Film & Television

Locke

Locke


Dir: Steven Knight
Cert: 15 • UK: 85 min • Lionsgate Films • April 18, 2014
Andrew Darley reviews
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Tom Hardy’s latest film, Locke, is a character study of a man in the midst of a personal crisis. The British actor, whose career began in 2001 with small supporting roles, has garnered sizeable recognition in the last five years with leading roles in blockbusters including The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Warrior. In comparison, he has considerably scaled it back with this film, giving himself a challenge of a one-man performance.

It follows Ivan Locke’s journey on the M6 from Birmingham to London. As he sets off on his trip, he is stopped by a red light at a traffic crossing. Visibly lost in thought, it’s not until he is beeped by someone that he comes back to the present and drives on. It is obvious that something is on his mind and waiting to unfold. Through the medium of phonecalls, the plot is told by a series of conversations with family, co-workers and a woman revealed early on to be a past fling whom is about to give birth to their child. Gradually, the exchanges offer enough to piece together a picture of his life and where he finds himself on this night.

Tom Hardy gives an absorbing and natural performance. Looking boyishly handsome and bearded, his expressive face and eyes are the agents of the film; exposing his moments of distress, uncertainty and loss of control. Hardy’s character upholds a steely, pragmatic approach to life, as his problem comes to a head. When questioned by his one-night stand whether he loved her, he coolly states that he could not possibly love her since “I don’t know you”. It’s hugely dismissive and matter-of-fact, yet it is soon found that this stark rationality is how he engages with the world and those around him.

In fact, it is not the imminent birth of his lovechild nor having to confess to his wife that causes him his greatest distress. His real dilemma is the construction site we see him leave at the very beginning. The building under his supervision is due to receive its cement the following morning and Ivan must ensure that everything is in place as he travels to attend his child’s birth. He has a persistent desire to make his mark on the world and the building is hugely significant for him. He describes to a colleague that if one thing goes wrong with the cement pour, everything else around it will fall apart – a motif that parallels his own life.

Director and writer, Steven Knight asserts an admirable confidence by framing the film within the confines of a car and establishes an intimate dynamic with the viewer. He creates moments of calm beauty in the everyday action of driving with the serene lights and colourful reflections of the world outside across the car’s windows. The execution of one-actor, one-place may not have been so stylistically achieved since Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried in 2010. On the other hand, his decision places a greater responsibility on the story to carry the film. The ordinariness of the film’s premise provokes an expectation of a thrill or a plot twist.

And this is where the film fails. Regardless of Hardy’s engrossing performance and the merits of the film’s simplicity, there is a resounding sense that the plot holds a missed opportunity. The twist however, as we watch this man’s life unravel in a 90-minute car journey, never arrives and the pockets of tension throughout subsequently feel anti-climatic. The relentless ringing phone is without doubt an effective metaphor for the situation that threatens to overwhelm Locke, but there is no denying that by three quarters of the way into the film it becomes tedious. It is a deserving film with a script that has a certain mystery which commands viewer’s attention (particularly during the conversations Hardy’s character has with himself), but it lacks a certain spark that transforms it from being a well executed idea into something emotionally stirring. Locke travels in the right direction but it does not quite reach its potential destination.

Bambi

Bambi


Dir: Sébastien Lifshitz
Cert: n/a • France: 58 min • Epicentre Films • June 19, 2013
Michael Langan reviews
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In 2013 Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary, Bambi, won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, one of a series of prizes for films exploring LGBT themes as decided by an independent committee of judges. Bambi tells the remarkable story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, a French transsexual who became one of the most famous and long-standing performers at Le Carrousel de Paris, the Parisian nightclub where the Travesty Revue drew sell-out crowds. Pruvot, now 78, tells her story in conventional documentary fashion – straight to camera with no interventions from her interviewer – intercut with archive performance footage and Pruvot’s own home movies, filmed on Super 8. This standard, even old-fashioned, format works here partly because the world of the story is so fascinating, but mainly because Pruvot herself is such an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate subject.

Born Jean-Pierre Pruvot in a small Algerian town (then a French colony) in 1935, she tells how, from an early age, she would wear her sister’s hand-me-down dresses and insisted on growing her hair long. It was when she was sent away to school that she was forced to leave all of that behind and live as the boy she felt she wasn’t. It was during these years, Pruvot says, that she plunged herself into books, films and music as a way of constructing and composing her own identity. At the age of fifteen Pruvot went to live with an aunt, a woman she describes as a ‘blessing’ because, unlike Pruvot’s own mother, she tacitly accepted her nephew’s nature and provided a safe space in which to explore it. She also gave young Jean-Pierre a job working behind a bar and this was where Pruvot met her first love, and first lover, Ludo.

Ludo was older than Jean-Pierre and Pruvot describes how, having taken him to the family home for the weekend, her mother discovered them tucked up in bed together. It was the ensuing confrontation that sealed in Pruvot’s mind the determination to go to Paris and lead the life she wanted to lead. A few years previously the performers from Le Carrousel had toured Algeria, and Pruvot’s aunt had taken the impressionable Jean-Pierre to see them. This revelation gave Pruvot a glimpse of an alternative life, a possible existence that seemed to fit the identity Jean-Pierre had constructed.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Le Carrousel was one of the main attractions in Paris. It provided a haven and a sanctuary for gay men and transsexuals who might have otherwise found themselves working the streets, and it was here that the now Marie-Pierre Pruvot managed to talk herself into a job, taking the stage name ‘Bambi’ and going on to perform there for over 20 years. She was, and still is, extraordinarily beautiful. Pruvot acknowledges with classic French insouciance that Bambi and her fellow performers were seen by many in the audience as ‘circus freaks.’ A film from the time shows footage of the Travesty Revue with an admonishing voiceover describing the ‘monstrosities’ on view as immoral and sick individuals. Popular they may have been but theirs was by no means an easy existence. These were living scandals, walking horrors, feted and feared in equal measure, something Pruvot dismisses with a shrug.

Some of the most famous names from that era are afforded brief cameos in the documentary, notably Capucine (French for nasturtium flower) and Coccinelle (Ladybird). The film could have shown more of these, so captivating are they as performers, but what there is offers a tantalizing glimpse of a glamorous surface masking and highlighting some incredible struggles and brave individuals. Coccinelle (Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy) was particularly pioneering, being the first French person to have gender reassignment surgery. In 1960 she married her first husband in Notre Dame Cathedral (having agreed to being baptized again as a woman), forcing the French state to recognise transsexuals’ right to marry. This episode is documented in a remarkably sympathetic and supportive (for the time) newsreel report of the wedding. Years later, Coccinelle would go on to found the organisation Devenir Femme (To Become Woman) and became one of the main campaigners in France for the rights of transsexuals.

Bambi decides to follow in Coccinelle’s footsteps by having ‘the operation,’ a decision seen as too extreme by many of her fellow performers who prefer to live mainly as women or as young men with their mothers. Bambi herself insists that her own mother comes to live with her, which she does, and they seem to carve out an uneasy relationship based on an understanding of the difficulties each of them faces in the circumstances. So off Bambi trots to Casablanca, to have an operation with an 80% chance of success. The bravery involved in this can’t be overstated, but Pruvot talks about the decision with distinctly French élan. What else is there to be done?

Bambi continues to perform at Le Carrousel until she’s in her mid-thirties, then, with the same steely determination and presence of mind that has characterized her whole life, gives it all up to go back to school where she passes her Baccalaureat and then enrolls in The Sorbonne. Pruvot’s life then takes an unexpected turn, causing her to question everything that has happened and everything she has striven for up to that point. I won’t give it away.

Sébastien Lifchitz has created a very clear, direct, narrative here, as determined by Pruvot’s telling of her own story in her own way, and there is an element of performance in that. Some other voices might have been a good idea – Pruvot’s siblings perhaps? – and the film could easily have been extended to feature length. As it is, this is sixty minutes in Bambi’s company that left me wanting more. More than anything, what you take away from this film is an approach to life that faces up to, and faces down, the challenges that present themselves. Marie-Pierre Pruvot is an inspirational figure because she dared to create the person she knew she is, rather than remain the person she was born as.

Bad Neighbours

Bad Neighbours


Dir: Nicholas Stoller
Cert: 15 • US: 97 min • Universal Pictures • May 3, 2014
Nick Smith reviews
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In the most inappropriate opening scene since Bridesmaids, Bad Neighbours aims to have its audience cringing right from the outset, with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) en flagrante in the worst possible taste. This is the fourth film from director Nicholas Stoller, the man behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement, and promises much with its stellar cast. It’s fair to say that in no way does he disappoint.

Just as Mac and Kelly are settling into their new lives as parents in suburbia, and coming to terms with the loss of their partying days, their new-found artificial serenity is threatened by the arrival of a fraternity house next door, led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (David Franco). At first, the temptation is for Mac and Kelly to get down with the kids and relive some of their lost youth, but to emphasize the importance of keeping the noise down to the young frats. As the partying and antics become unbearable, local police officer Watkins is called and, in a truly star turn from comedian Hannibal Buress, the Radners soon become the parents that have cried wolf and realise they will have to become vigilantes of sorts to drive out their dreadful neighbours.

What unfolds is a veritably hilarious tit for tat, fogeys vs. youths tale of retribution, and it’s particularly amusing to watch the random retaliation ideas dawn slowly on the protagonists’ and antagonists’ faces. Some truly uproarious and inventive set pieces ensue - one involving an air bag will leave you prodding every seat before sitting on it. Another involving dildo moulding kits forms a perfectly gross yet ingenious way to earn money for the frats.

The leads are cast perfectly. Rose Byrne threatens to steal the show with her wonderfully bipolar performance, being docile, bored new mother one minute and apoplectic, vengeful guardian the next. Seth Rogen is effortlessly funny and wonderfully self-effacing, capitalising on each of his past comic turns and injecting some emotional honesty. Zac Efron is the real revelation here, however, casting aside his High School Musical roots with magnificent aplomb, delivering an incredibly evil performance as a belligerent fraternity leader. His character’s moral compass spikes at absolute zero in every wicked, vindictive twist and turn in his efforts to infuriate the Radners.

There are some superb supporting performances from Lisa Kudrow (the malevolent and unsympathetic dean of the frat’s college) and the aforementioned Buress.

What sets this gross-out comedy apart from the glut of its peers, is the truly inventive and unique set pieces and the sheer volume of them. There are so many laugh-out-loud and cringeworthy moments – and baby Stella adds an abundance of cuteness to the proceedings.

In an ending that could easily have been cliché-ridden, Seth Rogen proves his metal yet again as he and Efron double up for one last hilarious parting shot. Bad Neighbours is deliciously evil and utterly hilarious, and features some of the most inventive, wicked and outrageous comedy set pieces in cinema.

Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead)

Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead)


Dir: Marion Vernoux
Cert: 15 • France: 94 min • Les Films du Kiosque, 27.11 Production • June 19, 2013
Alex Ramon reviews
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In Marion Vernoux’s Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead), which was among the films screened in this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema season, Fanny Ardant plays Caroline, a 60-year-old wife, mother and grandmother who’s just retired from her profession as a dentist and who promptly discovers an exciting way to fill her new free time: an affair with Julien (Laurent Lafitte), who is over 20 years her junior. The pair meet when Caroline is persuaded by her family to join the facility of the title, a club for seniors, where Julien works as a computer consultant. And so, rather than immersing herself in the activities the club offers, with a sideline of hosting dinner parties for her gruff workaholic spouse (Patrice Chesnais), it’s not long before Caroline is shirking her duties for the more enticing pleasures of illicit broom-cupboard sex sessions and post-coital spliffs.

An unabashed vehicle for its fragrant star, the entertaining Bright Days Ahead chimes irresistibly with the current vogue for films exploring “Third Age” experiences, and will possibly get a wider release in the UK and the US than it might have done due to this trend. If, just occasionally, the film seems a little bit too pleased with itself for placing an unrepentantly pleasure-driven mature female protagonist centre stage, its focus doesn’t look too calculated, particularly since contemporary French cinema (unlike contemporary US cinema) has excelled at making films that feature well-drawn characters of a range of ages. Indeed, though it lacks their elements of stylistic daring, at its best Bright Days Ahead has something of the free-wheeling, tough-but-tender spirit of Christophe Honoré’s brilliant family portraits (2009’s Making Plans For Lena, in particular), in which the protagonists do and say often dislikeable things to each other without, somehow, losing the viewer’s sympathy and interest. Adapted by Vernoux and Fanny Chesnal from the latter’s novel, Bright Days Ahead features some enjoyably tart dialogue exchanges and often twists its scenes in quirky, unexpected directions.

The film is especially good at conveying the rhythm of an affair – its ebbs and flows of feeling, the mix of excitement and frustration – but it does so in a particular, un-obsessive way. Caroline and Julien enjoy each other sexually but neither one really becomes hopelessly devoted to the other. He’s still checking out other women while he’s with her, and she’s involved for novelty more than love. In this way, the film keeps its cool, distanced wit, avoiding the slide into hysteria that marred the May-to-December affair in Roger Michell’s similarly-themed The Mother (2003).

There are some odd, sketchy elements – Caroline’s attitude to her grandchildren, for example, seems to veer wildly from total indifference to utter devotion – and the plotting in relation to the revelation of the affair (which, all of a sudden, practically everyone else in the movie seems to know about) is fuzzy. But, even so, Bright Days Ahead has the advantage of a true work of art in its lead actress. As Caroline, indeed, Ardant has seldom been more varied or more emotionally engaging, moving beyond the aloofness that’s sometimes characterised her screen persona to create a fully rounded protagonist. At times she resembles Julie Christie here, and there’s something of Christie’s style in her super-subtle, carefully modulated acting throughout: the kind of intimate performance in which the character’s every half-submerged thought is communicated to the viewer. A bedroom scene that finds Caroline with her hair mussed, giggling and getting high, is destined for “instant classic” status.

Certainly Vernoux swoons over her star, but the film does manage to feel inhabited elsewhere, with deft work from Lafitte as the lover, from Chesnais as the cuckold, and from Marie Rivère (lachrymose as ever), as a fellow club member whose depressive episodes provide Caroline with a perfect excuse to escape her family duties and then head to Julien’s place. There’s a whiff of conservatism to the conclusion that Vernoux and Chesnal have devised but, even when the director’s touch falters, Ardant’s great performance makes Bright Days Ahead shine.

Looking: Season One

Looking: Season One


Dir: Andrew Haigh
Cert: 15 • US: 8 x 30 min • HBO • January 19, 2014
Kevin Shaw reviews
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The scene fades up on a public park in San Francisco. The foliage parts to reveal Jonathan Groff’s youthful face and earnest blue-eyed gaze-curious, yet hesitant. He clumsily attempts an anonymous hookup in the woods; anonymous, that is, until he interrupts a hand job to introduce himself, and finally calls the whole thing off when he answers his phone: it’s Mom calling.

This is how HBO’s Looking introduces Groff as Patrick, a twenty-nine year-old Midwesterner in San Francisco. Although the eight-episode series, created by Michael Lannan, avoids the common coming-out narrative, Patrick starts out as a gay Adam of sorts. His story even starts in a garden. He’s naïve, and tempted by all the San Franciscan tricks and treats, although sadly not that intrepid. Patrick is flanked by his friends Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a would-be artist pushing against the bounds of a longer-term relationship, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who is questioning his erotic mortality as he turns forty in a youth obsessed hook-up culture. At one point, Dom jokes that Grindr will send a death certificate on his birthday.

It may seem like we’ve been here before (think the UK and US versions of Queer as Folk), yet Looking makes some interesting departures, particularly in its use of San Francisco as a destination for sexual liberation. Nearly fifty years after the Summer of Love however, the city is decidedly gentrified. Many of the early reviews debated whether or not Looking was HBO’s boys-only version of Girls (short answer: it’s not), but it has far more in common with an earlier San Francisco-set lodestar of gay TV: the mini-series adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Set largely in the halcyon days of 1970s San Francisco, Tales of the City explored the city’s diversity and the possibility that it offered. Like Looking, Tales of the City was guided by a newcomer from the Midwest, the naïve Mary Ann Singleton. The early ‘90s production of Tales of the City offered a certain sunny nostalgia, yet Looking’s washed-out blue leans toward a post-AIDS, post-identity politics melancholia. While on a date recounting his aborted adventure in the woods, Patrick says he had wondered if people still went cruising anymore. As he learns in the opening scene, they certainly do but now however, they cruise in the conflicted age of gay marriage and Grindr. If, as Agustin’s boyfriend says, “we can be whatever we want to be”—now, is the implication—why are we, as Looking suggests, so sad? Perhaps, if all the mirrors on the show are any indication, we aren’t only looking for sex, but for ourselves – past, present, and future.

Looking’s subtle historical self-awareness benefits from director Andrew Haigh’s realist and almost documentary aesthetic, which resonated with audiences in his popular film Weekend. In this San Francisco, the bathhouses and bars are still there but now the music and conversation have left the tubs – as Linn, Dom’s older friend, laments – and the bars are grungy and badly lit, nothing like the glitzy late ‘90s Babylon at the centre of the US Queer as Folk. Looking does, in part, bring a more realistic depiction of gay life to television. The characters actually use public transport, and they worry about paying the rent. But what does “gay life” even mean, anyway?

The show attempts a representation of Asian, Black, and Hispanic men at the intersection of class and desire without resorting to stereotypes or by glossing over conflicts of difference. Yet they are often in supporting roles. At its core, Looking remains yet another show about an upwardly mobile white guy, this time in the high-tech video game industry. But, perhaps that’s the point.

Dom, who works as a waiter, criticizes the way the city has been overtaken by “I.T. assholes”. When Mary Ann Singleton lands in Tales of the City she has to struggle to make her way in the city, whereas Looking finds Patrick early in a career, mid-stride, if still hungry for success, in the precarious post-economic downturn. While Looking makes a refreshing gesture to the street (in its setting in public parks, buses, and festivals), there remains a tinge of mourning and boredom – a been-there and done-that futility in the glare of the camera’s lingering gaze.

In one episode, Patrick and friends walk through the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco’s leather and BDSM festival, and though they don leather, they are less willing participants but rather more occasionally shocked and bemused observers. The show’s diverse characters each take from the city’s queer mythos what he needs, and discards the rest. And so while Looking is about gay men in San Francisco, the struggle to make a whole life in and out of the Castro binds the characters as much as – indeed if not more than-  sex. The show actively works to reveal the fractures and scars in the “gay community” rather than to suture a false sense of pansexual healing.

The dialectic of sex and love is explored with the great subtlety that Haigh achieves in Weekend. A rim job, tactfully shot but discussed at length, is allowed to become another episode’s central metaphor of intimacy. Finally, queer filmmakers seem comfortable balancing explicit representations of sex with (or against) the fuzzier feelings, without sacrificing emotional complexity or social commentary.

Despite solid performances from the main trio and a stand-out supporting cast – particularly Lauren Weedman as Dom’s best friend Doris (in a show that is almost devoid of female characters), Scott Bakula as the former’s older friend Lynn, and TJ Linnard as a sex worker befriended by Agustin – the show sometimes feels a bit cinéma-vérité lite, lacking narrative propulsion in the middle episodes, trading character development for slice-of-life glum. If these characters don’t seem overly interested in their own lives, why should its audience? Yet by the later episodes – and the introduction of Patrick’s boss, played by Russell Tovey – tensions between friends, lovers, and coworkers escalate toward a realistic and satisfying conclusion, with enough dropped threads to pick up in the second season.

If Looking has anything in common with Girls, it’s in the comedy of awkwardness that both share, but use to different ends. In Looking, the uncomfortable humour points to the cracks in the otherwise smooth mirror that the mainstream gay media holds up to its audience. For example, when Patrick gleefully Googles “uncut Latino cock” before going on his first date with Richie – and later brings it up in bed (he is wont to make embarrassing confessions right before sex), does the awkwardness reveal the curiosity of the sexually inexperienced, or just a racist exoticizing of Richie? Or both?

The late-season image of a nude Patrick guiltily staring at his own reflection epitomizes Looking’s contribution to current gay culture: while the show may be accused of participating in the all-pervasive hipster narcissism, it does so with a keen critical sense. Neither Looking, nor the people it represents, are perfect. These are sometimes-unlikeable characters but the writers (if not the characters themselves) are refreshingly self-aware of their prejudices and limitations. Patrick and company spend a great deal of screen time simply talking about themselves; hopefully, the second season will reveal that they’re actually listening. What the first season reveals, is that Looking has the potential, at least, to change the conversation.

Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot Lunaire


Dir: Bruce LaBruce
Cert: 18 • Germany/Canada: 51 min • Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion • February 9, 2014
Matt Greenfield reviews
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Toronto-based director Bruce LaBruce returned to this year’s Berlinale Festival with queercore film Pierrot Lunaire. Set to Arnold Schöneberg’s composition of the same name, this silent black-and-white film is based on the true story of a transgender man’s search for identity and approval in 1970s Toronto. The protagonist, Pierrot, woos a young girl – Columbine – who giddily introduces her newfound boyfriend to her father. He denounces Pierrot as a fraud, seeing through his façade and revealing to an unbeknownst daughter that her boyfriend is not really a ‘man’. Although Columbine’s love for Pierrot continues regardless, the father’s jeers lead a torment-fuelled and humiliated Pierrot to go to delusional lengths to become a ‘real’ man.

The choice to set a transgender storyline to Schöneberg’s work seems to arise from one of the many perplexing directions of the piece; namely that it should be sung by a female soprano voice, although the singer is portraying a male character. Moreover, the style of vocal performance known as Sprechstimme – halfway between speech and singing – that expressionist composers like Schöneberg employed has a entirely unnerving, intense quality to it. This fits well alongside Pierrot’s angst, which we are confronted with throughout the melodrama. Nevertheless, by the 13th of the 21st movements, the constant uneasy tone along with the discordant music starts to feel too familiar and tends toward becoming dull.

There are only a few reprieves from the onslaught of what remains a challenging atonal composition. These intervals come from nascent Berlin DJ duo MadLick and feature a heavy pounding bass and the mantra “Fick, fick, fick!” – which means exactly what it sounds like it means. This may sound rather light-hearted compared to the tense vibe described above but they occur only in the scenes where we see quite a lot inflicted on the penises of go-go dancers in an unnamed club; first by means of a guillotine – during a movement titled ‘Beheading’ – and then by what appeared to be a scalpel blade, which really drove the audience to wince. And that makes the film difficult to tolerate. When we get to listen to something more accessible and less challenging we then have to deal with gruesome mutilations.

Intercut with these scenes of mutilation, however, are some of the most redeeming parts of the film. These come in the form of a minimalist symbolic staging of Pierrot’s genitalia being severed. These scenes – filmed in the theatre ‘Hebbel am Ufer’ where LaBruce put on Pierrot Lunaire in 2011 – are highly stylized, with a softer photographic contrast giving a sense of transcendent beauty away from the rather harsh look of the shots elsewhere in the film. These theatre scenes are the only instances where the aesthetic really complemented the unease of the music with great success. This brought about a far more rewarding experience whereby the music seemed less abrasive and more profound than earlier scenes, where dissonance distracted and overpowered the visual elements. Even so, it would have been better to have had more theatre-staged scenes like the above or a more varied use of visual styles overall to keep the audience engaged with the work.

If there is any social point that comes across in the film, it is only that the current hysteria over whether someone is pre-op or not misunderstands what is means to identify as transgender. It restrains and enforces the boundaries of gender within matters of sex. The film shows how Pierrot is confronted with this by Columbine’s father; it causes a great deal of anguish for the protagonist and leads to pretty gruesome consequences. That said, the film is so insular, the characters’ actions so convoluted and hyperbolic, and the music antiquated, that it appears to aim foremost at being abstractedly aesthetic.

The pretence yields some wonderful imagery and disturbing sequences, but the lack of variation in sound and visuals allows for parts to feel commonplace in an otherwise out of the ordinary and intriguing scenario.

Valencia: The Movie/s

Valencia: The Movie/s


Dir: Various (like REALLY various)
Cert: 18 • US: 105 min • Radar Productions • June, 2013
Eva Monkey reviews
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San Francisco queer outlaw writer Michelle Tea published Valencia in 2000. Her works, mostly memoirs, chart her queer teenage life as a working class suburban goth just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, through to her position as a literary activist as well as founder of queer-feminist spoken word and performance art collective Sister Spit (now publishing under San Francisco’s torch-bearing City Lights). Michelle Tea’s 1990’s outsider memoir, Valencia (named for a street in the Mission District, now gentrified by the horrors of social media start-ups), is a galvanising lesbian punk coming-of-age story, set in a time of aggro, dyke marches, and acting-up.

Valencia: The Movie/s may be that dreaded thing – an experimental movie – yet it is a bloody triumph. A collaboration between different queer filmmakers, with each making a 5-7 minute chapter of the memoir, it’s a nostalgic dirty dream, with the queercore/riot grrrl soundtrack I WISH I had been listening to in the ’90s. With 18 different ‘Michelles’, and 20 different directors crossing racial, geographic, gender, size, and style lines, this is the ultimate in intersectional film-making. Some ‘Michelles’ are blonde, some are trans-men, some are buffalos, and some are Angelina Jolie – it’s a lot. The many Michelles take us on adventures, both measured and frenetic, constantly turning the page and hurling themselves into new situations. The story centres around Michelle, her mercurial on-off girlfriend Iris, and a whole messy queer family. It follows them from romantic entanglements at house parties, to classic fish-out-of-water “queers home for the wedding” tales, via fisting, booze and zinemaking.

Excellently paired at the BFI Flare screening with ‘YOLO’ (Dir. Marie Grahto Sorensen), a brilliantly directed short about paintball toting, lesbian-goth-teenage-vampire-cheerleaders, (yeah, I know), Valencia: The Movie/s’ full throttle possession of the DIY culture (i.e. no money or guidelines from Tea and Goldberg). That means Silas Howard, Cheryl Dunye, Courtney Trouble et al make each chapter their own, allowing Michelle to be inhabited differently and diversely. These myriad ‘Michelles’ mirror the ways we the audience project ourselves into the stories, providing space and legitimacy to our ownership of the Michelles, and our own, hot, dirty, radical queer lives.  This multiplicity also gives rise to everyone’s favourite post-screening bar game “Who was the Hottest Iris?” (my money is on the Buffalo, but I am the old-fashioned sort). The film exists in a place slightly out of time, not always the ’90s of the book, but in a special “queer bubble time” which rings so true to those of us who have wrapped ourselves in the ’90s spirit of zines and Haggard 7 inches and DIY values. Michelle’s novels and zines are littered throughout the film, which would be annoying if it weren’t for the feeling that this is not a post modern self-reference, but an earnest attempt at proliferation – queers wearing their heroes on their sleeves, and providing access to their marginalised, photocopied culture.

It’s hard not to feel personally invested in this film. Michelle Tea’s messy, drunk memoirs became a metaphor for so many of us dirty queers, with its bad-choice adventures, stone cold girlfriends, hot bartenders, poetry and sex work. It seems an amalgam of our stumblefuck, car-crash 20s, both in the moment and abstracted, the heartbreaker and the heartbroken, getting by and revelling in regrets.

Valencia: The Movie/s is a true adaptation, not only of the memoir, but of its place, and its agency, in a cultural context. Too often the touchstones of the queer, the weird and the badly behaved are eradicated or ignored. This is us, at our best and at our worst – this is our dream selves, and it is played out, both onscreen and off by us all.

 

Plynace Wiezowce (Floating Skyscrapers)

Plynace Wiezowce (Floating Skyscrapers)


Dir: Tomasz Wasilewski
Cert: 15 • Poland: 93 min • Matchbox Films / Alter Ego Pictures • March 24, 2014
Andrew Darley reviews
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Dubbed the “first LGBT Polish film”, the subject of Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers is sexual identity in a predominately conservative central Europe. The film focuses on Kuba, a determined athlete who is forced to confront the feelings he has been, literally, running away from. We are introduced to Kuba and the domesticity of his relationship with long-term girlfriend, Sylwie, and his highly disciplined, training regime. However, something does not feel right. He is hostile and unengaged by life and the others around him. It’s not until we witness him attend a party that we see a pulse. When he meets Mikal, an instant bond is made between the two men, as Sylwie looks on. From this moment, the two start meeting regularly defying both the practical and their own personal boundaries of falling in love with each other. There’s something magnetic between them that negates everything else around.

The events that unfold feature the secretive life they must maintain to see each other. Kuba allows the resistance he holds against his sexuality to give way to his initial hedonistic pleasure in the illicit relationship. His underlying self-loathing must play out before he can eventually hold up his hands and allow himself to love Mikal despite the odds. It’s very much a film about the unspoken. The script is suggestive and prefers to leave the emotional worlds of the characters to the audiences’ interpretation. The sparse dialogue and tense scenes reveal the unacceptability of his sexuality and the disorder it has made of his world.

Tomasz Wasilewski understands that film can be an experience that engages all the senses. His cinematographic aesthetic of clean lines and sobering, often desaturated, grading presents the atmosphere of the characters’ rigid and orderly environment. One scene in particular hits home where the camera is inside the car in which Kuba and Mikal drive to the top of a multistorey carpark. The elongated scene is repetitive and measured, yet, as they climb from one floor to the next there is a sense of freedom as they find a place to enjoy each other’s company alone.

The director also utilizes sound in a way that brings to life Poland’s cultural atmosphere. The electronic music throughout reflects the austere and detached sentiment that pervades the film. The programmed beats and synthesizers are used in a way that soundtracks the inner lives of the characters. Depeche Mode’s ‘I Feel You’ punctuates a heightened scene that marks a turning point in the film in which all involved can no longer continue to ignore the reality of the new relationship. Still, it’s not only the music that stays with you. The sounds contained in the film are at once familiar and uneasy to listen to. In Kuba’s home the clink of cutlery, the buzzing traffic outside and shouting from the streets are all noises which are routinely true to everyday life. The domestic commotions are pitched as loud as the dialogue, echoing the noise and buzzing thoughts going on in Kuba’s mind. A signature of the film is the shots of Kuba swimming underwater. The aquatic drones as we watch him swim are almost otherworldly demonstrating the level of escape he reaches through training and routine. The outside world is drowned out and Wasilewski allows us to be there with him.

Floating Skyscrapers taps into the culture of homophobia, which demands many to suppress, numb, or even kill their own desires, in order to bend to societal convention. It expresses that, although terrifying, when we follow our own desires we permit ourselves the space and potential to be happy. It’s only when we reject or ignore them that they start to become destructive.

The silence this film leaves is deafening.

Rush

Rush


Dir: Ron Howard
Cert: 15 • USA: 123 min • Exclusive Media, Cross Creek, Imagine Ent • January 27, 2014
Andrew Darley reviews
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Men love women, but even more than that, men love cars”. And so we are invited into the intense environment of Formula 1 racing. From the get-go, the risks of speed racing are hammered home. A frightening statistic noted early on makes us aware that in every racing season, twenty-five drivers will start out but by the end two will have died behind the wheel. Whether this estimation has been verified or not, the perils of the sport cannot be ignored; these men are willing to chance their death to satisfy their passion for speed.

Rush chronicles the real life rivalry between drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the ‘70s, in the battle for the title of World Champion. The film spans six years in which the two doggedly stepped on each other’s toes on personal and professional levels. The film sets up the two as polar opposites; the suave and quintessentially British Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) in one corner and the steely and meticulous Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the other. There’s no question why they rubbed each other up the wrong way, irrespective of the competition at hand. Hunt is the typical playboy meandering between sex, women and alcohol, whilst the depiction of Niki shows him as a man taking life and himself seriously.

In fact, it is the portrayal of the steely Austrian driver that holds the film together. The confrontational plot line between the drivers opens up into a character sketch. It is Lauda’s self-critical personality that highlights how his strongest competitor was not necessarily his opponent, but himself. The high-pressured environment appears to perpetuate his feelings of needing to prove himself to others. The burden he places on himself brings the film’s emotional depth and dynamic, especially when he must face the consequences of a fatal accident on the racetrack.

Although this is the most satisfying aspect, it is also one which could been explored further. The film is held back by Chris Hemsworth’s performance, which appears deliberate and self-conscious in adopting the cocksure persona. He seems unable to relax into the role, overcompensating to the point where character is superseded by a nauseating caricature. Its distracting to watch; making an audience very aware that we are watching someone acting, which defeats the purpose of a film based on true events. Without it, the storyline could have had more room for character development.

The obvious message of the film is that sometimes the people we don’t like or get on with in life are the ones that we can learn from and potentially provoke the best in us. It’s a challenging lesson to learn and is the perfect vehicle to steer the film. Unfortunately and unnecessarily so, this motif is explained and divulged by the two rivals in the final scene. It’s irritating as it knocks the dust out of what was a moderately enjoyable watch and ends on a blubby conversation about an idea that was blatant throughout.

Overall, Rush ebbs between some decent moments to scenes that would feel more at home in The Fast and the Furious franchise. Although there are a number of aspects that keep it from being as enticing as it could have been, it does reveal some of the behind-the-scene politics, scornful media interviews and how the aggravated rift occurred between the two in chasing the same dream. Sadly, the standard here is below par and is unable to deliver what the title suggests, failing to cross the finishing line in first place.

L’inconnnu du lac (Stranger By The Lake)

L’inconnnu du lac (Stranger By The Lake)


Dir:  Alain Guiraudie
Cert: 18 • France: 100 min • Les Films du Worso • February 21, 2014
Alex Ramon reviews
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When it comes to intense, erotic explorations of human desire on screen – whether painful, joyful, homosexual, heterosexual or the many permutations in between – there are few doing it like contemporary French filmmakers. Granted, an association of le cinéma français with explicit depictions of sexuality has been standard – even cliché – for many years now: at least since Alain Cuny’s head dipped beneath Jeanne Moreau’s waist in the 1959 Les Amants. But it’s certainly the case that directors as diverse as Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Claire Denis, Christophe Honoré and, most recently and controversially, Abdellatif Kechiche with Blue is the Warmest Colour, have continued to place desire and corporeality centre stage in their work. They have done so with a challenging candour and bracing sensibility that makes most contemporary American cinema look fairly pallid and juvenile by comparison.

Alain Guiraudie’s L’Inconnnu du lac (Stranger By The Lake) is the latest addition to the fold. A festival favourite that deservedly won the Queer Palm and Best Director prizes at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the status of this elegant, provocative, genre-crossing film as a contemporary queer classic already seems assured. In its tactility, its attention to place and space and its unabashed focus on the male body, Stranger By The Lake evokes Denis’ work, and, more specifically, Ozon’s seductive and terrifying See the Sea (1997) which contains a central beach-and-woodland sequence, which appears to be a significant inspiration for Guiraudie’s movie. For Stranger By the Lake unfolds entirely at a picturesque gay cruising area on the French coast where men flop naked on the sand, check each other out and head to the woods for sex. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has pitched up at the spot for the summer and passes his time talking with the solitary bisexual Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), lusting after the moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) and being lusted after, in turn, by the voyeur Eric (Mathieu Vervisch) whose attentions he continually rebuffs.

The film might have the feel of a particularly classy porn flick were it not for the diverse bodies it presents, and for the director’s careful attention to the nuances of all aspects of the men’s conduct and contact. Stranger By The Lake succeeds in making the beach setting a microcosmic universe with rules and codes all of its own (a recognisable, archetypal, near-timeless queer space), and though a murder occurs – witnessed by Franck – the movie is far from a rip-off of the murky Cruising than the premise might suggest. A considerable amount of suspense builds up, despite the tone throughout, which is mostly tranquil, watchful and calm, created by Guiraudie’s patient observation of the men’s various interactions. These yield sometimes surprising admissions (as well as not-so-surprising emissions) and some pearls of behavioural comedy, not least thanks to Eric’s appearances: forever fondling himself as he observes the assignations of others and pulling up his shorts to beat a retreat when he’s admonished for peeking. The film features as much chatting as shagging however, and what there is of the latter is eye-poppingly explicit, going further in its depiction of gay male sex than any of the directors cited above have dared so far. At times, indeed, the movie’s sunny summer setting and conversational tendencies call to mind Eric Rohmer let off the leash: “Anal at the Beach,” perhaps?

Aside from its confident merging of moods, genre tropes, and its uniformly excellent performances, what really distinguishes Stranger By The Lake, is its attention to atmosphere, the primal and elemental quality that Guiraudie brings to the material. Throughout, the movie makes the viewer aware of natural sounds: birdsong, the lap of the water, the wind in the trees, the men’s groans of pleasure or pain, the rhythms of their conversation. The quietness, punctuated by such sounds, gets to the viewer, casting an initially seductive and ultimately an eerie spell, as Guiraudie leaves one character alone, calling his lover’s name in the dead of night. It’s a haunting, unsettlingly ambiguous coda to an intelligent, beautifully controlled and thoroughly absorbing film.