Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Family Affair

My local art house's Homebrewed series finished up last night with In the Family (2011, directed by Patrick Wang), a heart-wrenching drama that puts its finger the raw nerve of how our society defines the concept of "family." Like last week's film, this film examines what it is to be gay in the American South, though it never even uses words like "gay" or "homosexual." It doesn't need to. This is not a film about identity, per se, nor is it a polemic. It's a careful observation of the way people live. As such, it lets the viewer draw their own conclusions. This approach is subtle. I didn't even recognize the moral rage I was feeling toward what was happening on screen until halfway through the movie, and by then, it was too intense to dismiss. Behind director Patrick Wang's blank-faced naturalism, there's a sense of the brutality of the world that's bracing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It's Hard to Get Good Help These Days

Headhunters (2011, directed by Morten Tyldum) is a precision clockwork of a thriller based around the notion that its central character is overcompensating for his shortcomings, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). He can't believe his good luck: his wife, Diana, is supermodel gorgeous, he's affluent, and he's terrified that he's going to lose it all. This is Roger Brown, would be nebbish. By day, he's a corporate headhunter. By night, he's an art thief. It's his moonlight job that pays the extravagant bills he and his wife are running up. He's up front about his motivations. In a voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie, he lays bare his insecurities. Oddly enough, it's not his night job that provides the main spring of the narrative in this film. That's just one of its surprises.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


I'm not sure what I was expecting when I ponied up for my ticket for Prometheus (2012, directed by Ridley Scott). I'd seen some of the criticism and disappointment online. Too many of my friends had embroiled themselves in that for me to avoid it. I tried to keep it all out of my preconceptions, but you know how that goes sometimes, I'm sure. I'd seen the trailer, too, which was full of tantalizing images. I was expecting something ambitious and heady, I think. What I got was schlock. I mean that with a fair amount of affection. It's more than that, though. There's a weird sense in Prometheus of watching the history of sci fi filmmaking being distilled into this one big, glorious/stupid production, as if it's a summation of science fiction filmmaking pre-cyberpunk. Or maybe more to the point, there's a sense of sci fi cinema devouring itself.

Prometheus takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies. Some time before the Nostromo's fatal encounter with the alien, the Weyland Corporation mounted another expedition into the void, this time looking for the origins of life itself. They follow the findings of one Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and her partner, Dr. Charlie Holloway, who have found clues pointing to a particular spot in the sky among the relics of dead civilizations. These signposts, she surmises, point to the origin of life on earth, to the creators of life. To god, maybe. The Weyland Corporation, and it's CEO, Peter Weyland, have a different motivation, and equip the android, David, with a secret agenda. Also along for the ride is Meredith Vickers, an executive charged with keeping the expedition on-mission. The ship, Prometheus, finds a planet and a moon where the signs say they will, and they set down, where they discover the remnants of an ancient race of aliens, the "Engineers," they call them, and as they investigate them, they discover horrifying truths behind their tinkering with life. Meanwhile, David implements his secret agenda, and horrors ensue...

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Object of Chaos

The Raid: Redemption (2011, directed by Gareth Evans) features a title that is both on point and utterly meaningless. It's original title, Serbuan maut, means "Deadly Invasion," which is both more descriptive and less prone to promising some kind of justification for the mayhem the movie includes on screen. "The Raid" is true enough. The movie is about a police raid on a high rise full of gangsters. There's not any redemption in this movie, though. Just a 24-count fridge pack of cans of whoop-ass.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Banality of Evil

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs and Andreas and Ashley over at Pussy Goes Grrr (who I've been neglecting to mention; please accept my apologies, guys. My bad.).

I'm going to a Gay Pride celebration in St. Louis this weekend. I have mixed feelings about this because even here in the Midwest, in an ostensibly "red" state, Gay Pride celebrations have largely ceased being about politics or a struggle for rights. They've been tamed. They're "family" events now. They've mostly been co-opted to sell a hip young demographic alcohol or cell phones or whatever. Oh, there will be booths dedicated to politics, sure, but I'll cringe at the drag show (as I always do), I'll chafe at the bemused toleration of my own letter(s) in the GLBT alphabet soup, I'll gripe about the fact that the Stonewall riots happened in June rather than some more temperate month, and I'll come home, once again, wondering why I went in the first place. Things are not so rosy elsewhere in the world, however, and if I ever need a reminder of why these events are important, I need only think of the lot of GLBT people in sub-Sahara Africa, who are struggling to assert their own pride in who they are, and who are under constant threat. I should think of Uganda in particular, where the legislature has been toying with the passage of a bill that would make homosexuality punishable by death. The lot of gays and lesbians in Uganda is the subject of Call Me Kuchu (2012, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall), a documentary that mostly focuses on the work of David Kato, who founded Uganda's first gay rights organization.

If you've followed the story of Uganda's anti-gay pogrom, you may have heard of David Kato. He was murdered in early 2011 after he sued the country's most prominent paper, The Rolling Stone (no relation to the American magazine), for publishing photos of him and outing him to the world as a gay man. His case put a kibosh on the paper's practice of outing "homos" (as their headlines screamed). The filmmakers met Kato before this, though, and followed the entire process of his lawsuit and of the operation of his fledgling movement. It listens to his friends and gets to know them a little. The movie offers a portrait of life in Uganda, too, to put everything it shows into some kind of context. Kato was killed mid-shoot, and the footage from his funeral is among the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen in a movie.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Losing My Religion

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs and Andreas and Ashley over at Pussy Goes Grrr (who I've been neglecting to mention; please accept my apologies, guys. My bad.).

My local art house's series of microbudget indies continued on this Wednesday with The Wise Kids (2011, directed by Stephen Cone). As fate would have it, it's a queer-themed film. I love it when my local theater caters to my blogging needs. More to the point, I love it when they schedule movies that completely ambush me, as this film did. Going in, I thought it was mostly a coming of age film centered on one particular teenage boy in deeply religious South Carolina. What I wasn't expecting was a much broader ensemble that teased out many of the deeper problems of living an authentic life within the confines of American Christianity (and not just if you're gay). The whole coming to terms with being a gay Christian teen? Well, it's there, but it's not front and center and it manifestly refuses to unfold in the way an audience might expect it to. More interesting to me is the way the problem of sexuality challenges faith in the literal reading of The Bible as true. This also hit a deeply personal chord with me, but I'll come to that in due course.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

Transgender people have featured in exploitation films since at least the 1930s. There's a hermaphrodite in the circus in Tod Browning's Freaks, though ze doesn't play a prominent role in the film. There's also a genderqueer element to James Whale's horror comedy, The Old Dark House, in which the patriarch of the film's looney family is played by a woman in old man drag. Whale liked to tweak gender norms in his movies sometimes. The golden era of transgender exploitation began in the 1950s, though, when Christine Jorgensen's gender surgery became a seven day wonder. One of the first films to take on the subject of transgenderism was Ed Wood's legendarily bad Glen or Glenda (1953, aka: I Changed My Sex). It's easy to mock Wood and Glen or Glenda, what with its weird assemblage of stock footage and with Bela Lugosi playing a god who composes boys and girls out of snips and snails and sugar and spice, to say nothing of its litany of angora sweaters and grossly misinformed pronouncements on the causes of transgenderism. Hell, you can even play the transgender documentary drinking game while watching it (Glen or Glenda is a documentary of sorts, after all).

What's that? Transgender documentary drinking game? Oh, yes. The tropes of the trans documentary are so calcified that you can get good and sloshed if you follow along with alcohol. The original version was authored by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, and you can read it here. Others have added to it over the years.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dearly Departed

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

Richard Linklater's Bernie (2012) is a kind of film I've become very familiar with over the last few years thanks to the True/False Film Festival. It's a kind of hybrid non-fiction film. Not really a documentary, not really a mocumentary, but similar in most respects to either. It's also a quirky, regionalist comedy, and a vehicle for star Jack Black. That it is able to balance all of these idioms and incorporate them into a mostly unified whole is a one of the film's more impressive accomplishments.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Boy Meets Boy

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

I don't think I'm offering any blazing insight into Weekend (2011, directed by Andrew Haigh) when I say that its obvious touchstone is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset diptych. It has the same fleeting affair, the same sense of something larger than a one night stand just flitting out of reach for its lovers, it has the same intimate focus that seems to isolate its lovers in a kind of microcosm away from the rest of the world. The fact that its lovers are queer is almost beside the point. Almost.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Open and Shut

This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

The problem with wishing for something in a movie is that once you get it, you start wishing for more. Some people--me, for instance--are never satisfied.

I'm hard pressed to think of another movie that's as sensitive to the diversity of bodies and expressions of sexuality or lived experiences than Open (2010, directed by Jake Yuzna). More than that, it doesn't punish its characters for their bodies or sexualities, either, though it does complicate their lives in ways that are inextricably linked to body and sexuality. At a very basic level, this is a movie about longing for love and not finding it, or about finding love only to find it fleeting. I think these are universal themes, even if the characters experiencing these are probably alien to a hetero and or cis audience. I think this is a good thing. This is something I long to see in movies about trans or non-cis people but never really get. That it confronts the audience with sometimes alien expressions of love and intimacy is even sweeter.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Festival Finds #1

The Girl and the Fox from Base14 on Vimeo.

I was a film festival screener last year (and probably will be again this year). One of the films I saw while I was screening was this one. It made the cut, screened at the fest, and took a prize. It's utterly charming. If you have a few minutes, it's worth watching.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Top and Bottom

This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

Nobody in movies knows anything, if you believe William Goldman. For instance, no one in their right mind would have predicted that the highest grossing movie in the history of Korean cinema would be a queer-themed historical drama. And yet, that's what happened. The King and the Clown (2005, directed by Jun-ik Lee), an unassuming "small" movie, somehow tickled the Korean popular imagination and became that blockbuster.

The story follows the friendship of two itinerant "clowns," though "clown" is an English descriptor. They are more like traveling acrobats and actors, whose plays are ribald. These are the rough and tumble Jang-sang, the frontman, and the androgynous Gong-gil, who specializes in playing women. When the film opens, their manager finds that he can make more money by pimping Gong-gil to the local aristocrat than he can from the play. This infuriates Jang-sang, who rescues a not-exactly unwilling Gong-gil from being sold for the night. The two escape from their troupe after killing the manager and head to Seoul, where pickings for traveling players are slim. The king has driven out huge chunks of the population to increase his hunting grounds, and there is no longer a show district where Jang-sang and Gong-gil can ply their trade. They're basically for the street, where they fall in with a rival company and stage a play mocking the current king. They make a lot of money, but the run is short.  They're arrested for treason. In the course of being punished, Jang-sang challenges their jailors that the king himself should judge them. If he laughs, they're off the hook. If not, heads roll. Miraculously, they make him laugh, but then things get hairy, because the king has cast his eye on Gong-gil. So, too, has his consort. Meanwhile, the king's ministers begin using the troupe as pawns in the intrigues of court...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lesbian Noir

This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

It's so tempting to use the queerness of Bound (1996, directed by Lilly and Lana Wachowski) to psychoanalyze its directors that it's all I can do to restrain myself. It's unfair to the movie, really, and it's unfair to the Wachowskis because it reduces their worth as directors to their gender identities rather than their filmmaking virtuosity (and their filmmaking virtuosity is often dazzling). In fact, I'd rather celebrate the fact that the directors of huge blockbusters are trans. That needs to be celebrated rather than analyzed. Bound, it should be noted, is much more a product of keen cinematic intelligence and a voracious appetite for cinematic influences than it is a Rorschach test. Its worthiness as a movie (rather than as tea leaves) comes from the fact that it's sexy, taut, and expertly made. It's one of the best films noir of the last twenty years, possibly the best noir film from the 1990s noir revival. It might be an unfulfilled promise--it remains The Wachowski's best film--but there are plenty of directors whose first films are their best. Just ask Orson Welles or Tobe Hooper.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Boys and Girls

This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

I'm not really sure how to take Tomboy (2011, directed by Céline Sciamma). It's one of the most carefully observed movies about childhood in recent memory, lovingly mounted and beautifully performed. It's also infuriatingly coy about what it's about.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


So my local arthouse has a new series of microbudget American indie movies. They're calling it "Homebrewed," which seems appropriate, I guess. There's nothing wrong with a DIY aesthetic, if that's what they mean to invoke. I mean, George Miller edited Mad Max in his kitchen, after all, though that's probably reaching for an analogue. In any case, I'm going into these movies blind, with no expectations.

The Color Wheel (2011), the first film in the series, unspooled tonight with a Skype Q&A after with director/star Alex Ross Perry. It literally unspooled: the film was shot on 16mm rather than digitally, and there's a fine use of the graininess of 16mm film, particularly in some of the landscape shots. It's not a movie about landscapes, per se. I think the landscapes are even meant ironically, because this movie is otherwise about small, petty human concerns. Very petty, actually. It's a brutally unpleasant movie that asks the audience to spend 84 minutes with a bickering brother and sister who don't even bother couching their barbs in snark. They're a right pair of monsters, and this movie is raw, pulsing id. It's shockingly funny, too. That's good, because otherwise, it might be unendurable.

My Big Queer June

It's Pride Month in the civilized world (and here where I live in Missouri, too) so I'll be participating in a couple of LGBT blogathons in the coming weeks. One of them is the LGBT Blogathon sponsored by YAM Magazine. The other is the Queer Film Blogathon held by Caroline over at the awesome Garbo Laughs. They run one right after another, so that'll be two weeks' worth of delicious queerness (and a bunch of crabby bitching about trans depictions in film, I'm sure). With any kind of luck, I'll be able to find some queer subtext in Prometheus or Brave, too, but I'm not holding my breath. I'll still write about them, though.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Red as Blood

This wanders. Bear with me for a bit.

When I was in college, I took a class in 19th and 20th Century art that used as its text a book called Mainstreams of Modern Art by John Canaday. About halfway through the semester, the professor went off script. We spent a week and a half on the Pre-Raphaelites and their descendents and most of the material came from other sources. "Canaday isn't very good with the Pre-Raphaelites," she said. "Around the time of the Impressionists, Canaday acquires a plot, in which modern art marches inevitably to its summit mid-Twentieth with the abstract expressionists and post-modernists. It woefully neglects movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco because it doesn't feed the narrative. A more honest text might make note of the fact that there's a divergence that happens in art around 1870, or so, in which art history bifurcates, with one stream of history valuing form and with the other valuing content. For a long period, Canaday's narrative--the one valuing form--has been the dominant one. But there's another history, in which the Pre-Raphaelites give way to the Symbolists who give way to Art Nouveau who give way to Art Deco. Virtually all commercial art from 1880 until the 1980s was descended in one way or another from this secret history. Occasionally, these two streams would reunite in artists like Andrew Wyeth (whose father was the great illustrator, N. C. Wyeth). This secret history is beginning to prod into the art mainstream, with the work of illustrators like Maxfield Parrish and Virgil Finlay commanding prices previously only seen on works from the dominant narrative. The last time I was in the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, N. C. Wyeth was hanging next to Charles Scheeler. The worm is turning. I mention all of this because there was a post over on Jim Emerson's excellent Scanners blog a few months ago called "Thomas Kinkade has won and we, all of us, have lost." Its thesis is that in an era of CGI, the light in filmmaking is more and more resembling the kitsch of Kinkade's sofa art. Kinkade is a descendent of the Pre-Raphaelites, though one would think that he's a descendent of the Impressionists were you to take his trademark as the "painter of light" seriously (and I don't suggest you do). All this is on my mind right now, having just seen Snow White and the Huntsman (2012, directed by Rupert Sanders). Both that blog post and the movie itself tell me that this bifurcation of the histories of art is ongoing.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Stormy Weather

When KC over at Classic Movies invited me to participate in the Mary Pickford Blogathon, I had to make a shameful admission. I'd never actually seen a Mary Pickford movie. I mean, I profess a knowledge of movies and haven't seen anything by the movies' first superstar? It embarrasses me to even write this. Oh, I've known about Mary Pickford. I knew that she was one of the founders of United Artists and that she and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks invented the Hollywood celebrity power couple. I knew that she won the second Academy Award for Best Actress (for Coquette). I "knew" that she occasionally played children and that she was "The Girl with the Curls" and that she was "America's Sweetheart." I know all of this. And it's not like I have an aversion to silent movies. Not at all. But I still hadn't seen any of her movies.

And so, head hanging so as to hide my shame, I picked one of the available films at random. The movie I wound up with was Tess of the Storm Country (1914, directed by Edwin S. Porter), in which Pickford plays the titular daughter of a fisherman whose entire community of squatters is being squeezed out of their homes by the local land baron. Finding that he has no grounds to evict them, the baron conspires with the local government to outlaw net fishing, thus depriving the squatters of their livelihood. When they turn to poaching, Tess's father is arrested. It's up to Tess to save him from prison and the gallows. Having accomplished this, she then falls into a romance with the handsomest (and richest) man in town, who is attracted to her pluck, her perseverance, and her steel. But she has to fight for her man, because, well, she's totally from the wrong side of the tracks.