Beach Rats (2017)

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★★★★

“I don’t know what I like,” admits Frankie (Harris Dickinson) towards the start of this dark and dreamy drama. A Brooklyn teenager spending a summer avoiding his father’s sickbed, Frankie escapes his depressing home life by smoking spliffs with his buddies and hitting the boardwalk to raise hell.

He’s also on a brooding journey of self-discovery. What /does/ Frankie like and why is it so hard for him to accept? It’s a rare film that addresses such vast questions in so uncompromising a way, but director Eliza Hittman accomplishes exactly that with Beach Rats.

We quickly learn that Frankie’s real passions lie with members of the same sex. He surfs gay webcam sites at night before agreeing to meet up with an older man. After a passionate woodsy encounter, he goes back to hanging with his surfer bros and even acquires a girlfriend in shop-worker Simone (Madeline Weinstein).

But it’s clear Frankie’s just treading water, uncertain how to process these new desires. “Two girls can make out and it’s hot,” says Simone. “Two guys make out and it’s gay.”

Though shrewd, exchanges like these are infrequent. With the bare minimum in dialogue, Hittman instead focusses on every part of Frankie’s body in a study that’s refreshingly, even brutally honest.

Brit up-and-comer Dickinson is magnetic as the young tearaway, his sea-blue eyes both curious and troubled, and the role’s exposing in every way possible, from a glimpse of a flaccid cock when Frankie fools around with Simone, to a final confrontation that fizzes with fusillade emotion. This isn’t necessarily a coming-out drama destined for a happy ending, but it’s captivating nonetheless.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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★★★★★

“If only you knew how little I knew about the things that matter,” drawls Elio (Timothée Chalamet) halfway through Call Me By Your Name. Seventeen, quietly creative, loudly bored, he’s talking to the handsome grad student who’s spending the summer of ’83 at his parents’ Italy home. It’s the culmination of weeks of furtive flirtation. “What things?” asks the object of his affection. “You know what things,” murmurs Elio. Indeed, we do.

In a film that floats between coming-of-age ennui and heart-stopping moments of beauty, this is the first time Elio talks openly about his feelings. Up until this point, Luca Guadagnino’s alluring adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel luxuriates in ambiguity. Between bright cups of apricot juice and tins of Illy coffee, the story unspools of Elio’s crush on 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), an all-American jock in tiny shorts whose breezy geniality aggravates as much as it allures.

As the duo embark on winding country bike rides and circle each other in sun-dappled courtyards, Chalamet and Hammer cast a beguiling spell. In a giant step up from playing Matthew McConaughey’s son in Interstellar, Chalamet is remarkable, etching an unshowy portrait of a boy on the cusp of adulthood; constantly pretending, seemingly unsure how to behave. Chalamet speaks fluent English, Italian and French, plays the piano and, in the film’s boldest holdover from Aciman’s novel, fearlessly enacts an unforgettable moment with a peach.

Hammer, meanwhile, is a revelation. Departing each scene with a maddening “later”, he’s a million miles from big-budget blow-outs such as The Lone Ranger and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Pivotally, he’s unafraid of allowing Oliver to be unlikeable, lending this luminously optimistic film an edge that kills sentimentality in its tracks.

Guadagnino is a master of the slow build but, unlike the mounting hysteria of I Am Love and the shock rug-pulls of A Bigger Splash, this feels more urgently personal, capturing the pleasures and pains of youth with bracing sensitivity. When Elio talks of “things that matter” it’s relatable no matter your gender or orientation. CMBYN finds a neat balance between heart and art (something Guadagnino has struggled with), whether it’s referencing Heraclitus or playing on Hellenic male relationships.

Of course, there are also Ray-Bans and ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs; the magic of Guadagnino’s film is in its deceptively freewheeling style. In its final moments, CMBYN offers a powerfully emotional full stop; those things that matter have rarely been more arrestingly captured.

Verdict: Peachy keen. A luminous, sun-kissed Italian love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. This is utterly unmissable.

This review was originally published in Total Film magazine.

Weekend (2011)

There are certain things that pretty much all gay men agree on. Cher used to rock. The metrosexual male is a confusing creature. And coming out is one of the defining moments of your life. That last topic is broached early on in director Andrew Haigh’s sexy, agreeably gritty romance, though Weekend isn’t content with simply retreading the same beaten path as so many ‘gay movies’ – it’s a film packed with emotion and honesty.

Mostly it’s about love. Can two people fall in love in just two days? Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) meet in a bar on a Friday night, and end up spending the entire weekend together. They’re fundamentally different – Russell’s a damaged realist who hasn’t fully accepted his sexuality; Glen’s a fiery dreamer, actively controversial and championing gay equality – but that’s exactly what draws them together.

“You want everyone to think independently, but you want them all to agree with you,” Russell challenges Glen at one point. It’s just one of numerous stand-out moments in a film that never rests on its laurels. Weekend is constantly searching; exploring what it means to be gay in the modern world, and demonstrating how two people who are often (derogatively) reduced to a single adjective – queer – can be so utterly different, and so utterly perfect for one another.

Shining an intense light on Cullen and New’s relationship, Weekend’s shabby-chic aesthetic keeps it from devolving into a glossy gay romcom. And despite its themes, to call Haigh’s film a romcom would do it a disservice. With its naturalistic leads, frank sexual encounters and candid discussions, Weekend achieves that most important of filmic ambitions – relatability. In that way, it echoes My Beautiful Laundrette, centring its love story in a recognisable present where gay identity is ever evolving. If only all films about gay men were this good. 4/5

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Tomboy (2011)

“You’re not like other boys,” notes 10-year-old Mikael’s potential new girlfriend in this featherlight drama. She’s not wrong – Mikael is actually a 10-year-old girl called Laure (Zoé Héran), who pretends she’s a boy when she moves with her family to a new neighbourhood. She’s not bad at it either, convincing as a football-loving lad who’s just as gung-ho and mischievous as her comrades. The charade can’t last forever, though, and things get complicated when Laure’s younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) gets wind of what her sibling’s been up to.

Proving that even the most issues-oriented films don’t have to get bogged down by their weighty ideas, director Céline Sciamma handles Tomboy with the same lightness of touch as her feature debut Water Lilies. The French director’s delicate fingerprints are all over her sophomore feature film – Sciamma keeps the focus tight on Laure right from Tomboy’s opening shot, exploring notions of gender and identity from a child’s-eye-view and effectively putting a fresh spin on cross-dressing comedies (this ain’t no White Chicks).

Thanks to Sciamma’s thoughtful approach, it’s almost impossible to refer to Tomboy without using the words ‘sweet’ and ‘sensitive’. While we’re at it, we might as well throw ‘funny’ into the mix as well. Laure comes up with a playdough solution when she’s invited to go swimming, while Lévana almost eclipses Héran as the scene-stealing little sister who prances around in a ballerina costume (while Laure practices spitting in the bathroom sink) and makes the kind of hilarious observations that only a child could (“Mummy doesn’t work because she’s fat and ‘pre-nant’”).

There’s tough stuff going on too – not least when Laure’s mother discovers what her daughter has been up to. In its naturalistic framing and captivating young leads, Tomboy is nothing short of enchanting. 4/5

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The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodóvar may be gay, but that doesn’t stop him loving women. The Spanish director has built a successful career out of making films about the fairer sex, positioning them at the centre of zany, melodramatic storylines in movies that are as outrageous as they are opulent. The Skin I Live In is no different.

Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, an accomplished surgeon who’s escaping his troubled past by experimenting on cultivating a tougher kind of skin. Helping him in this venture is the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya), who Ledgard’s locked in his home, and is using as a guinea pig for his research.

On the surface, Skin… could be mistaken for lazy. After all, many of Almodóvar’s favourite elements are all present and correct – rape, music, violence, sly humour, vivid colours. Do a little digging, though, and it’s clear that the comparisons only run skin deep. Those elements are Almodóvar’s calling cards, and par for the course. With Skin…, the director constructs an involving drama layer by layer, gradually building to the panting, screaming melodrama you expect of him.

Amid the histrionics is a genuinely unsettling treaty on revenge, gender and grief. Almodóvar’s always nudged the boundaries of gender representation, and here he snaps the restraints entirely. The film’s central nuclear bomb of a twist will divide audiences, but Almodóvar rewards the faithful with fertile, febrile material. He also does for Banderas what he did for Penelope Cruz with Volver, gifting him a fascinating role in his native Spanish. Inscrutable, cruel and obsessive, Banderas hasn’t been this ‘on’ in ages.

Skin… is never easy, and its subject matter is tricky at best, almost too extreme at worst. But it’s never anything less than 100% involving – a fearless stab at seriously brain-busting storytelling. 3/5

Kaboom (2010)

If you’re a fan of whiplash-inducing dialogue, healthy doses of rampant nudity, pretty young things being pretty and films with an ardent sense of the absurd, Kaboom could just be your new favourite movie. Written and directed by Greg Araki of The Doom Generation, it’s a bright, head-spinning ode to youthful frivolity that barely pauses for breath as it screeches from one zany set-up to the next.

Acting as our anchor in an orgy of ideas is the pleasingly bestubbled Smith (Thomas Dekker). A sexually “undeclared” college student, he’s got a crush on his frequently naked surfer roomie Thor (Chris Zylka) and is doing the nasty with nutty British bird London (Juno Temple). Things take a turn for the strange, though, when Smith encounters a group of animal-mask-wearing weirdos one night who may or may not have just killed a fellow student.

A blizzard of post-modern activity keeps Kaboom dashing along at a heck of a lick. Championing whipsmart dialogue and a pleasingly glossy sheen, it’s clear that Araki’s having fun toying with us, chucking in OTT supernatural happenings and sexy daydreams to keep us on our toes. Even the film’s central mystery appears to be one big joke.

Which is sort of where Kaboom comes unstuck. Okay, so nobody stays clothed for more than five minutes. But Kaboom exists in a limbo where few actions have discernable consequences, meaning there’s little to grab a hold of. Even the film’s mystery becomes a farce, with the histrionic climax submitting to knowingly cheesy direlogue and a wilfully silly twist.

Still, to those who’ve been raised on a diet of talky, wise-cracking Diablo Cody movies (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), this will be a welcome distraction. For everybody else, Kaboom could merely lead to a good deal of head scratching and the feeling that maybe you’re a bit too old for all this. 3/5

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Love and the pains of prejudice are just two of the themes pumping through My Beautiful Laundrette’s veins, ensuring that this affecting, intimate portrait of inner city ’80s life is as lively as it is absorbing.

Young Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) lives in London with his alcoholic father. Given a job by his uncle at a rundown local laundrette, Omar seizes it as a canny business opportunity. Amid pressures to attend college and get married, Omar bumps into old acquaintance Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) one night, and the seeds of an old relationship sprout anew.

Laundrette’s biggest surprise (and risk) has long since become common knowledge – that of the daring romance between Omar (affectionately and comically known as ‘Omo’) and reformed white thug Johnny. What’s most admirable about Laundrette’s handling of ‘gayness’, though, is that it refuses to portray Omo and Johnny’s relationship as any different from any other fledgling romance. Tellingly, Omo and Johnny’s is the most put-together pair-up in the entire film.

Where most contemporary ‘gay’ films root their plotlines in the traumas of being gay, Laundrette keeps it low-key and genuinely touching, deliberately skirting the obvious ‘issues’ that a gay romance might invite. Day-Lewis in particular is on top form, deepening his thuggish bad boy into an affectionate, well-meaning squatter earnestly seeking atonement for his past misdeeds.

There’s more going on in Laundrette than gayness alone. Though it’s clearly a product of the ‘80s, the London it presents isn’t all that different from the London of today. Cleverly pictured by director Stephen Frears as a stifled hodgepodge of urban development gone mad, in which people live literally on top of one another (often in the least aesthetically pleasing of surrounds), it’s the perfect breeding ground for our busy story.

Training its eye on numerous plot strands involving adultery, family pressures and racism, Laundrette is never drowned by its subject matter, retaining a warm sense of humour that often goes hand-in-hand with gratifyingly gritty realism. It remains a beautiful snapshot of troubled times, bringing with it the hope that good things really do happen to good people. 4/5

Taxi Zum Klo (1980)

An invaluable snapshot of ‘70s gay life, this racy re-release from 1981 is a shocking, raunchy, bare-boned delight. Meaning ‘Taxi to the John’ in German, Taxi Zum Klo earned its stripes as a scandalous, underground pseudo-porno back in the ‘80s, and retains much of its power to flabbergast even today.

Frank Ripploh directs and stars as the bearded gay teacher who leads a double life – by day he’s an adored educator of children, by night he’s a drug-loving, promiscuous playboy whose boundaries are as sturdy as pink crepe paper. Ripploh’s night life consists solely of hitting up hedonistic highs – meeting men in toilets and plucking strangers from the street. But when he falls in love with Bernd, can Ripploh survive the limitations of a monogamous relationship?

Clever, candid and uncommercial, much of Taxi’s ability to rivet stems from its sly blending of fact with fiction. While it’s shot in a straight forward documentary style, and includes everything from real-life people to hardcore gay sex, it’s near impossible to separate the real from the fabricated. With all those involved in the making of the film now dead, it’s a captivating conundrum.

Where Taxi works best, though, is as an intriguing time capsule that offers important insight into a time gone by. It’s plain to see why the film was so outrageous to an ‘80s audience. In this era of Shortbus orgies and 9 Songs orgasms, Taxi’s ability to shock now comes from its depiction of casual, unprotected sex in a pre-AIDs setting – in particular a graphic scene in which Ripploh engages in water sports with a man he barely knows. An opportune reminder of how much has changed in the intervening 30 years, Taxi makes for a rough, ready, disarmingly intelligent ride. 4/5

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Howl (2010)

‘Howl’, by gay Beat generation radical Allen Ginsberg, is more than just a poem. A giddy, piquant war cry, its sexy idioms and white-hot imagery awoke a new way of thinking in a repressed, fearful ‘50s. Small wonder that, by the time of Ginsberg’s death in 1997, ‘Howl’ had sold more than 800,000 copies, been translated into 25 different languages, and had transformed into an anthem of acceptance and free speech.

Broaching such a loaded subject in biopic form was always going to be tricky. Ginsberg himself led a fascinating life, one tainted by tragedy (his mother’s descent into madness), drama (his frequent spells in jail) and romance (his affair with car thief Neal Cassidy). It’s a lot for one movie to play with, and explains the ambitious approach of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. Theirs is a film of four parts, Howl’s focus flitting between a quartet of distinct vignettes – interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco); the poet’s Beat life and first reading of ‘Howl’ in 1955; an accompanying expressionist animation; and a court hearing as a legal suit is filed against Ginsberg’s “offensive” text.

Busy is not the word, and Howl strains to suitably blend its contrasting components. The court scenes, though given a turbo-boost by actors like Jon Hamm (who looks like he’s just stepped off the Mad Men set), are the main problem, grinding proceedings to a halt. A shame, because Franco’s spirited reading of the poem is effortless, paired with a dazzling animation that features deep sea pianos, spinning, skeletal ghosts and hellish landscapes. Fingers crossed that the DVD release has a feature that plays the animation, Howl’s greatest achievement, on its own. At its best, Howl recalls the honourable experiments of an early Gus Van Sant (who serves as exec producer). At its worst, it’s directionless and meandering. 3/5

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Rabbit Hole (2010)

“Does it ever go away?” whispers Becca (Nicole Kidman) towards the end of John Cameron Mitchell’s wrenching, enriching testimony on grief. Those who’ve ever lost a loved one will feel her pain. Cocooned in a house groaning with memories, Becca’s shell-shocked, exposed, drifting – her young son has just died in a road accident, leaving her and husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) alone to pick up the pieces. Each cope differently – Becca goes inward, her flinty interactions concealing deep ache. Howie goes outward, searching, hoping.

If all this sounds like an A-list episode of Hollyoaks, it isn’t. Helmed by Shortbus and Hedwig director Mitchell, Rabbit Hole represents a U-turn in form for the openly gay filmmaker. Reigning in the explicit sex and power wigs, Mitchell directs deftly, quietly, creeping into the lives of our pugnacious couple and watching without judgement.

All the best indie buzz words apply: restrained, poignant, moving. But Rabbit Hole isn’t content to be just another indie film with an A-class cast and Big Issues. As it tracks Becca’s journey, it wraps her brittle experiences in mordant wit, ensuring that what could be a drab, maudlin slog is as vibrant as the flowers over which Becca so affectionately fawns.

Vitally, Rabbit Hole’s musings never ring false. Beautifully adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own stageplay, Kidman rises to the demands of his vivid script, leading an impeccable cast that betrays no weak links. Eckhart exudes soul and Sandra Oh elicits sniggers, while Oscar winner Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother is nothing short of miraculous – both kind and knowing. Amidst them all, Kidman remains coarse, frail and sincere in her finest turn since The Hours. Rabbit Hole is emotional, raw stuff managed with warmth and poise, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on the Academy Awards short list. 4/5

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