Tag Archives: gay

Downton Abbey

20 Sep

‘Downton Abbey’: King and queen are coming, and it’s a roiling pain upstairs and downstairs

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A quaint, tight little package that should warm the nostalgic hearts of loyalists of the PBS series that shut down four years ago, “Downton Abbey” is more of an apt TV sendoff than, say, the “Sex and the City” films (and it turns out Michael Engler, the director here, helmed episodes of each). For one thing, the plot is focused on closure rather than future opportunities, and it doesn’t play like an extended episode.

The intrinsic charm of “Downton Abbey,” small or big, has always been its focus on those doing the cooking, tidying and fluffing in the bowels of the grand estate. It’s post-World War I, yet the entitlements of the feudal past remain – if just barely, as the modern world and its complicated economics are crashing in to alter the staid landscape. The earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, the countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are decent manse overlords, as manse overloads go; after taking in the series (I’m a dabbler, I must confess) and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001, also written by Julien Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his effort) you wonder if all such passed-on grand estates are so civil and seamlessly run, with dignity between class barriers.

Sorry, I digress. Most everybody at the Abbey is on fine terms and happy at the onset, except maybe Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who frets about the mounting financial pressures of the infringing modern era and relentless upkeep of the manor. Then a neat but stressful gem gets dropped in their lap: King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire for a visit and will take up digs at the Abbey. “Oh happy days” is the immediate reaction, but faces dim when it’s announced the Abbey’s staff will be replaced top to bottom by the king’s staff, who carry very little respect or empathy for the Granthamers (“I am not a butler, I am the King’s Page of the Backstairs,” one brassy prick retorts) and that is where the heat for the film begins to build and ultimately the tinder gets lit – when the Abbey lot decide they’re not going to take it. It’s good stiff-upper-lip oneupmanship three tiers down, while above, Maggie Smith’s persnickety grand dame Lady Violet has it in for Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), who bestows too much public fondness for her maid.

More harrowing is the ferreting out of a possible assassination attempt and Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the onetime footman promoted to butler, diving into Yorkshire’s gay underground and the absurdly Draconian (and sad) reaction by authorities during a bust. It’s the film’s most biting (and practically lone) barb of social commentary.

Where fans of the series might feel shorted is that there’s too much packed in to too little. Character and conflict are pushed by plot, and screen time feels meted by slivers of the clock and not significance. What’s up there feels like it could go another hour (it’s right at two) or have a Part II. Also, mind you, Engler is no Altman, who with “Short Cuts”(1993), “Nashville” (1975) and “Gosford Park” to prove the point, was a master of the hydra-headed narrative. Engler does a fine enough job, and to be fair “Gosford” was built from the bottom up (in collaboration with Altman actor/writer Bob Balaban), whereas this “Abbey” is a retrofit for the faithful. It’s not grand, but it does do what it does with dignity and grace.

Rafiki

10 May

‘Rafiki’: Kenyan love story is rife with politics, including a true-life oppression of gay culture

 

There’s a lot of stuff to talk about before getting to the cinematic merits of “Rafiki.” The film, about two lovers from opposing political families, is reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the Swahili title translates to something innocuous and good (“friend”); neither are the reason for the film’s notoriety. “Rafiki,” directed by Wanuri Kahiu, was the first film out of Kenya to make the lineup at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – and on the uglier side, was banned in that country, Kahiu’s homeland, which still has (but is debating repealing) colonial-era laws making homosexuality illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

The reason for the film ban wasn’t explicitly those antiquated and oppressive laws, but because it portrayed a same-sex couple in a positive light. “Homosexuality is a reality,” a film board member said regarding the decision, “What we are against is the endeavor to show that as a way of life in Kenya.” Kahiu was asked to alter the ending – but refused and sued. A judge ultimately flipped the decision, writing, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.” 

Beyond the courtroom brouhaha, the film still serves as badge of courage and perseverance for the Kenyan LGBTQ community for residing under such duress. At the heart of Kahiu’s film, which is based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, are two young women with different ideals. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) has plans to go to nursing school, while Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a wide-eyed free spirit blessed with cool, colorful dreads, wants to break out and explore the world. In their first encounter Ziki pooh-poohs Kena’s mundane aspirations and encourages her to raise the bar. It’s love at first witty barb, but if the inherently hostile nature of the social climate doesn’t provide a big enough obstacle, their fathers’ political rivalry jockeying over a council seat threatens their blissful budding even more.

The pair’s palpably felt companionship – the realization of that rare human connection with someone who gets you, thoroughly and intimately – is the heart and soul of the endeavor, and what makes it such a joy. Given the glum setting in “the Slopes,” a term for the seedy outskirts of Kenya’s capital,“Rafiki” would be an entirely different film without this notion of hope. Perhaps it would be as moving (unlikely), but sadly so, as only a reminder of barren prospects and the pointlessness of dreaming. 

It’s a good thing Kahiu didn’t back down on her principles. For Westerners, her portrait affords a look inside a culture and a country we’re not normally exposed to. To all, it’s a potent reminder that such practices of open oppression still exist. And inside that country, it’s most definitely a demand for progress.

Salo or 120 Days of Sodom

23 Oct

A scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom." (Zebra Photofest)

“120 Days of Sodom,” the rapacious weave of sexual excess and debauchery penned by Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s, didn’t receive a commercial publishing until the 20th century, mostly in part because of its perceived depraved pornographic content.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic rendering of de Sade’s carnal excursion gone gonzo some 200 years later has often been called the most reviled film of all time, not just because of its stark, graphic nature, but more so for its aloof dehumanized detachment. Still, much like de Sade, with such infamy credited to his name, Pasolini looms a major cultural icon bridging zeitgeists, ideologies and art forms.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” his final work, remains a hot topic of discussion, most recently rekindled after Criterion Collection’s reissue on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, and is also part of the Harvard Film Archive‘s ongoing “Furious and Furiouser” series about maverick filmmaking outside the studio system in the ’70s. The program, inspired by the anti-Hollywood ire of Sam Peckinpah, includes such eclectic and wide ranging works as Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably” and even “Saturday Night Fever.”

In a historical context, it’s ironic that “Salò” was Pasolini’s film. The film (and de Sade’s underlying work) pulls heavily from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” most notably the “Circle of S—” and “Circle of Blood” chapters that conclude the work. Leading up to those two fine portrayals of fecal feasting and slow homicidal executions (genital burning, sodomy to expiration, scalping and dismemberment) there’s a succession of bacchanal orgies where those subjugated to the whim of the ruling few, must entertain or provide services of sensual pleasuring, and should they balk or fail, the discipline is swift, cruel and even lethal.

Pasolini, a known homosexual and something of a libertine, didn’t live to see his film’s controversial ripple throughout the world (it was banned in many countries upon its initial release in 1975). He was murdered outside Rome, run over (repeatedly) by his own Alfa Romeo driven by a 17-year-old hustler who claimed Pasolini picked him up and made unwanted sexual advances (even with a confession there remains much conjecture as to the nature of events).

Given grim dithyrambs of debasement in “Salò,” the film’s being is ultimately more eerily prophetic than sadistically ironic. The great director Michelangelo Antonioni (“The Passenger” and “L’Avventura”), a contemporary countryman of Pasolini, remarked that the poet-turned-filmmaker, “was the victim of his own characters.”  Continue reading

24 Jul

“He’s so gay” and “My gaydar is going off” are common phrases applied when sussing out a male who prefers males, but what triggers such a reaction? According to a participant in David Thorpe’s smug yet thought-provoking documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?,” the critical tell is all in the way you walk and talk. The latter, as the title implies, is a major concern of Thorpe’s – so much so that the self-described writer/journalist immerses himself in speech therapy.

072315i Do I Sound Gay?Thorpe’s impetus (and the film) comes after a traumatic breakup and subsequent train ride to Fire Island where, taking in all the high, nasally sounds around him, he comes to the realization that he and all of his fellow gay passengers “sound like a bunch of braying ninnies.” The inherent fear: Who will want to be with me if I sound so ridiculous? It’s affirmed by a bunch of buff young lads lazing on a beach who tell Thorpe if they wanted something high-pitched and effeminate, they’d be straight. The point is further hammered home by clips of locker room porn in which gridiron beefcakes pound away at each other issuing directives with the deep-throated machismo of a hetero hump.  Continue reading

Tangerine

20 Jul

“Tangerine” is the kind of film you probably wouldn’t have seen five or 10 years ago. For one, it was shot on an iPhone 5s (several, actually) and stars two transgendered actors. The last mainstream – albeit indie – film to feature a transgendered main was “Transamerica” (2005), in which Felicity Huffman played the cross-gendered protagonist; she was deservingly nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. “Tangerine” was clearly conceived and shot long before the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, but the conjunction of the two points to a fresh ripple in the zeitgeist.

071715i TangerineBeyond the tightly coiled energy of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who plays Sin-Dee, a motormouth streetwalker newly out of jail and anxious to catch up to her cheating beau, what makes “Tangerine” kick is the fantastic editing and scoring by Sean Baker, who also writes, directs and shoots. The combination boasts a kinetic buzz that simultaneously emulates and accents Sin-Dee’s vulnerable rage as she plows through trash-strewn streets and seedy alleys looking for Chester (James Ransone) who, as her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor) puts it, has taken up with “a real bitch, vagina and all, real bitch.” (If the word offends, skip “Tangerine.” because it’s dropped as frequently as the article “the”).

The film begins and ends in a doughnut shop in a gritty section of West Hollywood, but follows three threads: Sin-Dee, collaring the other woman, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) in the middle of a trailer park-esque sex party – a depraved scene down at a level reserved for the likes of (early) John Waters and Harmony Korine; Alexandra, wandering through the burnt-out industrial landscape worried about Sin-Dee and mixing it up with a few johns – she points out to one parsimonious trick that she’s “got a dick too” and is willing to throw down to collect her pay; and Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a married Armenian taxi driver who likes to perform oral on transgendered beings of the night. A meet-up with Chester becomes inevitable.

It also happens to be Christmas Eve, bringing into sharp focus the freedom, hopelessness and loneliness of life on the street. But as the frenetic climax comes, “Tangerine” slips up, losing some of its mojo – where there once hung a stocking stuffed with edginess and unpredictability, something like a JV Judd Apatow effort fills the sock.

No matter. What Baker has cooked up here with verve, can-do, vision and a stellar effort from a cast who feel like they genuinely inhabit the skins of their characters should register as a jewel of wonderment and is most certainly a promise of bigger things to come.

To Be Takei

20 Aug
George Takei's personality carries the documentary To Be Takei

The flick begins as a lazy fandom hagiography of sorts, but it develops into something much more as Takei, taking the narrative reins, delves into his struggles: first, as a young Asian male in America and his perseverance through the injustice he suffered as a Japanese American during the Second World War and later, as a gay man coming out to support Proposition 8 in California.  Continue reading

Blue is the Warmest Color

5 Nov

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’: Tantalizing and très French in its sensual complication

By Tom Meek
November 4, 2013

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s beguiling portrait of passion and betrayal received much ado at Cannes, where it won the top prize and garnered an NC-17 rating as it came ashore here in the states. At three hours in length, the French film, originally and more simply titled “The Life of Adèle,” is just that: the tale of a young woman coming of age and her sexual awakening. The big brouhaha whipped up is over Adèle’s true love being another woman. For the middle third of the film as their relationship blossoms, the girls, one in high school and one in college, have torrid couplings under the noses of their parents. It’s pretty graphic, with lip-to-labia contact, contorted scissoring and deep-tissue rump massages.

110413i Blue Is the Warmest Color

The first of these protracted scenes feels apt and genuine, as it’s fueled by ardor and emotion, but the following ones feel staged and exploitive by comparison. Still, it’s how the two women, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux), meet and their journey that drives the film, not the over-the-top sexcapades. Adèle, fairly popular at school, has a quick, trivial interlude with a male classmate who, after achieving the conquest, becomes cold and aloof. Then, out at a gay club with male friends, Adèle wanders into the abutting lesbian meat-market where she’s instantaneous shark bait. Across the bar, she and the blue-haired Emma (perhaps the impetus for the American title – that and the fact Adèle is almost always wearing a blue dress or like-hued attire) lock eyes repeatedly. The sharks circle closer and take their exploratory nips. That’s when Emma steps in and pulls Adele from a persistent plier, offering a sprig of earnest camaraderie without pander or expectation. But clearly there’s desire.  Continue reading