J. Robert Parks checks in with three film reviews, and… lo and behold, he prefers the wide-release, mainstream film over the two art films this time!

Should he seek counseling?

Or is Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants really that good?Here’s Parks:

The coming-of-age story can assume many forms. For example, take three movies that opened last weekend: “Mysterious Skin,” “Rock School,” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” The first is an edgy tale of two teen boys who were both molested by their Little League coach, the second is a documentary that follows a Peter Pan-like music teacher and his band of guitar-playing proteges, and the last is a traditional Hollywood adaptation of a popular book.

“Mysterious Skin” is certainly the most daring of the three movies. It was directed by Gregg Araki, whose earlier films “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere” positioned him in the vanguard of the New Queer Cinema. “Skin” continues with that same theme, though it has the advantage of real star power in the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt came to prominence in the television show “Third Rock from the Sun,” but his subsequent film career (especially 2003’s “Manic”) is establishing him as an edgy actor willing to risk anything for the part. Here he has to play a teenager named Neil who cruises his local park, offering his body to older men in return for money. This behavior is clearly a reaction to his sexual initiation as an eight-year-old, but he sees it as a natural expression of his homosexuality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brian (Brady Corbet) doesn’t remember anything from the night he was molested, describing it only as “five hours that disappeared from my life.”

The film follows the two teens as they move through high school and into college, find odd friends, and try to make sense of what happened to them. Gordon-Levitt is a force on screen, but I found Corbet’s almost catatonic performance even more compelling. He exhibits a spectacular vulnerability that’s deeply affecting. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is more exhibitionism than vulnerability. Though there’s little nudity, the sexual situations are graphic and, as my friend Garth put it, “more than a little creepy.” The child actors–Chase Ellison as the young Neil and George Webster as the young Brian–are fantastic, but I couldn’t help wondering if the roles they have to play were appropriate for kids so young. And in the end, it’s not clear if Araki’s direction has anything to say.

Two 1/2 stars out of five

“Rock School” follows in the path of child documentaries like “Spellbound” and the more recent “Mad Hot Ballroom.” It focuses on Paul Green, a failed Philadelphia rock guitarist who’s found his calling as a music teacher. A rock music teacher. His teaching style, from the footage director Don Argott shows us, ranges from carefully controlled aggression to outrage and hissy fits. In that sense, Green is an entertaining subject, as we never know what he’ll do next. And in his quieter moments, he can be quite thoughtful. What’s not clear, though, is how good a teacher he is. The documentary switches between Will O’Connor, an affecting teenager whose musical skills will never match his thoughtfulness, Madi, a Quaker folk singer who is “corrupted” by Green’s louder obsessions, and Asa and Tucker, two young kids trying to tap in to their inner Ozzy.

The movie is structured just like “Spellbound,” as we’re introduced to the various kids and their parents, watch them practice, and anticipate the big competition at the end. In this case, Green is taking his prized students to a Frank Zappa tribute festival in Germany, where they’ll get to play in front of hundreds of people. Unfortunately, the big climax doesn’t pay off. Part of the problem is that you grow tired of Green after a while. His antics are less interesting as the movie goes on and instead seem more like the result of arrested development. More significant is the fact that Argott never lets the kids just play. He’s always cutting from a snippet of a song to some admirer talking about how good the teens are or what a great teacher Green is. In “Spellbound” it was fine to switch from one speller to another, but a music performance needs a freer editorial hand–we have to hear more than just a few seconds at a time. Otherwise, we begin to wonder if all the admirers (including Zappa bandmate Napoleon Murphy Brock) truly believe the young musicians are great or if they’re just impressed that people so young even know who Zappa was. A turgid post-credit performance of “School’s Out,” with Alice Cooper himself on lead vocals, argues for the latter.

Two 1/2, out of five

I read “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” several years ago when I was tutoring a bunch of middle schoolers. I remember remarking at the time that, though it was a fine book, it would probably make an even better screenplay. But not all great screenplays make for great films. Surprisingly, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” succeeds on its potential. It’s the story of four high school girls heading off to various locales for the summer–Lena (Alexis Bledel, “Gilmore Girls”) is visiting relatives she barely knows in Greece, Carmen (America Ferrera, “Real Women Have Curves”) is spending the summer with her father whom she rarely sees, Bridget (newcomer Blake Lively) is off to soccer camp, and Tibby (Amber Tamblyn, “Joan of Arcadia”) is stuck working at the local Walgreens.

The movie introduces the theme of the magical pants and then largely ignores it, rightly believing that that element of magic realism works better on the page than on the screen. Instead, it relies on its quartet of strong actresses and stories that ring true. Lena’s attempt to bond with her grandparents is undermined by her budding romance with a local boy, Carmen’s attempt to bond with her father is undermined by the fact that he’s remarrying, Bridget’s attempt to bond with her soccer coach is undermined by the fact that he’s a few years older than she is, and a 12-year-old’s attempt to bond with Tibby is undermined by Tibby’s own cynicism. Admittedly, there’s nothing deep or revolutionary about these tales, but apart from including a few too many reaction shots, director Ken Kwapis weaves his tapestry with a wonderfully light hand. The romance elements are winning, and the theme of friendship crossing boundaries is relevant no matter what your age. Even the melodrama, which can be a bit strong in the book, achieves a power on screen–I’ll freely admit I teared up at certain points, and I’m obviously not the target audience. I suspect tween girls will eat this up, and their mothers who get dragged along will find the movie to be a lot more than they were expecting. I’m sure long-time readers will be surprised that I favor the most mainstream of the three movies, but sometimes Hollywood gets it right.

Four, out of five

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