Jamshid Mahmoudi’s Iranian/Afghan semi-adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, A Few Cubic Meters of Love takes a bit of adjustment from Western ideals of moviemaking. In the opening credits sequence, Mahmoudi outlines the lives of the immigrant Afghan people living in a shantytown attached to an Iranian metal processing job. After making a meal, Marona jauntily skips through the town, climbs a fence, and enters into a rusted out storage container to meet her Iranian boyfriend, Saber. After sharing the meal, Marona and Saber play dream house using rocks and matchsticks in a manner that seems like a deleted scene from a Wes Anderson film.
What begins as a twee love story becomes all too real, as the star-crossed love tale documents the tension between the Afghan and Iranian people. One Iranian wants the owner to hire his down-on-his-luck uncle and let him and his family live in the shantytown among the Afghanis, but the inherent racism prevents that from happening. This sets off a chain of events revealing the dangers of violent othering. The easy pace of the beginning ramps up into a powerful and breathless final two acts, deceptively pulling you in with emotions that finally feel personal and brutal, if a bit too earnest.
A Few Cubic Meters of Love just might qualify as third-world misery porn, presenting a poor and repressed society where everybody is a hard worker with dirt in their eyes. But, Love‘s intent isn’t in displaying a society that’s poor and needs fixing for its poverty or religious morals. Instead, Love is merely creating a political metaphor through a story of contrived almost equal poverty. Saber is an orphan taken under the owner’s wing, none of whom seem particularly rich. The poverty is just a setting, serving an alternate point of equality and acceptance.
Ray Yeung’s gay-themed romance, Front Cover, also has the purpose of equality, acceptance, and cultural difference. Unfortunately, its intent is undermined by the amateur production, bad acting, cheesy script, and cliche characters. Ryan is an out and proud American fashion stylist who has all but rejected his Chinese heritage. Ryan is supposed to have the cover of the magazine Mais Oui, when his boss – a terribly written woman modeled after Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada except with an outrageous French accent – changes his assignment, forcing him to become the stylist for Ning, an up and coming Chinese actor who insists on having a Chinese stylist. There will be sex.
If you’re a gay man of a certain age, you’ll remember the litany of terrible LGBTQ movies that were made with no money and had no production values, bad acting, an unpolished script, and very little style. This era mainly focused from 1995-2008, and the cheap, unassuming, pro-gay little movies were mainly watched because the queer community was starved for self-representation. We knew they were rather inept cheap and lazy little films, but we watched them because we needed to see ourselves in a positive representation. The films littered the Gay and Lesbian department in video stores across the country, and made discerning gay audiences leery of our own products. They remind me of the religious movies in their earnestness was only matched by their unwatchability.
Front Cover feels like a throwback to that dark dark era of queer cinema. The statement that we need to repress something to succeed is a little darker than normal, but it doesn’t judge what that something is: if you need to repress your homosexuality to make a career in traditional China, it’s about as bad as repressing your traditional Chinese heritage to make a living in New York City (never mind that claiming an American identity isn’t a huge lie about an unchangeable part of your personage). It should be noted that this is the second film this year to challenge the idea of gay identity (following I Am Michael). But, this message is also backed by terrible filmmaking. Just, really, no more of this. SIFF, if you need a programmer to focus on a better queer catalog, call me. I will sit through endless hours of bad gay film in order to make sure we’re not subjected to another Front Cover.
The love story in Graziella is perhaps common, but I can’t think of the point of making this movie. Graziella is a prisoner on a work release program cleaning a boarding school in the summer. The boarding school is owned by a female ex-con, who also employs another soon-to-be-ex-con, Antoine. Antoine and Graziella must move past their past in order to fall in love with each other, dealing with the vengeful victims that live in the small village. Along the way, there’s offshoot conversations about Antoine’s history as a projectionist and his favorite movies, as well as a venture into a Russian Roulette video ring.
Mehdi Charef, who wrote and directed, doesn’t quite know what he wants to say about people reconciling with their past. He’s almost as lost about the haunting of people’s past as David Gordon Green was with Manglehorn. Maybe he’s talking about family, and the necessary abandonment of family through caring for it? Or, maybe he’s talking about people covering for each other? The nature of their crimes might have weighed on their personalities, but Charef holds that knowledge hostage until the final few minutes.
Which brings us to a terrible trend in indie filmmaking. Holding knowledge hostage until the end never ever works unless you’re Atom Egoyan. The nature of both Graziella’s and Antoine’s crimes inform why they’re being chased by the various villagers, but also change how we feel about it. Charef thinks that by holding the nature of the crimes until the end, he is holding a mirror to the audience for judging the characters without knowing everything, but the mystery of the crimes create such a big black hole that nobody can judge the characters until the end of the movie and then it is too late to give much of a whit. In the end, nobody cares.
Love hasn’t hurt as much as it does in the Argentinian film The Fire, a kind of Latin take on a Neil LaBute play. Lucia and Marcelo are going off to buy a house with $100k strapped to their bodies when they receive a call by their broker that the sign off has been delayed by 24 hours. All hell breaks loose. The remaining 75+ minutes are dedicated to Lucia and Marcelo fighting each other for one day and night, letting off the tension of buying a house with a brutality and ferocity rarely seen in polite American films.
Complicating matters is the debate whether the fight is for keeps or foreplay. The second scene has Lucia and Marcelo slapping each other and fighting before almost having sex until she stops it so they can buy the house. The memory of their happy angry sex permeates through the remaining film, wondering if they’re just sniping at each other because they enjoy it. And, if they enjoy it, what do they get out of it? Is the audience enjoying themselves? What do we get out of watching this nightmarish scene?
Juan Schnitman’s film keeps The Fire claustrophobic, enraging and blackly humorous. Maybe. It’s complicated, and how you process the film depends largely on who you are. Schnitman pushes buttons and envelopes with glee, wondering just how far he can go without breaking morality. He largely goes for broke, and in a problematic late scene in the film he actually make have jumped over the line. Is it part of the fun? Who knows. That’s for you to decide.
Far far safer is Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People, a conservative romantic comedy that recalls the now-classic When Harry Met Sally, but cruder and with a more Apatowian/Sundance feel to it. In college, Laney (Alison Brie) is stood up by a lame jerk to whom she had planned to lose her virginity. Instead, she loses it with Jake (Jason Sudeikis), who also loses his virginity. This evening sends both parties into a 15-year emotional rut where Laney continuously pines after that lame now-married jerk, and Jake continuously botches his relationships. When they meet up again, they find their insecurities perfectly match up, just not romantically, and become best friends helping each other deal with their issues.
Anyways, the ultimate message of Sleeping With Other People is that boring heterosexual monogamy is the ideal, and the only way one can be happy. Blah blah fucking blah. How boring and whitebread can this movie be? Its idea of daring is taking ecstasy before going to a six-year-old’s birthday party. How zany! Not kidding. Also, Sleeping is mainly Jake’s story, as he gets a job with his best friend and boss, while Laney is left to fend for herself. I think it may have barely passed the Bechdel Test, thanks to a cameo by Natasha Lyonne.
Ultimately, though, not every moment of Sleeping is worthy of loathing and disdain. There is some pretty zippy dialogue, and the characters are well drawn (even if Laney gets a bit shrifted in screen time). Plenty of funny cameos pass across the screen, including Marc Blucas (whom you may remember as Buffy’s college boyfriend, Riley) and Adam Scott. But, it’s just not modern or consistent enough to justify itself, or a recommendation.
Friday’s Midnight Adrenaline audience was truly weird, even by Seattle standards. The movie was a slow and atmospheric Danish horror movie, When Animals Dream, that plays like a simple-minded edition of Let the Right One In. Marie is a teenager who is hitting womanhood, and discovers she has a genetic disease that turns her into a werewolf. She has a rash that grows long blond hairs, and starts dreaming of murder. She gets a job at a fish-cleaning factory, where she is harassed by tall blond Esben and falls in love with the quieter Daniel. Eventually, When Animals Dream runs through a whole litany of old horror plot points, including a Frankenstein-esque mob, a Dracula-esque ship with dead sailors, and she’s a werewolf.
Regardless of how dumb the movie actually is, and it is dumb if you think about it for more than 5 minutes, the cold creepy atmosphere holds When Animals Dream together. Unless you’re this one group to the side of the theater. The first time they made their presence known was when they were passing around beer bottles and trying to find the bottle opener. Yeah, whatever, drinking at a midnight movie is a respectable tradition. But, suddenly, about 50 minutes into the movie, one girl starts laughing loudly and uncontrollably, breaking the spell of the movie. She doesn’t stop for seemingly 15-20 minutes, spurned on by the terrible parts of the film. Within five minutes, members of the audience begin yelling at her to shut up, leave, and get out of the theater. But, I sympathized with her because the movie was that dumb. Later, people would speculate that she was on something and just happened into a black hole of giggles.
The experience raises the question of whether I would have been held rapt by the movie if the one heckler (almost nobody else found the movie to be as funny as she did), or if I would have been similarly disenchanted on my own. I mean, the movie fell apart within minutes of her breaking the spell, and I started finding it overbaked, under-written, and generally risible. As soon as I left the theater, my opinion of the film fell even more, and the plot crumbled under further consideration. Is it because of the heckler? I say no.
Troubled romantic love even rears its head in the anorexia/bulemia social issues drama, My Skinny Sister. 12-year-old Stella is just coming of age and discovering her sexuality and identity, but is in that age between childhood and teenager where she still idolizes her older sister Katja. Katja is a figure skater, who develops bulemia and then anorexia in order to keep her body fit and trim for figure skating. The plot of My Skinny Sister feels like a rote after school special with overwrought emotions, and a cliche ending. But, the strength of My Skinny Sister comes from the personal touches of writer-director Sanna Lenken, who directs much of it like they were intimate scenes from her diary. Because of her oncoming sexual maturity, Stella develops a crush on Katja’s 35-year-old male trainer portrayed as deeply personal and yet still as giddily silly as it actually was.
There’s also a touch of troubled romance in the feminist screed Sworn Virgin, a story that would be better served on paper than as a movie. In an Albanian mountain village, men rule the world. They make the decisions, hunt, chop wood, and provide for their family. Women are meant to be passive vessels for cooking, cleaning, and bearing children. Two sisters, Hana and Lila, figure out how to escape from the repressive masculine rules through different manners. Lila runs off with a romantic lover to the civilized city. Hana becomes a “sworn virgin,” taking on the male persona Mark, and taking responsibility as a male head of household. After both parents die, Hana as Mark visits Lila in the city to reclaim her femininity, sexuality, and try to reclaim her relationship with her sister.
This isn’t a transgendered story, so much as a story about a woman who chooses to become a boy to escape a repressive value system. Hana wouldn’t identify as a male if identifying as a male didn’t come with a variety of privileges and identifying as a woman didn’t come with a whole slew of restrictions and limitations. Lila similarly feels repressed, but her means of escape isn’t considered as extreme. Unfortunately, Bispuri’s lack of respect for Lila’s choices is Sworn Virgin‘s big downfall. This is Hana’s story through and through. Though we have probably seen the various ways that Lila’s story has played out, her story should have been further detailed for a better comparison to Hana. They both escaped, and both deserve respect for their behavior.
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