Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang

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Infamous (2006)


Capote's flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

Capote’s flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Warner Independent) Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Lee Pace, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, John Benjamin Hickey, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Panes, Frank Curcio, Terri Bennett, Marco Perella, Libby Vellari, Terri Zee. Directed by Douglas McGrath

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” but sometimes the truth is the good story. In the hands of a master storyteller, the truth can be the most powerful weapon of all.

Novelist and raconteur Truman Capote (Jones) is the toast of New York. Effeminate, flamboyant and the man everyone wanted at their parties,  he lived and moved effortlessly among the social elite of Manhattan in the 1950s,, counting Babe Paley (Weaver), wife of CBS chairman William and fashion icon Diana Vreeland (Stevenson) among his very best friends and confidantes. It was an endless parade of cocktail parties, power lunches and acclaim for his essays and novels. He was one of the few openly homosexual men able to live pretty much as he chose, with a lover (Hickey) who essentially allowed him to have sex with whomever he chose. He lived at the center of the world and knew it.

One morning a story nearly buried in the newspaper caught his attention; Family of Four Slain in Home. The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas had been brutally murdered, apparently without struggle and without anything taken from the home. The police were baffled and the town was deeply disturbed by so horrible a crime occurring in their midst. On impulse, Capote decides to go to Kansas to cover the murder but moreover its effect on the town. To aid him, he brings his childhood friend Harper Lee (Bullock) whose own novel To Kill a Mockingbird had just been published.

Once he gets there, the outrageous Capote fits in like a clown at a funeral. The dour district attorney Dewey (Daniels) isn’t inclined to grant the diminutive Capote special access and most of the other reporters make him the butt of their jokes. To his chagrin, Capote is mistaken for a woman on more than one occasion. Finally, with the charm of Southern belle Lee, he begins to make some headway among the suspicious Midwesterners, with tales of his dealings with Hollywood celebrities. That’s when the murderers are caught.

At first, they seem an odd pair. Richard Hickock (Pace) is loud and boisterous, young and terribly over his head. Perry Smith (Craig) is taciturn and sullen, almost paranoid. He knows what the future holds for him, and it is not rosy. The only control he has is whether or not he is exploited for the ends of others, and he thinks Capote smells of it. Capote, on the other hand, has astutely seen that the focus of the book has to change; from the effect of the murders on the townspeople, to something completely new and revolutionary; a true crime story told with the tools of a novel. In order to make it work, he needs the co-operation of the accused killers. While Hickock, with the promise of money, is eager to oblige, Smith refuses. Capote tries to woo them with porn and later, with literature. Slowly, grudgingly, Capote gets Smith to soften. Eventually the two are confiding in each other, but with the gallows looming over the two killers, Capote finds himself in an awful position as he writes what will be a classic novel – In Cold Blood.

Jones, who at the time was best known as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter series is truly a revelation here. He doesn’t just portray Capote, he inhabits the role as closely as an actor can. He is utterly believable from the moment he steps on-camera, and while Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have gotten the Oscar for essentially the same part, Jones may have actually delivered the superior performance. It doesn’t hurt that he physically resembles the late author.

Craig plays a decidedly un-Bond-like character. His Perry Smith is prone to fits of rage but is full of genuine remorse. He is the kind of man that can slip a pillow under a frightened boy’s head to make him comfortable, then shoot him in the head with a shotgun at point blank range moments later. Craig brings the role to life, making the notorious convicted killer as human as someone capable of that kind of horror can be. Bullock, who has been doing some of the best acting of her career in recent years (Crash and The Blind Side for example) is again excellent here as the shy, reclusive Lee who is capable of warmth and charm but seems more comfortable in Capote’s shadow, even though she was certainly his equal as a writer. Daniels, Pace, Weaver and Stevenson deliver strong performances in small roles.

The bleakness of small-town Kansas in winter contrasts with the bright sophistication of New York City, and the production design team does an excellent job bringing both locations to life. Director McGrath doesn’t resort to gimmicks to tell his story as recent movies set in this time period often do, but rather prefers to allow the story to tell itself, feeling that the story is sufficient. That’s a wise choice.

The movie had the great misfortune to be released after Capote. It unfortunately suffers from the comparison and while in many ways it’s a better movie, in many ways it isn’t as good – the Hoffman film has a bit more depth to it as Infamous essentially concentrates on a short period in Capote’s life whereas Capote gives us more perspective of who the author was as a person.

The recreation of the murders is a bit intense and there is a sexual encounter between Capote and another man that may be a bit much for the impressionable. Otherwise, you should absolutely see this movie, I say. Yes, some will say it covers the same ground as Capote – and it does – but let’s face it, this takes a far different approach to the subject than Capote did, and Jones’ performance is so authentic that you should see the film just for that. This is one of those hidden gems that got almost no notice during its initial theatrical release, overshadowed by a bigger star and better promotion; I can’t recommend this enough.

WHY RENT THIS: A career-defining performance by Jones. Strong supporting cast. McGrath wisely allows the story to stand on its own.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks context.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a fair amount of foul language, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sigourney Weaver’s first film role was in Annie Hall which also featured the real Truman Capote.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.6M on a $13M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capote
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Into the Grizzly Maze

Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Believe it or not, George Smiley IS smiling!!!!

(2011) Spy Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Arthur Nightingale. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

 

Some spies are meant to be shaken and not stirred. Others are more intellectual, preferring to think their way out of a situation by thoroughly researching. For them, the spy game is as complex and as action-packed as a game of chess.

George Smiley (Oldman) couldn’t have been given a worse surname. He rarely smiles, not even for a moment. He is a methodical man, emotionless. He worked as an analyst for MI6, the British counter-intelligence group that was made famous by James Bond. However, his life is much different than that of the dashing Ian Fleming creation. Smiley works for the Circus (it is unclear whether this is a group within MI6 or the directorate of the agency itself) as the right hand man for Control (Hurt). It is 1973 and the Cold War is in full swing.

A disastrous mission to Hungary leads to a purge in the Circus. Control and Smiley are out, and in are a cadre of four men – Percy Alleline (Jones) – the leader, Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik).  Control suspected one of them of being a double agent for the Soviets and had nicknamed them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man respectively, after a British nursery rhyme. When field agent Rikki Tarr (Hardy) turns up with information about the identity of the mole, minister Oliver Lacon (McBurney) pulls Smiley out of retirement to ferret out the traitor.

Aided by his protégé Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), Smiley attempts to quietly find the mole while keeping clear of the MI6 brass, any one of whom might be the culprit and all the while dealing with the estrangement from his beloved (but promiscuous) wife Ann.

Alfredson was the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This is his first English-language movie and given the cold exteriors of his previous film is the right choice for this one. The England of 1973 is a dreary looking one, with grey washed out skies, filthy buildings, dingy interiors and in general, just a depressing place to be. Truly a Cold War.

Oldman gives a performance that is surprisingly strong. Much of the movie he is spent repressing his emotions and has to show his feelings with his eyes. There is a great deal of sadness inside the spy; sadness at the failure of his marriage, sadness that among his trusted friends is a betrayer, sadness that he is growing into an uncomfortable middle age. There is a scene near the end of the film where Smiley tells Guillam about his one and only encounter with the Soviet spy Karla, who is behind the ole plot. As Smiley tells Guillam the story, you can see the regret; the emotions that have been repressed for so long are just aching to be let out. It’s one of the best single scenes that any actor has performed this year in any movie and it’s worth seeing the film just for that one scene. It’s so good that if Oldman gets a Best Actor nomination I’d be willing to bet that’s the clip that gets shown at the Oscars.

There is a bevy of fine English actors here to support him, including the aging Hurt (who mostly appears in flashback), the combed over McBurney and Hardy, who knows he has done some bad things and wants to do just one thing right. Still, it is Oldman who carries the movie in the palm of his hand – a tough gig when you have Oscar winner Colin Firth in the line-up and Firth is far from disappointing here.

This is a cerebral spy film, one which is more of a chess game than an action thriller. The pace of the movie is going to drive most Bondphiles absolutely batty. There are no car chases, no high tech gadgets and no henchmen. There are no bon mots delivered after the spy beats some thug up without so much as a hair going out of place;

This is spycraft in the real world circa 1973. This is listening devices with operators recording and then writing down the transcripts of the conversation. This is conferences in soundproof rooms. This is tired old men sending down orders to foolish young men. It’s trying to out-think your opponent, knowing that if you guess wrong that your country could wind up a smoking ruin of irradiated ash.

This is a very different kind of spy movie – it’s been made as a television miniseries back in the day with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley and his performance is still considered the definitive one for the role, although I’m sure in the years to come there will be plenty to take up Oldman’s side on the issue.  Alfredson does a great job of re-creating the era and the screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who passed away shortly after finishing the script) and Peter Staughan capture the soul of le Carre’s work. The movie does it justice to a certain extent but I only wish the movie wasn’t so damn glacial. I’m all for thoughtful but a little action is nice too.

REASONS TO GO: Very cerebral. A definite throwback to Cold War-era spy stories. Oldman gives an understated but terrific performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks action and inertia; can be very slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oldman based his performance as Smiley on some of the mannerisms that he observed from author John le Carre, who also has a cameo as a somewhat drunken partygoer at the Christmas party.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100. The reviews are extremely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American

SWINGING SIXTIES LOVERS: Plenty of smoking, drinking and shagging (by inference) – all things that are politically incorrect these days. What once were habits now are vices.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Hall Pass