February 28, 2011

Queer Review: V for Vendetta (2006)

V for Vendetta
Director: James McTeigue
Writers: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Based on the graphic novel by David Lloyd.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.
-V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta is a complex sci-fi tale, set in Britain in the near future where the totalitarian government has absolute control over the populace. Utterly compelling, the provocative philosophizing it engages in gives viewers plenty of thematic material to think about.

Evey (Natalie Portman) is an ordinary woman who is stopped by the Fingerman (the movie's secret police), when walking on the streets one night past curfew. Before they can carry out their plans (which include rape and assault) she is rescued by the mysterious V, a masked vigilante whose plans include destroying the all powerful government and replacing it with anarchy. The first step in V's complex plan is blowing up the Old Baily, which sets in motion a series of events he hopes will end with the destruction of the current government led by Adam Sutler (John Hurt).

The Queering
Controversial for a very good reason, V for Vendetta is the type of movie that takes it's main theme of anarchy so far that it refuses to endorse a central thesis of any kind. Instead, we are required to decide for ourselves what to think of V's plans and actions. Stop for a moment to contemplate the following, V is a terrorist who uses violence and fear as his main tactics. There are more than a few parallels between Osama Bin Laden and V regarding tactics (blowing up buildings) and goals (bringing down a government).

Acting wise, Hugo Weaving does more with his face hidden behind V's Guy Fawkes mask, than most actors are capable of when they are not faced with such restrictions. Natalie Portman is good, although her occasional slip ups with the British accent can be distracting. Stephen Fry, John Hurt, and Stephen Rea all provide solid support.

I would also like to point out how impressive the cinematography is. There are many shots that obviously took a great deal of effort to create and from a technical standpoint, it's hard to find a better composed movie. More than one sequence has a ferocious and poetic grace capable of raising the neck hairs.

V for Vendetta does two things worth mentioning in regards to it's gay characters. For one, it "gays up" a character. Stephen Fry's originally in the comics straight character, Dietrich, reveals to Evey when she goes to him for shelter, that his deepest secrets are kept buried in the closet. Two, in a rather touching sub-plot that also shows the plight suffered by queers under Sutler's regime, it is revealed that it was a lesbian who inspired V to begin his revolution. While V for Vendetta may not be "one of the most pro-gay" movies ever - as suggested by Sarah Warn - as both of the gay characters die before the end, the positive steps forward made here are worth celebrating.

The Recomendation
Given the care the movie was put together with, the positive portrayals of it's gay characters, the entertaining storyline that combines action with philosophical provocativeness, I have to give this movie a high recommendation. V for Vendetta is worth seeking out for anyone, not just those who can appreciate over the top comic book adaptations.

The Rating:

Queer Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Writers: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
Cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson

The Kids Are All Right is a small movie that gained a lot of attention due to featuring a lesbian couple as parents. It manages to be both smartly perceptive and a little vanilla at the same time. I also could not help thinking that this all looked like what might happen if Barbara Kingsolver were to write a lesbian version of American Beauty. Admittedly though, the only reason I mentally made that comparison is because Annette Bening plays similar roles in both movies as the Kids Are All Right lacks both American Beauty's dark humor and violent ending.

The premise is simple, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a happily married conservative lesbian couple, whose two teenagers, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), decide to contact their family sperm donor. When the kids meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and then later introduce him to their parents, a chain of events is set in motion, that reveals the cracks in Jules and Nic's previously stable relationship. The highly controlling Nic resents the amount of time her kids start to spend with Paul. Jules, on the other hand, starts a sexual affair with Paul, further straining her relationship with Nic.

The title The Kids Are All Right refers to every parents fear that their kids are not going to be all right and that any mistakes made will cause irreparable damage to their offspring. As Jules and Nic are both Mom's, these fears appear to have been amplified in their case. The underlying theme therefore, is that in spite of the flaws that most parents possess, kids can still turn out all right.

Overall, this is a well put together movie, with some nicely shot and edited sequences, such as when Nic finds out about the Jules and Paul's affair. Another plus is that there is no overwrought melodrama or "shocking" plot twists. Acting wise, there are no standouts, but each member of the cast turns in a better than adequate work. While there are no showy performances, there is a lot of subtlety to be found, even in Mark Ruffalo's role as a laid back bachelor who finds himself questioning his life choices following the revelation that he is a biological father.

The Kids Are All Right is a small movie, in spite of the big name cast. There are no major revelations into the human condition, just a lot of smaller insights. Also, no earthshaking plot twists occur, just some nicely modulated dramatic turns. There is nothing about the movie that can be called "great". However, it is earnest and tries hard. At the end of the day, I would say that's all right.

February 25, 2011

Queer Review: 44 Inch Chest (2009)

44 Inch Chest
Director: Malcolm Venville
Writers: Louis Mellis, David Scinto
Cast: Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley, Melvil Poupaud

44 Inch Chest is a gritty drama about a man, Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone), whose wife, Liz (Joanne Whalley) cheated on him with another man. Naturally, this revelation destroys Colin. His friends, Meredith (Ian McShane), Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), and Mal (Stephen Dillane), kidnap the interloper - refered to only as Loverboy - for the purpose of allowing Colin revenge by bloody murder.

This simplistic premise sets in motion a compelling meditation on the nature of human relationships as Colin attempts to make the gravest of decisions. This is an unusual motion picture in several respects. For one, the plot is moved forward primarily through dialog rather than action, a characteristic that is becoming increasingly rare in modern movies. I almost thought that 44 Inch Chest was based on a play given the limited sets - the vast majority of the movie takes place in the room where Loverboy's fate is being decided. When I checked, I found that the screenplay was actually an original.

Stylistically speaking, 44 Inch Chest features some dark, yet still beautiful cinematography that strongly enhances the subject matter and effectively setting the mood. The dialog with it's simultaneously crude, yet poetic nature, has a Quentin Tarintino quality to it and the cast members clearly relish delivering their lines.

Acting wise, the cast members are clearly at the top of their game and the chemistry is electrifying. John Hurt as the crotchety Old Man Peanut, gives a potent, stand out performance. Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Dillane are more restrained, but no less worthy. Ian McShane is suitably suave as the gay and sophisticated Meredith.

At the end of the day, 44 Inch Chest is worth seeing for the brilliant writing and great acting. For people who enjoy well made films that do not rely on mindless pyrotechnics and hollow special effects, this movie is a welcome gift.

February 22, 2011

Queer Review: Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames
Director: Lizzie Borden
Writers: Lizzie Borden and Ed Bowes
Cast: Honey, Adele Bertei, Jean Satterfield, Kathryn Bigelow

Many movements and works of art make the claim of being "radical" or "envelope pushing" and in the long run, many of them end up . Born in Flames contains the sort of subversive ideology that whacks radicalism over the head and makes envelope pushing it's little bitch. A low budget science fiction film that has parallels to other classics within the genre, such as Metropolis and 1984, Born in Flames still manages to leave an impression.

Born in Flames is set 10 years after a peaceful revolution has turned the United States into a socialist Democracy. However, social injustice is still prevalent for woman, LGBTQA, and other minorities. In order to fight back, several groups made entirely of woman organize to develop strategies to change society in ways no one had previously imagined. When the leader of one group, the openly lesbian Adelaide Norris, (Jean Satterfield) is murdered while in government custody, these groups are galvanized to taking greater and more direct action.

Shot on what I imagine was a minuscule budget, the footage is frequently grainy and the production elements are horrendous. This is indie film making in all it's unvarnished glory. The acting is also rather unimpressive, but that is probably a result of most of the cast being amateurs.

The main reason for seeing Born in Flames is for the intellectual butt kicking it provides. While not a very pretty or well polished, theres enough brain power behind the philosophical issues addressed and provocative subtext to put the most intelligent academic scholar to shame.

Born in Flames frequently juxtaposes concepts and images to get it's message across. Prostitution and rape are mentioned in the same sentence so often, that I'm sure some sort of direct comparison was being made by the film makers. In one sequence, a shot of a condom being put on a male penis is placed between an image of a baby feeding from a bottle and a woman washing dishes. There are also scenes of women practicing military drills and other scenes of where women use non-violent methods to protect female victims of violent assaults.

However, the most disconcerting image comes at the end when one of the rebel groups succeeds in blowing up the communication tower on top of the world trade center. While it was undoubtedly intended as a symbolic attack on the system, the final image of smoke billowing from one of the towers evokes too many bitter memories, to not leave post 9/11 viewers deeply unsettled.

On a less downbeat point, it is worth pointing out that Kathryn Bigelow has a small role as a newspaper editor who loses her job for supporting the anti-establishment groups. For those who don't know, Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker and won an Oscar for that, thereby becoming the first female to be awarded an Oscar for best director.

In the final analysis, this is not a great movie, the low budget obviously restricted the film makers too much for that. However, the deeper intellectual currents contained within make it worth seeking out for those who enjoy non-mainstream fare.

February 21, 2011

Queer Review: Flawless (1999)

Director: Joel Schumacker
Writer: Joel Shumacker
Cast: Robert De Niro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

While not an awful movie by any means, Flawless is perhaps not an entirely accurate tittle for this project. To begin with; subtlety, thy name is not Schumacker. Also, both Robert De Niro and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have done much more impressive work elsewhere.

When decorated cop Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro) suffers a debilitating stroke that impairs his mobility and vocal capabilities, he finds himself in need of singing lessons with a limited number of options that he can turn to. Therefore, in spite of being a cold hearted bigot, he turns to his transgendered neighbor Rusty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) for these therapeutic lessons. Meanwhile, the local drug kingpin is hunting down thousands of dollars in stolen cash that he believes is being hidden in the apartment building shared by Rusty and Walt.

As I said, this is not a bad movie, just a rather flawed one. The bigest problems relate to Walt Koontz, who starts out the movie as an over the top and completely stereotypical homophobic cop. At the beginning it is not much of a stretch to imagine that Koontz is just itching to restart the Stonewall riots just so he could put the queers in their place. Then, without any real explanation, Koontz is one of the film's most open minded characters, even going so far to defend one of Rusty's friends to a security guard.

The other imperfections include the performance of Robert De Niro who starred in this movie just before starting his descent into self parody with Meet the Parents. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also gives a rather disappointing performance. In fact, compared to his work in Capote, his performance is equally embarrassing to De Niro's.

The story itself also has problems, the missing drug money subplot - which results in the burst of violence that leads to Koontz's stroke and allows the movie a violent and bloody climax - is actually completely unnecessary. Take it away, and the story would have worked a lot better as well as freeing up screen time that could have been devoted to additional scenes between Rusty and Koontz.

Recommending this movie to anyone is rather hard. While not completely awful, the production as a whole stews in mediocrity, making it difficult to imagine anyone who would actually enjoy watching it.

February 19, 2011

Queer Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright. Based on the Graphic Novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley.
Cast: Michael Cera, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a high energy, campy production that tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) as he attempts to woo the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In order to do so, Pilgrim must first defeat her seven evil exes.

From the very start, is clear that Edgar Wright intended for the production to resemble a graphic novel come to life crossed with a video game. In other words, if one were to create a spectrum, Scott Pilgrim would be on the farthest end from naturalism. In a way, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World follows the same path set by movies like 300, Sin City or Watchmen. Although I want to point out that the violence is more akin to Donkey Kong or Super Mario Brothers than to Call of Duty and other ultra violent modern games.

In any event, whilst being primarily about a straight couple, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World can almost, but not quiet, be considered a post-gay movie. That is, one of Ramona's evil exes is a lesbian from her bi-curious phase - making Ramona herself a queer character - and Pilgrim's roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) is gay. Wells and Pilgrim even chastely (I presume) share the same bed. One subplot has Wells stealing Scott Pilgrim's sister's boyfriend, to which she responds with "not again!".

In terms of quality, Wright manages the difficult task of keeping the production at a high energy level throughout without becoming repetitive or causing viewer fatigue. As Scott Pilgrim, Michael Cera does pretty much Michael Cera does best, play a low key, socially awkward, yet charismatic nerd. Opposite Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is effective as a former bad girl trying now to be good. Everyone else is pretty much having fun chewing the scenery and spitting it back up.

At the end of the day Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World may not blaze new ground or examine deeper themes, but it is a lot of fun to watch and that's a lot more than can be said for most movies.

February 17, 2011

Classic Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Note, before anyone else points it out, I do realize that 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a queer film per se. Although admittedly it is also possible to discern some themes of interest to feminists and academics studying gender theory, there is not really enought to classify the movie as a queer movie. Irregardless, I felt that it wouldn't hurt if I were to stretch my wings a little and write the occasional formal review of a few classic movies.

Also, I am planning on talking about the ending a bit, so those who have not seen the film and wish to have an unspoiled experience should not read this review.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark. Based upon the book by Arthur C. Clark.
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

2001: A Space Odyssey is the first film I was able to see in glorious HD blue ray. This of course means that I must make the almost obligatory comment that pretty much every previous critic has made before and say that those were some pretty amazing visuals that Kubrick cooked up for the screen. While not so well received when it was first released, 2001 has since grown in stature to the point where it has the reputation as being one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

The plot of 2001 starts with the dawn of man when a group of apes recently evicted from their water hole by a rival group, discover a strange, black monolith. Like Adam and Eve cast from the garden of Eden, these apes are forced to develop technology to survive and as in the Genesis story where Cain kills Abel, this development soon leads to the first act of aggression and murder.

The plot then leaps forward and now mankind's rapidly advancing technology has given us to the ability to explore space with increased ease. When another monolith is found by colonists on the moon, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) is sent to investigate. The moon monolith, which was buried for 4 million years, is clearly not of natural design. When Dr. Floyd touches the monolith, a shriek is emitted, stunning his crew as the monolith beams a message in the direction of Jupiter.

Later, an astronaut team lead by Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is sent to Jupiter to investigate what could be there to have received the signal. Along the way most of the crew is killed by the amoral computer Hal 9000 (Douglas Rain), forcing Dr. Bowman to deactivate it. When Dr. Bowman finally reaches Jupiter, he discovers a third monolith that when as he's approaching, launches him on a final odyssey. At the end of this journey Bowman finds himself rapidly aging before being reborn as the star child, the next stage in human evolution.

Now, while that description makes that movie sound completely chaste, I have to point out that I left out any mention at all of the rather overt sexual imagery Kubrick included. Seriously, 2001: A Space Orgy would work just as well for a title.

To start out, the stewardess that Dr. Floyd interacts with at the beginning of the film are all wearing headgear that makes them look like walking dildos. One shot features a stewardess maneuvering in such a way so that she can enter a doorway headfirst. Another shot is of Dr. Floyd's ship on a tall platform being lowered into the moon, which appears to have been framed to better resemble a giant phallus penetrating the lunar surface.

In this analogy, when Dr. Floyd touches the monolith, he's not just making contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, he's hitting it's g-spot. The resulting screech is just the sort of orgasmic scream I would expect from a woman who has gone unstimulated for a few million years. The intermission is even conveniently placed at such a point so people can go outside to have a post-coital smoke.

Then the Jupiter mission's spaceship is shaped almost precisely like a giant sperm cell. By this analogy, when Dr. Bowman makes contact with the Jupiter monolith, he's also metaphorically impregnating it. Fortunately for the monolith, pregnancy does not include morning sickness, hungering for strange food, or painful swelling. Instead, it resembles an acid trip, with the bright color patterns and surreal imagery all leading up to Dr. Bowman achieving a higher state of being.

Also, the early sequence where the apes discover the monolith can be seen in the context of a first date. That is, the apes must kill or run off the other apes, not just to get the water hole back, but to eliminate potential rivals for the monoliths affection. Apparently, the monolith is also the completely monogamous type.

To sum up for those who might be confused:
This 2001 plot point resembles ->
The Dawn of Man -> First Date
Dr. Floyd's moon trip -> The penetrating, humping, and grinding part
Touching the monolith -> The G-spot Baby!
Monolith Screech -> Orgasm!
Intermission -> The Post-Coital Smoke
Jupiter Mission -> Sperm traveling towards the egg
Dr. Bowman entering the Jupiter Monolith -> Impregnation
Dr. Bowman's acid trip -> Pregnancy
Dr. Bowman reborn -> (re)Birth

In this analysis, space and the dark, mysterious monoliths are metaphors for the feminine mystique. For the most part, female characters themselves are almost entirely absent. The few that do show up early in the movie are either presented as giant penises or are otherwise irrelevant to the plot. The feminine elements in the movie are outer space and the monoliths, both of which are presented as these great mysteries that men must solve in order to achieve enlightenment. Or great sex, I will admit to now being a bit confused on that bit myself.

Easy Rider (1969) is often credited by film historians as being the first movie about the counter-culture movement that was popular in the 1960's. I am no expert, but I have to point out how much A Space Odyssey (which was released the year before Easy Rider) is not only mired in, but also a direct result of the 1960's counter-culture ideology. All the aforementioned sexual imagery can be seen as a homage to the rallying cry of "free love" and the final climactic journey appears designed by and for LSD users. A tag-line for one poster even describes the movie as "The Ultimate Trip".

If reviewers at the time 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 were harsh on the film, they can be forgiven. After all many of them were probably expecting a more conventional space opera. What they got instead was an avant garde porno set in outer space. I don't think any one of them can be blamed for ending up a bit confused.

So to wrap this up, considering the philosophical elements and themes that form the foundation of 2001: A Space Odyssey I would argue that it is unquestionably one of the greatest movies of all time. For those who still complain that 2001 is a complete bore, just remember that that this is a movie about sex, drugs, and men doing kinky things in space with tall, dark monoliths. Not so boring now is it?

February 16, 2011

Queer Review: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Director: Kirby Dick
Writers: Kirby Dick, Eddie Schmidt, and Matt Patterson

This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the board responsible for providing movie ratings in the United States. Personally, I would classify Kirby Dick's movie as a "film essay" in that it's not altogether unbiased, Kirby Dick is pursuing a specific thesis here with a remarkable tenacity. That thesis is as follows, that the power wielded by the MPAA is not for the purpose of providing a guide or tool for parents, but rather, the MPAA's real purpose is to act as a tool for the major film studios in order to better control what movies and content can be seen by the larger public.

The major issues that Dick addresses include the secrecy surronding the ratings process and the impact a rating can have on the box office potential of a particular movie. Supporters of the MPAA frequently point out that submitting a movie the MPAA is entirely voluntary and that filmmakers do not have to accept the rating that is assigned. That is, filmmakers can always release a movie as unrated, therefore the MPAA is not an institution in the business of censorship.

The counterpoint to this is that an unrated film has greatly reduced distribution options and many companies, such as Blockbuster, will not carry NC-17 rated films. Furthermore, movies with R ratings typically make less money than those with PG-13.

This may all seem fine and well until one considers the inconsistency (and genereal strangeness) with which the MPAA issues ratings. Of particular interest to the GLBTQIA community is how films with queer content are regularly given higher ratings then straight films with otherwise comparable content. There is one montage devoted to comparing scenes from various movies to drive this point home.

Then there is the whole issue of the MPAA's coming down harder on depictions of sex in movies than on violence. Take for instance Boys Don't Cry which features a graphic sequence of two characters getting murdered in cold blood, an equally graphic rape scene, and one character being stripped naked and humiliated in front of others. However, those scenes were not what lead to the MPAA initially giving it an NC-17 rating. What lead to the NC-17 rating was an extended close up of a female characters face, while she was having an orgasm during a love making scene.

Another issue of particular concern is the favoritism shown towards studio films versus the treatment given to independent productions. Matt Stone, who directed and produced Orgazmo and South Park, discusses how the MPAA was easier to work with in regards to South Park.

This should not come as a surprise as the MPAA is not a neutral entity but is an organization that was set up to be controlled by the major studios. While liberals will undoubtedly be concerned with the MPAA's tendency to censor artists, conservatives should worry about the stifling of competition that the MPAA both creates and encourages.

Furthermore, as Kirby Dick highlights through a couple of extended sequences, the MPAA is one of the most secretive organizations in America, right up there with the CIA. The identities of those actually rating the movies are never made public, nor are the members who are part of the appeals board. As one interviewee points out, a government board might be preferably as not only would it force the entire decision making process to be transparent, but also allow for judicial review. Neither of these things are currently present or available within the MPAA.

In the final analysis, I believe that this film deserves to be seen by anyone who is interested in knowing more about how the MPAA operates and the generally dangerous practice of censorship.

February 15, 2011

Queer Issue: Queering the Meaning of Queer

Let me start by saying that this article was inspired by a comment a friend left on my Facebook page. The point that my friend made was that the term "queer" is potentially offensive as it essentially means "strange" or "different".

I have to say that this person raised a good point. I can remember a somewhat painful episode in high-school involving me being called queer. A few years after that incident, I was at an event at SUNY Oneonta for Coming Out day. As people were going around and sharing their coming out stories, I was surprised by one individual saying that she identified as "queer". I can remember thinking to myself, "what? but isn't queer an insult, just like 'faggot'?"

Over the years since then, I've reconsidered my view on the term queer and today have no problem in identifying as queer.

My reasoning is as follows. The acronym LGBT was originally developed to describe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans individuals. However, over the years many other ways of identifying individuals who were not straight came into existence. Terms such as omnisexual, pansexual, genderfucks, questioning, intersex, asexual, etc. To put it one way, diversity can best be seen on a spectrum, not in an acronym.

Since there is no alphabet soup that can be entirely inclusive, the term queer can be used as broad descriptor of anyone who is not straight. It is also used in an attempt to show contempt for boundaries. My use of the term queer though is nothing more than the result of pure laziness.

Something else I want to point while I'm on this topic, is that my boyfriend, sociology professor Dr. Jeffery Dennis, recently did a presentation on the history of the term queer. In one poll that he did, he found that most people who identified as queer were upper middle class professionals, while most blue collar workers identified as either gay or lesbian.

This of course then raises the question of whether or not the term "queer" is as boundary destroying as those who use it think it is. However, that's a much larger and more complicated issue than I intend to address right now.

February 14, 2011

Queer Review: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Based upon a short story by Annie Proulx.
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Brokeback Mountain was, and remains to this day, one of the most talked about and well known queer movies to have been released in the past decade, if not of all time. It was "the" gay movie the year it was released and the one that probably everyone has heard about. In addition to serious academic discussion, Ang Lee's movie has provoked protests, been parody, censored, praised, and critiqued. Just about everyone who saw it had something to say.

At the time Brokeback Mountain was released, it was seen as a sign of better tidings to come for movies with LGBTQIA characters. Unfortunately, that never happened. The death of independent cinema along with Hollywood becoming increasingly risk averse, means that there have been increasingly smaller of number of movies being released that include queer characters. Or at least that's what it feels like to me. The golden age of queer cinema, which I would argue started in the late 90's, also ended at approximately the same time Brokeback Mountain was released. By the way, I am not arguing that Brokeback Mountain was in any way the cause of such decline, as there were many, many other mitigating factors.

The plot of Brokeback Mountain is fairly straightforward, with only a couple of wrinkles to keep things interesting. Two sheep herders, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep on on a route that will take them across Brokeback Mountain. Herding sheep means that the Ennis and Jack are by themselves for long stretches of time. Eventually, they become physically intimate and a passionate love develops between them. After the job is done, the two continue to see each other, even though they both get married and have kids.

The "fishing trips" Jack and Ennis go on after they get back from the mountain, are of the sort where no fish are brought back, a fact that does not escape Ennis's borderline homophobic wife Alma (Michelle Williams). Jack's wife Lureen (Ann Hathaway) is aware that there is something strange going on between her husband and Ennis, but does not seem to know or care about the details. The main conflict revolves around Jack and Ennis'confused feelings for each other and the societal constraints that keep them apart.

Ultimately, the element that makes Brokeback Mountain notable is the fact that it features two highly masculine queers. Both Ennis and Jack are macho drinking, fighting, spitting, through and through cowboys. The main characters extreme masculinity can be seen as the main source of controversy directed at the movie. The homophobic were up in arms at the portrayal of two queers as normal, rough and tumble men. Queer critics complained about the portrayal of two queers as normal, rough and tumble men marginalized more effeminate queers. My take is that it's important that portrayals of GLBTQIA's from all walks of life, temperaments, and personalities and the importance therefore of Brokeback Mountain is portraying the sort of queer individuals who do not often get seen in movies and other media.

In terms of quality, Brokeback Mountain is extraordinarily well made and Ang Lee directs with the sure hand of a veteran. The cinematography is at times breathtaking. There is also a well edited section near the end of the movie where one character is describing how another character died and the audience is shown how the actual events differ from the events being described. On the acting front, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both give brilliant performances and are well supported by an able cast.

Overall, in spite of all the attention the film has received, it is not the greatest queer film of all time, it is not even one of the greatest queer films. The early sections take a little too long to develop, as well as being a bit too predictable. The film is not even all that groundbreaking, this is a standard romance story of which thousands of straight versions already exist. Comparison's could be made between the plot of Brokeback Mountain and Romeo and Juliet where the protagonist lovers have to choose between each other and the pressures placed upon them by societal expectations.

In spite of these drawbacks, Brokeback Mountain is still a good enough movie to recommend. The end sequences in particular pack a powerful emotional punch that few movies can exceed or even match.

Queer Review: Saint of 9/11

Saint of 9/11
Director: Glenn Holsten
Narrated by Ian McKellen

The Saint of 9/11 tells the story of Father Mychal Judge, a Catholic priest and a member of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001. This documentary shows all aspects of Father Mychal Judge's life and emphasis his outreach to the poor, homeless, recovering alcoholics, and those living with AIDS/HIV. Judge was a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department and was at the World Trade Center site when it collapsed giving aid to the rescue workers and the injured.

Notably, Father Judge supported the LGBTQA organization Dignity, even after after it had been banned by many diocesan churches. Furthermore, Judge himself identified himself as gay to many of his close friends and associates, although he remained celibate and closeted to the larger public.

Glenn Holsten's documentary about Father Mychal Judge shows the friar to be a man full of life and compassion for all. While Father Judge clearly loved all people and there can be no doubt that he was among the truly faithful, the greatest strength of Saint of 9/11 is that it makes every attempt to humanize Judge. There is no attempt to white wash Judge's life. For instance, we are shown Judge's struggles with alcoholism during the 1970's and the film does not shy away from addressing his sexual orientation and the reasons behind why he remained in the closet.

On the whole, Saint of 9/11 contains more then enough compelling material to warrant a recommendation and Father Mychal Judge's story is clearly one that should by known by all.

February 12, 2011

Queer Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: John Lee Hancock based upon the novel by John Berendt
Cast: John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Lady Chablis, Jude Law, Alison Eastwood, Paul Hipp, Geoffrey Lewis

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a slow moving character study, that is if we consider the place of Savannah, Georgia to be a character in of itself. The movie is based upon the book of the same title by John Berendt, which tells the story of his experiences in the town during a high profile murder investigation.

Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) is a wealthy and closeted gay man, whose annual high profile Christmas party is being covered by John Kelso (John Cusack) for a magazine article that Kelso was commissioned to write. Shortly before Kelso was planning to fly back to New York, a shocking event in the form of Williams shooting and killing his young lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law) - makes Kelso decide to stay and investigate these events in the hopes of writing a book. Williams claims that he acted in self defense, but that does not prevent a murder trial from commencing where Williams sexual orientation could sway a jury towards rendering a guilty verdict.

While John Kelso aids Williams defense teams, he meets and gets to know Savannah's colorful cast of characters. There's Lady Chablis (played by herself) a flamboyant female transgendered performer, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) a mysterious Voodoo practitioner, Joe Odom (Paul Hipp) a high class squatter, and Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis) a man who keeps flies as pets and carries a bottle that he claims contains enough poison to kill everyone in Savannah. Kelso also meets and woos Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood) a character not found in the novel.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil moves slowly, arguably too slowly at times. Eastwood directs with a steady hand, establishing a moody atmosphere and capably depicts the colorful cast of characters. The film's stumbling block comes in the final third when the plot gets dragged down with the details of Williams trial. The film's strongest sections are where Kelso meets and gets to know Savannah's colorful citizenry. Once the grand jury has delivered the indictment, the film becomes moribund in familiar movie trial tropes and trivial details.

Acting wise, Lady Chablis is a standout, providing a memorably sassy performance. Kevin Spacey is also very good playing a rich Southern dandy with a subtle flamboyance and just the right amount of ambiguity. John Cusack tends to have trouble distinguishing himself amongst the more colorful cast, but that is not a problem as the role does not require him to do much. His character is mostly a witness to the events and it is not until later on in the proceedings that he becomes directly involved.

Overall, I feel confident recommending Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in spite of the flawed later sections as it does not entirely obscure the films strengths. This is a pleasant movie with interesting characters and that also touches upon some deeper themes.

February 2, 2011

Queer Review: The Naked Civil Servant

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
Writer: Philip Mackie (Based upon the book by Quentin Crisp)
Cast: John Hurt, Stanley Lebor, Liz Gebhardt, Patricia Hodge, John Rhys-Davies

The Naked Civil Servant tells the story of Quentin Crisp, an early British homosexual who refused to live the closeted life of his contemporaries. Crisp, it should be noted, gave a whole new meaning to the term "flaming queen" and for this, he was frequently beaten, intimidated, and even arrested. In 1968 he published a memoir of his life The Naked Civil Servant, which became the basis of this movie, which was produced for British television.

Crisp (John Hurt) came from a conservative family and he made his early living as a male prostitute. Eventually, he became a nude model for an art school, which is where the title comes from, as Crisp once said that being a nude model is a lot like being a civil servant, except one is naked. Personality wise, Crisp was extremely narcissistic and effeminate. The movie presents even his friends as merely existing in his shadow, as many of them are not even given names, merely labels such as "art student". Crisp reminded me a lot of Oscar Wilde, another early gay British icon, in that both were quite quotable and pithy.

The Naked Civil Servant presents Crisp as something of a gay activist, although this was not entirely the case. The real Crisp opposed gay rights, feeling that homosexuality was a perversion, a point of view that had probably been drilled into him from a very young age. However, he also showed a great deal of courage in refusing to be forced into any sort of closet and that is what makes him notable. Even other gay men refused to associate with Crisp, for fear that doing so would reveal publicly their sexual orientation in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal.

This all made Crisp a complete outsider. He states repeatedly that he does not believe in love, although he is frequently shown to be more compassionate then the average person. He lived by a set of rules that forced him to ignore most people in public (unless they demanded an answer from him), which resulted in further isolating him from the rest of society.

John Hurt is given the hard role of portraying a lead character who is not altogether likable and he manages to give a fascinating performance nonetheless. The rest of the cast is solid, but ultimately exists in Hurt's shadow. The script also does a good job of showcasing many of Crisp's witty statements and presenting his droll (some might say cynical) perspective on humanity.

Ultimately, this is an entirely intriguing and worthwhile movie. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in historical gay individuals or anyone, period.