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Knight at the Movies: Gun Hill Road; I Don't Know How She Does It; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-09-14

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It's been three years since Enrique has been in prison and away from wife Angela and teenage son Michael. However, Enrique, a stereotypically macho Latino who has spent the last part of his prison sentence in solitary after beating up a gay prisoner, is coming home. What awaits him are a wife who has taken up with another man and a son who is transitioning from male to female. You'd better believe big trouble looms in Gun Hill Road, writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green's moving portrait of a fractured family trying to find a way to hang onto their love.

Unlike La Mission, a movie with a similar plot that focused primarily on the father's attempt to come to terms with his son's coming out, Gun Hill Road—which takes its title from the tough Bronx neighborhood in which it is set—pulls off the neat trick of giving us the viewpoint of each of its lead characters. We alternately feel contempt and sympathy for Enrique, who is played with finesse by Esai Morales (who also executive-produced) as he struggles with inbred prejudices in contending with both his cultural and familial issues. Judy Reyes, as Angela, is a marvel of complexity—cautiously optimistic, angry, protective, vulnerable and sexy. She is truly the tie that tries to bind this fragile trio together. Lastly, Harmony Santana, a transgender actress in her debut as Michael/Vanessa, ably brings off the difficult role that requires just as much bravado (albeit from a very different place) as the father displays and just as much sweetness, spirit and, above all, toughness as the mother's. Mostly, we're aware of the character's innate courage and determination despite the challenges.

Though the story follows a familiar trajectory (gender-reassignment movies having seemingly replaced the coming-out story as the plot of choice for LGBT-themed films), Gun Hill Road offers a lot of fresh insight into the day-to-day experience that Michael encounters as he balances school and his overwhelming urge to become a woman. Surprisingly, although he endures the typical homophobic reaction at school, he's also provided both a lot more support and blithe indifference regarding his trans status than stereotypes would imagine.

Green also doesn't shy away from scenes in which Michael/Vanessa deals with the usual teenage sexual urges. After Vanessa, performing stand-up poetry, hooks up with a male fan (who doesn't care that she's still partially male as long as she's willing to offer sex) the teen, infatuated with a first love, willingly complies with his sexual demands. These scenes are punctuated by moments in which Vanessa visits a female transgender neighbor who offers illegal hormone injections and the like. Robin DeJesus (who played a central character in the delightful Camp) plays Michael's sassy best friend who accompanies him on these eye-opening visits.

The complexity of the emotions that run through Enrique's head as he tries to deal with Michael's desire to transition is perhaps the film's freshest triumph. Although Enrique does some truly appalling things, Green gets at the deep love and connection that exists between father and child.

At one point, the two warily watch a television show together on the couch and later, when Michael falls asleep on dad's shoulder, the visual is quite touching. Just at that point Angela walks in. The exchange of looks between her and Enrique is a moving, telling moment.

In spite of all their differences and the uncertainty of what lies ahead (and, yes, there's a lot more trouble in store at this point in the movie), that look tells us that these three are inextricably bound together despite the odds.

It's a poignant moment in a heartfelt, illuminating film filled with them.

Sarah Jessica Parker warms up for Sex and the City 3 by taking the lead in I Don't Know How She Does It—the story of Kate Reddy, a harried (to say the least) urbanite juggling motherhood and a big-time career. The movie, based on Allison Pearson's best-selling novel, is a modern-day variation on movies like Baby Boom and Mr. Mom. It draws its tepid humor from stuff like Kate passing off a store-bought pie as homemade for the bake sale to fool other competitive, perfect moms; itching from a head lice outbreak during a corporate meeting; and, of course, vomit.

Not surprisingly, our Girl Friday is surrounded by barracudas at the office (SNL's Seth Meyers and Olivia Munn as her cool-as-ice number two), and a demanding boss (Kelsey Grammer) versus a teddy bear of a husband coming to the rescue on the home front (the adorable Greg Kinnear, wasted). There's also a supportive best friend to hold her hand and listen to her rants (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, also wasted) and a good-looking lothario (Pierce Brosnan) trying to steal her affections.

Director Douglas McGrath does what he can with this not particularly funny and awfully familiar material. A few of the characters directly address the audience, discussing the pros and cons of Kate's plight. Aline Brosh McKenna's script wrestles with the age-old battle-of-the-sexes questions but doesn't really have any answers to offer (no surprise there) and keeps Parker's character fidgeting like mad and talking a mile a minute.

Late in the movie, when the husband has the inevitable freak-out and tells Kate he just wants five minutes of peace, you can feel the audience nodding in agreement—some in the audience identifying with the situations facing Kate and the rest just wishing the movie itself would take a chill pill.

Film note:

—Patty Duke, longtime friend of the LGBT community who delighted fans when she appeared last fall in conjunction with a screening of the camp classic Valley of the Dolls at the Music Box, returns to the Chicago area for another must-see screening.

This time the dynamic actress will be on hand for a screening of 1962's The Miracle Worker, the film which won Duke an Oscar at the ripe old age of 16. The movie will be shown at 2 p.m. at the historic Arcada Theater, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles, followed by a Q&A onstage with Duke that Daily Herald film critic and Chicago Film Critics Association President Dann Gire will conduct. Although VIP tickets for the event are sold out, plenty of $15 general-admission tickets remain. Autographed Patty Duke books and photos will be available for purchase in the theater lobby.

The event is a benefit for the Open Door Clinic in Aurora. Open Door is an HIV clinic that specializes in testing and support services. www.opendoorclinic.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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