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By Film Threat Staff | June 14, 2005

Human would also be an apt one-word description of Peter Falk in “The Thing About my Folks.” Producer and screenwriter Paul Reiser’s fond childhood memory of watching his father chuckle aloud to Falk’s antics in “The Cheap Detective” culminated in this pleasant star vehicle. Transcending the generic (geriatric…?) level of most Hollywood comedies featuring older adults (for instance, say, “Grumpy Old Men”), “The Thing About My Folks” is thick with dialogue concerning aging children relating to their even older parents. Since Reiser, a veteran of television’s “Mad About You,” wields the pen behind this snappy rapport, most of it is pretty smart.

“The Thing About My Folks” begins in the Manhattan home of married-with-children family man Ben Kleinman (Reiser), where an unexpected knock sounds at the door. Sam, his senior-aged father, stumbles in to announce that his wife of forty years has left him. A rumpled, blunt cuss who always smells of talcum powder, Sam informs his son that there was no fight preceding the split – only a cryptic note left behind hinting that his spouse was in need of some personal space. “She just had enough,” Sam laments.

What follows is a tense road trip through the colorful fall foliage of Upstate New York, where Ben and Sam wrestle with a thorny question. Mainly, why would Sam’s wife Muriel (Olympia Dukakis) abandon ship after four decades spent tolerating him? One might classify “The Thing About My Folks” as cross between “Nothing In Common” and “My Dinner with Andre.” There’s a lot of knowing conversation concerning what Ben thinks he knows about his dad, and Sam’s very different perspective on his marriage to Muriel.

In one scene, Ben presents his father with a letter. It’s a bitter outline of the woman’s many disappointments with her marriage, written in a fit of frustration but never sent. Much of her anger is aimed at Sam, whom she describes as a neglectful husband more concerned with his career than his wife. Ben retrieved it from the garbage as a youth, and has been toting it around ever since, re-reading it periodically. When he hands it over to Sam, expecting the elder to buckle over in shame and remorse, Ben receives a
jarring wake-up call announcing how complicated and unpredictable his old man really is. “This is pure, crazy s**t,” Sam says of the letter in that familiar, laid-back Peter Falk manner. “This is not the way it was. That really burns my a*s.”

It’s obvious that Falk’s patriarch has an entirely different take on his family history, and much of “The Thing About My Folks” concerns Ben’s slowly growing empathy for his father’s take on life. But there’s also plenty of fodder for those more taken by comic set pieces than philosophical musings. Falk shows his son a thing or two about pool-playing and bar-room brawling. And he farts. If nothing else, Reiser’s satisfying laugh-inducer gives you a chance to watch Columbo pass gass.

Decked out in head-to-toe black leather for a screening of his controversial, disturbing “Mysterious Skin,” Greg Araki lurked about the Egyptian’s crowded masses like an elegant rock star. Then the lights dimmed, and his challenging, often brilliant film spilled onto the screen. “Mysterious Skin” is “Midnight Cowboy” for the tainted, new millennium generation and as gut-wrenching a cinematic experience as you’re likely to find all year. Araki’s past works – including “The Doom Generation,” “Totally F***ed Up,” and “The Living End” – tried so hard to be hip and edgy that they lacked resonance. One might walk out dazed by his shock-scene assaults, but it’s unlikely these images would continue haunting the subconscious days later. His films were like Mountain Dew or Snickers bars – they might satiate one’s appetite for the moment, but their long-term nutritional value was negligible.

Not so with “Mysterious Skin,” the most haunting, emotionally devastating movie about child abuse ever filmed. I’ve always felt uneasy about child actors being employed in films of this type – to this day, even Jodie Foster’s “Taxi Driver” hooker still makes me feel dirty inside. Araki’s film pulls no punches, depicting pedophilia in a manner that’s shocking even in the age of “L.I.E.,” “Happiness,” “The Woodsman,” and “Mystic River.” Some of the film’s most unsettling scenes do involve underage kids. At the screening, I was relieved to hear Araki point out that he took great pains to shoot “Mysterious Skin” in a way that would protect the kids from both his dark story, and the extent of his characters’ illicit relationships. For instance, offered Araki, he might cue a young actor by saying, “You’re in the basement, and you’re really scared,” without elaborating on the cause of such trauma.

“Mysterious Skin” drops us into the nowhere town of Hutchinson, Kansas, one of those uneventful armpits of the Midwest that teen inhabitants loathe. Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) is an awkward, nerdy adolescent fascinated by UFO sightings. In fact, Brian swears that a five-hour blackout he suffered while eight years old was the end result of being abducted, probed, and prodded by curious extraterrestrials. Could Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a gay hustler who once played little league baseball with Brian, hold the key to precisely what happened during the unexplained hole in his childhood?

As “Mysterious Skin” unfolds, we’re pulled into a frightening limbo of broken souls. And while it’s clear that Brian has been twisted by a terrible past, we learn that Neil, a more blasé, worldly abuse victim, is actually the more damaged of the two. There’s something frighteningly nihilistic about this reckless gay prostitute, who would rather go home with a cold-eyed john than get on the next bus home to spend Christmas with his unsuspecting family. Neil’s quest for upwardly mobile clients leads him to New York, and as we’re guided us into the increasingly sinister lairs of his depraved johns, the tone becomes tense and frightening. There’s a brilliant scene involving the supremely creepy Billy Drago (remember his turn as unrepentant, stone-faced killer Frank Nitti from “The Untouchables?) that reaches almost Kubrickian intensity. With his dead eyes, long, scarecrow face and vampire grin, Drago makes Danny Trejo look like sweet faced Dakota Fanning. But if you think he’s used as an obvious brute of a villain, you’re underestimating Araki’s unpredictable mastery of surprise.

Araki contrasts the holiday imagery of Christmas, including the comfortable softness of snow and the friendly glow of colored bulbs, with a sad, cathartic finale shared between Brian and Neil. There are no punches pulled in this film, which confronts its own demons head-on in a final confessional that graphically pieces together precisely why these two young men have been permanently scarred, even as it suggests the promise of healing and renewal. “Mysterious Skin” will get under your skin and break your heart. It’s an unforgettable film.

After two weeks’ worth of watching SIFF’s shadows on the wall, however, my favorite early-festival film was “Murderball.” This a movie that does so many different things well, it’s difficult to even classify. A sensational documentary chronicling the lives of U.S. world champion wheelchair rugby players, “Murderball” might appear a sports film. But is it really? There are a dozen detail-driven character studies bouncing off the armor-plated wheelchairs and brutal tournaments. Take Joe Soares, a burly, middle-aged Woody Harrelson look-alike who once played for the USA team. In fact, despite battling polio for 43 years, Soares is considered by many to be the best quadriplegic rugby player in the world. When he’s cut from the 2000 USA team, he nurses a grudge against his fellow Yanks by coaching the rugby squad for rival Canada. It appears that Soares’ change in allegiance is motivated by personal revenge, and many of his ex-teammates take issue with his choice. “How does it feel to betray your country?” asks a disgruntled former on-court comrade.

Then there’s Mark Zupan, a tattooed, goateed rabble-rouser. Or is he? Watch this would-be tough guy’s inherent patience and kind smile melt the hearts of Camp Fire kids as he hosts a Q & A with the curious youngsters. Feel the genuine love on the screen whenever he’s featured with his dedicated girlfriend Jess (whom he met, strangely enough, while she worked as an intern at a morgue). She suggests that beyond the curiosity factor, women are often attracted to “quads” because of a maternal nurturing instinct. Zupan’s quadriplegia resulted from an auto accident, but even without the voluntary use of his legs, this much-feared athlete is anything but helpless. “You’re not gonna hit a kid in a chair?” he asks the camera. “Fuckin’ hit me. I’ll hit you back.”

“Murderball” can be hysterically funny. Much of the film’s humor seeps from players’ willingness to tell it like it is, especially concerning quad sex. Can quads “do it?” And how! Ladies’ man Scott Hogsett, a C-5/ C-6 quadriplegic following his fall from an apartment balcony at age 19, tells a hilarious story about the days following his injury. He describes being comatose on an intensive care unit. “Everyone was curious as to how much function I’d have. I was waking up from a coma, and the nurses decided to give me a bed bath. One nurse got so excited I got a woody, that she ran outside and got my mom, and showed her my erection.” The fact that he’s retelling this tale to a red-faced, female interviewer is testimony to Hogsett’s candid gutsiness, a trait shared by his teammates.

“Murderball” squeezes much dramatic power from a contemptuous rivalry between Soares and Zupan, but directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro don’t stop there. The “Murderball” filmmakers offer a counterpoint to the portraits of their athletes – men who have already dealt with the sting of disability and have risen to its challenges (“I’ve done more in this chair than I did out of the chair,” says Zupan). Keith Cavill, a motorcycle-loving young man participating in physical therapy at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute, is likely the “Murderball” star that audiences are most likely to identify with. Frightened and anxious concerning his future, his scenes are the most sobering in the film. Transitioning into an apartment with his supportive family in tow, he scans the bathroom’s adaptive shower chair and exclaims, “This sucks!” Leveling honestly with his understanding mother, he states that even as he’s grateful for the new digs, nothing will change the permanent reality that he might be forever confined to his wheelchair. There’s a later scene in which he travels home for a hard, cathartic look at the bike he wrecked. The camera simply captures man and bike facing off in a still, silent truce, and it’s heartbreaking.

Despite these emotionally downbeat moments, “Murderball” presents its subjects as pro-active survivors, not victims. Early in the film, player Andy Cohn seems irritated at the assumptions made about quads being helpless, feeble invalids. “I’ll be at the grocery store loading my car,” the tawny-maned medal-winner describes, “and someone says, ‘Do you need help getting in your car?’ I wouldn’t have come to the store if I couldn’t get into my car.” Into the second reel, several players express their frustrated dismay at being confused with mentally impaired, Special Olympics athletes.

During a telephone interview, in which Cohn converses from the SIFF press office at Seattle’s “W” hotel, he identifies two levels on which he feels “Murderball” works especially well. “The movie answers questions about quads that people are afraid to ask, like the sex thing. It also shows exactly what we can do, involving issues that bother athletes. For example, we’re not ripping on the Special Olympics or the mentally disabled. We’re more angry that our society doesn’t know the difference between that event and the Paralympics.”

Cohn laments that during the 2004 Paralympics Games in Athens, Greece, where “Murderball” plays out its final moments, U.S. media coverage was virtually nonexistent. Outside of the “Murderball” crew, informs Cohn, there were no American cameras or news teams covering the world’s second largest sporting event (second only to the Olympic Games). Could it be that America prefers more glamorous, Barbie-doll sports icons than those with lost limbs and severed spinal cords? If the damn-the-torpedoes persistence demonstrated by the “Murderball” clan is anything to go by, one might think that Cohn, Zupan, Hogsett, and their ball-playing peers could give a s**t.

But they do. “I really hope that people see the movie and realize that our lives are not a struggle,” says Cohn. And even though he’s speaking via telephone, I could almost swear I saw him smile through the receiver when he threw in a few last words. “Plus, it does make us look kinda cool.” Hail “Murderball.” Hail SIFF.

Stay tuned for more coverage of this year’s SIFF!

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