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Sunk by an inconsistent script and some poor casting
13 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers

First off, I love much of Mordecai Richler's work. Duddy Kravitz is an incredible book and one of my fav films. I have no problem with the unlovable effed-up flawed heroes he favors. But "Barney" was, to my mind, a mess. First the good: Paul Giamatti is a wonderful actor. Here I think he did a good job but didn't quite sing in the role. He captures the title character's self- loathing, but the role really goes anywhere, nor does he really capture a lot of the pain he inflicts on others in the way that Richard Dreyfuss did with Duddy. I think the character is meant to have a lustiness and earthiness which Giamatti doesn't quite connect with. Of everyone, Dustin Hoffman comes off best as Barney's crass working class Jewish cop dad.

Minnie Driver, another actress I truly love is okay but gives a highly caricatured performance in this film. For a professional woman in the film she never really connects with her character's intelligence and, instead, plays her as a JAP stereotype. Nor is the pain at her being duped ever become terribly real. But to me, the film really crashes with the Rosamund Pike casting and character. I thought she was not only flat in the role but the character's motivations and actions so implausible that it sunk the film. Here she is, a highly educated woman acutely aware of how her father's cheating negatively impacted her mother's life. She meets a guy at his own wedding who starts coming on to her almost immediately. He courts her even though she knows he's married. She agrees to meet him days after he's divorced. He shows up drunk and vomits in the restaurant. How does she react to this? She gets involved with him almost immediately. It's absurd. Nor do I believe for one second that his continued boorish behavior wouldn't send her packing post haste given her own family situation. I thought Pike had several scenes where she's so flat, I truly have no great interest seeing her again (I didn't think she was especially good in Pride and Prejudice either). Scott Speedman as Boogie seems like another miscasting. The character is supposed to be a hometown Montreal Jew and Speedman has none of the crazy recklessness the character which supposedly drives the character. He just looks like a soap opera actor gone to seed.

Then the movie piles on the pathos toward the end. My father had Alzheimer's so this is a highly personal issue to me. And even given that, this rushed section of the film just seemed like audience manipulation instead of a real examination of a failing parent (Another Canadian film 'Away From Her' did such an amazing job with that subject). In the book, Richler evidently uses the Alzheimer's as a framing mechanism and how the disease comments on his life... Barney's VERSION of his life. The film does nothing with that and instead uses the condition as a way of getting sympathy for an altogether unlovable character. A mess. A mess with a few good performances and scenes which could have been much better.
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Wild Side (2004)
A powerful yet confused film about human connection
15 February 2008
Wild Side is an often moving, sometimes heartbreaking French film about a trio of friends centered around the life of pre-op transwoman Stéphanie. She is a sexworker in Paris (I think these scenes were filmed in the Bois de Boulogne, where a large contingent of mostly foreign-born transwomen sexworkers do their trade). She comes back into the life of her taciturn mother, a woman who lost a husband and a daughter and had previously decided to break contact with Stephanie after she transitioned. Now, as the only available caretaker, Stephanie is responsible for the mom, and brings her back to their rundown hometown in the North of France. Along the way, we meet Mikhail, a bi or possibly gay illegal Russian immigrant who is involved with Stephanie and Djamel, an Algerian male prostitute from the dumpy highrise projects north of Paris. How they all met is never really explained and not so important... the story is really about their various regrets and how they feel about this trio (not really a manage á trois since they aren't into group sex).

The spine of the film is the powerful performance and screen presence of Stephanie Michelini as Stephanie. While not a trained actress (this was her first acting job) she brings a quiet longing to the role and never has a false moment. She's female at the core of her soul, often very pretty framed by her beautiful ringlets of hair, even when the camera lingers on some of her face's hard edges. Matching her is Edouard Nikitine as Mikhail, giving a powerful, sad performance with dark, sometimes dead eyes. The two have a silent bathtub scene which is loving and erotic at the same time. Unfortunately, Djamel, the gay prostitute, doesn't add much to the mix. Yasmine Beimadi (a professional actor) gives him a bravado and almost Jimmy Cagney pugnaciousness. But why he's in this trio and what he brings to it doesn't seem altogether believable. Perhaps it was to bring out a conflict in Mikhail about being gay... as if his relationship with Stephanie is his last attempt to hang on to woman.

In my experience, such men never have relationships with transwomen and, as with all her customers, mostly very straight-identified men are into pre-op transwomen. I felt Sebastien Lifshitz (who is gay) tried to weld two very different stories together than don't altogether fit. As I watched Wild Side, I kept hoping for more about Stephanie and Mikhail and that a totally separate film had been made about Djamel. Another wonderful performance is given by Josiane Stoleru as Stephanie's sick mother. The scenes between mother and daughter are altogether tender and loving, even when laced with the mother's intense guilt and total disregard for Stephanie as a woman although she relishes her daughter's caretaking of her.

The cinematography in Wild Side (by Agnes Godard) is stunning and Lifshitz is wonderful at using low key sound and silence to add focus and give the film a elegiac tone. Special mention has to be made of one of the scenes opening sequences of roomful of transwomen being dolefully serenaded by genderqueer singer Antony Hegarty (who fronts his own band in NYC). The women in the room form a kind of chorus of trans beauty, pain, solidarity and regrets that is stunning. The song Hegarty sings is mourning the lose of a dead boy (in this care, perhaps, the 'boy' each of his audience members has lost as they transitioned?) It's a beautiful scene but, again, very much a gay man's take on what being a transwoman is. He focuses on the 'super femme gay male' aspects which is reinforced by the 'required' penis shot of Stephanies' body just before song scene.

Also, I found this film's quiet beauty also marred by having Stephanie be involved in sex work and the graphic scenes this entails (focusing on the hypocrisy of her straight clients). Unfortunately, even most gay men have a view of this as being what transwomen's lives are all about (even though Stephanie obviously wants to get out of it). As sensitive as Lifshitz is, he often stoops to an objectification of her that, while beautifully packaged and with a social/political undertone, sends much of the same message as many far more exploitive films.
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A Soap (2006)
some nice moments but very poorly conceived
19 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Some spoilers**** A Soap has some wonderful moments to recommend it. When Charlotte and Veronica get close to intimacy is a beautiful, low key, truly erotic scene. I also loved the music score and the soft, muted cinematography. I'm not clear if the curious stop and start structure of the film comes from it being digested originally in serialized form (the announcer describing the action in sections is quite annoying). My biggest problem with this film is its rather absurd depiction of a transwomen and her life. Of course, she has to be shown as a sexworker (what else), scatterbrained, impractical, absurdly frilly/girly, completely hopeless when it comes to dressing and incapable of making any interpersonal attachments in the world. Moreover, she's always shown with two days growth of beard (for some bizarre reason) as if to emphasize how tawdry her life is. And she's waiting to get gender reassignment surgery when she seemingly has done nothing else to forward her transitioning. In truth, the character resembles a drag queen, not someone in the midst of transitioning.

These are typical fantasies of people from the outside who really aren't connected to transpeople. The film's fetishization of GRS surgery is a way of objectifying people who are going through transition. Not impressed with this aspect of the film in the least. At the very least, why not have the character played by someone who really is transgender... I thought the male actor portraying Veronica was okay but no better than that. Much better was the woman portraying Charlotte, a very complex character full of energy, self-loathing, desire and contradictions. If she was so fascinated by someone with female energy, a Charlotte could go out to a women's bar in two seconds and find it. Yes, she was drawn to Veronica but more as an abstract idea of someone with male/female characteristics (a gentle touch but with a good punch), not as a unique person. Yes, what A Soap says about love is often lovely and moving, but that doesn't mean an already stereotyped minority has to be stereotyped some more in the process.

This film also proves that Danes are lousy dancers. For such a promising premise (better executed in a film like "Different For Girls") the final film is a letdown.
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