July 31, 2011

Queer Review: The Mechanic (2011)

The Mechanic
Director: Simon West
Writers: Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino.
Cast: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase

Simon West's mediocre remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson revenge flick is yet another victim of Hollywood's incessant tendency to straighten out every script it can get it's grubby little hands on.

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is a mechanic or "hitman" who works for a company that carries out assassinations for large amounts of money. When given the job of killing Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), Bishop's friend and mentor, Bishop is at first reluctant but relents when faced with evidence of McKenna's duplicity. After McKenna is dead, Bishop is approached by Steve (Ben Foster), McKenna's estranged son, who wishes to learn how to be a mechanic in order to avenge his father's death. Against his better judgment, Bishop agrees and Steve is soon on his way to discovering who really killed his father.

The Queering
I had read one movie commentator who claimed that Ben Foster's character, Steve, was gay. I also knew that Lewis John Carlino had originally intended his main characters to also be gay, but that element was cut out of the original thanks to studio pressure. I even had seen a preview that had a line from Steve where he discussed the attractiveness of another male character. All in all, I was therefore dead certain as I sat down to watch this version of The Mechanic, that at least one of the character's was going to have their original sexuality brought back.

Unfortunately, I ended up being extremely disappointed. Not only were there references to Steve having a girlfriend, but he is also shown sleeping with a female prostitute. Furthermore, there is nothing in the movie itself that even hints at Steve being attracted to other men.

Then there is issue with the gay rival assassin who becomes Steve's first kill, of which I have conflicting opinions about. While I did not take offence at the gay assassin being portrayed as a brutal thug (he is ultimately no more amoral then the two protagonists) but I did not like having yet another movie that takes visceral pleasure from the murder of a gay man.

The Mechanic suffers from other problems as well. The biggest of which is the editing succumbs to the unfortunately trendy style of "who the hell even knows any more that shots can last more then a second during actions sequences"? Interestingly enough, the over-editing makes the most interesting element of the whole movie the complex psychological relationship between leads. I will be the first one to act all surprised that interesting characterization is the best element of a movie starring Jason Statham.

Speaking of Statham, he falls into the same class of macho actors as John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who arguably were never "great" actors but whose screen presence and reputation could generate the necessary to drive even the most ridiculous plots forward. What I'm saying is that Statham gives pretty much the performance that one would expect from him. Foster does a more interesting job, creating a psychologically complicated individual intent on avenging the murder of his dad, even though Steve appears to have more hate then love in his heart for the one who fathered him.

There is little else worth talking about The Mechanic. As I said, this is a mediocre motion picture whose strongest element is interesting relationship that develops between the two leads. Nothing more to see here.

For fans of Jason Statham's previous action flicks, little harm will come from viewing this. However, if the action sequences had been better presented and the gay content from Carlino's original screenplay restored, I would have been more comfortable giving this a more hearty recommendation. As it is, this is one movie in need of a few repairs.

The Rating


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July 28, 2011

Blogger Stuff, updating old reviews.

Okay, I'm going back and redoing older reviews in order to have them conform to my current formate. Unfortunately, I've run into a little formatting glitch with blogger and it appears I can't use the new format and keep the old links as I have to redo the whole entry. Annoying I know, but until I can make sure that all the links I've used in the entries are updated, I'll be keeping the old reviews in place, and then deleting them once I'm done.

For the record, A Dirty Shame was the first of the re-edits.

Queer Review: A Dirty Shame (2004)

A Dirty Shame
Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Cast: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair, Chris Isaak, Suzanne Shepherd

John Waters' movie A Dirty Shame certainly lives up to its directors reputation and title. A satirical look at our cultural views on sexual practices, fetishes, and taboos, this movie pushes envelopes and John Waters' goals here are to entertain and offend in equal doses.

Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ulman) is a neuter, a word that means in the world that John Waters has created a sexless prude. Sylvia's views on sexuality are so strict that she makes most nuns look like perverted sexual deviants. When she receives a concussion which turns her into a sex addict under the influence of Ray Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville), her world is changed. Ray Ray, it turns out, is the messiah like leader of a group of sexual freedom fighters, each with their own fetishes. Ray Ray's group soon becomes convinced that Sylvia is The One that can lead them to the discovery of a new kind of sexual gratification.

The Queering
As this description implies, A Dirty Shame is not a movie strictly set in reality, but rather in a movieverse alternative, where getting an accidental concussion can cause anyone to switch from being a neuter to being a liberated sex addict and vice versa.

The social message the Waters seems to be pushing here - that many people are too uptight when it comes to sex and too few are tolerant of other peoples private lives - is a little too obvious I would argue. However, I don't think that pushing a social message was even close to being Waters primary objective. A Dirty Shame is a farce through and through and arguably only fails if people are unable to find the humour.

One thing worth noting here is the great deal of sexual imagery seen throughout A Dirty Shame, from the trees and fauna that form suggestive shapes to the giant breasts Caprice "Ursula Udders" Stickles (Sylvia Blair) that dangle over the proceedings.

There is no great acting to be found here, although Johnny Knoxville is memorable as Ray Ray and Tracey Ullman manages the difficult task of playing a character who has no arc, but rather swings wildly back and forth between neuter and sex addict, in a game of sexual liberation ping pong.

Recommended for those not easily offended. For the non-neuters, Water's movie may be perverted and dirty, but there should be absolutely no shame in watching it.

The Rating


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Queer Issue: Bullying and Teen Suicide

This is a little more politically focused, with it's discussions of Michele Bachman's influence on the school policies, then something I would normally promote or focus on here. But I thought this was pretty informative and wanted to make sure it was more widely seen.

July 27, 2011

Queer Review: The Watermelon Woman (1996)

The Watermelon Woman
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Writer: Cheryl Dunye
Cast: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, Camille Paglia, Cheryl Clarke

The debut feature of Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman is a mockumentary that examines the history of black woman in Holywood through the prism of one fictional actress, 'The Watermelon Woman' (Lisa Marie Bronson).

Cheryl Dunye, playing herself, is making a video project on a black "Mammy" actress "The Watermelon Woman" who appeared in 1930's features. As Cheryl goes about her research, she finds out that The Watermelon Woman's real name was Fae Richards and that she had an intimate affair with a white female director Martha Page. While Cheryl is happy with the news that Fae was a lesbian, her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) is less thrilled with Cheryl's new girlfriend, Diana (Guinevere Turner) who is white.

The Queering
Charming and funny, The Watermelon Woman examines the topics of racial, gender, and sexual identity through the talented lens of Cheryl Dunye. What I really liked though, was how Cheryl is able to include a high degree of thematic complexity regarding the titular fictional character. Cheryl never presents us with a definitive version of Fae Richards. We are shown versions of the truth regarding Fae, but no one point of view is given greater weight. One segment has real life cultural critic Camille Paglia (playing herself) presenting an interesting academic feminist take on Fae. June Walker (Cheryl Clarke), Fae's partner of 20 years, criticizes Martha, as well as Cheryl's obsession with Fae's affair with the white director. The funniest segment however, comes when Cheryl tries to do research at the all volunteer CLIT Institute.

There is also some parallelism between Fae and Cheryl. In addition to both of them being black lesbians, Cheryl and Fae's friends both take umbrage with them dating white woman. I'm not sure why that attitude even exists, but this was the second movie I have seen recently that featured an interracial relationship that was condemned by black characters. The other movie being Far From Heaven.

On the technical side, it is clear that The Watermelon Woman was shot on a low budget. The video is visibly grainy and the editing could charitably be called "rough". As for the acting, though, I would be more critical except not only did the cast lack professional experience, the acting is never so bad as to become distracting.

However, the poor film quality does little to diminish Dunye's passion for the subject matter. In many ways, despite some extreme differences between the projects, I was strongly reminded of Born in Flames as both are low budget films that examine issues of race, gender, and sexuality as a single continuum.

Strongly recommended. The Watermelon Woman succeeds at the difficult task of presenting a compelling, thematically complex, and yet also entertaining story.

The Rating


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July 23, 2011

Queer Review: Tootsie (1982)

Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: Don McGuire, Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, and Elaine May.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Sydney Pollack

Since it was released in 1982, Tootsie has recieved many critical accolades. However, after viewing it, I am going to have to be the sour grape in the fruit bunch that will argue Tootsie has been remarkably overpraised. Dustin Hoffman gives a memorable performance but ultimately, his work is not enough to elevate the movie beyond the trite and mediocre material that the rest of the story is composed of.

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a method actor whose methods have given him a reputation for being difficult to work with. After a meeting with his agent (Sydney Pollack) he decides to take a chance and try out for a role as a female administrator in a popular soap opera. To accomplish this, he creates Dorothy Michaels, a strong southern woman who refuses to take any crap from men. When Dorothy is cast, she ends up becoming a popular role model with woman across the country. This success however, is really a curse for Michael, who does not wish to live the rest of his life as a woman and he finds himself increasingly desperate to figure out a way the end the charade.

The Queering
Hollywood has a history of releasing similarly themed films close together. Recently, there were those two Friends With Benefits who wanted sexual relationships With No Strings Attached. In the summer of 1998, asteroids threaten the Earth movies hit theaters twice in the form of Deep Impact and Armageddon. In 1982, there were two crossdressing movies released, Victor Victoria and Tootsie.

In any case, I think it is most unfortunate that there exist only a few films that depict genuine transgender/transsexual characters on film. Films like Transamerica that depict actual transgender/transsexual characters, are outnumbered greatly by the likes of Some Like It Hot, Victor Victoria, as well as Tootsie, where male and female characters engage in cross dressing for practical reasons, rather then because of internal desires. In Some Like It Hot the main characters were trying to avoid being killed by the mob. In Victor Victoria and Tootsie the crossdressing is done so the characters can land a job.

The main issue I have with Tootsie is that it not only contains very little queer content, but that it also really is little more then a standard order romantic comedy with the crossdressing element thrown in to add a little flavor to an otherwise bland dish. As I already mentioned, Dennis Hoffman's performance (or should that be performances?) elevates the material. In fact there quite a few nice performances to be found here. Bill Murray has some humorous dead-pan moments and Jessica Lange makes for a nice romantic foil for Dustin Hoffman.

Furthermore, there is some genuinely funny material here and the dialogue is fairly witty at times, although I should point out there are long stretches where nothing happens. There are also a few too many scenes where the characters do little more then sit around and talk about there feelings. Also, I believe that the audience was intended to find the sight of Dustin Hoffman in a dress hysterical, but I find the notion of drag automatically being funny to be disrespectful to the trans community.

Now while the main theme of Tootsie is one of female empowerment, I could not help but notice another message being sent. Since Michael is really a man who manages to help solve the problems of several female characters, Tootsie ends up subtly reinforcing notions of male superiority. It was not, I believe, the intention of the filmmakers to do that, but none the less, such an interpretation is possible given what is on the screen.

While we are on the subject of those intentions, I believe that the filmmakers really believed that they were making a genuinely progressive film. Now maybe for the decade of the 80's it was. Modern audiences however will likely find the underlying themes of Tootsie to be either trite or dated.

For those with any interest in the history of queer cinema and/or a strong tolerance for a comedy with long stretches where nothing funny happens, Dustin Hoffman's performance makes this worth seeking out.

The Rating


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July 21, 2011

Queer Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Director: David Yates
Writer: Steve Kloves. Based upon the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Evanna Lynch, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith

The final chapter in the Harry Potter movie saga provides a satisfying, although not great, conclusion to the adventure started in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), along with his frineds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), is on the final legs of his mission to hunt down and defeat the dreaded Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes). To do this, he must find hunt down and destroy the final horcrux's (magical objects that allow Lord Voldermort an immortal life) that Voldermort had hidden away in dangerous locations. But not only do Voldermort's henchmen control Hogwarts but he also has possession of the Elder Wand, one of the the three Deathly Hallows and the most powerful wand in the world, thus making him potentially invincible even if his horcrux's are destroyed.

The Queering
First off, I must say that whatever individuals decided to convert The Deathly Hallows Part II into 3D using post conversion techniques are morons. The beautiful cinematography that David Yates had brought to the previous Harry Potter episodes he had directed is ultimately ruined by a cheap gimmick. Most of the imagery is dark and blurry and the majority of the action sequences were impossible to make out. I ended up leaving the theater with a splitting headache. Anyone who sees this in 3D will ultimately end up paying more cash for an inferior product.

As for the movie itself, I think the biggest problem (other then the stupid and greedy idea to convert it to 3D) is structural. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could not have been an easy book to adapt and the decision to split it into two parts has yielded mixed dividends. Considering where Deathly Hallows Part I left off, I was not surprised to find Part II to be plot-lite. I think ending Deathly Hallows Part I with Harry, Ron, and Hermione still trapped in Malfoy Manor would not only have made for a better cliffhanger for Part 1, but would have given Harry Potter more to do this episode then rob a bank before the Battle for Hogwarts and the final confrontation with Lord Voldermort.

Also, while I know that the camping sequences, both those in the book and the previous movie, were reviled by most fans, I personally appreciated them. There is a desperation to them as the trio searches for nearly impossible to find hidden objects while being hunted by Lord Voldermort and his Deatheaters. That desperation is missing from the later chapters of Rowlings final novel and therefore from Deathly Hallows Part II. The last few horcrux's were both the easiest to find and the easiest to destroy, making the struggles and trials of this film seem trite, at least in comparison to what the characters went through in the previous episode.

Of course many people I imagine are interested in Dumbledore, who was never explicitely revealed to have been gay in the books although there were plenty of subtle clues and Rowling later outed him after the books were published. The biggest hint came from Dumbledore's backstory and the relationship he had with Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who preceded Voldermort. In this backstory, Dumbledore failed for too long to realize that his close friend Grindelwald was really evil, thereby allowing Grindelwald to gain power. Rowling has stated that this blindness was because Dumbledore developed romantic feelings for Grindelwald.

Unfortunately, the biggest clue to Dumbledore's sexual orientation was a minor plot hole that was eliminated in the films. Granted this is hardly the greatest straightening out a film has received, as a great deal of backstory has been eliminated in order for the novels to fit into the medium of film.

The strongest themes running througout Rowling's series was about the evils of bigotry. Lord Voldermort was obsessed with magical lineage and his followers condemned those who entered Hogwarts who were from non-magical or muggle families. However, Rowling always took the time to point out the prejudices that many wizards in the magical world, even those who were not among Voldermort's followers, harboured against magical creatures such as Goblins, Centaurs, and House Elfs. The wizarding worlds poor treatment of House Elfs even inspired Hermione to create S.P.E.W (The Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare) in the fourth novel.

The wizarding societies prejudices were not the only morally nebulous elements either. In The Order of the Phoenix for example, Harry Potter's dad is revealed to have been a bully who mercilessly taunted the nerdy Snape when they were at Hogwarts together. Outside of experimenting with some dark magics in Half-Blood Prince Harry Potter could never have been considered anything other then the noble hero and Lord Voldermort never stopped being the most wretched of villains. The world that these two fought in though, occupied a plane that was composed of more interesting shades then pure black and white.

Looking back at the earlier films, I cannot help but notice that most of this moral ambiguity was eliminated. Granted we see bits and pieces here and there but only the most parched skeleton of Rowling's original themes remains.

At least there is nothing worth complaining about when it comes to the acting. The three leads who gave variable performances in the first two movies, have grown into their roles and their experience shows. Rickman, I would argue probably does the best work overall in the series, nailing the character from the day the Potions Master was first introduced. Ralph Fiennes manages to give life to Voldermort and make him one of the most baddass wizards to be shown on the silver screen. No one can do crazy quite like Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is not given a lot to do, but many of them manage to give memorable performances with even only a few moments of screen time. Take for example, Maggie Simith's Prof. McGonnogal showdown with Snape or when Mathew Lewis's Neville gives a resigned speech about not giving up in the face of ultimate defeat.

One of the underlying subtexts here is the power of a mothers love. It is love that made Harry's mom give up her life for him and thus prevented him from being murdered by Voldermort at the beginning of the series. It is also a mother's love that caused Narcissa Malfoy to defy Voldermort at a key moment in this episode for the purpose of protect her own son, Draco, thereby allowing Harry Potter to live long enough for the final confrontation. Also, the most memorable scene, both in the book and movie, is Mrs. Weasley's Terminator impression after Bellatrix Lestrange made the fatal mistake of trying to kill one of Mrs. Weasley's own.

All in all, this is a decent movie, that I believe could have been much better had the film made a more sincere effort to retain the complex themes established in the books and more thought given to the how it was structured with the previous movie.

Strongly recommended for those who have familiarity with the previous incarnations. Novices will be completely lost and everyone should stay the hell away from the 3D version.

The Rating (at least until I can properly assess it in 2D)


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July 20, 2011

Queer Issue: Marriage, Traditional and Otherwise.

At the time of this writing, New York State has passed a Marriage Equality bill allowing same sex couples to get married. This obviously has caused a great deal of celebrating among Gay and Lesbian couples who can now get married.

I have to point out that as long as government is in the business of recognizing marriages, as opposed to civil unions, there is a problem. By allowing same sex couples to get married, the State of New York has simply expanded the boundaries of discrimination, nothing more.

First off, Marriage is a religious institution and therefore the government should not be involved in getting to define what constitutes a marriage. Furthermore, outside of specific cases involving minors (death of parents, child abuse, etc.), the government has little business in deciding who can legally be a family and those who cannot be a family.

What the government should recognize are civil unions. As I have mentioned before, this should not have to have any other restrictions then what are usually placed upon any other type of contract. Adults can engage in contracts, but not minors, nor will civil unions lead to people marrying their horses, pets, and assorted potted plants.

Of course, there are some specific situations that I would like to address further.

Well, that actually happens to be a rather traditional way of getting hitched. There is nothing more ironic than a defender of "traditional" marriage citing same-sex marriage as a slippery slope towards that evil institution of *gasp* polygamous relationships.

I admit that I have had my prejudices in the past. I was not as open minded as I am now about open relationships. However, I have since questioned that position and believe that as long as stringent safe sex practices are observed, there is no reason why any committed relationship has to be limited to two people. Philosophically speaking it is difficult to raise ethical objections against consensual relationships among adults, even those that involve more then one person. Why should the government not recognize them as well?

There is a legitimate scientific concern that people who are closely related by genetic lineage should not procreate as the offspring are much more likely to inherit a genetic disorder. However, those who argue that marriage equality will more likely to lead to incest should be advised that more states right now allow cousins to get married then same sex partners in committed relationships. Just saying.

Furthermore, if we do not give specific special privileges, like tax breaks for adults in committed relationships, unlike to families with kids or other dependants who actually need it, there would be no reason for people who are already related to legally marry. The purpose of civil unions should be to legally expand ones family, not strengthen already existing bonds.

As I have written earlier, civil unions should be for specific cases, to allow partners hospital visitation and the ability to make medical decisions when one partner is unable to do so and for cases involving child custody and inheritance when one partner dies. Ultimately, what is most important is that we have the tools to define who our families are, not have to face unreasonable legal restrictions limiting our options in that regard.

Queer Review: The Dying Gaul (2005)

The Dying Gaul
Director: Craig Lucas
Writer: Craig Lucas, based upon the play The Dying Gaul.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, Peter Sarsgaard

Craig Lucas's directorial debut, The Dying Gaul is a powerful film about the age old conflict artists have faced regarding artistic integrity and the personal compromises that come from selling out. Lucas directs with a sure hand, but unfortunately a weak and abrupt ending nearly undoes everything good that came before.

Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) is a screenwriter who after enduring rejection after rejection, is offered a million dollars by producer Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott) for a screenplay Robert wrote called The Dying Gaul. The catch however, is that he must change the gay protagonists into a heterosexual couple. While obviously reluctant, Robert eventually gives in, despite the protests of Tishop's wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson). While Robert works on the new screenplay, he starts having an affair with Jeffery. Elaine, however soon discovers the affair while chatting online with Robert under the pretense of being another gay man. Once this discovery is made, Elaine starts a complex Machiavellian scheme in order to attain both revenge and closure.

The Queering
The most interesting element of The Dying Gaul for me was the brief but potent struggle Robert undergoes when he is forced to revise his script or give up the million dollars offered to him by Jeffrey. I am sure that this sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood during the scriptwriting process. I spoke before of Hollywood's tendency to straighten out queer material from previously established works. In The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo, Lewis John Carlino talked about being forced to eliminate the gay relationship between the two male leads in order to get The Mechanic made. I would bet that Robert Sandrich would sympathize a great deal with Carlino's real life struggle.

Early on in the movie, Jeffery Tishop gives a cynical, yet entirely accurate speech early on about how no one will go to a film that will teach them anything or make them feel "bad". I presume that screenwriter/director Craig Lucas either did not really believe that or did not have high hopes for his own films success. While not strictly a tearjerker, The Dying Gaul ends in tragedy whose emotional impact is greatly blunted by how it is presented. One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is show, don't tell. The ending of The Dying Gaul while following what I assume happened in the original play, fails to show the audience a critical event, specifically a car crash that kills one of the main players. Not only does this blunt the emotional impact of the event itself, it causes The Dying Gaul to end on completely the wrong note.

This is a shame recently, as up until that point I would have described The Dying Gaul as a nearly perfect motion picture. Had we been shown the final moments of a key character, I would have considered awarding The Dying Gaul 3.5 triangles. As it were, the only good thing about the ending made the decision regarding the rating a bit easier.

The ending aside, I must point out the fantastic acting jobs done by the three leads. Patricia Clarkson makes for a fine femme fatale. Her role is the most difficult as her character starts out as a typical housewife who frets over the amount of violence in her son's video game, before she morphs into something much more dangerous once she realizes her husband's affair. Her unorthodox scheme to find out every detail of her husband's infidelity makes for compulsive viewing. Not quite as good, but still suitably compelling are the performances of Campbell Scott and Peter Sarsgaard as the male lovers. Sarsgaard's Robert is the character who faces the most confict, even though he is the least interesting character of the trio. Scott's smarmy movie producer is a whole lot more fascinating, not just for being bisexual but because of the obvious compromises his character has made in order to achieve success. Jeffrey's speech at the end about the double edged prejudices faced by bisexual individuals both from the straight and gay communities is highly provocative and unfortunately, way too true.

On the technical side of things, there is some gorgeous cinematography on display here and future filmmakers should pay attention to the way Clarkson's Elaine is photographed while swimming through a itty bitty pool, while the angles make it look like she's in the middle of a dizzying ocean. Needless to say some truly remarkable work was achieved here.

Strongly recommended. The Dying Gaul may be a "weepy" (as Jeffery Tishop would put it) with a bad ending but it has enough emotional, thematic, and aesthetic heft going for it to warrant a recommendation.

The Rating


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

July 19, 2011

Queer Review: Far From Heaven (2002)

Far From Heaven
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson

A melodrama made in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, Far From Heaven is director Todd Haynes' homage to the soap operas of Douglas Sirk.

On the surface, the Whitiker family appear to be a normal and well adjusted family living in 1950s Connecticut. However the family patriarch Frank (Dennis Quaid) has a problem, namely a desire to have sex with men in a time and place when any "unnatural" sexual hunger is highly taboo and when he acts upon it, he finds himself trouble with the law. While Frank begins undergoing treatment, his wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) finds her world shaken and her only other source of support in a close friend Eleanore Fine (Patricia Clarkson). Eventually, Cathy finds herself turning to comfort from a black man, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) only to find out that racism was not limited to a Jimmie Crowe in the south. When her friends find out, Cathy finds herself going from a respected party host to social leper.

The Queering
It is clear from watching Far From Heaven that Todd Haynes went to extraordinary lengths to capture the look and feel of a film made during the 1950's. Take away the sub-plot with Frank struggling with his sexuality and Far From Heaven could have been made during the height of the Hays Code. Colours are garishly overstated with greens and purples taking prominence. Visually, this creates a rather memorable look and the Oscar nomination cinematographer Edward Lachman garnered for his work here was highly deserved.

Overall, this is a strong movie, although not a great one. I admired what director Todd Haynes accomplished here but did not always find myself enthralled with it. Haynes clearly has a gift for drawing out most subtle work from his actors and establishing the right mood for a scene. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson, and Dennis Haysbert all give sublime performances. The main quibble I had with the acting was not the fault of any of the performers, but I did keep expecting Dennis Haysbert, who is now the Progressive insurance company spokesperson, to turn around and try to sell car insurance to Cathy.

The most compelling aspect of Far From Heaven is Cathy's journey from respected party host to social leper and the sub-plot with the greatest interest - at least to a queer audience - is regulated to the background. The main plot of course is Cathy's struggles with racism and other McCarthy era prejudices. While one senses that Haynes was intending to make a connection between racism and homophobia, he never explicitly does so, at least not in the way Philadelphia did.

Most movies present the greatest danger from racism as being the violence faced by racial minorities and ignore the damage done by the social and institutional bigotry that has always existed in this country. Far From Heaven takes a different approach, not only is it set in a northern state, but shows how much damage can be wrought by this societal cancer, not by showing the violence, but rather how both Cathy and Raymond are forced to suffer by the rules that ultimately force them apart. Similarly, Frank is also never subjected to actual violence but the psychological harm from the repression that he has undergone shows in every aspect of Quaid's performance.

Overall, this is an interesting film with a lot going for it, even if at times I was never really drawn into the characters struggles. I felt more often then not, that I really was watching the characters through a barrier of more then 50 years. However, given the parameters that Haynes forced himself to work within, what he actually accomplished is commendable.

Strongly recommended. This movie is not quite so far from heaven as the title suggests.

The Rating


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

July 13, 2011

Queer Review: The Birdcage

The Birdcage
Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Elaine May. Based upon the movie "La Cage Aux Folles" by Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, Marcello Danon, and Jean Poiret, which was based upon the original play by Jean Poiret.
Cast: Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski

First a play, then a French-Italian film released back in 1978, The Birdcage is a delightful comedy about how hiding one's true identity can lead to Murphy becoming the law of the land.

Together, Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) and Albert Goldman (Nathan Lane) own a nightclub called The Birdcage. Armand has a son, Val (Dan Futterman) who at the beginning announces that he intends to marry Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart) the daughter of a prominent Senator, Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) who happens to be the Vice-President of the Coalition for Moral Order and is such an ultra-conservative that he describes Bob Dole as "liberal". Fearing the Senators reaction if he were to find out he has gay parents, Val convinces Armand and Albert to "straighten up" and convinces his biological mom Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski) to help with the charade. As these sort of situations in movies always do, things are bound to go horrifically wrong.

The Queering
Do not expect subtlety. The opening number "We Are Family" announces that this is going to be a movie condemning the evils of bigotry. There is really little thematic analysis to be done besides that though. The only other theme of significance is the usual message about the importance of being true to oneself. This is pretty much a straight up farce and a highly enjoyable one at that. The humor and always witty dialogue keep the slim plot barrelling forward, like an out of control train on a collision course with a ticking time bomb.

The clear star of this show is Nathan Lane, whose character Albert's alter ego Starina is a hoot, even though she only has a few moments of screen time. Gene Hackman and Robin Williams are also fun to watch.

One of the weaker elements include Hank Azaria's character who is a little too over the top and comes dangerously close to being a dumb gay and feminine caricature. Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart are also a little flat, although that is probably because the screenplay does not really develop their characters or relationship.

Other than that, there is nothing much for me to say. To use the cliché, this is one fabulous movie.

Highly recommended, there is nothing wrong with being captured by this birdcage.

The Rating


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July 10, 2011

Queer Review: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Director: Dennis Dugan
Writers: Barry Fanaro, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, and Lew Gallo
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Jessica Biel, Dan Aykroyd, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Cole Morgen, Shelby Adamowsky

Somewhere buried in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry there is a really good movie struggling to get out. That is, until it got smothered by Adam Sandler's juvenile "comedy" and therefore what we are stuck with is a half baked retread of better and edgier queer movies with a stinky side dish of homophobia.

Following the passing of his wife, fire-fighter Larry Valentine (Kevin James) has a problem. Due to an unfortunate bureaucratic detail, if he were to die, his kids Eric and Tori (Cole Morgen and Shelby Adamowsky) would be unable to access his pension. So he does what any sane heterosexual father would do, he gets married to his best friend and fellow firefighter Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler). Unfortunately, their sham relationship is under scrutiny by fraud inspector Clint Fitzer (Steve Buscemi) and they must turn to a lawyer Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel) for aid. Unfortunately, more complications arise when Chuck finds that he has feelings (sexual and possibly love) for Alex.

The Queering
In a way Chuck and Larry are facing a rather similar issue that many gay people deal with all the time. That is, in order to succeed, they must closet their heterosexuality in order to uphold a sham marriage domestic partnership. If they fail at this, they face the same problems that queers who were caught by the authorities did at the time of Stonewall, persecution and imprisonment.

It is therefore unfortunate that whatever cleverness there may have been in the premise is quickly overshadowed by the crude comedy employed by Adam Sandler. This film does not even limit itself to offensive gay stereotypes, there are also cruel jabs at the obese during an early fire rescue sequence and some degrading commentary about woman throughout. For whatever reason, Sandler had to make it very clear from the outset that his character is a straight, manly-manly skirt chaser. This would not be a problem in of itself, but Sandler knows no subtleties and goes for the overkill. The scene where he fondles Biel's boobs made me feel like I was watching a sexual assault. I found myself wondering if this movie would have been better if another actor, such as Jim Carrey who gave a brilliant performance in I Love You Phillip Morris, had played Chuck. I also had a problem with Steve Buscemi's obviously gay, fanny pack wearing, villain, as this is the epitome of the effeminate male villain that pervades far too many movies.

Kevin James is fine as Larry, a firefighter still struggling with the death of a beloved wife, even though it's been more than a year since the tragic event. It is too bad that his quiet performance is overshadowed by Sandler's screen hog. I also enjoyed Eric, Larry's effeminate son, who manages to be one of the small pleasures offered up by the movie. Ving Rhames, who usually plays the heavy, also gives a delightfully subversive performance as a tough black guy with a wee little secret.

I regret that the pedantic speeches at the end condemning bigotry could not undo what had gone on before. There is an uneasy union between the homophobic jokes and the high minded ideals expressed in the screenplay. In short, I now pronounce this to be one marriage that is headed for divorce court.

For non-homophobic Adam Sandler fans, this could offer up a few laughs. Anyone else is advised to stay away.

The Rating


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July 8, 2011

Queer Review: The Sum of Us (1994)

The Sum of Us
Directors: Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling
Writer: David Stevens. Based upon the play by David Stevens
Cast: Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe, John Polson, Deborah Kennedy

A gentle comedy/romance story featuring a young Russell Crowe before he became famous, The Sum of Us tells the story of two individuals looking for love in this world.

Jeff Mitchell (Russell Crowe) is an openly gay plumber lives with his overly accepting father Harry (Jack Thompson) who is looking for a new wife following the death of Jeff's mother. When Jeff hooks up with Greg (John Polson), a guy from the local pub that he'd be eyeing, Greg is so used to hiding his sexuality from his own father that he actually ends up being turned off by Harry's welcoming home. While Jeff becomes depressed at this rejection, Harry finds love when he meets Joyce Johnson (Deborah Kennedy), a divorced woman who had given up hope at finding a new significant other at her age. Conflict arises though, when Joyce finds out about Jeff's sexuality and becomes upset that Harry would be so accepting of his "homosexual" son. Soon after, Harry suffers a stroke, forcing Jeff to care for him, thereby limiting Jeff's chances at getting back with Greg, who was kicked out of his house, when his own father discovered his sexuality.

The Queering
When full length commercial films were first starting to be made, they borrowed heavily from the medium of theatre, from the technical elements to acting styles. However, films eventually found their own ground to stand on and their own language. The over the top theatrics necessary to bring a live performance to life, eventually gave way to a more naturalistic style that most film audiences will find familiar.

Screenwriter David Stevens could have taken a lesson or two from this history when he adapted The Sum of Us from his own play. In plays, sequences where characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience are more common for a reason in theatre rather than cinema. In a play, this allows the audience to better understand an issue or character motivation that would be difficult to address in a naturalistic fashion. Movies on the other hand have a cardinal rule called "show don't tell". Editing allows for a filmmaker to insert brief scene or flashback into the narrative to help convey information or character motivation, thereby lessening the need for verbal narration.

During the adaptation process, it would have benefited The Sum of Us greatly if Stevens had cut out the soliloquies and instead focused on using more traditional filmmaking techniques to convey the story. It seems not a minute or two passes before another character is addressing the camera directly. If this technique had been used more sparingly, this might have been a better movie, as it was I found it highly irritating.

The lone subtlety - and by subtlety I mean something that was not explicitly spelled out to us in a soliloquy - in the film has to do with Harry and the relationship he had with his Grandmother. It is suggested that perhaps Harry is slightly homophobic but that he goes out of his way to compensate for this because of the guilt he felt when his mother and the female lover she found after the death his father, were separated by his family due to their aging condition and unable to see each other again before they died. This backstory is more touching and emotionally compelling then anything else that happens in The Sum of Us

Much like My Beautiful Laundrette the other problem The Sum of Us suffered from was the lack of any strong central conflict. This is not an insurmountable problem, but the conflicts that did come up were usually too easily resolved. For example, when Joyce nearly dumps Harry because of her homophobia, she apparently is able to overcome it simply by seeing how well Jeff is taking care of his now bedridden father the next time she visits. There are no character arcs or slow developments, everything happens through sudden revelations rather then dawning realizations.

At least here is some nice acting. Jack Thompson should be an now expert on playing a supportive straight guy - he played the lawyer defending a gay man accused of murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. His Harry Mitchel is a delight to watch. Opposite him, it's interesting watching a young Russell Crowe show a certain spark that he lost before every role he took on appeared calculated to garner an Oscar nomination.

Recommended for those who won't mind having everything explained to them via explicit narration or who can enjoy movies that lack any surprises.

The Rating


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July 5, 2011

Fourth of July Photos

I took some photos from when I was at my relatives up at Arnold Lake for their Fourth of July party. I kind of liked how the flag ones came out, so I figured I'd share.

July 3, 2011

Queer Issue: The Dangers of Single Issue Activism

On June 24th, history was made when the New York Senate made marriage equality into law. This was a huge and hard fought victory the impact of which will be felt for a long time to come. But as we celebrate this victory, I am concerned that we will quickly forget the political sacrifices that were made to achieve this bills passage. One of the biggest losses was the tabling yet again of GENDA (Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act), a bill that would ensure equality for Transgender/Transsexual individuals.

It is important to note here that the facts, according to the Empire State Pride Agenda are as follows:
Transgender New Yorkers face severe discrimination. For example, a report released this year by the Empire State Pride Agenda showed that: 20.7% of transgender New Yorkers have incomes under $10,000 a year. Most recently, in 2011, Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey completed by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report that 74% of transgender New Yorkers experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job, 20% lost a job and 37% were not hired at all. An alarming 18% of transgender New Yorkers had become homeless because of their gender identity or expression. Health care discrimination for transgender New Yorkers is also very alarming with a 17% rate of individuals who were refused medical care due to their gender identity or expression.

So while Gays and Lesbians are free to enjoy marriage equality, this freedom only came by once again forcing Transgender/transexxual issues onto the back burner. This is simply wrong.

When we talk of LGBTQIA issues or Queer Issues or Gay Issues, we often speak as if though one can focus on those issues alone and no others. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When we address homophobia but and fail to address racism, we only address a portion of the burden born by LGBTQIA individuals from ethnic minorities.

When we fail to address the issues of poverty and homelessness, we ignore a population that is disproportionally made of LGBTQIA youth who ran away from violent settings caused or encouraged by homophobic parents.

When we fail to address the numerous issues of senior citizens, we fail to address the aging populations of GLBTQIA whose problems are exacerbated by laws and care systems that fail to acknowledge life-long partners who are not spouses.

One of the bigger issues of the past decades, the drawn out U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also bears mention. While we talk about the issue of national security, we must not forget that in the resulting chaos and political stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulted in increased dangers for gay men in those areas. I can still remember reading the stories of gay men who were hunted down by homophobic gangs that formed as a result of the invasions and subjected to horrors beyond anything that was done to Mathew Sheppard. Newsweek reported in Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Do Kill that more than 430 gay Iraqi men had been killed for being gay since the U.S. invasion started in 2003. That report was made back in 2008. In 2006, Jennifer Copestake in an article entitled Gays Flee Iraq as Shia death squads find a new target which was published in The Observer, that:
The country is seeing a sudden escalation of brutal attacks on what are being called the 'immorals' - homosexual men and children as young as 11 who have been forced into same-sex prostitution. There is growing evidence that Shia militias have been killing men suspected of being gay and children who have been sold to criminal gangs to be sexually abused. The threat has led to a rapid increase in the numbers of Iraqi homosexuals now seeking asylum in the UK because it has become impossible for them to live safely in their own country.

In short, what I am getting at is that we cannot assume that the problems of other people cannot be related to our own. Have we forgotten the saying that "an injustice for one, is an injustice for all"? Not to sound too new age, but many issues are more connected then we think and what affects one part of the population, will usually have an effect upon the whole.

July 2, 2011

Queer Review: But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)

But I'm a Cheerleader
Director: Jamie Babbit
Writer: Brian Wayne Peterson and Jamie Babbit.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, RuPaul, Clea DuVall, Cathy Moriarty, Eddie Cibrian, Brandt Wille

As a satirical look at ex-gay organizations But I'm a Cheerleader is moderately succesful. As a narrative feature, it is even less impressive. There are parts of But I'm a Cheerleader that drag and the dark realities and consequences of actual ex-gay ministries are unfortunately ignored.

When her parents and friends start to believe that Megan (Natasha Lyonne) may be a lesbian, they send her to an ex-gay youth camp called True Directions, which is run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) and Mike (RuPaul). There Megan meets Cathy Moriarty (Clea DuVall) whose facing the threat from her homophobic father of being completely cut off and ostracised. Since Graham also lost her mother this way, this threat is not one she takes lightly even as she refuses to repress her same-sex attractions. Ironically, while Mary Brown tries to make Megan and Graham heterosexual, the two youth begin a tentative romance allowing Megan to explore her previously repressed sexuality.

The Queering
There is some amusing satire and some humour in But I'm a Cheerleading, but this is counterbalanced by the slow plotting and lame ending. Given that the MPAA originally rated But I'm a Cheerleader NC-17 according to This Film is Not Yet Rated for a scene featuring of a woman masturbating, a scene which appears to have been edited for the R-rated version, I could not help wondering if other, edgier material had also been cut. I wondered this because the final version is lacking any of the potential bite that could have resulted from a send up of the ex-gay movement. There is also a great deal of unexplored material, such as the resulting jealousy that is only hinted at between the female students when Megan and Graham hook up. I also would have liked to know more about what goes on at the ex-ex-gay group down the road from True Directions.

The soft selling of the negative aspects of ex-gay organizations is actually a big problem for me. Granted this won't be mistaken for an advertisement, But I'm A Cheerleader never really shows the darker side of what goes on at such places. One could almost make the case that by not showing the extreme and inhuman methodologies often used (of which aversion therapy with electro-shockers is only the beginning) Jamie Babbit is actually doing a disservice for those individuals who were forced into such ex-gay centres by their parents. For a more accurate and harder hitting expose on ex-gay organizations, check out Anderson Cooper's The Sissy Boy Experiments.

There are at least a few clever aspects to the story, the best of which is the casting of Rupaul as Mary's assistant and who lusts after her son Rock (Eddie Cibrian). Not to mention the underlying irony to the fact that Megan might not have ever acknowledged her lesbian attraction if she had never been sent to the ex-gay camp. At the beginning she declares she is in love with her boyfriend Jared (Brandt Wille) but while at the camp, Graham is the one who manages to draw out Megan's deeply repressed feelings. This leaves one to wonder where Megan would have ended up without any intervention.

The funniest bits involve the sending up of the gender polarization promoted by the ex-gay organization. Mike tries to teach the gay guys to be "manly men" who spit, grab their crotches, and chop wood. All the while Mary tries to show the lesbians how to be good housewives and fairy princesses. The sheer absurdity of these situations will not be lost on anyone. It's really too bad that the final neutered version lacks any bite because there was a lot of potential and promise to what is on display in But I'm a Cheerleader.

Recommended with qualifications. Ultimately there is some value here for those who won't mind the slow parts or underwhelming ending.

The Rating


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