Strange that the first thing I could think to write about would be the curiously compelling "failures" of a number of films I've viewed in the past week over the "yeah, yeah, it's good" crossing of Casablanca off my "why the fuck haven't I seen this?" list. Really, what is there to say about Casablanca anyway? It's superior on nearly every level, and yet the focus of this entry is on the (perhaps more interesting) oddities I found myself viewing.
El misterio de los almendros [The Mystery of the Almond Trees] - dir. Jaime Humberto Hermosillo - 2004 - Mexico
Here's a premise to befuddle even the most un-beffuddle-able: two rookie detectives (Alejandro Tommasi, José Juan Meraz) are assigned to a case of a missing painting, belonging to a wealthy family whose daughter had gone missing. The rookies pose as homosexual lovers to get a special invite from a widow (María Rojo), known for hosting weekend posh parties for societal outcasts, whose daughter may have been the lover of the missing girl. There's also a string of murders that happen to surround the whole affair. Where is this going, you might think. Strangely, it happens to be going in directions I'm not sure the director (famous for Doña Herlinda and Her Son and Esmeralda Comes by Night) was even aware of. At some point in the film, the whole premise goes up in smoke, and the director doesn't even seem to care! What's also notable about the film (aside from the fact that I don't remember there being trees or almonds anywhere onscreen) is that the film isn't lead astray by the director's alterier motives, but merely for the sake of just going where it wants. It's like an untamed animal, all coiffed up before destroying the dinner party. And yet, it's so compelling in its confusion that you, too, forget why the detectives are even at this woman's house, let alone posing as lovers, let alone engaging in the sort of devious activity they fall into. I'd probably deserve a prize if I could explain what actually went on during the film, but I'm just satisfied with the ability to still shake my head at a film which I can't resist being coaxed into.
The Life [Yo puta] - dir. Luna - 2004 - Spain
Oh, what to do with The Life? I have no knowledge of the production itself, so all I can do is merely speculate. On one level, the film is about a young anthropology student (Denise Richards... yeah, I know) having trouble paying her bills as her grant runs out. Her neighbor (Daryl Hannah) has a solution: become a whore like her! You see, Ms. Richards has never had a boyfriend, and she's a virgin (right, I know), so this could pose a problem. It apparently posed a problem for the film itself, as I think the two actresses clock in about 15% of the film's actual screen time. Intercut, you'll find weird testimonials from actual prostitutes about "the business," love and sex, and their first time, seemingly having little to do with Denise's unfortunate situation. The talking-heads aren't particularly enlightening (you can find about 1000 documentaries on sex workers out there), but I'll say: it's never boring. Not being boring is a lot more to ask than you can imagine for me lately, so kudos to director Luna (not J.J. Bigas Luna as Netflix has labeled the film). Watching The Life is like watching someone salvaging a film they tried to make and realized half-way through was utter crap. I wouldn't encourage every director out there to piece together their rotten, unused footage and throw it together in some tiresome essay film, but at least The Life can show you that sometimes you can find lovely things buried in your trash can (if that's indeed what happened).
Innocents [Dark Summer] - dir. Gregory Marquette - 2000 - Canada/USA/Germany
This film, with its wonderful cast and awful Photoshopped-boxart, had always taunted me at the video store. What was Connie Nielsen and Jean-Hughes Anglade doing in this film? (The answer was a bit more simply answered when it came to Mia Kirshner) Well, eventually, I had to find out... and I'm still not very sure, but in ways more surprising than if the film was just direct-to-video shit. It's certainly not that, but what it is, I'm also unsure. In some ways it's a gothic tale of Americana (filmed in Canada, of course) in which a cellist (Anglade) takes two sisters he barely knows (Nielsen, Kirshner) on a cross country road trip. But, oh shit, there's a murderer lurking on the freeway. Or are the sisters a part of these murders? The answer, thankfully, is that they aren't, and about midway through the tension, the director gives up on it realizing there would be no possible way for the cards to fall in such a way. Innocents (or Dark Summer as it was originally titled) is amusing unflinching in its cold (but somehow pulpy) violence and trickery. Its trickery, thankfully, is all on Anglade's head, not the audience's. The film exists solely to display conflict, both imaginary and played out, in a perversely sexual manner. I don't know if I'm happy with where the director went with it, but, like I said for the two previous films, I was never bored. At one point in the film, Anglade asks the real question that's boiling beneath the surface: why the hell is Mia Kirshner wearing an awful wig? I'm always for a movie where a line of dialogue reminds you that the filmmakers aren't nearly as clueless as you might think they are, especially when I was afraid the wig was just a cheap way to convince the audience that the strikingly different actresses could be sisters.
Agnes and His Brothers [Agnes und seine Brüder] - dir. Oskar Roehler - 2004 - Germany
For someone with very little interest in American Beauty, I was surprised to find how much I liked a film that could owe so much to that film (even five years too late). Not to give anything away for those concerned with spoilers, but Agnes and His Brothers lifts at least two notable scenes from its American predecessor... and I didn't even mind! I'm not really sure where my film taste is going right now, but I'm happy enough to just let it find its way. The film concerns itself with three brothers: Werner (Herbert Knaup), a politician of sorts who relates to his dog more than his family; Hans-Jörg (Mortiz Bleibtreu), the lonely middle brother who happens to work at the only library in the entire world where the only inhabitants are hot women (thus feeding his sexual addiction); and, of course, Agnes (Martin Weiß), a transsexual go-go dancer. It's rather typically funny/sad, but it amplifies both sides so well to points frequently hilarious/devastating. Though the film's aim is in a different direction, I can't help but wish something like Margot at the Wedding had a bit more Agnes in her.
Sugar - dir. John Palmer - 2004 - Canada
The business of adapting Bruce LaBruce would seem a difficult endeavor as director Palmer did with LaBruce's short stories in Sugar. It probably made it a lot easier considering that the stories in which the film was based have little in common with LaBruce's cinematic work (of which I'm a raging fan, as you should know). I don't have a lot to say about Sugar here as it's working beautifully into a longer piece I'm planning based on my New Queer Cinema blog from a few months back. In many ways though, Sugar works as a meta piece of the youngster growing up with the films of LaBruce and Gregg Araki, depicting a teenage boy's (Andre Noble) fascination and subsequent disgust with the darker side of first love in a rent boy named Butch (Brendan Fehr). Also look for (now Oscar-nominated!) Sarah Polley as a pregnant crack dealer.
Good Boys [Yeladim Tovim] - dir. Yair Hochner - 2005 - Israel
Like Sugar, I won't say as much as I'd like to about Good Boys, as it, too, will be worked into the New Queer Cinema piece. It's actually quite fascinating how Good Boys works opposite everything about contemporary "gay" cinema in its promise of nastiness and heart and the way it gives it to the audience. It's nasty, alright, but not in redeeming ways. In fact, it uses nudity in a most clever manner, de-sexualizing it to the point of digust and, thus, straying from the more beautiful forms of sexuality. Though calling the film "good" might be a stretch, it still works as a great counter-point to the post-NQC garbage of American cinema.