★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
Black Swan (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) was a ballet dancer who was chosen to play the lead role, the White Swan and the Black Swan, by the director (Vincent Cassel) in the upcoming performance of “Swan Lake.” However, although Nina had mastery in terms of technique and grace which were perfect in fully embodying the White Swan, she didn’t know how to let go of control so that, as the Black Swan, she could successfully generate enough anger and edge to leave the audiences breathless. Lily (Mila Kunis) had what Nina did not. Nina began to suspect that she was going to be replaced by the director and slowly she began her descent into madness. Darren Aronofsky fascinates me as a director. I know many disagree with me but I think he has yet to create a masterpiece. But this a good thing because I’ve noticed that he continues to evolve. Aronofsky does a wonderful job establishing a certain look and feel as he did in this film because he had concocted the right amount of realism and fantastic imagery. Blend it with a person on the verge of a psychological breakdown and we’ve got a chilling examination of a character physically pushing herself to her absolute limit. Nina wanted perfection and she had to pay a price. Portman should be commended for her dedication. I knew she was an actress of many talents with a chameleon-like approach in enveloping herself in her roles but I’ve never seen her so sensual and dangerous. Even with the complex dance sequences with booming music and dancers making their way across the screen, I was drawn to her face because the subtlety in her expressions made me wonder what was going on inside Nina’s mind. Sure, pain was involved but I wondered if she enjoyed it, too. The film reached its peak when Nina eventually couldn’t discern what was real and what wasn’t. Since we saw the story through her eyes, we also couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. It was a scary experience especially when she began to see paintings taunting her about her confusion and when she thought she had committed murder and felt the need to hide the body. The last few minutes were a barrage to the senses, completely in a good way, and I was left staring at the screen as the final shot fade to white. I was mesmerized and it left me wanting more. “Black Swan” was an intense experience but I wish it spent more time tying up loose ends between Nina and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). There was an undercurrent of sexual repression inside their apartment which reminded me of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” It begged the question what really drove Nina off the edge: the endless hours of practice or the endless nagging from her mother. Most would say it was both but I believe one factor was more influential than the other. If the director had spent more time highlighting trends between the two worlds, “Black Swan” would have been his best work.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.
Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.
Water Lilies (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Naissance des pieuvres” was about three fifteen-year-old girls–Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adele Haenel)–in the middle of adolescence swimming, hanging out, and laying about in the middle of summer. Marie wants Anne but Anne initially doesn’t even consider Marie to be on her level. Marie is best friends with Floriane and Floriane is interested in Anne’s crush/boytoy (Warren Jacquin). This leaves Marie in an awkward position because the other two are too cooped up into their own worlds to notice that Marie is suffering on the inside. I really felt for Acquart’s character because she can’t quite express who she really is both because of her own insecurities and expectations from other people. She’s a complex character because I felt like she doesn’t really try to hide who she really is; she’ll actually quite easy to open up as long as someone bothers to show interest. I can relate to her the most because her shyness and calculating nature sometimes gets the best of her. And better yet, she knows it but can’t quite do anything about it. I thought her relationship with Anne was very interesting to watch because I wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out. Just when I think it’s going to go one way, it takes the opposite direction so I constantly had to reevaluate my expectations. However, the whole thing remains fluid and poetic instead of feeling forced. The biggest weakness I could find was that the film did not spend much time developing Floriane. I felt like she should have had more layers instead of merely crushing on a guy. There were times when I thought, “What about the third girl? What’s her role in the bigger scheme of things?” And those questions were not sufficiently answered. I think the defining scene of this picture was when Marie was watching Anne and her team practicing for a competitive synchronized swimming. We see elegance and beauty above the water but we see quick constant kicking underwater. I think it reflected what the characters were going through at the time of their respective challenges. This is a coming-of-age story that is astute, observant, sensitive and sometimes downright sexy.
Relax… It’s Just Sex (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie, written and directed by P.J. Castellaneta, about people with all sorts of sexual orientations is far from perfect but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I thought it was nice to see people just being people without having to be afraid of offending its audiences. The cast is led by Jennifer Tilly whose friends mostly consists of gays and lesbians. Tilly juggles three fronts: her need to constantly have sex because she wants to have a baby before her eggs “expire” (done in hilarious ways, I might add), trying to be supportive of lesbian friend (Cynda Williams) who recently broke up with her almost decade long lover (Serena Scott Thomas) because she fell for another man, and consoling her gay friend (Mitchell Anderson) because he’s depressed that he’s not (or been in) any stable relationship. Although there were very funny moments, especially in the first half, my favorite scene has got to be the dinner conversation on whether HIV really causes AIDS. That scene constantly evolved not just topic-wise but because it showed us the many personalities of each of the characters and how they dealt with the situation whenever they were confronted by others. It felt so real; I have many memories with friends who have varying opinions when we talk about certain issues and some of those times do get to the point where somebody has to yell, “Shut up!” before the discussion got out of hand. That scene made me feel like I was sitting at that dinner table so I thought it was very powerful. I think the title of this picture is very misleading because sex is not the central issue. It’s really more about relationships and how such relationships are defined by people who are directly involved with a particular issue and those who are in the periphery. The only thing I didn’t like about this movie was it’s all too gloomy second half. I was very impressed that it was a comedy and offered a plethora of insights but it became more typical with the serious dramatics in the second half. This is a small movie but the writing is very funny because it features a lot of colorful straight/gay/lesbian/bisexual people. For me, it wasn’t at all difficult to connect with it.
Set It Off (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was about four ladies (Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise) who decided to pull off several bank robberies to untangle themselves from each of their respective binds. Smith wanted to put her brother through college, Latifah wanted to customize her car, Elise needed the money to get her son out of the city’s protective custody because they suspected that she was a negligent parent, and Fox was fired from her bank teller job because she “didn’t follow procedure” when another group of criminals robbed the bank she was working in. I’m glad that this film did not fall into an all too common trap of featuring criminals who do “bad things” just because they were African-American. F. Gary Gray, the director, actually took the time to establish each of the four leads so the audiences could truly understand their motivations. I actually rooted for the leading ladies even though, indeed, they decided to rob banks and harmed people along the way. I felt the desperation of each character. I completely understood that their actions were not who they were on the inside. In fact, they really were good people who were pushed into a wall without any means of escape other than to attack the aggressor (in this case, the cops and the law). I also liked the fact that Latifah’s character being a lesbian was not a big deal. It was simply who she was and there was no need to comment on it. Still, this picture is far from perfect. The four characters have street-smarts so I expected them to get better at what they did (robbing banks) as the film went on. Instead, eventually all of them became too sloppy and risk-taking. Not one would them suggested that they slowed down or planned things more thoroughly especially when the banks that they decided to rob became increasingly more difficult to get through. Despite its shortcomings, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because it was nice to see Black actresses carry an entire film. Most pictures I’ve seen of this kind usually go to white men so “Set It Off” offers a nice change.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.
Kiss the Bride (2007)
★ / ★★★★
This movie goes downhill after the opening credits. The story is about a gay man (Philipp Karner) who works in the magazine industry in the big city who one day gets an invitation from his first love’s (James O’Shea) wedding with a woman (Tori Spelling). This is kind of like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” only I can’t sit through it because it sounds like most of the actors are reading off a script. For an LGBT film made for gay men, I found the women to be the most interesting: Spelling, Amber Benson (the bride’s sister) and Jane Cho (Karner’s plucky lesbian assistant). Another aspect I found to be unforgivable was Karner’s character. When he returned to his hometown, I felt as if he felt like he was better than everyone else. His main goal is to persuade O’Shea to call off the wedding right when they see each other. When things didn’t go according to plan, he mopes around like a little kid. I couldn’t identify with the main character at all because he’s too self-absorbed. I didn’t appreciate the twists and turns of the story as well, which was predominant in the last fifteen minutes. I felt like the script was trying too hard to impress. To me, it just highlights the film’s flaws such as its poor pacing, acting and direction. The ending didn’t make sense either. Overall, I just wanted to get to know Benson’s cynical character who was sent to jail for vandalizing a wedding store. She stood out to me because she’s not like any of the cookie-cutter characters. She has drive, anger and thoughts that doesn’t have anything to do about love or weddings. Avoid this film if you can. If you want to see a much better movie with 90% similarities with this movie, go watch “My Best Friend’s Wedding” instead. That one was actually funny and clever. And if you want to see a much better film from C. Jay Cox, check out “Latter Days.”
Save Me (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I knew that there was no chance in hell that I was going to change my mind about these so-called institutions that aim to “correct” people’s homosexuality. I’ve had friends that were sent to these morbid places and I can attest that they do not work. Correcting homosexuality is like trying to will your body to not to respond to pain when you touch an extremely hot surface; nature is not something that you can simply “correct” no matter how hard you pray. It took me a while to get used to this picture because the first few scenes show gay people only in a negative light–that they’re all about sex with no strings attached and hard drugs. Eventually, though, we see characters that are complex and worthy of screen time so I somewhat forgave that distasteful first few minutes. Chad Allen and Robert Gant may not have that much of a chemistry, but they tackled their characters with enough dignity to the point where I was interested in their own personal battles instead of the forces that keep them together. One of those forces is Judith Light as one of the leaders of the ministry. Even though I thought her character was never someone that I would ever get along with, I still felt sorry for her because she desperately wants redemption for the way she treated her son after he told her that he was gay. Since her son died in his teens, she tries to find a way to forgive herself by taking in homosexuals and “correcting” their proclivities. I thought Light was the best thing about this flawed film mainly because of her acting. I thought it was true to life how she’s friendly and approachable when she’s around other people but judgemental (not to mention extremely homophobic) when she’s alone with her husband. For a character that I can immediately dislike, Light was able to get me to care for her even just a bit. I think this film would’ve been stronger if the romance aspect was completely written off. The topic of redemption was not really at the focus most of the time because the movie had to spend time shaping Allen and Gant’s relationship. For a subject this controversial, you don’t need a romance angle for people to find it interesting. Whether one supports homosexuality or not, one will have something to say after watching this film.
★★★ / ★★★★
I had a difficult time digesting this film because even though there are elements I liked about it (such as the quiet chaos that happens in suburbia that of which focuses on an Arab-American main character), I thought the sexual scenes are graphic, especially when Summer Bishil plays a thirteen-year-old girl. Yes, it’s honest in its portrayal of sexual predators, blooming sexualities, and wanting to escape a home full emotional suppression but it just felt wrong to me. But at the same, I feel like it’s necessary to make, show, and watch films like these because they function like a mirror to our deluded society. Most people like to believe this idea of middle schoolers retaining their innocence, but in reality, kids do have sex at a young age nowadays (The thirteen-year-old father comes to mind.). Films like “Towelhead” reminds us what we choose to ignore and (maybe) eventually forget. I also liked this film’s portrayal of Bishil’s sexuality. I know a lot of people will assume that her character is a bisexual or lesbian, but argue that she is not. In my opinion, she is aroused by looking at the magazines of naked women because it’s what she is not: a person who is free to do whatever she wants and looking like a model (despite being heavily Photoshopped). Moreover, since that magazine is the first thing that awoken her sexual curiosity, it’s only natural that she keeps going back to it. Subtle messages like that forces me to give this film a recommendation because it’s trying to get its audiences to dig under the surface. Other good performances include Peter Macdissi as Bishil’s strict father, Toni Collette as the kind-hearted pregnant neighbor, and Matt Letscher as Collette’s wordly husband. I really enjoyed Collette and Letscher’s characters because I found a certain light in them that I otherwise couldn’t find in the other characters (with the exception of Bishil). Most of the time, I love films that push the envelop but I found it hard to love this one; I admire it but I don’t quite love it because it made me feel sick and disgusted. That said, I think it’s a powerful film because it’s able to get a negative intuitive reaction from me–a trait that I haven’t encountered in a long time.