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Knight at the Movies: Keep the Lights On; Cloud Atlas; Wise Kids
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-10-24

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Wouldn't it be loverly if every week at the Cineplex we had as many queer-themed movie choices as we do beginning this Friday? What with Keep the Lights On opening at the Music Box, Cloud Atlas playing at multiple theaters and The Wise Kids finally getting its overdue Chicago theatrical run at the Siskel—not to mention some nifty single-date screenings (see notes below)—for once your queer movie critic has plenty of options to recommend to readers.

Out filmmaker Ira Sachs co-wrote and directs Keep the Lights On, an intimate relationship drama that takes no prisoners. Shot in a grainy, handheld style to ratchet up the tension, the movie covers the 10-year on-again/off-again relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish documentary filmmaker who hooks up one late night in 1998 via a phone sex line with Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer. From the start, the sexual attraction between the two is paramount and Sachs—thanks to his two fearless actors—doesn't stint on the duo's heated physical encounters. The intense sexual bond between the couple surprisingly leads to dating and then, in fits and starts, to something resembling love.

Both men, clearly, have their demons—in Erik's case it's self-doubt; in Paul's it's obviously more serious and has led to a crack addiction that soon becomes overwhelming. And shame is an unspoken part of the equation as well (ironically, the shame disappears the moment the two are in private)—as is Erik's emotional addiction to Paul. As the couple do their best to hang on to each other and make things work, their friends and the city at large add to the propulsive nature of the relationship. (Manhattan, with its vibrant energy, is almost a third character in the film.)

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias based the film on Sachs's one-time relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg. Clegg has already written a critically acclaimed memoir about his addiction; now its Sachs' turn to weigh in. But there isn't a sense—at all—of Sachs settling scores with his ex. Rather, this is a brutally honest, at times embarrassingly raw, attempt to capture a modern day, urban relationship—warts and all—that just happens to have occurred between two men. Audiences will be reminded, perhaps, of Weekend and though the movie shares its intimacy, it has much less of that movie's sunny optimism. Bittersweet and filled with memorable details, Keep the Lights On is a huge leap forward for Sachs.

Equally rewarding—albeit in a very, very different way—is Cloud Atlas, the latest from the Wachowski siblings and German-based director Tom Tykwer. The grand theme of the nearly three-hour epic—the importance of the individual striking back at a totalitarianism society—is similar to previous Wachowski outings such as The Matrix trilogy and their production of V is for Vendetta. And the large-scaled canvas of this feature that spans centuries and covers six storylines and multiple characters is equally reminiscent of these previous works and pairs nicely with Tykwer's eye for scale displayed in his masterful Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

As you are entertained by the different vignettes—the breathtaking visuals (thanks to the cinematography of Frank Grieve and John Toll), drink in Tykwer's gorgeous music (composed in advance of shooting with his collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek) and revel in the endless human parade displayed by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, et al., having a grand time with their myriad characters, accents and "looks"—the business of trying to sort out what you're watching dissipates because the movie is so damn entertaining.

During the gestation of the project Larry Wachowski transitioned to female (becoming Lana) and, whether it's a coincidence or not, the connecting device in the film, based on the 2004 sci-fi themed novel by David Mitchell (which Lana and brother Andy and Tykwer adapted), are the secret love letters of two gay lovers in 1936 (played by Ben Whishaw and James D'Arcy). Across the sands of time, single acts of kindness ripple and resonate but these heartbreaking, deeply emotional letters—talismans that appear and disappear at just the right moment—anchor the narrative and drive home the point that repression of minorities through the ages (sexual, ethnic, etc.) have lasting consequences on humanity as a whole.

Like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2006 Babel, the Wachowskis and Tykwer also pick up the theme that that we're all connected by our innate humanity and that we had better get back to these basics before it's too late. For queer audiences, the sight of all the actors switching genders (and having a glorious time doing it) is a huge bonus and underscores the message that, queer or straight, we all have a hell of a lot more in common than we often care to admit. This hippy-dippy idea isn't going to be for everyone nor will the seeming randomness of the multiple storylines (not to mention the long running time)—all which will throw off a lot of audiences. But for the patient and the open-hearted (count me in), Cloud Atlas is none other than a rare example of cinematic art.

Finally, writer/director/actor Stephen Cone's beautifully nuanced 2011 drama The Wise Kids is having its theatrical debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Queer filmmaker Cone's movie has rightly been hailed on its film festival tour and—given his assured, delicate touch—that's not hard to understand.

The movie focuses on three teenaged members of a tightly knit Baptist community in South Carolina as they near high school graduation. (Tyler Ross, who stars in the recent Nate & Margaret, beautifully plays one of the characters, who is quietly gay.) As the trio prepares for college, deeper questions about the rigid boundaries of their religious beliefs begin to emerge, not just between the friends but among some of the adults surrounding them—especially the choir director (played by Cone), who clearly is struggling with his own sexual identity.

The Wise Kids doesn't offer pat answers to the complex questions; it raises and refuses to point fingers at the usual villains in the process. It's a thought-provoking experience filled with tremendous performances from its spot-on cast.

Film notes:

—Bisexual director Nicholas Ray's 1954 film Rebel Without A Cause, still the benchmark for films about juvenile dissatisfaction, is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Friday, Oct. 26, and Tuesday, Oct. 30. The film stars the bisexual James Dean—poster boy for '50s homoeroticism—as Jim, the teenaged malcontent who forms a bond with gorgeous but mixed-up Judy (Natalie Wood) and rich boy Plato (gay actor Sal Mineo), who has a crush on Jim. www.siskelfilmcenter.com

—New York-based lesbian filmmaker Katrina Del Mar is screening her Girl Gang Trilogy on Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Nightingale, 1084 N. Milwaukee Ave., at 7 p.m. The three short films, which Del Mar (who also writes, directs, and edits) shot on Super 8, were inspired by the 1970s exploitation genre and include Hell On Wheels Gang Girls Forever, Surf Gang and Gang Girls 2000. Del Mar, who will be present at the event, will also screen her latest—a vampire lesbian-themed short. www.nightingaletheatre.org

—Magic Mike, starring Channing Tatum as the star performer amongst a group of muscled hunks (including openly gay actor Matt Bomer) working at a male strip club in Florida and enjoying their hedonistic lifestyles, was a surprise early summer hit (a sequel, a musical and a club are all in the works). The Blu-ray and DVD release has just hit the streets and as if there weren't already enough male eye candy on display, the special features include the deleted scene of Bomer's rather spectacular "living Ken doll" strip number which amply displays the heartthrob's shapely abs and buns.

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

'Cabaret' out on

Blu-ray Feb. 5, 2013

Cabaret—Bob Fosse's Oscar-winning musical drama starring Liza Minnelli (Arthur, The Sterile Cuckoo), Michael York (the Austin Powers films) and Joel Grey (TV's Oz)—celebrates its 40th anniversary with a Blu-ray debut on Feb. 5, 2013.

Winner of eight Academy Awards, the film will be offered in a premium Blu-ray Book format ($27.98 SRP) that contains 40 pages of photos and text. Special features include items such as "Cabaret: A Legend in the Meaning" as well as Grey and Minnelli recalling aspects of filming.

Cabaret was adapted from the Tony-winning stage production, and that was, in turn, inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and the play and movie I Am a Camera.


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