Trouble with the Truth, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Jenny (Danielle Harris) reveals to her father that she is engaged, Robert (John Shea) is less than ecstatic. He expresses his disappointment by claiming that the man she wants to marry is a doorknob, a pencil sharpener—painfully ordinary through and through. Although the news is about Jenny, the scene quickly becomes about Robert. His current attitude toward marriage is defined by his divorce with Emily (Lea Thompson), a successful writer who had since gotten married to a prosecutor. Shaken by his daughter’s news, Robert calls Emily. She happens to have a trip to Los Angeles the next day and so the former husband and wife decide to have dinner.
Written and directed by Jim Hemphill, “The Trouble with the Truth” is intelligently written and executed with a seemingly real understanding of what it means to be married, divorced, and to reconnect in a different way. The key word is “seemingly” because although I can admit to the picture’s technical proficiencies, I found myself unable to connect to it emotionally and psychologically in a deep way. Perhaps I do not have yet the maturity and experience that are necessary to appreciate all of its subtleties.
Shea and Thompson create believable adults who are once married but are entertaining the possibility of getting together again. I was surprised by the screenplay because instead of making Robert and Emily as likable as possible in order for us to root for them to get together, it seems more interested in revealing their flaws slowly then suddenly, the unanswered questions they have for one another, and the lingering insecurities that have latched onto them despite a period of time of not seeing or talking to one another.
The picture is designed for those who are regaled by observing one event unfolding in real time. Here, the couple discuss a range of topics over dinner at a relatively classy restaurant, from the impersonal to wounds that are only beginning to scab. It is quite beautiful and enthralling how Thompson and Shea are able to create characters with distinct, if not polar, personalities and yet the more they speak, the more we come to understand why they decided to get married in the first place: Despite their many differences, they are willing to meet each other halfway. Conversely, we come to understand why they separated.
And yet maybe the point is not in seeing the trouble to rekindle the romance they once shared. One can argue that it is about a couple getting some sort of closure from one another. Though they are able to speak with other openly, the material really gets interesting when a character moves a little closer and fishes for certain details that he or she has been unsure about for years. The question of how many affairs each had been involved with while they were married is an obvious example.
Shot in warm colors and relaxed pacing, “The Trouble with the Truth” features characters with a lot contradictions and that is exactly what makes them so interesting. They may preach one thing but the real challenge is in figuring out which part of it they really believe. We are placed right there at the dinner table, constantly evaluating the situation, what they are thinking, what they are really saying.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
An accident at work leads Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to the hospital. After going through his blood work, the doctor tells Ron that he has AIDS and it is estimated that he has only about a month to live. Ron responds with outrage and insists the diagnosis is a mistake. He is, after all, not a homosexual and has never had homosexual encounters. Though he later decides to take treatments in the form of experimental and high dosages of AZT, he becomes convinced that AZT is not a good solution. It made him feel very sick. When Ron hears about alternative drugs in Mexico—drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration—he goes there to obtain the medications.
Based on the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” captures the confusion and desperation of people in the ‘80s who lived with AIDS. Forget a typical character arc in which the main character embraces valuable lessons along the way. Ron learns a thing or two but that is far from the point. We just so happen to see the story through his eyes. It could have been told from the perspective of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and Ron’s eventual business partner, and the story would still be interesting.
The picture falls a bit short on providing sufficient specifics regarding Ron’s drug deals abroad. We see large paintbrushes of what he must do—contacting the necessary individuals, putting on a disguise, taking the plane, bribing—but there are not enough conversations that detail the business deals. Sometimes the material leans too much on images to convey an idea. While a good framework, it is not always the best way to amp up the drama in a subtler way.
McConaughey and Leto provide solid performances. The relationship of their characters snuck up on me because I thought I saw them only as partners in running the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that offers a person a variety of drugs, proteins, and vitamins—less deadly than AZT that hospitals use—for four hundred dollar per month membership. But then the second half comes around and we realize how they have learned to help each other not just from the financial side but also in sharing an experience of carrying a disease that will kill them eventually. We know they will die because there is no cure, only treatment that prolongs.
I wished it had shown more images of how AIDS wreck havoc on the body. We see a bit of McConaughey’s near emaciated frame and some blood being coughed out, but I got the impression that the film is not willing to go all the way and show the true ugliness and tragedy of the disease as in Friedman and Joslin’s “Silverlake Life: The View from Here.”
Regardless, “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is worth seeing mainly for the strong performances by McConaughey and Leto as well as successfully showing a time in which information that we know now about AIDS is not yet known.
★ / ★★★★
Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) met in 1907 in Trent, as the former attempted to escape from a group of men. They reunite in 1914 in Milan and get involved in a romantic relationship. For a while, Ida chooses to support Mussolini because he is without a job. However, when his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, takes off and he becomes an influential political figure, he no longer wants anything to do with Ida and their son. To hide his marriage, Mussolini pulls some strings to put Ida in a mental institution while their son is attended by the Church.
For those who do not know much about the former Italian leader’s personal and political history, like myself, “Vincere,” based on the screenplay by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli, is likely to be a very confusing movie. The first hour moves quickly without apology as it jumps forward in time and back. We are forced to make too many assumptions about the relationship and not enough specific details we can hang onto. It only becomes somewhat bearable when Ida is placed in the mental asylum—the pacing has slowed and we get a chance to understand Ida’s motivations.
The historical backdrop prior and during Mussolini’s dictatorship is rather tedious. The picture is rife with repetition involving citizens yelling out whether the country should or should not go to war. I wanted to know about the two differing stances, but the screenplay fails to introduce characters from either side that serve as conduits for us to understand. In addition, using black-and-white footages are heavy-handed and self-important. To hide the fact that the politics on paper is not very well thought out or executed, the filmmakers use real images from the past as band-aid.
Though the relationship is supposed to go sour, not once did I feel that Ida and Mussolini are into each other. We watch one scene of them having great sex, but there is a lack of context with regards to how much Mussolini cares for Ida. Instead, there are plenty of shots of him looking stern and angry. While this is mainly Ida’s story, it is necessary that we get at least a small glimpse of Mussolini’s psychology given that what he ends up doing to his family is so extreme. In order words, here, there is not much to Ida’s husband other than he is obsessed with politics and hates his family. There is no intrigue.
There is one scene that hints at the power of the subject had the material been well-written. During Ida’s institutionalization, a psychiatrist, who is likely aware that there is no reason to keep her in the facility, tells her that if she hopes to be released someday, she must learn to be a good actor—for her and her son’s sake. The camera is placed very closely on the characters’ faces so there is a lot to absorb. Their conversation touches upon complex issues like sacrifice, betrayal, determination, and why it is smart to delay presenting the truth until time is right. It is the most empowering scene in the film.
Directed by Marco Bellocchio, “Vincere” is not accessible even though its cinematography is stylish and the costumes look wonderful. It should have been considerably more involving given that what has been done to Ida is morally wrong. Maybe it might have been a better biopic if the story had been told without pretension.
Mosquita y Mari (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a high school sophomore with parents (Laura Patalano, Joaquín Garrido) who push her to excel so that she can have a shot at attending college. Though Yolanda has friends, it does not seem as though she cannot connect with them completely, so when a girl named Mari (Venecia Troncoso) moves into the house across the street, the prospect of having a new friend, one with whom she can get close to, excites her. Yolanda is ecstatic when she learns that Mari is in her Geometry class.
Writer-director Aurora Guerrero captures a genuine Mexican-American experience, one that is complex, subtle, involving, and, in its own way, touching. I grew up with girls similar to the title characters and it is so refreshing to see what I know is real, so beautifully portrayed on screen. Though a small picture, “Mosquita y Mari” is leaps and bounds ahead of many independent films because it knows exactly what to communicate without relying on the usual cinematic tactics of blossoming female friendship.
Pineda and Troncoso’s lack of experience works. I liked that at times they seem to be unaware of where to put their bodies or how to angle them just so in order to look “good” on camera. There were even moments when I felt their nerves as they work toward certain lines that are not natural to them. In a lot of movies, these are qualities I find rather undesirable. In here, however, I found such traits endearing because the story is about the two young women trying to be comfortable in their own skin as well as around one another—as friends and perhaps something more.
One can tell that there is a lot going on inside Mari and Yolanda’s minds, the latter nicknamed “Mosquita” by the former during the early stages of their relationship for looking “like a little fly.” Though they share the same heritage, their respective home lives are very different. Through their dominant personalities and actions, we come to learn what they value. Perhaps Yolanda thinks about not having many friends, the spark that remains in her parents’ marriage, and her prospects of going to college. On the other hand, Mari thinks about getting a job to help her single mother pay rent and if completing high school is the right path for her. Guerrero treats us as smart audiences; there is no explosive scene that shows the major stresses of both teens just in case it isn’t obvious enough.
Though there is an undercurrent of a lesbian story, it feels right that it is underplayed. At least when I was fifteen, it was difficult for me to verbalize my exact feelings, let alone act on my desires with someone who may or may not be interested—or brave enough—to reciprocate my feelings. The screenplay touches upon how it is like to be curious and insecure, how a mixture of the two can lead to a whole world of frustration.
The core of “Mosquita y Mari” is friendship. I found it a surprise that when two girls get jealous or have a disagreement, they express their emotions, sometimes reluctantly, but they are never made into a big deal. Not every teenager’s life is a soap opera. Instead, the characters are allowed to speak to each other about things that are important to them and what they will do or where they hope to be in ten years. Even though they are optimistic, there is a tinge of sadness there. Because they are so different, it is possible that they may no longer be friends—or at least not as close—by graduation.
★★★ / ★★★★
Carlos López Estrada’s directorial debut is an exciting piece of work—certainly ambitious because it attempts to tackle an enchilada of challenging topics from white police shooting unarmed black men, gentrification, a convicted felon’s place in a society with a bias against them, to racial identity and the disparity between how one feels on the inside versus how one is actually perceived. These are elements easily found in dramatic pictures but somehow, almost miraculously, “Blindspotting” is also quite comedic—and, it works. Here is a film in which one does not walk away without an opinion—or, at the very least, a strong impression. It is meant to incite discussion.
Collin (Daveed Diggs) is three days away from finishing his probation. But it will prove to be a long three days after Collin, on his way back home for curfew, witnesses a fellow black man—without a weapon in hand—being shot four times by a white cop. The police gave only one warning and the time span between the warning and the gunshots is less than two seconds. The encounter haunts both Collin’s dreams and waking moments. He begins to have anxiety about every little thing that might send him back to prison. It does not help that his hot-headed best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), has recently purchased a gun and insists on bringing it wherever they go.
The film’s energy is highly infectious. The screenplay by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs is so devoid of storytelling shackles that characters may end up rapping for whatever reason. These need not have a point or contain pointed social commentary. At times it is simply because it would be a fun or funny thing to do. However, these sung poetry almost always provide insight about the character spitting out the words—sometimes during that moment in time and other times how he perceives his place in Oakland, California.
As someone who lives ten minutes away from Oakland, I appreciated that the film is not afraid to show the city as is in 2018. So many movies, television shows, and songs paint Oakland as a dirty, scary place where crime is prevalent. While it may embody these characteristics depending on the neighborhood, Estrada is also willing to show the brightly painted houses, clean streets, people so diverse and multicultural that seeing my reality on screen made me feel proud. Also, it actually shows that people do wish to move to the city, not just a place to run away from. It reminded me how films—to this day—still represent or portray the San Francisco Bay Area in general with one scoop of truth and two scoops of lies because it needs to be more digestible by vanilla America.
Its comic moments aside, it works as a dramatic piece. This is a work in which the viewer can capture the moment when one character’s opinion of another changes. Strong impressions are not expressed right away; as in life, we keep what bothers us to ourselves until a seemingly small trigger breaks the dam and all of it comes pouring our of mouths. Tension-building is a required ingredient in strong dramas—the filmmakers are always aware of this. Sometimes more is said in extended silence than sitting through a barrage of words.
Although it does not compare to Spike Lee’s great social dramas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”), it is apparent that “Blindspotting” is inspired to function on a similar wavelength. By comparison, it is not as confrontational to the point where it threatens to offend more than handful of viewers. Personally, it could have used a bit more spice, particularly when it broaches the subject of gun violence, but I was disarmed by its flavor.
Simon Killer (2012)
★ / ★★★★
This is what happens when a lead actor is given the monumental task of creating an intriguing character out of a malnourished screenplay. “Simon Killer,” written and directed by Antonio Campos, is an exercise of boredom and futility, a movie that begins but never stops beginning, stuck in a loop of malaise of dour imagery. At one point, the viewer is forced to question the point of it. Is this a deeply personal story that the filmmaker needed to exorcise out of himself or is it merely self-masturbatory, certainly self-congratulatory, fluff that ought not have been made in the first place? Perhaps it is both, but I lean toward the latter.
The premise involving a young American who visits Paris after a messy breakup has the potential go in a million directions, but this picture chooses to go nowhere. The criminally underrated Brady Corbet plays the titular character with a level of unease and danger. When Simon looks at a woman, we feel alarmed. We wonder wether his brain processes the person in front of him as another human with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations or as an object to be possessed under the guise of “love.” And do not be fooled—the story does not involve serial killers or murderers. It is a metaphor. And, for a while, because Corbet is capable of making fresh choices, we grow curious of the pathetic and damaged subject.
But there has to be more than a gripping performance. Circumstances surrounding the protagonist must not only be interesting initially, they must be absorbing throughout. Instead, we are thrusted into a whirlpool of repetition as Simon experiences psychological and emotional troughs that may possibly lead to a mental breakdown. While the writing hammers on the fact that Simon lacks the basic tools to be able to nurture a healthy, long-term romantic relationship—open communication, for instance—the more interesting question is what made him this way. The material offers no explanation, not even a relevant backstory that may lead to a probable explanation. As a drama, this is inexcusable.
While I liked that the material is not a portrait of a monster but that of a user, perhaps even a loser who will always be one because he is stunted, the material comes across as closed off, afraid to genuinely delve into what makes Simon a bit off. As a result, we are tasked to sit through a series of behavior that, while open to interpretation, is too amorphous to be truly specific to Simon who finds himself drawn to be a Parisian prostitute (Constance Rousseau).
Character studies require precise writing—at the very least. Without this prerequisite, the drama remains unconvincing, laughable, perhaps even unbelievable. While I understand what it is going for, particularly in how it employs the soundtrack to create a sensory, almost feral experience, silences must command equal power when the noise dies down. When we continue to feel or think when there is nothing but silence, it is a sign of high-level writing. Here, I felt that the silences are awkward pauses due to having run out of ideas.
To escape my boredom, I thought about how master filmmaker Gaspar Noé might have turned the material into a more potent, unforgettable experience. First off, he probably would have stripped away the dialogue completely for words tend to distract. Secondly, he likely would have made the music more confronting, maybe even ubiquitous, by making the bass reverberate alongside our heartbeats. He would not be afraid to give the viewers a headache—since inducing a physical response means the audience is paying attention.
Rider, The (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The poetry embedded in every frame and every feeling of “The Rider” is something that mainstream Hollywood pictures can only dream of. It offers a different type of entertainment—one that is quiet, yearning, inspiring the viewer look within, to ponder about one’s place in life and where it is possibly heading, rather than eliciting reductive and evanescent reactions stemming from sudden turns in plot or pacing. From its simple but elegant visual style to its deeply humanist approach of allowing the camera to rest on faces and bodies—including that of animals—writer-director Chloé Zhao has created a work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It is a joy that it took me completely by surprise.
One may read plot summaries and jump to the conclusion that the story is boring, perhaps even depressing. But there is nothing boring or depressing about it. Adopting almost a documentary style, even employing real people who play a version of themselves, Zhao ensures that we relate to the drama. The style is so confronting, we look at the physically broken Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and wonder how we would react when our own bodies are forced to give up our passions. Brady, you see, had just undergone a major operation on his skull because he had fallen off a horse at a rodeo show. Medical professionals advise him never to ride again or risk losing his life.
I found the picture to be uplifting and moving despite the subject matter. This is because the writer-director has a way of catching deeply personal moments that ring so true, I was actually reminded of beautiful moments in my own life, especially the impressions that have made an imprint in my mind and my heart.
One sequence that I found to be unforgettable is Brady training wild horses. Errors in hand placement, pulling the rope a little bit harder than one ought to, or making sudden movements makes the horse react. You can tell that Jandreau has been around horses all his life, that he respects and loves these creatures deeply, because of the way he puts even the most temperamental animals at ease. At times he does so simply by making eye contact with them. I found the psychic connection, or whatever is, so poignant. Meanwhile, Zhao commands control of the camera by simply capturing a person doing his job. As a result, we learn plenty about horse training—what to do, what not to do, and the importance of instinct—by observation. The approach is romantic rather than analytical.
There is even poetry in keeping us at arm’s length. An incredibly touching scene involves Brady having to say goodbye to a white horse named Gus. Observe how the two of them riding across the prairie is shot. Initially, there is no wide shot in which the rider and the horse can be seen together completely. We see images of the horse’s powerful legs galloping across the land. We notice Brady’s exhilaration of being on a horse again after his skull surgery. He doesn’t smile but he holds the experience with pride.
We see the rider, the horse, and the pale light background—but the framing is executed in such a way that there is no full body shot. The incompleteness, so to speak, is done on purpose, you see, because Zhao, I think, wishes to preserve the final intimate moment between the horse and his owner. We are welcome to observe… but we cannot share their moment on the level that they are sharing it. And when finally do see a full body shot of them together, we are still kept at a good distance. So, as you see, there is a lot of thought put into how its images are put together. It makes a world of difference.
“The Rider” is best discovered and so I made sure to touch only the surface in this review. Those with a penchant for deeply humanist stories are certain to be spellbound by its seemingly simple premise and execution. There is a wealth of insight to be found here.
I Used to Be Darker (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Taryn (Deragh Campbell) calls her aunt and uncle to inform them that she is on the bus to Baltimore. She sounds desperate and says she has nowhere else to stay. But Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), musicians, are in the process of separating. Still, they welcome Taryn into their home until she figures out what to do next. Her situation is not made any better when Kim learns that her sister’s daughter is supposed to be in Wales.
Movies like “I Used to Be Darker,” based on the screenplay by Amy Belk and Matthew Porterfield, which use realism as a central device to propel a story, are a challenge to pull off gracefully. It is often that the camera lingers, seemingly without purpose, to capture whatever is going on—even if what is caught is not necessarily interesting or engaging. Such is the problem in this picture: a series of scenes that feel like anybody could have shot. As a whole, the events feel very scattered and it begs one to consider the point the filmmakers are trying to convey, if any.
Taryn is, for the most, a bore to have to endure. Perhaps the only moment when she demands attention is when she admits that she thinks she is not very smart. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her lack of self-esteem? I must say I did not disagree with her self-assessment. Halfway through, she remains to be vapid, hollow shell who sleepwalks through the days. When she takes action, it is because she is pushed. How did this person manage to get on a plane from Europe and find her way across the East Coast?
I suppose the point of the film is that Taryn must function as a catalyst for the couple in transition. However, it does not work because, for the reasons cited above, the protagonist is a lump. There is no vitality to her. Putting an incorrect or non-functional catalyst in a chemical reaction is tantamount to not having one at all.
It a shame because Kim and Bill do not get enough screen time. When they end up in the same room, we feel their hurt, anger, and frustration. These emotions are still raw and the wounds are opened when they interact. Even though they no longer wish to be around one another, it is apparent that they remain to have feelings for each other. And since they are both musicians, they express the things that cannot be said through songs. When the camera fixes on a character with only his or her voice and an acoustic guitar, it has moments of genuine emotion. It becomes a movie worth investing in.
Directed by Matthew Porterfield, “I Used to Be Darker” is, for the most part, a trial to sit through. The main character lacks extreme or magnetic qualities that force us to want to get to know her and her circumstances. I would rather have observed the fallout of a marriage without any distraction than a dull girl who carries a secret.
Hillary and Jackie (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson) are extremely close sisters. Because of their parents, much of their youth consisted of competitions: Hilary with her flute and Jackie with her cello. As adults, the sisters remain close, but the dynamics between them change when Jackie’s career begins to skyrocket. Hilary has happily chosen to marry while Jackie is left with prestige that she does not find all that rewarding. Eventually, the world-renowned cellist visits her elder sister in the country with a strange request shared over a game and a glass of wine.
Based on a memoir by Hilary and Piers du Pré, “Hilary and Jackie” has a fascinating story underneath the technical glitters that the screenplay has constructed for the sake of amplifying the drama. Instead of telling the story raw, it tries too hard to come off more poetic or artistic which puts a strain on the narrative. As a result, many of the thoughts and emotions that we are supposed to think about and feel are muffled.
The decision to divide the story in two perspectives is very necessary in order for the audience to have the chance to paint a complete portrait of the sisters. From the moment it changes gears, it begins to deconstruct some of our evaluations regarding their relationship. We get the feeling that the truth is somewhere in between the two versions, but it almost does not matter since Hilary and Jackie have sides to them that we can embrace and relate with.
Griffiths and Watson are wise in not playing their characters as complete opposites to the point where it is jarring. Hilary and Jackie have important differences but whenever the performers share a frame, they allow the similarities of the sisters to come through. When simplicity is shown on screen, like two just holding each other, the film is most effective. Having said that, I wished that the writing had done away with scenes that depict the two as having the ability to read each other’s minds. It hammers the point so strongly that eventually it starts to feel like a cheap device to allow those paying less attention to have a semblance of but ultimately shallow impressions of what the sisters are dealing with.
The latter half of the picture deals with Jackie being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The execution has some clinical touch in that it shows the disease for what it is. However, this brave approach does not last long. I suppose since the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce wishes for the audiences to feel more sadness, the artificial dramatic elements seep their way through events that are better off without gloss. Some of these scenes appear manipulative.
Directed by Anand Tucker, “Hilary and Jackie” should have focused more on the identity of the woman underneath her extraordinary talent. While it touches upon Hilary du Pré’s ideation that perhaps she would have attained real happiness if she had been ordinary, it is unfortunate that the screenplay insists on injecting surreal elements that inadvertently serve as walls between her and us.
Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Maggie (Crissy Rock) sings a song at a karaoke bar, Jorge (Vladimir Vega), impressed by her performance, approaches and invites her for a drink. Though she is with friends, she accepts and the two sit in a quieter corner to talk. Within minutes, Maggie’s sadness, something that Jorge has detected, unspools: she tells the stranger before her that her four children have been taken away by Social Services. Very soon a court hearing will determine if Maggie could keep them or if the kids must be displaced.
Written by Rona Munro and directed by Ken Loach, “Ladybird, Ladybird” is an enthralling and educational exploration of a woman’s relationship with a social system. Whenever Social Services get involved and kids are taken away, it is easy to jump to conclusions and blame the parents. And why not? There is a pattern and there are many irresponsible parents out there who are not fit to raise a child. And yet more challenging is taking a step back and considering all the facts—information that we do not have when there is a big scene in our neighborhood. This film paints an entire history and makes sure that we have the relevant facts. Suddenly, the demarcation between right and wrong is out of focus.
The picture benefits greatly from Rock’s performance. Her capacity to jump between being personable and delivering explosive fits of rage, like turning on a light switch, without hitting a false note is scary and impressive. The way she plays Maggie, there is no doubt that her character is an angry person but there is also a lot of pain and hurt behind the screaming and hollering. Despite her volatile nature, we believe that she loves her children.
Maggie is likely a woman we see every time take a trip to the supermarket. You know, the one with so many kids but not enough hands to keep them from going all over the place. I’ve given a Maggie a dirty look and judged. Why bring your kids to the store when you can’t control them, right? This film inspired me to think twice. Great films makes us look within by placing us in someone else’s shoes and encourages us to be more sympathetic.
The director maintains control of the camera even if a scuffle turns into a tornado. At least these days, the inclination is to shake as to create the illusion of reality, to be “in the middle of the action.” Here, it is unnecessary to move the camera like so. The struggle occurs only after we have an understanding of the main players, what is at stake, and what it implies about the future. We yearn for an alternative but it is difficult to break the cycle.
In the film, there is a poem told orally, in Spanish, about a candle that lights other candles that have died out. The relationship between Maggie and Jorge can be viewed this way. What they share is good but, like real relationships, it requires a lot of work. Sometimes it burns. There is no villain here: not Maggie, not the Social Services, not even the nosy and racist neighbor. There is only our prejudice and how sometimes we might surprise even ourselves when reality is wrinkled and upside down.
Taxi zum Klo (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Frank Ripploh) is a thirty-year-old grade school teacher in Berlin who has consistently done a good job in keeping his private life separate from his work. He maintains a very active sex life by frequently visiting baths, restrooms, bars, and other places where he can hook up with other gay men. The responsibility of having to juggle the two spheres proves too much, however, when Frank decides to live with Bernd (Bernd Broaderup), a theater employee who was supposed to be just another one-night stand.
An autobiographical film written and directed by Frank Ripploh, “Taxi zum Klo” offers confronting images about the sexuality of gay men, but it is not created for mere titillation. Underneath it all is a tragedy because it tells a story of a man who is so accustomed to putting up walls so he cannot be read so easily that he ends up not knowing how to relate or connect with another person in a meaningful way. What he comes to know is the physical aspect of sex and beyond it is just darkness.
It certainly has shocking images, at least for its time and for those not exposed to the lifestyle, and, I must admit, I found some of them to be somewhat amusing. I admired that the picture dares to go to a place and is fearless in engaging the audience with details. For example, Frank visits a restroom, obviously a place where sex—one way or another—is involved, and sits in one of the stalls. To his left is a hole where one can observe another man stripping, masturbating, or whatever else. That hole is also used for oral sex. Though I could not help but snicker at what was happening on screen, the camera is unflinching, still, and determined to show what some gay men do—in the closet or not.
A recurring theme involves people being out in public—at a gathering or during a one-on-one conversation—and the exchanges being interrupted with images of sex. In an early scene, Frank and his fellow teachers spend the night out. At first, it seems to be just another scene designed to show that Frank is just another person despite his sexual orientation. On the contrary, and it remains open to interpretation, because of the intercutting scenes of someone masturbating—in color—and a group of men having sex—in black and white—I started to consider that Frank might have a degree of sexual addiction. Are those images thoughts that appear in his head while interacting with his colleagues? Though he seems to listen when someone is speaking to him, is he detached from what is in front of him?
And then there is Frank’s relationship with Bernd. The latter is ready for a commitment, so open in sharing what he hopes the two of them—together—will attain in the future, but the former cannot be bothered to look that far in time. There is a sadness and frustration to Bernd that he refrains from expressing because he is afraid that if he does, he would lose the man he loves. We may not agree with his approach but the mistakes and the dysfunctions of the relationship are interesting and so we are forced to look closer.
“Taxi zum Klo” is a brave and, in my opinion, a successful attempt of taking the subjects of homosexuality and homosexual acts out of the darkness. Though it may offend many due to some of its over-the-top images (there is a sequence that involves Frank urinating on a partner’s face), some going as far as labeling it pornographic, the characters are imbued with complexity that I ended up being more interested in their state of minds than what they do to satiate their carnal desires.