Saturday, March 31, 2007


Troubled Teens

Love Sick

Kids, eh? Who'd have 'em, with their sulky silences, lack of self control and untamed passions? Two features at LLGFF provide ample evidence of the suffocating grip of infatuation and the lack of a happy-ever-after guarantee. Both from central Europe and both featuring girls in education, Sonja and Love Sick illustrate love is cruel.

Sonja, a Berlin teenager stuck in a tower block with her suspicious mother, is pouty, spotty and infatuated with her best friend, Julia, when not flirting with boys, returns Sonja's intense gazes and affectionate touches. Sadly, they are not quite on the same page, no matter what Sonja's suspicious mother thinks. The film beautifully depicts the intensely close relationships girls can form, with words unnecessary. But, it also shows how these feelings can remain unrequited and heartbreaking.

The Rumanian feature Love Sick is a quite startling piece of work, with a budding lesbian love story set alongside a grimly dysfunctional family drama. Alex moves into her new rented room for her second year at university, reuniting her with her girlfriend Cristina. However, Cristina has some serious co-dependency issues with her brother Sandu, wrecking everyone's hopes of a happy ending. The scene when Cristina and Sandu confront each other across the family dining table, their parents and Alex looking on, is a triumph of black comedy. The film's structure is a bit confusing, with the occasional flashback and voiceover interrupting the story. Curiously, although Alex appears to be the central character, the voiceover is actually by Cristina, making the point of view a bit tenuous. The last five minutes is also a bit of a letdown, descending into melodrama as the two women have their showdown. Still, the film lingers in the memory.

Also viewed:

A documentary from Cuba about a lesbian feminist rap group. And you don't see that every day. While somewhat lacking in style and running on a bit, the two central figures, a lesbian couple, are so charismatic, that you really want to cheer them on. The music's good, too.

The Perfect Ones

Echoing Desperately Seeking Susan in plot, this short from the USA takes a troubled housewife (played by co-director Nao Bustamante) out of her comfortable environs and plants her on the mean streets of the city. Stiletto stuck to her hair, she stumbles into a punk club and emerges as a whip-crackin' mama. Great fun, even if it does feel curiously stuck in the '80s.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Clash of the Poison Dwarves


In her book, A Killer Life, producer Christine Vachon expresses astonishment at learning of "the other Capote film", i.e., Capote, and questioning how it could possibly be as good as her project in development, Infamous. Sadly for Vachon and co., Capote came out first, snaffled the reviews and awards and left precious little for Infamous, following on its heels, to recoup.

A recent viewing of Infamous, with Toby Jones in the Capote role, bears comparison to the earlier Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar. Both deal with a turbulent period in the author's life as he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, his breakthrough work, based on the murders of a family in Kansas. Both films chart his relationship with one of the accused killers, Perry Smith, as he works on the book in Kansas, while his friend Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, acts as moral compass. Sulking in the background, left behind in New York working on his own book, is Capote's boyfriend, Jack Dunphy.

Infamous director Doug McGrath has stated that his film shows more of Capote's charm, along with his fierce ambition for his book. Curiously, I found this lacking in the film, feeling he came across just as manipulative and selfish as in Capote. No doubt he could tell a good anecdote, many of which dot Infamous, as he dazzles his society "swans", as well as the small-town locals in Kansas. But all his anecdotes come back to one thing: himself and how clever he is. Sandra Bullock as Lee spends a lot of time looking at her shoes or smiling indulgently at Capote's hubris. Catherine Keener in Capote was a bit sharper and more knowing in her interpretation.

But, for me, Lee comes through as the most intriguing character in both tellings of the story. Along as research assistant for Capote's trip to Holcomb, Kansas, she provides his "passport to normality", as Capote puts it, making a connection with a schoolgirl to get information. In Infamous, she tells Capote to try to "come in under the radar" to reach the townfolk. It is Lee who first hears the alarm bells ringing as Capote becomes obsessive about his book and uses his growing intimacy with Smith to further his ends, to the extent that he tells her that it would be better for the book if the killers are executed.

Whereas Capote traced an ambiguous relationship between Capote and Smith, in which Capote was clearly infatuated, Infamous is much more explicit in its depiction of a mutual attraction and consummation. In Infamous, Daniel Craig is a much hunkier proposition as Smith than Clifton Collins Jnr. and he broods and storms in equal measure. The physicality he brings is brought to the fore, with Smith roughing up Capote and even threatening to rape him.

Once they do reach an understanding, Infamous has the two pursuing something of a courtship, with Smith sending "friend Truman" intimate letters and even music. The scene in which the two killers go to their executions is climactic in both films, leaving onlookers on-screen and off deeply uncomfortable.

Both films recount the irony that whereas In Cold Blood made Capote as a celebrated author, it ruined him as a person, leaving him unable to finish another full-length work and turning him into a parody of himself, a ubiquitous party guest with the next novel forever in progress. In Infamous, Lee comments ruefully that writers die a little with each new work and the next one is so hard. Their trip to Kansas seems to have robbed both her and Capote of some creative vitality, with neither able to produce "what's next".

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

NPA shorts finale

Filmmakers at NPA Shorts Awards; photo by Val PhoenixNPA SHORTS
Genesis Mile End

After a year-long process of screenings and eliminations, the final eight contenders had their day with a screening and audience award, as well as an industry award.

I detected a theme of moral quandaries among several of the shorts. The one I found most striking was Breaker, directed by Nick Scott and produced by Fiona Brownlie. This film worked well as a story as well as technically. The protagonist, a failing artist, alights upon a can't-miss concept to retain his patron's support and break through to the mainstream: photographing broken windows. But how can he ensure a steady supply of broken windows? By breaking them himself. As a wry comment on artistic licence and morality it works well, but the characters were also intriguing, the moral compass being a neighbour of the artists with whom he trades art: her origami for his photos. Plus, it was shot in black and white, giving it a moody, classic feel.

Sadly, Breaker won neither audience nor jury prize. The latter went to Jez Benstock's Holocaust Tourist, a documentary asking whether such a thing is morally justified. Strangely, Benstock's was the only film with no representation at the event.

The audience award went to Rudolf Buitendach's Rearview, which I found a bit creepy. It was shot in one take and cost £400, which seemed to intrigue many. But I found it a bit gimmicky and the twist at the end did not endear me to it at all.

Family Portrait was quite striking, composed of home movies and pictures over a woman's call to 999 as her husband breaks into the house. I remember the news story on which it was based and it creates real menace.

The other films didn't quite work for me. Wooden Soul featured a girl killing her fish. String seemed gimmicky and pointless. One Hundredth of a Second set up another moral quandary with a photojournalist on location in a war zone faced with a girl in danger. But then it dropped the ball with a London-based setting. This film felt like the opening scenes of a longer film rather than a piece of itself. Indeed, the filmmakers hope to shoot a feature. A Lump in the Road had an intriguing set-up as a daughter tried to jolly her terminally ill mum with a fantasy trip but it didn't really deliver either.

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First Runs

The Illusionist
Freedom Writers

In contrast to the arty, independent fare on offer at the festivals, here are two features doing the rounds. The Illusionist flatters to deceive, promising some sleight of hand and delivering a frankly ludicrous plot twist. Still, it is lovely to look at, bathed in rich earth tones and 19th century Austrian period detail. Edward Norton is a compelling anti-hero, Rufus Sewell a vein-popping villain and Jessica Biel underwritten as the pivot of the love triangle.

Freedom Writers is typical US do-gooder inner-city drama with Hilary Swank the earnest white middle class young teacher trying to make a difference to her racially polarized class in early ‘90s LA. Footage of the 1992 Rodney King riots sets the tone and the new teacher gives the kids journals to detail their extremely violent lives. As these were published in 1998, I was a bit confused about timing.

I perked up when Anne Frank entered the story. No, really. The young diarist becomes an unlikely role model for the troubled war-torn teens, one of them exclaiming, “Anne Frank--she understands my situation.” Well, no, seeing as she died in 1945, it’s unlikely she understands you at all but rather you understand her, my friend.

Nonetheless, the film, despite its laughable emotional manipulation (you know something really dramatic is happening when the music swells or one of the tough gangsta boys sprouts a tear running down his cheek) is rather gripping and even somewhat uplifting. Plus, it’s rare to see prominent female roles in inner-city dramas, with Swank and a couple of the students carrying the story.

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Placard at Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixLondon Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
National Film Theatre

A visit to the new tarted up NFT in the new spruced up (and elided) Southbank proved fruitful as the LLGFF, now in its 21st year, is in full swing.

Among the offerings is Red Doors, a US feature about a dysfunctional (always the most fun) family.

Three sisters and their crisis-ridden father come under the spotlight, though the mother is curiously underwritten. The youngest sister Katie is a divine character, oozing rebel girl sass and attitude. Sadly, this character is not queer but there’s time for her, surely. Why did I not meet girls like this when I was at school? More of her, please. The lesbian sister is a bit of a disappointment, quite drippy actually. And her girlfriend a total Anjelina-alike.

Best exchange:
Father: Katie, you have a penis in your pocket.
Katie (with shrug): It’s not mine.

Also viewed:
Odile is a quirky downbeat French short with minimal dialogue about a lonely boulangerie worker who meets a biker from her past. The set-up was intriguing but sadly it never developed.

I’ve been chastised for not being familiar with the work of Jack Smith and after viewing Flaming Creatures I am mystified by the adulation heaped on him. I found the film deadly dull and pointless in the extreme. A few times something interesting threatened to happen but this quickly dissipated into more pouting queens and women wearing ostentatious hats. Turgid and pretentious is my verdict.

The Canadian short Dames was a treat, a spin on film noir with wise-cracking molls taking centre stage to upstage their male patrons. Great fun.

Boy I Am
Here's a political hot potato as viewed by savvy New Yorkers. The only surprise is it hasn't come out of San Francisco, gender haven to the world.

Anyway, this 73-minute doc looks at the conflict/co-existence of lesbian feminists and FtMs (female to male transsexuals for those not up on the lingo). Nurie, Nicco and Keegan, all 20-something pre-op (at least at the start of the doc) FtMs discuss their lives, their feelings about their bodies and status in the world, counter-balanced by suspicious femme Deb and elder stateswoman and fab old-school butch Carmen Vazquez (looking very good indeed, if I may so, not having seen her in about 12 years).

Which isn't to say the views are polarised. Judith "Jack" Halberstam adds a bit of academic perspective on why butches feel threatened by FtMs seemingly claiming "their space" and how it all boils down to misogyny and historical fear and hatred of women.

All well and good. And I learned a lot, for instance that hormone injections of testosterone are referred to as "T". Not the hot drink but the letter, I assume. Think of the potential misunderstandings. "Later, hon. I'm just going out for some T." "Great. Could you bring me back some Earl Grey." "Uh-h-h....."

The doc spent a lot of time talking about body image, breasts, binding and so forth and even ventured into the operating room as Nicco had his chest surgery to remove his breasts. All three of the main subjects agreed how liberating it felt to have the breasts removed and were happy to pose bare-chested once the surgery was done.

What was a bit surprising was how there was no mention of genital surgery, which one would think would be a major talking point: how did they feel about their genitals? Was surgery preferred? Too expensive? Not an issue, etc.?

Only Nicco made any mention of the subject, saying that he was more bothered about having breasts than having a vagina. To me, it seemed a strange omission. But then, it's refreshing not to have the sexual organs being the focus of one's identity.

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