(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dearest Review: A Foreign Affair

With just a few days to go til the Oscar nominations are announced, Movie Dearest takes a look at some of the finalists for Best Foreign Language Film... and some worthy contenders that didn't make the first cut.

Among the record 92 films submitted for consideration were several with strong LGBTQ themes, most notably France's BPM (Beats Per Minute). A look back at the AIDS activist group ACT UP Paris, the drama is a little dry and overly familiar when it focuses on the inside machinations and infighting of the group (Le coeur normal?), but stick with it for the surprisingly rich love story that unfolds between a jaded HIV+ vet (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and an eager HIV- newcomer (Arnaud Valois). With four wins at Cannes and the FLF prizes from both the Los Angeles and New York Critics, BPM was an expected front runner for not only a nomination but also for the Oscar itself, so it was quite a surprise when it didn't make the Academy's shortlist. (7/10) Available on Amazon Video January 23rd.

There has been a lot of praises showered on the finalist from Chile, A Fantastic Woman, and its leading lady, trans actress Daniela Vega, who plays a trans woman who faces overwhelming grief and despicable prejudice upon the sudden death of her older boyfriend. Frankly, I found the film disappointingly retrograde and not at all revelatory (again, we've seen this all before) and Vega's performance frustratingly bland and one-note; her character constantly makes the wrong decisions and remains emotionally closed off throughout, so it's hard to elicit much empathy for her. One yearns for her to explode at all the injustices that are heaped upon her that, aside from an anticlimactic freak out on top of a car containing the deceased's deplorable family, never really happens. (5/10) In theaters February 2nd.

A finalist that has proved far more polarizing is South Africa's The Wound, which admittedly has a lot of off-putting factors for modern Western audiences, mostly in its setting in a Xhosa initiation ritual (that is, a "rites of manhood" wilderness retreat where the young men undergo ritual circumcision without any real medical care... ouch). The twist is that three of the characters are various shades of gay, and the power dynamics between them that play out offer an intriguing exploration of what truly makes one "a man". As the central character Xolani, Nakhane Touré, in his first film role, turns in a stunning portrayal of a closeted man who's devotion to his unattainable love leads to the film's shocking conclusion. (7/10) Available on Amazon Video.

I found two of the LGBTQ "also rans" considerably more interesting and entertaining: Thelma, from Norway, and Tom of Finland, from... yeah, Finland. In the former, Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a new college student from a staunchly religious background who's budding lesbian tendencies unlock within her some frighteningly powerful abilities. Director Joachim Trier displays a unique knack in delivering deliciously disturbing imagery (ophidiophobes may want to steer clear) in this fascinating fantasy thriller that mines elements from such disparate sources as Carrie, X-Men and even Frozen. (8/10) Available on Amazon Video.

Touko Laaksonen is better known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, the groundbreaking artist of homoerotica that celebrated gay sex and leather culture in an iconic, hyper-masculine style that is still influential — and titillating — today. As Touko/Tom, Pekka Strang is impressively up to the challenge of embodying him through roughly fifty years of his life, from World War II to the AIDS era. Despite its "straight" (ahem) retelling of Laaksonen's life, director Dome Karukoski adds the unique touch of a hunky apparition, an ideal "Tom's Man" in flesh and leather, who pops in and out of the narrative as a sort of "guardian angel"/muse for the evolving artist. While Tom of Finland the film never quite eludes the typical tropes of the biopic genre, it serves well as a moving, oftentimes sexy, tribute to Tom of Finland the man. (8/10) Available on Amazon Video.

The three remaining films here are all on the Oscar shortlist and are considered (for better or worse) strong contenders for the final nominations (to be announced this Tuesday, January 23rd). My favorite of the whole lot is In the Fade from Germany, which has already won both the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards for Best Foreign Language Film (not to mention placing in my own top 10). Diane Kruger gives a powerhouse performance as Katja, a German woman who's Turkish husband and young son are killed in a bombing, one that turns out to be a racially motivated hate crime. The film follows the increasingly despondent Katja as she seeks justice for her fallen family, at any cost, culminating in a stunningly cathartic "eye for an eye" denouement not soon to be forgotten. (8/10) In select theaters.

Likely the most "of the zeitgeist" is the contender from Lebanon. The Insult, as its title suggests, is about the power of words and how the wrong ones can lead to tragedy. In modern day Beirut, a harsh exchange between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee ends in violence that leads to a scandalous court case that ignites, on a national scale, long-simmering tensions between the two groups the men represent. The film starts out strong but gradually loses focus the larger the story gets; late-in-the-game subplots and backstories put a damper on the thrust of "righteous indignation" powering the main plot. But strong performances and a wisely unbiased viewpoint of the protagonists (neither are depicted as "all bad" or "all good") carry it through, albiet to a curiously anticlimactic resolution. (7/10) In select theaters.

Finally, we come to The Square. Billed as a "satire of the art world", this Swedish film (which somehow won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year) is far from funny, clever or even remotely interesting. It's shoestring of a plot (the curator of a Stockholm museum prepares for the unveiling of a controversial new exhibit, the "Square" of the title) is stretched out over 142 painfully protracted minutes. Writer/director Ruben Östlund sprinkles such oddities as a random chimpanzee, an absurdly violent viral video and Elisabeth Moss as a condom-clutching American journalist into the mix, but it's all just a rambling, pretentious mess. That this film that so sloppily pokes fun at art is itself being acclaimed as "art" is the one hilarious thing about it. (2/10) Available on Amazon Video January 30th.

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

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