A slight, poignant, sharply detailed coming-of-age film, Joe the King is set in a blue-collar community and revolves around a yearning, resourceful 14-year-old who never gets the attention he deserves from his parents. Joe (Noah Fleiss) works as a dishwasher in a greasy spoon so he can pay off the loan sharks threatening his alcoholic father (Val Kilmer) and replace the Johnny Ray records his mother (Karen Young) cherished (his father broke them during a violent argument). What's interesting about Joe is that despite bad parenting he's a friendly, outgoing kid.
The debut feature of the actor Frank Whaley, Joe the King starts on a rocky note. The acting is too broad, although the worst offender, Camryn Manheim, quickly disappears from the screen. Whaley seems to have figured out how to direct as he went along, and in the end, he draws a complicated performance from Young as a woman who is a little bit stupid and has been bashed around so much she can't even focus on her kids. Kilmer is appropriately bloated and boozy and menacing, but it sometimes seems as if he thinks he's doing everyone a favor by even showing up.
But the film belongs to Fleiss, and he makes Joe's inner life so transparent that it's heartbreaking to watch the boy dig himself into a hole. Whaley gives Fleiss the space he needs to turn a conventional film into one filled with small, specific revelations about growing up without much money or support or any promise of a better future.
**Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 is glossier and less surprising than the three previous films in his Cremaster series, numbers 4, 1, and 5. Like everything else in the oeuvre of this perverse and occasionally exciting visual artist, the out-of-order numbering is an invitation to exercise the hermeneutic impulse. What you see on the screen is far less involving than what you might make of it after the fact.
The cremaster is a small muscle that, when activated by cold or fear, lifts the testicles so that they are in a more protected position. The first male characteristic to appear in a developing fetus, the cremaster is a symbol of maleness and also a departure point for all kinds of binary oppositions (men have it, women don't).
Cremaster 2 revolves around Gary Gilmore, played by Barney, and Harry Houdini, played by Norman Mailer (although "played" is far too active a term for such minimalist performances). Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song about Gilmore, who, according to family legend, is related to Houdini through an act of sexual indiscretion on the part of his grandmother. Gilmore lived and was executed in the state of Utah; bees are the Utah state symbol, which could be why there are several images of bees in Cremaster 2. Had I not read about such associations in the program notes, I never would have gleaned them from what transpires on the screen. One could observe a similar gap between, say, the films of Stan Brakhage and the notes that accompany his screenings. The difference is that Brakhage's films are aesthetically and intellectually satisfying because of what's on the screen.
Although shot in such awesome locations as Jasper's glacial ice fields and Utah's salt flats (a favorite of Bill Viola), Cremaster 2 is more like a Robert Wilson theater spectacle than a film. The film also lacks the oozing biomorphic imagery that made the first two Cremasters, at the least, a visceral experience. Barney has little sense of rhythm or movement in terms of camerawork or editing, and the bits of sync-sound dialogue introduced here are just one more filmic element that he does not deign to explore.
Get the Film & TV 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.