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Private Romeo (2011)
Any gay person will tell you that one of their main problems (granted that they survived adolescence unscarred and are reasonably well-adjusted--that's a big "granted") is that there is no real "language" for romance between two men, or two women. Gay people generally hide their sexuality during the period when others are learning how to express it, and once a gay person has determined to strike out on his or her own, there isn't much in the culture to let them know how to approach another person of the same sex--what the rules are, what to say, what signals to send and how to read the other person. And most "gay movies" that try to fulfill this function are gimmicky and/or maudlin--people in them don't talk like human beings.
"Private Romeo" solves the problem by using the play still regarded as the last word on young romance--William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"--and putting the words of Shakespeare's young lovers in the mouths of two men--cadets at a military training academy. In a sort of limbo while they await orders for transfer, the cadets are (for some reason) studying "Romeo and Juliet" in their classes, and they begin to lapse in and out of the play in their daily lives, as Sam (Seth Numrich) and Glenn (Matt Doyle) meet, fall in love, and play out their destiny in a way that parallels Shakespeare in some ways and departs from it in others. Their classmates follow suit, echoing Shakespeare's world in another way--all of the roles are played by men, and several of them switch from one role to another without any fuss or directorial signaling (after Mercutio's death scene, he simply becomes Capulet).
All of this is accomplished without a trace of self-consciousness. The actors behave in a way I don't believe I've ever seen in a modern Shakespeare adaptation--their movements and inflections are completely contemporary, yet the language comes out of them easily--it never seems jarring or archaic. The actors are trained (Numrich and Doyle appeared in "War Horse") so that they do the play honor yet still make it work as a modern movie. Numrich is a convincingly ardent Romeo--when he meets his Juliet at a late-night beer-and-cards bash (substituting for the Capulet ball), he circles him warily, making tentative gestures at his hand and (eventually) his lips ("give me my sin again"). Doyle's Juliet, the center of the movie, registers the moment of Glenn's surrender wonderfully, and from then on he lives only for his love. His face becomes so eager at the thought of Romeo that we long to see it stay that way--the moments when it collapses and shatters with pain become almost unbearable. None of the other students react in conventionally "homophobic" ways--Tybalt (Bobby Moreno) is just another young men left in charge who has gotten full of himself, and who thinks that Sam and Glenn's liaison will disrupt order at the academy. And Hale Appleman's Mercutio is the most ambiguous reading of that role in quite a while--during the Queen Mab speech, we can't tell whether he is cautioning Romeo against the "dream" of gay love, or whether he has a thing for him himself.
Sorry to have gone on for so long, but this movie affected me in a very personal way, especially during the balcony scene--or, for that matter, any scene in which Romeo and Juliet are together. The movie does what flashier, "concept"-riddled Shakespeare films don't--it makes what now seems quaint and abstract in the play (the feud, the duels) seem electric. There is genuine tension and peril in the air, plus a tenderness that seems earned. Lines take on new meaning ("I do love--a woman", "Is love a tender thing?", and, especially, "Thy beauty hath made me effeminate"). Spoiler--no one dies here, not even the two title lovers, and yet the stakes are as high as ever. And not even the sternest Shakespeare purist could disavow this ending--especially not one who has seen too many screen homosexuals end in suicide (or too many real-life gay teens doing the same.)
Red State (2011)
Doesn't help at all.
"Red State" is a terrible mistake. A hysterically ugly attack on Christian fundamentalism which becomes rather fundamental itself in its denial of all things human. During the running time of this movie, no one says or does a single believable thing. They are just stereotypes commenting on stereotypes, with lots of grimy art design and speeded-up camera-work to mask the hollowness. The plot (three teenage boys are entrapped and tortured by a fanatical religious cult) is just an excuse for a paranoid sermons, delivered with a sledgehammer. And the three teenagers are so incompetent when they (briefly) escape and get the upper hand that they lose all sympathy. As all horror movie fans back to the 1950s know (and movie makers have never learned), screaming, helpless people who make no effort to save themselves are not dramatically interesting.
Poor Melissa Leo must have been desperate for a paycheck. John Goodman (photographed cruelly, so that he resembles a bird of prey) is on hand to represent Government Bureaucracy and the Crushing of the Individual Spirit, in a series of speeches that make one feel queasy and embarrassed. There is no appreciable difference between this cinematic abortion and "Saw"-style torture porn, except for the self-congratulatory overlay of moral sanctimony. Except for a few of the violent scenes, this script could have come out of the 1950s.
One of the most entertaining movies of all time, and I know I'm not the first (or last) to say so. Hailing from the days when Hollywood knew how to make light, sophisticated, thoroughly artificial entertainment. (When modern Hollywood tries, the results generally thud.) This movie has nothing to do with "reality" as we understand it; it's a playground for adults. Audrey Hepburn, as usual, wears faultless Givenchy clothes (on a translator's salary?) and tosses off endless Parisian-style bon mots without the slightest effort (everyone's favorite has got to be her summary of "what's wrong with" Cary Grant.) When her life is put in danger, she is just as intense as she was in the thriller "Wait Until Dark", but without losing her sense of humor. (After an unsettling sadistic scene where James Coburn corners her in a telephone booth and tortures her with lighted matches, she's discovered by Grant, who asks, "What are you doing in here?" "I'm having a nervous breakdown," she growls.) In fact, this movie may be unparalleled in its balancing of comedy and suspense. I find that those who condescend to this type of filmmaking as "irrelevant" or "unimportant" don't understand how hard it is to come up with truly entertaining fluff. When in recent years has there been a comparable example?
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
A brave attempt, overwhelmed by itself
Someone might "need to talk about Kevin", but what is there to say? That seems to be the point of this madly ambitious, brave, foolhardy adaptation of Lionel Shriver's book about a mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), whose son Kevin (Ezra Miller) massacres several fellow students at his high school, just days before his 16th birthday. We learn this fairly soon; much of the first half-hour of Lynne Ramsay's film is shot in a fragmentary, time-jumping style, with nearly wordless closeups of Swinton as she wanders like the undead through her miserable new existence. Neighbors stare at her, splash red paint on her porch, and in some cases physically assault her. Her new job is low-rung office dronedom. Every time she leaves her house she's tensed in preparation for another awful encounter; when she is accosted by one of her son's surviving victims (who is in a wheelchair) and he just wants to see how she is, she's pathetically grateful. In between, she ranges in her mind over key incidents from her marriage and motherhood, trying to determine what she did (or didn't do) to produce such a monster as Kevin, and whether or not there was a point of no return.
This is a strong, inherently dramatic subject for any movie. Yet, apart from a few striking moments, this is basically a fragmentary modernized version of "The Bad Seed", that hokey 1950s melodrama about a killer tot who was "doomed" genetically. Only now most of the dialogue has been taken away and replaced by "portentous" film-school collage effects which are more heavy-handed than speeches. The symbolic use of the color red (not exactly subtle) is used to cartoon extremes--a jelly sandwich is turned, through repetition, into a foul object. Everything is shoved into our faces; we're not allowed to interpret anything for ourselves. Yet we never learn what seems to be paramount--the nature of Kevin's crimes and their aftermath. (I don't mean they should have been depicted on screen, but there could have been a TV news update or something.) The best effects are the most underplayed, as when Eva receives a visit from two Jehovah's witnesses who ask, "Do you know where you are going to spend your afterlife?" "Yes, actually, I do. I'm going straight to hell. Eternal damnation, the whole bit. Thanks for asking," she tosses off breezily. In another scene, she's at a holiday office party and Colin, another desk jockey who has been eying her, asks her to dance. Needled by her good-natured refusal, he leans close to her ear and whispers, "Who do you think you are, you stuck-up bitch? Who do you think is going to want you now?"
Gay tragedy porn
This prison drama was recently described on the message boards as "tragedy porn", and I can't think of a more appropriate term. No one in "Release" suggests a human being; all of them are sociological constructs designed for yet another demonstration of the waste and meaninglessness of life, a la Clint Eastwood. This is the kind of movie in which as soon as you see the female warden (Dymphna Skehill, whose performance consists of chewing her tongue while keeping her lips clamped together) proudly hang a framed certification on the wall, you know it's going to be smashed. (Authority is a sham!) And, topping even that, an inmate can't just be stabbed--he has to be stabbed with a sharpened crucifix! (Religion is all hypocrisy!). And so on, and so on. The story concerns a priest, Father Gillie (Daniel Brockleback) who has been jailed for ambiguous reasons and is suspected by the other inmates of pedophilia, which sets off a near-psychotic reaction in his teenage roommate (Wayne Vigo), a victim of abuse and (possibly) rape. Gillie is persecuted by almost the entire prison, led by Max (Bernie Hodges), and his only solace comes in a love affair with one of the guards (Gerry Summers, who is very appealing but seems too sensitive to have passed the screening process). Surprisingly, this affair is the element that comes off most believably, mostly due to the personal charm and naturalness of Brockleback and Summers. But with this setup, there's really nowhere to go but down, and everyone works very hard to make all the ghastly events that follow seem "inevitable"and "tragic". Unfortunately, we're given far too much time to think about all the implausibilities--such as why everyone listens to Max in the first place? We're told he's the unofficial leader of the prison, but we never feel it, especially since Hodges is the kind of actor who tries to seem "sinister" by whispering all his lines. And we're just supposed to accept that Vigo is "unstable", which explains why he's so easily manipulated into precipitating the final crisis.
Why is it that the movies that strive the most to be "gritty" and "realistic" come off as the most contrived? Wake up, filmmakers--"life is unfair" is not a daring or original message, and it won't come as a big surprise to the majority of moviegoers. When someone works this hard to pound us over the head with bitter truths, the glossiest old 1940s MGM musical seems a model of naturalism by comparison.
"Mulligans" is a pleasant enough example of a genre I have a certain weakness for--the gay/rural movie. While the more common urban gay movie tends to be about neurosis, overdramatics, and "witty" banter, the gay rural is generally less pushy and more disarming, with guarantees of pretty scenery and pretty male semi-nudity (often cued by nighttime swimming). The danger, of course, is that the director will get lost in the prettiness and forget to tell a story. "Mulligans" barely avoids this trap, although the story it tells is a lot less daring than the writer/star Charlie David apparently imagines. The movie is never actually painful to sit through, but we're all very familiar with the beats of the coming-out drama by now; the twist here is that the "torment" of the two men in question (Dan Payne as Nathan, a middle-aged, closeted golf enthusiast, and David as his college-age son's best friend Chase) is pushed to the sidelines--which is probably for the best, as the astonishingly beautiful David is a hopeless nonactor. (The only moment we feel sympathy for him comes at the beach scene near the end, when he tries to force tears and is clearly in agony from the effort). The reactions of Payne's wife, Stacey (Thea Gill) and son Tyler (David James) take over, simply because they're more unexpected. Baynham starts out giving a flawless impersonation of a slightly spoiled and entitled frat boy (like the ones in 80s movies and their latter-day imitators, such as "American Pie"). Then David, trying to sound casual, comes out to him, and Baynham--shaken, but trying his best to be broadminded--brings something unexpected out of the stereotype. It's a well-written scene, which seems to come from observation and probably reflects the experiences of many gays in the audience. The movies have rarely touched upon the relationships between gay men and their straight friends, which can be more solid and enduring than similar friendships with other gay men--the usual method is to pour on the wisecracks or play "is he or isn't he really straight" games.
The actual transgressive act between Nathan and Chase (don't those names scream Harlequin romance novel?) is awfully tame, even by gay rural standards. It's not just the brief vanilla sex scenes themselves--it's that there doesn't seem to be any new physical awareness or tension between the two characters afterwards--nothing breaks loose. Payne just carries on acting stoic and sensitive, in a 1950s soap-opera way, and David carries on posing and reflecting light, while we wait for the contrived scene revealing their affair. It comes even more awkwardly than expected, but at least the film's meditative rhythm gets stirred up, largely due to the exquisite Thea Gill's performance as Stacey, the only character who truly "arcs". Gill initially plays Stacey as a determinedly perky helicopter mom, full of nervous energy. Most of the humor and pace of the first half of the movie comes from her. When someone makes a conversational detour she doesn't care for, she says, brightly, "Okay then" and steers the talk firmly away, like a slightly hysterical cruise director determined to keep everyone happy and active. (It becomes a mini-routine). Once her world crashes down, though, it really crashes--she retreats into herself, and it's a little scary to see what that artifice was hiding. Gill brings a poetic intensity to her stunned silence--she'll really never be the same woman again.
Certainly not like anything else
I don't know when I've seen a film that was so beautiful and yet so utterly baffling. It's not like any other movie you'll ever see. Every single image is stark and brutal--the director, Vincent Ward, is trying to enter a primitive painting and make drama out of it. And he has a perfect setting--a sheep farm in New Zealand--that comes from Thomas Hardy's accounts, in which nature wages an unending, unfathomable conspiracy against the characters. It's in the actual story Ward tells that he gets into trouble. His 12-year-old heroine, Toss (Fiona Kay) witnesses her farmer father's death from an accidental fall (as he tries to rescue a sheep) and the camera sits on her impassive face for the first of several eternities. Her restless mother (Penelope Stewart) seizes the opportunity to put the farm up for sale. Her dotty grandfather (Bill Kerr) is like every dotty grandfather in the movies--he putters around, muttering feisty-old-goat aphorisms and tinkering with whimsical machines--and quickly becomes insufferable. Ethan, (Frank Whidden) the hunter who carried the father's corpse back to the farm, shows up again looking to replace the father. Toss and her mother are both attracted and repelled by him.
In one remarkable sequence, we see Toss experimenting with Ethan's gun. She looks through the gun sights and begins tracking Ethan through the house, as if she were ambushing James Bond. When Ethan sees her, he steps boldly toward her and removes the sight, which she had taken off the gun and is holding to her eye like a telescope. We are in D.H. Lawrence sexual-awakening territory now, but the combination of Lawrence and Hardy doesn't ignite the way it should--the director's austere manner (keeping everything at a distance) begins to seem remote and rather obscure. The scenes don't follow from each other; each one goes off on its own, and the characters shift attitudes and allegiances to no clear purpose. The performers start doing a lot of staring and squinting into the camera (for LONG periods) only Stewart makes any impression, as she's the only one who actually engages with the person she's speaking to (and the only one who seems to have any grasp on reality.) The last fourth of the movie is unspeakably depressing. We finally realize that this is the kind of film where explanations and logic are left out, and the resultant confusion is presented as "depth". Fascinating and infuriating, in just about equal measure.
Chanel Solitaire (1981)
A comedy classic
There must be some sort of curse on Coco Chanel projects; the Katherine Hepburn musical, the recent Shirley MacLaine TV movie, and this early-1970s feature film are all unbelievably bad. This atrocity, though, is some kind of classic of unintentional comedy in its first half.
Marie-France Pisier displays all the charm and acting genius she showed in "The Other Side of Midnight" (less than zero) as Chanel, and the script does her no favors. Rehearsing for a singing competition, she asks her aunt (Brigitte Fossey), "Am I really very bad?" As we struggle for a response to THAT, Fossey provides it. "I wouldn't say very bad, just bad." Uh-huh. In this telling, Coco is an odd, petulant little snapping turtle who manipulates people into giving her what she wants. This includes Rutger Hauer as a titled speculator who puts Coco up in his mansion, and Karen Black as a courtesan (with one of the worst French accents ever heard in movies.) The presence of Black and Hauer, two of the oddest actors ever to appear on screen, makes this a must-see. (If you were lamenting a shortage of Rutger Hauer/Karen Black sex scenes, this is the movie for you.) Once the movie settles into the romance of Coco and Timothy Dalton (as a coal merchant), the fun rapidly drains out. I started fast-forwarding long before the "tragic" ending, only slowing down for Peter Allen's memorably overwrought rendition of the theme song (which we've heard violins massacring during the movie's slow patches--all 5000 of them.)
Lilian's Story (1996)
Her life wasn't mediocre, but this film sure is
The great Ruth Cracknell deserves better than this sorry, dispiriting mess.
Based on a real "street celebrity" who recited Shakespeare on corners for a living, "Lillian's Story" has the structure of "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" or an old Hammer horror exploitation epic. Only it's given solemn art-film treatment and it pretends to be a serious examination of age, abuse, and mental illness. Lillian (Cracknell) was committed to an asylum for 40 years by her brute of a father (Barry Otto); she's sprung at the beginning of the film (why now?) by her squishy weakling of a brother (Otto again) and her aunt, and she moves into a seedy room in a red-light district, where she wanders the streets, disoriented and lonely, trying to make connections with the prostitutes and cab drivers, and flashing back to her horrific past (the younger Lillian is played by Toni Collette). The film is one of the worst-shot imaginable, with poor sound recording and ugly color (which shifts to a hideous decayed-lemon tone for the flashbacks). Even worse, each shot is so lingering and so weighted that the film end up as brutal to Cracknell and Collette as their hideous father was. We start to feel like voyeurs intruding on heavily-aestheticized horrors that don't make much sense. None of the guilty secrets revealed are terribly startling; they just feel lurid for luridness's sake, piled on in hopes of a Shocking, Overpowering Statement. The only respites are Cracknell's Shakespearean recitations; they point up the gap between Lillian's dreams and her sordid joke of a real life in a way the rest of the movie can't live up to.
We take care of his body that God may take care of his soul
Unforgettable, moody, and original (in a genre that has been flunking at the last of those adjectives), this Peruvian offering is both sensual and deeply moving, often at the same time. It takes a gimmicky premise and makes that premise seem the most natural way to tell this particular story.
An ordinary fisherman in a Peruvian village (which gets most of its living from the sea) is contentedly married to a lovely woman and expecting his first child (the first shot of the movie is of him resting his head on the mother's stomach, trying to hear the baby's heartbeat). He has the usual gaggle of slightly overcompensating macho friends with whom he likes to hang out, drink, and play soccer. He also has a male lover, a painter/photographer from the mainland who never seems part of any group and who is subjected to the usual provincial cold shoulder. The painter is a sophisticated modern artist plunked down in a primitive world. After a quarrel with the fisherman, the painter drowns, but his spirit cannot truly die; he hangs around, visible only to the fisherman, trapped between worlds until his body can be found and subjected to the burial rites he scorned when he was alive.
As Miguel the fisherman, Cristian Mercado is just right; although he has a taut physique from working, his looks are a little goofy and off enough to make his terror at not seeming "manly" credible. And Manolo Cardona as Santiago the painter has the kind of face cameras pray for, with piercing blue eyes that could haunt any man (or woman) forever. Santiago is something of a wraith even before he dies; he drifts about the fringes of society, snapping pictures and making periodic awkward overtures to the locals (such as offering to buy drinks after a funeral) which are self-righteously rebuffed. He's only fully alive when with his lover; it's as if a dam broke inside him. And Tatiana Astengo is so sensually easy and playful as the pregnant wife that the moments when she snaps and gives orders are unexpected and tonic. (Her husband swears on Miguelito--the newborn baby--that he isn't homosexual, her response--"Don't ever swear on him. Ever. Do you understand me?" leaves absolutely no doubt about it.) Director Javier Fuentes-Leon wanders around this little town, letting us in on all the nooks and corners, and paints a full picture of a society several decades behind our own in its thinking. There's a gay joke told by Miguel's friends in a bar which was cut and is on the DVD extras; I wish it had been retained, because it sums up the movie's theme--that these men can understand a man sexually desiring another man in an "emergency", but the thought of true love--i.e., tenderness--between men is obscene to them. Santiago's death is initially rather a break for Miguel--he can be with his invisible lover and still live up to his "duty" as a husband and father. Yet Santiago, who was a dirty secret before, is an even more powerless one now, and he has to bear the additional indignity of hearing himself scorned and denied by Miguel. It's hard to imagine a more perfect metaphor for the closet. The story comes to an emotionally satisfying resolution which also seems like a new beginning--one where the possible outcomes are as limitless as the sea.