Tag Archives: lgbt

A Return to DOWNTON ABBEY, Upgraded for the Big Screen

DOWNTON ABBEY. Country, UK. Director Michael Engler. Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the PBS series of the same name and characters created by Julian Fellowes. Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Harry Haden-Paton, Raquel Cassidy, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Brendan Coyle, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Max Brown, Susan Lynch, Simon Jones, David Haig, Philippe Spall, Douglas Reith, Perry Fitzpatrick. Language: English. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Runtime: 120 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

It had to happen. Even though it ended four years ago amidst much drama and fanfare and lots of Kleenex, the series we know and came to love, Downton Abbey, came to an end, and left us Anglophiles with not much to hold on to. While Masterpiece Theatre consistently has brought to life countless shows, some with their own spin-offs, none it seems has resonated with so much verve as Downton, an exploration of (what else?) upstairs and downstairs life at the turn of last century, something that R. F. Delderfield could write in his sleep.

This time, director Michael Engler pulls out all the stops. Even when every episode had the characteristic of a one-hour movie and often was treated with much care and cinematic attention to detail, when we see the movie that is Downton Abbey, we are in for quite the experience. A letter, a very important letter, is on its way to Downton, and its travel is treated with enormous suspense, with the music by John Lunn waxing and waning so beautifully you can’t but help but hold your breath, Once it is clear where it’s headed, cameras floating over the hills reveal the majestic castle, and thus begins the wistful, melancholic, rich theme we have come to know and love. The camera continues to move and pan and zoom in and out, giving us snippets of life at Downton, with Andy (Michael Fox) receiving the letter, Daisy and Mrs Patmore (Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol) going about in the kitchen, in and about the many, many rooms, where we see Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) discussing business (as it’s clear she’s the one who runs the house). It is a remarkable way to introduce practically everyone who lives and works in Downton, and if you are new to the story, it probably doesn’t require you to have seen the series, as Fellowes has left his people intact, with some slight changes. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) now runs the house as butler alongside Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and is actually a nice guy. Retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) tends to his garden. Other than that, it is business as usual: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) continue to exchange barbs (although, let’s be real, those two love each other in the same way Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), for once, happily married, don’t. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who had attempted life in the US, is back. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? Absent, mostly. The Bates’ (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)? Check. Lady in waiting Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy? Check.

Missing, but mentioned? Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond), and that’s okay, We have new people to introduce, and that letter I mentioned is precisely why Downton begins that way. It turns out that the letter is coming from none other than Buckingham Palace itself. The King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) are coming to visit, since they are performing a tour around the country’s royal residences as a move to espouse the importance of the monarchy. Man the harpoons! Everything has to be picture perfect down to a science. Not having it is Daisy, who voices her more modern opinion that this is all a colossal waste of time, and of course, we side by her, but of course, we don’t really care, because let’s face it, Downton.

Also not quite having it but willing to suffer is Violet. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is also Robert’s cousin once-removed and there has been a falling out over an inheritance that has left the families all estranged.

Interestingly, the real drama starts once the King and Queen’s staff arrive. Richard Ellis (David Haig), the Page of the Backstairs, behaves in a manner that is so offensive he reduces Barrow into absolute timidity. Lady Mary has no other choice but to bring the reliable Carson back, but even that has no effect on the Royal Staff who continue to act as if they own the house and none of the Downton staff even exist. This puts a monkey wrench in the plans of almost everyone involved: Mrs Patmore sees her cooking will not be put to service, Mrs Hughes finds herself relegated to the background, and basically everyone is forced into a corner. In the meantime, Anna Bates who really needs her own show where she plays a Miss Marple character, has put her sleuthing to good use, this time with a Royal Staff employee with a penchant for legerdemain.

Midway up the stairs, Tom Branson has been approached by a stranger with ulterior motives, and Branson finds himself somewhat out of place with the sheer spectacle of it all while he also serves as a counselor to Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) who finds herself trapped in a marriage to an abusive man and he also finds possible love with Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Busy man.

Interestingly of all is Barrow’s own storyline. Barrow is the only downstairs character who other than being basically a bitter bitch through the entire show never quite had a storyline that would be satisfactory. He makes friends with one of the King’s footmen (Max Brown). It’s only too bad that Fellowes doesn’t take the opportunity to make this meeting a bit more pregnant with some foreboding of times changing the same way he is so verbal with Daisy’s snarling against the attention to pageantry. But, perhaps had this been a three-part miniseries or an official sixth season, that would have been a bit more fleshed out.

Yes, this happens.

There is not a thing I can really say against the movie version of Downton Abbey (other than some plots move at cannonball speed and everything gets touched with such a light tone as to leave the viewer as though he saw it all through an impressionistic fog, but caught only the most salient of the best of the menu. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of attention to period pieces, detail, gowns, lighting, because again, this isn’t your average 40 inch screen. The writing is often on point and of course, the best and bitchy lines go, hands down, to Maggie Smith, Probably a minor quibble is the way Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville seem to have reduced their characters down to befuddled spectators on the side just enjoying a life of pure privilege, but that is just a side observation. Judging from box office receipts, it looks like America really, really loves royalty, castles, and intricate family plots involving heirs toe and whatnot that only serve to remind that this is a life that once was privy to a handful. Do not be surprised if we in 2021 or 2022 see a further iteration of Downton.

Brief encounters at the END OF THE CENTURY

Juan Barberini observes Ramon Pujol, the man who got away, in Lucio Castro’s drama End of the Century.

END OF THE CENTURY (FIN DE SIGLO). Country, Spain/Argentina. Director, Lucio Castro. Screenwriter, Lucio Castro. Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mia Maestro. Runtime: 84 minutes. Venue: IFC Center. Mostly Indies: A

Two men have a chance encounter that turns out to be pregnant with more history than they would have expected in Lucio Castro’s sparse yet deeply affecting debut film End of the Century (Fin de siglo). At 84 minutes in length, his movie crosses time and space and presents two men at different junctures in life and concludes with one that can only be assessed as wishful thinking, memory, longing, and missed opportunity.

While traveling in Barcelona on business, Ocho (Juan Barberini) crosses paths with Javi (Ramon Pujol) and invites him to the apartment where he’s temporality staying to hang out for a bit. Some initial awkward conversation — the kind that always happens when strangers meet — happens, including a rather funny emergency run to fetch some condoms since Javi never has sex without them, but it’s clear where this will go. When we do get there, it is in one breathless, erotically charged shot filled with simple yet powerful beauty.

Once the aftermath arrives the men agree to keep in touch, and it’s here where, over wine, Javi reveals to Ocho that they have met before, Without a beat, Castro takes us to the past where both Javi and Ocho were involved with other people — both women. Ocho was, at the time, grappling with his own sexual identity when, during a vulnerable period in his life, he met Javi, who was in the process of making a film., Both men instantly hit it off, and have an intimate moment of passion before Ocho disappears. In the present, Javi is now married to a German man in Berlin and Ocho is coming out of a 20 year relationship. It’s clear that the men belong together; their energy together fills the screen, but circumstances, of course, have determined that this will not go past what it is.

Incredibly, seamlessly, Castro integrates this ellipsis with a transition into what could have been, and it’s almost too painful to watch two men who could have been happy together, reenact their lives of serene, passionless domesticity, resigned to live with their spouses in comfort, Without a drop of sentimentality, Castro has concocted the perfect date movie, and a study in loneliness interrupted if not magnified with a brief encounter pregnant with possibilities.

[Seen at a sneak preview on August 15, 2019 at the IFC Center.]

55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: BPM (120 BEATS PER MINUTE)

BPM (120 BATTEMENTS PAR MINUTE)
France
Director: Robin Campillo
Runtime: 143 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

[Seen October 9th at the New York Film Festival, where it received the second of two standing ovations, and that is rare.]

They say that the closer the drama is to one’s real life experience the stronger the story that comes out of it. Nothing could be closer to the truth than the viewing of Robin Campillo’s aggressive yet tender drama BPM (120 Beats Per Minute) that makes its bow at the Angelika and the Lincoln Center October 20th and is France’s strongest submission to the Oscars in decades. Campillo, in discussing his film during the Q & A, spoke about being an Act-Up activist in the Paris Chapter during the 80s and 90s and literally seeing his then lover die of AIDs while no cure was visible in sight; his and the actions of this force of nature that was gay activism eventually led to the release of the medicine that would curb the corrosive effect of the AIDs virus and at least allow those who were positive to live (and love) if at all for a little while more than if they had not been given anything at all.

From the moment it starts, BPM is two hours of a literal battle not for equality, but for the very right to simply exist. Much like its title implicates there are no pauses for contemplation for contemplation’s sake; Campillo’s film is, without machine guns, a war movie that involves a rather broad spectrum of people at the bottom of society: gays, lesbians, and those infected with the blood of HIV-positive people. Anyone who either witnessed or survived the 80s and 90s can and will tell you that to even be gay during that period was tantamount to already have the ‘cancer’, and thus, be not just an undesirable, but also be unworthy to life itself. In short, it was a period where gay men and women would have to slip back into the dark, remain silent, and let AIDs do its infernal work.

So what was one to do then? Once it was made clear that those in the bottom could never aspire to have their voices heard, the only thing that anyone then had left was becoming the cry in the dark. BPM illustrates this effect in a chilling sequence where the members of Act-Up Paris infiltrate a pharmaceutical corporation and start throwing bags of fake blood everywhere and unto their executives. The intent is to shock, of course, and it makes its mark, but it’s also to sling back the blood corporate France  had on their hands. It’s hard not to see a clear correlation between these events and the many that transpired here in the US when Act-Up protested, how one can view this and not be reminded of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and David France’s searing documentary How to Survive a Plague. [Side note: David France’s newest documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is currently in cinemas and on Netflix.]

Robin Campillo moves between the documentary — Act-Up meetings and protests — and the personal, inserting smaller yet more poignant stories that stand out from the mass of activists that occupy the large tapestry of participants. First in line we get Nathan (Arnaud Valois, standing in for Campillo), a twenty-something young man who’s joined Act-Up and is seen as a bit of an outsider since he’s negative (most aren’t). There he meets the very vocal Sean Dalmazo (Argentinean actor Nathan Perez Viscayart in a compelling, riveting performance) who’s passion for life is as big as his need for action from those at the top to deliver the drugs he needs to live a bit longer. There is the hemophiliac kid who’s mother unwittingly gave infected blood to for months, effectively infecting him. Also shown are Sophie (Adele Haenel, a tremedous presence, but underused — also the only marquee name in the movie) and Thibaut (Antoine Reinartz), an activist with whom Sean clashes often.

The brilliance of this ferocious movie is that it never pauses for maudlin and I loved that. Too often, AIDs-related movies treated its characters’ deaths like over-long operas to be played out in slow motion as if somewhat fascinated at the fact that yes, gay men did die dramatic deaths, disfigured, weighing less than their clothes, listening to some campy classical music. [And as a side note, I noted the conspicuous absence of sex in AIDs movies made in our own soil raises the question, do we still, even now in 2017, still have issues with gay sex represented on film?] This movie uses house — the music of the time — to express its defiance at the face of death. Even the central romance that becomes born under the threat of death — that of Sean and Nathan — is played with a vibrancy I have not seen in any American film about the same topic. It’s probably what will make this stand out from its American counterparts, that it knows death (for many) is looming, but embraces life, the ultimate spectacular now, as its own affirmation. And the sex? Confessional, revealing, and ultimately, a means to mourn those who have passed on, who were loved.

BPM opens at the Angelika and the Film Society of Lincoln Center October 20.






55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Italy / France / Brazil / USA
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Runtime: 132 minutes
Language: Italian / French / English / German
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

There was a pregnant tension in the air inside the Alice Tully during the half-hour leading to the world premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s film version of Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name — would it remain faithful to the novel, how would the performances be, and what about that famous scene with a fruit? Not having read the book or known what the plot was about other than the synopsis featured in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s page and a little apprehensive after seeing Guadagnino’s awful 2015 film A Bigger Splash that made its rounds in US theaters last year, I figured I’d give it a try based solely on the trailer. When it comes to LGBT cinema, I’ll usually watch them all — the bad with the good — because hey, if one can’t support it, what’s the use in complaining there aren’t any stories being told? And considering that this year the New York Film Festival has not one but three in its Main Slate — the other two being the Norwegian Thelma and the French BPM as well as Todd Haynes new film Wonderstruck and a restored version of G W Pabst’s 1929 classic Pandora’s Box, there should be enough quality to glean a lot of positive chatter about the state of Queer Cinema yesterday and today.

Luca Guadagnino again returns to his native Italy to take us into a sensual trip through a lazy summer in 1983. Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his parents, both intellectuals, in a secluded part of Italy and have a tradition (established by his father, a history professor (Michael Stuhlbarg in a role that anchors and elevates the film) of inviting a student over for mentoring. Elio doesn’t quite care for this since his privacy will be altered, and could you blame him? The look of disdain on his face as he and his girlfriend Marzia get their first glimpse of the impossibly beautiful Oliver (Armie Hammer) emerging from his parents vehicle says it all. Elio is frankly, not impressed one bit.

Not that Oliver makes it easy, either: a good ten years older than Elio there doesn’t seem to be much holding them together. Both are clearly sophisticated in their fields; Oliver in his knowledge of history and languages; Elio, in music. However, Oliver varies from being dismissive to vague, flighty interest, and any attempt at dialog ends with a sense of the both of them being completely incompatible. Conversations end in moments of awkwardness, and no one seems to know how to break the ice. A visual discovery that Oliver is also Jewish, while striking a spark, also fails to really make things work between them. All Elio can hope is that the six weeks that Oliver will be in Italy will go as quickly and painlessly as possible so life can return to normal.

It’s this tension between the two that carries the story to its conclusion; constantly framed together, it only seems logical that something has to give. A first attempt at physical contact during a volleyball game backfires. A night on the town, where both Elio and Oliver dance with women, also goes south. It’s precisely at the halfway mark when we realize not that Elio has been resenting Oliver’s presence, but that he’s attracted to him, and this being 1983, a crucial year for gay men as the Disco era had begun to feel its aftermaths and AIDS had made its way to the cover of Time magazine, such feelings were best kept in the quiet and resolved in the dark.

What makes Call Me By Your Name succeed is precisely this need for silencing: Elio obviously doesn’t need his parents to know yet, but Oliver suddenly becomes less a Greek God in the flesh and turns into a vulnerable young man who doesn’t wish to harm this boy who’s clearly growing up and has a world to learn. Perhaps, also, he has his own demons to wrestle with, and again, the timing of the story is crucial. Both begin a dance of wanting to be as close as possible to wanting to stay away from each other, a thing that leads Elio to experiment with Marzia and sadly, lead her on. In the meantime we’re left to wonder, how much do the parents know about what’s going on?

The only one who seems to hint at something is Mr Perlman (although a telling expression in Mrs Perlman answers the age-old question of “Does Mother know?”). There is a build up to a scene that happens in stages. Firstly, a gay couple appears, and Perlman wants Elio to at least try to behave with a certain tolerance not because they’re gay or ridiculous but because they’re “both.” It’s the film’s one self-hating moment, a subtle slap that strikes at the way gay men were still seen at the time — campy, effete, diva-worshiping, and overall, emasculated. This is followed by another scene in which Perlman goes on and on about the male form and how it was admired in Grecian times. It’s a very telling revelation. MIchael Stuhlbarg’s delivering of his lines reveal something completely startling about his until then very worldly, bourgeois professor. So disarming it is, that even Hammer’s Oliver gets taken aback and it hovers over the second half of the picture until Stuhlbarg, practically doing nothing other than sit with his son, has the most ideal,naked, and emotionally revealing conversation any father should have. Because of this, his is the character that stands out the most because of how it informs the viewer of where he comes from other than making him “the clueless father”. Anyone — me included — knows that parents always know, but to do what Perlman does during the film . . . priceless. An Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor could happen for him.

I dare anyone to view this movie and not reminisce about those days of experiencing first love and choke a little on tears. It is as nuanced and detailed a love story as a coming of age, beautifully rendered by everyone onscreen, meticulously acted to a point where one would be hard pressed not too see oneself in any of the two leads, or perhaps the father. Several 80s New Wave classics make their way into the film (notably The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way), but it’s Sufjyan Stevens ethereal music, reminiscent of the early 70s, that paints this film in smoldering passionate hues that will still evoke emotions well past the end credits. Guadagnino in my opinion has made the perfect gay romance.

Call Me By Your Name just had its screening at the 55th New York Film Festival and will make its US premiere November 24.






ON DVD: I AM MICHAEL

I AM MICHAEL
USA
Director: Justin Kelly
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: English

3.5/5

It’s kind of remarkable that a little over twenty years ago the only LGBT-themed stories that were being made into film were Will & Grace or Ellen clones. Shallow, one-dimensional stories that supposedly gave LGBT people a voice in cinema, stereotypes caught in formulaic plots harking way back to the 1930s and the Doris Day/Rock Hudson era, and I’m not even going to enter the AIDs-themed films that no matter how you looked at them, always had this sense of reducing gay men into a suffering niche that only merited to die on screen, alone, dejected, with only a parent or surviving lover to  mourn if even that.

As much as I can’t tolerate the idea of a story like I Am Michael it’s necessary to understand the queer experience. We’ve moved far, far away from the simple stories and into stories that speak of a true person. Michael Glatze is one of these people, and again, while I knew of him when he heralded XY Magazine I didn’t know he was going through the sort of internal crisis of identity that the story by Benoit Denizet-Lewis from which this movie is based on indicates.

Here we have a man who went from having a rather happy, stable life with his partner in the Castro, who moved to Halifax for a more peaceful life, to suddenly getting what we now know is a panic attack. From that panic attack, Glatze realized that his condition as a gay man was the sickness (or abnormality as he calls it in the film)_ that was causing it, and thus, he needed to atone and purge it from his system. Leaving Benoit and then moving from a series of people — one a Buddhist instructor, and finally ending with a woman named Rebecca (Emma Roberts), we see Glatze slowly become deader and deader on the outside until by the film’s end, he’s basically become just another empty shell of a person.

James Franco acquits himself rather well in the role; it’s a sad state to see his Glatze slowly self-erase himself from the world even when he would continue to ogle men while preaching Godly perfection. Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver come across better drawn as characters — the first playing Benoit, who witnesses first-hand Glatze’s descent into hypocrisy; the second as the young twink who has a quiet yet poignant scene with Glatze that goes somewhat unacknowledged. Whether you enjoy this movie, see it with a compassionate eye, or see it with a distancing due to its subject matter, this is a movie that does deserve a view if at all to attempt an understanding of how people can become so completely fucked up and ruin their entire lives, essentially becoming little more than walking shells.






ON DVD: TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

take-me-to-the-river

Family secrets take center stage in this intriguing slice of Americana that has hints here and there, but just barely, of Southern Gothic. Ryder (Logan Miller) doesn’t have any secrets and plans to come out to his extended family and relatives in Nebraska. His parents warn him against it, because after all, it’s only a family gathering. Even so, Ryder quietly — like any teen would — defies his parents by using clothes that are non-conventional (short-shorts and a rather revealing V-neck tee). Once there he makes the aquaintance of some cousins and the difference could not be more striking in presenting Ryder’s urban sophistication with kids who haven’t left a farm and think of cities as distant fantasies. One of them, nine year old Ursula, takes an odd liking to Ryder, which he doesn’t rebuff because he’s already and clearly not into girls. However, a short walk to an abandoned barn leads to an attempt to catch a bird’s nest. Moments later, Ursula returns to the party, screaming, a bloodstain emerging from within her thighs.

Accusations are quick to develop as her father Keith (Josh Hamilton) suddenly emerges as a no-nonsense protector who will not let anyone — even and especially Ryder’s mother Cindy (Robin Weigert) — close to Ursula to examine her. Ryder has no problem taking the moment to tell everyone there is no possible way that he could have molested the girl because he’s gay, but Cindy, a heretofore confident city woman, suddenly finds herself tip-toeing around her own relatives who have quickly shifted from family, to potential enemies.

Now, here is where the logical part of the movie kept me going, and the conflicts of a what-would-you-do in me took in. Another part of me would have said, “Fuck you and your accusations, I’m leaving this goddamned party and your place for good.” A quick trip to the hospital would have been more than enough to quell any doubts that Ryder did anything to Ursula. But Matt Sobel, the director, has another way around the plot, and while his view isn’t wholly implausible, it places an innocent character right in the headlights of something way more sinister than perhaps he deserves.

Ryder’s parents decide to bravely wing out the event and allow themselves to get their car smeared with paint. No one seems too interested in coming to their side, but that is beside the point. What comes out of left field has more trepidation than any menace straight out of Deliverance, and it comes forth in the form of Ursula’s younger sister, on horseback, inviting Ryder to her parent’s house for a make-up dinner. I’m not going to divulge anything else from here on because it is a truly nerve-wracking sequence in which we witness one boy being taunted by an uncle with more on his agenda than just making up, and a sequence in which Ryder allows himself to get pulled into the titular river where he (and we) finally realize what’s been lurking in the shadows of the plot all along.

Take Me to the River is a tense incursion into family secrets that manages to veer perilously close to horror of the kind Shirley Jackson created with her chilling story The Lottery. It does involve a little stretch of the imagination and acceptance, but when you think of it, how many times did you go to a family event where someone humiliated you, and instead of leaving — as logic would have it — your parents bravely kept face and soldiered on as if nothing happened? Right. So see this movie on VOD or Netflix and let its strange, chilling backwoods beauty haunt you like it did me.






FROM AFAR

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

He’s a loner. An older man of few words who works repairing dentures and seems to have a fragile but polite relationship with his briefly seen sister. The camera opens to Armando walking the seedier area of Caracas, Venezuela, following a lean, dark-skinned boy into a bus and offering him a wad of cash. No words exchanged, just cash. Cut to Armando, sitting on a couch in his dark apartment, emotionless, empty eyes, telling the boy to take his shirt off, and lower his pants to just below his glutes. Off-screen, the sound of rubbing, which should by now tell you what this is about, followed by some sterile moans, and then his crisp, curt voice, telling the hustler to leave.

Armando meets another hustler and this time things don’t go as planned: the boy, Elder (Luis Silva, wiry and coltish) is a mass of reactions first followed by very little thought. He’s not as submissive as the others; when Armando takes him back to his place the scene ends with violence and theft and Armando with a black eye.

Still, he remains impassive, unperturbed, and empty. When he’s not following Elder around in ways that clearly cross the line between simple masochistic interest and veer deep into the perturbed, he quietly stalks his father, who seems to be some highly paid executive. In the interim, after Elder gets beaten by some thugs, Armando takes him in and both begin a very ginger dance of older man as mentor and younger man as protegee (willing or not). Conversations are stiff, stilted, but eventually reveal layers of depth: both have absentee fathers.

An act of theft from the still ready to run Elder segues into an act of defiance that shifts the balance of power between him and Armando. Elder begins to demonstrate hints of affection, a thing that doesn’t go unnoticed by both his pals and his mother who sees right through the two’s acquaintance and guesses correctly, throwing him out of the house. And at the fringes of the movie, Armando’s father, an office executive going through his business as Armando observes from a distance.

Much like Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul, Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar (Desde alla) doesn’t give you more information than you need and plays its cards tightly against its chest. Dialog is minimal at best, and more information is passed along by glances, hints, non-verbal cues. Even then, this sense of walking in the dark and knowing only what one needs to know is suspense at its best, because from the get-go, by its very nature, the relationship between Armando and Elder wouldn’t go past a transaction and a cold, sexual act. Vigas, however, has other intentions up his sleeve, and as all of the pieces start to show up, a clearer picture of what the real story is about starts to form.

From Afar is as nihilistic and ugly as the location where it takes place. Armando discloses so little, but his actions say much more, and reveal a man about to burst in anger for some unknown harm (there is the implication he’s a victim of sexual abuse, or something truly awful), but so restrained that his one scene of dominance and aggression comes as a revelation precisely because he’s so far presented himself as a man who seems to want nothing, care for no one, exist to live and just that. Alberto Castro, recently seen in Chile’s The Club also playing a tormented gay man, is restrained to a fault, disclosing next to  nothing about himself, his family, even why he continues to pursue Elder. If anything, this is also a story of trust — trust established after a long, uncomfortable mating dance, cemented, and then smashed into a million little pieces. Vigas’ debut film is a lightning bolt that gives a strong voice to a country like Venezuela, a country who tends not to register in the US (although that trend seems to be reversing thanks to 2015’s El LIbertador). Like Eastern Boys with whom it has been compared (and which was a part of the 2014 Rendezvous with French Cinema selection), it brings forth a slice of gay life that tends to be set aside in lieu of lighter fare. Highly recommended.






VIVA

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

It may have a Welsh director and Irish budget, but Viva, Paul Breathnach’s movie and Ireland’s submission to the 2015 Best Foreign Language Picture (where it made the December shortlist) is all Cuba. Set in Havana, Viva will transport you, the viewer, to a place that looks and feels as though time stopped when Castro came to power. Havana is alive, crumbling, derelict, but with dripping with an exotic beauty all its own. It’s also where Jesus, the young protagonist, struggles to make a living both as a hairdresser to older ladies who can never pay him full price for his services and as a wig-assistant to Mama, the older drag queen who is the main attraction of a gay club.

When Viva kicks off (and it does so rather quick), Mama learns that one of her performers has run off with all her wigs and is in need of a last-minute replacement for a double act. Enter Jesus who can barely perform and looks unconvincingly female in make-up, wig, and a dress, who chooses the name Viva after a fashion magazine seemingly  modeled after Vogue. The other performers don’t offer much help and it seems as though this will be a retread of a young man trying to prove himself to other more seasoned drag queens (and having to confront a more bitter performer, or the Queen Bee herself once his reputation and marquee value rises. Viva offers a left turn right after Viva’s debut as a “new discovery”, and does so in the most clever of ways. An older man is seen sitting at the bar admiring the drag queens. Because it’s Viva’s turn to go out on stage Mama and the others advise her to be friendly with the customers, to get up close and personal to insure tips (and her own place onstage). Viva agrees, and when she gets up close to the older man at the bar he gets violent, punches Viva in the face, and has to be thrown out.

You see, Viva just met her own father.

Angel is a man who’s been in jail since Jesus was a baby. Jesus always wanted to meet him, just not in this way. Once he returns home Angel is belligerent, aggressive, even confrontational. A thorny relationship starts and stops several times before it finally seems to take a groove of its own. The catch is, Angel doesn’t want Jesus to be performing at a gay club.  He’s okay with Jesus being gay; he just wants him to be masculine. Jesus, wanting to have a relationship with Angel, rejects Mama’s offer to come back to the club and decides to wing it out. Perhaps he will eventually leave, and let Jesus continue with his life.

But Breathnach has several more tricks up his sleeve, and here is where Viva really opens up to the audience. A couple of subplots involving Jesus’ frenemy Cecilia seem tacked on at first but are crucial to the development of the plot: her sexual dalliance with a would-be macho boxer Javier lead Jesus to audition successfully, but once he demands she not use his place as a launchpad for sex she is the one who informs Angel of where he could find Jesus. Jesus himself, stripped of his drag persona, sees himself having to go to extremes to make money since Angel himself can’t find a job and is wallowing in self pity because of a failed life. It’s here where you really feel the sheer isolation Jesus feels, cornered and unable to find any work, and you long for him speak up for himself and take the stage once again.

Viva shines not just in the powerhouse performances of Hector Medina, Jorge Perrugoria, and Luis Alberto Garcia as Jesus, Angel, and Mama, respectively, but also in the emotional impact of the songs themselves, which become the driving focus of Viva’s message. The finale is overwhelming, shattering, and a total triumph of storytelling where everything comes together into one transcendental climax. Finding one’s place in the world and self-acceptance through the medium of art never looked and sounded more raw and compelling. Viva is a watershed LGBT movie that has to be experienced. It can all be summarized in a quote Mama makes late in the movie: “Why is everyone on this island addicted to this goddamn drama?” She should know. To experience drama is to live, and like all drag performers, they channel all the pain and anguish of life itself onto the audience for a couple of dollar bills.






ON DVD: THE DANISH GIRL

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

i’m going to have to admit to a pesky little secret. I’m actually glad Nicole Kidman — for all of the excellent actress she can be when she desires — didn’t get the part of Lili Elbe when she was lobbying for it a little under ten years ago. I recall after seeing her in Manderley she had become attached to the project where it languished and floated in the background until it seemed to fade away . . . that is, until it took on a new life under Eddie Redmayne and the rest as you have seen, is history. It’s not that I don’t believe she would have played the part well; I just think it was the entirely wrong project for someone of her essence.

Enter Tom Hooper, Redmayne, and Alicia Vikander, hot of a gaggle of good movies that gave her the clout to get the part of Gerda Wegener, the artist-wife of Einar Wegener who inadvertently introduces him to not just donning female clothes and posing, but discovering a greater reality — that he, in fact, was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

The Danish Girl comes at a time where trans-visibility is making its mark in society and tells the story of the first recorded male to female transgender person with grace and sensitivity without becoming too melodramatic. On that note and many others, I would say it does a good job and there are a couple of rather striking sequences, such as when in search for a therapist to treat his ‘malady’ Einar almost finds himself committed against his will and uniformly considered to be insane and a pervert. Or the smaller moments when Einar, as Lili Elbe, smiles and lifts up her arms to cover up her chest in a coy pose, you can forget that it’s Redmayne that you’re seeing and realize this is a woman on the verge of being a fully realized creature.

Alicia Vikander, however, to me, makes the movie come alive. Much of what transpires gets displayed on her face and her character’s art: the subtle expressions of confusion and playfulness that she experiences when Einar, after attending a party, reveals he’s wearing her undergarments, for example. To that, followed by their frequent incursions into stores in what now is known as cosplay. Clearly Gerda could not know what was brewing undrneath the surface, and when she realizes just what’s happening . . . well.

There are portions of the movie that seem a little tacked on for an enhanced dramatic story, such as Lili’s fumbled romantic encounters with a male friend (Ben Whishaw) but other than that The Danish Girl as a whole is a well crafted vision of what could have been the real Llii Elbe as recorded (some events are compressed to create a more fluid storyline and technically, Gerda did leave her husband years before his transition although they remained in contact and maybe initiated a lesbian relationship, a thing left unexplored in the final film version), and I believe this movie will serve as a study for future generations on how transgender men and women would have been seen at the dawn of the XXth century.