GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Unrated, 89 minutes
Unrated, 100 minutes
Bit Of The Old Ultraviolence
You can't judge a book by its cover or a film by its press release. I thought both of the following titles would wind up being be no more than, at most, guilty pleasures. Beefcake fests. Or porn with a plot. I was wrong.
|Shank, a 2009 film by debut director Simon Pearce, from a screenplay by Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin, may be the most twisted and violent coming out film I have ever seen. Repressed queer desire and violence are the ingredients of this harrowing film, set in working class England. Cal (Wayne Virgo) is 18 and a member of a street gang. Being gay can't be part of his street cred and he keeps that part of him hidden from his comrades. His gang is a bunch of violent misfits with way too much time on their hands. A typical day involves taking lots of drugs, vandalizing property and sometimes committing random acts of assault. The leader is a high strung queen bitch named Nessa (Alice Payne) who lords it over her charges. Her lieutenant, kept on a short leash, is Cal's best friend, Jonno (Tom Bott). He is a dumb stud and probable closet case who is oblivious to how homoerotic his horseplay with Cal is. There is an odd triangle between these three and perhaps it is jealousy that fuels what transpires later.|
Cal is, of course, in love with Jonno. To relieve the tension, Cal hooks up with other men online, all the while continuing to deny to himself that he's queer. The film opens as he is tricking, in the woods, with a 30-something college professor named Scott (Garry Summers). Cal has Scott film it on his phone. Afterwards, gay panic or self loathing must click in because Cal knocks the man out and leaves him bleeding in the forest as he drives away. Returning home, he downloads the film into his computer, puts a picture of him with Jonno on the side of his screen, plays the blurry video and masturbates furiously.
|Everything falls apart one day when Cal intervenes and stops Nessa and Jonno from needlessly bashing a gay college kid. Apparently Nessa, who is suspicious of Cal and Jonno's close friendship, just wants to watch them beat up a fag... and then realizes that she was right about Cal when he refuses to join in. Cal drives after the poor kid and takes him home. When he returns to his gang, they aren't happy. No one disobeys Nessa's orders and Cal barely escapes with his life. Having nowhere to go, he returns to the home of the boy he saved. Good idea, because his gang is looking for him.|
|Shank is a very violent British film that plays, at times, like a hybrid of A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting - with maybe a little bit of Larry Clark's Kids and Bully thrown in for good measure. This bunch likes to film their assaults on cellphones, in much the same way that Cal has all of his tricks film his sex acts. The senseless brutality of the gay bashing is amplified by the use of a handheld video camera that adds an unbearable documentary realism to the scene. The violence throughout Shank is often almost unwatchable; there is a rape scene that is shocking in its savagery. The antics of our gang are a little over the top but I believe that was the filmmakers' intention because their mischief stands out in stark contrast with the loving relationship that develops between Cal and Olivier, the kid who was bashed.|
|Olivier (Marc Laurent) is a French university exchange student. Coincidentally, one of his professors is the man that Cal left in the forest and this man will figure again at the end. Olivier was in the wrong place at the wrong time but luckily he had a savior. Cal is hardly Superman but his coming to the rescue turns out to be a life changing epiphany. The love that blossoms between Cal and Olivier, two young men who are definitely from opposite sides of the track, is both touching and believable. Their affair is almost idyllic and, for awhile at least, Cal's former gang life is forgotten.|
|When not indulging in bits of the old ultraviolence, Shank is a very sexy and erotic film. The sex is explicit but hardly prurient. Sex is actually a major theme in the film. Homoerotic horseplay is the order of the day in many of the gang scenes. This theme peaks just before Olivier's bashing. Cal and Jonno are sitting in a car, shirtless, and smoking a joint. Cal often gazes longingly at Jonno and, paradoxically, Jonno is sometimes doing the same. The moment we have been waiting for almost happens when Jonno asks Cal if he wants a "blowback." This is when one person blows the pot smoke he just inhaled into another person's mouth. (We called these "shotguns" when I was a teen-ager in the 70s and, looking back in hindsight, I can't think of anything more "gay" for two straight guys to do.) As Jonno takes a hit and then blows it into Cal's mouth, it is almost a kiss. It is one of the film's most sexually charged moments. If a cellphone didn't go off a few seconds later, these two stoned lads would have been all over each other. In fact, Jonno looks troubled, and even disappointed when their camaraderie is interrupted.|
|This is one of the film's ironies. Jonno appears to be in his own closet. He has feelings for Cal that go beyond being "bro-mates" but this testosterone-fueled thug will never admit it. His actions during the film's violent, alpha dog climax seem to confirm this. There is also a scene in which Jonno has sex with Nessa and, until she stops him, he initially tries to take her from behind. Without Nessa in the picture, things might have been a lot different and she knows it and wants Jonno to herself.|
|Thankfully, no effort is expended to make the audience identify with Cal's gang. Nessa is a truly detestable woman and a total sociopath. But, rather than make her complete cartoon, a climactic revelation lays bare her chaotic motivations. Shank is an electrifying film that competently balances the more sensationalistic elements with a truly touching love story. While it might seem like a more butch man would be Cal's type, it is also true that opposites attract and his romance with Olivier will touch your heart.|
|A few of the gang scenes got on my nerves, and some of their dialogue is very hard to understand - to the point where it could have used subtitles. Without the love story, I would have tired of Shank quickly and it is to the director's credit that the two disparate stories and styles mesh as well as they do. Aside from the few aforementioned quibbles, Shank is a well made and acted film. The editing during the gang's screen time is cut up and frantic with matching hip hop music - Eisenstein meets MTV - while the love story slows down and is more pastoral with unobtrusive music cues, sometimes even silence.|
It is always a pleasure when one expects one movie and then discovers another. Despite the ultraviolence, this is one of the most touching love stories I have seen this year and the forbidden affair angle only adds to the romance. Okay, this isn't Dr. Zhivago but I was caught up in Cal and Olivier's tale. Orpheus had to descend into hell first for his Eurydice and Cal will also get his fifteen minutes at being a hero. This film is sometimes ugly, but a beauty shines through that brings light to the darkness. Shank is a bumpy ride but it's worth it.
on Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin
Wayne Virgo also appears in:
|In Robert Gaston's Open Cam (2005), a serial killer is murdering young men on an internet chatroom's webcam. Manny (Andreau Thomas ) is a hunky young artist whose boyfriends and one night stands keep turning up dead. This one seemed destined, at first, to be naught but a silly guilty pleasure but there is a surprisingly good story that unfolds around all the bountiful beefcake and satisfying gratuitous sex.|
|When Manny isn't working on his art, he is busy cruising Washingtondick.com for no strings attached cyber-action. This is what he is doing as the movie begins. He hooks up one night with a young man who wants to model for him. A photo shoot is followed with a nightcap of sex. A few days later, Manny is approached by a sexy and sarcastic cop named Hamilton (Amir Darvish). The two men have met before and Hamilton asks the artist to accompany him to the station. It is there that Manny watches, in horror, the raw webcam footage from Washingtondick.com and sees his model tied up and slashed by an unknown assailant wearing a leather jacket. Hamilton is certain that there is a connection between Manny and the killing, but also senses that Manny's distress is genuine. Hamilton is also gay and wants to get this hot number into the sack big time.Whether or not he likes it, Manny has a new best pal.|
|Time to backtrack for a minute. In one of the first scenes, Manny and his best friend (and former lover), Maurice, are car-jacked. Maurice (Ben Green) loses it and fights back, putting one of their attackers in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage. It was during the subsequent police interview that Hamilton first meets Manny. "Let's take a walk," Hamilton says and then asks Manny a series of questions; some of them sexually charged. The two men begin to flirt and step into an alley. Did I mention there is a lot of hot sex in this movie? Hamilton is all over Manny, who pushes him away but also keeps giving in to the hot cop's persistence. The clothes stay on his time (other than shirts being pulled up) but these guys are on fire. Afterwards, Manny plays hard to get and this is part of the fun of Open Cam. There is a sexual tension between these two hunks that permeates the rest of the film. Are they going to do it or what? The audience is teased and kept waiting but the director follows Hitchcock's golden rule. When you build suspense, you have to relieve it and when these guys finally really do it... well, let's just say you won't need any more porn for the rest of the week. On a more genteel note, there's a terrific interlude, obviously inspired by Hitchcock's Vertigo, where Manny and Hamilton share their first romantic kiss as the camera flies around them in circles.|
|As far as thrillers go, this isn't Hitchcock, nor is it a gruesome psychological mindfuck like Seven, but it's not bad. It manages to generate some good suspense from time to time and the climax of the film actually gets pretty scary. But, for the rest of its running length, it's an often amusing film with a few dramatic peaks thrown in that really resonate. Perhaps the reason that Open Cam, for the most part, works as well as it does is because the film's denizens seem real and actually have some depth, character development and backstories.|
|The more tender story involves Manny and his friend Maurice. Despite being ex-lovers, the two remain friends but Maurice misses what they had before and would like to see them in a relationship again. Green underplays Maurice very well and embodies a part that could have been just a whiny queen into, instead, one that actually inspires pity. There is a subtle scene where he tries not to cry that is quite heartfelt. He is unable to understand why Manny doesn't want to get involved with anyone and why Washingtondick.com is all the connection his old beau can handle right now. It turns out that Manny recently enjoyed a passionate two week relationship that changed his life and then the guy suddenly stopped calling and answering messages. (We will discover later that he, too, has been killed.) Not wanting to take a chance on love right now, he pushes everyone away - including a frustrated Maurice and a confused Hamilton.|
|Hamilton, we learn, is recently out of the closet. When he comes onto Manny that first time in the alley, he is still wearing a wedding ring. He tells Manny it's stuck and he can't get it off his finger. We find out that his wife divorced him and he has decided to try out his gay side a little. "A little?" Manny asks. Even though Hamilton is Sam Spade on steroids, he is also, for all his bravado and macho posing, a bit shy and has a lot to learn about being gay. Amir Darvish, as Hamilton, dominates every scene in which he appears. Besides his perfect stubble beard and hairy, chiseled chest, he is also great comic relief. Whenever he questions one of Manny's friends (all are suspects), it is borderline harassment. He is like Jerry Orbach on Law & Order crossed with Peter Falk's annoying detective, Columbo. He really angers Maurice with accusations of jealousy. Because Maurice was capable of beating one of the would-be carjackers, Hamilton is convinced that Maurice has something to do with the online killings.|
|Oh yes, the killings. Because each of the murder victims had sex with Manny, he is a suspect too. He also discovers that he is being stalked by someone. There is a really creepy moment when he is talking to a friend live on the Washingtondick.com webcam. His friend sees a shadow behind Manny and asks if he's alone because someone just went past his bedroom door. Soon afterwards, Hamilton moves into Manny's apartment. All your boyfriends keep getting killed, he explains, and says that he is the bait slash bodyguard. Watch the sexual tension climb to new heights.|
|Manny is a likeable lead. His art can best be described as political agitprop and he likes to ramble incoherently when he talks about it. There is a rather funny scene at an art opening in which a whiny gay Republican tells Manny that his work is crap. What I'm trying to say is that there is a lot going on besides matters prurient and, despite all the eye candy, this film is not porn with a plot. I liked most of the characters and the story really grows on you as it unfolds.|
This is a very polished indie film noir, well shot with lots of shadows from window blinds across faces and walls. Director Gaston helmed another film, that I wrote about last year, called 2 Minutes Later. This one was also a private eye caper, much campier but also featuring a few scenes in flashback about the murdered photographer that would have made a good film on its own. There is a talent at work in both of these films even if it's a tad on the offbeat side. As I wrote earlier, Open Cam builds up to a pretty nifty (and believable) climax. The mood gets ruined though when the director tacks on an epilogue that begins like a bad music video with a real lame song, but then ends splendidly on a terrific scene of reconciliation. Open Cam is fun, it is sexy, it is sometimes touching, it is even suspenseful. It can be enjoyed as a light thriller and as a beefcake fest. Maybe it's a guilty pleasure but, if it is, it's a damned good one.