Tag: lgbt

Your Name Engraved Herein

Your Name Engraved Herein (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Different about the LGBTQIA+ romance “Your Name Engraved Herein” is its disinterest in showing how its protagonists fall for one another—they meet, they share a meaningful look, and then they just… are. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world—and that’s because it is. This is fascinating from a storytelling standpoint, especially given its sub-genre, because it avoids some of the more common trappings that lead to deadly clichés and tired sentimentality. As a result, the screenplay by Yu-Ning Chu, Jie Zhan, and Alcatel Wu frees itself to explore other curious aspects of the story like the iron grip of Christianity in late ‘80s Taiwan following the end of martial law.

Just because politics has undergone a shift on an official capacity does not mean that the people who have been conditioned to live a certain way could—or would—follow just as easily. This thesis is beautifully delved into through the scope of the “very close friendship” between A-Han (Edward Chen Hao-Sen) and Po-Te (Jing-Hua Tseng), the latter a transfer student whose nickname is “Birdy.” He quickly garners the reputation of being “crazy” due to his constant disregard for the rules and of those in power. Or perhaps his name is fitting precisely because he is free. Birdy is not afraid to be labeled as queer, to stand up for those who are down, to fight for what he knows to be right. Or it seems to be that way at first. The details are more complicated.

The camera watches closely, and it makes point that every act of rebellion is what attracts A-Han to Birdy. Perhaps A-Han, who has lived a life conformity (how he cuts his hair, how he carries himself in public, the “friends” whom he chooses to associate with, down the the subject he decided to major in), wishes to be more like the new guy. There is one thing A-Han cannot control or change: his homosexuality. On the one level, this is a story of a great love—the kind of love a person experiences and never forgets. And on the other level, this is a story of a young man who wishes so badly to be free but the times, the institutions in charge, and the belief of hate instilled in the Taiwanese society prevent him from taking flight.

Its themes of longing, yearning, and loneliness are beautifully laid out. It does not need to show someone being so sad or crying. Just look at how one character is always chasing another. At times a gesture is reciprocated, other times it isn’t. Observe how it is able to communicate so much by showing a pair reading each other’s minds while in a public space yet at the same time they are lodged in a little corner. There is intimacy in how they touch, play, or smile; they are at peace. By relying on images and the mood it evokes through pacing, music, and colors, it is as if the picture is whispering to us that it knows how we feel when we have fallen hard for someone.

And that makes all the difference between a romance driven by plot and a romance that just… is, a romance that can go whichever unexpected or unconventional direction and viewers would be happy to follow because it has something real to say about life and living. Congratulations to Director Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu for helming a film that is true to the topics and themes it brings up rather than simply satisfying the audience on a traditional sense. The time jump from 1988 to 2020 is risky but brilliant. There is a maturity in the way it tackles loss, acceptance, and renewal.

Latter Days

Latter Days (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

One scene perfectly showcases why “Latter Days” does not work as a convincing human drama. Christian (Wes Ramsey), having just confronted by his love interest (Aaron played by Steve Sandvoss) of the possibility that there might not be anything else to him other than being a physically beautiful party boy, visits a man named Keith who is dying of AIDS (Erik Palladino). For a while, Christian and Keith are provided dialogue with spark; the screenplay introduces the idea that Keith is a reflection of Christian should the party boy continue the path he’s on. But notice how the scene ends. A psychic or magic element is introduced which completely derails the grounded human angle.

This lack of restraint is pervasive, particularly in the third act in which drama on the level of soap opera takes over. So much is going on that at some point we lose or fail to appreciate the passage of time—necessary because lovers Aaron and Christian are supposed to be fighting their own seemingly insurmountable challenges. Aaron must deal with his homophobic and devoutly Mormon family who would rather have a dead son than a gay one; Christian must learn to be alone and possibly move on from the man he thought he loved. On paper there is conflict, but much of the story’s power fails to translate on screen. And just as suddenly, the picture simply… ends and it feels like all problems are solved.

It is a shame because Sandvoss and Ramsey share good chemistry. The script sounds forced from time to time, but the actors are true professionals in that they commit and inject a real sense of joy, especially in some of the awkward-sounding confrontational exchanges. Their charisma, together and apart, is so strong that despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, we come to appreciate that there is more to the repressed Mormon missionary and the party animal who begins home a different man every night.

Another weakness: the work fails to communicate why Aaron’s religion is important to him. We see him studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, but what is it about his faith that helps to define him as a person? Having come from Idaho and being raised by religious parents isn’t good enough. To answer the question is to separate character from caricature.

In regards to Christian and his party-loving ways, this character is more defined. He recalls a heartbreaking memory about his father who took him hunting. The father believed that if his boy killed an animal, it would make him a man—it would stop him from becoming queer. This memory gives us enough information to consider why Christian lives the way he does. The connection between his past and present is touching and beautiful, but I will not detail it here.

Supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. We learn not one interesting detail about Aaron’s fellow Elders played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rob McElhenney. And even less when it comes to Christian’s friends and co-workers at the restaurant, one of whom is played by Amber Benson. Jacqueline Bisset plays the restaurant owner; there is whiff of enigma in her Lila, but I think it is because she is the most subtle performer of the bunch. Those eyes tell a story. She need not say a word to capture our attention. I wish the screenplay adapted her elegant approach.

Written and directed by C. Jay Cox, “Latter Days” did not move me emotionally. I recognize a few of its strengths. I recognize, too, that the love scenes may be titillating for some. The actors’ built bodies are well-photographed, the lighting sets up the right mood, and they do not end too quickly nor do they wear out their welcome. But the storytelling must be strong. It must be told with focus, energy, and grace. It must be paced well. Otherwise, nearly everything sticks out like elbows.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018)
★ / ★★★★

There is a curious drama hidden underneath “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” written by Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney, a story that involves correspondences between an eleven-year-old boy who aspires to become an actor (Jacob Tremblay) and an adult television actor on the verge of superstardom (Kit Harington), but its fancy touches—like where a camera is placed in order to show a scene in a “unique” way, how characters tend to break into speeches when emotions run high, on-the-nose songs playing suddenly on the radio designed to underscore how a person is feeling just in case the audience doesn’t quite “get” it—bog it down. For a film about crippling loneliness, it seems afraid or unwilling to get to the point. There is a minefield of unnecessary decorations here. Sometimes less is more.

It is all the more disappointing that the film is filled to the brim with wonderful supporting performances, from Susan Sarandon as the titular character’s alcoholic mother, Natalie Portman portraying a former actress whose promising career perished when the father of her child decided to abandon them, to Thandie Newton as a journalist, typically covering politics, who is thrusted, much to her dismay and exasperation, into interviewing an actor named Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer)—the boy, now a man, whose idol died due to drug overdose in 2006.

But out of these veteran performers, Kathy Bates and Michael Gambon shine brightest, the former playing John’s no-nonsense manager and the latter as a grandfather whose grandson is a big fan of John’s. They stand out for two reasons: 1) strong performances that demand the viewers to look at the screen without blinking and to listen deeply and 2) their ability to put into context what writer-director Dolan fails to accomplish. The Bates character underlines that in order for John to live a life of happiness and fulfillment—and they are two different things—he needs to live an honest life. Meanwhile, the Gambon character highlights the fact that sometimes we forget what we know we deserve. Dolan’s story involves dreams, Hollywood, and celebrity, but Bates and Gambon reminds us of the humanity of the people who choose to live a life in front of the camera—that John and Rupert’s stories are relevant to yours and mine.

John keeps a secret that the fact he is a homosexual. But there is no drama. Does he wish to keep it a secret because he fears it would extinguish his blossoming career? (He is shown to be a heartthrob, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in the ‘90s.) Or does he simply hate the fact that he is gay? Is it a mix of both—or something else entirely? The viewers are left to make numerous assumptions based on stories—better stories—from other movies—better movies—we’ve seen before. But this is a mistake because we are supposed to learn about and empathize with a specific character, not some vague idea or archetype. It is supposed to be a personal story, perhaps even autobiographical, but it lacks flavor and specificity. It doesn’t work.

The drama is dead dull. It has nothing new or special to say about modern celebrity, idolatry, or public and private spheres. And yet it has the bravado to cover itself with stylistic pretensions. I was so detached from it, that, at one point, childhood bullying is happening front and center… yet I caught myself trying to read texts of various posters in the classroom.

Out in the Dark

Out in the Dark (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is an LGBTQ film that aims to tell a story from a specific perspective, not just offering yet another typical love story that hits the expected sweet spots which then paves the way toward a doorway of happily ever after. Instead, it aims to show aching truths and confounding realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the deeply-rooted strife affects the every day lives of those who happen to come across love.

Co-writers Yael Shafrir and Michael Mayer, the latter directing the picture, tells the story through a fresh lens and provides voice to a difficult and sensitive subject. In the middle of the story that commands a quiet power, I wondered why we are not provided more stories like this in the west. By putting a face on numerous assumptions and impressions we hear from the news and politicians, perhaps then we would care more about specific conflicts in the Middle East, especially ordinary people who simply wish to get on with their lives. Despite the film’s shortcomings, such as moments of melodrama with family members and ill-paced chases, its angle remains exciting until the final image.

Palestinian graduate student Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) and Israeli lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni) share wonderful, immediately believable chemistry. There is seemingly minimal effort in how the performers interact, whether they are sharing drinks at a bar amongst queer friends or the two of them just hanging out in the apartment. It is in how Jacob and Aloni look at one another in the eyes, perfectly capturing that particular manner of regarding someone from moment of chance meeting until a couple of weeks of getting to know each other—like every moment is to be savored, relished, memorized.

This romantic approach provides the audience a strong core, something to hold onto, to root for, as seemingly unstoppable external forces, like being forced out of the closet by the Israeli Secret Service and complications with one’s student visa, gather even more power to crush the newly established relationship that we grow to cherish and hope to see grow and evolve. I admired that the picture abstains from providing quick and easy solutions to complex problems; even by the end we are left hanging with a handful of questions. However, we do not feel cheated by its denouement because although problems remain, the tone implies hope.

“Out in the Dark” is uninterested in taking sides or placing blame. Rather, it takes a humanistic approach by creating a portrait of those caught in the crossfire of judgment, threats, and violence. Notice its ability to balance romantic elements with gritty, uncompromising situations often found in suspense-thrillers. These extremes, to my biggest surprise, fit together quite beautifully here. It is exciting to think about the possible stories writer-director Michael Mayer has yet to tell. He’s one to watch.


Absent (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Martín (Javier De Pietro) hurts his eye during swimming class so his coach, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), drives him to the doctor. It seems to be only a minor irritation so the teenager is discharged. By the time Martín and Sebastián finish at the hospital, however, everyone has gone home. This is a problem because Martín is supposed to spend the night at a classmate’s house—who did not bother to wait—and his grandmother has already left town. Martín is not given a spare key. After a few hours of exhausting avenues to get rid of the student, it seems as though Sebastián has no choice but to allow Martín to stay in his apartment. Unbeknownst to Sebastián, this is all a part of Martín’s plan so they can be alone.

Written and directed by Marco Berger, “Ausente” is a very confused movie about an adolescent attraction toward someone twice as old and eventual feelings of guilt that surface. It lacks a bridge between the two extremes and so the internal and external conflicts fail to translate in a way that is moving or, at the very least, sensible.

We are supposed to have an understanding of Martín’s attraction to his coach, but he is made to be a master manipulator until well past the halfway point. While De Pietro is strong at exuding a mix of menace and sexual desire with his glances to the point where we can almost feel like his eyes are undressing his victim, his capacity for darkness is not what the film is ultimately about so it is curious why the writer-director spends so much time making him out to be someone he is not. It is confused tonally because the story is a drama at its core but it utilizes thriller elements to capture our interest. As a result, the conflict between Martín and Sebastián appears phony.

The film seems unable to discern between true sensuality and cheap sexuality. For example, when the coach finally invites his student over to his place, as the material attempts to build attention through the neighbors’ prying eyes, there are a handful of shots of Martín’s body parts, from his groin area to his buttocks. If the goal is to titillate, which is fine, it is not handled in a way that feels right to the material. The fact that the student is underage is always in the back of our minds. It is neither sexy nor seductive. It is creepy.

After an awkward night, never mind that the material does not go in any interesting direction. It fails to take off completely. There are at least half a dozen wasted scenes where Sebastián and Martín eye each other from across the room and we are made to wait and wonder whether the screenplay has something else up its sleeve. Since we do not know the two main characters as people, the twists and realizations feel nothing but creaky machinations of a plot that is desperate to end but does not know how.

The problem in experimenting with different genres is that it is easy to create an imbalance with the ingredients. “Absent” tries to do something different but since key elements do not complement each other, it meanders well past the point where we stopped caring.

My Straight Son

My Straight Son (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Diego (Guillermo García) receives a call from the woman he got pregnant in college that she is heading to London for an opportunity to earn her degree. This means that their fifteen-year-old son, Armando (Ignacio Montes), must come and live with him for a while—a problem because the two have had minimal contact in the past five years. In addition, Armando does not know that his father is a proud gay man with plans of moving in with his partner (Sócrates Serrano) in the near future.

Written and directed by Miguel Ferrari, “Azul y no tan rosa” is an LGBTQ dramatic film with a story worth telling despite its flair for soap opera-like situations and larger-than-life personalities. This is because even though a few of the supporting characters are archetypes, the main characters—the father and the son—are written as real people who make mistakes and are sometimes able to learn from them. We root for the father-son dynamic to reach a similar wavelength not only because the characters are of blood but also since they truly need one another at this point in their lives—at times more than they realize.

I found this Venezuelan film to be refreshingly honest. It is brave in showing a society that does not quite embrace homosexuality. We hear remarks like, “I’d rather my son be a thief than gay” and “I’d rather my son be dead than gay.” While these lines are hurtful and ugly, the script strives to add a layer of complexity by separating the remark from the person by introducing contradictions of what we might think of them when things go bad.

The father-son relationship is moving at times. Diego is far from a perfect father and we see the repercussions of his absence from his son’s life. Armando is very self-conscious about his appearance and we surmise that it might be rooted from the feeling of abandonment he felt as a pre-teen. I found it refreshing that the father giving his son a pep talk is not enough to overcome years of self-doubt.

I expected the script to go on the route of pitying the father because of his circumstance. Instead, he is shown as flawed and I think I was interested in getting to know him more because of it. We meet him as a father who does not know how to be one and we leave him as a father who tries. Sometimes that’s enough.

Hilda Abrahamz is the scene-stealer, riotously funny at times, confidently playing a post-op transgender who loves to perform in public. Delirio del Río is interesting not because she had undergone a sex change but because she is the most confident, most sensible, most normal of them all. Once again this is an example of a contradiction elevating the material.

“Blue and Not So Pink,” also known as “My Straight Son,” gives us a taste of a Venezuelan culture: the good, the bad, and the imperfections. Although the picture does have issues with its pacing—it feels longer than an hour and fifty minutes—its willingness to tell the story in unexpected ways keeps our interest throughout.

Grande école

Grande école (2004)
★ / ★★★★

Paul (Gregori Baquet) has been accepted to a prestigious school which has a reputation of training graduates that become highly successful. Though his decision to room with two other guys, Louis-Arnault (Jocelyn Quivrin) and Chouquet (Arthur Jugnot), over Agnès (Alice Taglioni), his girlfriend, seems practical initially, perhaps there is another reason. Agnès suspects that Paul is attracted to Louis-Arnault. Though he denies it intensely, Agnès proposes a bizarre bet: if she beds the roommate first, Paul must stop his attraction to men; if Paul beds his roommate first, Agnès will leave the relationship in peace.

Though “Grande école,” written for the screen by Robert Salis and Jean-Marie Besset, is not just another LGBTQ movie about a person who must learn to accept his sexuality, as it unfolds, one wishes it were more ordinary—or simpler. In its attempt to be one thing and everything at once—tackling a range of topics from sexuality, race, and class—it ends up being a confused and confusing picture without a strong dramatic pull. Over time, it becomes nothing but a collection of scenes where the actors show they have memorized their lines well.

When the characters end up making speeches, it starts to feel too much like a play. Though the material is originally from the stage, and it might be a very good one, what may work there is not necessarily effective on screen. It requires a completely different energy, flow, and momentum—both in front and behind the camera. Here, though scenes take place in different milieus, the environment is almost negligible.

It should have paid more attention on the human element. What is the main source of Paul’s unhappiness? Is it because he attends a distinguished school but not necessarily passionate about what he is learning? Is his girlfriend too overbearing and at times emotionally distant even though she seems to be around all the time? Or is it because he is tired of constantly being ashamed and having to hide his attraction to men?

The last question is most interesting because many scenes—those tinged with the most humor and sadness—revolve around his bisexuality. For example, when Paul decides to hang out with Mécir (Salim Kechiouche), an Arab who works at the school, in public for the first time, his joy is almost infectious. When they kiss, it is a jolt in our stomachs. When Paul chooses to hold hands with Mécir, it feels like personal moment because we finally see him not feeling scared or being embarrassed or needing to put a front in order to impress whomever is watching. Meanwhile, discussions about class, business, and politics are extremely and unbearably dull in comparison—it does not help that the musings fail to go anywhere worthwhile.

“Grande école,” directed by Salis and based on a play by Besset, is especially problematic in the second half because it does not seem to know how to resolve its story. Characters end up declaring their feelings to the camera. When I saw tears, I sensed performances rather than a true expression of characters’ emotions.

The Fluffer

The Fluffer (2001)
★ / ★★★★

When I watch a movie that takes a look behind the scenes of the adult entertainment industry, I expect to come out of it feeling a little dirty. But I expect to receive a little bit of insight, too, whether it is about the businessmen—or businesswomen—who control what makes it into the final product or about the psychology of performers who are required to shed their inhibitions and clothing in front of the crew and unblinking cameras. Otherwise, if these elements are largely absent, what is the point of taking us into that world? If it is solely for the sake of sleaze, well, then we might be better off watching pornography.

It is curiosity why “The Fluffer,” directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, was made in the first place. It is toothless in satire, the overt comedy is seldom funny, and the characters seem to be skeletal constructs of real people in the industry.

Sean (Michael Cunio) has recently moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of making into Hollywood’s film business. While waiting to snag a job, he spends his time catching up on classic movies by renting tapes from a video store. His intention is to check out Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” but he when he opens the case in his apartment, the tape is labeled “Citizen Cum.” He decides to put it into the VCR anyway. One of its lead stars is Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney) who captures Sean’s interest immediately. While he waits for his big break, he decides it will be a good idea to work as a cameraman for the pornographic company that consistently hires his latest obsession.

One part of the problem is the casting. While Cunio is a capable actor, perhaps the best in the film, he is too good-looking and appears too intelligent to pass as someone who cannot get a job—any job—outside of porn. It would have been more believable if an actor that is cast either looks like a regular Joe but clever or handsome but comes off dumber than a pile of bricks. An actor who commands both is neither as interesting nor seems to fit the role of Sean as someone who lacks one or both qualities.

The older gentlemen (Richard Riehle, Tim Bagley, Taylor Negron, Robert Walden) in charge of who gets cast, where the sex scene should take place, and what ought to make it through the editing room do not get enough screen time. They are also underwritten. They are reduced to playing bumbling and arguing man-children which is frustrating because they obviously would not have had their positions if they were not smart, knowledgeable, hardworking, likable or cutthroat. These men should have been key to Sean’s education about the film business—whether he decides to stay working for the sex industry, somehow makes it into Hollywood, or leave his dream altogether and settle for something else.

Instead, the picture is mired in a one-sided attraction between Sean and Johnny. It is without focus, only to be blurred further by subplots—one about a pregnancy, the other about a potential boyfriend for the protagonist—that are as dramatic as they are without entertainment value.

All the while, my mind keeps going back to Silver (Adina Porter), a black woman who happens to be a lesbian working in gay porn. Porter demands attention because her delivery of lines has a strength, hinting that her character is jaded but clinging onto the idea that staying at her job is practical for monetary purposes. I wanted to know more about her because the essence of her story is relatable to a lot of people.

Based on the screenplay by Wash Westmoreland, “The Fluffer,” the person who gives a performer fellatio in order to keep his penis erect during filming, goes around in circles. It takes place somewhere that should be interesting but it fails to do anything with it. We walk away from it, taking away nothing we don’t already know.

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

After his father dies, an Orthodox Jewish man named Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) takes over and reopens his father’s butcher shop. From his demeanor, he has not yet completely come to terms with his father’s transition. There is a languidness and sadness behind every movement he executes. He consistently looks down as to avoid contact of any sort. When a customer comes into the shop, he looks up and engages slightly to maintain professionalism. Still, life must go on for he has a family to look after.

Based on the screenplay by Merav Doster, “Einayim Petukhoth” is not about a quickly evolving plot. It likes to take its time to show how a specific Jewish community in Jerusalem lives, thinks, and deals with problems—conflicts in direct opposition to the word of God. There is violence—physical, in the looks given, through rumors passed from one person to another, and the unsaid—and not once does the picture offer an easy solution.

Aaron hiring Ezri (Ran Danker) to work as an apprentice in the butcher shop drives the plot. While the former is highly respected in the community, the latter is not only a stranger from out of town but it appears as though he has a history: being kicked out of an educational institution for having performed “too many good deeds,” a euphemism for being a homosexual. But the movie is not about sex or love. It is about repression.

The religious hypocrisy is unveiled in one of the key scenes involving a leader who lectures his class about how God considers people who abstain as sinners. For example, a man who does not drink wine when it is available is a sinner for God does not want man to suffer. But the explanation does not make much sense to Aaron. He argues that abstaining from immediate pleasure ought to prove one’s devotion to God. Aaron, like new apprentice, is a homosexual. His act of not acting on his homosexual needs and wants is a challenge to be endured. He believes his sacrifice will bring him closer to God.

I watched the picture in rapt curiosity. The subject matter is compelling because in the center lies a man who is so willing bury who he is that he prevents himself from living. He has a beautiful family but notice that he interacts with the children only occasionally. His wife (Rivka Fleischman) getting attention—except compliments for her cooking—is rarer still. Later in the picture, Aaron admits to a rabbi (Isaac Sharry) that prior to Ezri’s arrival, he felt dead inside. I admired that the film does not result to the butcher and his apprentice experiencing complete happiness via a ridiculous montage. The more touching moments are very brief, hidden from the world, and often shared in silence. The suffocating influence of their conservative community never goes away.

At the end of “Eyes Wide Open,” directed by Haim Tabakman, we wonder about Aaron’s future as a father and husband with a responsibility to his family, as a man who loves God, and as a human being who is aware that he is not happy. How long will he be able to keep it up? I stared intently at the water in the final shot. The image fades to black.

A Jihad for Love

A Jihad for Love (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

“A Jihad for Love,” directed by Parvez Sharma, gives us a peek into the lives of Muslims who happen to be homosexuals. Since it widely believed, from the common people to high scholars, that the Quran forbids homosexuality, Muslims who love and are devoted to their religion, Islam, who also consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ community are marginalized, punished, and condemned. Others are put to death.

I do not know much about Islam or what is or is not stated in the Quran, but what I do know is that the Muslims that I have met are kind people. So when I learn about acts of violence toward homosexuals and other minorities related to the Islamic culture in the news, I cannot help but wonder and ask questions. How is life really like for LGBTQ people on the other side of the world? When confronted with questions about homosexuality, how will people who have studied the Quran for many years respond to them?

The documentary lays out the essence of the religion and its followers but only to an extent. Its main focus is on the struggle of those who are treated as outcasts as well as their personal endeavors when it comes to reconciling their theology and being gay.

Particularly memorable is Muhsin Hendricks. He is out of the closet in a very public way and we listen to the radio broadcast of people calling in and expressing their outrage. Some say he, an embarrassment, has no right to be calling himself a follower of Allah. Others demand that he receive physical punishment or be put to death. When he asks his daughters, aware of their father’s homosexuality, if they think gay people should be put to death, the way they answered, not necessarily the content of their responses, is heartbreaking. They are torn from having to choose between their inherent feelings for their father and what they are taught to believe is right or true. A lot of us are not required to make a choice.

Maryam is a lesbian who, in my opinion, clings onto semantics and contradictions in order to be able to live with her sexuality. According to the sacred writing, sexual relations between people of the same gender, specifically between men (never mind the intended context from when it was written), is forbidden. She says she allows herself to love another woman without the physical act—sex—that comes with the relationship. In essence, because she abides by the technicality, she is not committing a sin in the eyes of God.

We may not understand or agree with her point of view completely, but the film does a good job capturing her sadness. We are allowed to sympathize with her. We recognize that she is trapped and perhaps will remain that way for the rest of her life.

The film stays away from showing physical violence committed against homosexuals. The daggers are embedded in the words, the intonations, and the looks given by a respected elder to the homosexual sitting a couple of feet from him. Gay Muslims having to find refuge in other countries out of concern for their safety, as well as their families’, and then later talking about how they miss home and their loved ones via telephone pack a sting, too.

One of the subjects asks, “Why do [people] think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?” It is an excellent question. But I think the reason is this: a lot of people define their lives by following the “right” thing even if a part of them feels that a longstanding rule or belief might be wrong. It is more convenient to overlook or to ignore or to lash out than to consider a challenge, to think about it critically, and to engage in a calm and fair evaluation. Such is the dark side of blind faith.

The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is Friday night and Jeff (Russell Crowe) can barely contain his excitement and nervous energy. He feels it is time to approach the person he has had his eye on, a fellow named Greg (John Polson) who frequents the same pub as him. Jeff lives with his father, Harry (Jack Thompson), who is aware and has accepted his son’s homosexuality. Harry, too, a widower, is searching for love. With the help of a dating agency, he meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a clean and proper woman. With plans of taking their relationship further, Harry wonders if the new belle in his life could accept the truth about his only son.

Many LGBT-themed movies center around the idea of parents finding out the truth about their son or daughter, wrestling with the idea, and coming–or not coming–to terms with it, so it is most refreshing that “The Sum of Us,” based on the play and screenplay by David Stevens, is about a father and son who have gone through the coming out experience. The attention is now toward other people, who may or may not be accepting of lifestyles outside the sphere of heteronormativity, and the familiar fear of rejection.

Harry and Jeff address the audience directly about their thoughts that go unexpressed, equally effective as a comedic and dramatic tool. When one gets very annoyed from a barrage of ill-timed jokes, the other stops and turns toward the camera thereby having a chance to let go of the remaining quips. Conversely, when something is too painful or ought not be expressed to someone else at a particular moment in time, the asides force us to get closer to the sensitive situation by allowing us to absorb what a character is thinking fully. The temporary disruptions from the flow of the story is utilized with balance and control.

The most memorable portion of the screenplay involves Greg being invited by Jeff to his home. Although Harry serves as comic relief, often popping out of the blue and blabbering on about so-and-so, completely putting a halt on the romantic tempo between his son and the visitor, his presence is always welcome. I could not help but be touched by how good the father is to his son. They get on each other’s last nerves once in a while but their love for another is never doubtable. I wished more movies would show a father and his gay son or daughter interacting like a normal family. Notice that the essence of their conversations, if and when sexuality is brought up, is about feelings that are universal, not the stereotypes that conveniently fit under “gay,” “straight,” “masculine,” or “feminine.”

The flashbacks, shown in black and white, are designed to further our understanding of father and son. With Harry, most important is his first time experience going to a gay pub after he learns about his son being attracted to other men. With Jeff, he recollects spending fun times with his late grandmother (Mitch Mathews) and the implications behind Gran having a live-in partner named Mary (Julie Herbert). The common thread is curiosity and the past is used to weave a bridge to make sense of the present.

Directed by Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, “The Sum of Us” is ultimately about the love within a family, not “gay” love or “straight” love. It avoids easy solutions to complex circumstances, but at the same time it is brave enough to make us laugh when things take a serious turn. It is a way of coping, a slight nudge to remind the good that remains.

Taxi zum Klo

Taxi zum Klo (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★

Frank (Frank Ripploh) is a thirty-year-old grade school teacher in Berlin who has consistently done a good job in keeping his private life separate from his work. He maintains a very active sex life by frequently visiting baths, restrooms, bars, and other places where he can hook up with other gay men. The responsibility of having to juggle the two spheres proves too much, however, when Frank decides to live with Bernd (Bernd Broaderup), a theater employee who was supposed to be just another one-night stand.

An autobiographical film written and directed by Frank Ripploh, “Taxi zum Klo” offers confronting images about the sexuality of gay men, but it is not created for mere titillation. Underneath it all is a tragedy because it tells a story of a man who is so accustomed to putting up walls so he cannot be read so easily that he ends up not knowing how to relate or connect with another person in a meaningful way. What he comes to know is the physical aspect of sex and beyond it is just darkness.

It certainly has shocking images, at least for its time and for those not exposed to the lifestyle, and, I must admit, I found some of them to be somewhat amusing. I admired that the picture dares to go to a place and is fearless in engaging the audience with details. For example, Frank visits a restroom, obviously a place where sex—one way or another—is involved, and sits in one of the stalls. To his left is a hole where one can observe another man stripping, masturbating, or whatever else. That hole is also used for oral sex. Though I could not help but snicker at what was happening on screen, the camera is unflinching, still, and determined to show what some gay men do—in the closet or not.

A recurring theme involves people being out in public—at a gathering or during a one-on-one conversation—and the exchanges being interrupted with images of sex. In an early scene, Frank and his fellow teachers spend the night out. At first, it seems to be just another scene designed to show that Frank is just another person despite his sexual orientation. On the contrary, and it remains open to interpretation, because of the intercutting scenes of someone masturbating—in color—and a group of men having sex—in black and white—I started to consider that Frank might have a degree of sexual addiction. Are those images thoughts that appear in his head while interacting with his colleagues? Though he seems to listen when someone is speaking to him, is he detached from what is in front of him?

And then there is Frank’s relationship with Bernd. The latter is ready for a commitment, so open in sharing what he hopes the two of them—together—will attain in the future, but the former cannot be bothered to look that far in time. There is a sadness and frustration to Bernd that he refrains from expressing because he is afraid that if he does, he would lose the man he loves. We may not agree with his approach but the mistakes and the dysfunctions of the relationship are interesting and so we are forced to look closer.

“Taxi zum Klo” is a brave and, in my opinion, a successful attempt of taking the subjects of homosexuality and homosexual acts out of the darkness. Though it may offend many due to some of its over-the-top images (there is a sequence that involves Frank urinating on a partner’s face), some going as far as labeling it pornographic, the characters are imbued with complexity that I ended up being more interested in their state of minds than what they do to satiate their carnal desires.

God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that explores what love is and its many definitions.

Filled to the brim with thick Northern England accent with no subtitles to guide the viewer, I was frustrated that I could not make out what was being said exactly by the dialogue. I felt my dissatisfaction grow when it becomes apparent about fifteen minutes in that although words are scant, they command importance. This is especially critical because our protagonist is a person who is closed off, desperately lonely, and an expert when it comes to internalizing his thoughts and feelings. So I tried a different technique in order to try to understand: listen to the dialogue but do not hang onto them. Let the images serve as a guide to make sense of the story and its characters. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the preferred avenue to absorb this film’s quietly disarming power.

The picture presents a definition of love as a romantic connection. Numerous LGBTQ+ pictures, especially generic comedies and bad dramas, appear to write the material around sexual encounters and sudden twists of fate that lead to a happy or tragic ending. Not here. There is emphasis on fear of being alone for the rest of one’s life because one is gay and in the closet, how this fear is perverted into numbness, unexpressed rage, and self-sabotage which then leads to a consistent self-denial of perhaps connecting and exploring with another person who just might help to break one out of this cycle.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is tasked to mind the farm after his father (Ian Hart) had suffered a stroke which led to his paralysis. Johnny is reckless, unemotional, and prone to binge drinking after a long day of work. So that Johnny will have help during the lambing season, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant worker from Romania, is hired. Avoiding every trapping and predictable beats of the sub-genre, Gheorghe and Johnny establish a connection. Although they are far apart in personality, temperament, and view of the world, they actually like one another. Notice how writer-director Francis Lee employs minimal dialogue. Instead, emphasis is placed on how the two men look at one another, how they take up space when near each other, the silence simmering between them, and the amount of distance between their bodies when all they wish to do is embrace for hours.

The film, too, underscores love as passion for one’s work. In the beginning of the film, we assume that Johnny detests farm work through how he handles tools, interacts animals, the overall lack of regard on how well chores are done. In a simple but moving exchange between father and son late in the picture, we learn the truth behind Johnny’s actions. When it comes to Gheorghe, the elemental opposite of Johnny, it is ensured we appreciate details. We observe how he takes off the skin of a dead lamb, how he milks goats, how he cooks, how he operates machines. When Gheorghe is front and center of the frame, there is a much-needed moment of exhalation and tranquility. In other words, it is communicated to us, without relying on words, what Johnny sees in him.

Finally, the work highlights love as family. Again, the screenplay defies expectations. There is no critical moment in which Johnny must come out to his father or grandmother (Gemma Jones). There is no confrontation where one tells another that homosexuality is wrong due to some twisted moral high-ground or that because the Bible says so. Sometimes it is enough to show a person privately learning to come to terms with a knowledge or feeling one has. Furthermore, I loved that the writer-director is willing to show what stroke does to a person and how family rallies to take care of their loved one even through humiliating situations.

“God’s Own Country” is profoundly moving because it is filled with intimate moments. It requires the performers to communicate paragraphs using only their eyes or how they move their limbs just so (and when). On the other hand, it demands the viewer to be open to absorb the story, its vulnerabilities, quiet longings, and messages through unexpected means. Francis Lee should be proud for creating a standout directorial debut. I learned later that he grew up on a Yorkshire farm, and it shows. In some scenes, I could smell the blades of grass and the poetry whispered by the wind.

Making the Boys

Making the Boys (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

“To be a dumb gay person is a luxury that was won for you by gay people who came before when being gay was so complicated and so difficult that dumb gay people didn’t last.” — Dan Savage

What did I think of the film “The Boys in the Band”? I enjoyed it because it does not bother with political correctness. The plot is simple: a group of gay men from different backgrounds, most of them friends but sometimes they cannot stand one another, gather for a friend’s birthday party. Over the course of drinking and partying, deepest insecurities are exhumed. The characters are allowed to be ugly in action, thought, and emotion. They are allowed to be honest, to hurt. Upon the play’s release, it showed that homosexuals—ceaselessly painted in the media as monsters to be feared, disgusted, and are deserving of damnation or as villains who are weak, deplorable, often psychotic—are human beings, too.

“Making the Boys,” directed by Crayton Robey, does a solid job in providing a canvass of the historical climate of the mid- to late-‘60s and connecting the time to Mart Crowley’s inspiration to write the game-changing play. It is interesting how the picture focuses on the dead ends he encountered. For instance, although he was around important Hollywood stars at the time, he felt out of place because somewhere in the back of his mind he had not done anything of value to deserve being in that circle. For those who have seen the play or the movie, understanding the playwright’s mindset holds importance because characters in “The Boys in the Band” have raging in insecurities that are kept hidden just underneath a thin veil of camaraderie.

Furthermore, the documentary paints a vivid picture of how difficult it was to gain support of gay-anything. Financial support was important but the more fascinating angle related to some gay men who were opposed to embracing the play—the very same individuals who wanted homosexual stories to become visible in mainstream media. There were riots and boycotting of the play. The argument was that it showed gay men under a negative light more often than a positive one. Maybe it is impossible for me to appreciate the argument fully now because I did not live through that tumultuous era. Personally, when it comes to the issue of visibility, seeing the good and the bad outweighs showing just the good or just the bad. That way, what is shown is one step beyond one’s expectation or fantasy.

There is not enough information about some of the cast. Appropriate time is given to Cliff Gorman (who gave a highly entertaining performance), Robert La Tourneaux, and Laurence Luckinbill, but the others are mentioned only sporadically. There are questions worth answering: Did the cast get along? Were a few of them difficult to work with? How did they get along with William Friedkin, the movie’s director who also happens to have a habit of firing people? What were their reactions to the play’s success? To the movie’s failure to garner the majority of the support of the gay community? When we are provided information about what had happened to their careers, it comes off too abrupt.

Having Crowley describe his recollections feels exactly right. I enjoyed how he paints a picture in our heads. Notice how he describes the difference in the number of audience, between opening night and the following night, who came out to see his play. He details how long the lines were, the atmosphere of being out there in the streets, what the audience carried with them. One can tell he is born a storyteller. He made me wish I was there to experience it all first hand.