Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) and the “Problem” of Gay Cinema

In honor of Pride Weekend here in Chicago, I took a look over the last few days at some of the movies Netflix categorizes as Gay and Lesbian. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of them featured a straight main character who has an over-the-top gay friend. Sassy Pants, for example, is about a young woman breaking free of her overprotective mother’s neurotic clutches. It is grouped with gay cinema because the protagonist’s father left his family for another man (played by Haley Joel Osmont, a long way from seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense). However, it doesn’t say anything about gay culture except: OMG having a gay bestie to sashay around the mall with is awesome, for realsies!!1!

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Of course there is nothing wrong with a film featuring a gay character surrounded by straight folks. The problem is that so many of those gay characters fall into safe stereotypes. Every cute heroine searching for love needs a gay buddy who gives sassy advice! And how many times have we seen the hero’s runt of a sidekick threatened by a butch lesbian in a seedy bar?

Gay people! They are defined by their sexual preference, and it is pure komedy.

However there are a few jewels in the rough. I have known of Kissing Jessica Stein for several years, but this was my first viewing. To my delight, it is a quirky, intelligent comedy driven by two extraordinary performances– Heather Juergensen as the confident, adventurous Helen and Jennifer Westfeldt (Ira and Abby, Friends with Kids) as the rule abiding, borderline neurotic Jessica.

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Jessica is a copy editor who is unlucky in love, mainly because she detests even the smallest imperfections in her dates. She has only ever dated men, so when she answers a “woman seeking woman” ad (because it quotes her favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke) she doesn’t tell her friends or family. The ad was placed by Helen, who has many male lovers but who wouldn’t mind adding a woman to the mix. The two quickly strike sparks. Helen is certainly the aggressor while Westfeldt gets a lot of laughs from her depiction of Jessica’s wishy-washy approach to a lesbian relationship. She’s like a little kid at a swimming pool: dip one toe in and then yank it back right away.

jessicastein_bedEventually they consummate their relationship, but still all is not well. I was reminded of a letter in Dan Savage’s column in which a straight young man complained that as much as he tried to be receptive to a same-sex relationship in the name of open-mindedness, he could not become sincerely attracted to another man. Savage’s response was simple: you are straight. You can be open-minded all you want, but at the end of the day you are still a straight man. This is also Jessica’s problem. She has a strong connection to Helen, to be sure, but she isn’t a lesbian, not really. In one of the best scenes in the movie, she tries to describe her and Helen’s relationship to a coworker, and while she can easily list all of Helen’s wonderful qualities, she trails off saying “But she’s skinny and she has skinny arms, and it’s just all wrong, wrong, wrong.” She loves Helen, but she can’t love her in the right way.

Kissing Jessica Stein is not a perfect movie. The emotional impact of Jessica’s and Helen’s breakup (which of course must happen) is alleviated way too soon when the next scene shows them happily chatting away about Jessica’s new male love interest. As far as I’m concerned, breakups are hard enough. It must be even harder when you break up because one of you is not engineered to be attracted to the other. It feels unnatural to see the two women as good friends immediately after they stop being lovers. But before that disappointing conclusion, the film features many thoughtful conversations about love, sex and what it means to be straight/gay/bisexual/curious.

jessicastein_coupleAbove all, Kissing Jessica Stein is a worthwhile movie because it showcases characters who are not defined by their sexuality. Yes, Helen is a bisexual woman. She is also a smart, funny and self-confident art gallery owner. Likewise, her gay coworkers are not limp wristed stereotypes but well-spoken, intelligent people who see the difficulties in Helen’s and Jessica’s relationship long before they do. They feel well-rounded enough that another film could be made about their work at the art gallery instead of their sexual preferences, and it would still be interesting. This is what sets this film apart from movies like Chasing Amy.

So a slightly belated Happy Pride Month to everyone out there! May you find love in all the right places with nary a word being said against you.

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The Story is the Thing

bleakhouse_coverAs I work on my upcoming review of 12 Angry Men, I’ve been taking breaks with the 2005 miniseries version of Bleak House, now available on Netflix. I first saw this version a few years ago and enjoyed it. Rewatching it now, I find so much more to admire. Of course the acting is top notch (Gillian Anderson! Carey Mulligan! Anna Maxwell Martin!), and the production values are considerable. But what I find most distinctive about this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ hefty masterpiece is the use of jump cuts to convey a certain mood. We’re looking at a meadow and then BAM! we’ve zeroed in on a carriage carrying Lady Dedlock. This stylistic choice takes a huge novel about a labyrinthine legal case and makes it intimate and modern.

Avid bibliophiles like myself are sometimes guilty of saying about literary adaptations: “It’s good. . . but not as good as the book”– if a book itself is something sacred. It’s not. When someone refers to any kind of art as a sacred thing, they have removed themselves from the art in question. It is no longer something they enjoy and take comfort in. Instead it belongs in a museum.

I’m trying to discipline myself into considering every book and film as itself and nothing more. A film adaptation of a novel–even my favorite novels!– should be judged on its value as a movie. After all, book reading is a private experience. My mental image of Allan Woodcourt is different from everyone else’s. So how can I expect a film to portray exactly my mental experience of a novel?

the hobbit_bookAs I’ve discovered rewatching Bleak House, a film adaptation can in fact update a story and bring it into our modern world. In a different sense, a film can take a story and make it entirely its own. Take for example the most recent adaptation of The Hobbit. I loved the book as a child and liked the film a lot, but they are two different beasts. The book was about a hobbit who had an adventure. The film was about a band of swashbuckling dwarves who happen to have a hobbit in their midst. Of course, the film had its own problems (particularly with the lazy CGI), but in the end I can only judge it on its own merits, not as it relates to the book.

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I know there are a lot of book lovers out there. What do you think? I love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to Bleak House or The Hobbit.)

And now for something (somewhat but not really) different!

So I’ve published a few reviews now. Readership is still pretty low, but that is to be expected. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is that many of the highest grossing films produced today are not films I am interested in seeing.

I started this blog with the idea of reviewing the most popular films in iTunes and Redbox–thereby ensuring somewhat timely material. Additionally I was interested in what kind of audiences iTunes and Redbox are serving, respectively. Thus far it seems that Redbox users prefer action/horror films (Jack Reacher, Texas Chainsaw) and iTunes users choose dramas (Cloud Atlas, Side Effects). I wonder if this distinction falls along class lines– i.e. people who can afford home internet vs those who cannot. But as interesting as these differences are to track, I need to do something more with this blog.

Therefore I’ve decided to introduce a new feature: the Ebert’s Great Movies Odyssey.

rogerebertRoger Ebert, who recently passed away after a long battle with cancer, was one of my heroes. He wrote with wit, charm and compassion, and above all, he loved movies. Sure, he could be harsh (see his review of North), but he was never pretentious. This is a man who was a fan of director Werner Herzog AND Speed 2.

I felt a particular connection with his reviews because, like me, he was raised Catholic in the Midwest. His blog entry on being a Catholic schoolboy remains one of my favorite pieces of writing ever published.In fact, I was in Catholic high school when I started reading his column. I remember flinching at certain reviews, containing as they did ideas that good Catholic teenagers were not supposed to have. But as I read more and more about these movies I had never heard of– indie and foreign films mainly– I began to think more like a worldly adult and less like a sheltered kid.

Over his years of reviewing films, Ebert pulled together a Great Movies list. These are films that are not only good; in some way they defined or changed how movies are made. It’s a wide-ranging list: from Casablanca to Alien, Moolaade to Withnail and I. There are over 300 films on the list.

I intend to watch them all.

This will be my project along with my usual reviews of the current popular films. I don’t know how long it will take. Years, probably. But I am determined to get through them all, not only because it will be a crash course in film history but also to pay honor to the man who made me love films.

I am excited to begin this journey, and I hope that others will be inspired to make their own way through the Great Films list!

Next: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Side Effects (2013)

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Thirty minutes into Stephen Soderbergh’s Side Effects, I texted my sister that she really needed to see this movie. As she is studying to become a therapist, I thought she would find the film’s depiction of the fraught relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies interesting. Plus, there’s always Jude Law and Channing Tatum to look at.

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By the final act, I had reversed my initial judgment.

sideeffects_mara2The first two thirds of Side Effects centers on Emily (Rooney Mara), the young wife of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) who has just been released from prison after serving time for insider trading. We learn that Emily had issues with depression in the past. Mara is effective in communicating Emily’s vulnerability. She seems haunted, like around every corner there is another unhappiness waiting for her. It comes as no surprise when she attempts suicide. She survives but is put under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

From the beginning, Banks seems too polished to be reliable. Jude Law is an attractive man, and here he utilizes those good looks (not to mention his clipped English accent) to paint a portrait of a man whose privileged lifestyle is dependent upon maintaining a good relationship with both his wealthy patients and the pharmaceutical companies. He supplements his income by cooperating in paid research studies. The reps give him the pills; he prescribes them to his patients and later reports back on the results.

At one point during Side Effects, a doctor says, “Patients ask for pills by name now. They hear about them from their friends, see the commercials on TV.” In other words, advertising has created a desire for a particular medication before a need has been diagnosed by a medical professional. And if that medical professional is part of a paid research study with the supplier of that drug, he or she has every reason to prescribe it. How on earth this remains legal, I don’t know.

sideeffects_lawIn Emily’s case, the (fictional) drug is Ablixa. For a while, it seems to work. She begins to take an interest in her life again, and her relationship with her husband is salvaged. Soon however she begins to sleepwalk. Her body moves, yet her mind is asleep. So Banks prescribes another drug, which seems to take care of that problem. Then someone turns up dead.

Of course, Emily is the prime suspect. But if she commits a crime under the influence of a drug her doctor was paid to prescribe for her, is she truly guilty? Ann Dowd (Complicity) as the mother of the victim has a wonderful moment in which she expresses both her grief at the crime and her belief that Emily, if she committed the crime, is not a murderer. I don’t think Dowd will every win an Academy Award–she is not Hollywood enough to gain that kind of recognition–but she is certainly one of the most gifted actors working today and deserves more mainstream attention.

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Up through the crime and its immediate aftermath, Side Effects is fascinating. But then it takes a left turn that completely undermines our understanding of the characters with whom we have spent the last two hours. It was at that moment it lost my attention.

Martin is killed. Emily is committed to a mental institution for his murder. The crime is depicted onscreen; she is shown as stabbing him to death while sleepwalking. The initial verdict is that she did kill him but had no idea what she was doing. Banks continues to treat her even as he comes under fire for prescribing the drug. Then he (and we) learn Emily had a relationship with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking as perfect as ever) while her husband was in jail. The two women plotted to murder Martin and run away together with his money. Siebert taught Emily how to “act” depressed. Emily provided access to financial materials. Banks was involved by coincidence; they had planned to use whatever doctor was on duty during Emily’s fake suicide attempt.

The difficulty with this kind of plot twist is that it is unsubstantiated by the rest of the film. We only meet Sieber once before the big revelation. By the time she shows up again forty minutes after she is introduced, I was wondering why they had hired an A-lister like Zeta-Jones to play a role that could have easily been filled by someone cheaper. While the last minute revelation that Siebert is the bad guy explains that particular casting decision, it doesn’t make the sudden twist any more satisfying.

For comparison, consider the final scene of The Sting (1973). In that film, two hustlers (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) are trying to con the villain (Robert Shaw) out of money he won on a horse race. Over the course of the story, Robert Redford’s character is established as being a young hothead who is desperate for money. So when Redford and Newman get in a dramatic shootout in the final moments of the film over Redford betraying the sting to Shaw, it makes sense in the world of the film. Shaw runs for the hills so as not to be implicated in a double homicide, and all seems lost. Then both “victims” sit up, wipe the fake blood from their lips and smile at each other. The shootout had been the final act of the con.

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This plot twist works because prior events have established that EITHER Redford would turn traitor to keep the money for himself OR the shootout was a fake. Both outcomes are possible, so it is a wonderful surprise when the film seems to take us down one road only to reveal that all is not as it seems. The trick on the audience in The Sting plays by the rules, which is why that movie is held up as a example of great storytelling and Side Effects is not.

sideeffects_patientOn another, more uncomfortable note, the sexual relationship between Siebert and Emily is handled like a schoolboy’s fantasy. I won’t demean same-sex relationships by calling this a lesbian relationship. No, it’s a fetish relationship– two women, doctor and patient, manipulator and manipulatee, whatever. Say it with me, Hollywood: some women happen to be lesbians. In general, they look like everyone else. I won’t say that “sexy” lesbian scenes have to go away (because beautiful people screwing is a mainstay of popular entertainment), but this tendency to depict women as only engaging in same-sex relationships when there aren’t any men around or because they are manipulative bitches certainly needs to vanish.

2 Stars

(I own nothing related to Side Effects or The Sting.)

Texas Chainsaw (2013)

Tits n’ blood. That’s all you need to know about Texas Chainsaw, the newest pseudo-entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise.

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I’m not the biggest fan of slasher films. As a teenager, I was too much of a wimp to take any pleasure in them, and now that I’m older, the genre bores me. I make an exception for John Carpenter’s Halloween, the film which simultaneously created the teen scream genre and set a rarely-reached standard for that which followed. As for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. . . I saw it once. In a bar. On a night when moonshine was on special. You can draw your own conclusions regarding that particular cinematic experience.

In some cases, little (or drunken) knowledge of a franchise’s beginnings operates as a texas_motifdisservice. It is not so with Texas Chainsaw (2013). Witless, blundering and unintentionally hilarious, this is the film you want if you are already several beers into your Saturday night and have no intention of stopping anytime soon. There is a special place in the cinematic universe for a film which uses the extreme close-up of a woman’s ass in cutoffs as a motif. That place is well-stocked with liquor.

I could summarize the plot, but does it really matter? Suffice to say that a member of the murderous Sawyer clan was adopted as an infant and eventually learns of her heritage. The female characters are short on clothing; the menfolk are short on brainpower. However I was pleased to note that neither female lead is punished by her willingness to have sex. Also, the male characters lost their shirts long before their lady counterparts. Progress? I’d like to think so.

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The bigger question at stake is: when did slasher flicks stop even trying to be scary? There isn’t a single moment in Texas Chainsaw (2013) which caused me to jump in my seat. My thought is that the filmmakers have ceased even trying to market to teenagers, who might be counted upon to watch this film sober. Instead, it’s all for drunk college students who have no interest in being frightened.

Texas Chainsaw. It’s there.

2 Stars

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(I own nothing related to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise.)

Next: Side Effects

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

If I had to pick one word to describe Silver Linings Playbook it would be KIND. Modern movie audiences have become accustomed to movie characters treating each other poorly. Granted without conflict there is no plot, but when a film comes along featuring people who are actively striving to overcome their own demons and behave considerately towards their fellow human beings, we should take notice.

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Silver Linings Playbook is the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just been released from a mental institution after he beat his wife’s lover to a pulp, and a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Much has been made of Lawrence’s portrayal of Tiffany and her subsequent Oscar win (and her fumble on the way up the podium). Frankly there is not much else I can add. Suffice to say this: she is very good, and her real life charm conveys itself onscreen. Bradley Cooper holds his own against her, conveying both his character’s unbalanced ferocity and his genuine desire for forgiveness.

Director David O. Russell takes a dancer’s approach to the story. Characters move on- and off-screen with fluid motions. This is appropriate, given that Pat’s and Tiffany’s silver_couplerelationships centers on a dance competition: He will dance with her in exchange for her services as a liaison between Pat and his estranged wife, and if you can’t see where this plotline is going then you have never seen a romantic comedy. The delight in Silver Linings Playbook lies in watching these two injured souls find hope in one another. The stakes are higher than your average romance. They are not playing just to get one another in bed. Their relationship rests on its potential to bring them both out of the dark places in which they are currently trapped.

While watching the movie, I was reminded of Moonstruck (1987). In that film, Cher and Nicholas Cage fall in love in the middle of family turmoil. Their relatives weren’t simply cardboard cutouts placed in the movie to catalyze the plot or let the audience in on the back stories of our leads. Instead they are presented as fully fleshed out characters with their own problems.

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Silver Linings Playbook also places Pat and Tiffany in a familial social circle, and with actors like Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver you know the family members are going to be an important part of the plot. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Pat’s brother Jake (Shea Whigham) finds himself reeling off a list of his accomplishments as opposed to Pat’s difficulties. The sweat on his brow makes it clear that he has caught himself in a social blunder. Haven’t we all had that moment when we say something wrong and then make it much, much worse by continuing to speak? Pat’s response is perfect in its brevity.

Movies like Moonstruck and Silver Linings Playbook remind us that when you fall in love with someone, you don’t just take them on; you take on everyone close to them. Fortunately in the case of Silver Linings Playbook the result is an end sequence which brims over with love and acceptance. By the final shot, after you have traveled with Pat, Tiffany and their families through the woods on their way to a happy ending, you are genuinely delighted for them. They have each suffered in isolation, and in the end they find the greatest happiness in the people they love. Significantly the film doesn’t promise that their problems are over, but it does offer hope for their future. What better ending can anyone ask for?

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5/5 stars

Did you see Silver Linings Playbook? What did you think? I would love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to Silver Linings Playbook or Moonstruck.)

Next up: Texas Chainsaw

Cloud Atlas (2012)

It’s funny how the beginning of this blog worked out. The first film I reviewed was Jack Reacher, a movie so boring it drove me to housework. My second is Cloud Atlas, which is many things but certainly not boring. It’s a labyrinth of obscure connections. In the end, I can’t say I actually understood the movie (or even that it is meant to be understood), but I certainly enjoyed trying to figure it out.

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Cloud Atlas consists of several interwoven storylines. A character’s actions resonate not only in his or her own time but also in the past and future. Much of the interconnectivity is established by having the same actor playing different roles across time and space. This is both a strength and a failing. On one hand, seeing Tom Hanks as a corrupt nineteenth-century ship’s doctor and a whistle-blowing modern scientist makes an interesting contrast. But at the same time I found myself distracted by playing “spot the actor” in each timeline. Also, I was unclear how much significance to accord each actor appearance. Sure, the aforementioned bad ship’s doctor/good scientist disparity is interesting, but what of James D’Arcy as the lover of a doomed composer and as a government official far in the future? His make-up in the latter role is so heavy that I didn’t recognize him until the credits, and discovering his dual role did not change my opinion of his characters.

cloud_hanksberryThe star-studded cast is headed by Hanks and Halle Berry; other notables include Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. With a cast this strong and a story so convoluted, it’s hard to pick out any particular performance. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised at Tom Hanks’s ability to take on multiple accents. He is such an American icon that it is sometimes easy to forget that he is also a gifted actor in his own right.

I was in awe of the cosmetic work in this film, particularly in the case of Doona Bae. Bae is a Korean actor, yet here she plays a genetically engineered clone with South Asian features and also a nineteenth-century white woman named Tilda Ewing. There is a ghost of her real race when she appears as Tilda–it is clear that Bae is the actor onscreen–yet she is also a believable white woman. Those who were up in arms about the design team’s use of “yellow face” got it all wrong. It is obvious the only intention of changing the actors’ race was to make them fit within each storyline and film’s overall message. If there ever was an appropriate use of race change onscreen, this is it.

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I understand this is a confusing review. Cloud Atlas is a confusing film. In many ways it is unreviewable. You may not like it, but the sheer ambition of the project makes it impossible to discount. I really can’t even say what the movie is about. Like the recent indie release Upstream Color, it is open for interpretation. One reading is that it is a study of different forms of storytelling. Each timeline represents a specific genre. We have the hero’s journey in the nineteenth century sea voyage, the modern investigative drama in the story of a journalist looking into corrupt business practices in 1970s San Francisco, the Matrix-style sci-fi adventure in futuristic Seoul (Neo-Seoul) and a post-apocalyptic search for a new homeland placed at some point in the distant future. The connection between each timeline demonstrates the similarities at the root of all stories.

That is the English major answer, but there is another. In Cloud Atlas, time is not a straight line. It is an ocean in which all eras exist simultaneously. We are not only affected by those we meet in our lifetime but also by those who existed before and will exist after us. Our actions have a much larger effect than we can ever realize. So we are never truly isolated, and we are all of value.

A powerful message from a very long and confusing movie. I need to watch it again.

4/5 stars

I would love to hear what you think! Please drop me a message!

Next: Silver Linings Playbook

[I own nothing related to this film.]