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.
Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.
After Sex (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
“After Sex,” written and directed by Eric Amadio, took a sneak peek at what several couples talked about right after having sex. The couples were diverse in terms of sexual orientation, race and outlook on life which was a good thing because audiences could undoubtedly relate to at least one character. Out of the eight couples, three worked for me. Perhaps the best was with Zoe Saldana as a lesbian and Mila Kunis as a proud heterosexual who was unafraid to experiment. Maybe it was their strong acting (compared to the rest of the cast) but there was something very real about the chemistry between them. The differences in their characters was not what defined their scenes but the subtle similarities and curiosities they had about each other. In return, their scene was sexy, smart and very relatable. The second scene I liked featured Dave Franco and Natalie Marston as friends who decided to lose their virginity to each other. It was arguably the cutest vignette; they may not have anything particularly deep to say to each other because they haven’t yet experienced life but it worked because it embodied real innocence which the other storylines lacked. Lastly, I thought the funniest one was a discussion between Timm Sharp and James DeBello about gay relationships and there having to be a “bitch” and a “butch” in order for it to work. Their rapid-fire exchange was not only very funny but it also felt real. I could imagine myself talking like the way they did to my closest friends. Out of the eight, Sharp and DeBello’s scene was the one I had the most fun with and I even caught myself laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the other five did not quite reach their full potential. While I thought the bit about the college frat boy’s (Noel Fisher) first experience with another man (Tanc Sade) was at times touching, in the end it was preachy and it did not make me think beyond the obvious. The worst was probably the two older folks talking about fisting and the “good old times.” Not only was it very awkward but it did not make much sense. It was unfortunate because the director could have used them as an argument in terms of how it was like to be in a relationship with someone for years and years and still remain friends/in love because the other storylines were more about younger people barely knowing each other. “After Sex” was a mixed bag but it had some good moments that felt natural. While the title might suggest skin and, well, sex, it was really more about one’s definition of a relationship and identity–which is a good quality because it did not settle with the obvious. In its own way, “After Sex” was quite tasteful and not as awkward as it could have been. (But that does not mean you should watch it with your parents.)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Magdalena (Emily Rios) found out she was pregnant without actually having sex with her boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) before her quinceañera, she ran away from her family (Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesus Castanos-Chima) because they believed she would not own up to her actions. Magdalena stayed with her kind uncle (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who happened to be gay and experimenting with the gay couple (Jason L. Wood, David W. Ross) next door. This independent film was no “Juno.” Quirkiness and snarky dialogue were absent but it was refreshing because the story was told without glossy pretension. It was not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations and let them deal with their problems without plot conveniences and typical Hollywood offerings about what one should do when one found out she was pregnant. I thought it was also refreshing that the character did not deem her life to be over when she found out she was pregnant at fourteen years old. It was nice to hear that she had plans for her future and I liked the way she stood up for herself when others criticized and laughed at her. I rooted for her because even though she was young, she was brave and she was not afraid to ask for help when she needed a bit of support. As for the subplot involving the homosexual cousin, I enjoyed it for the most part because Garcia could have played his character in an obvious way but he managed to avoid the usual traps about sexual experimentation. His character was a good foil for Magdalena. Even though the two were very different, they found commonality in being (essentially) exiled because their Latino culture have certain beliefs that directly challenged their modern lives. I thought the film was at its best when the two interacted because they found purpose and strength from each other. However, I have to admit that Garcia’s storyline sometimes outshined Rios’. The more the picture spent time on the gay cousin, focus and intensity was taken away from our lead protagonist. Lastly, I loved that the script sounded natural (so natural that sometimes I thought the characters were adlibbing). Having grown up in a very diverse neighborhood, the way the teens spoke and the topics they talked about were to true life. Ultimately, “Quinceañera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, told a story beyond a fourteen-year-old finding out she was pregnant. It was also about her support systems (and lack thereof), her responsibilities as a young woman, materialism, and traditions of a culture in an increasingly modern society. The film was astute in tackling the issues and it was even sharper in conveying the emotions that the characters would not necessarily outwardly express.
Law of Desire (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.
As Luck Would Have It (2002)
★ / ★★★★
“Le hasard fait bien les choses” or “As Luck Would Have It,” directed by Lorenzo Gabriele was about a closeted professor (Jean-Claude Brialy) who had the unlucky circumstance to be assigned by the law as a guardian for a troublesome teenager (Julien Bravo). Since he didn’t want the responsibility, he decided to appeal the case but in order to be deemed as an unfit guardian, a social worker had to assess his personal life. The professor had to then hide certain truths such as him being still legally married to a woman (Sabine Haudepin) and dating a much younger man (Antonio Interlandi) in order to preserve his reputation as a respected professor. My main problem with this movie was the fact that everything had to be exaggerated. The acting was painfully obvious, the story was weak and the way everything came together was very predictable. I wished that there was a character I could root for in order to make the experience more bearable but everyone only thought of themselves. I thought the wife was really annoying because she failed to recognize the seriousness of the orphan being passed around from one household to another. Instead, she was too hung up on the guy she used to date and was too busy trying to make him jealous. Out of anyone, she should have been the one that could have identified with the boy right away because she felt like no one wanted her. Her character’s lonelinesss could have been the unifyng theme of the picture but I suppose the writers and director failed to highlight that emotion. By the end of the movie, I thought she was just desperate and a classic attention-seeker. As for the professor, I understood his fears of coming out of the closet but he created his own distractions. He constantly complained about how his life became that much more complicated ever since the orphan came into his life but he neglected the fact that things in life always come up and if we don’t do anything about them, ignoring such problems won’t make them go away. For a supposedly smart character, he didn’t make the best decisions. The script lacked punch because it didn’t try to offer anything new to the table. The direction lacked sophistication. I felt like the movie was never going to end because nothing much happened on screen aside from the complaining and obvious attempts at laughter. “Le hasard fait bien les choses” desperately needed subtlety and intelligence. Even if the story was nothing new, I would have been more accepting if the characters were able to look outside of themselves and realize that their situations were not as bad as it seemed.
Breakfast with Scot (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Ben Shenkman) and Eric (Tom Cavanagh), a gay couple who chose to pass as straight because of their careers, decided to take in a boy (Noah Bernett)–Sam’s nephew–because his guardian (Colin Cunningham) living in Brazil essentially did not want him despite the fact that the boy’s mother who passed away really wanted the boy to have a good father figure. There was something about this movie that I just didn’t like because I believe it spent too much of its time focusing on the boy’s gay tendencies–from his penchant for wearing bright clothing, putting on make-up and jewelry, to singing showtunes as if everyday was Christmas–as a source of comedy. And then it showed Eric being so embarrassed for the kid time and again that he took away everything that made the kid happy and led him to play hockey to toughen him up a bit. It was supposed to be amusing on the outside but I think it was very sad in its core. For one, I could relate with the kid because when I was younger I was called names by the other kids and the adults in my life at the time made certain decisions (I’m not going into specifics here) so that I could “toughen up.” Like the boy in this movie, the decisions they chose for me made me, though I did “toughen up” in the end, very unhappy and when I got older, I became very angry at not only myself but also to those around me. Essentially, this movie took the safe route because everything turned out for the best in the end. Although it did try to teach a lesson about letting children be who they are, I think it really missed the point when it came to teaching adults the real repercussions of their actions if they did to choose to “correct” their children’s natural behaviors. This movie was thinking short-term instead of long-term and I just didn’t buy it. I think the movie had the potential to really explore a child’s psychology and the self-hatred of a man desperately wanting to appear straight to his co-workers and random people in the streets who could care less about him. Instead, it tried so hard to be cute to the point where it was almost cringe-worthy. Although I must say that the scenes involving the cruelty of children as they tried to find their identities were pretty good. Those were the only scenes where I thought, “Hey, something like that happened to me or someone I know when I was in grade school.” Based on a novel by Michael Downing and directed by Laurie Lynd, “Breakfast with Scot” lacked edge and, more importantly, honesty and believability.
Little Ashes (2008)
★ / ★★★★
“Little Ashes,” written by Philippa Goslett and directed by Paul Morrison, stars Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí, a tortured artist who is not afraid to express his political beliefs yet he tries so hard to resist the sexual attraction between him and a poet named Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán). From the synopses I read, I got the impression that this film was primarily about Dalí and his work as an artist and the romance was seconday. I was taken aback because it was really more about the romance between a poet and an artist and barely any of Dalí’s work was shown on screen. What’s even stranger is the fact that Beltrán is in front of the camera more than Pattinson. I do have to say, however, was I bought Beltrán’s performance more than Pattinson because the former had strength in his eyes even though he looked sad, confused, shocked or insecure. With the latter, it was the same note despite the emotion and the drastic physical changes. (Still stuck in “Twilight” phase, perhaps?) His look was intense but with such a complicated and volatile character he tried to tackle, he should have delivered more color and vigor. Another problem for me was their lack of chemistry. Maybe it was the writing or direction but I didn’t understand how someone like Lorca could fall for someone like Dalí. Yes, they both had talent but the way they interacted seemed forced and sometimes quite awkward. There were times when I just felt uncomfortable. Story-wise, it took me a while to get into it but I eventually did. However, it wasn’t particularly strong; in fact, it felt quite empty considering the fact that the two lead characters were so rich in personality and the political backdrop was fascinating. Maybe it tried too hard to appeal to younger audiences, especially younger girls, so that’s why it wasn’t deep or insightful enough. I could only withstand so many hidden kisses and flirtations. “Little Ashes” desperately needed a force to push it forward so that the audiences could feel something. Unfortunately, it was lazy and I felt like my two hours was wasted. With a stronger, more focused writing and a more versatile leading actor, maybe this movie would have worked. I say don’t waste your two hours unless you’re a die-hard Robert Pattinson fan.