Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Straight Up


Writer/director James Sweeney

STRAIGHT UP                      B+                                                                                                   USA  (95 mi)  2019  d:  James Sweeney

I don’t want children.  There’s a quote about how homosexuality is God’s way of ensuring the surely gifted aren’t burdened with children.  I’m gonna take that to the bank.                                —James Sweeney, undated interview, James Sweeney : Issue Magazine 

Very few filmmakers have this much success this early with their first feature film, striking a deal with Strand Releasing, even preserving his conventional 4:3 aspect ratio (suggesting the lead couple are trapped in a box), which had given other prospective suiters fits, offering a hilarious look at a stereotypical gay boy meeting a straight lonely girl, both young and in their 20’s, where love develops out of deep friendship instead of sexual attraction, with each wondering if this can provide sufficient relationship fulfillment.  Sweeney himself, an assistant to Duke Johnson on the film Anomalisa (2015), is an Asian-American who grew up in Alaska without LGBTQ friends before moving to Los Angeles, supposedly hitting the motherlode, but having difficulty fitting in, bemoaning the fact that “most significant gay leading roles in film history have been portrayed by straight actors.”  So it’s rather remarkable that he writes, directs, produces, and stars in this over-the-top screwball comedy set in Los Angeles that reinvents the suave sophistication of 1930’s films starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, where the frenetic pace of the dialogue is mind-blowingly brisk, described as the director’s “inner Socratic dialogue,” challenging viewers to keep up with such a hyper-articulated script that continuously namedrops cultural references, Straight Up - Official US Trailer HD YouTube (2:03).  Sweeney stars as Todd, overtly gay and usually the smartest guy in the room, yet his obsessive-compulsive insecurities about bodily fluids and the negativity associated with being gay make him want to re-evaluate his gender identity, as he was coded gay by a hounding, ruthlessly vengeful culture at such an early age he never had a chance to choose for himself, thinking maybe he was forced into it by social conditioning.  Of course, his friends find this a hoot, as he’s the most visibly gay guy in the room wherever he goes, and always has been, where he’s easily accepted within the gay community as one of their own, but he’s never had sex with any of them, other than a brief flirtation with oral, and abhors even the thought of anal sex, which begs the question, maybe he’s not gay after all, perhaps he’s bisexual.  Some of the most clever conversations on this issue take place during his therapy sessions with Dr. Larson (Tracie Thoms), a youngish professional black woman with endless patience who continually reminds him his parents are footing the bill.  She curiously goes along with his delusions of grandeur, so to speak, thinking it will open avenues in his life that are otherwise closed, yet she’s under no illusions about his gender identity, allowing Todd all the exploration he wants, at one point suggesting “You’re willingly barking up the wrong tree.”  Misguided notions are at the heart of romantic comedies, so when he tries to pick up a girl in a bar, bringing her home after a night of endless drinks, he freaks out at the sight of bodily secretions, bringing a quick end to his initial attempt.  There’s a kind of playfulness to the way he expresses himself, as he can be illuminating, self-deprecating, ironic, and sarcastic all in the same sentence.  He’s a plethora of mood changes and a constant delight, where his literacy levels are off the charts, largely because he’s smart enough to speak his mind, even if he feels constricted by the oppressive forces of conformity that surround him, leaving him lonely and unsatisfied, wanting something more.  Enter Rory (Katie Findlay, who describes the film as a “love letter to the in-betweens”), an aspiring actress who does a really good Katharine Hepburn imitation yet can’t land a part or find a decent human connection, having no friends and even loses a waitressing job, while leaving cryptic voicemail phone messages for her mother who happens to live on another continent, thinking perhaps she’s operating on a higher intellectual plane than others and needs to loosen up and not be so exacting.  More drama ensues.   

When they meet in the self-help section of the library, arguably the best written scene of the film, they discover they are mirror images of one another in terms of razer-sharp-wit and hyper-verbosity, both sharing a love for The Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), talking a million miles a minute, each giving the other a run for their money in terms of personal values and a dark, theater-of-the absurd sense of humor, developing a unique friendship, with Rory moving in, quickly becoming the non-gay girlfriend, becoming a modern era throwback to the wisecracking couple of Nick and Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN (1934).  At least initially they’re a stylish young couple, the talk of the town, or at least their small community of friends, none of whom think it will last, claiming it’s a manifestation of Todd’s internalized homophobia, a form of self-hatred over his irrational fear of being gay, just waiting for the other shoe to drop, as none of them believe Todd can be a hetero boyfriend.  All that highly opinionated talk initially takes the place of sex, where surprisingly they nearly agree on everything, like two peas in a pod, each loathing the idea of having children, sharing a belief that this is a healthy lifestyle choice, thinking sex is overrated.  But when they meet Todd’s friends, showing up at a costume party where she’s dressed to the nines in a white formal dress while he’s in a bathrobe and a crutch, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with all the talk turning to Paul Newman’s role as a repressed homosexual, so they didn’t have sex, claiming the 50’s didn’t allow homosexuality to exist, so it was excised from the storyline and replaced by good-looking hunks like Paul Newman or Rock Hudson.  Both seem shocked by this revelation, claiming they just like the movie, yet stories about his past creep in, leaving her more than a little curious about all these accusations that he’s gay, yet she doesn’t want to be subjectively accusatory or define him by gender, allowing him to be who he wants, and clearly he denies being gay, unwilling to be stigmatized by the stereotype, even as all the other men can’t take their hands off him in his robe, playfully touching him in ways that she doesn’t, a position that he seems to adore.  When they meet his parents for dinner, Todd is certain his parents are much more comfortable bringing a girl home, pulling out all the stops, even believing they liked him more, claiming he would have gotten a much colder reception if it was a man, Straight Up Clip YouTube (1:08), which only exacerbates his fears.  More and more, going against her stated goals, Rory feels a need for physical contact, yet each time she initiates any hint of intimacy he pulls away and avoids her, which is like running into a brick wall.  She may have thought abstaining from sex was a perfectly healthy alternative, but it doesn’t end up feeling that way, becoming more and more isolated and emotionally detached, yet Todd notices nothing, following his single-minded pursuit of non-gay happiness at all costs.  So when she mentions something, he’s at a loss, obviously not feeling what she feels, still more than a little wrapped up in himself, yet he’s desperate enough to offer opening up their relationship, thinking that might work.  The twists and turns here, extending how everything plays out reveals the painful difficulty gays and others have in accepting themselves, needing time to find their own way, unwilling to conform to the commonly perceived perceptions about being labeled, as clearly the exploration process questioning one’s identity is a mammoth personal ordeal, where it feels like no one understands you, even your therapist, but also your closest friends and family, where you’re pretty much on your own, formulating your own ideas and personal agenda.  While there may have never been as many support groups as now, still and all, it’s a lonely journey of discovery.        

The pure insanity of the tempo may slow down somewhat, growing insatiatingly irritable at times, where the quality of the writing just can’t possibly keep up, yet this is one of the best-written comic ventures seen in years, endlessly quotable, perfectly capturing a youthful model of success, satirizing the overly complacent comforts of middle class life, pretty much making fun of everything it targets, using an innocuous stream of smoothed over soft rock in the background that serves as mood music.  The couple argues about everything, including whether rape and homosexuality is a choice, but also school shootings, mental health issues, and even AIDS jokes, dissecting the meaning of Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, Alanis Morissette - Ironic (Official 4K Music Video) - YouTube (4:06), while cleverly trying to identify the white elephant in the room, which throws them into an inquisitive search for the originations of that phrase.  During this discussion the thought occurred that she may be a rape survivor, which is never once mentioned, but does explain how words can be used as a defensive self-protective measure.  The talky aspect of the film is impressive, maintaining the energy throughout, as is the deadpan delivery, both lead actors continually in sync, while the eye-popping color scheme also feels inspired, citing Kogonada’s 2017 Top Ten List #5 Columbus as an unexpected influence.  For the most part it ignores racial stereotypes, yet Todd’s Asian father (Randall Park) goes off on a racist tangent denigrating Mexican people, basically reiterating the Trump line of xenophobia.  What’s funny, however, is who it comes from, making it easy for viewers to dislike the father, viewing him as a tragically old-fashioned and unenlightened figure (4th most important in the eyes of his wife), where perspective makes all the difference, as it suggests racism isn’t just spewed by white people.  Despite having a diverse cast, the target of the cultural references are overwhelmingly white, which says something about growing up as a gay Asian kid in America, as the pressure to assimilate is enormous, where identities are interchangeable, and cultural chic or hipness are largely viewed by what’s comfortable for white audiences.  This is a film that aims to please, targeting the mainstream, but also the gay contingency, as few films take us through the various stages of gay denial as expertly as this one, where a Greek chorus of naysayers follows Todd’s every move, twisting and contorting himself into a psychological pretzel just to be labeled asexual, but Rory’s not buying it, where every word on the scrabble board portends a dark and macabre theme, not a good sign, eventually pulling out of the relationship and moving to Seattle, leaving Todd in panic attack mode, as his biggest fear is dying alone with no one at his side.  Rory seems to be settling in Seattle, not really finding happiness, remaining somewhat aloof with her coworkers, missing some of the emotional intensity that came with being with Todd, and happened to dial his number, but quickly hangs up.  What follows is a surreal dreamlike rendition of happiness, with Todd making a grand romantic gesture, like one of those dizzying hallucination sequences from (500) Days of Summer (2009), ridiculously over-the-top, where romance is the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending, where he gives it a shot, like Cupid’s arrow, a remarkable appeal directly to her heart, with some hired amateur help doing a few dance steps on the side that are actually more pathetic than pleasing, but it’s the thought that counts.  She does her best not to give in to the camp quality of the moment, completely caught off-guard, trying to retain her composure while he makes an absolute fool of himself.  There’s an ambiguous aftermath sequence with Todd and Rory playing scrabble together, seemingly happy, but the kicker is another guy sits down and joins them, as if he’s the magic answer to all their problems.  Without insinuating one way or another, it certainly portends hope and positivity, leaving a well-deserved smile as the credits roll.

Friday, April 23, 2021

I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aquí)


Director Fernando Frías de la Parra

I’M NO LONGER HERE (Ya no estoy aquí)           B                                                           Mexico  USA  (112 mi)  2019 ‘Scope  d: Fernando Frías de la Parra

A near documentary exposé of a subculture in the mountains of Monterrey, Mexico that has altogether disappeared, known as the Kolombia, an underground movement from the barrios of Monterrey built around “cumbia rebajada,” a slowed down version of the Colombian cumbia combined with local Cholo culture, following a street gang named “Los Terkos,” a ragtag bunch of friends in baggy clothes and eccentric hairstyles who hang out dancing to cumbia music, a style that originated among the black slaves who once lived in Colombia, mixing indigenous and African-influenced rhythms.  Seven years in the making, using a cast of non-professionals, the film follows 17-year old Ulisés (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), the de facto leader seen in nearly every shot, who keeps recruiting younger members.  Their criminal activity is kept to a minimum, no guns, no real lawbreaking, spending their time hanging out on abandoned half-built rooftops overlooking the mountains and the city, where their own real activity is having parties and dancing to a style of music they like, taking photos of themselves projecting gang signs, then posting them on the Internet.  None of them work, so they live on the fringe of society, and while there are bare outlines of a story, the gritty street elements of social realism dominate the film, getting to places never before seen, as there’s not an ounce of sentimentality in the entire film.  Reminiscent of Juan Andrés Arango Garcia’s Colombian film La Playa DC (2012) which explores a pronounced black culture in Columbia that is historically discriminated against, both films are etched with hyperrealist images, taking place in the poorest neighborhoods, with cinematographer Damián García using stylish compositions to follow them through multiple graffiti-strewn alleyways.  Actually shot in 2011, the film takes place at the height of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, four years after he declared war on the drug cartels, a war that left over 100,000 dead by the end of his term, where smaller, more violent gangs filled the void left behind by the many arrests, where America on the border sits precariously representing the highest consumer of drugs and the highest exporter of guns. There are repeated radio interruptions by the government announcing their latest actions to combat a heavily pronounced narco-drug trafficking trade, implementing nightly curfews that are largely ignored by these kids.  But that pervasive gangster culture is imitated by these kids who have no other role models except the real gangsters in the neighborhood who offer them protection, known as Los Pelones, once run by the deceased older brother of Ulisés.  But they run into trouble with an outside gang known as “Los F,” inadvertently hitting students for money on what is apparently their turf.  During the street commotion following the police arrest of one of the members of “Los F,” Ulisés steals the outlaw’s hand radio, like a walkie-talkie, holding it up like a badge of honor, but reticient to turn it on.  When he does, of course, it leads the gang directly to him, kidnapping him off the street, warned at gunpoint to get out of the life or face the consequences.  Inexplicably, he keeps wearing the radio, barely escaping a horrific drive-by shooting that wipes out the Los Pelones gang.  But one of the badly wounded survivors sees the radio, claiming he set them up, calling him a traitor and cursing his entire family, forcing them all to flee.       

Told in a non-linear fashion, the film makes time jumps backwards and forwards, likely leaving some viewers confused, especially since there’s not much of a storyline.  Viewers are simply immersed into an economic substratum that we rarely see, brought to life by the stunning authenticity of Ulisés, a brave soul who is exiled from his home and smuggled into the U.S. for a hefty price and sent to Queens, New York for his own protection, but has no viable support system there, falling between the cracks, sleeping on the streets, unable to grasp the language, leading a lonely existence.  It’s a heartbreaking tale of a man adrift, where each day is a new obstacle, casting a pale light on the immigration system, as this is ultimately a sad and tragic story.  The opening actually reveals his exit from Monterrey, meeting with his mother on a mountain road overlooking the city, hugging and saying goodbye as he leaves with someone else on his way to his future destination in America.   Cutting back and forth between two time frames, Ulisés is teated like a local celebrity in Mexico, tough, defiant, aloof, yet easy to like, where his bird-like dance movements offer a surreal quality, tapping into the unknown, where we even see a childhood video of his dancing, which is celebrated in his neighborhood.  Few films offer such a stark portrait of restless youth, with no education, no opportunities, and no future, where they were fed to the drug cartels like lambs to the slaughter, as if serving no other purpose.   But trying to make ends meet in a foreign country is another real problem, where he’s on the lower rung of the lower rung, basically going it alone, with no celebrity or status, no caché, where each day resembles the last.  He meets an older Columbian woman working at a bar that he befriends, and while she shows concern, she also distances herself from him, never allowing him to become too close to the point where he starts relying upon her.  The deal is he’s on his own and must fend for himself if he wants to make it in this rat race, never receiving a break, pretty much shunned by all.  He attempts to make money dancing in the subway, but an irate homeless guy kicks him out of what is apparently his spot.  He hooks on with a few day laborers, but they take advantage of him.  He’s befriended by an overly friendly girl working in a Chinese grocery store, Lin (Angelina Chen), who is attracted to his style, but language difficulties prevent them from understanding each other.  But their friendship leads to a rooftop room where he can spend some nights, but they’re on different tracks, where she’s younger and wants to go to parties, while he finds the music at these parties a drag, finding no one he could call a friend, getting bummed out after a while, getting homesick for his own city and his own friends, feeling a million miles away from home.  When he calls his mother, she says they’ll kill him on sight if he comes home, to stay where he is and try to make the best of it. 

Even in the close-knit fabric of his own neighborhood, it’s not like they had it good, but they were happy as kids, having no real responsibilities.  In his absence, many of his members have coalesced to “Los F,” becoming part of the drug trade, while others were routinely killed, part of the daily damage of living through tough times, where his group has all but vanished off the face of the earth, a relic of an earlier culture that he can recall only in memory.  Flashbacks or images of earlier sequences recur with regularity, where he’s pretty much in his element at home, surrounded by like-minded friends.  Nothing like that happens in New York, where’s he’s viewed as an outsider, an illegal with no rights, where no one seems to want to know him.  Lin is enthusiastic about him, but not for who he is, a guy who’s down and out, instead she continually views him as this cool guy she wants him to be, someone she can hang out with at parties, thinking his friendship will win her friends, but their inability to communicate creates a larger problem, as they can’t even talk to each other, and she never senses his desperate straits or gains any insight into his humanity.  Eventually they part ways, leaving him even more isolated, without any money, sleeping on the streets, where each day runs into the next, as it all becomes a blur.  Joining the ranks of the homeless, he’s arrested and deported, finding his way back to his home, but it’s not anything like he imagined, as everything’s changed.  One of his gang members has found Jesus and has become a rapper for Christ, but he may as well be a stranger, as the friend he used to know has vanished into thin air, replaced by this alternate version that he finds all too strange.  The places they used to hang out have been overrun by “Los F,” showing a violent presence, where guns have replaced the former innocence of their neighborhood spirit.  It’s a tougher world, more mean-spirited, where all that he recalls is only a vanished memory, existing in his own head, but the drug cartels have taken center stage and driven out whatever remnants of a neighborhood or community still exist, where he feels just as alienated in his home country.  The isolation and confusion from the brisk pace of life in New York City that ignored him and passed him by have transplanted him from any recollection of his former self, where now even in his own town he is mocked and derided for being or looking different, forced to accept his role as a stranger in a strange land, as either you’re part of the war on drugs or you’re not, as that’s all that seems to matter in terms of political priorities or funding issues, where the country has become a vast wasteland of collateral damage.  This is a film that requires a certain observational acumen, as really not that much happens in terms of a coherent narrative, yet the implications are enormous, where Ulisés, as his name implies, goes on a great adventure only to return home many years later, but in this case his home has been rampaged and destroyed, with nothing left of value that he recognizes or holds dear.