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.
★★ / ★★★★
It’s been said that our dreams often consisted of people we know or have encountered at some point in our lives. But not Smith (Thomas Dekker). He had a recurring dream of a brunette and a red-headed girl (Nicole LaLiberte) pointing at a door with a red dumpster on the other side. But before Smith could look inside, he woke up. With the help of Smith’s partner in crime, Stella (Haley Bennett), Smith managed to find some answers to his burning questions. Written and directed by Gregg Araki, “Kaboom” was weird and proud. It was, one could argue, mainly a satire of college students who lacked direction. Everyone had sexual intercourse with one another without regard for disease or pregnancy. When someone managed to ask another how many partners he had been with, it was too late. Penetration had already occurred. It reminded me of a dorm I once knew. Smith considered his sexual orientation to be undeclared but he had a massive crush on his blonde-haired surfer/meathead roommate named Thor (Chriz Zylka). Much of the humor of the film was Smith looking for ways to convince himself that Thor was gay. I especially loved the shot of Thor’s flip-flops neatly organized, by color, in his closet. As a person who loves to be organized, I thought it was a beautiful sight. I also chuckled once or twice when Thor’s best friend, Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), came for a visit and the two wrestled in their underwear. The loser was supposed to be “the gay one.” Whenever the satire and irony were at the forefront, I overlooked the lack of dimension in the script. The film also worked as a B-grade supernatural thriller but to an extent. Stella became sexually involved with Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), the brunette in Smith’s dreams, who happened to be a witch. She wasn’t all talk; she had real powers and wasn’t afraid to use them. But when the lesbian couple broke up, the storyline involving Smith’s dream and its connection to a possible underground cult was thrown in the back seat. The scenes involving voodoo and possession became more engrossing than the masked strangers who kidnapped and killed students on campus. While the dialogue consisted of funny one-liners uttered by sarcastic characters, as it went on, I began to feel like Araki had injected too much in his ambitious project. A nuclear war came into play but it failed to make much sense. The many revelations toward the end felt forced and laughable in a negative way. I felt a sinking sensation that the picture was digging its own grave. I admired that “Kaboom” wasn’t afraid to be different. But being different was not enough. The screenplay wasn’t ready.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) was the host for Harold’s (Leonard Frey) birthday party and all of their friends were invited. Donald (Frederick Combs) arrived early and we learned that despite Michael’s lavish way of living, he was essentially a kid with little regards to money. He got tired of things easily which could be seen by the many times he changed his clothes before and during the party. All of them considered themselves as homosexual but they ranged from the masculine, like Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), to the feminine, personified with great energy by Cliff Gorman as Emory. Some of the invited friends attended with their lovers (Reuben Greene, Keith Prentice). Another was a birthday present (Robert La Tourneaux), a “midnight cowboy” for the birthday boy. “The Boys in the Band,” based on Mart Crowley’s play, is known as the first movie that tackled homosexuality directly. I was mesmerized by the script and the performances. There were many stereotypes but even I can admit that some of them were true. I found qualities of myself and my gay friends in most of the characters; its goal was not to reinforce the stereotype but use it as a template that beneath it all, every type of gay man is different from one another despite society forcing the ridiculous idea that we belong to one category. Instead of putting homosexuals under only a positive light, I admired the film’s audacity to tackle many negative thoughts and emotions. I may not agree with some of the decisions that certain characters made, particularly Michael’s cruel game, but I was able to relate to the isolation they felt despite being surrounded by others, the anger and sadness they experienced when love wasn’t reciprocal, and the fear of wanting to belong with anyone, homosexual group of not, for a stamp of approval. The person I found most fascinating, and the one who I believe as the heart of the picture, was Hank. He was married to a woman for years, had kids, and had the painful experience of coming out to them. The addition of Michael’s former roommate in the university, a self-proclaimed heterosexual, named Alan (Peter White) made the party’s dynamic more complex. Was there an attraction between Hank and Alan or were the two just friendly? After all, Alan was very uncomfortable being surrounded by gay men. Despite Hank being gay, Alan took comfort in the fact that Hank acted straight. I thought that was very honest because I’ve met straight guys (and some of them I consider friends) who would make remarks about someone from afar being a “queer” or a “fag” while in front of me yet they fully know where my attractions lie. The heavy subject matter in the second half was balanced by funny and witty tête-à-têtes and one-liners when the party was just beginning. “The Boys in the Band,” directed by William Friedkin, was released over forty years ago but it still has relevance in today’s more accepting time because the LGBT community still faces similar issues today.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” explored Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) poem of the same name in three fronts: the public reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, the courtroom scenes in which a prosecutor (David Strathairn) wished to censor the poetry in question because of its obscene language, and an interview with Ginsberg in his home after his work had been published and gotten critical acclaim. Three of the strands were highlighted by freewheeling dream-like animation with excerpts of Ginsberg’s words heard in the background. I don’t have much passion for poetry but I found myself completely fascinated with this film because it bravely took the biopic formula upside down, inside out, and shuffled the familiar variables as if it was a deck of cards. The risks it took had great rewards because I thought it was refreshing without sacrificing insight and relevance to modern publications and aspiring writers. To be perfectly honest, if the film didn’t provide clues as to what Ginsberg could possibly be talking about or referencing to in his poem, I would have been at a loss as to how to nagivate myself through the barrage of images and words. But since the picture had elegantly constructed a bridge on how to possibly interpret the poem, I eventually found myself focusing on the rhythm and flow of Franco’s words, Franco’s odd but magnetic mannerisms, and the understated themes among the three strands. The poetry, like life, was about all things. It traced Ginsberg’s trauma of his mother being sent to a mental hospital and getting electroconvulsive therapy to no avail, the men he fell in love with, New York’s gargantuan buildings, its putrid scents and shrill sounds, as well as the homeless faceless faces as a source of his inspiration. He loved to talk about sexual acts and the more sensitive meanings behind giving a crucial part of oneself to another and how sometimes it could be a difficult and painful thing to do. I found “Howl” to be fully engrossing because it felt personal but was unafraid to embrace its experimental roots. The sudden color shifts felt exactly right because there was a big question, particularly in the courtroom scene, whether or not Ginsberg’s work would stand the test of time. The supporting actors’ performances, which included Jon Hamm (who gave an excellent delivery of the closing statement from the famous trial), Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, gave the material depth and meat that audiences could sink their teeth into. “Howl” was successful in asking and answering why counterculture is a necessary weapon against those who want to take away our rights. It made me want to learn more about its fascinating subject.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) decided that he was going to be true to who he was after getting in a major car accident. He got a divorce from his wife (Leslie Mann), moved to Florida, met a new beau (Rodrigo Santoro), and lived the fabulous life. But money didn’t grow on trees. This was particularly a problem because he didn’t have a college education. So, he turned to a life of crime pretending to be a litigator, a chief financial officer of a major company, among many things. Steven’s illegal actions landed him in prison where het me the love of his life–blonde-haired, blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). I don’t understand why this picture was shelved for so long. Not to mention it still hasn’t gotten a wide release nor do I hear and see much advertisement for it. I thought it was clever, funny, and completely unbelievable even though it was based on a true story. This was Carrey’s best performance in quite some time. His character’s histrionics suited him well and he probably was the best choice to play such a larger-than-life person. Carrey was smart to inject a healthy dose of charm in his character because being intelligent could only get someone so far. The real Steven Russell wouldn’t have pulled off so many scams if he wasn’t a people-person, the kind of guy we can’t help but trust the first time we meet him. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors, successfully helmed a whimsical love story even though there were times when I was frustrated with its tone. The film was at its best when it was purely comedic. When Steven and Russell were together, I was drawn to them because it was obvious to me why they were perfect for each other. They looked at one another as if they already knew it wouldn’t last. However, it stumbled when it attempted to be a little more sensitive. There were far too many scenes when Steven would declare his love for Phillip. Once or twice was enough. Did the filmmakers run out of ideas to entertain? Neverthless, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in “I Love You Phillip Morris.” For instance, once the male organ joke was introduced, I found it strange that I felt like I saw phallic symbols everywhere. Just before the film ended, it stated that Russell was sentenced for an unprecedented number of years. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. For a guy who didn’t physically hurt anybody during his wild escapes (when he easily could have), I couldn’t help but feel like his term was a bit too harsh. Sure, he stole thousands of dollars from a company but even criminals who’ve committed the same crime received far lighter sentences. Steven treated the justice system as a joke. Perhaps there’s truth in jest.