The new documentary Bully takes you straight back to school days—and they’re still every bit as awful as you might remember. Here once again are the cool kids, the pretty people, the jocks; and over there, the loners and the losers on whom they often prey. This wretched divide may fade in memory the farther away we get from our own school years, but Bully brings it back—from the loners’ and the losers’ point of view this time—with a harrowing power.
One of the miserable kids we meet is Alex, who’s 12 years old and just starting middle school in Sioux City, Iowa. Alex is a classic misfit: the lost look, the awkward manner, the glasses. He has been bullied by other kids all his life. Because of his prominent fleshy lips, they call him “fish face.” They steal his clothes when he’s in the gym shower room. They push him around, slam his head into walls, sometimes cheerily throttle him. On the bus to school they reach over across the aisle and start punching him to pass the time. (The days when school-bus drivers would put a stop to this sort of thing are apparently long gone.) In the cafeteria, out in the schoolyard, Alex is always alone. He has tried to convince himself that his tormentors are just “messing around.” After all, he says to his heartbroken mother, “If these people aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”
In Yazoo County, Mississippi, we meet a girl named Ja’Meya. One day, after years of being mocked as “stupid” by her schoolmates, Ja’Meya boarded the school bus with a pistol she’d taken from her mother’s closet and started waving it around. When we meet her, she’s at a juvenile psychiatric lockup awaiting a hearing on what has turned out to be a total of 45 felony charges. Ja’Meya is 14 years old.
In Tuttle, Oklahoma (population 6000), we meet a boyish-looking 16-year-old girl named Kelby. After years of peer-group ostracism, Kelby recently came out as a lesbian. Before that, she says, “I was a cutter. And I tried to commit suicide.” Coming out in this very small town, however, has stoked fresh extremes of hostility. Kelby remembers the time she opened her school locker and found a note inside: “Faggots are not welcome here.” She recalls sitting down in a new classroom on the first day of school “and everyone around me switched seats.” But Kelby has a sweet smile and a sunny disposition, and she has found a small group of friends who stand with her against the troglodytes. “I don’t want to back down,” she says. “I don’t want them to win.”
In Murray County, Georgia, we might have met a boy named Tyler—if he were still alive. Tyler was a loner, another kid who didn’t fit in. His schoolmates called him a “geek,” beat him up, told him he was worthless. “He had a target on his back,” says his father. “He would cry sometimes. But then he didn’t cry anymore.” Tyler was 17 years old when he hanged himself in his bedroom closet. The next day, some of the kids at his school came to class wearing jokey nooses around their necks.
Bully puts a virtual hammerlock on your heart. You marvel at the film’s terrible intimacy. Director Lee Hirsch was greatly aided by the Sioux City School District, which has instituted an anti-bullying program and agreed to let him shoot in its classrooms and buses. He utilized one of the inconspicuous Canon 5D cameras – which look like regular still-photo cameras—and after the initial novelty of his presence wore off, he was able to sink quietly into the lives of the kids he was chronicling, and into the sorrows of their tormented families.
Some of the parents we see, frustrated by the inability of school officials and police to do anything about the victimization of their children (school choice, anyone?), speculate about the possibility of legal measures. But the key to the bullying problem would have to be kids themselves—the natural audience for this picture. Unfortunately, as is now well-known, the mysteriously constituted ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped Bully with an R rating—which would keep kids away, and disincline schools from screening the film for their students. The board’s concern, predictably, was with the word “fuck,” which crops up in a few passing variations (as when one bully snarls at Matt, apropos of nothing, “I’ll shove a broomstick up your fuckin’ ass”). One wonders what genteel universe these anonymous movie-raters inhabit, and how much weight their opinions should carry in this one.
Hirsch and the Weinstein Company, which is distributing the film, rejected the R rating, and so Bully is being released this weekend unrated—and the large and very mainstream AMC theatre chain has vowed to run it. Can the MPAA really be unaware that the days when newspapers were the main conduit for movie publicity—and their refusal to accept ads for unrated movies insured those films’ commercial doom—are over? Bully, a picture whose message rings out like an emergency alarm, may be more than one kind of wakeup call.
Wrath of the Titans
Wrath of the Titans stands tall in the pantheon of schlock—it’s schlock with brio, the best kind. And if I were a contemporary lad with no memory of Ray Harryhousen’s stop-motion Sinbads and Argonauts of 50 years ago, I think I might be pretty tickled by this clamorous CGI myth-fest.
You might wonder at first why anyone would feel it necessary to mount a sequel to the 2010 Clash of the Titans—itself a remake of the 1981 original—until you checked the box-office stats: Clash, universally reviled for its dark, junky 3D conversion and general silliness, pulled in nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. Thus, inevitably, this.
Sam Worthington is back, a little less slab-like this time, as Perseus, the half-human son of mighty Zeus (Liam Neeson) and nephew of Zeus’ estranged brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the Underworld. As you’ll recall…well, no you won’t, let’s skip that. Perseus has renounced his godly heritage and is now living the simple life of a Greek fisherman. One day, after a long absence, Zeus turns up in his village, trying to make nice. “You just passin’ through?” Perseus actually asks. Not exactly.
Zeus brings news that the old gods are losing their powers because of mortals’ waning faith in them. In order to whip the puny humans back in line, Hades is plotting with Zeus’ resentful full-god son Ares (Édgar Ramírez)—Perseus’ half-brother, if you’re keeping track—to free the hugely fearful Kronos (CGI) from the Underworld dungeon of Tartarus, to which his own deeply estranged sons Zeus, Hades and Poseidon long ago consigned him. This must not happen, of course, and Poseidon (Danny Huston) pops up to tell Perseus that only he can prevent it. Perseus says this seems unlikely, since “I’m only half a god.” Fortunately, there’s another half to help out—Poseidon’s estranged half-human son, the demigod Agenor (Toby Kebbell), a wisecracking scalawag currently detained as a thief by the warrior queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike). Perseus pays a visit to Andromeda, she agrees to free Agenor (“Fetch my lucky cape!” he crows), and all three set sail for the island home of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), the barmy codger who built Tartarus, and presumably knows where the hell it is.
Most of this garble can be disregarded. Apart from some low-tech fist-fights and sword-clanging, the movie is mainly a celebration of special-effects overkill, thick with three-headed monsters, winged horses, sizzling fireballs, and more explosions than one might have thought possible in ancient Greece. A towering, one-eyed Cyclops is a tip of the hat to Harryhausen, and there’s a rampaging Minotaur who strongly recalls the rampaging Balrog of the Lord of the Rings movies. There’s also a pretty terrific labyrinth – a vast maze of shifting rock walls that definitely justifies whatever it cost to concoct. And the dialogue is incomparable throughout. Neeson and Fiennes, wily pros, have fun with it: In the midst of torturing his brother, the disgusted Hades tells Zeus, “You’re sweating like a woman—next it’ll be tears.” Worthington has a tougher time of it: Confronted by a trio of earth-shaking behemoths, he can only say, with a sigh, “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”
Wrath of the Titans is big-budget 3D junk, but director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) has a flair for it, and most of the actors appear to be having a juicy good time. It’s a movie practically designed to draw critical derision. A worldwide legion of contemporary action lads may once again ignore it.