Monday, June 5, 2023

Film Reviews: Indie Films Tackle Sexual Topics Revolving Around Toxic Masculinity (“Horseplay”), Dominance (“Sanctuary”) and Gender Identity (“L’Immensità”)

Horseplay (c) Dark Star Pictures

Film: Horseplay 
In Cinemas 

If you are to believe Marco Berger’s latest film, Horseplay (Los Agitadores), straight men, apparently, whenever together in a group, are obsessed with sex: talking incessantly about it, pulling sexual pranks on each other and being extremely close with each other without ever crossing the line. That line crossing, the homo in the rule “no homo,” ruins the fun. Because horny straight men are the worst. In Horseplay, a group of about 10 (some come and go) twentysomething friends spend a couple of weeks around the Christmas holidays in the family country vacation home of Artur (Iván Masliah). It must be hot in the Argentina countryside at Christmas because most of the guys spend the days shirtless and rough-housing together as if the house was a fraternity in purgatory. For a while the men are interchangeable, with only their hairbuns (or lack thereof) or chest hair (or lack thereof) to help me differentiate any of them. Slowly though, between taking compromising pictures of each other sleeping or pouring water on each other sleeping (my advice: don’t go to sleep), a sort of unease and drama arises between a couple of the guys that doesn’t really resolve itself until literally the last two minutes of the movie. But, I believe, once you know how it ends, watching the movie again will probably provide the clues and moments that fuel that finale. Until then, Berger throws in one of the guys’ fiancé (who is not amused by the sexual photos in the text chains); Artur’s sister, who brings friends over for most of the guys to finally release the pent up sexual energy; and one guy, Poli (Franco Antonio de la Puente), who seems to be the outsider of the group either by his choice or theirs. I like Marco Berger’s previous movies, including the relatively calm two-hander Hawaii and the more engaging The Blonde One. Those movies, like Horseplay, like to throw gay-curious but straight-identifying men into situations where they have to confront their own prejudices and feelings. This film’s setting, however, is not very realistic. The guys mainly act like they’re in a cologne ad, which is nice to look at but feels rather orchestrated and manipulated. The ending points to something more interesting and involving, but after this unexpected moment happens, all we get are the end credits. 

Sanctuary (c) NEON

Film: Sanctuary 
In Cinemas 

It’s rare when a film tackles the topic of sexual politics head-on as in director Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary with only a man and a woman in its cast (ok, there’s the occasional extra here and there). The one main setting is the man’s fancy hotel room (or is it?) as she is there to vet him for a high position in a huge corporation (or is she?). At first, Hal (Christopher Abbott) seems like a confident but spoiled rich young man who seems to order one of everything on the menu of room service, barking into the phone when Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) appears at the door for the vetting process. She has been hired by the company to make sure there isn’t anything in Hal’s background that might embarrass the company, including past actions or drug use. After that, things get complicated. There are hints that somethings amiss in this line of questioning and it becomes clear that the two might already know each other. Without giving too much away, they start to question each other about more than Hal’s potential new job, leading to Rebecca ordering Hal to wash the hotel’s dirty bathroom floor. What follows are scenarios that go from dangerous to ridiculous, from emasculation to toxic masculinity. The actors are game, going to the extreme of characters the screenplay doesn’t really match with believable motives. Two-handers like this suffer from the same problem when the heat turns up: “Why doesn’t s/he just leave?” But unlike unsuccessful attempts like Malcom and Marie, Sanctuary does give the characters some legit reason to stay in that hotel room to deal with a situation that could spiral out of control outside that room. But at some point, one of them has to call the other person’s bluff, and when it does happen here, Wignon only does this to have one of the characters’ confidence change because the plot needs it to happen, which gives the movie an artifice it can’t overcome. Abbott is much more successful as the audience’s surrogate, trying to make sense of the ultimatum put in front of him. His Hal is not a likable guy, but we follow him to see what craziness is going to come next. Qualley does her best to make each turn of Rebecca’s craziness credible. There’s an intelligence behind her eyes that is quite irresistible, which could be seen in her already impressive resume of the TV series Maid and Claire Denis’ film Stars at Noon. But her character’s motives progressively feel more false as the film heads to its unpredictable conclusion. And the title, besides being ironic, is also yelled out at one point in the film for a specific reason, which may be the funniest moment in the film. I was mixed on Sanctuary, but the actors do their best. 

L’Immensità (c) Music Box Films

Film: L’Immensità 
In Cinemas 

Penélope Cruz speaking Italian? Sign me up. That she’s not even the main character in L’Immensità, but the mother of Andrea (Luana Giuliani) who insists that people call him Andrew, which in 1970s Rome, where transgenderism isn’t even a common term yet, is quite brave living hiss true self.  Cruz’s Clara indulges Andrew as she has other worries in her life, such as a possible philandering husband and a son who defecates everywhere but the bathroom. Andrew knows his true gender, but still has struggles, including a crisis of faith and not correcting her new friend and crush, Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), when she mistakes him for a boy. This main thrust of the movie is intriguing only because of the autobiographical prism of director Emanuele Crialese’s story. It may not feel unique, but Crialese does imbue Andrew’s story with heart and heartbreak, not afraid to go to unflattering and uncomfortable parts of his journey, making it a rather exciting companion piece to Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, which also revolves around a gay woman looking back at her childhood with a beloved parent. And just like that film, the parent is the most interesting character of the film. You can’t keep your eyes off Cruz’s big-hearted and volatile performance. Even when the plot takes her to some rather melodramatic turn, Cruz makes it believable. Although Crialese’s film is firmly rooted in reality, he does venture gorgeously into fantasy mode to a B&W TV variety show that Andrew is watching where he envisions his mother the star. They are the most magical moments of the film. The title, which translates as The Immensity, may be what Andrew is feeling during the course of the film, but it all rests on the back of Cruz, and she carries it triumphantly.

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