Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inside Out 2012: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the 22nd Annual Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Madame X (Dir: Lucky Kuswandi, Indonesia, 2010, 100 min)

When I saw this transsexual superhero "over-the-top extravaganza" in the program guide, I honestly wasn't sure if it was going to be any good. With comedy, and especially comedies from different cultural contexts, there's just so much that can go wrong. I'm entirely glad I went to check this out, as it turned out to be stupendous, fabulous fun. The film takes the now-clichéd superhero origin story, drive-in movie kitsch and dayglo-coloured camp and twists the stands together into a riotous laugh-out-loud extravaganza that plows ahead with giddy momentum.

Adam lives a quiet life as a glamourous/trashy hairdresser amongst a surrogate family that accepts him as a "trannie" until a visionary stranger with a murky agenda shows up on his birthday. Giving him a "fortune" meant to deter him from following his destiny might have worked if the efforts of a rising purity + morals faction didn't throw his life out of skew. Ending up at a dance studio in a remote village, Adam's true potential is slowly revealed as he accepts his role as crime-fighting Madame X.

Along the way, queer and trans stereotypes are embraced and joyfully skewered while "rising superhero" tropes are winked at one by one. Cartoonish villains, helpful mentors and mute butlers all have hidden backstories that the semi-oblivious Adam slowly unfolds as the story shifts with self-aware temporal leaps — when asked why he is staring off into the distance at one point, Adam curtly responds, "I'm having a flashback!" before the frame dissolves into his memory.

Sight gags abound, but the snappy dialogue keeps up, even with subtitles. It ain't highbrow, but it's sure as hell hilarious. And I haven't even mentioned the shadowy nemeses in neon-coloured burqas or the weaponized hairdressing implements. Completely recommended, and if you come to this with the right sensibility you'll also be tantalized by the requisite sequel-baiting loose threads that are left dangling at the conclusion.

How to Survive a Plague (Dir: David France, USA, 2011, 109 min)

The topped-up reserves of positivity were probably helpful in getting through this documentary, receiving its International Première at the festival — a thoroughly excellent work that is, nevertheless, rather emotionally draining. An immersive history of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) covering the years of fear and confusion in the late 80's/early 90's when AIDS was at its deadliest, and despair was setting in. The passion with which cadres of newly-minted activists applied themselves to the cause reflects the fact that they were aware that they were fighting for their lives, often against smug indifference — if not outright hostility.

Rather than trying to tackle the whole of the AIDS crisis and the response to it, this film slices it down to focus on the original New York City-based chapter of ACT UP, and from there to tell the story of a handful of individuals. Peter Staley, Garance Franke-Ruta, Mark Harrington, Iris Long, Larry Kramer and Bob Rafsky are among those followed, tracing them through their roles in the various direct actions as well as their own individual journeys in the face of personal extinction.

The layers here are manifold. At one level, this is a case study in a highly effective civil rights campaign, and the direct democracy structure that sustained it. Footage from the free-ranging general assemblies that were ACT UP's main organizational forum look prescient for today's Occupy-ers, and testify to the potential of messy, rambling direct democracy. And there's copious footage of the group's protests, undertaken with immense media savvy to get the message out to the general public that the government was failing in the face of a crisis.

And beyond that, it's a presentation of the persuasive power of the right individual with the right words. Showing the organization's penchant for inside/outside engagement, footage of Peter Staley, invited to address the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, is astonishing rhetoric — Staley finds common ground with the academics, leads them in a chant, and tells them they are also activists: "You are now members of ACT UP."

And as the inevitable tactical and strategic divisions begin to appear amongst the activists, there's also a starkly stirring clarion call from Kramer, like an old-testament prophet, cutting through the bickering with shouts of "Plague!" The splits and messiness within the organization aren't papered over, though there's perspective gained from all sides in more recent interviews.

All of this is undercut with a gut-punch emotional undertone. No matter how much there was to celebrate in the end, when procedures and programs pioneered by the activist community started to bear fruit, this is also a lament for those lost along the way. And though with the new combination therapies the worst of the crisis has passed, the film ends with the stark reminder that two million people are dying from AIDS every year. The struggle continues.

Act up! / Fight back! / Fight AIDS!

Our Paradise (Notre paradis) (Dir: Gaël Morel, France, 2011, 100 min)

I guess there's just a meanness in this world. A hustler on the wrong side of thirty, Vassili is finding his clients to be less enticed by his charms, opening an existential chasm that he attempts to plug with their murdered bodies. Showing no remorse for the violence he exacts, Vassili is nevertheless capable of great tenderness, which is revealed when he rescues a badly-beaten younger hustler and quickly falls in love.

The younger man is also smitten, claiming to be reborn in Vassili's arms and casting off everything about his former life, including his name. Re-christened Angelo, the pair begin an unconventional courtship, flirting while turning tricks. The bodies continue to pile up, and when Angelo realizes this in the aftermath of a protective-yet-murderous gesture from Vassili, he is discomforted but unshaken in his commitment.

When things take the inevitable bad turn, the pair begin a Starkweather-like cross-country ramble, meeting up with Vassili's former lover Anna as well as Victor, his wealthy sugar daddy with a gorgeous, remote mountain cottage. The outcome feels inevitable following the pair's trajectory — do not expect a surprise twist to provide anyone's redemption.

Which is to say: whatever value this movie has doesn't arise from the progression of the plot. Its aim seems more to act as a psychological profile of Vassili, although there's only suggestions and shadows to hint at his motivations — mostly a nihilism arising from his collapsing narcissism as his youthful looks fade. (One problem with that is that Stéphane Rideau is still movie-star buff and handsome, so it takes a mild leap of faith to see him as a fading beauty.) There's also an undertone of moralistic class warfare, with Vassili and Angelo simply punishing the rich perverts who would procure their services, although the movie doesn't push too hard with this idea.

Although it is well-filmed and decently acted (and Dimitri Durdaine's Angelo probably serves as eye candy enough to make this satisfying for some), it ultimately feels a little airless. For me, the most interesting notion was how much sympathy the film aroused for Vassili, despite the brutal acts we see him perform. It's not until the final act that I began to feel a sense of complicit shame for tagging along while he got his kicks. All told, not a major work, but an entertaining flick.

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