Brace

Posted July 5, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, romance, short

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Brace is a pocket-size (24 minutes) romantic anecdote that engages an under-represented group: female-to-male transgender people. Adam (Jake Graf) is searching. Fresh out of a relationship with a woman, he drops into London’s gay nightlife to see if the company of men works any better for him. He meets Rocky (Harry Rundle), a delicate-looking young man so nicknamed because of the fights he’s been in (“I didn’t say I started them”). Both people have a secret — the same secret, as it turns out. Adam and Rocky are both transmen.

Adam is a bit further along, having obviously started on testosterone treatment and gained manly stubble. He looks like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors whose soulfulness plays against their masculinity. Adam seems like your typical brooding gay man. Rocky is smooth-skinned and wide-eyed, an innocent. One can see what Adam sees in Rocky, and vice versa.

Written by Graf, and co-directed by video artist Sophy Holland and actress Alicya Eyo, Brace is a compact story of difficult love that segues organically into a tale of violent intolerance. The gay-bashing scene at about the two-thirds point isn’t there only so that we can feel sad; it moves the plot along as the victim of the beating effectively becomes outed. The directors stage the violence so that we wince, but don’t rub our noses in it. The nightlife scenes, by entertaining contrast, are brief but punchy; unlike similar scenes in feature-length films, they don’t drone on long past the point at which we want to go home.

Adam’s ex Zoe (Georgia Winters) stays friends with him and even accompanies him and his friends to clubs; when the boys plan to go to a men-only joint, Zoe graciously bows out, even though she must be aware of the irony. (Adam is pre-op.) The directors handle Zoe as though they’ve been in her shoes, while Jake Graf has been saying in interviews that Brace has a strong element of autobiography. The story and dialogue feel lived, authentic.

I sometimes say a feature-length movie needed to be shorter, or to stay a short film if it had begun life as one (see Eat with Me). This movie needs and deserves to be fleshed out to regular length. It ends somewhat abruptly, and I wanted to know more — about Adam and Rocky, and whether they overcome their secrets. From Boy Meets Girl to Transparent to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, we’ve seen the male-to-female journey so often lately it’s almost in danger of becoming a trope. Female-to-male is relatively fresh in narrative film, and it brings up a whole other volume of interesting things to say about gender and its performative aspects in culture. I’d welcome a longer Brace, a longer visit with these people.

Brace is viewable now on Vimeo.

Forty Years of Jaws

Posted June 21, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, one of the year's best

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This past weekend, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned forty. I used to consider it a horror film; after some thought, I decided it fit better in the action-adventure section; nowadays, though, it almost plays as a comedy-drama. Not that it doesn’t pack scares and thrills, but it has a peculiarly ’70s appetite for small character detail. Jaws isn’t really about a shark, or even really about the hunt for a shark. It’s about a man, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), looking to make an impact on his new community. Brody has moved himself and his family from New York to Amity (a thinly veiled analog of Martha’s Vineyard), and he expects his new peacekeeping gig to be, well, peaceful.

Adapted from a fairly awful Peter Benchley novel, Jaws clears away the book’s bestseller-chasing junk and flab — infidelity, the Mafia — and whittles the story down to three men against nature. In that respect, the movie actually feels more literary than the novel does, with its echoes of Melville, Hemingway, even Ibsen in its controversy over whether to close the beach. The men — ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) along with Brody — represent various male responses to societal threats. You can know everything about it, you can be a hard-ass, you can have the authority of a badge — you’re still not guaranteed to beat it (“it” being death itself).

The young Spielberg, aided immeasurably by a cadre of top-flight artists — composer John Williams, editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler — turned in a visually restless yet smoothly, supremely confident piece of work that suggested this was his twenty-second feature as director rather than only his second (if we don’t count such TV films as Duel, which I suppose we should). Aside from the much-cited suspense that came about from not being able to shoot the problematic mechanical shark, Spielberg gets the fierce adrenaline and joy of the seafaring hunt for the monster, who at this point in the movie could be a submerged leviathan or the Kraken or a dragon as easily as a shark. Past a certain point it hardly matters.

The concept goes back to Grimm: the villagers are imperiled by a beast, and brave men must face it. It did not, of course, occur to Benchley or his adapters that brave women could also face it, but then this isn’t a movie that especially values machismo, either. If anything, a woman — the grief-stricken Mrs. Kintner — is the one who finally gets the ball rolling, shames the mayor into authorizing the hunt. The first attacks, as in a horror film, happen under cover of darkness; when the emboldened monster feasts in daylight — and on a child, no less — the conflict shifts, and most of the second half at sea unfolds in the sun. The major exception is the rightly celebrated Indianapolis monologue, which takes the form of a historical campfire tale.

In the intervening decades, during which movies have often been said to have degenerated from the glory days of the ’70s, we have been asked to imagine a contemporary blockbuster that would take so much time out for the story of the Indianapolis. It’s assumed that today’s audiences wouldn’t sit still for it, but I think they would, if the scene were as tightly edited, sharply written, and beautifully acted as it is in Jaws. The movie has been blamed for creating, or at least cementing, the box-office worship of the blockbuster era; the movie also happens to be brilliantly crafted, and I’d like to think that, more than anything, is what changed the face of the blockbuster (which for several years had been the province of generally klutzily-directed disaster movies like Airport). In Spielberg’s hands Jaws becomes a gleeful, sometimes sadistic celebration of pure cinema, man against beast, all the chthonic symbolic stuff that makes the story work even on people who’ve never been near the ocean. Forty years on, let’s raise a glass to that.

Honeyglue

Posted June 14, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, romance

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Passion counts for something — passion and respect for idiosyncratic detail. In Honeyglue, the parents of a dying twentysomething stand in their living room and try to talk their way through their agony. They want their daughter dead and out of her pain — no, they want to die instead of her — no, they want to do something, but nothing can be done. The exchange, with all its awkward pauses and its rise and fall of emotion, takes up perhaps two minutes but feels much longer. The language is strange, stilted, grasping. It doesn’t sound like the way normal people talk, but these aren’t normal people; they are unwilling tenants of a land called Our Daughter Has Terminal Cancer, a place full of derangement and grief.

This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are straight-up terrible. But those are the parts that grew on me, because they attempt something, and the movie fearlessly works its time-honored trope — dying young woman falls in love — in order to illuminate and to explore weirder corners. The woman, Morgan (Adriana Mather), meets Jordan (Zach Villa) in a nightclub. She has gone there alone on her birthday, telling her parents she was at a movie. Jordan, a sardonic crossdresser, steals her wallet, then thinks better of it after a bee stings him. Jordan is putting together a kids’ book about a bee who falls in love with a dragonfly, and he’s the bee, and Morgan is his dragonfly.

I believed in the affection that developed between them, because the actors have a tender, unstable, witty rapport. Morgan’s dad, a former detective, distrusts Jordan on sight and is implausibly rude to him; I agreed to accept that as the father’s way of trying to protect his daughter from whatever hurt he can spare her. But Jordan is for real; he turns out to be Morgan’s perfect gentle knight, albeit one in a skirt and Louise Brooks wig. Jordan lives in a tent on an apartment building roof; his presence there is tolerated by a junkie acquaintance (Fernanda Romero) who is pointlessly vicious to him, and who is connected to ethnic baddies to whom he owes money (which he borrowed for art school). This thread of the movie is ludicrous and needed to go.

Morgan and Jordan soon get married, after he shaves his head out of solidarity with her, and their honeymoon is extended and sometimes feels padded. There’s a truly terrible sub-subplot in which Jordan seems to have kidnapped a doctor — though we don’t see it happen and don’t know how it was accomplished — so that the doctor can be on call in case of emergency, I guess. It’s an idiotic thing for Jordan and the movie to do, and it has no consequences. This detour more or less kills the film.

But before it dies, it has a bizarre life. I respected the difficulty of many scenes. When the couple go to visit Jordan’s mom (a fine turn by Amanda Plummer), it feels almost as if the writer-director, James Bird, gave Plummer a basic outline and invited her to run with the scenario — you haven’t seen your son in a decade, you thought sure he was gay, and here he is married to a dying girl. Like Jordan, Bird has Native American ancestry, and he has a simple, unstressed and unfaked sympathy for the outsider that a more polished tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t quite reach. (If anyone is still going to adapt Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Bird has the chops and the heart for it.) Honeyglue — the title refers to a plot point in Jordan’s book — has its bad and pompous moments, but it also feels lived-in and genuine. I could see why these two cared for each other, and I cared for them. That is far from anything to sneeze at these days.

L.A. Slasher

Posted June 7, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's worst, satire

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The horror/satire L.A. Slasher is the kind of film that has no character names, just generic labels: The Actress, The Reality Star, etc. They don’t matter as people, just as abstract concepts symbolizing how TV is ruining culture and society. Well, not if you don’t watch it, but never mind. The eponymous villain dresses all in white and an emotionless, androgynous mask, and he goes after people famous for being famous. There’s The Heiress (Elizabeth Morris), who hangs out with The Socialite (Korrina Rico). Both are abducted to add to the L.A. Slasher’s collection, along with The Teen Mom (Tori Black) and The Reality Star (Brooke Hogan). There’s The Actress (Mischa Barton), whose best friend is The Stripper (Marisa Lauren).

The filmmaking, by debut feature writer-director Martin Owen, is woozy and candy-colored — aggressively trippy overall, with many Dutch angles, swimmy camerawork, and general indifference to coherent action. When a character is run over by a truck, I couldn’t tell whether the murder’s awful staging is due to low budget or to directorial ineptitude. Another character seems to be drowned, but later shows up alive, just in time to be axed to death. The movie doesn’t like any of the victims, so we don’t either; in fact, the movie seems to agree with the L.A. Slasher that they deserve to die. As I’ve said of similar films in the past, it redefines “black comedy” as a movie in which people die and we don’t have to care.

The closest thing to a hero is The Actress, by virtue of not being openly obnoxious. Like a lot of performers here, Mischa Barton is asked to draw from some degree of personal experience in playing The Actress, who has a history of drug problems. Doofus pop star Drake Bell, most noted lately for an unkind tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, plays The Pop Star, a doofus. Eric Roberts is around for a few minutes as The Mayor, who drinks and whores around, in case you started to think the movie’s contempt was strictly female-focused. Even so — and throwing in The Producer (Tim Burke), a scuzzy casting-couch type — the film does relish the torture and bloodletting visited upon the women far more than that upon the men. I point this out merely to discredit the film’s stance that everyone in it gets what’s coming to them — they do, but some get it in a much more sadistic manner that belies satire and sidles up to misogynistic wish fulfillment.

L.A. Slasher is fairly awful and useless, with a fixation on the ’80s (including a soundtrack full of real or fake ’80s music) that doesn’t do it many favors. Slasher movies, after all, were less pretentious and more fun in that decade; they didn’t pretend to make heavy statements about the media and its various parasites. Worse, the killer talks, going on and on about L.A. and its menagerie of freaks and poseurs, and the voice belongs to none other than Andy Dick. At least we don’t have to look at him, but we still hear his tinny mocking honk as the Slasher, and it severely challenged any attempt on my part to sympathize with the devil. I may agree with some of the Slasher’s jaundiced commentary, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the Kardashians or Snooki tortured, and the experience becomes rancid and mean. Even Danny Trejo and Dave Bautista as two drug dealers (credited as, yes, Drug Dealer #1 and #2) can’t redeem it.

Generation Baby Buster

Posted May 31, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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The hero of the Canadian documentary Generation Baby Buster is Lenore Skenazy, a columnist who made the mistake of trusting her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway by himself, and then made the further mistake of writing about it. The mistake lay in doing these things in an era of overprotective helicopter parenting. Skenazy was pilloried far and wide, and in response she has become an advocate for “free-range” parenting. Her point is that it’s actually safer for kids now than it was in the days when parents let their kids run off by themselves; the difference is that the media hammers on the perceived dangers without any perspective or rationality.

Skenazy is one of the featured interviewees in Generation Baby Buster, among several others (mostly women) who talk to filmmaker Terra Renton about why many women hesitate to have kids today. We hear a few possible explanations, most of which sound plausible. Renton herself isn’t sure she wants kids, and she isn’t sure why she feels that way. Isn’t she supposed to want to be a mom? Isn’t being a mom the highest level of womanhood? Aren’t kids the best thing that could happen to a woman? Well … not necessarily every woman.

The movie is fairly apolitical, and it doesn’t really fall on the anti-kids side. Mainly it speaks for choice, and notes that much of the pressure on young women to have kids, and then to be the “correct” kind of mother — selfless, anxiously protective, living solely for the kids — comes from other women. A woman who chooses to be child-free is often judged as selfish; child-free men generally aren’t subjected to the same judgment. But even when women become mothers, they are supposed to be endlessly happy and grateful for it, unlike mothers of past generations who felt free to grouse about their kids to their friends. These days, a mother admitting her annoyances to other mothers might be frowned on.

Renton keeps the movie active and engaging, with quick-fade editing, a bit of animation, and brief silent dramatizations. The many toddlers are filmed even-handedly: some are cute and funny, some are loud and gross. The experts who have written the books we see on Renton’s shelf are mostly older people who remember when things seemed simpler for parents. The consensus seems to be that well-meaning (and largely upper-middle-class) parents in the Western world have complicated parenting needlessly. I think Lenore Skenazy nails it when she blames the “if it bleeds, it leads” nature of what passes for journalism now. The news has been reduced to a klaxon of DANGER! DANGER! that deafens everyone and keeps parents and kids alike in a constant state of fear.

Into this culture of smothering paranoia come women like Renton, wondering if she would make a good mother, or if she even wants to be a mother. Simply to ask these questions in the current climate is itself heroic. Renton doesn’t say nobody should have kids. If you want them, have them, and have fun. What she does say, eloquently, is that asking those questions, and acting accordingly, should be viewed as equally valid as having kids. The unspoken question, though, is this: If motherhood is such an important and beautiful thing, why do so many mothers allow this free-floating societal anxiety to rob the experience of its importance and beauty, leaving only stress and a sense of futility?

Eat with Me

Posted May 25, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, drama

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Eat with Me began life as a short film (2003’s Fresh Like Strawberries), and maybe it should’ve stayed one. The story really doesn’t gain from being expanded to feature length. Emma (Sharon Omi), on the outs with her husband, moves in with her gay son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who owns a failing Chinese restaurant. Mother and son have never properly talked about his sexuality. A lot of stuff happens that feels like padding. Elliot gets a Brit boyfriend, Ian (Aidan Bristow), who’s in a band. Emma hangs out with Elliot’s extroverted neighbor Maureen (Nicole Sullivan) and gets high on ecstasy by mistake.

This is a personal, somewhat autobiographical film for its writer-director David Au, who doesn’t run a restaurant but whose parents did have some of the same troubles Elliot’s parents do. It’s a shame that Au doesn’t pull anything especially compelling out of his experiences. Like many other indie filmmakers, Au makes his living by editing, and some of Eat with Me feels a bit over-edited — not in terms of speed but cross-cutting. An early sequence goes back and forth between Elliot’s tryst with a friend-with-benefits and Emma in Elliot’s apartment finding his beefcake magazines. All this accomplishes is derailing any erotic rhythm (this is a fairly chaste movie, fading to tasteful black when things start heating up).

Sharon Omi and Teddy Chen Culver also starred in the earlier short film, and they acquit themselves calmly and well (except when Emma freaks out on ecstasy). The expanded cast, including a pregnant server whose condition affects the plot not at all, tends to distract from what should be the central conflict — the confused Emma dealing with Elliot’s sexuality, and Elliot dealing with his parents’ estrangement. Maureen, the next-door neighbor, is too baldly conceived as The Wacky, Life-Affirming Neighbor, and comedic actress Nicole Sullivan often goes too big in close-ups or makes weird noises. The effect is that Maureen seems to be trying to monopolize everyone’s attention, including ours.

Eat with Me was shot, unaccountably, in a very wide format, which seems too overbearing for such a tiny movie. Au doesn’t use the wide frame terribly artfully, and the color scheme is drab more often than not. Towards the finish, for no apparent reason other than that the filmmakers could get him, George Takei shows up as himself, counseling Emma on gay matters, because presumably he’s the expert on being gay and Asian-American. Takei brings some theatrical brio to his few minutes, but the marketing is pimping the poor man as though he were a supporting player throughout. For full metal Takei, I refer you to the mild but affable documentary To Be Takei. For a great Asian foodie movie that deals with identity and family, I recommend Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, which David Au cites as his favorite film. At least he has good taste in movies.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted May 16, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction, sequel

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And so we return, after a full three decades, to the post-apocalypse as rendered by George Miller. Same as it ever was: Miller’s beloved original Mad Max trilogy, fronted by Mel Gibson, was a frenetic hell of sand and blood and lawless freakazoids, and the tradition continues in Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson’s Max, one felt, was mad in both popular senses of the term, angry and insane. The rather more soulful Tom Hardy, inheriting the role, conveys only the insanity. Someone else holds the anger this time. There it is, right in the title, evoking “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.” Even the heroine is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This Mad Max is about female rage in the face of warlike male dominion.

I don’t think Miller sat down intending to craft an action-flick SCUM Manifesto; he probably considered it a cracking good yarn, which it is, one that deviates from what he’s done with Max before, which it does. The plot is simplicity itself: Furiosa rescues five young women from the grandiloquent warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They had been kept for breeding purposes, and one of them bears Joe’s child; now they are on the move in Furiosa’s massive war rig. Joe’s minions, a pack of powdered baldies called the War Boys, take off after them, and one of the Boys, the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is hooked up to Max, feeding off his blood. Joe and his people — his whole way of life — are premised on using people like disposable product. Furiosa is conceived in opposition to that.

Much of the action is real, not sculpted in a computer, and Miller gets a properly caffeinated vibe going by speeding up the frame rate — some of the motions look jerky, impatient. Where the pacing is more jagged, the images, courtesy of veteran cinematographer John Seale, are rich and bronzed and fierce — the hues pop, the compositions have rock-solid clarity. Technically, as pure cinema, Fury Road is masterful, unimpeachable. It deals in the lost art of readable, exciting set pieces; the editing is a hell of a lot more “cutty” than it was in Max’s prior outings, but Miller still manages to root everything in plausible physicality.

The movie is getting slightly overpraised for this very reason; by doing what action cinema should be expected to do, it has earned shiny gifts of rhetoric from a grateful nation of movie geeks. Expect fun, excitement, thrills, and surprisingly relevant subtext; ignore most of the hype telling you it’s the sun and the moon. Besides, some of the action is rather obviously computer-enhanced — a dust storm so chaotic, with multiple tornadoes, that we wonder how anyone survives it — and some of it is a bit samey and repetitive, which has been a problem with this series from the beginning; the constant roar of engines becomes almost a lullaby.

The freakiness elevates the film. Maleness is represented mostly by cultish deformity, death’s-head zombies looking like Kurtz’s Montagnard spectres near the end of Apocalypse Now. Femaleness, when not roughly used for reproduction and milk, seeks to get back to an idyllic sisterhood in the greenness of nature. In the middle of this is Max, and the hyper-masculine Mel Gibson wouldn’t have worked as this particular in-between avatar — Tom Hardy, with his full lips and yearning eyes mitigating his punchy features, carries enough femininity to place him naturally opposite Immortan Joe and his despoilers. Hardy is content to hand the movie over to Charlize Theron, who gives a no-nonsense performance eloquent in its silences. Talk is bad in these movies, as if language were as scarce as water and petrol, and were to be hoarded as violently.


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