Sunday, November 25, 2007


(Montreal’s 20th Annual LGBT Film Festival)

A few years back, a short film I directed was screened at the Image+Nation film festival as part of the “Local Heroes” series. It was a fantastic honour and also incredibly surreal. I had been attending the festival for years at that point and I suddenly found myself changing roles from the spectator to the guy standing in front of the screen at the Parisian theatre, introducing the film that was about to run. I knew even then that being a part of this festival meant my film would be seen by a gracious and appreciative audience. Flash forward to a few years later; I have not even been to the festival since CANOEING (my film) screened. The following year, I was already heavily into establishing Black Sheep Reviews and I just couldn’t find time for the festival. So when I went back this year, I experienced a bizarre déjà vu like sensation. It was a Saturday night and I was alone – ordinarily not an exciting combination. It wasn’t long before my apprehension about being the only single guy in the room disappeared entirely though. It was impossible to feel alone when a nearly packed room full of men surrounded me. The best part about it – everyone there was gay (or at the very least, gay-friendly) and there to indulge their love of the cinema. With that strong a commonality filling the room, it no longer even mattered that the movie wasn’t any good.

A gay cinephile is subjected to straight imagery and storyline most of the time they sit down to a movie. So when nothing but gay-themed films are amassed to be screened in succession throughout a queer film festival, the need to see characters that breathe the same air we do is as high as Amy Winehouse in the morning. The danger one runs into in festivals such as these is that, with perhaps limited films to choose from during the selection process, the risk of rushing to a mediocre film is much greater. Only here, even mediocre is better than nothing at all. That said, sub-par is still just that. Enter THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY – the first of three films I caught at this year’s festival and certainly not an encouraging sign of what was to come. Oscar Wilde’s literary classic has been cinematically attempted before but this time it has been modernized as well. Orphan turned millionaire, Dorian (David Gallagher) is in the prime of his life. If it weren’t enough that he was rich, he’s also got a baby face that gets the attention of everyone who sees him. He could have anyone he wants but he makes it very clear that he could never sleep with another man - that is, until he does so later that evening. Gallagher is way out his league here as a classical contemplation on obsession with youth; ironically, he lacks maturity to make his actions believable. Meanwhile, director Duncan Roy also fails as he adapts the tale to expose the current climate within the global gay community where youth is equated with perfection and the unattainable. Relying on unnecessary split screen tricks and flashes of highlighted dialogue spread across the screen to prove his point (I particularly enjoyed the one where the word, “AIDS” was cut in to tell the audience that one character was suffering from the disease as if we couldn’t have known from the horrifically tacky makeup on his face), he lacks the confidence in his own direction to convince us that he believes the lesson he’s teaching. The whole thing spirals into a mess of horrible acting and predictability that begs for an end to come quickly. By the way, it doesn’t come quick enough.

From recontextualizing for modern times to actual progression comes BREAKFAST WITH SCOT (that isn’t a typo),the first gay-themed film to be fully endorsed by the National Hockey League. Director Laurie Lynd presents this Canadian film with as many American cinema conventions as possible. This is a bright, sitcom style picture in the same vein as TRICK or MAMBO ITALIANO. It can be very endearing and it can be very funny (thanks mostly to 12-year-old Noah Bennett as Scot) but it fails when it tries to be more than it is. Scot’s mother has just died and he finds himself placed with his mom’s ex-boyfriend’s brother, Sam (Ben Shenkman) and his lover, Ed (Tom Cavanagh). Ed is in sports news and lives a closeted life so when an effeminate child enters his life unwanted, he takes it upon himself to steer the child in a more masculine direction. I do agree that Scot needed a lesson or two about being aware of how his behavior could incite others to taunt, tease or even hurt him but Ed’s coaching taught the boy shame. As if shame weren’t enough for his future therapist to have to work on, Scot also has a horrible example of love between men to learn from. Ed and Sam are one of the most loveless gay couples I have ever seen in a gay film. They act more like roommates who barely like each other. They rarely look at each other and never consult each other on how to deal with Scot. Ed even goes so far as to call Scot Sam’s problem as it is his brother’s responsibility after all. This is clearly meant to define the relationship between Ed and Scot but it shows Ed as entirely disrespectful of his partner and just all around selfish and despicable. Ultimately, I learned that the only place flame(r)s have in hockey is in Calgary. (Get it? Flamers? Calgary Flames? C’mon … it’s a gay hockey joke!)

The centerpiece film of the festival was French director, André Téchiné’s LES TEMOINS (THE WITNESSES). As a centerpiece, it certainly embodied the space with its depth and honesty. It begins with the birth of many a new thing. A new novel is being written; a new baby is being born; and a new move to Paris is the beginning of the end for Manu (Johan Libéreau). At 20, Manu has come to Paris to start what he believes will be a long and exciting life. He makes friends almost as quickly as he drops his pants for strangers in a park. Amongst these friends are Adrien (Michel Blanc), an older gentleman who is instantly taken by his boyish grin, Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a writer and friend of Adrien’s who is always wearing a different shade of yellow, and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a police officer and Sarah’s husband. Along with Manu’s sister (Julie Depardieu), this group will play witness to the first reported cases of H.I.V and A.I.D.S. but not before they get to enjoy themselves and the simple pleasures life offers them. Téchiné splits his film into three acts. In the first, boat rides are taken, picnics are had and affairs inevitably happen. There are moments of joy and moments of drama, all of which become utterly meaningless by the time the second act commences and A.I.D.S becomes everything. Being new and frightening, the disease drives some into isolation and blurs the lines between fear and feeling, leaving some wanting to reach out, unsure of what might happen if they do. By presenting the onset of A.I.D.S. so directly, Téchiné not only tells the story of those who first witnessed the horrors of the disease but also forces the audience to witness these same horrors in a day when many feel the disease to be no longer a threat. And so he leaves us with an important message - we must turn back to witness again what is still ongoing.

Attending Image+Nation this year was eye opening. Not only was it inspiring to see such high attendance and an exciting schedule but at 20 years old, the festival is just the right age to understand its own identity while remaining open to new cultural movements. Organizers Charlie Boudreau and Katharine Setzer are still in line with what their audience loves after many years and they make sure to present diverse films that are both playful and pensive. (By the way, there are plenty of films for girls and those in between genders as well – I just didn’t catch any for this article.) On a more personal note, the Image+Nation reminded me of a community I once belonged to and showed me that I could go back at any time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Llewelyn Moss: Can’t help but compare yourself to the ol’ timers. Can’t help but wonder how’d they do in these times.

The Coen brothers have been making movies for over 20 years now. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is their twelfth feature together. While they were once considered princely collaborators held at the highest esteem by film enthusiasts the world over, they have recently been the victims of their own identity crisis. Caught between their signature exploration of all things quirky and abnormal found in the parts of America thought to be forgotten and the demanding pressures of delivering bankable Hollywood fare, the Coen’s finished by delivering sub-par work that tarnished their lustrous reputation. The film enthusiasts thought they might have lost great talents to Hollywood while Hollywood wasn’t even sure they wanted them. What were these "aging" filmmakers to do? They could have polished off another Tom Hanks picture and crossed their fingers. They could have appealed to their fans and told another tale of the idiosyncrasies of those living in the middle of nowhere. They could have tried appeasing both parties by attempting THE BIG LEBOWSKI 2. Instead, they did none of these things. No, instead, the Coen brothers crafted a film that is unlike any film they have ever made and is also perhaps the best film they’ve ever made.

Translating Cormac McCarthy’s novel about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted to the screen may be smoothest decision these boys have made for years. Not only does it allow for the brothers to explore the grim sides of characters consumed by money and an unnerving peace derived from killing, but NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN also leaves the door open for an interpretive commentary on the Coen’s career itself. Allow me to explain by painting a picture from the film. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) aims his rifle at an unsuspecting animal grazing alongside the herd. He is right now in charge, in control, the hunter. He fires and misses, thus beginning his steady descent into ruin. He moves toward the spot where his prey once stood only to find the site of a drug deal massacre. Here, he innocently stumbles upon an enormous amount of money. He picks it up and goes without realizing the hell that is about to be brought upon him. He inadvertently becomes the hunted. He spends the remainder of the film calculating and executing different attempts to regain the superior position he once held. The comparisons are subtle and come about naturally rather than existing as the initial basis for the film to grow out of, reinforcing their genuine nature. I could explain my logic behind this analogy but that would be very un-Coen like.

Another consistency throughout the Coen Brothers’ careers is the elevated caliber of talent they attract to their diverse projects. With their writing at top of its game, performances by Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones are pushed to the heights of their potential. Moss is a quiet man, focused and constantly thinking about what his next play will be. He has no time for ego, only function, and though most of his motivation is to avoid drawing attention to himself, Brolin’s interpretation cannot help but capture our notice. For the second time this year (in conjunction with his slimy crooked cop turn in AMERICAN GANGSTER), Brolin reinvigorates his skills by inhabiting Moss fully as an instinctual and reactionary being. While Jones is also impressive as a police officer resigned to following the action without any possibility of curbing the outcome, it is Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh that will leave audiences with a haunting chill after experiencing it. His portrayal of a psychopathic hunter is both disturbing and riveting. This is a man who enjoys torturing his victims mentally by asking them questions meant to expose the inconsistencies in the way they live their lives before ushering them out of this world. He abides by some form of ethical code that only makes sense in his own mind and fully justifies his killings. His adherence to this code is what sends him to an internal state of ecstasy as he chokes a man and stares intently at the ceiling. The hunter is always frightening but Bardem is worse; he’s unsettling.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is entirely disconcerting but is somehow still a tranquil experience. There is a normality amidst the unrest that thrives in the plain, natural manner in which the story unfolds. The chase is constantly surprising without ever seeming forced. Each move made makes perfect sense but is not seen coming. On this level, even their formal execution of this film speaks to the trajectory of their career. Who knew that leaving quirk behind for harrowing humour and a story that serves itself instead of as a platform for character would invigorate the Coen’s method and assert their place as two of the greatest American filmmakers operating in a country thought not to have any place for the them? I like to think they did. In doing so, they have also made a movie for a sharp adult audience in a country bent on catering to all things youthful and disposable.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Written by Nancy Oliver
Directed by Craig Gillespie

Dagmar: Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.

Novice film director, Craig Gillespie, would like you to meet Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling). Lars lives in a small, northern American town where everyone knows each other. Lars works in a dreary office where the most excitement revolves around his cubicle-mate’s missing action figures. He lives next door to his brother and pregnant sister-in-law (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) in what is not so much a place of his own as it is his brother’s garage. He doesn’t like to be touched; in fact, he considers the often-casual act of embracing to be painful, like the feeling your feet get when they’re thawing after a long time in the freezing cold. He lives a solitary life in the safety of his dark, underdone home, watching curiously from his window. If you were to ask him if he was lonely or if he were OK, he would say he was fine and finish the conversation before you could probe any further. Lars is that guy that everyone always knew had problems but no one was willing to put aside their own long enough to help. In LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, Gillespie is more than happy to introduce you to Lars Lindstrom, if only so someone can look at him instead of away from him and see this beautiful human being that has been ignored for far too long.

There is one person in Lars’s life that doesn’t look away. Her name is Bianca. Bianca allows Lars to be himself and loves him for who he is. The only problem with Bianca is that she isn’t real. She arrived at Lars’s door one day in a large wooden box after he ordered her online six weeks earlier. She is made of plastic, has real hair and is anatomically correct. Even though she is designed for sex play, Lars brings her to life for a safe return of love. It is funny at first but it quickly becomes horribly awkward. Suddenly, those that were thought to be closest to Lars realize that they allowed for this to happen by not stepping in earlier. Upon covert psychological analysis (by Patricia Clarkson in a stoic, frank performance that is brutally honest while always sensitive), Lars is diagnosed as having a delusion. Maybe he believes that if people see him with Bianca they will stop judging him for being so pathetically lonely. Maybe it’s as simple as he just wanted someone to talk to. No matter what the reason that led to this mental snap though, Bianca’s arrival is the best thing that could have happened to Lars and to everyone who knows him. Despite the minor inconvenience of her being inanimate, her relationship with Lars brings him back to life.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is bravely independent. Gillespie has taken Nancy Oliver’s script/psychological case study and ensured that we as viewers are never allowed to look away from Lars, no matter how uncomfortable we may be. That said, the film experience itself is certainly not an easy one. Lars is not a clumsy yet endearing kind of awkward. He is a man with real problems and rich history that is unveiled piece by piece throughout the film. Fortunately for the film and the audience, Lars is played by a young actor who is not afraid to explore the dark place Lars calls home (and I’m not talking about the dank garage where he sleeps). Gosling is sincere in his suffering, in his caring and in his instability. Both he and Gillespie never allow for Lars to drift into caricature or ridicule. The earnestness of Gosling’s performance, from his difficulty getting words out to his flinching body language, inspires genuine sympathy from the audience and saves the performance from being the farce it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. It also elevates the film to a compelling study in humanity as the manner in which the townsfolk react to Lars and Bianca says novels about their decency and compassion or lack thereof.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is sure to repel some but is extremely cathartic if you allow for it to work its magic on you. Even “magic” is not the right word as there is nothing magical about this movie. Considering it’s about a relationship between a man and a blowup doll, it is shockingly real. Loneliness is real. Mental anguish is real. Bianca may not be real but the love Lars feels for her is and the experiences that led to this delusion are valid and should not be ignored. Perhaps it isn’t just that Lars needed someone to talk to or someone to have as a standing Saturday night date. Perhaps Lars created Bianca to show himself that he truly deserved love despite it never showing its face to him before. In doing so, maybe he would learn that he already had an abundance of it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Written by Steve Zaillian
Directed by Ridley Scott

Frank Lucas: The loudest one in the room is the weakest one.

That’s some solid advice from an unflappable, businessman/innovator who also happens to house an unshakable tyranny beneath his nondescript black overcoat. The man is Frank Lucas – a North Carolina-born crime boss who sold top quality heroine at discount-store prices to the good people of Harlem in the late 1960’s and ‘70’s. The advice would have been better taken than given as one loud moment, one indulgence in pride and riches, would ultimately lead to his unraveling. Having accepted an innocent gift from his beautiful wife, Lucas arrived at boxing title bout in a pimped-out chinchilla fur coat and matching fedora. All eyes were drawn to the man who dressed with such impeccable flare and had better seats than some of the highest profile gangsters in all of New York City. One of these sets of eyes belonged to Richie Roberts, a Jersey detective who was heading a covert task force determined to make big moves in the war on drugs. Before this, Richie didn’t even know whom he was hunting but now he at least knew where to start looking. That moment is now a pivotal scene in Ridley Scott’s AMERICAN GANGSTER, a juxtaposition of Lucas’s rise and demise offset against the blind pursuit to bring his untouchable operation to its knees.

AMERICAN GANGSTER is (aside from seeming like a blatant attempt on Scott’s part to latch on to some of the residual success from Scorsese’s return to glory with THE DEPARTED) an exploration of the vast field of gray between what is supposed to be the clear black and white ends of the law spectrum. Lucas (a fiercely calculated Denzel Washington) hands out turkeys to his Harlem brethren while getting their children hooked on some of the purest heroine on the streets. Roberts (a disheveled and determined Russell Crowe) refuses to play into the dirty cop stereotype, even going so far as handing close to a million dollars into his superiors, but disrespects his ex-wife and disregards his responsibilities as a father. Still, both see themselves as examples that should be followed because they follow a strict life code built on core American values like integrity and hard work. What neither understands about themselves or each other is that abiding by such a rigid set of guidelines for a successful life touches every facet of your image, from where you live to what you eat for dinner to how you treat your family. Not to mention, while they spend so much time defining themselves as model Americans, they lose their individuality.

Both Washington and Crowe are impressive performers, each boasting past experience that would make them clear choices for the roles they were cast as in AMERICAN GANGSTER. Washington, having done twisted and unpredictably violent in TRAINING DAY, now takes a more stoic approach to evil as he is unflinching even when lighting someone on fire only to shoot them in the head seconds later. (I guess he just needed to be sure his last moments alive were spent in agony.) Crowe, having played the manly cop in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, brings a certain nervous uncertainty to the authority figure icon. Each is capable of carrying a film on his own and, in AMERICAN GANGSTER, they each essentially have to as the two share the screen for what amounts to maybe ten minutes. In what is perhaps Scott’s greatest movie magic trick, he splits the film into two distinct pieces that exist on their own but depend on each other for purpose. While Roberts runs around the city chasing after Lucas, he never knows that it is Lucas he is actually gunning for. At the same time, Lucas never knows Roberts is after him until it is too late.

All that stands between Crowe and Washington now is Ridley Scott. There is no contesting AMERICAN GANGSTER’s ferocity but its dynamism is severely overrated. Good cops and bad cops have been done to death (although none nearly as delicious as the sleazy turn by Josh Brolin as the crooked cop ringmaster) and the same can be said for bad guys who love their mothers. By now, we all know the world is gray but strong performances, a sharp 70’s visual style and companion soundtrack do their best to distract us from seeing that we aren’t really learning anything new. The action moves into the clubs. The threads are slick; the tunes are smooth; the club is definitely swinging but the scene is getting tired.