Monday, March 31, 2014

Mr Angel (2013): Coming to Terms

Mr Angel (2013)
dir: Dan Hunt

Buck Angel is an FTM transexual porn star. He has had top surgery and is also on male hormones, but he refuses to get bottom surgery due to cost and pointlessness. He asks, at one point in the documentary, Why sacrifice a perfectly good vagina and $50k just to have a penis that doesn't even work like a real one? In a sense, this type of blunt acknowledgement with little respect for Political Correctness is indicative of the tone that Mr. Angel takes on.

Dan Hunt is tasked with creating a glossy profile of Buck Angel that is based in a blunter reality than usual for such a singular profile. He follows Buck Angel's attempts to succeed in the porn world as a man with a vagina. He goes through Buck's childhood, and his troubled history without questioning anything about Buck's choices. Much like Red Without Blue, we're meant to take Buck Angel's self-attitude for its face value without asking too many of the deeper questions.

When Angel was younger, he was a bit of a tomboy and then a bit of a drug addict hellfire who conducted emotional warfare on his family before even realizing that he really wanted to be a manly man. Then he came out to his deeply religious and gender role-conforming family, and...then he becomes a man, a porn star and an activist for the trans community.

There's a lot in this film that Dan Hunt and Buck Angel unpack, but there's a lot left unasked. Buck Angel at one point practically blames his father for making him want to be a boy because his father played with him as if he was a boy. Doing sports stuff, and allowing him to do boyish things socially, except when they went to church where he had to return to his feminine clothing. But, at another he says that this is natural and normal and people are made this way.

At one point, he says "I don't blame my parents. They didn't know what they were doing to me as a kid." And, it's almost a crutch to show how he got so heavily into modeling and drugs as a younger woman. And, then how he saw the manly men and decided that's what he wanted to be, and set out to be one. But, just kept the vagina.

At another point, Hunt is interviewing Angel's parents, and they're trying to put on their accepting face but it's clear they still aren't OK with it. They still see Buck as their daughter. But, how much of that distrust for his identity was caused by the havoc he wrecked as a drug addict and alcoholic is left unasked. This isn't therapy and we're not connecting all of the dots here.

The main difference between Mr Angel and Red Without Blue is that Buck Angel is setting out to be an activist and wants to be a role model. In Red Without Blue, the characters really would rather be living their life in private. Buck Angel is an even more problematic character than anybody in Red Without Blue. Not because of the porn. But because of his past traumas, and it seems fairly obvious that he isn't quite out of the woods in terms of his mental anguish. He's still processing his childhood in various ways. His sister, also interviewed, hasn't reconciled herself with Buck's new maleness, and is skeptical of his new found trans identity. His mom wants to embrace it because Buck is trying to do something good, she guesses.

Mr Angel is by no means a completed film, as most biopics of an ongoing, living person aren't. But, Dan Hunt seems to think that by showing the issues that trans people have to face when they're coming out he's doing something good. But, there is no unpacking going on. At times, Hunt starts diving into traditional gender roles, and genderqueer topics. But, he dives right back out of them.

It's a frustratingly surface movie about a person who changed his surface in order to reflect the tumultuous interior with which he lives. It frequently attempts to dive deeper, but very rarely succeeds. I wish there were more to this film, with more trust being built causing the subjects to break their own masks. But, everybody keeps their masks pretty in tact while the cameras are rolling, doing nobody any favors.

Friday, March 28, 2014

House (1977): When the Kitchen Sink technique works

House (aka Hausu) (1977)
dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi

In a traditional sense, nothing about House should work. It's a horror movie for kids that is all about love, loss and vampirism. As a film, it uses every single technique that had been invented by that time, and created new ones just for its own humor. It never really holds its attention on any one topic for any length of time, yet creates a hallucinatory throughline story. Yet, House is one of the craziest, most entertaining, balls-out films that works on weird hallucinatory levels as well as ridiculously high camp.

House tells the story of Gorgeous, whose father is about to remarry years after her mother passed away. Because he botched the introduction of his daughter and new wife, his daughter rebels and decides to spend her vacation with her aunt in some far off town. Her 6 friends have also recently learned they cannot go to a training camp due to a pregnant innkeeper, and choose to go with her.

Her aunt, living all alone in the middle of the country, greets them with open arms. Except that she is a vampiric witch, and employs both the house and all of the objects within it, in order to kill any unmarried females who dare to step within its walls. Auntie feeds off their life, and exchanges bodies and spirits so that she has possession of their identity as well.

What would normally be a relatively straightforward story of girls in peril, with a tragic backstory, turns into a child-like hallucinatory horror movie that comes off like a nightmare version of Sesame Street on acid. Much like Sesame Street's shorts, Obayashi uses everything under the sun to convey a child's heightened emotionality as well as blunter sense of the world. There's split frames, frames within frames, irises, deep focus, natural settings, matte backgrounds, blue screen, silent film, black and white, stop motion, practical effects, frame coloring, drawing on the frame, animation, slow motions, speed-ups, smash cuts, musical numbers...the list of everything that is in House is practically a compendium of cinematic techniques that were available at the time. A use of a few of those techniques go a long way, but House dares to include all of them.

That's not to say that the effects were all successful. Obayashi intended for the movie to look like a child's playtime machinations, with a sense that this isn't a mature adult making mature a movie for adults but a child communicating a child's experience. This child is explaining that she has a fear of a variety of things, including futons, pianos, clocks, reflections, cats, adults, and watermelons.

In order to properly enter this world, and take it as it wants to be taken, the viewer must turn himself into a child and turn off their preconceived notions of what a film actually should be like. Watching the film as an adult expecting a straightforward horror movie filled with adult creeping terrors around the corner is quickly obliterated by the opening, where a blue line outlines a box in the frame, and the cartoonish title treatment speaks the name "House" before eating you.

This type of whimsy continues through an opening scene where our heroine, Gorgeous, meets her stepmother. The scene seems like it is in the balcony of a spacious and stylish apartment with a matte painting backdrop of a setting sun makes it more 1980s Moonlighting than actually resembling a realist movie set. Any pretense at being realistic is dropped soon after when her new stepmother floats in from the side, with an invisible wind making her hair and her scarf trail her. It's heightened drama and setting, but it's so effective at setting a dreamy atmosphere that when we get to the schoolyard scenes that follow, the realism is drastically jarring. The school scenes are filmed in a style most reminiscent of any 1970s back to school special.

Given Obayashi's background in advertising, it's no surprise that House is as impeccable as it is inconceivable. The framing of the scene from the left with a giant pair of lips haunting the girls is stunning and amateur both. It's just off center, with the lips being the center of a frame that seems to have moved off to the left. The various odd sources of lighting are too hot in certain areas (notably the girl's butt), but still dramatic and creepy in the realm of the classical noirs. Compare that to the earlier frame of the head in the well, where the matte painting background gives everything an illusion of deepest focus, and the whole frame is lit and filmed like a classical watercolor painting. Which looks completely different to the neo-realist schoolyard scenes which feature no matte paintings and seem to even use a different film stock. Etc. But, they're all impeccably used, in an amateurish manner.

House doesn't have any pretense about being anything other than a film about 7 young girls in danger. Sure, it has some cultural allusions WWII and the bomb, and how the older generation is trying to cope with a younger generation who knows absolutely nothing about that earlier war and the destruction that was wrecked upon Japan as a result. From a child's perspective, though, that means nothing and the real source of fear are in the odd objects of the house. This is an art object. It's an experience. You're meant to laugh with it, and be scared by it. It's comedic, horrific, childlike and silly. But, most of all, it's different. This is primarily for experiencing something you haven't experienced since Sesame Street, put into a horror movie. It's an astounding film.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Paprika (2006): A Tale of Two Cities, With a Little Bit of Spice

Paprika (2006)
Dir: Satoshi Kon

The final finished movie of the late, great, Satoshi Kon was 2006's Paprika, a film exploring the space between what are considered to be polar opposites: reality and dreams. It was a continuation of Kon's fascination of the spaces between, as well as what perception is to reality, as he previously explored in Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Kon, as always, is also fascinated with the exploration of film itself, and the storytelling devices within, including meta-filmmaking, and what it means to make a meta film.

The title character Paprika is a dream-world alternate persona created by the psychiatrist Dr. Chiba for use during dream sessions with her patients. Where Dr. Chiba is a serious woman with black hair and a stern, professional demeanor, Paprika is a redhead with bright clothing and a chipper demeanor. Using a new device called the DC Mini, Dr. Chiba is able to insert herself into her patients' dreams to analyze them and to create a deeper connection.

Somebody has stolen a few extra DC Minis, and is using them to start penetrating even the waking conscious of anybody who has used the DC Mini at any point to pull them into a singular dream world. That dream world is a chaotic parade of toys, technology, and symbols marching to...somewhere, absorbing and destroying any and all of the participants that it brings into its reality. Now, Dr. Chiba, her boss, and Dr Tokita, the inventor of the DC Mini, must figure out who stole the DC Minis, and stop them from taking over the minds of the world.

Of course, that description barely even scratches the surface of what Paprika does, which is float in between reality, dream world, the internet and cinema with a reckless abandon that is breathtakingly fluid. The relative straightforwardness of the plot is just a device on which Kon hangs his favorite obsessions. He opens the movie with a dream collage based in several different movies establishing a detective character and patient through his recurring nightmare. Then, it flows right into a dream-like reality opening credits sequence where Paprika breaks all the laws of reality as the credits are projected onto the reality of the buildings.

Kon's obsessions with where real life ends and our perception begins causes the worlds to beat and bash at each other throughout the movie, creating an almost hallucinatory sense of what is actually being put on screen. Which is exactly what the medium of animation should be used for: to create a fully integrated world where reality isn't what it could be. Like Spirited Away, the animation used in Paprika creates a fictional world where it feels like anything can happen.

Kon's intentions is purely to have fun and a nightmare world is part of that fun. If you're frightened, grossed out, offended...it's all part of the game that Kon plays with his audience. Those feelings are the opposite of the light-hearted, carefree feeling that much of the film creates. All of this adds to the themes of opposites - old vs young, new vs old, technology vs luddite, dreams vs reality, man vs woman, good vs evil, fat vs skinny, mental vs physical, life vs death, etc. - that Kon injects throughout Paprika. Even in the parade, old fashioned Japanese toys mix with robots, and refrigerators lead the dolls. Kon seems to be calling for the new Japanese culture that has been brewing since before the '00s to not completely reject the old Japanese culture it seems intent on ousting. What Kon wants is a culture that is based in the new but doesn't forget the old, and has a bit of a twist to it all in order to make things original.

Paprika is a movie to obsess over. There's a lot of information to process the first time through as you're being pulled in and out of the various worlds that Kon creates. It's a hell of a lot of fun too. It's only flaw is a single use of bizarre sexual violence to create a feeling of violation, but even that seems to be about emotional wreckage more than evil dudes just being evil. Leaving that little bit out, it is an excellent mind trip of a movie that remains Kon's most accomplished work.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Aachi & Ssipak (2006): Giving Crap to the Government

Aachi and Ssipak (2006)
dir: Jo-Beom Jim

Ed's Note: This review is based on the original Aachi and Ssipak, and not Mondo Media's 2014 English language rewrite and dub. Mondo Media did not put the original version of the film on either their blu-ray or their DVD. That version can be found through usual channels, as well as a website with a Y and a T in it.

The world of Aachi and Ssipak isn't that hard to imagine. A world where natural resources have run out. A world where electricity is harnessed from one renewable resource: feces. A world where the government runs the electric company and also demands people give their feces for the electricity. A world where they placate the masses by giving them a highly addictive drug for regularly pooping instead of, probably, selling feces on the black market as its own type of resource. And, a world where that drug has had the negative power to make people constipated, mutated, yet still addicted to the drug that requires the ability to poop.

Jo-Beom Jim has concocted a world which bends in on itself in some of the likeliest manners, given the two axioms of resources have run out and the world is now run on crap. He created a world where the lines between government and commercial entities blur, where the authority is just as destructive and violent as the criminals, where drugs and media create placid easily manipulated addicts, and bodily function and pleasure are married in intimate ways.

Needless to say, this movie gets very complicated very fast for a movie that merely appears to be about poop and porn. Let's try to unwind this movie.

Aachi and Ssipak opens with a scrawl giving the basic outlines of this dystopic future, then jumps in to its first of many action sequences. The diaper gang, a bunch of adorable and disposable blue mutants who are ripe to be stuffed creatures out of a Disney background character, is seeking to seize a shipment of Juicybars, the drug given to people for their fecal matter. The diaper gang have mutated in a way that they don't have the ability to poop, and now must subsist solely on Juicybars. This seizing is foiled by Geko, a renegade cyborg cop, whose goal is foil the gangs, but not necessarily to save the shipment. All of Geko's behaviors is monitored and dictated by a large headed woman who appears to be CEO and Dictator of the country.

Aachi and Ssipak, are two small-time criminals in one of the ghettos who both deal for Juicybars, and also hold up bathrooms to try to steal them for resale on the black market. Their primary dealings happen with an organized mob, who are out to get them for shortchanging the deal, and also stepping in territories that aren't theirs. They also have a friend, Jimmy the Freak, who is a wanna-be porn director who wants to make a porn movie about a woman who defecates strongly.

The way that the feces are actually distributed to people is by a ring placed in anuses at birth that also encode that person's identity into their ass. When a ring detects a successful bowel movement, it delivers a Juicybar to the bathroom of the defecator, and also the main government computer identifies the defecator by name.

When Jimmy the Freak tells the Diaper King about this, the Diaper King gets the idea to take out the identity rings from his Diaper Gang minions, and put them in the anus of a porn actress, Beautiful. Beautiful had already become the object of affection for Ssipak, who rescues her from Jimmy and the King only to find out she had already been implanted with all the rings and now gets mountains of Juicybars.

The above four paragraphs are all packed into the movie's first 30 mind-bending minutes. And, I haven't even mentioned the sequence where Aachi and Ssipak get Jimmy the Freak high as hell on Juicybars, then hypnotize him to go into the mob office to perform scenes from Basic Instinct and Misery. For all of Aachi and Ssipak's low brow humor and aims at base sensibilities, Jo-Beom Jim has created a scathing satire on all things government, consumer and media. The vast majority of the second and third acts are made up of cinematic action sequences upon action sequences taken from other films, most notably Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

For a movie whose first 45 minutes are packed with more cultural insight and impact than many movies do with 2 or 3 hours, it's hard not to be both disappointed and relieved that the spins didn't keep coming for the entirety of the movie. When you piece together everything, you're allowed to mindlessly sit back and watch the action unfold, which is also a scathing indictment of how cinema soothes people into complacency. You see all of this corruption through the use of drugs and government, but the happy ending is that Aachi and Ssipak rescued Beautiful and are able to become rich again. Not that the government corruption has ceased to exist, or that the people are done being drugged, but our heroes made out for themselves. It's a high note that's as intentionally hollow and flawed as anything the movie corrupts.

On the other hand, the movie is so well done. The sight of the diaper gang mutants being so chipperly evil is always hilarious, as is their frequent gory and brutal murders. They're the most precious victims of action movies. Jo-Beom Jim's action sequences are rapid paced and fast moving, and really well done. They don't obscure the action and are visually sumptuous.

Aachi and Ssipak's hyperkinetic nature, high-brow satirical intents, and mixture of medium-brow and low-brow humor makes this a movie that is simultaneously a must see and a movie that will be appreciated by few. The scatological and pornographic nature of the film will turn most people off, though Aachi and Ssipak shows no actual feces or sex in the film. Yet, because it attacks both the brain and the adrenaline, Aachi and Ssipak is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride of a weird type of intelligence, making this a required viewing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Visitor (1979): Wackiness foiled by pacing

The Visitor (1979)
dir: Guilio Paradisi

When I was a child, I used to be fascinated by the horror movie VHS art in the aisles. Some of them completely frightened me, like the original are for Fright Night, which had the clouds over a house turning into a vampire about to descend onto the suburban home. Whoever did that poster deserves an award for making me frightened of its contents.

Other notable VHS horror art were Black Roses (which had dimensional bubble art), April Fools Day, Gothic, TerrorVision, and today's featured film, The Visitor (shown at right). What's notable for The Visitor is the the strange absurdity of the art: a giant eyeball floating over a large city with two monster hands holding a bloody wire pulled taut between thrm. Add in the lightning strikes, and this is probably the origins of my personal fascination of using eyeballs in marketing imagery. They're fascinating, visually stunning, full of meaning, and generally kind of hypnotizing. Other people think they're creepy, but that's only when the eyeball comes in pairs, and with eyelids.

I hadn't actually gotten around to watching The Visitor because I believe the film was removed from the shelves by the time I was old enough to rent it. This year, in 2014, Alamo Drafthouse has released a remastered high-def extended full length version of The Visitor and revealed that, for all of its crazy psychotic beauty, the key art for The Visitor has almost nothing to do with the Italian ripoff content within.

The Visitor is but one in a long line of European ripoff films that featured riffs on a variety of original American titles. The horror genre was especially intent on focusing on Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Some movies would throw one or two of these films into a blender and see what comes out. Beyond the Door was The Exorcist meets Rosemary's Baby. The Devil Within Her was mainly It's Alive combined with Rosemary's Baby and would predate The Omen.

The Visitor, however, wasn't content to rip off just the four American films about. It would also include The Birds, Carrie, THX1138, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Holy Mountain. Basically it takes all 8 films and throws them haphazardly into a blender so you get a mismashed slurry that comes out the end.

The film opens on a Jodorowsky-esque surreal landscape that tells some story of an evil demon/spirit/God that was destroyed by a good evil/spirit/God through the use of some birds that would peck its brains out. The evil spirit also turned into a bird to kill the other birds. Though, the evil spirit died, he was able to copulate with humans, Zeus style, leaving bits of his spirit to continue popping up in random human wombs.

All of this exposition is relayed by a Jesus figure who is also the leader of a cult of bald children in some form of extraterrestrial white room. Suddenly, another figure pops his head in and says that they found the next vessel, and she JUST TURNED 8!!  Duh DUH!!!

Fairly soon, the movie then turns into a cross between The Omen, Carrie, and Rosemary's Baby, with the story of an executive trying to marry a single mother whose kid is the aforementioned vessel. The executive is under the guise of some evil outfit who is working for some evil spirit. The single mother is pregnant with another kid, who she feels is evil and is harassed into keeping the spawn. The 8-year-old, however, is an evil spirit who can make things happen with her mind just to spite everybody. But, she's also the biggest, most foul-mouthed brat in the world, even telling Shelley Winters, her new nanny, that she shoved her birthday present up her ass. Not in a The Exorcist foul-mouthed demonic way, but in a Fuck You, I'm A Spoiled Brat kind of way.

There's also a story where the second adult figure from the Jesus white room is tracking down the kid and the demon spawn in order to defeat them before they release evil into the world or something. And, a police officer is also tracking down the kid, after a birthday present bird became a gun that shot her mother, paralyzing her from the waist down.

With all of this going on, one is tempted to say this is would be a fantastic piece of gonzo trashiness, but in the Drafthouse release the pacing of The Visitor is more languid than any of its brethern. With a runtime of 109 minutes, The Visitor's crazy non-sequitorness doesn't hold up to sustained watching, instead feeling like the ultimate party movie rather than a real film. One you can talk through and then look up and see somebody get shot, or a kid swearing and then continue the conversation without having missed much because there isn't much to miss.

And, while some of the visuals are stunning (especially the opening sequences and the one featuring a discotheque lighted airport runway. It isn't sustained for too terribly long. It's a competent film that just doesn't rise to the occasion of the early and closing sequences. While individual sequences of randomness are

Overall, The Visitor suffers from too much bluster without anything substantial to connect the threads. One could easily argue that none of the other knock off blender films have much substance either, but most of those either have a strong throughline, or keep their running time blessedly short.  The constant throwing of random scenes from other films does nothing to help keep the viewer compelled to see what's next when half of the film is rendered with a slow, languorous pacing that lulls the viewer toe distraction. Yet, at a party, this is a feature not a flaw.

Is it a success? No. It's an archival piece of weirdness that should be treasured, but it doesn't live up to the trashy camp highs and lows that Drafthouse's cult has built up around it. There's a reason its cult status never followed through on creating a following.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Counselor (2013): Looking at a Crime film from the Edge

The Counselor (2013)
dir: Ridley Scott
wr: Cormac McCarthy

The Counselor isn't so much a Ridley Scott film as a Cormac McCarthy film. The characters talk. And they talk and they talk. And they just keep talking. Meanwhile things happen. Suddenly, the things that are happening are tied to the characters, and we hope you've been paying attention to the little details that are dropped in the middle of otherwise meaningless conversations that are all about consequences.

Watching The Counselor is an odd experience. It has all the plot points, characters, and meaning of a typical drug thriller. But, in order to create something you haven't seen before, McCarthy crafted a movie where you're essentially looking at it from the side. Have you ever looked at a photograph? Have you ever tilted it so that you're looking at it indirectly? Notice how everything that you see in the photograph is there, but it is so distorted or obfuscated it ceases to look like itself. That's the style in which you're watching The Counselor.

The titular character, the unnamed Counselor, is desperate for some reason that lies outside the frame of this photograph. He wants to get married to Laura, who also wants to get married to him, and buys her a 3.5 karat diamond of decent quality.

But, that desperation causes the Counselor to get involved in...something illegal involving the flashy Reiner and his sultry seductive and cold new girlfriend, Malkina. Reiner hooks the Counselor up with Westray, who takes his money and promises a decent return on investment.

The actual something illegal is already in motion long before the movie actually begins. The movie opens with a guy speeding by on a motorcycle. Before the movie can reveal anything, there are also scenes of barrels of heroin or cocaine being put into a septic waste truck and filled with septic waste, and already on its destination to Chicago. Once across the border, there is an exchange of control over the truck involving the guy on the motorcycle, who had been arrested for speeding and released by the Counselor because the motorcyclist's mother is his client.

Malkina, Westray, and Reiner plan to heist the drugs from the other cartel by killing the motorcyclist and stealing the truck, which is again foiled by the cartel, who now blame the Counselor for having been involved in the whole thing due to the earlier bailing, and proceed to go after him, Laura, and Reiner. Meanwhile, Malkina flees the country and gets her revenge at losing the drugs by killing and robbing Westray, the guy who hired everybody involved.

Of course, that makes everything sound easy. But, The Counselor is tilted from the perspective of The Counselor. Virtually all of the dialogue happens in scenes that involve him. And those that don't involve Malkina in the briefest of forms. The Counselor knows nothing about what his money is actually doing, and nobody actually tells him anything in the course of the story. Repeatedly, they tell him that he should think about what he is doing, and warn him that every action has a consequence. Reiner repeatedly tells stories that involve actions which lead to unexpected consequences. Westray warns him that actions can bring bad news, and tells him stories of snuff films and their ties to the drug cartel. The Counselor's diamond dealer calls diamonds consequence diamonds because of the actions it takes to get them.

Almost none of the dialogue actually involves what is happening behind the scenes.

The Counselor is barely about what it's about. Sure, its an oblique version of a trashy drug deal movie. More than that, The Counselor is a critique on consumerism and capitalism. Westray tells The Counselor that the consumer is just as guilty as the provider for the consequences that happens as the product is created. Westray uses the concept of the snuff film, and says that any viewer of a snuff film creates a demand for that film, and thus is responsible for the murder of the girls who are sacrificed for the creation of the snuff film. The same is for the diamond, of which people have been murdered in order for The Counselor to create the perfect engagement ring for Laura.

Similarly, investors such as The Counselor are responsible for all the death that occurs to retain his ROI. He might not be a terrible guy, but his desire to make money for no effort directly kills at least one guy (the Green Hornet), and has the potential to ignite a drug war. He  doesn't want to know this when he invests, leaving the details to everybody else. Yet, that's the best possible outcome if his crew got away with their plan. In the end, his investment killed at least 7 people. Capitalist investors demand returns on their investments in stock prices and dividends, but fail to actually participate in making sure these returns are achieved in a humane or fair manner, leading to the broken system we have in place now.

If you don't watch The Counselor closely, you'll miss the plot. But, if you search for the plot, you might miss the moralizing. The morals of The Counselor are the point of the movie more than the actual actions of the movie. McCarthy is more interested in making the audience peer at itself. His refusal to obey the traditional forms of the heist movie, as well as his ability to insert recockulous stories and scenarios right in the middle of the movie, makes the movie a rough ride. It's almost like being sanded by a diamond-edged grinder. You're not meant to be able to passively enjoy the film, and you're not meant to respect yourself after watching the movie.

People are going to hate this movie. I understand that. It's rough. It's oblique. It's ugly. And it says things that people don't want to admit. But, the movie is a skilled, new, cold take on a crime movie that is uncompromising in its ideals. And, I kind of have to respect that. Plus, I like these brutally ugly movies...so I'm biased.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Stranger By The Lake (2013): Blood in the Sand

Stranger By The Lake (2013)
dir: Alain Guiraudie

For the largest part of the 20th century and earlier, gay men have tended to live in secret. They also fucked in secret. A lot of this was because just the simple act of fucking, even in your own private home, was considered illegal and a prosecutable crime. In many parts of the world homosexuality still is an illegal act. In the cases of some countries (in 2014), the laws are regressing to make it more illegal and even punishable by death.

Even through the 70s, it was difficult to find places which would allow you to congregate in anonymity. The closet was rampant, sex had to be fleeting actions with no names or phone numbers attached. Closeted men needed a place to go where they couldn't be traced. Bathhouses were an option, but you generally had to pay to go in, plus ID checking, and they're just soooo...gay. Bars were too public, especially because they were raided frequently.

In this atmosphere, the public cruising culture developed. Cruising happens in public, in the open, in an area where it is generally acceptable for gay people to be, except you can feign ignorance if you're spotted there...unless you're caught with your pants down. It was originally meant for anonymous hookups to get your rocks off in order to sustain your otherwise straight life back at home with the wife and kids. Or, to have anonymous no-strings-attached sex with other men, because men are biologically driven to stick it everywhere in order to spread their own genes.

Cruising is generally restricted to dedicated areas, where most straight people can wander in, but either know not to or don't notice much of anything happening. A furtive glance, a walking past somebody, unspoken gestures...this is all the signal it takes for the public cruise to happen. And then it is taken to a more secluded area, in the bushes, where you can delight in transgressive public man-on-man sex without a word having ever been spoken. Nobody knows your name, your address, your phone number. No credit card information is on record. You're not on security video. Your image only exists in the mind of the man you hooked up with.

Stranger By The Lake is steeped in cruising culture. It takes place on a beach where nudity is accepted by the powers that be. That area of the beach is also attached to the woods where men cruise and participate in anonymous sex. This beach can only be reached by a small access road leading to a tiny parking lot followed by a long jaunt through the forest onto the beach, separated by rocky cliffs or structures on either side. This is a highly accurate description of most of the areas where one can cruise. Difficult to find without prior knowledge, hard to get to with the knowledge, and secluded from most prying eyes.

On this section of beach, we meet Franck, our protagonist. A middle-aged man, probably mid-30s, Franck had been a regular at the beach in previous seasons, and is just now coming back to the beach. But, there is a new guy on the beach, Henri. Well, not ON the beach. He sits on the rocky bluff that sits on one side of the beach.

Henri is a definitive character in gay culture. He's a closeted bisexual (if not a closeted gay). He claims to have been with a girlfriend or wife for a few years, before he had sex with a generous talented guy. Now, Henri doesn't fit in with the straight crowd anymore, so he sits back near the gay crowd. But, there's something else that separates him from the gay culture. He's fat. Not just overweight, but fat. Which, in gay culture, means he's a pariah from the normal gays. In modern times, there is the bear culture, but that doesn't really cross over much into the cruising culture due to body issues.

Gay men are shallow. Well, most of them. They are also cliquish. Well, most of them. It's been a problem for years, and everybody knows of these problems and there have been thinkpieces and yadda yadda yadda. Even the newly developed bear culture became cliquish, to the point where I heard about one heavyset guy who hooked up with a thinner guy, and the thinner guy was like "I know I'm not large like you, but I just really like heavy guys? Is that so wrong?" It was really telling about not only body issues within the gay culture, but also the demand that like stick with like, as well as the hardwiring that we all have with who we are physically attracted to.

All of this gay neuroses and body issues come to a head in cruising culture, where men feel free to shun those whom they aren't attracted to based on their physical appearance. It's just sex, and you're attracted to who you're attracted to, the old adage goes. Well, in general, that has traditionally left the fat men to deal with the body issues that have plagued them since forever. They're left in isolation.

That is how we meet Henri. Wearing sandals, shorts and a shirt next to a nude beach, while fondly looking at the naked men frolicking. He watches, observes and understands that most men won't approach him, and he's developed his own walls of protective mentalities in order to deal with that. Yet, he also knows the score that many people there are ostensibly straight men leading straight lives who go home to their girlfriends. Even if Franck, and several other men present, are gay men who lead gay lives, and some of them are cruising or watching with their boyfriends, husbands, significant others, whatevers.

While hanging out with Henri, Franck spots the third major character of Stranger By The Lake comes onto the scene, Michel. Michel is a throwback creature to the 1970s, as signified by his hair and '70s porn stache. Really, that's the only major signifiers most of these people have. Their looks, and their clothes. Michel immediately becomes the focus of Franck, who immediately dumps Henri in order to chase Michel into the woods hoping for a good fuck, but is derailed when Michel already found another partner, in whose ass he buries his face.

The next day, Franck actually manages to talk to Michel, but is interrupted by the fourth character of Stranger By The Lake, Michel's then boyfriend. There is one more character in Stranger By The Lake, that of Inspector Damroder. Which should tell you what happens next.

The thing Stranger By The Lake doesn't do is hold your hand. All of the above 11 paragraphs in which I haven't told you much of anything about the actual plot of Stranger By The Lake is information that is left to be deduced by the audience. This isn't a movie made for a straight audience in order to help them understand the gay lifestyle. This isn't a movie for gays who are just now coming out of the closet to try to help them understand their role in the world. There is a LOT of knowledge that is in Stranger By The Lake, and it's presented in almost a documentary style, but without the David Attenborough voice over.

That isn't to say that Stranger By The Lake isn't accessible. There is such craft and detail given by Guiraudie that many straights can start to piece together the behaviors of gay men just by pure transposition of the bits of information that the straight men have collected from the world around them. The behaviors of the gay men in the wild is recognizable as the same behaviors that are used in clubs, bars, workplaces, gyms, and other public venues around the world. There's just more penis and public sex.

And there is a lot of penis. PENISES EVERYWHERE. The only person who never shows his penis is Henri, the fat man. When Franck gets naked to Henri, Henri stays in his shorts and keeps his arms futilely crossed over his body simultaneously trying to hide his fatness, but also re-emphasizing it. Guiraudie made Stranger by the Lake so explicit in a reaction to gay films like I'm So Excited! and the 1313 series which even hid the gay sex in queer filmmaking. Of course, by "so explicit" I mean there's a big screen ejaculation, and some penetration, all done by body doubles. This is all part of a newer queer movement to get sex back on screen in gay film making, with the likes of Weekend, Keep the Lights On, Interior. Leather Bar.Concussion, and Homme Au Bain (Man At Bath) leading the charges. Most of this movement has origins in 2006's Shortbus. It's an Equal Sex Film Movement, or something. I'll leave the coining to somebody else.

The thing that makes Stranger By The Lake so different from its other brethren is its ties to the 1970s. Guiraudie made a film that is a smashing of the 1970s and modern times, and has made a film that throws back to the original gay porn films, most strikingly the first segment of Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand. Both have gorgeous shots of men walking out of a lake to hookup with their object of obsession. Both have explicit sex in sun-dappled areas of a forest, and both are completely sex based without wasting much time on words between the characters who do have sex.

Of course, Stranger By The Lake isn't just a porn film. And, it doesn't exactly let the cruising culture off the hook. After a murder happens after hours, their towel and sneakers remain in the same spot for days. Their car remains parked in the parking lot for days. Nobody notices. Nobody calls the cops. The person just disappeared. The only reason the cops come in the first place is that the body turns up outside of the cruising area. But, there is such a need for secrecy and a desire for privacy that people only stop going to the beach for a day. The next day, the cruisers start coming back to the area.

Guiraudie has made a film that is steeped in knowledge of a small subsect of a small culture that lies outside the mainstream culture. This is a queer film, steeped in queer knowledge, made for queer people by queer people, that offers no easy insight for the straight community that would lie outside the community this film was made for. It's also a commentary on that subsect of a counter culture. And, it is keenly observant.

What I'm not going to do is tell you that this is a thriller, that it is Hitchcockian, or even evoking of Patricia Highsmith. There really is no mystery in the movie, though there is tension. The final 5-10 minutes are the most baffling and disappointing of the movie. Where this movie excels is setting the scene, and also in the characters. We get to know these characters through their idle conversations with other people, as well as their behaviors. The varieties of sex, both unsafe and ultra-safe. The risk of HIV. Everything seems to be observed and documented. If you were to have asked me as a closeted teenager who hadn't watched a gay film in his life, "what would a gay movie be like?", I would have described something that would have very much like Stranger By The Lake.

Required Viewing.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013): Lesbian Origins

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
dir: Abdellatif Kechiche

There are four things you should know going in to Blue is the Warmest Color. Life is long. Sexuality is fluid. The movie is set in the late '90s into early '00s. And, director Abdellatif Kechiche is an asshole.

Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Color is a dissection of the early life of Adele, a pansexual woman who finds her first love with the blue-haired artist Emma. Blue just isn't about the romance of Adele and Emma. Instead, it's Adele's coming out story, her first romance, and the dissolving of that relationship. It's the greatest hits of the first moments of a lesbian...as told by a lesbian, then interpreted by a straight man and woman, and portrayed by 2 more straight women.

As a film, Blue is the Warmest Color is too long by an hour (it takes 45 minutes before Adele and Emma even meet), but it is gorgeously filmed and portrayed (except for the seemingly hardcore sex scenes, which we'll get to in a minute). But, there's a problem beyond the pretentiously long editing, and it is the heteronormative styling of queers in love.

There are two forces struggling at work here. The first is that the graphic novel source material was written and understood by Julie Maroh, a lesbian. The second is the heteroness of Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix. With these two forces, Blue is the Warmest Color is trying to be a cross-over film for lesbians from the ghetto stylings of queer culture into the arty stylings of hetero culture by being adapted by straight people. While there are good intentions at work, for the largest part, there still remains the questions of queer narrative appropriation.

2013 is turning up to be one of the weirdest years for queer cinema and cultural appropriation. Not only is there Blue is the Warmest Color, but there is also Dallas Buyers Club, which made a very hetero narrative out of a much more complicated story. Dallas Buyers Club, the true story, was about a bisexual slutty dude who got AIDS through a blood transplant and set up shop to help out the gay community. The movie was about a homophobic straight dude who became more accepting of the gay community through the help of the flighty magical trans pixie (a completely invented character who does not exist in real life). Dallas Buyers Club won 2 oscars.

Also in 2013, James Franco was exposing the queer lifestyle for his own personal advancement. He released Kink and Interior. Leather Bar., both of which dealt, in part, with understanding queer sexuality as well as the hetero position to queer sexuality.

Blue is the Warmest Color falls somewhere between these two poles. It does absolutely nothing to advance the understanding of queer life, nor does it completely disrespect the lesbian lifestyle portrayed within its THREE HOUR RUNNING TIME. Much of this running time is spent on extended conversations about such exhilarating topics as French Literature, art, spaghetti, and the job market. There is exactly one scene of lesbian fear in high school, then it we flitter away from the bullying as if it was lip service in order to get to the first sex scene. After all, by that time, we're over an hour into the film.

Then, we get to the sex scenes which have been both celebrated (largely by straight men), and derided as exploitative (largely by feminists). Not having really watched two lesbians fuck, I cannot comment...but I have to say that there is a hell of a lot of hilarious positions that look like they amount to bumping pussies. The positions look like they would be better with strap-ons, but no strap-ons were pretended to be used in this production. It reminded me of Skinemax portrayals of lesbian sex more than anything.

The movie, outside of the bullying lip service and the hardcore fake sex, is almost a transplant of a traditional hetero narrative. With Emma being the butchy male role while Adele is the femmey female role. Adele has no ego or life outside of Emma, being completely obsessed with her first romance (isn't that true of many first loves if they don't happen during high school?). Emma is the forceful one who drives most of the relationship. Emma's cheating is never called out by Adele, even though Adele's cheating is called out by Emma. Making an even more obvious hetero plot point, showing a non-understanding of the lesbian lifestyle.

Fortunately, though, even Adele is treated as a human. Emma is too. Which is more than you can say for most of the American romances. Does that mean Blue is the Warmest Color is good? Kind of. It's safe, hetero-friendly, hetero-acceptable filmmaking that doesn't insult the homosexual community. It may lead to acceptance. And, some of lesbians may really like this attempt at an ultimate story of the first 15 years of active lesbianism. But, ultimately, it's too long, too meandering, and too straight of an adaptation to be a solid recommendation. It missed the queerness.

P.S. Since this is France in the 1990s, cell phones don't exist and smoking is a symbol for freedom.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shortbus (2006): Bringing Sexy Back

Shortbus (2006)
dir: John Cameron Mitchell

Shortly after the failure of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, American cinema underwent a change to be more conservative in its sexuality. Queer movies started pulling back a little in their explorations of sexuality. Straight movies totally did. Between 2000 and 2005, only a handful of movies dealt with sexuality in an explicit enough nature to warrant an NC-17. Of those which received NC-17 ratings for explicit content, only 7 were American, and one of those was a documentary on a porn film from the 1970s.

Queer cinema, however, was starting to come into its own at that point, and had been making a bit of headway in sexuality with more explicit scenes in semi-mainstream foreign films like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and Pedro Alomodavar's Bad Education. With sexuality being repressed in both queer cinema and straight cinema, and the world still recovering from the worries of September 11th (5 years later), suddenly, it seemed right to get back to our roots. To our souls. To our genitalia.

John Cameron Mitchell made Shortbus to be released in 2006 as a way to say that sexuality is beautiful and should be in films other than pornographic films. He didn't care if you were gay, straight, poly, kinky, vanilla, oppressed, repressed, open and flowing...sexuality was an open topic for Shortbus. With it, Mitchell seems to have opened up the floodgates for a new wave of queer explicitness, an Equal Sex Film Movement, that is continuing today.

Shortbus isn't a porno, nor is it indulging in porno lite trashiness. Mitchell didn't make a movie that was sex for sex's sake. Instead, Shortbus was more like the kicking down of doors in human sexuality by celebrating sexuality in all of its weird and absurd forms, but also understanding it in a humanistic way that is more than just exploiting a bodily act. When people are in and out of love, they can have explicit relations, repress their own sexuality, tell things about each other, to each other, and everything just is complicated and messy just like life. Rarely is any of the sexuality actually bad.

There are 3 stories that Mitchell weaves together to interconnect and lead and follow and pulse and vibrate with each other. The central story is that of Sofia Lin, a couples counselor and sex therapist, who has never had an orgasm, even though her story is opened with wild aggressive jungle sex with her husband Rob. The second story is that of Jamie and James, a queer couple of 5 years. James is going through a serious depression, especially after having seen a man die in the hot tub at the gym where he hot tubs. The both believe that they can accomplish something by opening up their relationship. And, the final, somewhat tertiary story, is that of Severin, a dominatrix who also swings both ways and in severe need of human connection.

Jamie and James go to Sofia before they open up everything in order to learn about themselves and their own relationship, and through a wild act of unprofessionalism learn about Sofia's issue. So, they introduce her to a place called Shortbus, which is essentially wild loft/apartment created like an artistic hippy's heaven, where people go to connect, engage, and screw without judgement or abandon. The host of this slice of erotic heaven is Justin Bond, a queer transgendered performance artist who welcomes everybody with open arms. In Shortbus, there are hovels of lesbians, rooms of straight people, gay men, leathers, bears, and everybody else you could imagine all struggling to connect and find each other in the throbbing pool of humanity that is a big city.

Earlier I made mention that Shortbus kicked down the floodgates, but I would be remiss to say that it is a compassionate, embracing, and welcoming movie compared to a thematically similar NC-17 movie from 2004, John Waters' A Dirty Shame. John Waters created a movie about a woman who was once prudish, got conked on the head, and became embracing of the varying arrays of sexuality through the help of Johnny Knoxville's home to sex. Both are essentially saying that sexuality is a human right, and a beautiful thing, and that everybody should be accepting and embracing of everybody else even if it isn't quite your kick. But, where Mitchell is celebrating in far more generic terms, Waters was pointing out all of the weirdos and embracing them in his own fashion.Where Shortbus is all about a community helping one woman to orgasm, A Dirty Shame was about one woman trying to connect a divided community. And, Shortbus is committed to open and healthy conversations while A Dirty Shame is more like a snide punk trying to shock you by showing off its vast knowledge.

Shortbus also had more on its mind, by centering everything in New York City, and also making a big show of this being a post-disaster society. After all, NYC is where the Twin Towers fell, and that is the community that felt the disaster the most. There are direct references to this being an all-American rebellious celebration of sexuality, from the opening frame of a drawing of the Statue of Liberty to the rimjob threesome edition of the Star Spangled Banner to the Sex Not Bombs room in Shortbus, which is essentially a writing mass of naked humping flesh under a hanging A-bomb, showing the duality of life and death, and the celebration of freedom in the face of disaster.

Shortbus is simultaneously a preachy film and also a not preachy film. In methods very similar to Plato's The Symposium, Mitchell allows his characters to ramble on about their thoughts about life, love, the pursuit of happiness. Some of this is verbal rambling, and some of it is actually rambling through the actions of their plots. Some of it is right. Some of it is silly. Some perverse. Some erotic. Some drunken. And, some is just plain wrong. But, as long as it is welcoming and embracing without emotionally destroying other people, the theory is entertained in the house of Shortbus. There's a stalker/voyeur who follows James and Jamie, does a bad thing and a good thing in their lives. The bad thing is punished and the good thing rewarded.

Of course, this is all about emotions and feelings, but Mitchell also made a very very explicit movie that never dives into pornographic exploitation. Well, rarely. A boy has to flourish sometimes. But, Mitchell opens up Shortbus with a pan into James' bathroom where he's in the tub, and it pans out so you can see his semi-hard penis, which he then films his attempts at autofellatio. The wild monkey sex between Rob and Sofia? You see all of it. You also see Severin and her frequent trust fund baby client, who harasses her need for human contact in order to get more punishment out of her. This explicit and frankness has led to a newer era that is starting to have more mainstream frank explorations of sexuality be accepted.

Luckily, for all of us, Shortbus ended up being not only a barrier busting movie, but a GOOD barrier busting movie that was very carefully laid out to avoid the levels of exploitation that would surely be leveled at it. I'm sure some would call it one step too far, that open sexuality is a bad thing, that it doesn't explore the deterioration of the nuclear family. Etc etc etc. Tish tosh. In order to make a good home, one has to learn how to communicate, which is all this movie is. It's brilliant, and witty, sometimes a bit too obvious or on the nose, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyable.

Required Viewing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Score! (1973): Porno Chic Brings Everybody Together

Score! (1973)
Dir: Radley Metzger

While 1971's Boys in the Sand actually brought mainstream credibility to a gay presence in pornographic features, gay male and straight male sensibilities would rarely be mixed throughout the 1970s porno chic phenomenon. Sometimes there would be MMF or MFF menage a trois situations, or full out orgies, but in most of those cases the men rarely touched each other. Lesbianism, on the other hand, remained a source of pleasure for the male eye.

In general, pornographic film was created for the male to visually get off on. The general wisdom went (and is only just barely changing now) that men's sexuality is more binary than women's sexuality, and men touching men meant you were gay, or men touching women meant you were hetero. Rarely was there any fluidity allowed between these two binaries in the porno chic era. Radley Metzger's Score! was one of these exceptions.

Radley Metzger is one of the main directors in the Golden Age of Porn, being primarily known for making erotic movies with higher concept stories. Before hardcore erotica really hit the stands, he had directed the lesbian film Therese and Isabelle (based on the novella by Violette Leduc), and the erotic picture Camille 2000 (based on the Alexandre Dumas' play The Lady of the Camellias), which so enervated Roger Ebert, he put it on his worst films list 35 years later. Later, he would adapt Pygmalion into the hardcore film The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which featured female-on-male pegging.

In between the two, Metzger adapted an off-Broadway play by Jerry Douglas into the film Score!, a movie which seemed to meld the sensibilities of Dangerous Liasons with the pairing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?

Score! features two couples: Elvira and Jack are an established mature couple who play sexual games for their own satisfaction; and, Betsy and Eddie are a young, somewhat newly married, immature couple who seem to be innocent to their own desires. As the film opens, Elvira fancies Betsy, while Jack desires Eddie. Later, they establish a bet that if Elvira can lay Betsy before midnight, Jack cannot have Eddie.

Elvira and Jack conspire to get Eddie drunk, so that Jack can take him out for a night on the town while Elvira works her magic on Betsy. But, as midnight approaches, the seal has still not been finalized, so both homosexual pairings are allowed to happen.

Score! has existed in several versions, but notably a softcore and a hardcore version. Though, the hardcore version is only 4 minutes longer, the majority of that length comes from the intercut climactic sex scene between Jack and Eddie and Elvira and Betsy, with erect penises, pegging, and unsimulated oral sex. The actor who played Eddie, the closeted husband, is the most well known of the bunch of course, having been played by Casey Donovan (nee Cal Culver), the star of Boys in the Sand. Claire Wilbur, who had acted in the original play, also became an academy award-winning producer for Documentary - Short Subject with The End of the Game, a look at mammals on the African savannah directed Robin Lehman.

What really separates Score! from many other films of its generation is both its production value, its story and wit, its acting, and its holdover ideology that story triumphs over hardcore imagery in adult filmmaking. By the time Score! hit theaters, Deep Throat had been out for well over a year, and the bevvy of cheapo hardcore-only films that followed in its wake were generally devoid of plot or care.

The most interesting part about Score! is that it is a film where the main sex scene is between two men separate from two women, but it is filmed with a focus on happily and heterosexually married couples seducing other heterosexually-married couples. Contrastingly, right up the street, Andy Milligan's film Fleshpot on 42nd Street was exploring heterosexual coupling through a very queer lens. Score! was a celebration of the varieties of sex that could happen. Fleshpot was a denigration of life in the big city. Score! was set in a lush and lavish European coastal villa. Fleshpot was in the dives of New York City ghettos. Score! was lovingly filmed, rehearsed, edited, mixed, and made into a real film. Fleshpot frequently looks like it was hashed out on a meth-induced flurry of rage. These two films present two polar ends of a queer lens that was being shown to heterosexuals.

Of course, Score! is the easier to swallow of the two films. It is lush, witty, and the erotic scenes are actually really erotic that will tingle your naughtier sensibilities. The variety of pairings creates a more open view of sexuality than other films of its era, creating an oasis when queer sensibilities were mildly acceptable and being thrown on screen under a heterosexual-friendly story. If you're wanting something porno chic, where nobody is degraded or forced into action, this may actually be the movie you've been looking for.

Required Viewing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Boys in the Sand (1971): A Gay Coffee Table Porno

Boys in the Sand (1971)
Dir: Wakefield Poole

From a distance, it seems unnatural for the world of the 1970s porno chic to have seemingly caught popularity with a low budget gay hardcore pornographic film that featured no dialogue to go with its trilogy of sexual adventures. However, Boys in the Sand is a gorgeously shot amateur feature that fills the screen with fantasia and matters of cultural and political import.

Comparing the film to the early works of Andy Warhol isn't just a compliment, it's a given. Poole was one of Warhol's contemporaries, and seems to have been inspired by Warhol's earlier works of objectification and voyeurism, such as those featured in both My Hustler and Chelsea Girls. The main difference between the Warhol/Morrissey pictures and Boys in the Sand, other than the hardcore sexuality that Poole was now able to deal in, is that Warhol's films present a sense of jaded detatchment, while Poole is fully engaged in his scene, and hopeful for the next steps to come.

Boys in the Sand is a trilogy of short films featuring Casey Donovan (nee Cal Culver), a blond hairy and toned sort with a sizable phallus, who would go on to be one of the first gay pornographic superstars. All three are presented as fantasias of secret desire and lust.

Bayside begins with a dark haired Peter Fisk walking down a long boardwalk, hopping off at an unmarked location, wandering through a long path of sorts through the forest and ending up at an isolated nude beach, where he strips down to catch some rays and contemplate the water. Casey Donovan magically appears out of the water, and walks up to him. They engage in some beach sex before leaving for a more secluded area in the trees, where they get down on a blanket. When both have came, Fisk puts his leather bracelet/cock ring on Donovan's wrist and wanders out into the water to disappear. Donovan, now alone, dons Fisk's clothing and walks down the beach.

Poolside is a Donovan showcase, where he stars as a richer gay man who is trying to pick up guys on the boardwalk by using the gay newspaper as a signal he's gay. Unsuccessful, he wanders home to sunbathe by the pool, when he finds an ad that he mails about. Time goes by, filled with swimming and wandering the beaches, when he gets his package in the mail. Inside, is a tablet that, when thrown in the pool, becomes Danny DiCoccio. They get it on, and once finished, they get dressed and go out as a couple. On the boardwalk, they meet another lonely gay soul with the same paper.

Inside features Donovan lounging in a treehouse-styled house, when he spots Randy Moore, a power employee setting up a long pole to fix the cables. After taking a shower, he fantasizes about Randy Moore, first laying naked in his sunroom, then out on the deck, then on his landing, and finally in his bed. But, Randy is just his imagination, as he huffs poppers and fucks himself on a large black dildo. After he climaxes and cleans up, he wanders back downstairs to find Moore waiting for him outside his front door. He smiles, and they go inside, closing the front door.

These stories feature gay life in a way that's a blend of fantasia and reality. Bayside features a fantasia of the real phenomenon of cruising, where a blond god comes out of the sea. Poolside blends the reality of gay bar busts with the fantasia of being able to mail-order a boyfriend who comes in a tablet without ever having to be worried about being raided. Inside is about fantasizing about men who may actually be straight, but you can't proposition them because of gay panic, then the hopefulness of the object of your fantasy being attainably gay.

There are no judgments here. Gay is good and beautiful, and gay life comes with its own desires and wants and needs. Gay men have dogs too. They're respectful of straight borders. They lust, they need fulfillment. And, their lust has no borders. Not only is this a gay male fantasia, but the last of the vignettes features an interracial coupling, which features Moore as a power figure with many of the same stances seen in Bayside.

But, Poole is also making comments on the daily life of a gay man. There are reasons why he has the closeups of the raided bars in 1971, 2 years after Stonewall. These were everyday worries of the gay man in a political sense. You couldn't actively go after men for fear they would kick your ass, which is why the majority of Inside is a fantasy about the unattainable until he is attainable. You could go hookup and meet people on beaches that were secluded and distanced and out of the public eye, but you probably had to know about them. These were regular bits of knowledge that have been passed down through the generations.

But, what makes Boys in the Sand so essential is the cinematography. Shot on a handheld, which is reminiscent of the Warhol shorts, Poole manages to create a lush and richly photographed film about gay sexuality. In movies that had preceded it, and would follow it, frequently the films would eschew quality imagery just to have hard raw sexuality featured in a raw light. There was nothing romantic or beautiful about it. But, looking at the images in this, you come to realize that Poole's main limitation was the quality of film stock. While the handheld nature of the film leads to periodic shaky cam pans, it's forgivable for many of the stills that he created which were framed as deeply as any mainstream film would before it. Sometimes it was random luck, and sometimes it was static shots that were purely intentional, but Poole's films frequently had a gorgeousness to them that is rarely seen in pornographic filmmaking.

Is Boys in the Sand essential? Is it good? Well, it's erotic, and it's beautifully shot. To say it is just a gay pornographic film is so reductive of the qualities that are in it. But, it is primarily a pornographic film. It's place in the history of porno chic is undeniable, and its place as a gay time capsule of the post-Stonewall worries of 1971 also render this to be a must watch for those who want to see what people were thinking and worrying about. I enjoyed watching it, and it is romantic in an anonymous way.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Kiss of the Damned (2012): Sexy Vampire Women, updated

Kiss of the Damned (2012)
dir: Xan Cassavetes

From the 1960s and into the 1970s, there was a whole genre of erotic vampire movies, with a fair amount from Jess Franco, director of Venus in Furs and Female Vampire. They were lush, languid, filled with sexy bodies, and had plots that were largely inconsequential. With Kiss of the Damned, Xan Cassavetes is trying to recapture that feeling of the purposeless vampire movie without devolving into the maudlin vampire genre that was created in Twilight.

Kiss of the Damned focuses on the relationship of a Paolo, a screenwriter, who falls in love with a hot vampire woman, Djuna, and then is turned by her. Later, as they're nesting, Djuna's sister Mimi reappears from Amsterdam following a tumultuous whatever, and creates chaos simply by being present, and by not killing her victims and leaving them around to be resurrected.

Apparently, in the mythos of Kiss of the Damned, if a vampire doesn't decapitate their victims, the victims have a chance of randomly resurrecting. No blood exchange needed. Djuna's problem with Mimi is that she claims that Mimi doesn't properly protect her victims, whereas Mimi and Paolo always decapitate their victims.

Djuna also has a problem with Mimi's periodically wild party lifestyle. This is shown by a threesome with a random couple in the gigantic mansion Djuna has. Everybody snipes at each other, people die, and the movie ends.

What Cassavetes captures with Kiss of the Damned is the languid pacing that came with the arthouse erotic horror film, as well as the inconsequential plots. With all of the fancy camera work, however, Cassavetes somehow misses the completely lush gorgeous look that those old films actually captured. Maybe it was in color selection, fabrics and shapes that were en vogue, or just a general aesthetic of color choice, camera angles, lighting and film stock. But, Cassavetes misses the mark in a fully transformative experience.

Cassavetes also seems to be attempting to turn Twilight inside out by deconstructing a couple of the central ideas from the novel, but putting them into an erotic old-school movie genre. She includes the fight between Mimi and Djuna about Djuna's turning Paolo into a vampire. There is discussion of the morality of humans and vampires. There is discussion about the larger groupings of vampirism, with Djuna and Mimi being sisters from the same mother. Cassavetes is simultaneously exposing these discussions to be as silly and morally relative as they are.

Cassavetes also tones down the rampant, gratuitous, nudity that dominated the Jess Franco vampire movies. In some of his more notorious movies, like Vampyros Lesbos, Franco would essentially fill the movie wall to wall with beautiful naked vampire women, and the movies would be a classy excuse to see a blue movie because it was a Spanish movie, and therefore have more cultural currency. Cassavetes has little interest in keeping everybody naked, though does frequently indulge in shirtless displays of Milo Ventimiglia (Paolo).

The experiment that is Kiss of the Damned is, ultimately, a mild success. It does succeed in deconstructing and  mocking Twilight without being overt about its intentions. It only half succeeds in recreating the atmosphere of the original vampire erotic genre. And, it isn't nearly as over the top as it should be. It's entertaining in fits, but ultimately it is brought down by the lack of anything going on.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Plush (2013): The Male Stalker, updated

Plush (2013)
dir: Catherine Hardwicke

The crazy male stalker is a genre that has been around for ages. One of the definitive crazy male relationship movies of anybody who was a teenager in the 90s was 1996's Fear, where Marky Mark was trying to launch his acting career with Reese Witherspoon and Alyssa Milano. But, Fear is only good for nostalgia value for its ridiculous over-the-top nature.

Of course, that was 17 years ago (can you believe that?!), and Fear has largely been left to the dusty video bins. And, Lifetime Original Films haven't been doing their duty filling the gap with a full litany of woman-in-trouble films lately, instead doing things like remaking Flowers in the Attic. The obvious solution is to update it, make it a bit punkier, and to hire a teenage-familiar director for the job.

Fortunately/unfortunately for us, that director is Catherine Hardwicke, director of the first installment of Twilight. Luckily, she didn't bring any of the bored distanced nature that she gave to that Twilight film. Hardwicke, instead, creates a mildly compelling. if ultimately ridiculous, film that also adds a bit of bisexual panic to the film.

Hardwicke, with Arty Nelson, wrote a story about a faux goth rock sibling-led band, where the brother dies, and the sister hires then fucks a new guitarist. Enzo, the new guitarist, initially, is presented as gay, but that's passed off as "what is gay?" when he finally fucks Hayley, the lead singer whose brother died. They write a new hit song, and fuck along the tour.

When Hayley returns home to her husband and kids, Enzo promptly starts inserting himself in her life, and she fucks him in the home...because he's so seductive or something. But, then she finds out she's preggers with Enzo's kid, and all hell breaks loose.

What makes Plush different from Fear is that Hayley is a 25-year-old rock star instead of a teenager, and she also has a pair of walking-talking kids with hunky 31-year-old Cam Gigendet. She started her family life really early, especially for a rock star. And, there is 100% fewer decapitated dogs.

Really, Plush has an end run sexual assault, much like Fear had a couple end run sexual assaults. Hayley saves herself with a method as equally ridiculous as killing somebody with a carnival peace pipe. All of the murders actually happen off screen. There is actual sexings that happens on screen, though the nudity is also minimal. Really, Plush is Fear but aged a few years.

Hardwicke isn't giving us anything new. She's not subverting anything. She's merely re-wrapping an old trope in new clothing. It's more of a feminist trope, for sure. And, the woman of the movie is actually a breadwinner, even though she had married a journalist and author. It's well-made enough, though the ending is extremely condensed. The switch from Enzo's in love personality to his crazy personality is sudden and drastic, filled with ridiculous quirks and hilarious acting. Hardwicke is not a subtle director. Mildly stylish, somewhat ridiculous, semi-entertaining, but not subtle. Which, I think is a good descriptor of this movie as of any other movie she has directed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Night Vision (2011): Crazy Canadian Women

Night Vision (2011)
dir: Nathaniel Warsh

"This has the bacony stink of Canada all over it." - Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Final Sacrifice

This is one of those amateur terrible films that is so much less compelling that you expect. It's a low-budget film from writer and director Nataniel Warsh about a reality-show tv producer who ends up being kidnapped by a crazy woman for a reality web series by his jealous friend. The main purported thrust of the film is "don't be an asshole." But, by the end, it's "crazy bitches are crazy."

Spencer is the womanizing hotshot tv producer who is an asshole to his friends and everybody else. How do we know he's an asshole? His greasy, shoulder-length hair. Oh, and he ignores his friend who is trying to pitch him a new television show idea, and won't take No for an answer. Oh, and he lets women molest him in his limo.

One night, Spencer finds a strange woman in his driveway, and invites her in for a round of videotaped hot fucking before unceremoniously kicking her out into the night. But, she somehow takes the tape without him noticing, works her way back into the house, and ties him up before exposing him as the asshole he is. Later, we all find out that this is under the guise of a stupid web reality series focusing on destroying people from the earlier friend. The girl had been phone fucking Spencer, causing Spencer to change his number, before she was hired by the friend to be the psychotic kidnapper. In the end, the girl actually is crazy, kidnapping Spencer and also murdering his friend.

The movie could have been some sort of transgressive screed against the media, if only it were good. Or not nearly as regressive as it actually is. Night Vision could have been in the satirical vein of Series 7: The Contenders, but it takes itself far too seriously, and with no actual returns. The cinematography is soap opera awful, the lighting is soap opera bright, the acting is community theater, the writing is perversely obvious, the continuity problems are LEGION, and the movie is, overall, a chauvinistic exercise in stupidity.

I could go on about how the post-sex cleaning process - where Spencer puts his hair up in a ponytail, brushes his teeth, THEN decides to take a shower - is representative of the ineptitude of the movie. Or, about the post-sex sequence where Spencer's shirt constantly goes from wide-open unbuttoned to 3 buttons up. Or, the his hair magically going from shoulder length and greasy to up in a pony tail on his way from the kitchen to the bathroom. But, that would be shallow and petty.

Instead, it is deeper to talk about Nathaniel Warsh's obvious hatred of women in this movie that doesn't have enough sex or wit to qualify for a Skinemax softcore porno. Warsh has an obvious problem with women and men who have egos. In Night Vision, he created a beta-male fantasy in which he uses the crazy women of his nightmares to exact revenge on the egotistical assholes of his realities. Alison is a crazy deceptive manipulative woman who gets her way with everybody she encounters. She finds sadistic pleasure in torturing Spencer while he's tied up and has severe emotional problems.

I think Warsh thinks he's creating some sort of subversive horror movie where men are the victim, and women get to be the psycho, but the woman is so obviously crazy in such a cliched way that the whole movie comes off as a brotastic bitches b crazy style movie. Instead of subverting the usual cliches that surround the kidnapping horror genre, Warsh falls into every trap that has ever existed for the psycho woman genre.

If the whole purpose of this movie was to show that Warsh could get a job on the set of Days of our Lives, perhaps the movie is a success as its never sub-80s awful. It's merely just terrible. But, the woman hating nature of Night Vision would lead me to be very very cautious about hiring Nathaniel Warsh for any job. It is kind of gross.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Passion (2012): The high risk culture of Advertising

Passion (2012)
dir: Brian DePalma

The title of this movie practically screams sex. There is plenty of sex in Passion. But, it's all so dispassionate, that Passion becomes an ironic title.

DePalma, one of the kings of the erotic thriller genre, returns to the erotic thriller after a decade away to create the very cold and distancing Passion, filled to the brim with polysexual ice queens and credulous imbeciles. And, while it is very much a DePalma film, he seems to be lost swimming in the modern modern milieu of corporate backstabbing and high-tech corruption.

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star as Isabelle and Christine, two a-list power players in the rough and tumble world of marketing who play the game of mentor/mentee while also besting each other. McAdams, as Christine, is the high-powered account executive who takes the somewhat bisexual Isabelle under her wing to leverage Isabelle's ideas for a new campaign to score a job in New York. When Christine takes charge, fucks Christine's boyfriend, and takes credit for her ideas, Isabelle declares war with the boyfriend haplessly being used as a football between the two.

The main difference that separates Passion from most of the other films of the ilk is that we largely take Isabelle's point of view, instead of the point of view of a male. Passion seems to be a response to the feminist assessment/complaints launched at movies like Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, where powerful women are largely the big scary man-eating criminal who victimizes men in order to move up the corporate ladder. Then, in those movies, the male character, with whom the audience is asked to identify, always defeats the evil intentions of the powerful women in order to restore the patriarchy.

Passion is the male response saying, "well, what if we replaced the man with a woman?" What does happen to the film?

*SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT* Well, the woman we're identifying with ends up as the killer, is the answer. It's never the man that's a killer. The men in Passion are too feckless to care about such trampy bitchy ongoings. But, the woman we're watching kills her mentor in an emotional fit of cold calculation. What does that say about the sexual politics of Passion? Well, the movie is still very much "bitches be crazy." Christine is seen as a cold soulless man-eater who even fucks Dirk, her boyfriend, with a strap-on while making him wear a mask which looks like her. Isabelle is a cold, calculating woman who kills her mentor. Isabelle's assistant is a lesbian who has a crush on Isabelle, and lets Isabelle kill Christine in order to blackmail Isabelle into being the assistant's lover.

The lesson of Passion is that most men who make the erotic thriller genre will still make demeaning movies that mark all women as crazy. Especially old, pervy men, like DePalma.

But, the main problem with Passion isn't its regressive sexual politics, in a misguided attempt to be progressive. That kind of comes part and parcel with the erotic thriller genre. The main problem with Passion is DePalma. DePalma has severe tonal shifts that are as jarring as they are terrible, he indulges in neo-noir style camerawork that frequently seems like a film student is imitating both DePalma and Verhoeven's Basic Instinct, and he spends a huge amount of time in the tense world of high-stakes marketing.

The first two acts of Passion are spent watching Christine and Isabelle try to one-up each other while also trying to survive the emotional devastation that they inflict on each other. It's not just dull, it's boring after awhile. The ludicrousness of some of the humiliation adds to how little we, the audience, actually care about the film. Add to it that little of it ultimately matters in the outcome, and that it seems to go on forever, Passion becomes passionless. All the no-nudity-claused Rachel McAdams in sexy outfits and dispassionate sexings, all the displays of kinky toys, and all the Noomi Rapace having awkward sex and in tight outfits, can't make the ongoings any more interesting.

Ultimately, Passion is a late-era DePalma failure. In an attempt to reclaim his former glory of Dressed to Kill or Sisters, while also very consciously trying to not imitate Hitchcock, DePalma created a brief slog of an erotic thriller. Is it terrible? No. There are far more inept films that exist. But, it's merely serviceable, and coming from the hands of somebody who can be as great as DePalma, that's a shame.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Concussion (2013): Lesbian De Jour

Concussion (2013)
dir: Stacie Passon

One of the new movements in modern gay cinema is the re-appropriation of straight cinema, especially films that are not French New Wave or Italian, which had been re-appropriated during the height of the New Queer Cinema movement in the 1980s into the 1990s. Instead, as we saw with Weekend, gay filmmakers are re-appropriating movies that are strictly heterosexual and using their devices to create a queer-centric story. While Weekend appropriated Linklater's Before Sunrise for a gay male tale of love, Concussion appropriates the Luis Bunuel classic Belle De Jour for a lesbian tale of marriage.

Bunuel was creating a sleek stylish fuck you to the bourgeois ideals of fidelity and monogamous marital bliss, not to mention a fuck you to male machismo and to the demonization of female sexuality. Passon, on the other hand, is creating a fuck you to the lesbian ideals that the LGBTQ community is espousing of monogamous marriage and idealizing the hetero lifestyle.

Abby is a bored lesbian housewife with kids, who is also rich enough to start up projects like flipping apartments just because she is bored as hell. When she is hit with a baseball by her son, and gets a concussion, she starts to realize how bored she is, and rebels against the system of heteronormative ideals that she has become oppressed by. She hires a prostitute, and then, becomes a lesbian prostitute herself.

Through her life as a prostitute, she comes to grips with what is the equivalent to a lesbian midlife crisis. Abby comes to grips with her own boredom, she is exposed by her wife, and, in the end, she decides that perhaps she should have just taken a Hot Yoga class in order to deal with her impending boredom, at once being a sly wink to the double entendre that Hot Yoga can possess but also condemning her midlife crisis actions.

Stacie Passon, who wrote and directed Concussion also has the power of Rose Troche, from Go Fish as her producer. She has crafted a colder, distancing film that gradually warms up as Abby herself comes closer to herself, but still remains as a slightly laboriously paced meditation on the implications of growing up, and realizing you're not where you want to be.

However, Passon isn't as brave a soul as Troche was when she made Go Fish, nor Bunuel when he made Belle De Jour. Her whole statement may be that people sometimes have to take assessment of their life after being triggered by a certain event, but it is also that lesbians are just as boring as straight people. There are chances that Passon has to sear through some of society's hangups, but she largely ignores these with a pointed indifference.

One serious example is that one of Abby's first clients is a young, large, woman who says that she hasn't been kissed. Abby takes a maternal style attitude toward this client, who becomes a repeat client, trying to inform her that her brain is more beautiful than her body, and handing her books like The Second Sex, and about Gandhi, while also telling her to burn the diet books her mother has purchased her. However, Passon doesn't include any hot and heavy sex scenes with this large woman, and all of the other clients with hotter scenes are skinny women, setting the fat girl up as a character of empathy but not eroticism.

The whole accept-fat-people-as-long-as-they're-not-eroticized wishy-washiness is representative of Passon's overall wishy-washiness through the film. Is the heteronormative style of lesbian marriage to be damned, or praised, or neither? Is prostitution good, bad, or just a thing? Is a woman seeking her own life and able to have her own crisis something positive or destructive? What about society's pressures?  What about relationship pressures? Passon goes out of her way to create a film that very carefully doesn't push any buttons, while also playing with dual heady topics of gay marriage and prostitution.

It could also be argued that by all but ignoring the headier, more political topics, Passon is instead making a movie that is more about Abby as a human being and as a woman instead of as a politicized pawn. By playing with the spaces of life, Passon is trying to make a portrait of a woman, instead of a time. Abby, indeed, is drawn very well as a character, while most of the people surrounding her are barely there sketches. As a character study of a panicking lesbian, Concussion actually finds its strengths, but it's basically to give the LGBTQ community a gay version of hetero crisis tales.

Concussion is a successful character study of a bored lesbian housewife. It's gorgeously cold, it's steamy in the right places, its strongly visual, but it's also languid and fairly self-centered compared to the world around it. Passon suffers from mumblecore-itis, in that she doesn't seem to give two flying fucks about the larger political statements, but at least she doesn't give us insufferable characters who only seem to be able to see their lives through themselves. Abby is sympathetic, even as she's making controversial choices. Passon reinforces the heteronormative relationship by the end. And, it's well crafted. Taking Concussion for what it wants to be about, it's a well-done movie. But, if you're looking for Passon, under the training of Troche, to make more trenchant observations or statements about the world at large, you're going to be sorely disappointed.