When it Rains it Pours: Gay Cinema Round-Up

It’s rare that a fan of LGBT cinema has a bounty of options that allows someone such as myself to say “skip this and see that.” Pickings are usually so slim at any given time that gay audiences especially who want to see “their” stories on screen just have to grin and bear it with what’s on offer. Any other time of the year and in any other city than New York I would likely be warning of Kill Your Darlings‘ faults, but recommending it anyway because it’s so rare to see portrayals of gay sex and longing on screen. And even more so with recognisable faces and supporting them is important. However, for whatever reason, distributors with LGBT titles decided that October and November was a perfectly rational time of the year to release all of their product upon audiences at once. Kill Your Darlings now isn’t a noble title for audiences interested in experiencing gay stories on screens, but rather a disappointing effort, its weaknesses only highlighted by the other films on offer.

These distributors apparently have no qualms or worries about cannibalising their audiences by releasing – on my unofficial count – no less than 13 gay-centric films over the course of roughly seven weeks from the end of September to the middle of November. Some of these films are good, even great, several are bad. Some are large-scale for the niche, others minuscule by any measurement. Most have at least something to say and would likely be worthy of your time. Two of the best I have already reviewed – they would be Stacie Passon’s lesbian call girl drama Concussion (how’s that for a log line?), and Jeffrey Schwarz’s impassioned biographical documentary I Am Divine. Here, for the sake of completion, are truncated thoughts on the rest.

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Blue is the Warmest Colour is arguable the most high profile of the recent string of LGBT cinema, which is funny considering it is a three-hour French drama. Somewhat ironic, too, given writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche doesn’t seem particularly interested in homosexuality. Or even women, for that matter. As I wrote in my review for Quickflix, such directorial traits are a shame since he has been gifted with two marvellous actors who give rather brilliant performances. Especially Adèle Exarchopoulos of whom I have been a fan since I first noticed her in Rose Bosch’s WWII drama The Round-Up (for which I have been trying to snag “first!” dibs on her). As far as I am aware nobody else seemed to notice her all that much, and I’m unaware of there being an American release, but I firmly remember her expressive face – those lips! those eyes! – and the power she lent her minimal number of scenes. It’s a power, and expressiveness that he utilises to full effect in Kechiche’s film.

At a press conference following the film’s press screening at the New York Film Festival, Kechiche was asked a very valid question by a fellow film critic, about where he sees his film in the realm of queer cinema to which he gave an elliptical response about having watched Ben-Hur. That certainly seems to typify his stance on homosexual issues given the film doesn’t explore them. Much has been made of the male gaze that Blue wades in, and such arguments are likely unavoidable for any film with such graphic sex scenes between women that have been directed by a man, but it is that very frankness that gives Kechiche’s film so much of its lifeforce. These characters – and by extension, the film – are open books in both the sex and the drama. Without the sex scenes there would be little context for the tumultuous end to the relationship between Adele and Emma. Adele is a young woman who has experienced her first love – at least in the way that many young people equate sex, particularly great, passionate, heated sex, with love – and is unwilling to let it go. B+

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Further proving the lopsided nature of gay filmmaking, only three of the films featured here focus on women. Concussion and Blue is the Warmest Colour are clearly the superior of the two whereas Bruno Barreto’s Reaching for the Moon sadly slumps into a rather dreary box of well-intentioned, but ho-hum prestige. I saw this Elizabeth Bishop biopic all the way back in April at the Tribeca Film Festival and then it played recently at the Paris theatre on the south east corner of Central Park right next to the Plaza Hotel. I include those morsels of informations because they give a hint to the sort of film that Reaching for the Moon actually is. Stately, prim, upward. A film about lesbians that Manhattan women in furs can go and watch. If there was graphic sex in there then I certainly don’t remember. Don’t let that infer that the film shies away from its sexuality like it’s trapped in a closet. No, no, it is open and frank about the romance that Bishop shared with her Brazilian architect lover, Lota de Macedo Soares (portrayed here by Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires respectively), but whereas Blue is the Warmest Colour thrived off of the youthful exuberance of its cast and characters, the mood here is decidedly more reserved.

For some this will be a refreshing change of pace given the acceptance of homosexuality by audiences has in turn meant filmmakers now attempt games of sexual one-upmanship (just wait until Stranger by the Lake is released for Americans in January), but I found the story of these two lovers to be not especially involving and hardly fresh or new. “That’s the oldest story in the book”, some people say when presented with a story that wrings false because it’s so typical. That’s quite the case with Reaching for the Moon. We’ve seen this relationship play out many times before, albeit perhaps not between two women, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worth the time. The screenplay by Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres certainly does it no favours, having its very intellectual characters recite the sort of dialogue that may sound hopelessly romantic on the page, but when spoken sounds kind of trite. The title alone reeks of trying to hard prestige fare. Elizabeth Bishop – and to a lesser extent Soares – is an interesting person and the locale of her story should have lent the film a lush, (yes) poetic beauty, but it lacks an energy to make its tale feel necessary to tell. C

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At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Geography Club, which I wrote about for The Film Experience when I saw it at Newfest in September. In retrospect I was likely too kind to Gary Entin’s film because it was gentle and sweet and wasn’t entirely terrible, unlike the other Newfest title I had seen that day (the dire Who’s Afraid of Vagina Woolf – genuinely one of the worst movies I have ever seen). It’s perhaps not at all surprising that the film has been released predominantly through streaming and VOD since that is its likeliest home for most viewers. A film like this doesn’t get people to spend $14 at the cinema anymore, but is actually a perfect fit for a Friday or Saturday night in with some friends and some drinks. That way audiences can laugh as obnoxiously at the terribly cheesy jokes and can coo at the screen for the two attractive leads (Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley) as madly and as loudly as they like whilst checking their Grindr profiles at the same time. Compared to the likes of the Eating Out or Another Gay Movie franchises, Geography Club is positively glowing. Thankfully it has a fun lively cast and I am not ashamed to admit I openly guffawed several times. B-

I guffawed openly several times at James Franco’s Sal, too. Unfortunately for the prolific multi-hyphenate Franco, it was for presumably reasons he didn’t quite wish for. This is actually a 2011 film, his first as director, that audiences have only just been able to witness for themselves this November. What’s most surprising is that it has gotten a release at all after this length of time. Although, I guess, boutique distributors need to strike while the iron is hot and if your definition of “hot” is based entirely on notoriety and blog inches then, sure, he’s pretty hot right now. What’s even more peculiar about the release of Sal over two years since its Venice premiere is that it reaches cinemas and VOD a mere two weeks before Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust, which won the film festival. They make for curious bedfellows of long-delayed Venice titles from 2011. I wasn’t as keen on Faust as Darren Aronofsky’s jury clearly was, but it is by far the better title of the two and I don’t know why it took so long for that one to get a general release.

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If it feels like I am doing everything in my effort to avoid discussing Sal then you’re right. I am. That’s because it is, quite frank(co)ly, terrible. I’ve had to go back through text messages that I sent to a friend expressing as much as a means of remembering even slight details. The film attempts to show the final day of Sal Mineo’s life. The gay actor was in the throws of a hopeful comeback ten years after his beefed up Who Killed Teddy Bear? fell into camp flop status. Perhaps replicating that film’s famous sleazy gym work-out sequenceSal begins with Sal (Val Lauren who we saw in Franco’s meta-doc Interior. Leather Bar at Newfest) pumping iron for about five minutes. Then it moves on to a lunch meeting, which also goes on for about five minutes. Turns out Sal Mineo’s final day wasn’t particularly interesting.

I assume by filming the movie in either extreme close-up (the aforementioned lunch sequence never cuts from tight shots of the actors’ faces) and other odd angles, Franco was attempting to mask his film’s lack of period detail. He was probably right to do so since there are moments where he pulls away from these shots that feel remarkably modern. Still, that doesn’t make entire stretches of film in close-up any more stylistically interesting. Nor are cameras strapped to the boot of a car and looking inwards as Sal drives through West Hollywood visually arresting enough to warrant five minutes of it. Then there is, of course, the scene where Sal describes in very authentic detail the force and sound of a man’s ejaculation as witnessed by himself after cruising a pot-smoker on the streets of Hollywood. I genuinely laughed, but once again not for reasons that benefit the film in any way. Franco himself pops up late in the film as a stage director in charge of a play that Mineo was to star in and had invited a gaggle of celebrity friends (has anybody confirmed that Cher was planning on going like this film suggests?) Filmed like M Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned cameo in The Village, it’s a nauseatingly filmed sequence that goes on and on and on. It shines little light on Mineo’s life, certainly nothing that fans of his or of queer cinema history don’t already know while scene after scene plays out as if Franco has watched one too many Gus Van Sant movies and figured that’s how you make an Important Movie. Elephant and its ambiguous, repetitious moments of teen emptiness were a likely inspiration. Having seen some of his follow-ups, Franco has certainly improved, but, really, there was nowhere for him to go but up. D-

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For as prolific as Franco has become in the queer landscape, none of his films have yet created quite as big of a fuss amongst gay viewers as Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Of course, if people were actually going out and watching all these other queer (“queer”) films then I doubt as much attention would be put on Vallée’s AIDS drama, but since they’re not and this one stars big Hollywood names, is staring down the barrel of multiple Academy Award nominations, and has the prestige element it has become a lightning rod for vitriol on both sides of the debate. In true agnostic fashion, I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m that person in the Big Brother house who can see both sides of the argument and makes for awfully boring TV.

The story of a heterosexual bigot contracting AIDS and proceeding to “save” the gays with his Dallas Buyer’s Club (an illegal adjacent organisation that sells memberships with drug supplies to HIV sufferers) while attempting to bring down the lucrative drug company’s golden goose, AZT, was also going to be a tough sell to gay filmgoers, especially those who prefer their films to be a bit more pro-active. It has been 20 years since Tom Hanks’ asexual role in Philadelphia after all.

Personally, I’d have preferred it to just be more distinctive. Bolder. Scarier. Uglier. Queerer. I can see why it’s not, though, which is probably more upsetting. I’d have been more willing to forgive some of its more curious politics if it had been more rigid in its structure or just go wildly out on limbs of style and fleets of fancy. I would have appreciated it to be less scattershot with its screenplay that flutters about getting distracted constantly. Visually unremarkable – certainly must less so than some of Vallée’s last film, Cafe de Flore – it’s filmed in such a way that sense of place is almost non-existent. That’s certainly disappointing since the gay underground of 1980s Texas is surely a unique footnote in gay (and AIDS, which we all know wasn’t gay-exclusive) history that I’d be keen to see examined by a director who wasn’t as interested in cutting from one person dying of AIDS to an Ocean’s 11 style international drug caper. That scene, for all of its power on one half, kind of flies in the face of acceptability with the other. The way one character dies suggests “dignity”, when in reality it would have been terribly messy, an adjective that the film actively skirts time and time again. Dallas Buyers Club is so intent on not being ugly that the true story of a man who died of AIDS doesn’t actually even end with him dying of AIDS. Certainly, if the character played by Matthew McConaughey didn’t keep reminding the audience that he and many others had AIDS I may have forgotten since almost everybody in this movie looks remarkably good for a group of people who don’t have the best access to medication. One young character who gets sent away for not having enough money eventually returns months (years?) later with the money and looks as healthy as the day. Just another curious storytelling choice in a film full of curious storytelling choices. I was affected by Dallas Buyers Club, of course. It feels almost impossible not to as a gay man who is thankful to not have had an entire circle of friends decimated by the disease, but as a piece of filmmaking the subject matter cannot carry it all the way. C+

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In the way that Jean-Marc Vallée has told the story, there’s still room to move on the subject. I wouldn’t say no to a documentary on the topic to be perfectly honest, and one that takes us over this story and its wider network of topics from beginning to end. Two rather excellent gay-focused documentaries that have come out recently are Roger Ross Williams’ God Loves Uganda and Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road, the latter of which only came out for the shortest amount of time possible to allow for Academy Award consideration. It did, however, screen on HBO and it’s a subject matter that captivated many.

In fact, both deal with the indoctrination of homophobic beliefs, which makes them ideally paired. Both are impressive in their arcs, but its Williams’ missionaries-in-Africa film that surprises the most. The frankness with which the director’s subjects open up about the intentions and their beliefs is as alarming as the charm they turn on to win over the faith-starved locals. It does, however, leave its finest moment to last as the white bread Americans speak to one lady as she sits on her threaded, dusty rug and she looks up with mortified confusion. I actually wish the film had investigated that angle further given so much of the runtime is taken up by showing the gullible Africans and their domino attitude to western religion. B I anticipate catching up with the thematically similar Call Me Kuchu.

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Valentine Road is very similar. It has its story of horrific homophobia and the barbaric actions in can result in, but this one takes it from an angle much closer to home. The story is tragic and its told with minimal flare. It’s a fascinating story that will likely get tears out of many viewers, but at least they feel justified. It’s an important story, but its scope is kept almost entirely to the issue at hand. TV is probably is best home. B

If they’re not the most imaginatively assembled documentaries, then at least they’re never dull. And they’re certainly never embarrassing like another queer-themed doc, Bridegroom, which I saw at Tribeca and recently screened on OWN. If Valentine Road was ultimately best for TV then Bridegroom is ultimately best for the bin. The story its telling is emotional, sure, but oh dear god this is one of the most amateur films I can recall seeing. Cheap and positively dripping in saccharine nonsense. The music score is treacly, its subjects are nauseating in their sweetness and all speak of the issue at hand like they speaking to children. Furthermore, its central figure is just about the most annoying person you’ll find fronting a documentary. Naturally, he kept video of seemingly everything he ever said and did and its assembled like a high school video presentation. I was laughing when I was meant to be weeping. If I had given money to this production on Kickstarter I would demand my money back. This isn’t a professional production. It’s amateur hour at the LGBT community centre. Dire of the highest order. F

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And because I want to end on a positive, can we discuss two foreign titles that impressed me very much? Out in the Dark is an Israeli film that tells an almost identical story to recent NYFF title Omar, which screened at the New York Film Festival. Out in the Dark follows a “Romeo and Juliet” structure of two people from opposing factions – this time Israel and Palestine – whose relationship takes a dramatic turn for the worst. Israel has actually proven to be a remarkably consistent source of quality modern LGBT cinema, and while I enjoyed this one quite a bit it was the ending that struck me as the most impressive. Ambiguous, but with the limited number of possibilities for these two lovers suggests the worst. B

Perhaps the best of the lot, however, is Malgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name. A rather damning indictment of the not only the lengths “the church” will go to cover up its paedophile members, but also the damning effects that the church organisation’s homophobia can have on its subjects. I liked the way Szumowksa, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michal Englert, constantly playing with expectations by allowing the focus to frequently shift between the various characters that populate the life of Andrzej Chyra’s priest character.

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Chyra, it must be said, is excellent in the lead role. It’s easy to cite his breakdown sequence towards the film’s end as the stand out, and I guess it is, the entire performance is a wonder of subtlety. When paired with another Polish film from this year about tragic gay romance, Floating Skyscrapers, the two make for a fascinating look at the country. Films that may have looked rote and cliched at the start of the year now, in hindsight, look vital and act as powerful statements about the damning and long-lasting effects of society’s homophobia in countries like this. In the Name Of is yet another example of excellent gay cinema that, while perhaps dealing with subject matter that is bleak and that has probably been seen before, still feels necessary. I can only hope that others follow suit and give it, and others, the time of day. B+

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