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Gay American independent filmmakers tread a thin line between prurience and inquiry. Their need to visualize desire becomes nearly inseparable from their desperate effort to validate desire that is made strange by social disapproval. This confusion was off-putting in Christopher Munch's first film The Hours and Times (1991), where Munch speculated about a sexual liaison between John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Munch's conceit was not justified by his slack technique, and the outrageous gall of his unsubstantiated premise got in the way of his experimental approach to desire.

The personal nature of Munch's filmmaking became obvious in his next feature, the opaque, poeticized travelogue Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996). It wasn't until Munch sublimated his autobiographical concerns in The Sleepy Time Gal (2001), investing the story of several dissatisfied, renegade (even heterosexual) characters with his own outsider's empathy, that I could see he was serious rather than trendy.

Munch is back to prurience with his new movie and, surprisingly, it almost works. Harry and Max is about two brothers who are occasionally incestuous, but this time Munch flirts with sensationalism to seek out a subtle and compassionate understanding of what makes contemporary gay young men tick. He starts with two physically different types-dark-haired Harry (Bryce Johnson) and his younger blond brother Max (Cole Williams). Both are pop- music stars, enjoying the benefits of the boy-band phenomenon. Harry is part of a group that could be 'NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys; Max could be one of the Hanson brothers gone solo.

Munch knowingly evokes modern gay clone stereotypes, which puts his pop instincts second to those that porn director Josh Elliot displayed in a sex flick titled Boy Band, but the connection is significant. Harry and Max are not nameable icons like Lennon and Epstein; instead, they represent the difficulties of obtaining self-discovery through today's pop-cult paradigms. They could easily be stars of a primetime WB soap opera. Munch chooses familiar types not because the WB is at all realistic but because he wants to examine some of the templates of modern male sexual identity.

Society bows before the credit cards of this generation, making them feel smart, like masters of their own destinies. But socially privileged Harry and Max are simply boys without boundaries-which tells us more about our era than the fact that their father remains off-screen. When teenage Max lectures Harry on role models in gay history, he says he learned about them in his Alternative Lifestyles class. Munch suggests that today's gay youth don't have immediate role models; he sympathizes with his characters' fumbling toward adulthood. (That's all the sex is between Harry and Max-fumbling.) This time Munch proves his seriousness by showing that, unlike on the WB, contentment and maturity are not guaranteed.

It's debatable whether Munch could have made these points without breaching taboo, but when watching these siblings make and break secrets, it is undeniable that Munch's wan, enigmatic style has sharpened. His risque method of revealing two males' intimacy is fairly ingenious. Big brother Harry has made a mess of his life-drinking, dumping women, even closeting the homo tendencies Max casually accepts. After seducing Max's initiator (Tom Gilroy), Harry tries to throw his ex-girlfriend Nikki (Rain Phoenix) to Max. He blurts out their family sin, saying defensively, "Boundaries are overrated." But his most insightful admission is: "We're not 'fucking,' we're helping each other work things out."

Beneath the eroticism of a driving scene where Max takes one hand off the steering wheel and gropes Harry's obvious erection, Munch tells a story of sad confusion.

In the end, this is not a pornographer's tale but a vision consistent with Munch's usual dissatisfaction, most fully observed in The Sleepy Time Gal. Williams and Johnson seem unaffected, equally fetching and poignant, despite Munch's arch dialogue ("Our love was irrelevant on any sustainable basis") and erratic lyrical passages. The boys' fragile emotions are summed up in 8mm flashbacks of their childhood and several pristine nature studies that contemplate life's meaning. In these montages, the arty insufficiencies of Munch's first two films complement each other. Pop iconoclasm and existential speculation define Munch's expression of the gay filmmaker's dilemma. Like the two brothers, he wants to reconcile what others have found incompatible.

Constantine Directed by Francis Lawrence

Constantine is Ghostbusters without a sense of humor, Blade without consistent style. In the title role, Keanu Reeves plays a suicide sent back to the earthly plane to wage battle against demons threatening humankind. It's also like Hellboy but without the Nazi regalia.

All these films are part of the recent trend of porno-religiosity where Hollywood exploits the occult and negates Christianity. It proves that the real offense the media took to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was its serious dedication. Making a travesty of Christianity is now widely accepted as a snarky form of entertainment.

Set in a pre-apocalyptic Los Angeles filled with Mexican immigrants (a harbinger of debacle?), the story allies Constantine with Angela (Rachel Weisz), a cop investigating her twin sister's apparent suicide. She preempts one of Constantine's lectures saying, "I'm a Catholic, I know the crucifixion story." A speech outlines the difference between the principles of "knowledge and belief," but it's obvious that no one associated with this pageant of special-effects gore and digital nightmare visions actually believes in anything. They don't add "conviction" to that list of principles.

Though based on the D.C. Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novels, Constantine pillages from several decades of carnivalesque imagery-The Exorcist (Keanu performing the ritual astride a Mexican girl); Blade Runner (his elegant, Venetian-blind crib); Blade (a coven sizzling beneath a sprinkler system); The Mummy (windblown phantasms course the streets of L.A.); it also lampoons the agents of metaphysical optimism in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

The idea is to incite dread without accountability. It is an indictment of our moral slackness that this offense is routinely enjoyed. Even if Christians don't cry foul, atheists should also take umbrage at the expression of such sentiments as "You should believe in the devil, he believes in you" or "God's a kid with an ant farm, he's not planning anything." This porno nihilism is rampant but goes largely without critique. It sneaks by as adolescent cynicism, then hipster sardonicism and then is sanctioned by elaborate, big-budget ugliness. (The gruesome car crash overture is de rigueur for the genre.)

Director Francis Lawrence was brought in from music videos to supply the ultra art-directed touch. Some of his gimmicks are impressive: Constantine vanquishes a demon into Dali-like facial fragments that blink and talk. His second suicide is depicted in a tableau vivant of glass shards, a ticking oval watch face and blood slowly flowing into puddles of water-like a Tarkovsky outtake. Yet, not even the cgi imitations of Heironymus Bosch stir the imagination. Lawrence's f/x are meaningless, thus ridiculous. (Phillippe Rousselot's superb lighting is his most wasteful work since Interview with a Vampire.) Constantine suggests that Hollywood won't reform itself, but at least we can resurrect the word "trash"-with conviction and passion.