there is always the reptilian charm of Brian Cox to

admire-skin like cookie dough, hands always moist, playing contrasts with

alarming persuasion. Watching pornographic tapes and singing “Danny Boy” at the

same time, he makes a difficult role almost sympathetic. He’s a major part of

this film’s success, but his brave, mesmerizing performance is just one of the

elements that makes L.I.E. as

hypnotic as it is controversial.

You Give Rock a Bad

Name

Rock Star is a

grueling and pointless endurance test that exposes the world of rock ‘n’ roll

for the venal, superficial and hypocritical bastion of bad taste it is. Big news. Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Cole, a kid from Pittsburgh

who fantasizes about being the next Jimi Hendrix, although in his

shoulder-length wig he looks more like Janis Joplin. Piercing his nipples and

wearing his mother’s mascara, he is summoned to L.A.

to replace a gay rock icon in a band called Steel Dragon, moving his career up

a notch. Chris Cole becomes Bobby Beers, a screeching idiot mobbed and screwed

by millions on the concert circuit. But, alas, the predictable plot teaches him

that fame is one big, boring orgy, and that the world of sex, drugs and rock

‘n’ roll is (duh!) not what it’s cracked up to be.

As for sex, the tarted-up groupie that Bobby and his

long-suffering girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) go to bed with at night turns out

to be a man in the morning. As for drugs, every chemical ever invented-and a

few even Courtney Love never heard of-are in constant supply, but they produce

massive hangovers. As for rock ‘n’ roll, send the wretched soundtrack to the

people you hate. If you have no enemies, you’ll make new ones.

The theme, which is supposed to convince kids to “be the

fantasy other people dream about,” comes off more like “the life you destroy

may be your own.” Smashing furniture and throwing television sets out of

top-floor hotel-room windows isn’t as raunchy as reading the New York Post . In the end, the kid from Pittsburgh

becomes disillusioned-not by the ruinous excesses and the bags under the eyes,

but because Steel Dragon wants to record its own rotten songs instead of his rotten songs. Bobby Beers goes back

to being Chris Cole, and another wannabe takes his place in a contrived

follow-the-dots finale shamelessly similar to All About Eve .

Numbingly directed by the untalented Stephen ( Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure )

Herek, there is nothing remotely pleasurable about Rock Star . The acting is cadaverous, the plot derivative, the music

execrable. This hateful waste of time doesn’t even look good: Speeded-up cinematography turns lines of traffic into

ribbons of Mylar, and the swirling-clouds routine from David Lynch movies is so

old it’s hairy. The saddest waste of all is the retro return of the star, who,

after knocking himself out to get the world to take him seriously, even strips

down to his Calvins. Rock stars have the shelf life of unrefrigerated clams.

Mr. Wahlberg knows that already; he spent the best part of the past 10 years

trying to shed the image of Marky Mark. Why would he want to reclaim it now?

Eat Drink Raquel

Welch!

Endearing and unpretentious, Tortilla Soup is a delicious comedy about love and tacos. A Hollywood

remake of Eat Drink Man Woman , the

1994 foreign-film Oscar nominee directed by Ang Lee, it retains the storyline

about a widowed chef with three problematic daughters, but adds spice and

flavor by moving the action to the Latino community of Los

Angeles, where the Mexican food is almost as famous as

the palm trees.

The excellent Hector Elizondo plays the stern patriarch of

the Naranjo family, whose popular Mexican restaurant has dazzled devoted

patrons and food critics for years. A renowned chef who introduced authentic

gourmet cuisine from his native land to a city weaned on Tex-Mex, the

semi-retired Mr. Naranjo stays home now, raising the exotic peppers and spices

that distinguish his recipes and keeping an eye on his fiery offspring. Too

stubborn to communicate his real hope for their happiness, he relies instead on

the lavish dinners he cooks and serves every Sunday night to preserve a ritual

sense of family tradition. At the same time, the three grown

daughters-beautiful, accomplished and still living at home-fuss over Dad and

feel guilty about their own selfish needs.

On the eve of college, Maribel (Tamara Mello), the pampered

baby of the family, plans to leave the nest and explore the world with a

Brazilian vagabond. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), the middle girl, has been

offered an executive job in Barcelona.

Oldest daughter Leticia (Elizabeth Peña) is a repressed spinster schoolteacher

who bristles at the idea of anyone breaking up the family, at least until she

meets the high-school baseball coach and delivers the biggest surprise of all.

While the family dramas unfold, Pop is having problems, too. He’s losing his

sense of taste and smell, and sex is only a memory-until a flirtatious,

flamboyant and oversexed widow moves in next door (played with broad humor and

revealing cleavage by a loosely swinging Raquel Welch!).

The script, by Tom Musca, Ramón Menéndez and Vera Blasi, is

an honest revelation of upscale Latino life devoid of the customary clichés,

and the direction by María Ripoll is seamless. Then there’s the food. The

Asians had Eat Drink Man Woman,

African-Americans had Soul Food . But

you’ve never seen so many character-based subplots enacted with a more

tantalizing culinary backdrop than this. In one of the most charming roles of

his career, Mr. Elizondo is a chef who approaches his kitchen like a brain

surgeon entering an operating room. We’re not talking stuffed shells at Taco

Bell: His meals are masterpieces, and he spares no detail in the preparations.

We get tamarind-glazed lamb with tangerine sauce. We get squash-flower soup

with serrano chiles, hand-cranked vanilla-bean ice cream, candied pumpkin and

more. The food is sensual and continuous; if only I could get the address of

that restaurant.

By the time Tortilla

Soup ends, you will have spent valuable time with lovable people living

interesting but different lives under the same roof, still finding ways to

strengthen their relationships with maturity and affection for each other. None

of them turn out the way you expect, but they grow, change and even separate

with genuine compassion. As for the food, take it from someone who would walk a

mile without a map just for a bad tortilla: The culinary splendors in Tortilla Soup made me swoon. I was so

hungry by the time it was over I could have happily devoured a tarantula

tostada. According to the liner notes, the meals were prepared by the chefs of

two actual Los Angeles

restaurants-Ciudad and the Border Grill. Reserve immediately.