December 28, 2010

Queer Review: Easy A

Objectively speaking Easy A is not what one would call a great film. There are flaws aplenty and some of them are significant. However, thanks to an amazing lead performance by Emma Stone and some sharp writing, Easy A was definitely the most enjoyable film released in 2010 that I was able to see.

The plot is straightforward enough, although demonstrates more ambition than most comedies set in high-schools. Olive (Emma Stone) is a slightly nerdy, but otherwise "normal", teenage girl. After spending a weekend bemoaning how she never gets any dates, she finds herself lying to her best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) about losing her virginity. This fib is overheard by the school's ultra-conservative Christian, Marianne (Amanda Bynes). Soon, the whole school is abuzz about Olive's sexual tryst. The fact that it never happened does not matter, Olive is soon perceived to be the new school slut by the entire student population.

Matters are further complicated when Olive shows sympathy to the schools lone openly gay student, Brandon (Dan Byrd). He manages to convince her to fake having sex with him to help prevent him from being bullied, a situation exacerbated by the homophobic school principal and apparently unsupportive parents. From there, Olive finds herself "helping" other male students be perceived as more manly by agreeing to also appear to have sex with them in exchange for gift certificates and other favors.

Throughout all of this, the movie manages to analyze some deeper thematic material, such as how guys generally can have their reputations enhanced by having sex (as long as it's with a female) while girls engaging in the same behavior end being referred to as sluts or worse. Also at play is how the gossip mill works. The stories that end up being told about Olive never happened, but that doesn't matter as far as the student population is concerned, and is of even less concern to the guys that Olive helps out.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Easy A has several obvious flaws. Some are minor, such as the movie's slightly too self-aware tone and that Olive's parents, in spite of some nice performances by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, never feel like real people. The most egregious sin though, is the clich├ęd portrayal of the schools Christian group, and particularly Amanda Bynes deeply religious character. The film is constantly taking cheap shots at Christians and unfortunately resorts to some of the worse Christian stereotypes to do so.

Arguably though, the only reason more than a few supporting players and sub-plots come across as a little flat is because of how great most of the other elements in the film are done. Whilst Easy A may not earn the grade the title tries to suggest it deserves, this is the most fun one can have watching a B+ flick.

December 20, 2010

Queer Review: Wilde (1997)

Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry), the writer, poet, and playwright, is best known for his wit and humorous sayings. Wilde the movie biopic starring Stephen Fry, presents Oscar Wilde's life as he finds fame and love with other men. The problem though, is that "homosexual behavior" was considered a perversion in Victorian England and he finds himself persecuted for the mere act of loving another man.

The film has a few problems with accuracy. For instance, it portrays Wilde as being a rather devoted family man and therefore torn between his wife and children and his gay lifestyle. However, the historical record indicates that he was not a deeply committed husband or involved father to his two sons - at least not to the degree that the movie portrays him as being.

However, in spite of a few flaws, the movie is an enjoyable diversion. The earlier portions of the film showcase Wilde's witty quotes and pithy humor. Proceedings become increasingly depressing and dreary though, as the authorities close in and Wilde finds himself facing imprisonment and other harsh penalties for his "crimes".

This is an unquestionably an actors movie, with many strong performances and nary a weak one in the bunch. Stephen Fry is his usual charming self, playing the man who wrote Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Earnest. Jude Law has the hardest role, which he pulls off admirably, as Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglass. Bosie was Wilde's deepest love, and at least as portrayed here, was also the charming yet immature son of the Marquees of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson). Jude manages the difficult task of playing someone who is essentially a jerk, yet still showing a side of the character that would have caused Wilde's passionate obsession for Bosie. Excellent support is also provided by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Sheen, and Jennifer Ehle.

As I mentioned earlier, there are minor flaws with the film, in addition to the historical inaccuracies, the fairy tale The Selfish Giant is overused as a parallel allegory for Wilde's life - every time Stephen Fry starts reciting passages via a voicover from it, I found myself zoning out. These complaints, however, amount to little more than minor quibles. The film brings a fascinating historical individual to life, and I can easily recommend it for anyone who might want to know more about one of the most brilliant and influential writers of the Victorian era.

December 13, 2010

Queer Review: The Ritz

The Ritz is a 1976 film directed by Richard Lester. It's probably most remarkable for being one of the earlier films that does not portray gay men as completely disturbed, mentally ill, serial killers etc. Rather it's progressive attitude - for the time - presents gay men merely as sex obsessed buffoons or stereotypical effeminate queens. A small step forward, but a step nonetheless I guess...

The premise of The Ritz has Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston) on the run after his brother-in-law, mob boss Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller), orders a hit on his life. After asking a cab driver to take him to the last place where he could be found, Proclo finds himself at The Ritz, a gay bathhouse, thus setting up a night of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and "comic" hijinks.

The acting is arguably The Ritz's strongest asset. Jack Weston is fun to watch as the bumbling Proclo. Rita Moreno is also a hoot as lounge singer Googie Gomez, who mistakes Proclo for a big shot producer. Another notable performace comes from F. Murray Abraham who plays an older queen and somehow manages to give the character some dignity in the midst of all the chaos.
Richard Lester (who would later go on to direct Superman II and III) directs and manages to keep the film from going completely off the rails, in spite of the best efforts of the storyline.

The Ritz is more interesting as a historical artifact then it is as a motion picture. Many bathhouses were forced to close during the AIDS crisis, so therefore lavish places like The Ritz no longer exist. The Ritz is, well, ritzy. Today most bathhouses are crummy rundown affairs and while exceptions exist, they are exceedingly rare. Furthermore, the film can be seen as demonstration of societies slowly changing attitudes towards sexuality. While it's portrayal of gay men is not entirely positive, it's worth noting that Proclo is presented as being open minded, while his evil brother-in-law is clearly homophobic. Someone could make the argument that the movie paved the way for the far superior Victor Victoria, which came out a few years later - although I leave that to someone with a better knowledge of film history than myself.

To finish this up, The Ritz is neither a terrible film nor a great one. It's a product of it's time and while it could have been better, it could also have been a lot worse. There are at least a few laughs to be had, but there's too little here for me to offer a whole hearted recommendation.

December 5, 2010

Queer Review: Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey became a legend when he published The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male in 1948. People were shocked, titillated, angered, outraged, and flabbergasted and it's publication made Kinsey a household name virtually overnight. However, that was nothing compared to what happened when he published The Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. People were even more shocked, titillated, angered, outraged, and flabbergasted by its' revelations. While The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male was a success for Kinsey, albeit an extremely controversial one, the publication of The Sexual Behavior of the Human Female nearly resulted in his professional ruin.

Kinsey was truly a pioneer. His work changed how people viewed our own species sexual practices. Homosexuality was considered a diseased sin by many, and whilst there are still those who do, their claims do not have the backing of credible research thanks to Kinsey. That is not to say that Kinsey's work was without legitimate criticism. For instance he relied heavily on prison populations and misrepresented testimonies that he had received from a pedophile.

Kinsey, the 2004 bio-pic of Alfred Kinsey's life, presents the details of his life story. It's competently made, but otherwise uninvolving. For a man who inspired scorn and hatred from religious conservatives and praise and adulation from liberals, Kinsey - as portrayed here - is boring. Perhaps that is the case in real life, but the movie version of Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson) is the stereotypical nerd, who develops an interest in researching human sexual behavior only after realizing how little science and academia know about the topic.

Speaking of Neeson, he does a decent enough job, but he's consistently overshadowed by the supporting cast. Laura Linney gives an entertaining performance as Kinsey's free thinking wife. John Lithgo is suitably fiery as Kinsey Sr, a fundamentalist protestant preacher who thinks that sex is only for procreation, anything else is perversion. Naturally this sets him up as the film's antagonist, to a point. Peter Sarsgaard is alluring as the assistant who first seduces Kinsey, then his wife.

Furthermore, many details are potentially tiltilating, but are otherwise underdeveloped. For instance, the partner swapping that goes on within the Kinsey Institute is presented in the film, but the consequences, with the exception of one scene, are left almost entirely to the imagination. There is also the fact that Kinsey and his associates made films of themselves having sex, but this material seems to also have been truncated. For instance, did any of the members of the project object? Was there any intrinsic value to creating what was essentially pornography in order to study sexual activity, when the main thrust of the Kinsey project was focused on interviewing human subjects?

At the end of the day, the film ultimately offers little insight into Kinseys life. The details that are used to form the structure of the film are well enough known for people who would like to know about him can just do the research. With that said, this would make for good viewing for a professor who wanted to introduce their class to Kinsey's life, but the production as a whole has little to recommend it.



December 1, 2010

Queer Review: Dorian Grey (2009)

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

-From the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

In Plato's Republic he gives the opinion that most art, generally speaking, is a really terrible thing. Plato's reason has to do with his idea of the forms, to which Plato were these unchanging ethereal objects of awesomeness, from everything in our world is a copy of. Art therefore - be it a painting of a bed or the story of tragic lovers - exists as a copy of something that was already a copy to begin with. What Plato was getting at, in other words, is that Art is like receiving the handy-me-downs of clothing from your cousins that they had also received as hand-me-downs from even more distant relatives.

The story of Dorian Grey (Ben Barnes) starts with his commissioning his portrait to be painted by his friend Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin. At the start of the story, Dorian is an innocent, but is slowly corrupted into decadence by the suave and amoral Lord Henry Wotten (Collin Firth), who finds himself infatuated with Dorian's youth and good looks. Dorian's descent is aided by his discovery that his painting absorbs anything bad that happens to him, giving Dorian access to a seeming fountain of youth. The painting functions as a whipping boy, allowing Dorian to imbibe drugs, drink excessively, and cavort with prostitutes without having to worry about any of the negative consequences of his actions.

The story of Dorian Grey can therefore seen as a response to Plato's challenges to art. The painting by becoming the symbolic embodiment of Dorian Grey's sins, ends up as a better reflection of Dorian Grey's true soul or form, than his physical body. It's almost as if Oscar Wilde was trying to argue that art can act as a deeper and more meaningful mirror of reality than our physical forms are capable of.

As for the 2009 film adaptation, Dorian Grey is fairly well done on the whole. Collin Firth is suitably charming, as he recites Oscar Wilde's dialouge - adopted by for the screen scribe Tony Finlay. Firth gives the best performance in the film, by playing Lord Wotton as a callous libertine who simply does not give a damn about how the consequences of his actions effect other people. Ben Barnes is less successful as Dorian Grey. Barnes is stiff enough in most scenes to be easily mistaken for an actual painting or sculpture. Director Oliver Parker does a good job though, of creating a moody atmosphere and effectively pacing the film so as to generate enough suspense to keep audiences interested.

On the whole, I recommend this adaptation. It's not perfect, nor is it as intense as it could be. However, for a Gothic horror story, it has enough going for it, I believe, to warrant people seeking it out.