★★★★ / ★★★★
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn-based high school student with ambition and drive, occasionally snuck out with Laura (Pernell Walker), her best friend, to spend time in lesbian-themed clubs to make hooking up with other girls much easier. However, Alike’s devoutly religious parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) weren’t aware of their daughter’s attraction toward other women, so Alike had to lie and change clothes before going to the club and stepping inside the house. Word travelled fast and soon enough, the parents began to suspect that perhaps there was a pinch of truth in hearsay. Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Pariah” was painfully honest in its approach of what it was like to lead a second life outside of the home without relying on easy emotions, like pity, to make Alike’s situation more digestible for the audience. The picture was proactive in showing us that while Alike was capable of making mistakes like any other person, gay or straight, who was growing up, her strength was dependent upon the fact that she knew who she was and that there was nothing wrong with her being attracted to women. Because Alike had such a strong sense of self, the material had a chance to hone in on those who wrestled with gnawing suspicions and Alike’s eventual admission. But this wasn’t to suggest that the picture utilized the coming out scene as its center. I liked the way the parents were not showcased as ignoramuses when it came to their child’s life. By avoiding that tired cliché, it was already one step ahead of its peers. Audrey was the kind of parent who took the word of the Bible as an absolute. We may not agree with her position and some of us may detest her for it, but people like her do exist. I’ve had gay and lesbian friends in high school who were kicked out of their homes because their parents wouldn’t accept them from the way they interpreted certain passages in that book. Some of my friends were even forced to attend certain institutions to “cure” their homosexuality to no avail. Arthur, on the other hand, was a parent so in denial, he’d rather dance around the issue than just ask if his daughter was gay. He was a part of the police force and for someone who valued pithiness and truth, it was ironic that something as trivial as sexuality was the kind of thing that he couldn’t face head-on. The film astutely showed that such a type of an approach could potentially be as damaging as directly saying that one’s sexual identity was not unacceptable in a particular household. Under Rees’ direction, the theme of disconnect involving the relationship among mother, father, and daughter was highlighted in subtle but powerful ways. I guess having been able to identify with Alike’s experiences, there were times when a parent’s look communicated a thousand words. I hate to admit it but those small yet precious moments could potentially go undetected under the observation of those outside the LGBT community. For me, those moments were what made the film felt so real and why I had such a gut reaction to it. It’s difficult to make LGBT movies because most of them tend to use melodrama as an excuse to avoid more complex emotional and psychological explorations. “Pariah” is a shining exception. While it had lessons to impart about self-esteem and self-acceptance, telling a story through a specific perspective was its most remarkable achievement.
That’s What I Am (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Nichol (Chase Ellison) was paired up by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), with Stanley (Alexander Walters) to work on a final project. Andrew was embarrassed to work with Stanley because the latter was a social outcast. Stanley was known as Big G, G for ginger, due to his red hair, massive ears, and he stood at least a foot taller than everyone else. Andrew, like most middle school students, just wanted to get by and being paired up with a Frankenstein-like geek garnered a lot of negative attention. Mr. Simon wanted to teach Andrew that passively watching another get bullied didn’t free someone from taking responsibility. Written and directed by Michael Pavone, I wanted to like “That’s What I Am” for its intention but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because there were plenty of instances when it lost its vision. Andy’s quest to finally go steady with Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), a girl who had kissed every boy in their grade except for Andy, could have been somewhat cute in another movie but bullying is such a serious issue that the two forces didn’t belong in one project without the other feeling like a strange appendage that was better hacked off. The picture also gave us other scenes with elements of bullying like a boy (Camille E. Bourgeois III) inflicting deep cuts on a girl (Sarah Celano) using a metallic zipper on his jacket because he wanted to give her back her “cooties.” (They bumped into each other earlier that day.) If Pavone’s intention was to provide comic relief from intense moments in a form of puppy love, the work felt leaned toward mere silliness. Instead of continually highlighting the consequences of bullying, more relevant than ever with the rate of youth suicides nowadays, the issue was somewhat marginalized. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the writer-director feeling the need to introduce homophobia in the 1960s. Rumors went around the school that Mr. Simon was a homosexual. Since he wouldn’t deny it because he believed that one’s ability to teach should matter more than one’s private life, a boy’s parents’ threatened to create a controversy. On one hand, homophobia and bullying had prejudice and intolerance in common. It inspired the kids to ask questions about what homosexuality meant and some of them, like Andrew, learned how to be a little kinder. On the other hand, the issue of whether or not Mr. Simon was gay overshadowed the issue of bullying. I wondered why the school officials failed to take action if someone being robbed of their lunch or getting punched in the stomach happened every day. Surely it wasn’t just because it was the 1960s. Being bullied is not a rite of passage as a lot of people, to my surprise, tend to argue. The film was designed for children and I was surprised that it didn’t offer solutions that made sense. Kicking bullies in crotch may keep them at bay for about a day but they’re bound to retaliate with more hatred than ever. “That’s What I Am” was a missed opportunity. I can overlook the weak acting by some of the young supporting actors, but what I cannot overlook is when a serious topic is not given the attention it deserves.
The Sitter (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Noah (Jonah Hill), a college dropout with nothing much to do except hang out, decided to babysit the three children of his mom’s friend (Erin Daniels) because he figured his mom (Jessica Hecht) could use a fun night out. Who knows? Being a single parent, she might even meet a man who could make her happy. The three youngsters, Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) were, to say the least, a handful of troublemakers. It didn’t help that Noah was far from a responsible adult, accepting to pick up cocaine for his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) in exchange for sex in the middle of his babysitting. Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, as “The Sitter” unfolded, the gnawing question of who it was aimed for could no longer be ignored. Even though it contained kids, it certainly wasn’t for children given their mean-spirited natures, especially Rodrigo’s predilection for putting homemade bombs in public restrooms. And yet it wasn’t for adults either. At least not those who preferred their comedy distilled of sentimentality. The screenplay couldn’t help but make Noah into a brother figure for the kids, so unconvincing that in select scenes where the mood was supposed to be serious, like when Noah confronted Slater of the young teen’s homosexuality and self-hatred, though a great topic of conversation in a mainstream lens, I was relatively unmoved because I couldn’t see past the hokum. Since the sensitive moments didn’t feel earned, I was offended that the film so willingly crossed the line. I wish that the writers acknowledged the reality that some people, even babysitters, are just not good with kids. They certainly wouldn’t change their deeply-rooted tendencies overnight. However, the picture did have one very funny scene that took place in a store. Blithe had a bodily accident in the car so Noah had to take her underwear shopping because she had no change of clothes. Observing from a couple of feet away, a Kid City employee (Alysia Joy Powell) had mistakenly believed that Noah was a pedophile and Noah’s nervous explanation about what he was doing in the little girls’ underwear section didn’t help the situation. Hill and Powell mirrored each other’s energy so strongly, their exchange had crackle and pop. I wish other confrontations between Noah and another character were just as effective. In contrast, the scenes between Noah and Karl (Sam Rockwell), a drug dealer, were so lackadaisical and nonsensical. At times it was downright offensive. Karl was supposed to be gay. His sexuality was strictly utilized as a source of comedy. If the drug dealer had been straight, he’d just be another unfunny, incompetent thug. Would it have been too much to ask for the writers to make their villain a little bit more interesting without relying solely on the character’s sexual orientation? To me, mean-spirited gay jokes are just as offensive as gay jokes that insidiously try to pass as progressive thinking. “The Sitter,” directed by David Gordon Green, needed a writing overhaul in order to make room for adventurous and funny moments that have range. There was no sense of adventure here, just a series of poorly executed sketches.
J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.
Making Love (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Zach (Michael Ontkean) and Claire (Kate Jackson) had been married ever since they were twenty-two. Zach, a physician, and Claire, a television producer, shared a lot of things in common: they enjoyed listening to the same music, watching the same classic movies, and discussing things that bothered them whether it be about work or each other. But Zach had a secret which eventually led Claire to suspect that he was having an affair with another woman. As it turned out, Zach was seeing another man named Bart (Harry Hamlin), a novelist whose hobby consisted of picking up nightly tricks. “Making Love,” written by Barry Sandler and A. Scott Berg, treated its characters with respect. Zach and Claire’s very close bond could easily have been syrupy and annoying, but we slowly learned not only how much they valued each other but why. Since the picture took the time to examine both sides, I felt that their relationship was real. The stakes were high for these two people because their relationship was rooted in deep friendship. We all knew that there had to be a point in which Zach would finally gather up the courage to tell his wife that he was a homosexual. However, the drama did not rest on that one significant scene. The rising action provided the necessary details and different angles so we were able to see ourselves, regardless of our own sexual orientation, in Zach, Claire, and Bart. Furthermore, it was unexpected that Zach’s affair with Bart wasn’t shot in a romantic way. Instead, their scenes together felt more like a rite of passage, something that had to be done in order to explore the picture’s more important themes. We observed the way the two men met, flirted with one another, shared drinks, had sex, and separated. Even though the two saw each other multiple times, there was nothing romantic about their secret meetings because it was established early on that Bart, despite his best efforts, just wasn’t the kind of man who loved the idea of settling down. Being a novelist, he felt the constant need to have his own space. Zach was the exact opposite; he almost wanted a male version of Claire. With each scene where Bart treated Zach dismissively, I was more convinced that it wasn’t going to work out between them. However, the impressive thing was, it was difficult to detest Bart and his actions because I was able to sympathize with his issues as a child, especially his relationship with his father, and I respected, as well as shared, his pride in being single. I was glad no one was treated as a villain–that the material was honest in portraying the three characters as people who were capable of insightful thoughts, smartly dealing with negative emotions, finding a way to move on, and thrive. “Making Love,” directed by Arthur Hiller, was, at its worst, melodramatic at times but, at its best, quite moving and raw, especially when Claire tried so badly to understand why she didn’t see that her husband harbored feelings for other men. Most coming out movies almost always show the pain solely from the perspective of the gay person. I admired the film because, in real life, there is also pain and initial feelings of betrayal felt by those who heard the news.
★★ / ★★★★
Russ (Tom Cullen) was a gay man with mostly straight friends. After attending his best friend’s party, Russ decided to go to a gay club with hopes of hooking up with a stranger. After attempting to make eye contact with several men as a signal he was willing, Russ eventually encountered Glen (Chris New). Morning came and the two engaged in their first real conversation over coffee. They liked each other enough and thought what they had was worth exploring. But, initially without Russ’ knowledge, Glen was supposed to head to Oregon after the weekend and live there for two years to study art. They now had to make a decision whether their one night stand was viable enough to turn into a relationship. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “Weekend” could easily, even understandably, appeal to those craving for realistic stories about gay lifestyles. There’s just not that many of them. Great ones are rarer still. The casting was good given that neither looked like a chiseled Adonis. In fact, their appeal was in embedded in the ordinariness of their looks. In return, we were forced to look within–their personalities, motivations, and perception of the world. Given that neither looked like a steroid-obsessed, stereotypically dominant beefcake or a stick-skinny twink, the sex scenes, mostly unnecessary, held a certain honesty: the unshaven corners, fat hanging about the torso, and wrinkles unhidden by make-up. Having the camera so up close to their bodies and faces, we could easily get the sense that the two had just had sex. Like in reality, the morning after is usually far from glamorous. Most of the time, you just want to jump in the shower to wash the night away. However, despite my best efforts, I felt no spark between Russ and Glen. It was critical because they were supposed to be increasingly attracted to one another over the course of the film. The reasons why they wanted to take their relationship on another level weren’t at all clear. Glen was condescending to Russ. He was repulsed by the fact that Russ didn’t like to kiss or hold hands in public as heterosexual couples generously often do. Because of this, he was convinced that Russ was not comfortable with being a homosexual. I was extremely annoyed with what he represented because he felt it was his prerogative as an out and proud gay man to constantly remind people that he was gay. To him, being ostentatiously gay was tantamount to being comfortable with his sexuality. No, it’s not. It means you’re being obnoxious. In the end, Russ subtly accepts that ideology. The supposedly sweet ending left a bitter taste on my lips. It sends the wrong message to audiences, especially to LGBT youths who are still deciding how they want to live their lives. Furthermore, the constant usage of drugs was an issue I had due to its mixed messages. I found it ironic that the two men were supposed to be connecting with one another through sex and deep conversation while snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana. How can you really get to know someone while being under the influence? All the discordant factors and hypocritical implications made me feel angry. While I understood Russ’ loneliness and the dangerous lengths he would go to assuage that emotion, the rest lacked practicality. It’s a shame because I do have friends like Russ who engage in casual sex with strangers and experiment with all sorts of drugs. The film implies that such a lifestyle is A-OK. It’s certainly not okay when you hear news that your friend has contracted HIV or died from overdose.
★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
The Hanging Garden (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
William (Chris Leavins) returned to his hometown for his sister’s wedding (Kerry Fox) after leaving without a word and not visiting for ten years. William used to be an obese teen with a low self-esteem. His father’s (Peter MacNeill) expectations, if not met, often led to physical abuse while his mother (Seana McKenna) kept herself at bay. What I found so effective about the film was the situations that the characters had to deal with were as realistic as possible but there were some bizarre elements that forced us to think about the possible reasons behind the odd images thrown on our laps. For example, in the first scene, it was amusing and refreshing to see people who attended the wedding as bored and impatient, maybe even angry and stressed, during the ceremony. It was a familiar feeling but it was nice to see that on screen because it was a complete opposite from movies that showcase weddings as always exciting and fun. It’s not fun when you’re forced to sit in silence for about an hour. You look forward to the food and perhaps the bottomless wine (if you’re lucky). Then the realism was countered with fantastic elements. That is, there was an alternative universe in which William hung himself in the garden where the wedding occurred. The characters were able to see William as an obese (as he was in the past) dead teen. They were able to touch him, cry in front of him, miss him. William was able to see and grieve for his former self, too. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the lost time William didn’t get to share with his family and vice-versa. Maybe the family felt that the William that returned was not the William that left them. The William that they knew wasn’t skinny, confident, and strong. He was weak, insecure, fat. William tried to forget his past but his family kept holding on to it. There was another strand in the plot which involved William’s homosexuality and love for his best friend (Joel S. Keller). Coincidentally, Fletcher, William’s best friend, married William’s sister. The sister was aware of her husband’s possible bisexuality but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if she encouraged her brother and husband to get together. Most would probably label her as having a liberal perspective, but I think her actions were more meaningful than what was shown. I thought she had a deep understanding of the pain and trauma her brother went through when they were young. She felt that her brother needed and deserved some sort of closure. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, “The Hanging Garden” was a simple but beautiful film about two worlds moving away from each other and the tension building from the divide. Some characters were given little time to develop but I was surprised they were complex regardless.
Touch of Pink (2004)
★ / ★★★★
Alim (Jimi Mistry) came from a conservative Islamic background so he moved to London from Canada in order to live the life he wanted. He enjoyed spending time with Giles (Kris Holden-Ried), his boyfriend, watching Cary Grant’s movies, and interacting with his favorite actors’ spirit (Kyle MacLachlan, with a ridiculous fake British accent) whenever he needed advice on how to proceed with life. When his mother (Suleka Mathew) decided to visit, he found himself scrambling on his way back to the closet. I found “Touch of Pink” to be an excruciatingly one-dimensional picture filled with dispiriting clichés. Alim was very unlikable because all he ever thought about was himself. Yes, without a doubt, coming out of the closet is difficult and often a painful experience, but I kept waiting for Alim to step up and be a man. He was around thirty years of age but he acted like someone who just turned thirteen. I knew teenagers who came up with better ways of telling their parents they were gay than Alim did. I’m not Muslim but, as a person of color, I couldn’t help but be offended with the script. I understand that the film was a comedy but a joke directed toward a culture becomes something else entirely when the material can’t move beyond it. For instance, the movie painted Muslims as people who only cared about marrying off their children to someone who was rich and successful career-wise. In every single scene, the adults kept trying to compare their worth. Life is simply not like that. I’ve met a number of Muslims and not many of them were like the ones portrayed here. They can be as sensitive and insightful as you and me. Don’t get me wrong, I support all sorts of observations and critiques regarding race, religion, class, and age. Where would we be if we can’t make fun of ourselves and each other? However, there must always be a certain level of respect between the critic and its subjects. I sensed no respect here. Written and directed by Ian Iqbal Rashid, the majority of the material needed to be rewritten and revised. Coming out stories can be amusing when the right elements are put together. But this film was mostly about the punchlines and less about the characters who were conflicted about their feelings toward homosexuality and each other. The director should have injected some substance in the main character and let him realize that coming out to his mother was painful for her, too. Most of the time, coming out of the closet isn’t just about the person revealing something to the world. If it was, coming out stories wouldn’t be as compelling or touching. Other complex issues come into play such as family expectations, lost friendships, and the experiencing the world in comfortable shoes.
★★★ / ★★★★
Miguel (Christian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), a happily married couple, were about to have their first child. Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter, visited the seaside village to see Miguel. Despite having grown up together in the coast, nobody knew about their secret affair. That is, until Santiago drowned one night and appeared in Miguel’s home as a ghost. Santiago’s spirit wouldn’t rest until he was given a very public burial. Rumors went around that Santiago was a homosexual and nobody wanted anything to do with him. They treated homosexuality as a contagion. They couldn’t even say the word. They used hand gestures to describe such a phenomena. So it was up to Miguel to give his lover a proper send-off. “Contracorriente” was a smart and moving film about a man torn between his identity and tradition. The beginning of the picture established the importance of tradition in Miguel’s community: the residents in the village attended church, they orally read from the bible, and they shared an open form of communication. When their tradition was challenged in the form of Miguel’s sexuality, it was difficult to watch our protagonist’s friends and neighbors turn their backs on him. His closest friends didn’t even bother to drop by when Mariela had her baby. But writer-director Javier Fuentes-León was careful in highlighting the complexity of the village’s situation. They lived in a bubble and it was probably the first time a gay person bothered to stick around despite the judging whispers and lack of eye contact. I liked that it showed people being capable of acceptance. In reality, while some treat a shocking revelation from the perspective of black and white, others just need some time to digest the information. Not every subplot provided a definite solution but there was a sense of closure that tied it all together. Despite not knowing a lot of details about how Miguel and Santigo got together, it was easy to see that their passion for one another ran deep. There was palpable pain when they discussed plans that never came into fruition and when they argued about being tired of pretending not to know each other in public. But the film was also about the love between Miguel and Mariela. There was a special bond between them not just because they were about to have a baby, but because they’ve learned to lean on each other when things became unbearable. Naturally, their bond was tested when Mariela found out the truth about her husband’s bisexuality. The film’s biggest risk was the ghost that only Miguel could see. It could be seen as a literal ghost, but I interpreted the spirit as the leading character’s guilt and anger for not summoning the courage to come out of the closet when his lover was still alive. The risk worked because the director was in control of the message he wanted to portray. I was impressed with “Undertow” because it was emotionally authentic without sacrifing an ounce of its complexity.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
La Mission (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Bratt, “La mission” told the story of the way a hypermasculine ex-convict (Benjamin Bratt) dealt with reality when he found out that his son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) was gay and had been going out with another guy (Max Rosenak). I liked that the movie managed to capture how painful it was to reluctantly come out of the closet but the movie took it one step further and begged the question of whether love really was unconditional. I easily identified with the intense scene when the son was trapped in a corner and he had no choice but to admit to his father about his lifestyle, all the while completely aware that his father would not take the news lightly. Something similar happened to me not that long ago and watching that scene made me tear up and I found myself feeling the need to pause the movie and walk around the house a bit. I thought the picture had an elegance in the way it handled the scenes where the father took his son back into their home but the father did whatever it took to avoid dealing with the situation. Since he had a violent past and a history with alcoholism, which still haunted him, I rarely agreed with his style of parenting. However, it was almost always clear to me that he cared about his son. He just did not know any other way to deal with his problems. Bratt’s acting was key because he then had to maneuver between holding onto his past and trying to deal with his son’s sexuality. I thought he did an excellent job because I managed to empathize with him despite his many unquestionably bad decisions. Instead of watching the movie through the eyes of the person coming out of the closet, we had a chance to see it through the person dealing with the news. I thought it was a refreshing perspective but it was sometimes difficult to sit through because I experienced his hatred as if that hatred was directed to me. I also liked the romance that developed between the father and the neighbor (Erika Alexander) who worked at a women’s shelter. I liked that she, too, was tough when she needed to, but she had control over her toughness which was completely unlike the man who was interested in her. But just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, the movie surprised me once again and reminded me that there wasn’t such a thing as someone changing over night. It requires effort and sometimes slipping back into one’s habits when things looked very dim. “La mission” had many elements going for it but the most that stood out to me was its honesty. It was honest with its characters and their complex psychologies, the neighborhood in San Francisco where the story took place and, most importantly, it was honest with its audiences. Despite its difficult and sometimes painful subject matter, it treated us with intelligence.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” was about a popular 1950s actor named Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) who must hide his homosexuality with the help of his agent (Veronica Cartwright) in order maintain his fans’ adoration. When a jealous fellow actor took a photo of Guy being arrested and was accused of being gay, his agent and the studio head (Victor Raider-Wexler) came up with a plan to keep his name clear by means of marrying an unaware fan/secretary named Sally (Carrie Preston). But things didn’t go quite as planned when Guy met a writer (Adam Greer), someone totally different from his type of “big, dumb and blonde.” I detested this picture’s exaggeration of pretty much everything: the slapstick, the wordplay, the acting, the set, among others. I felt as though it was looking down on me because it didn’t let me try to figure out what’s really going on in the characters’ heads because it was too busy hammering me with “this is funny!” moments. I also found this movie particularly difficult to watch because it had great trouble when it came to finding a consistent tone. With all the craziness that was going on screen, a little stability pertaining to the style of storytelling really would’ve done wonders. I like energy when it comes to the comedy but there’s a vast difference between energy and manic randomness. I found no redeeming factor in “Straight-Jacket” but I really have to mention one thing that deeply bothered me while I was watching it. The characters talked about having different kinds of homosexuals out there in the world, yet the film only focused one kind of a homosexual male: good-looking in the face, a built body, with snappy comebacks readily spit out. They’re in Hollywood, for goodness’ sake! Where are the lipstick lesbians, the drag queens, and stout effiminate directors? For a story that touches upon the glamour of Hollywood, this one simply lacked color and diversity. And I guess that’s why I hated this film: it’s unaware that it’s one-dimensional. There are a plethora of bad LGBT movies out there and this one, unfortunately, belongs in that category. What a waste of a hundred minutes.
Boy Crush (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
“Boy Crush” consists seven short films about homosexuality: “Summer” (Hong Khaou), “Night Swimming” (Daniel Falcone), “Running Without Sound” (Judd King), “Out Now” (Sven J. Matten), “The Bridge” (George Barbakadze), “Hitchcocked” (David M. Young), and “Oedipe” (Eric Rognard). I’m not going to review every one of them, but I will instead mention the highlights. Out of the seven stories, about two or three worked for me (“Summer,” “Night Swimming,” “Running Without Sound”) because they had some sort of an emotional resonance after I’ve seen them. Without a doubt, the short film from King was the best because it was able say so much without using so many words. The extended scene toward the end when the two teenagers lingered in front of each other, doubtful of whether or not to make a move to finally kiss, said a lot about their insecurities and how much it pained them that they could not express how they truly felt about themselves and each other. The situation didn’t help with the fact that one of them was deaf but the other was not. I almost wished that the six others were not in the movie and that King’s feature was a full length film. Unlike the remaining four, the first three are not about sex or lusting over someone physically. It’s about making that genuine human connection, homosexual or not, to reach some sort of acceptance or understanding. For me, “Running Without Sound” embodied all sorts of insights I needed in a movie to be truly be considered profound–short film or otherwise. I’m giving this collection of short flicks a mediocre rating because there was a lack of a recurring theme. The last one was actually science fiction and I was totally confused. If “Boy Crush” had gathered short movies about human connection instead of poking fun of things like rape in prison and AIDS (such as in “Hitchcocked”), this would have been a stronger package (pardon the pun). In the meantime, if you want to be efficient or are concerned with limited time, do yourself a favor and watch the first three and ignore the others.