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Film Days 5-7: Amazing Truths and Beautiful Losers

Kevin John and Justin Follin

Explorations into the complex lives and motivations of a Filipina transsexual and Lower East Side graffiti artists, among others, trump the perplexing polyamory of Scorsese, the Stones, and IMAX. Meanwhile, torture-porn loses whatever remaining edge it had.

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

Directed by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson

The last thing filmdom needs is an exposé on a transsexual, especially since we’re still waiting for that feature-length investigation into heterosexuality. So it’s just as well that we never learn any amazing truth about Raquela in Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s fantastic The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela: the “truth” would only cheapen a subject that usually devolves into movie-of-the-week topicality. Instead, Johannesson immerses us in the texture of an everyday existence.

Essentially playing herself, Raquela (Raquela Rios) pines for a life beyond her native Philippines, where transsexuals face a bleak future. She’s fed up with the prostitute life and has moved successfully into the world of internet porn. With some money saved, she gets a temporary visa to Iceland, bringing her closer to the city of her dreams, Paris.

Given the hand-held camera and frequent interviews with characters, it’s easy to forget that this film is based on true events rather than an attempt to document those events. But Johannesson’s not after any documentary vs. fiction mind games. He’s more interested in exploring the various environments surrounding Raquela. His at times indifferent framing, whether from a peculiar distance or from around a corner, picks up a sign that reads “All gays are absolutely free” outside a club where Raquela hangs with her friends. Or it cannily catches the recently showered butt cheeks of Johnny, the photographer who shoots Raquela for the porn site where she makes safer money. Despite the fact that the film was constructed from a series of emails Raquela sent to Johannesson, everything is observed rather offhandedly, even a hit-and-run which leaves Raquela with a limp.

The result is a story that saunters with a matter-of-fact, dazed rhythm. It’s difficult to determine, for instance, when exactly Michael (a brilliant performance by Stefan C. Schaefer), the New York owner of the porn site, moves to the center of the film. A cranky go-getter, he makes Raquela’s wish come true by taking her to Paris. But he damn near ruins the experience with his constant bitching about a universe that doesn’t move to his exacting specifications. With her visa expired and Michael off to find a more supplicant geisha, Raquela winds up back in the Philippines at the end of the film, future unknown.

But The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is far from a pity piece. Its sounds and images insinuate rather than inform. Rather than offering factoids you can brush off into the file cabinet of your mind, the film quickly starts to feel like a dream you had last night. Let it stew for a few hours and you can’t help revisiting seemingly inconsequential moments. In this way, Raquela’s story lives with us and not for us. A remarkable achievement.

-- Kevin John


Love Songs

Directed by Christophe Honoré

Finally! A great contemporary film with an original screenplay where characters burst into song! Right out on the streets or in their homes! Even at work! And nary a musician or a musical instrument in sight!

Christophe Honoré’s superb Love Songs traces the effects of a tragedy that befalls a Paris ménage a trios -- Ismael (Louis Garrel, son of the great director Philipe Garrel), Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), and Alice (Clotilde Hesme). In the wake of great sorrow, Ismael roams the streets emotionally unfettered and soon becomes sexually involved with the young, beautiful Erwann (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Frencher than French, the film bites off less than it can chew, offering countless small-scale pleasures and an open-ended dénouement that suggests one tiny point in the flow of eternity.

Honoré refuses to see this story as somehow incommensurate with the spontaneous outburst of song. Each gush of music lays testament to the kinds of people these characters are, as well as those they wish they could be. Chasing after ideals that may not even exist, they keep getting beaten back down by reality, and their struggle with this gap gains heft within the reality-tweaking genre of the musical.

And you know something else? The music ain’t half bad. Alex Beaupain’s songs are creditable approximations of pop music even though they frequently resort to the amelodic sing-speak of recitatives. There’s even a bit of feedback thrown into one number. It’s mild feedback -- this is hardly My Bloody Valentine territory -- but enough to suggest that a fusion of Singing in the Rain and The Stooges’ Fun House might not be far off. Merci, Christophe!

-- Kevin John


Beautiful Losers

Directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard

Have you fallen in love before? Maybe you know those moments -- early morning, heads propped on pillows, wandering fingers, and the dropping away of all your “cool.” Whispered secrets and volleyed giggles draining caskets of vulnerabilities until all that’s left is a seemingly unending chasm of joy. So delicate and free, that blissful space, like childhood and a time when nothing was more important than play. Its potential waits dormant in all of us, and strikes with all-consuming waves of passion -- that oft-forgotten field of endless wonder, and the womb of inspiration where true art is born.

After watching the film Beautiful Losers, I felt like I had fallen in love. I don’t say that as a metaphor for my enjoyment of the time spent in the theater, or as a catchphrase implying that I liked this the way people “fall in love” with an ad agency’s work or a new house. What I mean is, I felt joy. I wanted to run home, stretch a canvas, and do my best to mix colors into something that resembled the magnitude of my appreciation for the incomprehensible beauty of being human. I wanted to play. Good Lord, how many movies can inspire that?

This feature doc tracks the skyrocket ascent of ten do-it-yourself creatives from their Lower East Side, screw-the-establishment roots to global notoriety as trend-defining artists. From the beginning, it was their unfettered enthusiasm for self-expression that became a uniting bond for these graf-art skater kids who seemed to revel in taking the box from the phrase “out of the box,” re-folding it, tagging it, and then turning it into a subversive anarchist statement. Each of the film’s profiles reveals individuals whose eventual success never spoiled their deep humility, appreciation for their friends, and child-like exploration of the possibilities of aesthetics. They seemed to grow up without growing out of youth, and their fountain was obviously their art.

Eye-catching shots of all the work combined together with poetic edits make the film itself feel like an installation where it doesn’t matter who did the art, just that it exists for us to witness. A catchy score by Money Mark and a killer soundtrack (including a Cat Power track that tickles the film’s climactic montage like fingers on a guitar) add aural aesthetics to the visual masterworks. Entertaining interviews all diverge with each artist’s own separate stories and collide again with the agreed-upon message that nothing is more important than creativity, friendship, and love. It’s so, so beautiful. I give it five stars, two thumbs up, a big hug, or whatever it is that a reviewer is supposed to say about a brilliant film. It is, without a doubt in my mind, the best thing I have seen at South by Southwest.

-- Justin Follin


Shine a Light

Directed by Martin Scorsese

A Rolling Stones concert directed by Martin Scorsese for the nausea-inducing screens of Imax? Anything more overwhelming (3-D, say, and perhaps fake Jagger sweat flinging off the screen), and Boomers would start dropping from heart attacks. And yet, Shine a Light winds up an ultimately ho-hum event.

You’d think the sixtysomething Stones and the sixtysomething Scorsese would have something to say to one another. With Scorsese in the throes of long-awaited Oscar validation and the Stones still capable of creating good music forty years on (e.g., 2005’s A Bigger Bang, not a single song from which is performed, even though the film documents their Beacon Theater stop on its tour), Shine a Light could have testified to the potential drama in growing old before dying. And who knows? Maybe the film is such a testament. Maybe some Scorsese scholar will detect that drama in each of the auteur’s carving camera swirls.

But at the end of the day, this is still a concert film. And if, back in 1978 with The Last Waltz, Scorsese couldn’t solve the problem of how to make a live rock performance look interesting, he certainly can’t solve it with the Stones today, especially given the limitations he had with filming. If we’re to believe the prologue (which includes footage of the band meeting Bill and Hillary Clinton), the Stones were prickly about everything from set design to camera placement. And apparently, Scorsese didn’t receive the finalized set list until mere seconds before the performance, making for a bit of comedy at the start.

So perhaps Shine a Light is yet another example of the former seminary student’s fascination with droogs who could kick his 5’4”, asthmatic, plane-fearing ass, with the Glimmer Twins replacing the wise guys that drearily populate his films. But even that tension dissipates, as we don’t see Scorsese again until a cheesy (and mercifully brief) epilogue. Apart from snippets of archival interviews, most of the film is just the Stones concert.

And yes, Scorsese’s many cameras give us unprecedented access to the stage -- coming up from behind, swooping from below, Mick comin’ right at us. But nearly two hours of the stuff gets same-y and wearying. While the performances are intermittently thrilling (with inspired turns from special guests Jack White, Buddy Guy, and Christina Aguilera), none are definitive, and some aren’t even Special Features worthy (“Shattered” is disfigured almost beyond recognition, and Keith blows “Connection” after a fine “You Got the Silver”). A decent-plus show. But you’re left with a lot of questions: Why Imax? Why Scorsese? Why the Stones, even? Why?

-- Kevin John


Experimental Shorts

The spirit of the Music Videos program infiltrated this evening of Experimental Shorts at its worst. A few titles advertised designer surrealism and slapped a song on top with little concern over image/sound relations. Fortunately, most of the shorts arrived at a much more intriguing place. Theo Lipfert’s “Certain Green” follows a woman’s journey to find the perfect shade of green, a tale that might have suffered from over-earnestness were it not for the voice of a nattering psychic on the soundtrack. Michael Langan’s “Doxology” features a pretty boy who tangos with a car, grooms himself with Shiva-armed dexterity, and bounces a tennis ball with several copies of himself. Nicholas Tayler’s “Kupe and the Whale” weaves images of aircraft and currency together with an inscrutable fable about New Zealand. Both create eye/ear-confounding juxtapositions that defy understanding while satisfying our need for an as-yet-unspecified spirituality. Jibz Cameron and Hedia Maron’s “Dynasty Handbag -- The Quiet Storm” stars a she-dork in a Star Trek fringe shirt who takes her outcast status to its limit by refusing to ever speak again... until she has to... sorta. Unfolding before green screen images of “pirated internet photos,” the film finds poignancy and cheese on the same coin. In “Safari”, Catherine Chalmers moves her camera in so close to various insects and amphibians that they intermittently seem like glistening plastic models (as indeed they may well have been). The proximity makes the ensuing mayhem (beetles fighting, carnivorous plants sucking down flies) all the more difficult to watch. I won’t be able to shake the final image of a frog swallowing his underwater snack any time soon.

-- Kevin John



Directed by Edward Anderson

Two gals return from a trip to Mexico and wait at the airport for their luggage to arrive. One gal quickly appreciates the flirty attention of a young horndog male, and, together with his buddy, all four board a shuttle to downtown. But the driver takes them through increasingly shady (and curiously underpopulated) neighborhoods, and (who guessed it?) after a horrific accident changing a flat tire, the trip turns into one endless-at-106-minutes nightmare.

Unfortunately, Edward Anderson’s hateful little film Shuttle will keep your heart racing non-stop. “Unfortunately” because it does nothing more (and a whole lot less besides). It hardly matters that the story offers the usual numbingly predictable twists (advice to future torture-porn directors: don’t make it seem like all is well halfway through the film, else we’ll guess your ace in the hole), missed opportunities (a former student sitting next to me shouted “Why didn’t you do that an hour ago?!?!” to the heroine towards the end), and ridiculous character traits (bet you never realized that some shuttle bus drivers have the tenacity of Freddie and Jason). Those are precisely the tactics that create the suspense, cheap and insulting though it may be.

But Anderson fails to realize that feel-bad movies (this ends on a pronounced bummer, albeit unfocused, note) are just as banal as feel-good movies. They’re escapist and unedifying, as evidenced by Shuttle’s waste stream of shock rhythms and gross-outs for gross-outs’ sake. And when you factor in the clueless representations of “the hood” as well as yet another cast of sexually active young characters marked for death, you start to get sick to your stomach for very different reasons.

-- Kevin John

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