20 08 2010

Undertow (Contracorriente)

Synopsis: It’s the end of Brokeback Mountain meets Ghost (as Xtra West accurately put it).  A married and soon-to-be father fisherman in a Peruvian town deals with the loss of his lover who comes back as a ghost (and not the creepy, scary kind).

Super awesome things: The fantasy aspect of Undertow is what grabbed and hooked me first.  When Santiago, Miguel’s lover, appears at his house and tells him, “I was in the ocean… the undercurrent got me…” I think it’s safe to say everyone’s attention to the film jumped up significantly.  It’s such a twist in plot — because during the first 20 minutes of the film, it seems to be about Miguel’s secret affair with Santiago and how he’ll deal with his loss when Santiago moves away — but it becomes much, much more than that.  Sure, Santiago dies, but he doesn’t really die: he only is visible to Miguel, and only when Miguel thinks of him or calls out for him.  Miguel believes the only way to get his spirit at rest is to perform a traditional Peruvian funeral, complete with releasing the body into the ocean.  The conflict here develops naturally — the more time he spends with Santiago, the more they fall in love (again), and the harder it is for him to let Santiago go, especially when he does come across his body.  Also in conflict is their whole secret affair, and when rumours start to fly that the mysterious painter (Santiago) has artwork of naked Miguel in his house, Miguel’s life is shattered.  Complete with heart-wrenching performances, particularly from Cristian Mercado who plays Miguel, as well as excellent supporting performances from Tatiana Astengo, Miguel’s wife, and Manolo Cardona as the fisherman’s ghostly lover.

There is stunning cinematography of beaches, waves, and the ocean (of course).  But perhaps most interesting, at least to me, was the fantastic use of music in the film.  I’ve read from various places that the best film music is when you don’t notice, and in Undertow, I barely noticed.  It’s very subtle and has the perfect combination of coming in the right parts and of course fitting exactly with what’s happening on-screen. And the ending, though very sad, was the right ending and fit perfectly.

Not so super awesome things: Though not entirely needed, the film doesn’t explain why Miguel is the only one who can see Santiago, nor if any other spirits are also trapped on the island.  I also really wanted to see if Santiago would show up on the photos they took together!  Gah.  That’s just me being picky though because I don’t have much criticism for this film.  I guess I would’ve liked to really be shown just how much Miguel loves Santiago, even though he tells Tiago that he’s a “man” and that he’s macho, so of course he can’t be gay.  We do get him crying, which is nice but… well, I guess that fits in with his character.  I just debated with myself and lost.  Never mind.

Good for watching: if you want to believe that not all ghosts are evil and scary but super hot and you can have sex with them and no one will see.

Overall:  Very well done, and most likely the best and my favourite film out of this year’s Queer Film Festival.  I really hope writer/director Javier Fuentes-León goes far with this, and judging its good reception at Sundance, I think he just might.

Grade: A

More queer films!

16 08 2010

Today’s been a long day — 3 films!  I better get writing before it all fades from my memory (just like my childhood… sigh).

Off World

Synopsis:  A Filipino-Canadian man journeys back to “Smokey Mountain”, a slum in the Philippines and does… things.

Super awesome stuff:  I thought I was desensitized by poverty but this film proved me wrong.  The crane shot in the beginning, showing just how large and full of garbage Smokey Mountain is was eye-opening, to say the least.  And as Lucky, our protagonist, explains how methane in the garbage is released into the atomosphere, thus explanining the slum’s nickname, children no more than 7 years old play around in the filth, some even working.  It’s these shots that really get to viewers.  Mathieu Guez, the writer and director of this co-produced film (from Canada and the Philippines) seems to have had some sort of budget to use a crane, which I wanted to ask him about after the film since he was in the audience, but unfortunately I had to leave for the next movie.  He also has a natural feel for camera angles and movement of the camera, and we get to feel and experience things as Lucky goes on his quest.

Not so super awesome things:  Because of the absence of any real plot (Lucky seemingly just does things for a while), the film doesn’t seem to be headed for any sort of direction.  In fact, I was wondering while watching the movie, if it would be better if Guez had made a documentary instead of a narrative feature.  There’s nothing about Lucky that I personally connected to, as well as any of the other characters.  Before the film began, Guez stated that it was a very personal film for him, and it definitely seems so.  Scenes like Lucky high on… something and him dancing wildly for a few minutes or him walking around disillusioned by the poverty come across as personal experiences.  However, making a film about personal experiences has its downfalls, like having no plot or lack of an antagonist.  Maybe VFS has drilled the concept of story too hard in my brain but I want to see a good story and unfortunately, I didn’t see one in this film.  Also, strangely enough, I felt very void of emotion while watching this.  I think it has to do with not being able to connect to the characters, and if I don’t connect with them, I don’t care if good or bad things happen to them.

Good for watching:  if you feel like looking at some pretty images (yet ugly, because of the slums) of the Philippines but don’t care about characters.  Or if you love fade ins and outs.

Overall: Maybe a documentary next time?

Grade:  C-

There was a Q&A after with filmmaker Mathieu Guez after the film and I would’ve loved to stay at least for a few minutes to hear him talk about his experience in making the film, but I had to run off to the next film at the Granville 7 to see…


Synopsis:  A former child star all grown up goes to college in the hopes of having a normal life and meets a hot professor.

Super awesome good things:  First and foremost, I was absolutely impressed by Sarah Stouffer, who plays the main character, Jackie.  She looks like a younger Haley Bennet, but acts miles better!  Her natural beauty, charm, and innocence really got through and considering this is her first acting gig, she seems like a born actress and I really hope she goes far.  It’s a simple story about an affair between a college student and a teacher except in this case it’s two women instead of the typical male fantasy.  The story moves along well, and the character interactions are wonderful to enjoy.  Bloomington is wonderfully acted and very well-made and I particularly liked how it ended.

Not so super awesome things: While I like the taboo of the teacher/student love affair, it all happens a little too quickly and easily for me.  During their second encounter, Jackie and Catherine (the teacher) go to bed?  Already?  We’ve heard from other students that everyone stays away from Ms. Stark but Jackie doesn’t seem to care about that.  I wanted more conflict!  Should Jackie do it or not?  What if they get caught?  What’ll happen to both of them?  I also noted that no one in the film talks about sexual orientation (ie. Are you lesbian?  Have you always known?  the usual questions like that), which is refreshing, but at the same time, it makes me wonder if this is just a fling for Jackie.  The fact that Stouffer looked around 17 bothered me a tiny bit, since she was supposed to be 22, which is a minor thing.  I also would’ve liked to see more of the dynamic between Jackie and her uptight mother; the scenes between them were full of tension and interesting to see how it would all play out.

Good for watching:  for remembering the good old days when you fantasized about sleeping with a teacher.

Overall:  An impressive debut from Fernanda Cardoso featuring a standout performance by Stouffer.  Great job!

Grade:  B+

There was also a Q&A after the film with Cardoso (the writer/director) and Stouffer, which I was able to sit for a few minutes for.  There was funny banter, Cardoso talking about how she had saved up several years’ worth of money to produce and make this film, and the moderator asking Stouffer if she had any similar experience that helped with the film, where the audience giggled with delight and Stouffer wittily answered, “If you’re referring to if I was homeschooled, yes, I was.”

I wish I could’ve stayed for more but I had to run off yet again, back to Tinseltown to watch the final film of the night…

The Butch Factor

Synopsis: A documentary examining what it means to be masculine in the gay world.

Super awesome good things:  Well, the entire subject matter is interesting to me since, as the film points out, there is this neverending conflict amongst the gay community to prove that they’re “men”, which I have issues with.  I like how the film has interviews with seemingly macho men and most of them define being a man as more than just appearance.  It was particularly interesting how director Christopher Hines gets almost everyone on the gay spectrum — from a police officer, to bears, to a stereotypical gay youth, to drag queens — all voicing their opinions on masculinity.

Not so super awesome things:  the narrator’s voice bugged me for some reason.  It made the film seem like a tv special for 20/20 or something.  Furthermore, his narration serves to primarily introduce new interviewees but then altogether disappears halfway through the film, leaving interviews such as one with a transgendered man, without an introduction.  The style of the film also changes midway, focusing less on personal interviews and more on groups in the gay community and how they represent masculinity.  At first I minded this because it was a strange transition and also I was wondering about the interviewees I first watched in the beginning and if they’d be coming up again, but it didn’t bother me too much because I found it absorbing, especially the parts about the history of masculinity.  I also became very aware of the editing (ie. if someone was talking about a certain image or person or something, it would show up briefly on-screen, then back to the interview) which I guess isn’t a good sign. I was also aware they mainly interviewed older, white men (with the exception of one black man).  What about everyone else?

Good for watching:  for those newly coming out or are closeted, who are afraid of labels and whether or not their “masculine” enough.

Overall:  Pretty good.

Grade: B