The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) (R)

Gay men aren't usually allowed to identify themselves in movies of the past few decades. We see it too often how they get marginalized into minor stereotypical characters and then when they do show up in the spotlight, it's rarely in a positive way. We look back at "Boys in the Band" and then "Cruising" and Friedkin's work dies away but we're left with the sense that homosexuals will always be evil, annoying, or sad creatures that revel in their misery and deserve something of this type. Well, then there's "Philadelphia" which allowed us to see a happy, gay relationship that ended when one of them died and then there's "Brokeback  Mountain" where the gay relationship ends and our old favorite trope is at it again. It's not comforting to think that throughout the years, not much has changed.
Yet these are just the outskirts of queer cinema. When you consider how movies bring queer characters to the foreground and have them speaking words of identity, you may not be able to ask the question "where are the happy gays?" but it will help you observe something quite curious and altogether still unprecedented in modern cinema.
"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is one such example of a major work in political forwardness that does not hesitate to present incredibly gay, queer, and sometimes happy characters. It's frankly impressive with nothing else, but how does it compare as a movie? (what a broad, leading question)
The most famous image of the movie is Guy Pearce sitting atop Priscilla with a large silver dress flowing some hundreds of feet behind the automobile. It's this kind of unabashed queer-y-ness that leads Guy Pearce to say without blinking: "We dress up in women's clothes and parade around mouthing the words to other people's songs." Flamboyant hardly does the movie justice. It's more like a slap in the face with a feathered boa or the chorus to "I Will Survive": it's incredibly catchy, dazzlingly chic, and also lined with more than a hint of self-inflated depression.
Meet Tick (Hugo Weaving), he's the best drag performer in Australia and he's living comfortably but not well. He performs regularly with the quintessential gay man Adam (Guy Pearce). Adam is loud and obnoxious and fairly rude; but it's all with a lisp and a flick of the wrist, so who can really fault him?
Tick is going on the road for a cabaret performance to his wife's establishment, a hotel in the desert. He decides that the queen posse needs to be assembled and they need to get on the road. The last installment is Bernadette (Terence Stamp) and here the movie reinvents something so ballsy it takes a while to get used to. There isn't a lot of trans visibility to movies, and certainly there is more MTF visibility than FTM; but it's bizarre and also exciting to see  a movie that grapples with the nitty gritty details of transition. It's not put on a pedestal it's not looked down it, it's simply taken for what it is: a part of life and I find that rather inspiring. But I'm a altruistic kind of person, so there you have it.
Tick doesn't let Bernadette or Adam know that he's got a wife because they would probably tease him mercilessly for it; but as they head out to the desert, Adam buys a bus and calls it Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
With this in mind, the movie can be seen as an adventure, road-trip movie that has our characters blundering from one funny situation into the next. What fun! This is the premise and it's tried and true; but this time we have two gay drag queens and a transgender woman having all the adventures.
As much as Guy Pearce tends to steal the show with his loud mouth and his body (sorry, had to be said), Hugo Weaving is fairly spectacular as a timid, yet tenacious drag queen who is facing down his fears in life. Yet neither compare with Terence Stamp, who inhabits the role of Bernadette so fully that it feels like Stamp is really her. It's kind of incredible.
The movie is gaudy and fairly immature; but the script is genuine and has laughs as well as tears. It's fun, it's wonderful, it's glossy.
It's a mostly undiscovered gem that deserves to be seen again and again.

Score: ★★★½

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (PG-13)

There's something astonishing about Christopher Nolan's ability behind the camera that leads him to make complex and challenging works while still maintaining his reputation as the premier voice of action film making, probably recently overtaken by George Miller's return to the genre. Nolan's style and sleek screenwriting have gained praise from both audiences and critics alike.
After the staggering box office success of "The Dark Knight", Nolan created his tour de force "Inception" and in the wake of a dream heist film, we were left panting for his next treat, which turned out to be the conclusion to his Batman reboot series.
What ensued was a rather curious commercial success—tainted by the now infamous and heartbreaking shooting in Aurora—and a critical/popular disagreement. The film got good reviews but most felt that in the aftermath of two masterpieces, "The Dark Knight Rises" failed to live up to its master's potential. On this, I disagree completely.
In order to complete his trilogy in a method of expected moodiness, action, and smarts, Nolan substitutes the complexities of science with the complexities of possibly too many characters, so said Roger Ebert. I don't agree, but that's possibly because I've seen the film a number of times and I find that I'm able to follow it quite easily now.
The movie opens eight years after "The Dark Knight" ended, leaving Bruce Wayne without his alter ego Batman. Trouble is brewing as mercenaries start to storm into Gotham in order to bring the depraved city to its reckoning. The villain of the movie is Bane (Tom Hardy) who speaks in a garbled language and is as massive as a mountain.
Bruce will have to don the cap and cowl once again in order to defeat Bane and bring justice to Gotham once again.
Sounds kind of simple, doesn't it?
Well, that's where you're wrong.
Nolan and brother Jonathan Nolan, write a story that juggles so many story lines at the same time, it can be difficult to keep up with it. There's the police commissioner, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) who is trying to relieve a sense of growing doom that his own guilt is adding to for committing to a lie. Then there's Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who is a pleasant new addition to the franchise, a girl who seems to be in too deep with the wrong people. A young detective Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is also searching for truth while Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is vying for Bruce Wayne's money to make the world clean.
It's no wonder that the movie takes almost three hours. Of course, we have to get a few things out of the way first. Despite its sometimes campy script and plot holes based on the observations and assumptions of people, the movie is a first-class masterwork and for two reasons: Wally Pfister and Hans Zimmer. Without its visual style and mesmerizing score, this movie would not work as sensationally well as it does.
You have to remember that first and foremost, it is an action movie and should be treated as such first. Then you can start to notice that it's more of thriller, that the practical effects make it look almost perfect, and that the cast fills out to a stunning conclusion. What Nolan manages to do in juggling these story lines is nothing short of miraculous.
If in any other time, by any other person, this could not have worked.
I don't get the criticism, I don't understand it. Because unlike "The Dark Knight" which was ruled by these odd ideas but never came to an answer about any of them, "The Dark Knight Rises" finds Nolan where he likes to be best: making answers to philosophical questions and if it's in between explosions and punches to the face, then so be it.
The threads of hope and despair, pain and chaos, lying and morality—the all tie together nicely in a present to the viewer. The movie is a pleasure to watch.
Nolan draws heavily from Dickens and his sleek style is almost too good to look at; but is that a bad thing? With its final moment, Nolan puts his mark of the cinematic history of superheroes, closing out one of the best trilogies ever made with such style and poise that it makes me green with envy.
Each iteration got bigger and bigger and it takes a special level of power to be able to control it all; Nolan is that man. I may have disliked his ventures into space, but his superhero franchise will always stand up.
It's magnificent.

Score: ★★★★

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

This review contains SPOILERS!
"Eyes Without a Face" is one of France's most beloved horror movies, to the cinephile at least. There seems to be no more famous image than Juliette Mayniel sitting up in bed and screaming at the sight of an intruder. It can be seen influencing everything from "Repulsion" to "Silences of the Lambs" and most certainly "Seconds". Its eerie, not quite scary but intriguing way of filming makes it one of the most original of the genre, if not the most whole.
The movie begins essentially on the premise of plastic surgery . Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) has developed a way to use organs from one human and put them onto another without the second person's system rejecting it as an antibody. They accomplish this by submitting the organ in question to a large amount of X-ray radiation and thus, destroying the antibodies. 
So this could be medically amazing right? Right, but Génessier is not going to use the technology for the good of mankind, instead harboring it for himself so as to fix a conundrum.
His daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob) got into a horrific car accident that left her, as the title explains, with eyes but no face. From an aesthetic and social position, this is unacceptable for Génessier who demands nothing but perfection for his daughter.
Enlisting the help of a former patient, Louise (Alida Valli), Génessier starts to prey on young girls around Christiane's age to steal their flesh from them. The opening scene has Louise dumping a faceless body down by the river and retreating in her car with mysterious and sinister look upon her face as she does so.
The music is not that frightening which is one of the staples of the horror genre. In this way it reminds me of "The Third Man" because it has a fairly happy sounding soundtrack that would be replaced by shrieking strings some decades later.
When you stop and notice all the things that go on in horror soundtracks it's interesting to note (hah!) the different approaches. From "The Exorcist" to "Carrie" and back. "Eyes Without a Face" for the most part, has no music whatsoever, usually just the catchy tune emerges when Louise starts tightening in on a prey.
There is nothing spectacular here with social commentary. Women are still the victims, men are the perpetrators, and the innocence of the most vulnerable must be preserved, otherwise there would be no point in her being saved at the end.
Georges Franju makes sure that we notice a painting of Christiane that will later be mirrored in a nice, but completely unnecessary moment when the big-hearted decides she will free the slaves and thus bring an end to the tyrannical rule of her father.
It's all very melodramatic and rarely boring; but hardly chilling in today's more gore obsessed scene. I will say this, what they do show in terms of blood and guts is quite surprising. I can definitely see how this might have turned stomachs when it was released.

Score: ★★★

Tsotsi (2005) (R)

If a man seeks retribution, let him repay.
That sounds like a proverb doesn't it, or some sort of pithy saying; but no, I just made that up. Quite pleased with it myself. I'm not sure it makes any sense and probably has nothing to do with "Tsotsi", but it seemed like the right thing to say in the wake of my emotions. I like to write as soon as the last frame has darkened on the screen, when my tears are still drying in my eyes and my hands don't quite know how to type what I am processing.
This is what "Tsotsi" does to me, and it is so beautifully tragic in the way it does this. This isn't to say that the movie is sad, because it's not, rather it's entirely hopeful and that delicate thought blooms into something so powerful that it takes over the rest of the story.
In Johannesburg in South Africa there's a small gang made of four boys who steal and perform crimes in the night for their own cheap thrills. They don't seem to be at a lack for money or under the thumb of a larger figure, instead, they just rob for the hell of it. They are lead by Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) who remains tight-lipped with his emotions. He's short, stocky, and built with a calculated fury. His eyes speak for him most of the time. The first scene we see him and his gang in action results in the death of a man on a subway. A knife to the chest, a twist of the iron, and the man will never breathe again.
They call it a mistake, a loose canon in a different setting.
Returning home and drinking their problems into a stupor, one of the boys decides that he should broach the idea of decency with Tsotsi. He oversteps his bounds and gets his head bloodied as a result.
Venting anger, Tsotsi runs out of the slums into the rich neighborhoods in the pouring ran. A lady in a nice car stops and runs in the rain because her key isn't opening the main gate.
Seizing the opportunity, Tsotsi steals the car and shoots the woman, making a dodgy getaway.
It's only after he's gone a few miles does he realize that there's a baby in the car with him.
"Tsotsi" doesn't try to make a hero of its titular character, but there is nothing else that we could really call him. He embodies a Christ figure of sorts, teaching lessons to himself more than anyone else. With a baby in tow, a burden that he doesn't really want, the language becomes universal.
How can a hardened criminal be moved by a baby's cry?
When the baby crying sounds like its chest is rattling with grief, who cannot be moved?
"Tsotsi" excels because of Chweneyagae, who stuns as the lead, filled with complexity and emotions not so simply spelled out for the viewer to understand. Emotionally the film is harder to gauge than most surrealist works are to understand and most of that is due to Chweneyagae's performance. He is stifled, moved, emotional, walking the tight-rope between surrogate father and criminal. All of these combine into a mixture so overwhelming in responsibility the only logical result might be a blank face.
Gavin Hoods, the writer and director is thrilling and nuanced.
"Tsotsi" is an emotional powerhouse about men and women, children and adults, and the sacrifice of self for retribution's sake.
It is essential.

Score: ★★★★

Amy (2015) (R)

I have a crystallized image of Amy Winehouse in my head. She's posing in a bathtub, her head tilted to the left, shrouded in black. It's the cover of her incredibly famous album "Back to Black" which was crucial to me in a time of my life. Like many others, the album meant something to me so personal that the feelings each record evokes are so uniquely there own. It's a connection that few other albums have had with me.
This connection is actually what "Amy" lacks, this driving force that made those precious three or four minutes of each of her songs so beautifully tragic with a catchy rhythm and a knife in the lyrics. These darker notes, what Amy Winehouse is identified with, do not escape director Asif Kapadia, whose critical acclaim as the new voice of documentary film making seems at odds with itself here. The move revels in its own style, its own choices; and the ones that it does make shape the entire watching experience.
There are no talking head interviews, all is done in "radio style interview" as radio British film critic (and favorite of mine) Mark Kermode said; but I don't think that's really the whole story. Most of us fell in love with Amy Winehouse's voice first and thus this should be the medium of a story about a young woman whose fame transformed her into something else.
This is also how the film never criticizes Amy for her decisions and the narrative plays out (quite convincingly so) of a girl who is preyed upon by greedy men who control her because she is so trusting.
In the modus operandi of Winehouse herself, flagrant and cheeky, consider this an angry "fuck you" to the press as an entity. Kapadia makes no time, and frankly his source material suggests no other course of action, apologizing for how the paparazzi tore into Amy as she began each of her downward spirals.
And you should expect nothing else when you watch the movie, for it isn't a happy ending, and it is deeply sad. It's a tragedy that such a talented person had to live such a short, troubled life with turmoils beyond what many of us can compare to.
But the film makes a mistake that many people do too, it reveres Amy to a place of objectification. We are sad to see her go, why? Because of her talent. Because we'll never get to hear that next record and the film does sometimes devolve into this thinking. We see her as our singer of jazzy songs, our old soul in a new world and not as a person.
This is why I came out of the film really not knowing Amy any more than I did going into the film even though the staggering archive footage places the viewer at an uncomfortable closeness to her. There's still a disconnect between us and her because of the third person in the room: the storyteller.
The obviousness of Kapadia's narrative and the way it's chronologically framed only gives the viewer a sense of doom to cling onto, the sense that we are coming up to her untimely death. 
Yes, when we see Amy at the end of her rope, emaciated and balancing her drug and alcohol addiction problems with her eating disorder and her fame, we can't help but empathize with her as a person. No one should go through that.
The last minutes of the film are the best because Kapadia pulls back and lets us realize that this is indeed a person that we're talking about, not some honky-tonk piano that we can slide another quarter into. It's only insulting to think that; and it struck me very hard because I've been guilty of that myself.
"Amy" succeeds as a documentary because of the stunning amount of archival footage, yet it doesn't gel as well as something else like "How to Survive a Plague" or even "20 Feet From Stardom" did. Even "Blackfish" made you yearn for those moments of footage because they were the most powerful.
"Amy" is indeed a sad ballad for a lost star. It's an achingly and intimately crafted story; but it is that, a story and Kapadia manages to make menaces out of both Amy's father and the press itself.
But to what end? At the final frame, we can only say that it is such a shame that she is gone.
The emotions that are now weighing down on me are just the result of a long day, "Amy" does not have the staying power of the emotional weight it should. It is sad, but it should be devastating. This is a life that could have been saved, whose music will always serve as a bitter reminder of her beautiful, tragic life.
"Amy" sees the singer as a poet and I think that this is the best respect it could have paid and its smartest move.
Perhaps it's best said by Sylvia Plath:
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.

Score: ★★★