May 31, 2014

Queer Review: Philomena (2013)

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

Thanks to astounding performance by Judi Dench, Philomena manages to present one of the most complex screen protagonists to arrive in theaters in recent memory. Loosely based upon the non-fiction account related in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena tells the story of a woman searching for the child that was forcibly taken from her when she had it out of wedlock.

After having been fired from his gig as a government advisor, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) finds himself at loose ends. When he is first approached with the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), he is reluctant to pursue it due to his snobbish attitude towards "human interest" stories. However, he does meet with her and learns more of her story. Philomena Lee was a young mother, who gave birth in a Catholic convent in the 1960's after a sexual encounter at a fair. In order to pay for having the child, Philomena worked for the convent for four years, but the convent sold the boy to American couple. When Philomena and Martin investigate, they find that all records of the adoption were burned and current leaders of the convent uncooperative. Following a lead, the pair travel to America, where they discover that Philomenas' child had his name changed to Michael and after growing up, had become a top ranked member of the Republican Party before passing away from AIDS in the nineties.

The Queering
Shaming is a powerful way to make people conform to excpected norms and nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the issue of human sexuality. At it's heart, this is a film about the power of shame and the ability to overcome it. Philomena Lee was shamed about a sexual encounter she had as a teenager and then shamed into keeping quiet when she was forced to give up her kid for adoption. Michael, her son, was also shamed into the closet about his sexual orientation while he worked his way up the ladder within the Republican party. Martin Sixsmith points these issues out to Philomena Lee when the two travel to the U.S. while looking for her son. Of course Lee surprises him by showing a great amount of forthrightness when it comes to sexuality in general.

Much of the humor in the film is derived from the interaction between Lee, who reads romance novels and the more cynical Sixsmith, who finds her naïve. One extended sequence has her describing the plot of a trite romance novel while he looks like he wishes he could anyplace else. However, the most interesting parts of the movie are the philosophical debates that come up between the two. Given that these debates are clearly influenced by each characters' life experience, they are more interesting than your typical dry philosophical debates about "Is there a God?" or "If there is a God, why would he allow suffering to exist?" As an atheist, Sixsmith has no issue with criticizing the Catholic nuns who kept Lee and Michael from reconnecting before the latter died. Surprisingly, Lee remains a devoted Catholic to the very end, even after it is revealed that the nuns kept Michael from reconnecting with her when he traveled to the orphanage to find her.

As for Michael Hess, I found myself wondering what life would be like for a man who chose to work for the Republican Party, rising all the way up to become Chief Legal Counsel of the Republican National Committee. What does it take to work within a group that actively hates you? What did Hess think of Reagans' long public silence on the issue? Was the fact that when he traveled to the Ireland his face already was showing Kaposi's sarcoma affect how cooperative the nuns were?

Ultimately, the strength of Philomena lies in it's ability to be emotionally affecting without resorting to cheap melodrama. The performances drive the movie, along with the smart script and complex characters. A little philosophy on the side helps things immeasurably as well.

Philomena is just about worth the amount of effort one would use to track down a lost relative in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out 4


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

May 26, 2014

Setting the Record Queer: Stonewall - Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat the Same Myths About it

I can recall back when I was a young teenager having breakfast one morning when my mom, while flipping through the newspaper said, "I see that Independence Day is rated PG-13".

"Uh uh," I replied, not really paying attention. I had seen trailers galore up until that point and my snobbish teenage self (go figure) had decided that the movie had looked boring and derivative.

"Do you want to see it?" my mom asked.

"No," I answered, although at this point my curiosity was peaked a little. Why would my mom of all people want to see what was essentially a sci-fi shoot-em-up? Well, a shoot-em-up where aliens shoot up major cities with flaming walls of flame.

She shrugged, and said, "Well, I thought it might be educational".

The advertising at the time for Independence Day had been so ubiquitous with giant alien space craft blowing up human civilization that it took took me a moment to realize what was going on here.

"Um.... mom," I replied, "you should know that the movie Independence Day isn't actually about the American Revolution..."

Skip ahead 18 years and the openly gay director of Independence Day Roland Emmerich, is now promising to make a movie about an actual historical event. Specifically the Stonewall Riots that launched the LGBTQ rights movement.

When it comes to getting the history of the Stonewall Riots "correct" I am leary of Emmerich for reasons that have nothing to do with his reputation as a purveyor of derivative action flicks, but because of Emmerichs' involvement in the film Anonymous which relays the story of Shakespeare but is set in an alternative universe where the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship happens to be true. For those unfamiliar with the theory, it posits that William Shakespeare was not the "real" author of the plays, sonnets, and poems now attributed to him. Long story short, it's a conspiracy theory that has little basis in actual historical facts.

What might be the Osfordian Theory's worst sin though, is the way it erases (possibly unintentionally) some of the best evidence that William Shakespeare experienced same sex desire. By this I mean the conspiracy theory here ultimately sets out to explain why Shakespeare dedicated his romantic sonnets to a man by eliminating the possibility that the dedication was romantically inclined. As such the Oxford Theory posits that the dedications are evidence for the conspiracy, rather then the icky possibility that one the finest English writers ever (or so English scholars say, I could barely understand him personally) had same sex desires.

What I find troubling at this point in the production (which is set to begin filming this summer) is that thus far it appears to focus on white, gay characters. The IMDB page for the movie lists Jeremy Irvine, Calab Landry Jones, and Karl Glusman as those who have been cast thus far. In addition, the plot is described as:
A young man's political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.
Note that it says "man". Not "trans man". Not a "drag queen". Just "man". Also is it just me or does it sound like this is the plot of the 1995 Stonewall film directed by Nigel Finch? I realize that being about the same event could easily lead to similar plots on their own, but Emmerich sounds like even his historical epic is going to be a rip-off.

Whatever issue Emmerich has with being derivative, historically speaking this is a problem because it means that the next Stonewall Riot flick is going to be regurgitating the erasure of transgender/transsexual and gender non-conforming people of color from queer history. In addition, there is the history of transgender rights activists, such as Sylvia Riveria and Martha P. Johnson, also being erased from the Stonewall Narrative.

Even the films' Facebook page gets in on the act by stating:
"Stonewall" will tell the story of the men and women of the modern Gay Rights movement and the establishment where it all took place: The Stonewall Inn.

And in casting calls for extras for the movie, the only word that shows up is "gay". Not LGBT, not Queer, gays only. Bisexual, lesbian, and Transgender, Transsexual, and gender non-conforming folks need not apply.

Normally, I wouldn't make a big deal out of mere word choice, but the erasure of transgender, transsexual, and gender non-conforming folks in addition to people of color specifically from the Stonewall Narrative has gone on for too long and is simply too extensive to be allowed to pass without comment.

In any case, one can only hope that Emmerichs' Stonewall has more in common with the actual riots than his movie about Will Smith saving the world from aliens had with the American Revolution. Too bad the prospect of that actually happening looks about as good as the world ending in 2012.

May 24, 2014

Queer Review: X-Men - Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men - Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart

With a glimpse into a grim future filled with holocaust-esque imagery, Days of Future Past can be said to open in a similar fashion to the first X-Men film. Following that grim opening though, is the best film in the series since X2 - X-Men United.

In the year 2023, the last surviving mutants of a war to eliminate their species find hatch a desperate plan to avert that war. They decide to send back on of their own, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to alter the past. This means inserting his future conscience into his past body. Once Wolverine goes back, his job becomes reuniting Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart) with Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen) in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from setting in motion the events that could potentially lead to the extinction of all mutant kind.

The Queering
The opening of Days of Future Past is the rockiest part of the film, particularly in an exposition heavy scene where Charles Xavier lays out the backstory and explains key details primarily for the benefit of the audience. Fortunately the film improves dramatically after that. While a story featuring centered around a post-apocalyptic future might seem rather entirely grim, there is plenty of fun to be had in the 70's timeline. The best parts include a brilliant sequence set to Jim Croces' Time in a Bottle and a clever reference to John F. Kennedy being a mutant whom Magneto tried to save (which is why the "magic" bullet curved).

X-Men - First Class ended with the break up of Professor Xavier and Magneto. While Professor Xavier believed that peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants was possible, Magneto instead held to a hard line anti-assimilationist stance. Mutants like Mystique whose blue skinned appearance fail to endear her to mainstream society are drawn to Magneto because he advocates being able to live as a mutant openly without persecution. On the flip side, mutants like Beast and Xavier live in the closet, covering up their appearance in order to avoid being detected. Xavier even went so far as to sacrifice his powers in order to be able to walk. These differences of opinion leads to their relationships' inevitable split. This means that in addition to bringing out the mutant abilities of Beast and Xavier, Wolverine spends the middle section of the movie acting like a couples counselor in order to get Magneto and Xavier to reconcile their irreconcilable differences.

On the queer subtext front, this may have the strongest LGBTQ political subtext of any of the movies. The sentinels that lead to the future war, are robots that are designed to hunt down, detect, and kill mutants. The scene where the Sentinels designer Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage) demonstrates their abilities evokes the U.S. government programs of the 50's and 60's to eradicate gays and lesbians from civil service jobs. This parallel is made particularly clear in the scene reveals that there is already a mutant in the room where Dr. Trask is making his presentation.

Many people were disappointed back when X-Men III - The Last Stand and it was viewed as a less than desirable send off for characters. Here Bryan Singer takes full advantage of the opportunity to give many of the characters from that trilogy a better wrap. However, many of them, such as Storm (Halle Barry), are given little more than extended cameos. For the most part however, the action is more epic than anything we've seen before in this series and many of the primary characters are given a bigger chance to shine.

In particular the characters of Magneto, Professor X, and Mystique are all given much better development here than in past efforts. I found the development of Xavier to be the most interesting. In the original movies, Professor Xavier is pretty much the all knowing, wise old mentor without a flaw. There's nothing wrong with such character but it's one we've seen in many other movies. First Class showed Xavier as an immature frat boy, who was willing to play around in the minds of others without a thought to the consequences or ethics of such behavior. Not to mention his inability to acknowledge his privilege as a mutant who could easily pass in public as a non-mutant. This time around he is shown to be a broken man who has given up his telepathic abilities along with all hope for the human race. While 1973 Magneto is still pretty much the angry mutant leader we were shown in past efforts, the one who was willing to kill anyone (including his fellow mutants) in order to protect all of mutant kind, future Magneto is shown to be more reflective and introspective.

As for Mystique, here she is shown to be a women driven by the murder and torture of her fellow mutants into taking extreme actions. What makes her interesting is that she believes absolutely in the righteousness of her actions, which are shown to be entirely justified, even if the consequences will be devastating. However, the queer/trans subtext regarding Mystiques' character is downplayed here compared to First Class (there is no utterance of "Mutant and Proud"), although it is still possible to see it given a broad enough reading.

This is one superhero film that would be worth skipping a few days into the future in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars.


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

May 13, 2014

Queer Review: Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Phantom of the Opera
Director: Arthur Lubin
Writers: Eric Taylor, Samuel Hoffenstein, John Jacoby, and Hans Jacoby. Based on "Le Fantôme de L'Opéra" by Gaston Leroux.
Cast: Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, Jane Farrar

An awkward take on the tale first told by Gaston Leroux, the 1943 version of the Phantom of the Opera mixes comedy, romance, and horror to poor effect. At least there is a same sex romance to keep things interesting.

Moved by the voice of Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster), Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) secretly funds her singing lessons using his income as violinist while nearly going broke in the process. Desperate for money, Claudin attempts to sell one of his compositions to a publisher but when that fails and he believe that his work is being stolen, he snaps. During the following struggle, Claudin kills a man and has his face disfigured with acid. Hiding in the shadows of the Opera House where he once worked, he attempts to pave Christine a path to stardom. Meanwhile, she is being courted by two men - police officer Raoul (Edgar Barrier) and Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) - although they both appear to be more into each other than Christine.

The Queering
What is the 1943 version of the Phantom of the Opera? Is it a romance? A horror film? A comedy? All of the above apparently. None of the elements really gel very well. Throw in some bad pacing (it feels like it takes forever to get through any of the opera sequences) and you have what I can only imagine to be (as I have not seen any of the others) one of the weaker versions of the Phantom of the Opera to make it onto the silver screen.

However, there is the romance between Anatole and Raoul, who pretend to be courting the actress Christine so they can spend more time with each other, which helps keep things interesting. The two make every effort, including developing a ritual around who will walk through a door together. However, Christine eventually chooses a life with the theater. Clearly relieved that they no longer have to continue the charade, Raoul and Anatole walk out arm in arm as the camera fades to black.

There is something very strange about a film version of the Phantom of the Opera being filmed in technicolor. It doesn't feel right. Director Lubin tries to add a sense of dread to proceedings by showing shots of The Phantoms' shadow against walls but the framing is too stagy and awkward to be effective. The infamous chandler crashing scene is ineptly shot and way too drawn out.

Tonally the film is all over the place. The original story is a classic of gothic horror but the 1943 version tries to turn it into a romantic comedy. This causes the entire production to feel as off key as an opera singer after inhaling an entire balloon of helium. If you really want to be entertained, watch out for the floating rocks during the climax.

Not worth learning opera nor becoming a phantom of in order to see this movie, not unless one really digs older movies.

The Rating
2 out of 4 stars.


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

May 10, 2014

Queer Review: High Tension (2003)

High Tension
Director: Alexandre Aja
Writers: Alexandre Ajas and Grégory Levasseur
Cast: Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea, Marco Claudiu Pascu

As a slasher flick, there are times when High Tension succeeds as a bloody descent into pure horror. However a third act twist causes the proceedings to wind up reveling more in homophobia, than the workings of the Grand Guignol.

Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn) travel to the French countryside to visit Alexia's family. However, it isn't long before a demented serial killer shows up, kills the family and kidnaps Alexia, while Marie sneaks a ride in the back of his truck. What follows is a tense cat and mouse game, with Marie alternatively trying to free Alexia from the killers chains or seeking a means of signaling for help from authorities.

The Queering
(Spoilers ahoy! as there is no way to analyze this film without explicitly discussing the nature of the twist itself)

High Tension is gory, make no mistake, but the pacing and suspense level are kept high enough that it still manages to be an entertaining thrill ride, at least until the twist ending introduces homophobia by invoking the psycho lesbian trope. Typically, I am not one who goes for a lot gore in my films, but this particular horror endeavor is slickly enough made that the splatter element didn't bother me. Although I will admit to a few moments where I was paying more attention to the inside of my eyelids than what was occurring on screen. Basically, this falls comfortably within the realm of torture porn, a genre I generally avoid. The score (which for whatever reason reminded me of the one from Halloween) and the gritty - yet stylish - cinematography come together to create an atmosphere of pure dread.

However, the ending cannot be ignored, as it informs everything that happened before. As the "big reveal" reveals, the "killer" was Marie all along, and she simply hallucinated him into existence in order to disassociate herself from the terrible acts that she commits. It is a ludicrous twist, one that has been done before (although not quite like this), and requires that the audience accept that an entire car chase occurred only in Maries' mind. That's not even it's worse sin, as the reason why Maria turns into a killer in the first place is because of her sexual attraction to Alexia. Thus Maries' descent into madness and subsequent murder spree are intractably linked to her sexuality. In other words, the twist manages to be both ableist and homophobic at the same time.

There is nothing terribly original about this movie, which is neither good or bad as far as I'm concerned. There are plenty of references and nods to past horror efforts. This makes sense given the horror genre's tendency towards self cannibalism. Reviewers who liked the movie called these references homages, while those who took a dim view labeled them "rip-offs". I bring this up only on the off chance that someone out there was wondering what the difference between a "homage" and a "rip-off" happens to be.

In spite of being well made, there is no need to go to high lengths to see this (unless one really likes torture porn), the low tension road should work just fine.

The Rating
2 stars out of 4.


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

May 9, 2014

Queer Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson. Based on the novel by The Shining by Stephen King.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel

Analysis of Stanley Kubrick films are typically awash in obtuse interpretations and The Shining is certainly no exception. An entire documentary, Room 237, was made with commentators offering up a variety of bizarre explanations, including the possibility that The Shining contains proof that Kubrick was part of the vast government conspiracy that faked the moon landing.

All of this gives The Shining an air of being an high end, elite work of art by one of the great auteurs of the 20th century. However, all of this analysis simply causes people to miss the obvious, namely that The Shining is little more then a typical Hollywood horror film, many of which feature characters wrestling with same sex desires or gender identity issues before turning into deranged killers.

Jack (Jack Nicholson) is the newest caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, an isolated resort which lies abandoned every winter thanks to the difficult to ploy road leading up to it. Thus Jack and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and child Danny (Danny Lloyd) are stuck in isolation for the entire winter. Since this is a ghostly horror story, it's only natural that the location was once the site of diabolical murders, whereby the previous caretaker went mad and killed the rest of his family. Over time of course, ghostly apparitions start to intrude on their solitude and Jack gradually loses any semblance of sanity, causing him to represent an increasing danger to his family.

The Queering
Evidence of what is actually going on appear early and often. During an interview with the managers of The Overlook, Jack can be seen reading a Playgirl magazine. Furthermore, we never see Jack and Wendy in bed together or otherwise engaging in physical intimacy. In fact, Jack makes it perfectly clear to her that he does not want her around when he's working. In a scene ripe with Freudian overtones, Jack finds himself embracing a naked woman, only to have her turn into a rotting corpse. However, Jack has no problems getting along with the male apparitions he encounters. He converses with ease with a mysterious bartender named Lloyd and there is even a strange scene where a ghostly attendant spends a lot of time cleaning a mess off of Jack's jacket in a brightly lit red bathroom.

This is before we get delve into all the hints that Jack sexually molested Danny, either in the past or as an ongoing issue. For starters, Danny's condition more closely resembles a kid suffering from PTSD, than one experiencing a psychic condition. In the book, the fact that Danny had psychic abilities was less ambiguous and more relevant to the overall story. Here, the ambiguity only makes Danny come across as a tortured victim. When Danny talks about his imaginary friend Tony, he says that Tony lives in his mouth.

In one creepy scene, Danny and Wendy start out watching television in a room of the hotel, when Danny asks if he can go and get a toy from the shared bedroom. Wendy allows him on the condition that he make no noise. What we are supposed to think is that Jack will wake up angry and lash out at Danny, given that it was earlier revealed that Jack had explicitly physically abused Danny. When Danny arrives at the room however, Jack only asks that Danny sit on his lap. The possibility that Wendy was actually worried about Jack molesting Danny is illuminated in a scene late in the movie, once all hell has broken lose, Wendy comes upon a man in a bear suit clearly performing oral sex on another man. Clearly this bit indicates that she saw something in the past and buried it in her memory.

There are subtler elements as well, that also point towards Jack having issues with masculinity. For one, he is an alcoholic, and this would not be the first time that alcoholism has been used as a stand in for queerness. See the film version of The Lost Weekend for an example of this. Also, Jack is a man who is clearly unable to provide for his family. Not only is Wendy the one who is shown performing his care-taking duties (on top of the housework that she also performs) but when we see the manuscript for the book Jack is working on, it ironically only consists of the lines "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy"

So where does this all leave us? For all the analysis dedicated to it, for all the symbols that Kubrick allegedly left behind, there can be no doubt that this is a story of a man destroying his family by succumbing to queer desires. It is an age old tale, one that existed well before The Shining made it's way to the big screen. Because queer peeps are evulz.

Artistically speaking, The Shining is very well made and there is no reason to question Kubricks' status as an auteur. The heavily stylized cinematography where his trademark meticulousness is showcased in every frame only helps to cement it. The finale, with Jack desperately pursuing Danny through the hotel's outdoor maze, is particularly eery and evocative thanks to the long tracking shots Kubrick utilizes. And what would a review of The Shining be without mentioning Jack Nicholsons' "Here's Johnny!" performance? Now that I have mentioned it, I can now end this review.

Only the most devoted horror buffs who don't mind a side dish of homophobia should take a shining to this film.

The Rating
2 stars out of 4 stars.


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