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A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

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Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth

A Single Man


A Single Man

Elegance, sophistication and despair, 60s-style.

(2009) Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Ginnifer Goodwin, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Jon Kortajarena, Ryan Simpkins, Teddy Sears, Paulette Lamon, Aaron Sanders, Paul Butler, Lee Pace, Adam Shapiro, Jon Hamm (voice). Directed by Tom Ford

We live our lives out for the most part in isolation. It is a horrible fate that we strive to avoid and when we find someone to share our lives with, we feel a certain amount of relief, as if we have finally received our membership card for the human race. However, when that is taken away from us, our careful façade can show cracks as despair and grief set our very souls to crumbling.

That’s where George Falconer (Firth) is. He receives news that his partner of 16 years, Jim (Goode) has perished in a car accident. This being 1962, George’s relationship with Jim is barely acknowledged and when George makes inquiries about the memorial service, he’s told in no uncertain terms that his presence is not welcome. Very civilly, he thanks the caller (Hamm) for the information, hangs up the phone and stares into the abyss.

Eight months later, the grief has far from subsided; it has multiplied, feeding on itself and growing exponentially until George can no longer stand it. He wakes up in pain every morning, and confides that for the first time in his life, he cannot see a future. Without a future, with an intolerable present, George makes plans to end his own life. He meticulously arranges his study so all the important papers will be easily found, and goes about the business of his last day on Earth.

In it, he will lecture his class at a Los Angeles-area college on the works of Aldous Huxley and set up a philosophical discussion about invisible minorities. He will attend a dinner with his old friend and ex-lover Charley (Moore), who yearns for one last go at a man she knows is lost to her, but she herself is lost so that has little meaning. He flirts with a Spanish hustler (Kortajarena) and with a kindly student (Hoult) but in the end he knows there’s a gun waiting for him in his bedside table.

This is the first directing effort by fashion designer Ford, who is credited from rescuing Gucci from bankruptcy and turning it into a billion-dollar brand name. As you would expect from someone with that kind of eye, extreme attention is paid to art direction, the meticulous detail of recreating 1962 is done with great authentic detail from the brand names to the attitudes. The Cuban Missile Crisis is in the background but never  becomes the centerpiece; it is a topic of conversation and colors the film a bit without being the focus. Ford also takes some artistic cues from famed Chinese director Wong Kar-Wei, using colors as emotional triggers in the film.

However, as impressive as Ford is, it is Firth who steals the show here. He was Oscar nominated for his performance here (which he didn’t win but it set the stage for his win earlier this year for The King’s Speech) and it was richly deserved. Firth has made a name for himself for playing uptight British sorts, and so he is here, so tightly wound that it seems at times that one pinprick in the right place will let loose a barrage of screams.

His scene in which he is notified of Jim’s death is reason alone to see the movie; he’s just talking on the telephone, sitting down but you look at his eyes, his demeanor, his body language – while he looks composed, you can see him disintegrating inside. There’s no tears, no dramatic gestures, just the quiet despair of a man who in the space of a few moments has lost everything that has any meaning to him.

Firth shuffles through the film with a grey, lifeless pallor which only heats up in certain instances. One of them is with Charley, the divorcee who in many ways is as lost and desperate as George is. Moore gives her life, not only reading the lines with the caustic cattiness that was perfect for the period and the character but also showing the vulnerability she is careful to keep away from the surface, but so intense is it that it appears without warning and despite her best efforts. Moore was nominated for a Best Supporting Dramatic Actress Golden Globe; she didn’t get an Oscar nomination but I doubt anyone would have complained had she received one.

The Christopher Isherwood novel this is based on is considered a touchstone of gay English language literature and it is indeed ambitious that Ford, who is also gay, would take it on as his first filmed project but in many ways this is a movie that needed to be made and having someone with the visual eye that Ford has made him the right choice for the role, despite his limited experience as a director.

There are those who have skipped this movie because of its gay themes, and to those folks let me say this; you may be uncomfortable with the expression of same-sex love and there is certainly a good deal of that here, but I never found it uncomfortable or intrusive. This is more accurately a portrayal of grief, of a limited ability to express that grief both publically and privately, and the character study of a man deeply wounded but who in the end finds a certain measure of peace. It’s a very good movie and gay or straight, you should make an effort to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing looking film perfectly capturing the period. Firth does an amazing job in the role of George.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s a very slow-moving film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual content, as well as some fairly disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Firth nearly turned the role down and had composed an e-mail to Ford sending his regrets. He was about to send it when he was interrupted by a repairman who was there to fix his refrigerator. While the fridge was being repaired, Firth reconsidered and never sent the e-mail. Firth thanked the “fridge guy” when accepting his BAFTA award for Best Actor for the part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.9M on a $7M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Thor