Old-fashioned in good ways and bad, playwright Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's uneven King of the Jungle harkens back to an era when movies weren't afraid to showcase New York City's losers and lowlifes. Refreshing as that is after years of progressively more Disneyfied Gotham claptrap, you have to wonder if jittery moviegoers are ready for an unflattering portrait of Manhattan where nobody meets cute.
John Leguizamo plays Seymour, a mentally retarded young man living in a gritty neighborhood with his social-worker mother, Mona (Julie Carmen), and her lover, Joanne (Rosie Perez, who is Rosenfeld's wife). When Mona is murdered by a thuggish former client, Seymour is torn between living up to his mom's nonviolent values and the vengeful code of the street she couldn't quite shield him from. His shiftless dad, Jack (Cliff Gorman), a hustler pal (Michael Rapaport), and Joanne all play a part in Seymour's anguished final decision.
There's an emotional and rhythmic leanness to King of the Jungle that's consistently surprising. Even Rosenfeld's sporadic camera trickery doesn't feel entirely superfluous. He also coaxes good work from his performers, one or two method-acting meltdowns notwithstanding. John Leguizamo never quite overcomes the showiness of his part, but he doesn't fully embarrass himself, either; he captures Seymour's wrenching loneliness with particular grace. Gorman is loose and energized as the poetry-spouting Jack, and flashy cameos by Annabella Sciorra and Marisa Tomei are mercifully brief. For all that, Rosenfeld's film doesn't have much of a story to tell and tells it rather routinely. Although King of the Jungle makes valid points about the corrosive effects of urban violence, the same message could've been delivered without resorting to overt, conventionally staged bloodshed that mars the film's satisfyingly stuck-in-time feel.
A different sort of time warp is present in Town Bloody Hall, a 1979 doc cobbled together by Chris Hegedus from D.A. Pennebaker's fidgety footage. The film captures an infamous 1971 public meeting in New York between Norman Mailer and a panel of feminist celebs who took issue with his Harper's diatribe "The Prisoner of Sex." The exchange is lively and frequently funny (J. Hoberman called it "closer to the chaos of a circus than a riot" in his '79 Voice review), and it's a pleasure to watch Mailer, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jill Johnston, and NOW president Jacqueline Ceballos match egos with each other and audience members like Susan Sontag and Anatole Broyard (whom Greer handily eviscerates). Mailer backpedals and obfuscates like a madman, but what finally makes Town Bloody Hall so compellingand unsettlingis the impression that such serious, spirited debate is a thing of the past. Where's bullyboy Norman when you need him?
There's nothing remotely bullying about Greg Walloch, a soft-spoken California transplant living in Harlem. As Eli Kabillio's video documentary Keeping It Real: The Adventures of Greg Walloch reveals, this gay, cerebral-palsy-stricken comic just wants to spread love and eat cake. Unfortunately, placidity and good will rarely make for side-splitting material, nor does it help that Walloch claims to abhor the role of spokesman for disabled gay men while relentlessly capitalizing on those very attributes in his routines. Had Kabillio made something of this contradiction, Keeping It Real might have been intriguing rather than just dully sweet.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.