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Knight at the Movies: Love Is Strange; To Be Takei; Yves; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-08-27

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This week in Chicago theaters it's a queer movie trifecta—a rare occasion indeed for Our People and one that shouldn't be missed out on.

Love Is Strange, from out director Ira Sachs ( who co-wrote the movie in collaboration with Mauricio Zacharias ), lives up to the sensational advance word following its Sundance premiere while Jennifer M. Koot's To Be Takei, another Sundance premiere, is an affectionate portrait of actor and LGBT-rights activist George Takei. Lastly, Jalil Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent is a stylish biopic of the groundbreaking French designer.

Driven by the tour de force performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange concerns what happens after the same-sex couple ( played by the two actors ) legalizes a union of 39 years. A lively wedding reception at the partner's Manhattan apartment is highlighted by an off-the-cuff performance of the R&B standard "Baby ( You've Got What It Takes )" at the piano by George, a music teacher ( Molina ), and Ben, a retired painter ( Lithgow ). Kate ( Marisa Tomei ), the wife of Ben's nephew Elliot ( Darren Burrows ), delivers a speech about the power of love learned by observing the enduring romance of the grooms, and it serves to introduce us to the closeness of the characters.

Almost immediately, however, calamity strikes: George is fired from his position at a Catholic school when word of the marriage reaches the anti-gay archdiocese. ( Talk about a story being ripped from headlines. ) The finances of the duo, given New York's high cost of living, force Ben and George to sell their condo and move in with family and friends while looking for cheaper housing. Ben takes up residence with Elliot, Kate and their teenage son Joey ( a terrific Charlie Tahan ) in their Brooklyn apartment while George finds shelter with Ted and Roberto ( Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez ), two gay cops who are close friends with the couple.

Best intentions are soon tested. Ben's chatty ways drive Kate up the wall and his sharing of Joey's cramped room angers the sullen teenager ( who may be gay ). George doesn't have it much better sleeping on the couch at Ted and Roberto's, party boys who entertain nightly. "Sometimes when you live with people you know them better than you want to," Ben comments to George one evening on the phone about the situation.

Two of the movie's most poignant scenes happen after George reaches his limit. Heedless of a rainstorm, he heads over to see a surprised Ben and falls into his arms, sobbing in frustration at their plight. Spending the night, George and Ben tenderly caress in the lower bunk bed in Joey's room, their soft conversation and intimacy nearly palpable.

Love Is Strange is filled with scene after scene like this—the characters are so expertly drawn, so "real," we become deeply invested in the outcome of all of them. Sachs directs with great sensitivity and it helps that the movie is expertly cast. The chemistry among the actors—from Lithgow and Molina, down to the minor characters—is another asset. Molina has given many great, unsung performances ( recently in The Normal Heart ), as has Lithgow ( though his acting here is purposely understated ), but they embody these men so completely they break our hearts over their quiet dilemma.

In laying out Ben and George's difficulties, the script seamlessly incorporates several other themes—the importance of work to an artist as well as a place to create it, the boundaries of acceptance and the difficulties of love at any age, for starters. To its credit, the script doesn't offer easy answers to these complexities. The movie—which also very cannily omits many of the "big scenes" that one would expect in favor of the delicately rendered small moments that are normally overlooked—is also a love letter to New York.

Nearly 25 years after the groundbreaking Parting Glances, we have in Love Is Strange a quasi-sequel of sorts. That early masterpiece of queer urban life also focused on a gay couple in a refreshingly realistic manner. Ben and George could be those characters as they enter their twilight years, their love and commitment to each other never in doubt, no matter their trials. To suggest that is meant as the highest of compliments that the artful, beautifully realized Love Is Strange, a bittersweet love story for all audiences, more than merits.*

*The "R" rating for Love Is Strange—which has no nudity, no violence and few expletives—once again vividly points out the anti-gay nature of the MPAA ratings board. This perspective continues to be out of step with the views of most moviegoers and will hinder the film's ability to reach the wider audience it deserves. I urge you to take along your teenage children, nephews or nieces so they don't miss out on one of the year's best films.

Jennifer M. Kroot's To Be Takei, a biography of actor and LGBT activist George Takei, also offers an endearing portrait of a long-term gay relationship. Brad Takei ( formerly Altman ), George's husband, is given a lot of screen time in the movie and offers some much needed yin to George's yang. Together over 25 years, the droll and sharp-tongued Brad often counters George's endless sunny, showbizzy public persona—a persona carefully crafted after decades working within the Hollywood system.

George Takei ( which rhymes with "to be gay," which the actor humorously notes ), of course, is best known as the original Sulu on the Star Trek TV series from the 1960s and the ensuing movies. Along with clips from the show, several of Takei's acting comrades are interviewed ( including a rather sour William Shatner, who insists that he and Takei were never more than professional colleagues ). Takei's favorite episode shows him shirtless, wielding a fencing sword and running around the Starship Enterprise amok, Sulu's libido momentarily freed—an ironic commentary on the years the actor spent closeted.

"If you're known as who you are, there are consequences," he says about being closeted in order to get acting jobs. It wasn't until 2005 that the actor finally "boldly journeyed" to the place where he felt comfortable being openly gay and he hasn't looked back since. A frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show, making the rounds of political talk shows on behalf of his gay activist work, appearing at celebrity conventions and posting to his Facebook page ( which boasts more than 7 million followers ), the unflappable Takei is one busy guy.

Being of Japanese-American descent, Takei has also had to come to terms with the childhood trauma of being forced into an internment camp during WWII along with his family. The film's most compelling moments are when Takei vividly recalls the humiliating experience ( illustrated with vintage newsreel footage ), one of this country's most damning missteps. Takei's memories have formed the basis of a musical called "Allegiance" that is headed to Broadway after he starred in a 2012 critically lauded run in San Diego.

Featuring a bevy of familiar faces ( Dan Savage, B.D. Wong, et al ), To Be Takei is a lively and warm tribute to a man whose journey has rather surprisingly turned him into a proud representative of Our People. The film plays exclusively in Chicago for one week only at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., beginning Friday, Aug. 29. http://www.facets.org/cinematheque/films/aug2014/takei.php

Finally, Yves Saint Laurent is a French biopic of France's legendary designer who came to the forefront of the fashion industry when he became head designer at Christian Dior at the tender age of 21.

At Laurent's first show for the label in 1957 he met Pierre Berge, who became his business partner and lover. Together, the creative genius of Laurent ( played by Pierre Niney, a dead ringer for the young designer ) and the business acumen of Berge ( Guillaume Gallienne ) created a fashion brand that changed the industry after YSL left Dior and opened his own house. The movie tracks the course of the relationship from both the professional and personal viewpoints.

Director Jalil Lespert ( who co-wrote the script with three other writers ) lucked out having the full support of Berge, who allowed the production access to an eye-popping array of vintage YSL couture and cleared the way for filming at actual locations. For fashionistas like myself, this gives the movie an unprecedented glamour ( how could it not? ), which in some ways compensates for the predictability of Laurent's story. The early, sensational triumphs in one so young are offset by those inevitable doubts. ( "Death must resemble this…lack of inspiration," Yves comments mournfully. ) These bouts of self-doubt culminate in a nervous breakdown.

After recovery, long years of debauchery that Laurent indulged in follow. This section goes on far too long and one wants to get back to the designer's unique artistry, exploring further the YSL quote that is shown at the beginning of the movie: "Nobody knows where taste comes from. We are born alone with it." However, that does not happen and we are left with a movie that is stylish—boy, is it stylish—but lacking in substance.

Film notes:

Director Bob Fosse's 1972 musical masterpiece Cabaret—the movie based on queer writer Christopher Isherwood's seminal The Berlin Stories and which won Liza Minnelli an Oscar—is playing at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., as part of its matinee series on Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 30-31, at 11:30 a.m. http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/features/cabaret

A batch of queer-themed movies—all worth adding to your collection—are available in various incarnations ( Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, iTunes ) this week. They include Ryan Murphy's searing The Normal Heart, Bob Fosse's autobiographical All That Jazz ( a definitive, Criterion edition ), the sexy and moving Test ( available for streaming at Vimeo—DVD release coming soon ), the comedic Tennessee Queer and the sensually provocative I Am Happiness on Earth.

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available. See www.knightatthemovies.com .


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