Category Archives: GLBT Film

“THEY”— Identity Issues

“They”

Identity Issues

Amos Lassen

Iranian-born director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature, “They” is an artfully made if rather slight study of modern-day identity issues. The film follows a family of three over a weekend where a major decision will impact their lives for the long-run. Fourteen-year-old J (the “they” of the title) is unsure of which gender to choose for the future.

J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) has been taking hormone blockers for some time and now must is decide what sex they (J’s chosen pronoun) will be in the future. With the doctor’s appointment coming up after the weekend, J is joined by their sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), who settle into the house and bring their own set of identity problems about Araz’s status as an immigrant living far away from his homeland.

Initially the film concentrates on J’s placid if somewhat disquieting existence while revealing a few key pieces of information, though not quite enough to sustain a full narrative. Gradually, the focus shifts from J to Lauren and Araz, two artists who are about to tie the knot so that Araz can get papers and stay in the U.S.

Much of the movie’s middle section is a dinner at Araz’s aunt’s house at which relatives and their families argue. Here the film becomes an intimate look at one shy teenager’s gender confusion into a sort of home movie about Iranian-Americans. Our interest in Araz is thus deepened but this but pushes J out of the picture, and we only really return to the film’s principal subject in the closing section when it seems to be a bit too late.

Fehrenbacher brings some emotional depth to the proceedings, although we really want to learn more about what made J who they is (we only get a brief glimpse of parents at one point), or what they hope to be in the future. J is a smart, shy kid who spends a lot of time in the family greenhouse tending to flowers and, at the advice of a friend, keeps a daily chart logging whether they wake up feeling more ‘G’ or ‘B’.

The film is very open and indeterminate in its structure. Whereas most films with a trans character at their center tend to make their experience of gender into the primary focal point of the plot, “They” places J’s self-inquiry into a broader context. Their parents are out of town, and so J’s older sister Lauren and her partner Araz arrive to look after them. Lauren has been away at school, and then worked as an artist, so she and J have some catching up to do, and Araz is a new acquaintance. There are familial relationships to be worked out aside from J’s own questioning of gender.

We get a surprising picture of a neighborhood, and by extension a world where J’s gender fluidity is no big deal. On a ‘G’ day, they go out in a dress. A neighbor compliments them on it; some area boys ask for J’s help with fixing their bike and are worried that J has gotten grease on their dress. As appealing as the world may be, there’s a sense in which it is so pointedly non-judgmental that it feels a bit artificial. Compared with most films about trans or gender-nonconforming characters, this film is a big surprise.

“They” is a solid drama that is sincere and thoughtful. It is gentle and tender, both in execution and examination and an impressive first film. We clearly see that gender is not the single way to define a person. Director Ghazvinizadeh’s meditation of life and humanity is not likely to be easily forgotten.

“YOUNG TORLESS”— At Boarding School

 

Young Torless (“Der junge Törless”)

At Boarding School

Amos Lassen

“Young Torless” takes us back in cinema time to 1966 when it was originally released and I do not know how it is that I missed this film until now.

At a boarding school in the pre-war Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pair of students torture one of their fellow classmates, Basini, who has been caught stealing money from one of the two. The two decide that rather than turn Basini in to the school authorities, they will punish him themselves and proceed to torture, degrade, and humiliate the boy, with ever-increasing sadistic delight. As each day passes, the two boys are able to justify harsher treatment. Torless is a passive member of the group who observes rather than participates and frustrates the tormentors by dryly analyzing their behavior.

The film opens at a railway station in Neudorf in the early 1900s as eight adolescent students arrive to attend military academy there. One of them, Törless, soon starts to notice the callous cruelty of both his peers and his instructors but says nothing about it. One student, Basini, falls into debt to another, Reiting, who makes up a repayment system that requires the debtor’s total obedience while the money is outstanding. Basini resists at first, and steals money to release himself. His crime is suspected, though, and he gives into Reiting’s system, virtually becoming his slave.

Meanwhile, Törless and another student, Beineberg, become fascinated by a local prostitute and go to meet her. Törless, innocent, homesick and quite possibly gay, watches bemusedly as Beineberg caresses her. When they return to the academy Reiting identifies Basini as a thief and the three discuss the punishment to be inflicted on the hapless student.

The following day Reiting whips Basini’s hands and sprays him with boiling water, before the pair slip away to look at pornographic postcards. They are spied leaving the attic, and Beineberg decides to use the threat of expulsion to manipulate and torture Basini. As the tension increases, Törless starts to fear that he himself may be the next victim of the bullies. He is fascinated and appalled by Basini’s inability to defend himself, and when the former invites the bullied boy to a meeting in the attic, Basini assumes it is to have another abusive punishment administered however in the conversation that we hear afterwards, it is heavily implied that Reiting sexually abused Basini.

Basini later begs Törless to defend him, but Törless refuses. Things come to a head when Basini nearly meets death when lynched by a mob of students. Törless, no longer interested in torture, decides he should leave the academy and his teachers and administrators consequently think he is unstable.

The film illustrates the inevitable conflict between the poles of naked, brutal sadism and the dilemma of standing by and remaining silent while cruelty takes place. Each multifaceted character is imbued with passion for evildoing, hypocrisy, bravado, avarice, lust and all deadly sins. Every boy in the school is a potential Nazi work-in-progress. Their youthful handsomeness and arrogance accentuate their hidden agendas with each other and the masks they wear to the outside world when the circumstances warrant. Matthieu Carrière gives a fine performance as an innocent caught behind the barbed wire walls of his own soul and he accepts responsibility for his lack of action against the evildoing around him and learns to question authority when it is almost too late.

Volker Schlöndorff directed and adapted the film a novel by Robert Musil’s 1906 novel. It is a study of sadism and masochism among students and is a parable of fascism and its origins. That sadism makes the film sometimes difficult to watch at times but it is also what makes the film so entrancing.

It is a moody, disaffected piece filled with allegorical significance and social commentary. Most viewers will take away the discomforting symbolic parallels between the sadistic torments inflicted upon poor Basini by the two brutes who apparently dictate the dorm’s social hierarchy, and the similarity atrocities committed on an immeasurably larger scale by Hitler’s soldiers as the Nazis came to power. The savage physical cruelty goes unchecked in the boarding school that serves as a microcosm of the times.

“100 MEN”— Social Change and Sex

“100 Men”

Social Change and Sex

Amos Lassen

“100 Men” charts that revolution that gay men have experienced through a countdown of a few of the men (100) that director Paul Oremland has had sex with over four decades. But this is not a film about sex; it’s a film about social change that is told through the prism of Paul’s journey as he meets up with men he has not seen for years.

When it came to details of each of the men, Oremland was sometimes vague beyond the brief nickname that he had given them at the time like Will The Gypsy , Closet Samoan and so on. When he broke up with his first boyfriend, Oremland set out to see the world

Nevertheless although occasionally light on facts, Oremland’s story from his first boyfriend breaking his heart so bad he ran off to see the world, (well London anyway) and his sexual experiences does mirror how male gay relationships in general have changed over four decades.  As a 19-year desperate to work in the film business Oremland got a job in one of Soho’s seedy sex bookstores with a backroom where all the ‘action’ took place. He was also expected to edit the ‘money shots’ out of porn movies to make them legally watchable, and this time in his life was a big learning curve for such an impressionable young man.

This was the beginning of his own sexual exploits and it was fascinating to see some of the guys that he had been intimate with back then. Many speak fondly about what was a happy time in their youth, although it was funny to hear from a once successful dancer that Oremland was rather fixated on who had no recollection of their encounter at all.

Back then when gay men were just discovering their sexual freedom, monogamy was not a consideration and with the AIDS epidemic everything changed.One of Oremland’s exes, now a priest voiced a very common choice at the time of opting to be celibate.

However Oremland found the love of his life in Wales where he met John.  After a couple of train journeys back and forth, the two moved in together and for a short while at least Oremland stopped adding other men at this point.  Then when they drifted into introducing another person into their bed, and having sex outside of their relationship, Oremland started finding more candidates that would end up on the list

There is really nothing startling or shocking about his story, but there it is intriguing in the way he looks back at his past as a clue to how his life turned out. Like so many other gay men, he is surprised that he survived AIDS. He has had his share of happiness and heartbreak, both of which he speaks about. Oremland is a talented and this is what makes the film fun to watch.

“DISOBEDIENCE”— Repression

 

“Disobedience”

Repression

Amos Lassen

Sebastian Lelio’s “Disobedience” is an adaptation of the Naomi Alderman novel about an Orthodox Jewish community in London and the culturally impossible relationship that arises there. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) has abandoned Orthodoxy, so much so that she’s changed her name and lost contact with her family. Her father is a revered rabbi in London, and he passes away in the first scene of the film thus leading Ronit to have to return not only to pay respects but claim her inheritance. When she arrives, she learns that her best friend from childhood, Esti (Rachel McAdams) has married Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir to her father’s rabbinical position in the community. Esti and Ronit have always had a special relationship, and they rekindle a love that becomes more than just friendship. However, this community, and Esti’s marital status, can never allow it.

Ronit’s father delivered a heartfelt speech about disobedience and about the chance to be free. Later in the day, he collapsed. The rabbi had not seen his daughter for a long time. She has been living a luxurious life in New York, but returned to her London-based house to pay respect to her father whom she still loved. She thought the house would be her inheritance but she learned that the house is owned by Dovid who is married now to her childhood friend, Esti.

Dovid became a son Ronit’s father never had. Set in a strict Jewish neighborhood, the man seems happily married to Esti, whose duty is more like playing the role of a wife, rather than a devoted wife. In the love scene between Esti and David, which reveals the nature of their relationship, there is no passion. With Ronit’s appearance everything changes. Dovid, like everyone in the community rejects Ronit and her lifestyle. They all well aware of Esti’s past as well, but were hoping that her sexual preferences that do not fit into Jewish ideology can be cured after her marriage. This, of course, is proven wrong.

There is an interesting chemistry going on between the two women. Esti gives up the idea to resist Ronit’s charm immediately and Ronit is willing to accept that openness and the love Esti can give her. Through their conversations it was revealed that both women were in love with each other, and since their separation, they never got close to any other women. Through those nuances and revelation, the passion that sparks between them and Dovid’s presence in it becomes a war in a culture where each and everyone tries to fight for what they believe in: love, freedom, and disobedience for anything that rejects pure love in any shape and form.

We are taken into the world of dramatic discussion where at least one open mind can save the day. Weisz and McAdams give subtle beautiful performances many will talk about afterwards. This is a movie that will raise e questions and shows that the search of identity is a problem in every community. “Disobedience” deals with “hard questions about the tension between the life we’re born into and the one we choose for ourselves.”

Quite simply, this is “the story of the many forms love can take, and the way that hard choices between who you are and what you know can stand in the way of its fulfillment.”

“LAST DAYS IN HAVANA”— Struggling to Cope

“Last Days in Havana” (“Últimos días en la Habana”

Struggling to Cope

Amos Lassen

Fernando Perez’s “Last Days in Havana” is the story of two men in their 40s living in a dilapidated building without running water or electricity. Both struggle to scrape by as Miguel (Patricio Wood) takes care of the bedridden Diego (Jorge Martinez) who is struggling with his HIV infection. Only the two of them know that Miguel plans on leaving for the US but when Diego’s condition deteriorates Miguel is trapped and struggles to figure out his future.

Writer and director Fernando Pérez uses documentary filmmaking to give the film its gritty realism and honest detail. He based his screenplay on the true lives of a tenement house thus giving us an intricate cross-section of contemporary Cuba with its generational divides. Through the performances of the actors, we see a society in flux; a society undergoing a tremendous transition (now that Cuba has opened her borders).

Using a hand-held camera in front of Miguel, we see the poverty and life around him. The soundtrack blends the constant, vibrant music with urban noise so well, the audience feels submerged in the tight squalor themselves.

This is a complicated love letter to Cuba. Many characters are too stubborn to admit the shortcoming of the communist project, hence Miguel’s reluctance to reveal his departure to the US. Here is modern-day Cuba that isn’t afraid to face the contradictions. Fernando Pérez  bridges the gap between fact and fiction, documentary and feature and as he does, he delivers a complex portrait of the country.

The news bulletin that Miguel listens to at the beginning of the film goes straight to the heart of the matter and that is that Cuba is no longer what it was, but it doesn’t yet know what it will become. We see two coexisting Havanas: the high-spirited city whose people take joy in the little they have and a capital abandoned to its fate with its once-regal architecture crumbling. 

The two faces of Cuba are represented in the film by our two childhood friends who now in their forties, who we share a flat. Miguel is brooding and perpetually harassed. When he’s not washing dishes at a restaurant, spends his time looking after his friend Diego. He counts down the days and hours until he receives his visa to the United States and this is what gives him comfort. Diego is experiencing a different kind of “last days”: he is confined to his bed and in the final stages of AIDS, clinging tightly to his independence and zest for life in order to cope with his family’s rejection. Diego is trying to squeeze the last drops out of a life that will soon be gone and it has been a life that he has truly loved.. 

We see that the people of modern-day Cuba no longer see any contradiction in begging for money and invoking religion while vilifying anyone suspected of betraying the revolution. Some leave, perhaps to do exactly the same things in a different place, and some are resolved to get out by any means. Others are happy to stay put, including Diego’s niece Yusisledi (Gabriela Ramos), a fearless teenage girl who may be lacking in restraint but has plenty of affection for sale and has already begun carrying it to the next generation within her. It is Yusisledi who one day manages to bring all the members of the “family” together in Diego’s home and it is she who is chosen to occupy this world on the edge of metamorphosis with her indestructible joy of life.

“COUNTRY PEOPLE”— Pride and its Mysteries

 

“Country People”

Pride and Its Mysteries

Amos Lassen

As a film critic, I see a lot of films. As an LGBT film critic I see a lot of silly romances and coming-out stories. Rarely do I see a film, much less a short film that is so stunning I am left without words. That is how it was with David Bobrow’s “Country People”. I have not regained all the words I need to describe it so you will just have to trust me and then find a way to see it.

“Country People” is based on a short story by the late Richard Hall and it is about a writer who decides to change locations and move to a small town after the death of his partner. Once situated, he teaches an LGBT class to a group of very secretive locals who lead him toward larger mysteries dealing with the themes of love, loss and making a difference We, the audience, are kept guessing all through the film and even after it is over. To tell you what we guess about would ruin the experience for you. Let it be enough to say that this is an example of the new cinema that we are finally beginning to enjoy.

We see the struggles of the LGBT community and the challenges that face us as he advance in age and challenges change. More than all once is that we gain a sense of pride from what we have already given in literature and history. We should never forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

“THE POET AND THE BOY”— What Lies Beneath

“THE POET AND THE BOY”

What Lies Beneath

Amos Lassen

A married poet (Yang Ik-june) meets a teenage boy working at a donut shop and helplessly develops feelings for him. Director Kim Yang-hee.

Gives us a gentle look at what lies beneath the surface of long-standing relationships, and how easily gusts of passion or poetry can throw everything off balance.

The poet is in his late thirties lives on the quiet Jeju Island. He’s lucky enough to be able to practice his art while living off of his hardworking wife. He has led an untroubled and uneventful life, and his fuel for inspiration is running out. One day, he meets a handsome young man (Jung Ga-ram) working at the local donut shop. Suddenly, life is no longer the same. Emotional turmoil catches him by surprise and brings to the surface a side he had never known. This revelation triggers his art, allowing him to mature as a writer.

Yang Ik-june, delivers a brilliant performance as the timid poet. The film looks at questions about the meaning of poetry, art, and life. This is a film that will stay with you for a very long time.

“MY DAYS OF MERCY”— A Love Story for Today

“My Days of Mercy”

A Love Story for Today

Amos Lassen

Lucy (Ellen Page) is the daughter of a man on death row who falls in love with a woman (Kate Mara) on the opposing side of her family’s political cause in this film of our times.

Sisters Lucy and Martha Morrow (Amy Seimetz) are regular attendees at state executions across the Midwest, where they demonstrate in favor of abolishing the death penalty. At one such event, Lucy sees Mercy (Kate Mara), also at the Festival in Chappaquiddick), daughter of a police officer whose partner was killed by a man about to receive a lethal injection. Mercy is there to celebrate justice served.

Lucy and Mercy could be bitter enemies, yet they share an undeniable and strong connection. Their relationship grows from hostility to curiosity to intense, physical passion. However, eventually Lucy must confess her reasons for getting involved in the cause: her own father (Elias Koteas) was convicted of murder and now waits on death row to be executed.

What is unique about “My Days of Mercy” is the empathy and respect to all sides of the debate as divisive as the death penalty. By staying attentive to the details of her characters and what they want, director Tali Shalom-Ezer is able to explore intractable differences. She shows us that love indeed can bring us together.

“MY BROTHER’S SHOES”— The Borders of Fantasy and Reality

“My Brother’s Shoes”

The Borders of Fantasy and Reality

Amos Lassen

Adam Reeves’ “My Brother’s Shoes” is a comedy that borders on fantasy and reality. Dallas (Peter Stringfellow) is a successful executive with a beautiful wife (Gretta Sosine) and a lovely home. He has dreams of having a family and leading a rich, conservative life. Austin (Jacob Ellis), his younger gay brother is always in trouble financially and romantically. He has dreams of winning first place in the local drag queen contest and then using the money to start a new life.

Each brother thinks the other “has it so good” and wishes that they could experience what the other one’s life is really like. Then by a strange twist of fate, they switch places. The world around them sees no difference but Dallas and Austin realize that they have been switched and now Austin must handle the office for Dallas as Dallas spends the day getting ready for the upcoming drag contest (with the help of Austin’s sidekick, Jackie).

After the switch when Austin is in Dallas’s bedroom, he faces a serious dilemma. Dallas promised his wife that they would try to make a baby that night. However, Austin is a gay man and the woman in the bed is his sister-in-law. He can’t say that he is not Dallas and there is no way he will sleep with his sister-in-law. How he deals with this situation is very, very funny.

Austin has some great one-liners and there is depth in some of the scenes but by and large this is a film to laugh with. I applaud the film’s originality.

“SUMMERTIME”— Unlikey Relationships

 

“Summertime” (“L’estate addosso”)

Unlikely Relationships

Amos Lassen

A gay couple living in San Francisco takes in two strangers traveling from Italy to start a new life in America, discovering each other and forming the most unlikely of relationships along the way. Directed by Italian director Gabriele Muccino, this is the story of two Italian teenagers who are reluctantly spending a vacation together.

Curly-headed Marco (Brando Pacitto) had delayed his plans for the summer after an accident on his scooter, but when the Insurance Company paid up it gave him enough money to be able to travel. His friend Vulcano was already in California and so told Marco that he could hook him up with some friends of his who would let him crash in their apartment in San Francisco for a few days.  However what he failed to tell Marco was that he had also said the same to Maria (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), one of their very conservative and uptight school mates who he really did not like.

Now with Maria in tow he landed in S.F. to discover that their hosts Matt (Taylor Frey) and Paul (Joseph Haro) are actually a gay couple which brought out all Maria’s homophobia which she barely tried to suppress.  By the 2nd day, however, Maria relaxed a little, mainly because she was starting to get ‘a thing’ for Matt especially after she discovered that he was actually bi-sexual. In fact the recounting of the story of how he and Paul got together was definitely one of the more dramatic highlights of this story.

The few days that Marco and Maria were meant to stay in San Francisco became weeks as the four of them bonded, although not exactly in the way that the two Italians would have liked.  Maria by now had a serious crush on Matt and although she had now warmed to Marco, she would not allow him to act on his feelings for her.

This story of coming out, both gay and straight, of course, has an air of expectancy of things that will never happen. Muccino includes several false leads in this otherwise entertaining tale to give the impression of a layer of complexity. It is always pretty obvious how this all is going to end up. 

The four young leads are filled with talent Frey as the once sexually confused Matt leads the pack and we see that he is very happy with the hand that life has dealt him.