Monday, March 26, 2012

Shortbus (2006)

The Movie: Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee) works as a couple’s counselor/sex therapist in New York City. She has her first session with “the Jamies”, a gay couple; Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former child star, and James (Paul Dawson), a former prostitute. The two are seeing her because James has suggested that he and Jamie open up their relationship to sex with other people. Unfortunately, it gets heated between Sofia and Jamie, and she snaps. It turns out Sofia has been having problems as well; she’s never had an orgasm, and it’s causing friction between her and her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker).

To help her, the Jamies suggest she join them in a visit to the Shortbus; a downtown club owned and run by Justin Bond (the drag performance artist, playing himself), which every week holds a combination social, artistic and sexual get-together. At the club, Sofia strikes up a friendship with the prickly, socially awkward dominatrix, Severin (Lindsay Beamish); while the Jamies begin a relationship with the ex-model and aspiring singer, Ceth (Jay Brannan, and it’s pronounced “Seth”).

But despite these early successes, it’s not going to be that easy for our protagonists. Sofia’s orgasm continues to remain elusive, greatly increasing her frustration. James has some serious demons from his past that he has to face, and the movie project he obsessively works on is far more than it might first appear. Also, unbeknown to him and his boyfriends, James has a stalker (Peter Stickles). All of these lives and their issues are on a collision course as they desperately seek out that all-important human connection.

The Review:

You’ve heard of the big yellow school bus, well this is the short one. It’s a salon for the gifted and challenged.
-Justin Bond

It is spring ladies and gentlemen! Ah, glorious spring, my favorite of the seasons; how I have missed you! To celebrate, this blog is doing another double feature. Presented here are two movies that deal with the real reason for the season. And what is said reason, you ask? Why procreation of course; this is the time of year when all life focuses on the act of reproduction. But these two films are anything but mere porn or sexploitation; that would be way too easy. Intrigued? Then read on.

I have a tendency to pick out a large number of my Netflix movies on a momentary whim; and as a result I’m constantly receiving movies that I don’t remember when or why I chose them, much less what I’m going to see. Obviously, this means I often wind up watching a lot of crap that I’m unprepared for. However, every so often I discover a particularly delightful gem that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Shortbus falls into this latter category.

Now the make or break aspect of Shortbus for most people is the sex, so I’ll just get it out of the way right now. Shortbus is full of graphic depictions of unsimulated sex, both hetero and homosexual; as well as ejaculation and other body functions. As a result, watching it will, at times, make a lot of people uncomfortable. That’s certainly my personal experience. As I’ve mentioned before in other reviews, my attitude towards other peoples’ sex lives can generally be summed up “if it doesn’t involve me, I’m not interested.” Likewise; while I’m secure enough in my own sexuality to not have a problem with the fact that other men have sex with each other, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to watch it happen. However, I have seen enough smut, sleaze and serious art films that I can usually figure out what I’m watching pretty quickly; and Shortbus falls squarely into that third category. Furthermore, once you get past your initial discomfort over the sex, it’s actually a particularly sweet and enjoyable little movie.

So what’s the difference? Very simply, it’s not the sex itself that determines whether a movie is sleaze or art; it’s what the movie does with it. If the whole purpose is titillation and exploitation, there will be very little to the movie but the sex. Watch a purely exploitative film sometime, and watch how it approaches the matter. The camera will leer over the proceedings; zooming in on particular moments (or sections of anatomy) more frequently than others. What’s more, the characters and story (if any) will be very simple, usually to the point of being underdeveloped. That’s because they aren’t the point of the movie, the point is to get your rocks off.

Shortbus is different because it’s all about the characters and their stories. It’s just that said characters are specifically dealing with sex. However, the sex, itself is simply a metaphor for something greater; for these individuals’ personal searches for human connection.

As my longtime readers have no doubt surmised, I particularly love good characters in my movies. Apparently, each of the actors came up with their character on his or her own, with some help from the director. While this may seem like the makings of a particularly messy plot, in actuality the exact opposite occurs. The end result is the convergence of several different storylines into a neat and united whole.

And the characters themselves are very convincing and identifiable. This isn’t a typical drama or genre film with archetypes and tidily defined character roles. The characters of Shortbus are ordinary, everyday people with all the quirks, flaws and foibles that all of us consistently deal with. These are people I can expect to meet in town, who I can identify with. Hell, I hang out with these guys on a regular basis.

What’s more, since these are all everyday people, there are no real heroes or villains. Okay, Severin’s john is an unrepentant dick; but at least he’s a realistic one (I have known way too many guys exactly like him), and he’s only a very small supporting element of the movie. I went into the movie thinking one thing about each of the protagonists, and then found myself changing my mind several times before the movie’s end. Ultimately though, I found myself both discovering something in each of the protagonists that I recognized in myself, and desperately hoping that they would succeed in the end.

Sofia, one of the two main protagonists the movie focuses on, is obviously a very intelligent, competent and knowledgeable woman. When we first meet her, she seems to have everything together. However, we quickly find out that she’s missing one rather important life experience; and it’s affecting the rest of her life. Her job for one; one of the women she meets at the Shortbus asks “so you’re a sex therapist and you’ve never had an orgasm yourself?” to which Sofia finds herself unable to respond.

Then there’s her marriage. Sofia and Rob obviously love each other, but the fact that they’re unable to connect on this one basic level is causing friction. This gives rise to insecurities in both of them, which further erodes their relationship. And the thing is that, like the majority of relationships, both of them have equal complaints and blame.

James, our other primary protagonist, has some severe damage from his past that is preventing him from enjoying what he currently has. Jamie comes across as overbearing at first; but he is truly a good guy, he really does love James, and he’s doing the best that he can. Unfortunately, while James is well aware of this, on an important level he still can’t accept it. What’s worse is that he doesn’t feel that he has anyone to turn to about it, which exacerbates his demons and sends him in a truly destructive direction.

I find Severen particularly interesting. Among other things, she is always carrying a Polaroid camera around with her which she uses to snap pictures of people, often at inappropriate moments, and sometimes she then hands the picture to them with a comment written on it. However, rude as it may seem, I don’t get the feeling that she’s being intentionally assholish; but that she’s simply trying to connect in the only way that she knows how.

Severen comes across as somebody who’s either forgotten, or never really learned, the proper way to interact with people. If her regular john is in any way indicative of her usual customers, she is probably never given that opportunity either. She desperately searches for a real human connection, but her mistakes and failures leave her more and more frustrated. That’s something I can readily identify with.

Even James’ stalker doesn’t turn out to be that bad. While he’s kind of creepy at first (as all stalkers are), when we find out his motives for it, he’s suddenly sympathetic. What’s more, he’s the one who winds up saving James; in more than one way.

Finally, I would just like to add that Bond is my personal favorite character in this movie. He’s just a supporting character, but he’s always a lot of fun whenever he’s on screen. He also has all the movie’s funniest lines, which he delivers perfectly.

Throughout the course of the movie we are witness to these people’s trials and tribulations. And while we are shown parts of their lives that may make us uncomfortable, they are things that all of us deal with in our own lives; even if we’re not comfortable holding them up to public witness. What’s more, all of it is honest. The sex scenes are not eroticized, the camera does not leer at them in a way meant to turn the audience on. Instead, they actually help to expand on our knowledge of the characters and their interactions with each other. After a certain point, it actually feels like we are brought right into their lives on a very intimate level.

For me, it is the ending scene that sticks in my mind and sums up the movie. Just as all the protagonists’ personal dramas have reached their peak, there is a blackout (apparently there really was blackout during the filming, and it inspired them to use it in the movie). All the Shortbus’ community heads to it in search of the security of people they know. As the scene opens and the protagonists individually enter, we have Bond standing up and singing.

It’s a beautiful song that Bond sings; a number called In the End whose chorus (“we will all get it in the end”) perfectly encapsulates the movie and the hopes of our protagonists. It starts out a melancholy, wistful, yet still hopeful little tune that asks ‘will we get what we need?’ However, halfway through it suddenly becomes a joyful, boisterous anthem of triumph; ‘we will get what we need!’ And as the song and the movie close over the credits; we are left with certainty that these people with whom we have lived and sweated and suffered with for the last ninety minutes have, each in their own way, finally found what they’ve been looking for.

Young People Fucking (2007)

The Movie: We are presented with the intertwining of five different sexual encounters between eleven different people. In The Best Friends; Matt (Aaron Abrams, also the co-writer and executive producer of this film) and Kristen (Carly Pope of Orange County and Nemesis Game), two long time friends, attempt to take the awkward step to friends with benefits. The Couple presents us with Andrew (Josh Dean) and Abby (Kristin Booth); a married, long-time couple who have hit a slump in their sex life. In an attempt to start it up again, they try something very unconventional. The Exes gives us Mia (Sonja Bennett of Fido) and Eric (Josh Cooke); a former couple who meet up for what is probably an ill-advised date and sexual encounter. With The First Date we have Ken (Callum Blue of the T.V. show Dead Like Me), the office Don Juan, seducing his newest conquest, Jamie (Diora Baird of the Night of the Demons remake). However, the encounter doesn’t go at all as he expects it to. Finally, in The Roommates, longtime roommates Gord (Ennis Esmer) and Dave (Peter Oldring) have a strained relationship, almost to the point of antagonism. Gord is just about to move in with his girlfriend, Inez (Natalie Lisinska). However, there is a new twist in Gord and Dave’s relationship when Gord asks Dave to have sex with Inez. Let the games begin.

The Review: Young People Fucking; sounds like the title for a barely legal porno, doesn’t it? However, that is not the case at all for this movie. For one thing, YPF pretty much fails at being erotica; especially if you have access to the real thing. While it does address sex far more directly and bluntly than most mainstream movies, there is still a tendency to use many of the techniques many mainstream films use to tone down sex; sex while clothed, camera angles that block out the action, etc. In fact, I found at least one or two sex scenes that I thought would have been more convincing if they’d been a little more graphic.

However, this isn’t a drawback at all, because YPF is very obviously not meant as exploitation or erotica. Instead, the movie is a rather unconventional character study. As I’ve mentioned before (if it’s not obvious enough from looking at the general structure of my reviews), characters are one of my favorite parts of any story. I love good characters and good character interactions. What’s more, although not too surprising when you think about it, in recent years I’ve been finding that I really loves me a good character study.

The setup of the movie is very cleverly done. First we are presented with each of our relationships. The early introductions are rather sparse; we are only given a basic label for the basic relationship (i.e. The Best Friends) and just enough dialogue to give us an idea for the setup. Sometimes we’re not even given the characters’ names immediately. The actual sex is used as a basic framing device, the movie divided into six chapters: Prelude, Foreplay, Sex, Interlude, Orgasm and Afterglow. At each chapter we learn a little bit more about the characters, their initial relationship prior to the sexual encounter, and where said relationship will be headed at the end of the encounter.

Due to script, cast and blocking, the end result comes out very well. While a few of the cast may skew a bit toward Hollywood pretty, overall they come across as real and believable characters. As for the script, none of these sexual episodes are played for either fantasy or dramatic plot device. The interactions, the relationships and the people are all something the majority of us are familiar with in our own lives.

Of course, this can be uncomfortable sometimes. While YPF is at its core a character study, at a secondary level it also works as a comedy. The thing is though; this isn’t the brainless, sleazy raunch of your typical sex comedy. The humor of this film centers around the absurdity of the characters’ situations and behavior, but it’s a very realistic absurdity. This isn’t the improbable, outrageous laugh you find in a genre comedy; this is the familiar laughter triggered by all the ridiculous things you encounter in your everyday life. There was so much going on here that I have seen and/or experienced for myself, which just made it all the funnier.

Finally, there are the characters themselves. As I stated before, the characters we are initially presented with are essentially ciphers at the beginning. We are given basic archetypes; the two best friends who turn to each other after a series of disastrous relationships, the office Don Juan and his latest innocent conquest, etc.; so we have a general idea of where things will probably go, but we are given almost nothing in the way of details. We get the details as the movie goes on; these basic skeletons we start with getting a little bit more fleshed out before our eyes. By the end of the movie, what started out as ciphers we finally know and understand as full human beings. In most cases the final outcome isn’t too much of a surprise, but there are a few genuinely clever reversals as well.

I really can’t think of too much else to say about the movie without spoiling it, as a very large part of the fun is the gradual discovery as you go of what’s really going on. So I’ll just end it on this note. Young People Fucking, despite what it might seem by its title, is neither sexploitative erotica nor a raunchy, brainless sex comedy. If you are after either of those things, then turn around right now because you will be very disappointed. However, if either an absurdly funny yet honest look at human relationships, or an unconventional yet ultimately fascinating example of a character study appeals to you, then you have come to the right place.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

The Movie: Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart from the Dark Knight) is probably one of the most hated men alive. He is the spokesman and public face for the Academy of Tobacco Studies; a Big Tobacco funded “research center” that studies the link between smoking and lung cancer (fifteen years and nothing definitive yet). Naylor’s job is to fight for the rights of the tobacco industry, defending it from the attacks and slanders of the various political lobbies and action groups that have it under siege.

Naylor does have a few aces in his corner. First of all he is a very naturally talented speaker, the kind of smooth talker who makes the Satan of folklore look like an amateur. He also has two good friends in the form of Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), the head lobbyist for the alcohol industry; and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), spokesman for the firearms lobby. Together the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad, as they call themselves, meets weekly for lunch to discuss strategies.

However, Naylor also has some major challenges. Probably the most direct of them is B.R. (J.K. Simmons of the recent Spiderman trilogy), his backstabbing boss. Then there is his desire to reconnect with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright of the Butterfly Effect and the Twilight movies), despite the efforts of his estranged ex-wife (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend (Daniel Travis). Finally, Naylor’s arch nemesis, Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), has launched a new campaign to mark all cigarette packets with the skull and crossbones poison symbol.

But it’s about to get worse. A kidnapping by extremists, and an unwise affair with an ambitious reporter (Katie “Mrs. Tom Cruise” Holmes of Dawson’s Creek fame), threatens to derail Naylor’s life completely…

The Review:

Michael Jordan plays ball, Charles Manson kills people, I talk. Everyone has a talent."

Satire is a strange beast, to put it mildly. In its strictest definition, satire is a literary (although it can be graphic as well) form of social criticism that takes the issue or individual being criticized and depicts it at its most absurd extreme. However, like all art forms, good satire is hard to pull off. It’s one thing to just make fun of a current event or celebrity and call it “satire,” it’s another entirely to do it in a way that truly says something relevant about the event or individual so depicted. Added to that is the fact that much of what is classified under “satire” can be dated really quickly; when the depicted item is no longer relevant to the public. However, what I, personally, find most interesting about the art form is that with the very best satire, the line between fact and exaggeration can be very blurry indeed.

Thank You for Smoking is a satirical look at the U.S. lobbying system that renders almost invisible the line between absurd exaggeration and what you can actually expect to see in the news headlines. Seriously, I have really seen, with my own eyes, some of the most absurd and ridiculous plot elements of this movie reported by the news. For one, the pictorial warnings on cigarette packages; as you may or may not know there was recently a nearly successful campaign to do exactly that; except that unlike the poison symbol of the movie, this one was to show graphic depictions of tobacco’s long term effects. Then there’s the character of Bobby Jay Bliss, who portrays perfectly every so-called Second Amendment Rights advocate I have encountered or heard from. In one scene that brilliantly sums up the one of the driving mindsets behind the movement; just after Nick has recovered from his kidnapping, Bobby hands him a pistol to defend himself with the next time. Joey, who is present, says “cool!”; and Bobby responds with an expression that mirrors Joey’s own and the comment “yeah, huh?” However, when Polly (also present), jabs him and gives him a dirty look, Bobby immediately looks serious and says “I mean, guns should be treated with respect, you understand?”

The big thing about Thank You for Smoking is that it’s not really about smoking at all, but the lobbying system itself. In fact, you could probably change it to just about any other hot button issue and not have to make too many real changes to the core plot. The depiction of the world Naylor lives and operates in is both hilariously ridiculous, and entirely too convincing. This is a world where all that matters is the victory of the cause you champion, no matter what the cost of said victory. Actual facts don’t matter here, they are manufactured to suit whatever message you are trying to convey. As Nick comments about the man who heads the “research” for the Institute of Tobacco Studies: “the man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity.”

Nick Naylor, himself, is a particularly fascinating and engaging character; due both to the script and to Eckhart’s talents as an actor. Naylor is the type of character who, in just about any other movie, would be the villain; or at the very least a sleazy used car salesman type of individual. However, first of all this movie is entirely from his point of view. Secondly, he has enough positive human traits that not only is he identifiable and sympathetic; but I actually find myself cheering on the bastard.

Part of this is simply by way of comparison to the other characters. In the world Nick Naylor inhabits, everybody has an ulterior motive or an ax to grind. Even Senator Finistirre, who should be heroic, is far more concerned about his image and political ambitions than he is about the righteousness of his cause; and as a result is more than willing to take his cause to absurd and extreme ends.

However, a very large part of the regard we wind up feeling for Nick Naylor is entirely due to the man, himself. For one, it’s made very clear and explicit, without the movie clubbing us over the head with the fact, that he and his son truly love and care for each other. For another, Nick acts out of a sense of duty and honor that, Quixotic though it is, one cannot help but admire nonetheless. I, personally, do not agree with Naylor’s cause (I feel that the “helpless” corporations he champions have a dire need to be knocked over, beaten and kicked, repeatedly); but the fact that he’s willing to put so much on the line to do what he feels is right resonates nonetheless.

Finally, in what is probably the most perverse twist in an already perversely twisted movie; Nick Naylor, openly acknowledged and lauded as the patron god of conmen in a world that consists almost entirely of conmen and shysters, actually comes out as honest and sincere. You heard that right. The thing that really gets me about this character, the crowning spark of this movie’s brilliance, is that the character who occupies the role of the guy used car salesmen aspire to be is, more often than not, telling the truth. I don’t agree with Naylor’s cause; but every time I watch this movie I’m shocked by the fact that I often find his observations right on the money.

For example, I don’t think it’s right to target cigarettes at children. However, when Naylor addresses his son’s class about his job at the beginning of the movie; the basic message he conveys to them, that they should think for themselves and not let other people make choices for them, is one I wholeheartedly endorse. Or when he first meets with Heather Holloway, the reporter, and admits that he mainly does what he does “for the mortgage;” and then ironically tells himself that this is the “yuppie Nuremberg defense.” In other words, he knows it’s morally suspect at times, but it’s what he has to do to keep his job. As the movie goes on, “for the mortgage” becomes the code phrase for doing unpleasant, degrading, morally shady things; not because you want to, but because you have to in order to make a living and get by in this world. That’s something nearly all of us can identify with on some level.

That leads us to the final element I love about this movie, the dialogue. As I’ve mentioned before in other blog entries, I have always loved language and words; and I particularly love good exchanges of dialogue. Thank You for Smoking has some of the very best lines and dialogue I have ever had the pleasure of coming across. In fact, there is so much good dialogue here that I had a particularly difficult time trying to pick out a good quote for this entry. I won’t repeat them here, but for my two very favorite parts keep an eye out for the exchange where Naylor explains to his son how he can always be right, and the scene where he and a Hollywood producer are coming up with an idea to successfully product place cigarettes in a major movie.

So in conclusion, Thank You for Smoking wonderfully presents the three movie elements I love the most: it provides a convincing and believable world, it portrays some truly wonderful characters, and it features some of the best movie dialogue you can find. It is a brilliant satire that, all too accurately in some cases, depicts for us the most ridiculous aspects of our government and society.