Category: Gay and Lesbian Dramas


TheSilence1

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

Thesilence2

Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

TheSilence3

Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

TheSilence4

Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

TheSilence5

For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

WomenInLove1

Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

WomenInLove2

Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

WomenInLove3

Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

WomenInLove4

And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
WomenInLove6

This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

KissOfTheSpiderWoman1

In 1986, William Hurt (One True Thing) won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Luis Molina, a flamboyantly homosexual prisoner serving time in an Argentinian prison, in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman. Along with the novel by Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman became an important entry in the canon of LGBT cinema. Though there is no denying the bravura ferocity of William Hurt’s performance and commitment to his role, as viewed through a modern lens, this film’s characterization of homosexuality borders almost on camp caricature, and were the novel not written by a gay man, it would almost be offensive.

Imprisoned for having sexual relations with an underage prostitute, Luis Molina is toiling away his days in a horrifically managed prison overflowing with petty thieves and political prisoners of the oppressive Argentinian regime. Molina passes his time by recounting the details of his favorite movies to his roommate, Valentin Arregui (The Addams Family‘s Raul Julia), a hardened Marxist political prisoner. As Molina tells Valentin of a favorite German romance (that also happens to be a Nazi propaganda film), the pair become closer despite their differences although betrayal and lies threaten to undo the fabric of their new relationship.

KissOfTheSpiderWoman2

An evening of sleep removed from my viewing of Kiss of the Spider Woman and I still can’t decide whether or not William Hurt’s performance is brilliant or extraordinarily offensive to the modern LGBT community. It’s probably both. He loses himself in the role. Hurt is a famously intense character actor, and it shows in this performance. There isn’t a second where he isn’t Molina. But, the writing of Molina is so flamboyant and stereotypically “camp gay” that it’s hard for me to take him seriously. So, William Hurt becomes this wounded, sensitive, desperately lonely man, but the writing of his character often turns Molina more into a stereotype than a real man.

I have no complaints about the characterization of Valentin Arregui or the performance of Raul Julia. In fact, I was actually far more impressed with Julia’s subtle, restrained intensity as Valentin than I was with the over-the-top (though in line with the character) camp of William Hurt. Valentin is a man consumed by anger and his political passions. But, he is also a lover. He misses his girlfriends. He misses his freedoms, and he respects the openness with which Molina lives his life. And Raul Julia captures the slowly eroding layer of toughness and hatred that are all Valentin seems to be when the film opens as he becomes more sensitive in the shadow of Molina.

KissOfTheSpiderWoman3

Kiss of the Spider Woman can be heartrendingly intimate. Though it may not have the sheer power of Sunday Bloody Sunday or A Single Man, the film paints a detailed portrait of the lives and loves of its two heroes. And through the unique framing device of the film within the film, Kiss of the Spider Woman is allowed to weave a symbolic and allegorical web (pun possibly intended; I’m not sure) rife with the angst and longing both our heroes feel so deeply. The film accomplishes so much with the mostly two-star set up, that the moments where the film strays and introduces other characters actually living in Molina and Valentin’s real world (as opposed to the Nazi film characters) seem woefully deficient compared to the relationship of Molina and Valentin.

I’m going to keep this review really short (though I swear I enjoyed it quite a bit) because I have some other things that I need to write about today. I want to apply for a fellowship, and I’ve sort of realized that I haven’t worked on any of my screenplays for nearly two months now if not longer. It’s time to remedy that. If you enjoy intimate character studies and important films in the LGBT canon, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a must see. The ending drags on a little too long, and not every scene winds up winning (and Molina’s campiness may be a turn-off to some), but for the 1980s, this film was remarkably prescient and insightful.

Final Score: B+

SundayBloodySunday1

I once had a professor in college that I love and respect very much who once presented the argument (I’m unsure if she actually believed it or was just simply stating it out loud) that because cinema was such an originally proletarian form of artistic expression, it was pretentious to assume that cinema should aspire to be a higher art. Because it was originally created for mass consumption, the argument goes that the greatest films are those which can be enjoyed by the most people. True “art” was left for literature and the classical visual arts. Clearly, if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know I disagree (in fact, my review of The Master makes the exact opposite point), and films like 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday are the perfect example of why. A film that was light years ahead of its time in terms of LGBT content, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a slow-moving character study whose grasp of loneliness and desperation is nearly unparalleled.

I bring this all up not to sound pretentious or like the snobby cinephile all my readers know I am, but because Sunday Bloody Sunday (abbreviated to SBS from this point forward in review) is a film that is as far away from mass appeal as humanly possible, but it has the quiet power and raw emotional energy of the great pieces of American literature of the 20th century. The film, directed by John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame, has such a clarity of vision and honest understanding of its characters that the film doesn’t have to rely on emotional fireworks and explosive confrontations to achieve a near total devastation. In the same vein of A Single ManSBS takes a subtle and sexy approach (40 years before that would enter the mainstream of LGBT cinematic storytelling) to exploring love, bisexuality, polyamory, and the overwhelming hopelessness of loneliness.

SundayBloodySunday2

The film is often referred to as a romantic drama involving a “love triangle” although I think that’s ultimately inaccurate (for reasons I’ll expound on later). Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is an exiting middle-age homosexual Jewish doctor with a successful private practice. Alexandra Greville (Glenda Jackson) is a middle-aged woman with an unfulfilling career at an employment referral agency. The only thing the two have in common (besides a sense of emptiness in their lives) is that they both love the young, bisexual artist Robert Elkin (Murray Head). Taking place more or less over the course of one week, Sunday Bloody Sunday sketches an intimate portrait of the affection and meaning Alex and Daniel both seek from Robert while the always restless Robert hops from partner to partner always in search of the next new and exciting experience in his own life.

If the film sounds dull by that synopsis, it is surely not the most exciting film ever made, and SBS moves at its own consistently deliberate pace. And while the film does find itself at somewhat of a resolution by the movie’s end, it is not a “happy ending” that will leave many satisfied, and, in fact, I would argue that Sunday Bloody Sunday sets up this type of dissatisfaction intentionally because it’s an honest portrayal of the complex romantic entanglements that have formed in these people’s lives as well as a commentary on the way that we look for meaning in romance at the cost of actual self-improvement (more on that shortly). SBS is barely a story in the traditional sense of the word and it lacks any singular scene begging for the audience’s attention. However, the sheer strength of the film’s writing, characters, and performances kept me entranced until the end credits rolled.

SundayBloodySunday3

Sunday Bloody Sunday won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the two leads won Best Actor and Actress. I’m not intimately familiar with all of the other nominees that year but Glenda Jackson’s win was well-deserved and Peter Finch was no slouch himself. It would not be an understatement to say that Glenda Jackson gives one of the most powerfully subtle and restrained performances that I’ve seen for this blog (it’s really a shame she’s up against the firebrand, crazy turn from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for this 50 film block). Alex’s loneliness and sense that her life is going nowhere and doesn’t have much of a chance of changing is soul-crushing, and in every line of Alex’s aging face (just realized Glenn Close was an Alex as well), you see how she feels the world and fate closing in around her. It’s the type of emotionally naked (and physically naked occasionally) performance that you rarely saw from female actresses at the time. Apparently, Glenda Jackson also went on to be a member of Parliament after she retired from acting if you’re interested in random trivia.

And Peter Finch’s Dan has to be one of the most compelling LGBT characters to appear in a mainstream film (in so far as John Schlesinger has now entered the cinematic mainstream thanks to Midnight Cowboy). Anyone who’s seen The Celluloid Closet (a documentary chronicling the portrayal of LGBT characters in mainstream cinema) knows that well into the 1990s, it was an unwritten rule (except when it was written thanks to the Hays Code) that gay characters had to be in some type of psychic turmoil and they all suffered throughout the film. Certainly Dan has problems, but they are tame compared to Alex, and he’s an otherwise well-adjusted man. The simple fact that Peter Finch played against period homosexual stereotypes at every turn (he wasn’t foppish in the slightest) would be enough to cement this character’s legacy, but Finch also shows the quiet loneliness and repression that eat away at Dan’s soul. Murray head also makes an impact as the sensitive and androgynous beatnik that captures both Alex’s and Dan’s passions.

SundayBloodySunday4

It’s a gorgeously shot film although Schlesinger’s famous tendency towards slipping in fantasies and flashbacks without any of the traditional visual transitions confused me slightly at first (although I immediately remembered my high school experience with Midnight Cowboy). Although once again, the film is gorgeous in a different way than, say, an Andrew Dominik film or Terrence Malick film. It doesn’t forcibly grab your attention. Instead, quiet lighting or a lingering shot on a sculpture of Bob’s (a strange but enchanting contraption involving what appears to be mercury and a reaction to music), Sunday Bloody Sunday underscores the need Alex and Dan need for beauty and pleasure in their desperate lives. Dan’s home is gorgeous and full of art, but the film never fails to hint at the emptiness seeping inside as well.

Sunday Bloody Sunday jumped to the top of my Netflix queue (The Crying Game was supposed to be the next film for me to watch according to my “master list” for this blog [which I’m also in the process of re-writing but that takes forever]) because it’s leaving Netflix Instant shortly. There are also like 9 other films in my instant queue that are leaving and I have to find time to watch as many of them as possible before they leave. One of these films is six hours long… and it’s the next one up. So, I’ll draw this review to a close although I hope you can tell that I have a lot more that I’d like to say about this movie. If you have any interest in quiet and powerful character studies as well as a film that is a hallmark of classic LGBT cinema, Sunday Bloody Sunday deserves your time and may very well be a true masterpiece of 1970s cinema period.

Final Score: A

RebelWithoutACause1

Careers that are blown out too soon create an aura of legend around many young stars that were taken from us in their prime. Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, etc. Fresh faces with all of the talent in the world are snuffed out and the world is left with the question, “What could have been?” This sad fate and the speculation surrounding future “what ifs?” is perhaps no better personified than by James Dean. Dead at the age of 24, with only three credited roles to his name, James Dean’s star still burns bright today despite how little we ever got to see of him. Ever since I first saw the film ten years ago, Rebel Without a Cause has always been a personal favorite of mine. And on this particular viewing (particularly having now seen Giant in recent years), the sense of tragedy over the loss of such an immense talent became almost overwhelming, as this film remains simply one of the best of the 1950s.

I honestly feel like this has to be one of the least understood films I’ve ever watched because critical explanations of its themes and messages are all over the place, and if anyone tries to tell me that it’s a film about the moral decay of American youth, they’re missing the forest for the trees. Rebel Without a Cause is as thematically complex a film from the 1950s that America could have possibly hoped to produce, and the subtle homosexual content was just light years ahead of its time. A film about family, our notions of masculine identity (and where said notions come from), the way that the failings and neglects of our loved ones lead to neurosis and dysfunction, and the painful confusions of youth, Rebel Without a Cause is a timeless classic, and while something indefinable about the film keeps it from perfection (perhaps an intentional emotional distance the film creates), it still set the bar for all future teenage dramas to come.

RebelWithoutACause2

(side note. This film’s in color but I had trouble finding color stills from the film.)

After moving to a new school because of problems with fighting, Jim Stark (James Dean) doesn’t take long before his emotional baggage gets him in trouble yet again. The film opens with a heavily intoxicated Jim playing with a toy monkey he found in the streets before being dragged to juvenile hall where it becomes readily apparent that his “don’t give a damn” demeanor is a front for dealing with the conflict between his hen-pecked, weak father and his over-bearing, oppressive mother. Though they don’t really interact yet, Jim is joined at juvenile hall by the runaway Judy (Gypsy‘s Natalie Wood), whose father has simply stopped showing her affection as she’s gotten older, as well as by the angry and abandoned Plato (Giant‘s Sal Mineo), whose parents have left hm alone in the care of a nanny. And over the course of one day, these wayward souls are drawn together.

Jim has one fear in life, and it’s to be a “chicken.” This stems from the cowardly nature of his father and the lack of an assertive masculine role model in his life. And although Jim desperately wants to fit in, his sensitive demeanor and foreign nature make him an immediate target for the school’s tougher crowd, which Judy runs with. After a fateful trip to the Los Angeles planetarium, Jim’s honor is called into question by Buzz (Corey Allen), and the pair have a non-fatal knife fight. And that night, when Jim’s dad is unable to muster up a reasonable explanation to Jim, Jim then faces Buzz in a distastrous game of chicken amid a high bluff that changes Jim, Judy, and Plato’s life forever.

RebelWithoutACause3

This particular interpretation of the film has gotten more popular in recent years, but I don’t know how anyone can watch the film and not realize it. Sal Mineo’s Plato is a homosexual and develops an almost immediate crush on Jim from the moment they first meet. Sal Mineo was gay in real life and James Dean has long been rumored to be bisexual. And, the homoerotic overtones in this movie are even more through the roof than they were in Giant. The longing glances that Plato shoots at Jim are more sexually charges than the ones shared between Jim and Judy. I obviously don’t think that Plato’s repressed homosexuality are at the root of his tragic fall (that lends itself to his parental abandonment), but Rebel Without a Cause has to be applauded for being a film from the 1950s that made a character as gay as possible without ever coming right out and saying he was gay.

Plato’s homosexuality is interesting within the context of the film itself though because Rebel Without a Cause is so interested in what it means to be a man. Not only what it means to be a man, but how men define ourselves in relation to women and our relationships with women. Jim is so angry and confused because society has told him what it means to be a man. To have honor and machismo. But, his role model is his father, who at one point we see in a frilly gown subservient to his domineering mother. And so, Jim is sensitive and gentle, but he nearly rebels against that side of his personality because it isn’t what he feels he needs to be. All of the characters are products of these psychic crises where there personalities are being torn apart from their own personal emotional needs, the failings of their parents, and the molds they feel society wants them to fill.

RebelWithoutACause4

It’s not just the thematic complexity of the film or its maturity for the era which birthed it that makes Rebel Without a Cause such a classic. It’s the fact that teenage angst and ennui had never been portrayed with such stark realism before. James Dean’s performance in this film is just legendary. I’m yet to see East of Eden (don’t worry. It’s on the list for this blog), but between Giant and this film, it’s painfully clear that James Dean would have been one of the biggest stars to ever live had he not died. Whether it’s his painful cry of “They’re tearing me apart!” as his parents bicker or the innocent way he plays with the monkey he found in the street, James Dean captures the perfect balance between youthful innocence and the driftlessness that defines Jim. And, much like his contemporary Marlon Brando, it never feels like Dean is acting. His performance remains perfectly natural throughout.

And Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood are nearly as good. Sal Mineo’s bravery in bringing such a feminine but in absolutely no way campy male hero to life is astounding, and he layers Plato with so much anger but a dark sensitivity that watching his emotional progression (and then his frightening regression by film’s end) is a masterclass of screen acting. Much like James Dean (and Natalie Wood for that matter), Mineo was a talent that was robbed from us far too soon. And Natalie Wood… The lustful sexual undertones that she plays with during the scenes with her father (where she simply wants chaste male affection but her father refuses because he’s afraid of his own sexual feelings for his daughter) are lightning. And like the other two leads, Natalie Wood bares his soul in a way completely uncommon for the era to speak truths about the painful realities of being a teenager.

RebelWithoutACause5

There was something about this film that maybe didn’t ultimately click with me, but nearly 24 hours removed from my most recent viewing, I still can’t put my finger on what it was. Just a vague feeling that something at the peripheral of the film was keeping me from totally immersing myself in this world. Still, that microscopic quibble aside, if you have even the most passing interest in cinema and have somehow managed to not see Rebel Without a Cause yet, drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. Without question, it remains one of the defining films of the 1950s and one of the most important films concerning what it means to be a teenager that’s ever been produced. And, if, when the credits roll, you don’t find yourself mourning the loss of James Dean’s monumental talent, you are unable to grasp one of the most exciting talents to ever hit the big screen.

Final Score: A

 

Wittgenstein1

To appropriate the right visual aid for reading this review, some quick stage directions are in order. Imagine me on a darkened stage. I vacillate between older and younger versions of myself seemingly at random and my outfit changes from period appropriate dress to garish, brightly colored costumes. Occasionally, I shall be joined by a martian with a xylophone. The stage props shall be bare yet ever-changing. And you shall see me slowly shaking my head back and forth as I try to make sense of the highly experimental film, Wittgenstein, from queer cinema icon Derek Jarman which explores the life of the titular Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you are able to keep these images in mind as you read this review, you may perhaps have a sense of where I’m coming from although methinks that I write in vain.

Every once in a great blue moon, a truly experimental and/or art-house film comes along and reminds me how much I take most cinematic conventions for granted. Whether it’s the works of Luis Buñuel or Todd Haynes (ooh boy. Poison was a weird ass movie) or David Lynch (Eraserhead, I’m looking at you), certain directors love to give a giant middle finger to the established norms by which films are made. I was not familiar with the ouevre of Derek Jarman before this film (just his standing in queer cinema circles), but if Wittgenstein is any indication, Jarman springs from the same mold of these innovative and visually minded filmmakers. Wittgenstein is lacking in anything resembling a plot and it’s inherent assumptions that viewers are intimately aware of all aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and life can make it hard to follow, but the film establishes Jarman as an aesthetically blessed artiste if not the greatest storyteller.

Wittgenstein2

For those not familiar with Ludwig Wittgenstein (and let’s face it, unless you’re a philosophically minded intellectual, you probably aren’t), Wittgenstein is arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. His work on the philosophy of science and linguistics is probably the most important thing to happen to philosophy since Immanuel Kant and Hegel (although apparently Wittgenstein hated Hegel [so do I]). And Wittgenstein is Jarman’s wryly comic look at Wittgenstein’s life. This ranges from his childhood in one of the richest families in all of Europe as a child prodigy to his adult years where he gave away his entire inheritance and became one of the most celebrated philosophers of his day. A homosexual, Wittgenstein was plagued with personal turmoil his whole life and a crippling sense of self-doubt which Jarman also explores.

I went on that whole opening rant about how to envision the review for this film because that is more or less how Jarman structures the movie. And Jarman’s visual style is without question the most interesting aspect of the film. Wittgenstein is set up like a stage play. The actors perform against stark black backgrounds in tight confines. The sets are often no more than one or two probs and the actors (except for adult Wittgenstein) tread around in bright, anachronistic costumes. In one scene, Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) and John Maynard Keynes walk back and forth in the rain to simulate a far longer walk to maintain the theatrical illusions. The only difference between the film and a stage play is that a stage play could not handle the rapid cuts and set changes that Wittgenstein so seamlessly integrates. And although I still have absolutely no idea what the fuck the martian was about, Wittgenstein never failed to impress aesthetically.

Wittgenstein3

Do not take my enjoyment of this film as an endorsement that the rest of my readers will like this movie. Although I appreciated the film’s visual style, I was still often at a loss for what was actually happening, and except for the moments that dealt with Wittgenstein’s and Keynes’ homosexuality, the film rarely made an emotional impact. It felt as cold and detached as Wittgenstein himself often was (the man likely had an undiagnosed form of Aspergers). Still, for fans of queer cinema as well as the most outre realms of art-house cinema, Wittgenstein is deserving of a watch. You may find yourself at a loss for the film’s goals or even its central tenets, but it’s fervent visual inspiration and those moments where Wittgenstein actually discusses philosophy make it an intellectually rewarding trip through art, madness, and brilliance.

Final Score: B

The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community has transformed into the forefront of the modern civil rights movement. Cinema, with its long history of political activism (within the lives of its stars and the content of its film), has a moral obligation to be one of the voices of the LGBT movement. Yet Hollywood (and to a lesser extent, the independent studios) has failed to produce a rich library of queer cinema, and the LGBT-themed films that are made are often preachy, heavy-handed affairs that do more to call attention to sexual inequality (which was a noble cause twenty years ago when gay cinema was first becoming its own subgenre) than attempting to normalize such behavior for mainstream audiences. Perhaps that’s why director-writer Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica was such a refreshing change of pace. As much a father-son “road movie” as it is a look in the life of modern transexuals, Transamerica joins A Single Man and Brokeback Mountain as some of the most stirring LGBT cinema of the 2000s.

For the vast majority of us, we are born a gender, and we give little to no thought to that fact. We are simply men or women. Yet, a small minority of the population experiences a phenomena known as “gender dysphoria,” wherein they are deeply unsatisfied with the gender they’re born into. In adults, this often results in transexualism where surgical and chemical modification occurs to transform a man into a woman and vice versa.  Whether those in the religious right wish to admit it or not, people have a right to say what their gender identity is, and if a man wants to be a woman, she should be identified as such. In Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica, the womanhood of the male-to-female transexual Bree Osbourne (Desperate Housewives‘ Felicity Huffman) is an accepted fact for all but the end of the film (and only then, it’s questioned by a hysterical religious mother). While Bree is far from perfect and has the neuroses and moments of weakness that plague the rest of us, Transamerica is more concerned with a quiet character study of one woman’s realization that she has a son and the fact that she will need more in life than sexual reassignment surgery to feel happy and whole.

Played with a deep, almost intentionally robotic voice by Felicity Huffman, Bree is a portrait of carefully maintained order. Because she had no control over her own body, she is trying to wrest control out of every square inch of the rest of her life. On the week before her sexual reassignment surgery (where she will finally be a woman physically as well as mentally), Bree’s carefully maintained world of order (and loneliness) is shattered when she discovers that she has a son, Toby (Frozen‘s Kevin Zegers), from the sole heterosexual relationship she ever had. Bree has a history of ignoring facts about her life that she doesn’t like. She’s actually a chronic liar and lied to her therapist about being a virgin and lies about her parents being dead among many other falsehoods. Bree’s therapist refuses to clear her for sexual reassignment surgery unless she confronts this issue with her son. Bree hops a plane from L.A. to New York where she bails Toby out of jail. But rather than telling Toby that she’s his father (or that she’s transgendered), Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary and takes Toby on a road trip across the country that becomes a journey of self-discovery for both father and son.

Felicity Huffman astounds every second that she’s on screen. While some may find her performance to be unnaturally restrained, Bree is a woman who has been robbed of control of one of the most defining aspects of her life. Of course, she would then try to remain in perfect control of everything else, and emotional restraint is the key. When any thing happens to crack her perfectly maintained armor (from an eight year old girl asking her if she was a boy or a girl to being forced to accept that she has a son in order to get her surgery), Bree quickly devolves into an emotional wreck. With Felicity Huffman, the simple act of control and self-restraint becomes a cinematic seminar on how to show internal struggle physically. It is Bree’s restraint with the moments where she breaks down that ultimately define this tender and wrenching performance. From dramatic moments where her mother tells Bree she misses her son only for Bree retorts, “Mom, you never had a son,” to lighter, comedic moments that play off of Bree’s absurd formality, Felicity Huffman delivers an emotionally complex tour-de-force turn.

Looking like Zac Efron’s long lost brother, Kevin Zegers gave the film a much needed dose of wounded youthful vitality (that may seem oxymoronic but Toby was nearly as complex and contradictory as his father). Like Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, Zegers has one of those intensely sensitive faces that nearly transcends traditional performance rules. Zegers doesn’t have to do much other than be on the screen and look hurt for a scene to succeed, but he does that and so much more. Throughout the film, you discover that Toby has been the victim of sexual abuse, prostituted himself to men while in New York (and on one heart-breaking occasion, on the road with Bree), and has a drug problem. Yet, Kevin Zegers (with help from the script) lends Toby a shattered innocence. With his stuffed monkey and the action figure that sleeps above his bed, Toby is a poster-child of being forced to grow up too quickly even when you still cling to the vestiges of your innocence. Other wonderful turns in the film include Lost‘s Fionnula Flanagan as Bree’s hysterical mother and Graham Greene as a Native American that gives Bree and Toby a lift (and has a flirtation with Bree ignorant of her sexual history) after their hideous station wagon is stolen.

Transamerica isn’t simply a smartly written and terrifically acted film. Director Duncan Tucker also fills the film to the brim with gorgeous scenery and countless moments that tease at an ironic dichotomy present in the road trip. With many scenes shot at what Terence Malick called the “magic hour” (the hour before sunset which was the primary time he shot for Days of Heaven), Bree and Toby’s journy across the United States attains a nearly supernatural beauty of crimson suns dipping into lush, hill-lined lakes or boundless Midwestern plains. In his attempt to normalize transgendered behavior, the road trip segments (which are the strongest moments in the film before the ending tries a little too hard to “say” something) could have been about any father and son crisscrossing their way around America. In this case, the son doesn’t know who his dad is or that his dad is living as a woman.

Perhaps the most inspired choice though was for Duncan Tucker to show Bree seamlessly fitting into the deep South communities that she and Toby roll through. As she tells her sister, Sydney, after Sydney recommends a garish and loud outfit, “I’m a transexual not a transvestite.” Though the film does an impressive job of making the masculine but otherwise attractive Felicity Huffman look more mannish than usual, Bree can mostly pass as a woman (though the graphic sight of her penis more than destroyed that illusion). Few characters are more inherently blue-collar than Graham Greene’s Calvin Many-Goats, and he starts to fall for Bree over the two days they spend together. Dressed like she’s just left for tea with the local ladies’ association and with a somewhat stilted elegance, Bree was once a man, but she’s put all of her energy into displaying herself as a woman.

The decision to score Transamerica with primarily country songs and bluegrass instrumentals added another layer of ironic (and hilarious) commentary to the film. The film winds it way through what Sarah Palin would have called the “Real America” and you’re left with the indelible impression that there are far more Bree’s out there than you think. Proving that a film can be quiet but still powerful, Transamerica avoids the usual rules of tragedy that define much of LGBT cinema (even many of the films that I love) and tries to capture something a little more down-to-earth and commonplace (but no less beautiful). If cinema has the ability to transform lives, this film’s portrayal of a flawed but inherently relatable transgender woman has the power to create a dialogue on gender identity and the continuing absurdity that we even have to have a battle over LGBT rights in this nation.

Final Score: A-

 

 

Discussions of oblique and cerebral matters like “self,” “identity,” and “soul” tend to take place either in the ivied walls of academia or amongst stoned first year philosophy students. For most people, the simple fact that we exist (which, in fact, isn’t that simple of a fact) is enough to take them through life content with their own self-definition as being “alive.” For screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation), the mind is his eternal playground, and in his debut feature, Being John Malkovich, Kaufman laid out the template of brain-bending and psycho-philosophical cinema that would come to define the rest of his career. Deftly exploring the nature of conscious entities, sexual identity, and obsessive creation, Being John Malkovich immediately marked Kaufman as one of America’s most unique screenwriters and remains one of the most impressive debuts of the last twenty years.

Charlie Kaufman explores, turns on its head, and obliterates the age-old fantasy of “What would it be like to see the world through someone else’s eyes?” Starting his career fascination with neurotic and dysfunctional artists, Kaufman creates the role of Craig Schwartz. John Cusack, admirably playing against type in his best role, brings Schwartz to life as a troubled schlemihl struggling to start a career as a puppet. With pretentious routines including “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” and a puppet re-enactment of early erotic literature landmark “Abelard and Heloise,” his career struggles aren’t shocking. Played with both an innocent sincerity and a creepy depravity, Cusack turns Craig Schwartz into a poster child of “doing it for the art” even when your art is unhealthy and more than a little pathetic. Throw in Craig’s unfulfilled relationship with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, also in her best role), who takes care of dozens of exotic animals, and Craig is a melting pot of modern dysfunction.

To allay his financial difficulties (because “this winter economic climate” is killing the puppetry business), Craig takes a job as a filer at Lester Corp, a small company on the 7 1/2 floor of a New York highrise. Run by the 105 year old lech Dr. Lester (Orson Bean in a scene-stealing performance) with his deaf secretary Floris (Big Love‘s Mary Kay Place), Lester Corp is a bizarre enough place to work as it is, but it’s the secret hiding behind a filing cabinet that truly sets Lester Corp apart. One day, Craig accidentally discovers a door which is a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich. The portal allows the user to spend 15 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of John Malkovich and then, afterwards, they’re dumped on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. With the help of the seductive Maxine (a brilliant Catherine Keener) who both Craig and Lotte lust after, Craig hatches a scheme to get rich by selling tickets into the mind of John Malkovich, but when Craig gets jealous of the burgeoning romance between Maxine and Lotte (but only when Lotte is inside Malkovich), Craig hatches a scheme to use his puppeteering skills to take over Malkovich’s body once and for all.

Along with “Charlie Kaufmann” (and his fictional brother Donald) in Adaptation. and Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, Craig Schwartz was the start of a long line of Kaufman “heroes” who served as much as commentaries on the creative process as they did as characters in their own right. Craig states several times throughout the film that he’s drawn to puppeteering because it allows him to live in the skin of others. One of the great ironies of the film is that he’s derided by many of the other characters and chided as creepy for this statement, but when they have the chance to live in the skin of John Malkovich, it is often a life-changing experience. With Lotte, it is so revelatory that she realizes she wants to have sexual re-assignment surgery. Later, without wanting to ruin one of the major plot points of the film, Craig’s artistic vision is justified when another, more famous performer begins to perform his act. Through Craig, Kaufman tries to show that even with a bold vision, the realization of art often depends on more than the artist and that the idiosyncrasies of an artist can turn off his audience.

With such wildly original scripts, it’s far too easy to give all of the credit to Charlie Kaufman in his films, but Spike Jonze (who cut his teeth making music videos such as the iconic “Sabotage” for Beastie Boys) deserves his fair share of recognition for this literal head-trip of a film. Similar to Adaptation. (though that film would greatly expand upon the technique), the film features a series of visually outrageous moments which surely went above and beyond what was required by the script. Whether it was a scene told from the point of view of a monkey as he tries to rescue his parents from poachers, John Malkovich’s trip into his own head, or a heartbreaking final shot where one character is forever trapped in the subconscious of a small child, Spike Jonze left his indelible stylistic mark on Being John Malkovich and began one of the best director/writer pairings of the 90s/2000s.

Spike Jonze also managed to elicit star-turn performances (easily the best performances from at least three of the stars) from an otherwise less than miraculous cast. Cameron Diaz is one of the least impressive big stars of her generation, but stripped of her natural beauty and given a unique (and delayed) sexual awakening, she turns Lotte into one of the few redeeming and innocent characters in the film. John Cusack made a great and early name for himself as the loveable and adrift Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, but he’s spent most of the rest of his career mired in romcom Hell. With greasy, disheveled hair, a borderline erotic fixation with his puppets, and a level of mental stability that steadily erodes throughout the film, John Cusack could have been committing career suicide by playing this part. Yet, he committed with such fervor to the deeply unsympathetic role that there is a near universal consensus on his unnerving portrayal being the best of his career. John Malkovich had the difficult task of playing a near satirical version of himself as well as other characters controlling himself, and he handled the schizophrenic nature of the role with shocking ease.

However, Catherine Keener (who was the already accomplished indie actress in the film) gives the truly incendiary performance of the film as a character who is ultimately hedonism and temptation incarnate. From the nonchalant way she carries herself to her complete dismissal of Craig (and even her dismissal of Lotte when she isn’t in Malkovich’s body), she drips with an unattainable sexuality. Three separate characters lust for her (though one is lusting partially against his will), and although Maxine is an obviously manipulative and evil sociopath, it is a testament to Catherine Keener’s sultry performance that it is instantly obvious why everyone in the film wants her. Along the lines of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Catherine Keener inhabits a character whose seductive prowess instantly explains the countless misdeeds that are committed to please her.

In addition to his musings on the nature of creation, Being John Malkovichprimarily concerns itself with the definition of “self.” Is your body what makes you “you,” or is there a more spiritual content? Do you have a soul? Does this soul live on even when it is disconnected from your physical body? I don’t think the film is providing serious answers to these sorts of questions (at least not within the context of this film) because Synecdoche, New York presented a deeply cynical take on so-called “spiritual” questions but as a satire of soul-searching metaphysical questions, it’s endlessly clever. Kaufman constantly adds new layers to the script and while the complexity never reaches the recursive nirvana of Synecdoche, his creation of his own rules for sentience allow a striking look at how we view others by forcing us to view ourselves through others’ eyes.

In Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman fired the opening salvo to the world informing everyone that he was a writer of immense talent and such vast imagination and creativity that his films would simply drip with more style than he would know what to do with. In fact, there are moments in Being John Malkovich that are so outright quirky that they almost distract from the actual themes of the film. If Craig Schwartz found a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has provided his audience with a portal into his own mind and when your time is up, you aren’t dumped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Instead, you’re left wrestling with the writing talent of the most wholly realized artists in the history of American cinema.

Final Score: A

I’ve actually debated whether to even write my review for this movie at all or not. It’s not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Mike Mill’s heavily autobiographical 2011 film Beginners. I thought it was a lot better than many of the movies that were nominated in this year’s very weak field of Best Picture nominees. Seriously, how did they manage to get things so right (at least in terms of the nominees, if not necessarily the winner) last year, and fuck things up so horribly this year. There were three different movies this year that I actively thought were bad (The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse). I haven’t seen The Artist yet so I can’t comment on its quality though I seriously doubt it will be better than The Tree of Life. That’s not why I’ve questioned writing this review though. I happen to have a fairly massive sinus infection, and I’m so much Claritin and Suphedrine that I’m buzzed as shit. So, I’m not entirely sure I can even put together comprehensible sentences. We shall see. Maybe this will be my grand experiment to see if I’m capable of Hunter S. Thompson style drug-induced ravings, although if I were channeling Raoul Duke, I’d need to be on something a little heavier than allergy/sinus medicine. Anyways, for those who have any interest in the LGBT movement or great father/son stories, Beginners is a wonderful and quiet film even if it allows itself to ramble on just a little to much (a trait we both share).

Told in non-linear order (along with still-image voice-overs to further break up the linearity of the film), Beginners is a story of romance, fathers and sons, and being true to yourself no matter what your age is. Oliver is a graphic designer dealing with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) in one half of the film while also dealing with the shocking revelation that his father had come out of the closet as a gay man at the age of 75 after the death of Oliver’s mother/Hal’s wife in the other half of the film. Because a psychiatrist in the 1950s told Hal that his homosexual urges were caused by a mental illness, he sought to cure himself by marrying a woman and maintaining a heterosexual lifestyle even though he was miserable. So, even though he is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after coming out of the closet, Hal decides to live his remaining days to his fullest (even though he eventually begins to deny the impending reality of his inevitable death). Oliver on the other hand is a commitment-phobe who has never known how to love because of the loveless nature of his parent’s marriage. It takes him meeting fellow commitment-shy lost soul Anna (Inglourious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent [an unbelievably gorgeous woman if there ever was one]), a French actress in L.A. that Oliver starts a tentative romance with at a party where Anna’s laryngitis makes her unable to talk, for Oliver to finally learn to deal with his father’s death as well as his own commitment issues.

Christopher Plummer won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and while I’m not certain if he was better than Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (he was seriously one of the two redeeming factors of that film), it was still a tender and lively performance for a man in his 80s in real life. I might be wrong but I’m fairly certain that Christopher Plummer is now the oldest person to win an Academy Award. So, the sheer joie de vivre (though the characterization as well as Plummer’s performance were far more complicated than that) is incredibly impressive. Everything about Hal as he turned his back on his impending death and chose to celebrate living his life was an ode to existence in both its tragedy and brilliance. I still feel like Plummer’s award was more about A) the role and B) a testament to his career. I still think Max Von Sydow was better (I haven’t seen the other three nominees). Ewan McGregor was very withdrawn and restrained as Oliver, but that’s written into the character so I can’t fault him for it. He just wasn’t especially exciting to watch. Melanie Laurent is one of the most gorgeous women acting right now, and she’s also very talented. She was good in her role although once again, this part wasn’t nearly as demanding or interesting as Shoshana in Inglourious Basterds.

This movie isn’t really going to be for everyone. It meanders along at its own pace, and the plot is fairly simple. A man comes out of the closet, gets cancer, and dies, and then his son falls in love with an actress and has to finally deal with his own issues. There are long moments in the film where dialogue is put at a minimum and the film takes a stab at visual poetry. Not at any sort of Fellini-esque or Malick-ian level, but it will tone all of the talking down and let the faces/physical nature of the scene do the speaking. I loved all of those things about the movie but I know those tend to turn off the more casual movie fan. The film takes some fun stylistic experimental turns. Hal has a Jack Russell terrier that Oliver has to adopt when his father dies, and there are several scenes in the movie where Oliver converses with his dog via subtitles. It’s adorable. Also, the film makes good use of symbolic repetition by comparing visual stills from the 1950s and visual stills from today to make a point both about how much things have changed in the last 50 years but also how much they’ve tragically stayed the same for the LGBT community.

I want to review more but I fucking feel terrible still and I’ve sneezed legitimately like 30 times over the course of this review. So quick last thoughts. The movie meanders just a little too much for its own good and because so many scenes are so sharply realized, the weaker moments seem even more weak. That’s the curse of having some really great moments in a movie. Other than that, it was a beautiful film. Great, understated films don’t come around often enough, and Beginners know that you can create truth through quiet honesty. You don’t have to beat your audience over the head with your points. I also have to review the season premiere of True Blood. Although, I’m considering not reviewing it just because of how disappointed I wound up being with last season. The season premiere was good though. Not great, but I was able to enjoy it which was a serious step up from last time around. Anyways, we’ll see if I wind up feeling any better. As it is, I just feel like I have the bubonic plague.

Final Score: A-

I used to be one of those wide-eyed classical romantics. I believed in true love. I believed that monogamy was the basic building block of the human mating process. I believed that there was just one person out there for me and it was a matter of time til I found her. Perhaps because I stopped believing in silly things like fate, religion, and destiny, I’ve completely come to understand how silly the last belief was, and while I’d like to believe that the first two might be true, I have my serious doubts. People complain about the destruction of the conventional marriage and the erosion of the family, but maybe we only created those social constructs because a long time ago we needed them to survive. What happens when we’re able to survive in a world without the nuclear family? Do our inherent hedonistic tendencies subvert the idea that most people are capable of loving just one person the rest of their life? Is there anything wrong with recognizing that perhaps this just isn’t possible for you? To me, it’s a far more honest approach than being in a relationship where you proclaim monogamy but secretly yearn for infidelity (or even cheat). The whole question of modern love and the lies that are inherent in our perhaps fantasy love lives lies at the center of James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy and while it has some flaws (a terribly unnecessary ending), it’s still a thought-provoking and razor sharp film.

In a considerable inversion of the “love triangle” tale, James Toback’s story presents a far more morally ambiguous (and therefore more intellectually satisfying) tale. Carla (Austin Power‘s Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Williams) both wait outside of the same NYC apartment and strike up a conversation. They’re both waiting for their boyfriend to come home and as the very talkative Lou begins to spill details about her boyfriend, Carla realizes they’re waiting to see the same man. They’ve both been dating Blake Allen (Robert Downey Jr.), a narcissistic actor/singer with a bit of an oedipal complex, and they both showed up on his door step to surprise him at the exact same time. They decide to break into his apartment to confront him about his infidelity, and while Blake turns out to be exactly the sort of wishy-washy cheater you expect him to be, Carla and Lou’s ambush doesn’t settle things as cleanly as they want, and they’re forced to examine that perhaps they aren’t as morally clean as they want to believe either.

This movie literally boils down to three people talking for 90 minutes (with one graphic sex scene between two of them at the halfway mark), so if that’s not your thing, you should just go ahead and stop reading now. This movie isn’t going to be for you. These characters never shut up (especially Lou), and if you find the concept of three self-absorbed bourgeois New Yorkers talking about rich white people problems as completely unbearable, you will really, really despise Two Girls and a Guy. I enjoy a good philosophical discussion, and this film tries to reach right into the heart of why people cheat. It examines why we create these fictions in our lives that we know we can’t maintain. It looks at what it is in us psychologically that makes some people able to be happy with one person why some of us can’t really find that. It asks whether that first group of people are even happy at all or if they’re just pretending. It even acts as a commentary on why actors pursue that field because it allows them to create fictions that fill the holes of unhappiness in their lives. Unlike the last “talky” film I watched, Interview, I never felt like Two Girls and a Guy stretched itself beyond its capabilities in terms of the questions it asked, and even if it didn’t provide clear answers to all of those questions, that was also one of the main themes of the film, which is that life is one massive moral gray area.

Before I talk about the performances (one amazing, one good, one subpar), let me just state that Robert Downey Jr. has aged like a fucking champ. This movie is 15 years older, and while he certainly looks younger in this film, is it weird for me as a straight man to say that he’s only gotten more handsome since this film? Seriously though, Robert Downey Jr. stole this film. He’s supposed to be the bad guy (kind of), but he’s such a consummate performer (and he’s playing a character who’s so absorbed in his own performances and deceits and fantasies) that you can’t help but understand why these women still have very complicated feelings for him even after they discover that he’s a cheating bastard. I overuse this word to describe highly passionate performances, but Downey Jr. could be downright feral in this role, and it’s a reminder of a day when he known more for picking high-risk, emotionally demanding roles instead of a never-ending string of good roles in blockbusters (not that I’ll deny a man a living. I just miss the more unpredictable Downey Jr.). Heather Graham was surprisingly effective in this role because I’ve never thought of her as a good actress. Unfortunately, Natasha Gregson Wagner was mostly annoying, and she couldn’t keep up with the better performances surrounding her.

The above photo is a promotional still of the movie and not an actual screenshot (like I normally try to use). In an unsurprising fact, if you do a Google search of “two girls and a guy,” it’s going to provide you with more pornographic images than actual screenshots from this film. Anyways, if you are a fan of the subversive 90s romantic dramedy subgenre that I feel will never live up to the standard set by Chasing Amy, you should give Two Girls and a Guy a try. Yes, Natasha Gregson Williams is incredibly irritating and the ending seems even more forced and unnecessary than Interview‘s, but if you can look past those minor quibbles, it’s a fun, fresh, and witty examination of modern relationships. If every rom-com/romantic drama were as brutally honest as this, perhaps the sexes in this nation would have a more sincere and genuine conversation about relationships than the unrealistic escapist fantasies that Hollywood prefers to foist upon us.

Final Score: B+