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Recent Movies: Blue is the Warmest Colour; 12 Years a Slave; Dallas Buyers Club; Live Theatre: The Gay Heritage Project

December 22, 2013

Recent Movies

Blue is the Warmest Colour

The film focuses on Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student in a city in northern France.  Her emerging same-sex desires lead her into a relationship with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a fine arts university student.

At three hours long, a love story like this has great challenges.  Luckily, it meets these challenges mainly due to the powerful performances of the two actresses, especially Exarchopoulos.  Ironically, despite the great length, there were holes in the script such as whether Adèle is honest about her relationship with Emma toward her parents as well has what happens to Emma’s previous lover before she meets Adèle.

Much commentary has been made on the explicit sex scenes.  While they are certainly erotic, the principle “less is more” might have been applicable here as the length of the scenes, their frequency and close-ups diminish the impact overall.  It almost seems that it was deliberately made to be pornographic in order to stimulate a certain mindset that doesn’t necessarily regard such scenes as “art”.  This was also a criticism by Julie Maroh who wrote the book on which the film was based.

Some scenes explore the conflicting mindset between the artistic class vs. those who believe one must set one’s career prospects toward something that presumably guarantees employment.  This was welcome though it could have been more explored.

The two greatest scenes are between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux near the end.  One is a serious fight; the other is a truce.  The laqtter is so real, it makes one dig into one’s past and cry with the performers.  These scenes and the two great actresses behind them are the true strength of “Blue is the Warmest Colour”.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * *

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12 Years a Slave

This film is based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup who was born as a free black man in New York state but was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south.

While I highly recommend this film, I do so with qualification.  Some scenes of torture are very harrowing and disturbing.  Naturally, this raises the point that if it is so difficult to watch such simulations, how difficult must it have been to live through such torment?

The story-line is always engaging as it is often difficult to predict what will happen next.  One surprise is that, while some slave owners are downright evil, others show glimpses of humanity.  Director Steve McQueen showed great power with his other two films “Hunger” and “Shame”.  Adding “12 Years a Slave” to this fine list makes McQueen one of my favourite modern directors.

This film has three great performances who are rightly winning accolades during this current awards season.  As the main character, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the perfect anchor.  His final scene is such a powerful summary of all he has endured, it could bring tears from even the coldest of hearts.  In the role of Patsey, a fellow slave who is terribly abused, Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking.  Michael Fassbender is gripping as he personifies insanity and wickedness as a slave owner.  Fassbender has performed in McQueen’s other two films.  This is clearly already one of moviedom’s great collaborations and I look forward to more films from them.

There were occasional moments of confusion but too few to dilute the effect of this great film.  It is nearly miraculous that this story could be told more than a a century and a half after being published.  It could only have been told because Northup was already literate before his experience as a slave.  As most other slaves were kept illiterate, their personal stories could sadly never be told.

There were no satisfying revenge scenes such as those in “Django Unchained” and “The Help” (where racist abuse continues post-slavery), but its truth-telling should no doubt change minds and hearts.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievement:   Directing by Steve McQueen

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Dallas Buyers Club

This film is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a drug-addicted Dallas rodeo cowboy who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985.  The film follows his journey from homophobia to a crusade of getting non-toxic medical treatments for him and his fellow AIDS-sufferers.

“Dallas Buyers Club” can be praised for its fine job of recalling some of the most difficult times in the 80s including the ostracization of anyone diagnosed with AIDS regardless of their sexual orientation.  Equally praiseworthy is its coverage of a negative situation that continues to this day:  the collaboration of government medical systems with pharmaceutical companies who conspire to ban healthy treatments in favour of toxic drugs that harm patients as they create big profits.  Placed in the negative spotlight is the U.S Food and Drug Administration as Ron imports healthy treatments from other countries.

In the lead role, Matthew McConaughey is very believable in all the character’s contradictions including the transition from a homophobic redneck to a righteous helper of many gay men.  His unlikely kinship with an MTF transsexual (well played by Jared Leto) is moving though a confrontational scene in a grocery store is a bit unbelievable.  Jennifer Garner also does well as a young doctor who is caught between bureaucratic career aspirations vs. a more truthful way to serve others.

Rating:   * * *

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Live Theatre

“The Gay Heritage Project” – written and performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir – at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

The trio of young gay men perform many vignettes, both comical and dramatic, that explore the notion of there being a gay heritage throughout ancient and modern history.

This superb production has so much going for it.  While focusing on personal, local, national, and international gay history and culture, there is so much enlightenment to be had from the high energy, light-heartedness, and thoughtfulness from these intelligent artists.

It all went so quickly but here are the highlights:  a gay revision on The Wizard of Oz; a hilarious medley of gay anthems; a TV-based satire on Canadian Gay Action heroes; doing research for their play at a queer archive group (probably at a university) and being dismissed as “privileged” white men; a confrontation on today’s gay “respectability” vs. the campy, wild and drag spirits of a generation ago; a trial that shows how today’s young gay men may not have been infected by AIDS but lost so many that could have mentored them when they came out on the gay scene.

The actors sometimes perform together and sometimes alone in a technique called Vocal Masque where one performer plays many different characters by changing the voices and body language of each performer.  All are brilliant at this especially Atkins.

At over an hour and a half without an intermission, it seemed a tiny bit long near the end as the chairs in the small theatre were uncomfortable, but this is small compared to how much this production had going for it.

The serious and sad parts of gay history are given their rightful due but humour and heart are the true dominant forces in this great production.  These three artists are magnificent and I hope they continue with many more great projects.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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