In the first ever (don't worry, I won't do this often) all foreign language film set of DVD reviews, we will visit drag queens in Portugal, cattle farmers in Belgium, and startlingly poor South African villagers. It's amazing how American movies have to be about cops, doctors, lawyers, criminals, or dysfunctional families, but films made in other parts of the world can be about a variety of different kinds of people. Hope you have your passports ready...
To Die Like a Man - If anyone thinks that I've given films like Weekend (review here) and We Were Here (review here) five star grades simply because they had gay themes, then I am so glad that you are going to read my review of this film about Tonia, an aging drag queen and Rosario, her orientation conflicted, addict lover. But the cliches don't stop there. You've got the All About Eve-esque up-and-coming queen that Tonia trained herself, the estranged and bitter son from Tonia's previous life as a man, the "purse dog" who is Tonia's only friend, the manager slowly turning his attention to the younger members of the show, and feathers....lots....of feathers.
Overall, the film plays like Roger Waters without the self-aware, slightly self-effacing humor. No, maybe it plays like Torch Song Trilogy as a melodrama. You say Trilogy WAS a melodrama? I thought so too, until I saw the histrionic acting on display in To Die Like a Man. There was even a section in the middle where for five minutes you watch characters arranged in tableau, stock still in the woods. The screen is tinted bright red and a mellow spiritual sounds in the background supposedly being sung to them by the stars or the moon or something. For five minutes.
Then there are the weird coincidences that don't mean anything. Tonia and her son both find the same cabin in the woods, both by accident, on completely separate occasions. Why? Saving on the cost of set decoration is my only theory. I can't resist ending this review by emphasizing that this Portuguese tragedy was...well...a drag. No DVD release date as of yet, but available on Netflix Instant Play. 1 1/2 of 5*
Life, Above All - I was mostly enthralled watching South African director Oliver Schmitz's film about a tough young girl whose family and poor village are beleaguered by AIDS. The characters are roundly drawn, the drama unfolds naturally, and there is even a bit of mystery to the beginning of the film. I actually felt as if I learned something about the culture of the movie's country of origin. It is easy to see how AIDS can be such a modern epidemic in a land where the patients are so stigmatized that they are afraid to even say the name of the disease out loud. It is also like a little time capsule of America's attitude in the 1980's.
I must also give major kudos to Khomotso Manyaka, the film's young lead actress. She displays an enormous array of emotions for a juvenile actress to even to begin to understand, and plays it beautifully. In a story filled with so much tragedy, it would have been easy for her performance to go overly demonstrative, but most of Manyaka's brilliance in Life, Above All is about what you see bubbling beneath her confident surface.
It would have been easy to make a film about AIDS among the poor in Africa that was nothing more than a one issue lecture on activism, but Schmitz does much more here. The film explores mother/daughter relationships, child prostitution, and also functions quite well as a simple coming of age story from a fresh perspective.
In fact, I would say that I absolutely loved this film, except for the last ten minutes. I don't want to give too much away, but I suddenly went from watching a thoughtful, often understated film, to a Hallmark Hall of Fame rerun in which the courage of one plucky little girl changes the hearts and minds of her whole community...in ten minutes. Still, my disappointment could not erase my esteem for the first 90% of the film, or for the lead actress's performance. Available on DVD. 4 of 5*
Bullhead - This is the first feature length film from writer/director Michael R. Roskam and it shows him to be a young film maker of much talent and promise. On the surface, this is a film about cattle farmers in Belguim who become targets in a sting operation due to their illegal use of hormones to increase the quality of their beef. It is also the story of a young man, brutally disfigured physically and mentally at a young age and his desperate attempt to claim his own manhood. It is also a mystery, in which we must unfold the details of this man's past before we can even begin to understand him.
This man, Jackie, is played with ingenious ferocity by Matthias Schoenaerts, in one of my favorite male performances of the year. He is a beast, wrapped in a little boy, wrapped in yearning. He is uber-focused, yet completely out of control, and so haunted. You fear him, pity him, and fear for him. Schoenaert's characterization starts at a slow burn and build to an explosive boil. I cannot stress enough that Bullhead would be worth watching on the strength of this performance alone.
Fortunately, this is not the only thing to recommend about the film. The direction and script are also mostly right on point, and it features some highly creative and moving cinematography. I only hope that Roskam makes at least a few more films that open his native country up to the world before Hollywood snatches him up to make English language features. Schoenaerts, on the other hand, already belongs to the whole world, judging by the critical response at Cannes this year to his acting in director Audiard (A Prophet)'s film Rust and Bone opposite Marion Cotillard. Unless you are subtitlaphobic (and surely you've stopped reading by now if you are), I highly suggest you check Bullhead out. Available on DVD. 4 1/2 of 5*