Gael is King! But Scary Too

Expanding his popularity as a steamy (albeit miniature) screen sex symbol, pint-sized Mexican hunk Gael García Bernal, speaking flawless American English without a trace of an accent, arrives to wreak murderous havoc on born-again Christians in Corpus Christi, Tex., like the snake in Eden. He calls himself Elvis, which explains why the film—dark, murky, poisonous and cynical—calls itself The King. It’s not very good. In fact, it’s a long way from Pedro Almodóvar, and a dangerous detour in a career that needs to get back on the right track soon.

Mr. Bernal, the star of such acclaimed Spanish-speaking classics as Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También and Bad Education, is as intense and fascinating as ever, but the fault lies in the lethargic narrative-feature directing debut of James Marsh, who co-wrote the lumpy screenplay with Milo Addica (co-author of the awful Nicole Kidman film Birth). Obviously influenced by every religious-nut flick from The Night of the Hunter to Crimes of Passion, it socks it to the religious right but lacks any clear or original point of view of its own.

For clues to why this movie fails on all fours, a few plot details are mandatory. Mr. Bernal’s Elvis was deserted years ago by his American father, a man named David Sandow, and raised by a Mexican mother who is now deceased. After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Elvis heads for Texas to find his father and announce himself as his bastard son. Seeking renewal and respectability, Elvis naïvely hopes he will be welcomed and blessed with a new family life. But Mr. Sandow (William Hurt) is now a respected local preacher with a wife and two children who wants no part of any embarrassing reminder of his sinful past. Rejected, Elvis hatches a strategy of revenge and retaliation, sinking into silent, sullen moods that promise inescapable horrors.

Some indication of the pent-up anger and danger lurking behind Elvis’s handsome face is already evident: breaking glass bottles on the highway to encourage flat tires, taking a job delivering pizza and feeding it to the customer’s dog. But he’s just getting started. Elvis stalks and seduces his virginal 16-year-old half-sister Malerie, making her pregnant. Then, when her fervently religious brother Paul spots him sneaking out of the Sandow house before sunrise and follows him to his motel to warn him to stay away from his family, Elvis stabs the boy to death and dumps the body in a marsh.

With every plot twist rooted in a Biblical reference, the film turns into a modern Cain and Abel metaphor. Believing Paul has run away from home, the preacher’s family unravels at the seams, with Elvis testing his father’s Christian capacity to forgive sin. Sure enough, Dad embraces him and moves him into Paul’s room, but when he delivers a pious (and laughably phony) sermon acknowledging Elvis as his long-lost son, it’s the first time the pregnant Malerie realizes she’s been sleeping with her own brother! All hell breaks loose in time for more homicides, and then … but enough is enough. You get the picture. The King collapses in a baptismal font of grape juice, religious hysteria and pointless nihilism.

As Elvis turns more and more into a satanic toy boy, the movie makes less and less sense. No attempt is made to analyze his transgressions, no character development ever emerges through the dialogue, and the movie grows mean-spirited and ugly instead of psychologically stimulating or emotionally sound. I can think of numerous ways a movie challenging religious hypocrisy as a basis for the downfall of American youth could be theoretically provocative. But The King is insidious instead of insightful.

The cast is not to blame. Pell James, the young actress who plays the tragic sister, is very effective. Her adolescent sexuality is a warm contrast to the black and festering ambiance around her. And it is easy to see why Mr. Bernal has achieved so much fame in such a brief time. His sensual lips betray a suspicious cruelty; his eyes always seem wide open to life’s experiences, but there is pain and trouble behind them. Miraculously, they work hard to give it a pulse, but The King is dead on arrival.

Crazy Kids!

Equally sour and cynical, Twelve and Holding doesn’t even wait until its despairing characters reach high school: Their downward spiral of suicidal depression begins as soon as they hit adolescence. The way it focuses on the brutal side of youth reminded me of the hateful films of Larry Clark, only it’s more hopeless than either Kids or the vile Ken Park, a movie so filthy it was never even released.

But I had higher expectations for Twelve and Holding because it was directed by Michael Cuesta, a sensitive filmmaker unafraid to turn over a rock and examine the life of whatever moves underneath. His extraordinary film L.I.E. even managed to investigate the human side of a suburban pedophile. But it is my sad duty to report that he has created nothing special here. The glum losers of all ages in Twelve and Holding are too miserable and loopy to arouse much interest—or to hold an audience’s attention for a running time of 94 minutes. When it ended, the folks at the screening I attended just looked at each other and said, “Huh?”

Among the disparate group of troubled 12-year-olds depicted here, an Asian girl talks about menstruation while her mother, a demented psychiatrist who denies her child a Christmas tree because she’s an atheist, indulges in screaming hysterics bordering on schizophrenia. The mother (another criminal waste of the talented Annabella Sciorra) has a patient who is a manic-depressive construction worker given, for no explainable reason, to crying jags. The child develops a sexual obsession for the older man, breaks into his house, peels off her clothes and follows him naked into the shower.

An obese boy from a family of hippo slobs who chow down on junk food and gravy stages a one-person rebellion and lives on nothing but raw apples to achieve his dream of becoming a football player. When his mother objects, he locks her in the cellar with a broken hip and turns on the gas on the kitchen range. A third kid wears a Hannibal Lecter mask to hide a hideous birthmark, while his brother dumps a bucket of urine on the heads of two neighborhood bullies from his tree house, calling them “dickheads.” They return later and burn him alive. The surviving boy becomes infatuated with one of his brother’s killers and visits him in prison. It seems, for a fleeting minute, that at least one of these lost children will find redemption, but on the night the two boys run away together, something violent happens that destroys every hope, as well as the film itself. I won’t reveal how these twisted lives turn out, but it’s not pretty.

This is a pointless exercise in futility about kids who don’t want to be children and adults who don’t know how to be parents. I would be interested in seeing a film about kids without role models who are forced to mature on their own because their parents are too immature and self-involved to help them. But as disturbed as all of the kids are in this particular fiasco, the grown-ups are mental cases who need to be hospitalized. With a dumb, implausible and exaggerated script that offers nobody to root for, young or old, you wonder what attracted top talents like Annabella Sciorra, Linus Roache, Jayne Atkinson, Tony Roberts and Mark Linn-Baker to this fiasco in the first place. Twelve and Holding is a bummer, and the abrupt and shocking finale has to be seen to be believed. Just be glad I’m the one who has to see it and not you.

Cochran Croons

With so much angst, the best anti-depressant is music. Charles Cochran, an esteemed pianist and saloon singer who used to be a staple on the Manhattan club scene when the word “cabaret” only existed in the basements of Berlin, is back in circulation at Danny’s on West 46th Street, where he is holding court every Sunday and Monday night through May. He takes you back to the sublimely balmy midnight hours when chic song stylists peppered and salted intimate watering troughs all over town, and taxis didn’t cost half the rent to get you there. Retirement in Palm Beach hasn’t cost him any I.Q. points. His songs are stylish and sophisticated, and so is he.

Up-tempo tunes are usually fillers inserted by performers who fear their audiences will grow drowsy from too many ballads. Mr. Cochran doesn’t waste your time: His love songs are treasures like Jerome Kern’s “In Love in Vain,” with a special verse personally penned for him by the legendary Jeri Southern (“I keep hearing that tune we danced all night to / While you’re telling me where to fly my kite to”), and “When the World Was Young,” whose Johnny Mercer lyrics are too often sung by people who lack the sufficient wisdom and life experience to sing it properly. Mr. Cochran fills every requirement. When he picks up the pace, it’s with obscure gems like Irving Berlin’s “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” and Cy Coleman’s “On the Other Side of the Tracks.” The stories he tells are the reminiscences of days when you could rent a penthouse with a grand piano for $350 a month. The names he drops are Laurette Taylor, Mabel Mercer and Hedy Lamarr. He brings tears to the most jaded eyes. He makes you want to live the lyrics. Even the folksy, peaceful country charm of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” has glamour. Put Charles Cochran on your calendar, and learn something.

Across town, at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Broadway soprano Rebecca Luker is both fabulous to hear and lovely to look at, like the frisky blondes in the old Warner Brothers Gold Digger movies. Celebrating women songwriters, she moves from classics by Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh and Marilyn Bergman to wrist-slashers from what I grumpily call the “Janis Ian syndrome,” but the voice is mellifluous, the chops are impressive, the smile is radiant, and the range is stunning. She doesn’t resort to noisy belting to impress. This Alabama-born Scarlett O’Hara knows the value of trusting a lyric and letting the songs work for her, and she’s an accomplished actress too. Which is why there is such double meaning in a new tune called “Lovely Lies,” about Southern belles raised on church hymns and pecan pie, with no preparation for independent thinking or real life. On a Broadway stage or in the intimacy of a hotel cabaret, she turns songs into three-act plays and makes the center spot burn brighter.

Gael is King! But Scary Too