6/22/2010

DVD Review: The Cinema Pride Collection



Now Available to Own



The Children’s Hour (1961)

With the censoring Hays Code no longer in effect, director William Wyler remade his own 1936 film These Three which was based on Lillian Hellman’s critically acclaimed stage play about two schoolteachers whose life, work and status in the community is ruined when a young bullying student outs the women as lesbians by spreading cruel lies comprised of exaggerating snippets of conversations she and other students overheard.

Although the ’36 version changed the plot drastically to a heterosexual affair that divides the women’s friendship, in this adaptation by screenwriter John Michael Hayes, Hellman’s original source work inspired by a real life story about two Scottish teachers was translated in an extremely faithful and still devastatingly intense work, which finds Wyler directing the woman he helped introduce to the world – Audrey Hepburn – in a role unlike any she’d previously tackled.

In fact, Hepburn’s co-star Shirley MacLaine admits that the two women never did discuss the real nature of their characters’ relationship and instead played it straight from the page since the topic was still scandalous onscreen for the time. Nonetheless The Children’s Hour, which also features a top notch supporting turn by James Garner in his first role since suing Warner Brothers to be released from his Maverick contract, remains just as haunting as it always did nearly fifty years after its release.

La Cage Aux Folles (1978)

Whereas it took The Children’s Hour decades to be filmed in a way that closely matched the original play, 1978’s La Cage Aux Folles only took five years since its stage debut to become an international box office film sensation.

The Italian and French production maintained the best of both countries in terms of cinema with the brilliant employment of Italian composer Ennio Morricone to complete a memorable film score for the piece to augment its naturally funny set-up as a pitch-perfect French comedic character driven work, co-written by Francis Veber who has since become synonymous with the country’s film industry comedy scene.

In the film, after long-term gay couple Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault) discover that Renato’s beloved twenty-year straight son (Remi Laurent) is getting married to a girl with ultra conservative parents, the two theatrical entertainers undergo the challenge of a lifetime of being forced to play it straight, hosting a dinner family for the prospective in-laws all within a less than forty-eight hour time span.

Although Edouard Molinaro’s movie spawned a successful franchise of two sequels, a superior yet extremely faithful American remake in the mid ‘90s and a Broadway musical production as well, it becomes a fascinating experiment to watch this terrifically funny foreign classic before you visit one of the other interpretations.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Originally made for television, the fifth film from Oscar nominated director Stephen Frears based on a screenplay from respected yet frequently controversial playwright Hanef Kureishi helped launch not only the careers of those behind the camera as just three years later Frears made a Hollywood splash with Dangerous Liasions but also solidified the extraordinary burgeoning talent of eventual Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

With a rather matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality, the orientation of its main character Omar (Gordon Warnecke)—the Pakistani-British young man torn between loyalties to his relatives and ancestral culture and his dedication to life among his friends in ‘80s Thatcher era Britain—often takes a backseat to the political, sociological and economical issues facing society during that time.

Filled with unexpected comedy, pathos and a richly complex cast of characters including Day-Lewis’ scene-stealing Johnny, an old schoolmate of Omar’s who despite the fact that he’s been best friends with him since the age of five has become part of a racist band of hoodlums over the past few years, My Beautiful Laundrette works well on a number of levels.

And despite a slightly protracted and overly slick ending, its overall authenticity in accurately capturing a place, time and feeling during the economic hardship of the Thatcher years and the growing prejudice in the streets as immigrants began running local businesses ensures that My Beautiful Laundrette will not date itself as something other than an emotionally engrossing document of its era.

One of the standouts in this box set that’s a far cry better than the pretentious Bent or thinly drawn Imagine Me & You, while you may wind up wishing Kureishi had decided to give the work a far more memorable and serious title, there’s still no denying its existence as an early showcase for audiences to discover just how well Frears manages to pull us into the worlds of his films to make us feel as though we’re part of his uniformly strong casts.

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

Although it’s a far cry better than Hollywood’s “three drag queens on the road” vehicle To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, I’m afraid that much like the play and movie inspired by the ABBA song featured in the film – “Mamma Mia” – I just don’t understand why this Australian import has reached camp/cult status.

It certainly has the makings of a camp classic, just based on the fact that Stephan Elliott’s film features British New Wave bad boy Terrence Stamp in a role as a transsexual but the movie is rather manic in its tone, never sure if it wants to just shoot for the moon as a drag queen extravaganza or if it wants to get serious in some pretty harrowing scenes of violent homophobia.

In addition to Priscilla’s identity crisis, one of the main characters played by Memento star Guy Pearce is so over-the-top and irritating that you’re ready to press eject if onscreen queens Stamp and Hugo Weaving don’t eject him from the bus for more than just one night on their journey across the outback. This being said, there’s not a whole lot to rave about aside from its Oscar winning costume design and a multi-layered beautiful turn by Golden Globe nominated Stamp whose supporting role becomes the one we’re touched by the most throughout.

The Birdcage (1996)

Mike Nichols’s old comedy partner Elaine May adapted this wildly raucous remake of the ’78 foreign film La Cage Aux Folles that managed to remain both true to the plot and even a majority of the dialogue of the original work but ensure that leads Robin Williams and Nathan Lane would have plenty of room to improvise.

Despite its tremendous box office returns, upon its release reaction to the work was somewhat divided. Namely, half of the audience seemed unable to look past the stereotype embodied particularly by Lane as Albert, the partner of Williams’ Armand who also works as the headliner at their Miami South Beach drag club.

Meanwhile the other half of the audience was extremely impressed by the way the actors transcends the stereotype to truly get straight audiences to look past orientation and empathize with the couple when Armand’s son begs them to play straight for his fiance’s extremely conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist).

While I can see both sides of the argument, I tend to lean towards the latter reaction as Nichols’ film marks the first gay-themed film that I ventured to the theatre to see growing up as a straight, suburban teen.

The fact that I wasn’t alone in the audience as a heterosexual fully involved in the plight of the characters to me makes the film a resounding success in subtly getting the message out about tolerance, acceptance and respecting everyone’s rights to live as equals. Yet by adding in a spoonful of sugar, the filmmakers manage to consistently leave viewers in hysterics – smiling and laughing at something we may not have otherwise experienced while opening our eyes to other points-of-view.

With a far superior third act to the original film that works better on both a comedic level with Lane managing to win over a clueless Hackman as the son’s old-fashioned homemaker "mother" and likewise winning back our respect for their selfish son with some tender declarations, The Birdcage remains one of Williams’ most triumphant comedies in a decade that also scored the actor a hit in another drag related comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire.



Bent (1997)

Although it would take me another year or two to officially “discover” Clive Owen in Mike Hodges’ terrific contemporary film noir Croupier, the actor who’d first received his big break earlier in the ‘90s in Britain’s ITV series Chancer took on a rather daring role in playwright Martin Sherman’s adaptation of his own 1979 stage work Bent.

And while it relishes in extremely graphic images of the hedonistic lifestyle of sexually adventurous Berlin residents in the WWII era (including a cameo by Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger as a drag performer), thereby earning the Cannes award winning film from director Sean Matthias an NC-17 rating, if it were released today in the post Talk to Her society of films by Pedro Almodovar among others, I wonder if the same rating would still hold up.

Essentially it’s a shame that so much emphasis was placed on the production design and exhibitionist sequences that kick-start the movie since as the work continues as Clive Owen’s gay character winds up in the Dachau concentration camp, managing to work out a deal and accept the Jewish designated yellow star as opposed to the gay pink triangle, the film could’ve benefited from the same attention to detail utilized in the beginning.

Similar to the far stronger 1985 screen interpretation of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Bent unfortunately remains extremely stagey throughout. Therefore, despite an excellent turn by both Owen and his co-star Lothaire Bluteau who portrays a fellow camp prisoner given the dreaded pink triangle which he describes as the lowest one can get, the film never manages to reach us on an authentic emotional level since it can’t help feeling like something akin to a play that’s simply been captured on celluloid.

The Object of My Affection (1998)

Working from Stephen McCauley’s eponymous novel, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein crafts some truly dazzling speeches for lead actors Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston in British director Nicholas Hytner’s underrated effort. Although there’s a lot about the work that doesn’t ring true from a logistical standpoint as characters all click into place for a cookie cutter, politically correct conclusion, the film has nonetheless been a bit too harshly judged.

When viewed today, it’s easy to understand why it’s been dismissed by critics in retrospect as either an Aniston film shot to capitalize on the popularity of the Friends actress whose hairstyle became a ‘90s craze or just another straight woman/gay best friend clich├ęd flick that became trendy during the era of Will and Grace, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Madonna and Rupert Everett’s similar venture The Next Best Thing. However, when you try to remain objective and remove the tidal waves of Friends and gay best friend trends, you’re left with much to admire thanks largely to Wasserstein’s compassionate script that centers on misplaced love in all arenas from straight to gay and platonic to romantic as the film’s characters fall in love with the wrong people at the right time or vice versa.

Equally dedicated to their work with the next generation of New York youths, Rudd’s gay first grade teacher George Harrison meets and quickly becomes fast friends and roommates with Aniston’s at-risk teenage counselor Nina Borowski shortly after George discovers from Nina that he’s been dumped by his boyfriend Tim Daly. Happier spending time together than with those they’re dating including Nina’s overbearing, fast-talking boyfriend Vince (John Pankow), the two friends seriously consider becoming their own makeshift family when Nina learns that she’s pregnant and realizes that she’d rather raise the baby with George rather than Vince.

And despite the fact that her step-sister (Allison Janney) warns Nina that she’s harboring more romantic than platonic feelings for her gay knight in shining armor given their already confusing and rather physically affectionate personal boundaries, it takes awhile for our leads to stop rationalizing and move from fantasy to reality in realizing what it is they truly want and need from one another.

Object is bolstered by some superb characterizations from its supporting cast, particularly Nigel Hawthorne as Rodney, a friend the two make late into the picture after George begins to move on with his love life. And although the movie does suffer slightly from its protracted, far too neat wrap-ups for its large ensemble cast, it’s well-worth exploring again the second time around to see what you may have missed in the midst of so much hype during your first viewing when it was nearly impossible to see Aniston in something and not think “that’s Rachel Green!”

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Arguably the most critically acclaimed inclusion in The Cinema Pride Collection, after watching co-writer/director Kimberly Peirce’s feature film debut Boys Don’t Cry starring Hilary Swank in her first Oscar winning role as Best Actress, it seems impossible to imagine what the true story of the short life and tragic death of twenty-one year old Teena Brandon would’ve been like if directed by interested party Diane Keaton with actress Drew Barrymore in the lead.

While obviously the professional, impressive women would no doubt have taken the responsibility of the work seriously, I think a large reason why Boys works so extraordinarily well is that aside from starring in The Next Karate Kid, Hilary Swank was relatively unknown to us. Likewise, Peirce’s passion for the project which manifested in a five year research mission and an award-winning Columbia University precursor short film that helped generate her funding and connections to get it produced made the resulting ’99 effort far more personal, heartfelt and intimate.

With so many involved in the production living out their dreams and overcoming obstacles as underdogs similar to the person whose story they gathered to tell who stepped to the beat of her own personal drummer, the movie transcends the limits of both cinema and its delicate subject matter to ultimately impact viewers personally so that everyone can identify with Brandon’s sole wish just to live life while remaining true to herself. In Brandon’s life this mission meant that the female who was born with the name of Teena Brandon would embrace and overcome her “sexual identity crisis” by living her life pre-sex change operation as a male, flipping her name around to become Brandon Teena.

Careful not to gloss over anything regarding Brandon’s life and transform the character into some sort of symbol or icon, Peirce presents us with the pain, passion and perseverance of the Nebraska individual through choices Brandon made that were both wise and foolish.

Shortly into the film, Brandon gets kicked out of her gay cousin’s place and avoids authorities including a subpoena out for her arrest when Brandon befriends Candace (Alicia Goranson) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) after getting into a bar fight.

When John intervenes in the scuffle, he takes his new pal Brandon down to their place in Falls City, Nebraska where Brandon – still masquerading as the boy he’s convinced he is rather than a female lesbian – quickly falls in love with John’s old flame Lana (Oscar nominated Chloe Sevigny). As their relationship heats up so does suspicion regarding Brandon but nobody could’ve predicted how horrifying the turn of events would be when the truth about Brandon is revealed to deadly effect.

Pulling no punches to the point that an extended attack and rape sequence that nearly garnered the film an NC-17 rating, Boys Don’t Cry is downright excruciating to viewers for its stark authenticity. And even though, Peirce’s extraordinary docudrama isn’t the type of work that you can imagine wanting to view more than once, nonetheless, much like Requiem for a Dream and Sophie’s Choice, it’s one that you feel would benefit us all to be shown in high schools in order to open up a dialogue to ensure that teens and young adults feel safe in expressing their own identity without fear of hatred, violence and murder.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Described by Helen (Heather Juergensen) as the “Jewish Sandra Dee,” twenty-eight year old copyeditor and secretly aspiring painter Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) initially reminds audience members of a “Jewish Annie Hall,” as the woman who her matchmaking mother reminds hasn’t dated in a year endures a series of bad dates with a wide variety of men from fellow gym enthusiasts to those overly picky about how to break up the dinner bill.

And even though she explains that she could never tell her therapist because it’s way too private, somehow, beat down way too much by horrible dates and mixed signals, Jessica answers a personal ad placed by another seemingly straight woman – Juergensen’s Helen – that uses a beautiful quote from Rainer Maria Rilke.

Walking towards and away from Helen repeatedly when they first meet as a freaked out Jessica tries to hail a cab, soon she surprises herself by her agreement to let the possibility of sharing a drink with Helen “marinate” for awhile until soon enough her baby steps lead her to begin tentatively dating the heterosexually promiscuous museum curator even though physical intimacy is something she still balks at much like the virginal Doris Day in old Rock Hudson sexless sex comedies.

Further complicating matters when her old college boyfriend and newspaper editor boss Josh (Scott Cohen) starts getting far more interested in her personal life to the point that he actually becomes nicer to her at work, Jessica finds herself in one confusing romantic comedy that sparkles with wit, appealing characters, and fresh conversation culled from Westfeldt and Juergensen’s original play Lipschtick upon which the film is based.

One of the first movies to digitally remove background images of the World Trade Center as tragically the quintessentially New York Woody Allenesque movie had its second film festival premiere playing on the day before and after 9/11/01 at the Toronto International Film Festival, the talented scribes’ inventive work helmed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld still stands as a remarkably funny, unfailingly likable and surprisingly unique look at being single in the States.

Imagine Me & You (2006)

Before the minister asked attendees if there were any objections to the marriage of Rachel (Piper Perabo) and Heck (Matthew Goode), perhaps it would’ve been better if he’d checked with the bride. In writer/director Ol Parker’s debut film, pretty and thoughtful Rachel is all set to marry her best friend Heck but finds herself pulled by unexpected stirrings on the way to the altar after she catches sight of Luce (Lena Headey), the beautiful florist her mother had hired to piece together the bouquets and arrangements for Rachel’s big day.

At the reception, the two become fast friends when Luce rescues Rachel’s oversized wedding ring from the party punch bowl. And although Rachel tells husband Heck that she feels a certain near soul-mate like friendship connection with Luce, she and Heck decide to play matchmaker by inviting Luce and Heck’s obnoxious humorous admittedly cad like friend (as is always the case in British comedies) to dinner but before he arrives, Luce admits that she’s just not that into men.

Her confession complicates Rachel’s ability to spend time with her new friend, not out of prejudice but the opposite as she begins to see that her lifestyle may be the one Rachel had belonged in all along, although Luce tries to distance herself from her acquaintance not wanting to mess with a couple’s happiness.

Despite the overly polite and -- as several critics pointed out -- unbelievably convenient and nearly apologetically chaste proceedings that made Imagine Me and You the second ’06 film including the bright but admittedly far fetched Gray Matters to deal with a marital love triangle and female’s coming out, the charms of not only Headey and Goode but especially the always under-utilized Piper Perabo make it entertaining.

Although as a straight filmgoer, I can see the arguments of my gay friends in their opposition to the trite plot points and feel this may have begun in the film’s initial stages as it was originally written as a heterosexual love story, it’s still another forgettable, escapist British comedy that’s sure to delight.


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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.