The Manchurian Candidate
Nightmares of bizarre wartime mind-control experiments plague Gulf War veter an Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), who becomes increasingly convinced the dreams are real. When fellow vet Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), an amiable congressman under the thumb of his powerful mother (Meryl Streep), becomes a vice-presidential nominee, Marco races to prove his suspicions before the brainwashed candidate can assume his position a heartbeat away from the presidency. Based on a Cold War-era novel (which was also made into a 1962 movie), this paranoid thriller adds to today’s political discourse as it transforms the villains from Communists into Halliburton-like corporate titans. Director Jonathan Demme ignores gaping holes in the plot as he effectively ratchets the level of suspense, but the talented cast is wasted on characters that operate as little more than pieces on a chessboard.
Grade: B- Kinsey Scale: 1 (Washington previously worked with Demme on the AIDS drama “Philadelphia,” while both Streep and co-star Jeffrey Wright appeared in HBO’s “Angels in America.”)
More than anything, teenage Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) wants to join his family’s world-renowned rescue team, International Rescue, also known as the Thunderbirds, in honor of their high-tech vehicles. Instead, he’s grounded for playing in a rocket. But when his father Jeff’s (Bill Paxton) old nemesis, The Hood (Ben Kingsley), traps the Thunderbirds on a disabled satellite, only Alan can save the day. The old puppet TV series goes live action in this action-adventure movie that slavishly follows the kid-empowerment model perfected by “Spy Kids.” What the sometimes dull story lacks in originality, it makes up for with excellent computer-generated effects and a host of cool gadgets in the primary-colored rockets and cars that morph into planes. And the cast, from the amiable Corbet on down to an appropriately reptilian Kingsley, is delightful.
Grade: B- Kinsey Scale: 0 (Kingsley appeared in “Maurice,” while co-star Anthony Edwards produced “Die, Mommie, Die!”)
For the inhabitants of a rural village surrounded by woods, living in fear of the monstrous forest creatures that lurk all around them is a daily fact of life. And when it seems that the creatures are tired of an established “truce,” and a young blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) enters those woods to save another villager’s life, fear threatens to shatter their collective idyllic existence. To give away more details of this film’s plot would, similarly, destroy readers’ enjoyment of the carefully constructed mystery. But know that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has created yet another odd cinematic world in which nothing is quite what it seems, surprises live around every corner, and things that go bump in the night may be harmless – or, then again, may destroy you.
Grade: B+ Kinsey Scale: 1 (No queer content. Cast members include William Hurt, who won an Oscar for playing gay in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” out lesbian actor Cherry Jones, Michael Pitt from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and lesbian fave Sigourney Weaver, who appeared in “Jeffrey.”)
A Cinderella Story
Sam (Hilary Duff) is this fairy tale’s Cinderella, a San Fernando Valley girl being raised by a cruel stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) and denied the usual middle-class teen amenities like hot clothes and the chance to attend the homecoming dance where her secret admirer/Prince Charming (Chad Michael Murray) awaits. That her outfits, funky attic room, and vintage baby-blue Mustang convertible are still nicer than what most kids her age have is lost on the filmmakers, whose Hollywood version of deprivation is warped beyond recognition. In fact, also lost on the creators of this dull retelling of the classic story is any sense of humor, wit, or romance. Even one of those qualities could have saved it from becoming another barrel-bottom-scraping exercise in teen marketing, but none are in evidence, and it’ll be the wise 15 year-old girl who demands her ticket money back.
Grade: D Kinsey Scale: 1 (There are gay-ish moments, like the nameless and effeminate synchronized swim coach who appears in a scene with the bumbling stepsisters. Worse, there’s a somewhat bothersome moment when Murray questions the gender of his as-yet-unseen beloved via cell-phone instant message, promising to “kick [his] butt” if Duff turns out to be male – Prince Charming, indeed. Gay favorite Coolidge played a lesbian in “Best in Show.”)
A Home at the End of the World
High-school friends Bobby (Colin Farrell) and Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) reunite in Manhattan five years after the intensity of a brief sexual relationship between them drove them apart. When bisexual Bobby falls in love with their roommate, Clare (Robin Wright Penn), the trio’s sexual tension threatens to create a new rift, but the orphaned Bobby is determined to keep his self-created family together. Written by “The Hours” novelist Michael Cunningham, this moving drama focuses on character and emotional resonance over action, gaining an epic sweep from its time frame set between 1967 and the AIDS-ravaged early ’80s. The slow pace pays off as director Michael Mayer allows the moments to stretch, deepening this portrait of a relationship and adding a layer of suspense.
Grade: A- Kinsey Scale: 4 (The movie is frank but discreet in limning the affair between Bobby and Jonathan, and Farrell’s full-frontal nude scene has been cut. Both Cunningham and Mayer are gay. Roberts played queer in an off-Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” while co-star Wendy Crewson appeared in “The Matthew Shepard Story.”)
Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is a pompous, clueless, and beloved news anchor in mid-’70s San Diego. And when his perfectly coiffed, scotch-soaked, playboy lifestyle is upended by an ambitious female journalist (Christina Applegate) who wants to be his co-anchor, he goes into a career tailspin. That the movie is a somewhat toothless satire on polyester sexism – one that, strangely, follows sexist Hollywood logic by allowing four men but only one woman in its principal cast – is mostly beside the point. The point is Ferrell. With his constantly knowing take on the witless Burgundy, he manages to turn an uneven script into a film with a consistently high laughs-per-minute count. They’re empty, silly laughs, and Ferrell is in danger of becoming typecast as a dolt; but his brand of air-headed charm is what keeps this lightweight summer comedy afloat.
Grade: B Kinsey Scale: 2 (Aside from a few throwaway gags about straight male homophobia, there’s a relatively undeveloped plotline in which Ferrell’s sportscaster co-worker, played by David Koechner, is slowly revealed to have a crush on him. Co-star Paul Rudd played a gay man in “The Object of My Affection,” and Fred Willard had a recurring role as a gay man on “Roseanne.”)
The Bourne Supremacy
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) thought he’d left his old life as a skilled assassin behind. But then he’s found by Russian criminals, framed with a crime he didn’t commit, and forced back into action. Add to his headache a CIA chief (Joan Allen) one step behind him and nightmares of memories he can’t quite piece together from a life he no longer remembers. There’s plenty of globetrotting location scenery to enjoy and the even more enjoyable sight of a grim, anxious Damon forgetting that he’s a movie star for a moment and really investing himself in Bourne, a hunted man who becomes the hunter himself. This still-chilly bit of post-Cold War espionage is made fresh with violent, seizure-inducing camera work and a death-defying car chase that will leave audiences breathless. It’s that rare summer thing: a sequel that matches its original, and an action-thriller that doesn’t leave viewers feeling empty.
Grade: A Kinsey Scale: 1 (There’s no gay content, but some cast members have been in gay-themed films and/or films by gay directors. Damon starred in Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” and as the sexually ambiguous title character in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Co-star Brian Cox played a gay pedophile in the indie film “L.I.E.,” while co-star Gabriel Mann had small roles in “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Stonewall.”)
Cosmetics magnate Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone) orders employee Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) sent to a watery grave after Patience uncovers damaging information about Hedare’s latest product. A friendly feline resurrects the drowned woman with the power of its kitty breath, transforming the formerly mousy artist into a whip-wielding, morally ambiguous superhero with nonhuman agility and a newfound interest in dominatrix wear. The emphasis is on special effects and editing over plot, character, motivation, or suspense in this brain-dead actioner. The camera never stops moving, as if to distract from a story that is so pointless that the actors might as well be a tabby’s rubber mice. Whenever actual cats are on the screen, the movie turns lively and funny, but those moments are sadly few.
Grade: C Kinsey Scale: 1 (The movie never bothers to explore the obvious homoerotic possibilities of the leather-clad Berry battling sleek Stone. Stone’s breakthrough role was as a bisexual serial killer in “Basic Instinct,” while co-star Benjamin Bratt received kudos for playing the bisexual “Pinero.” Co-star Frances Conroy is a regular on “Six Feet Under” and also appeared in “Die, Mommie, Die!”)
Legendary songwriter Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) bedded men, but always returned to the arms of his wife and muse, Linda (Ashley Judd). This biopic unfolds as if it were a Porter musical, offering his career highlights while it limns the offbeat romance between this devoted but turbulent couple. The Porters come across as little more than actors in their own play, and this glossy confection of a movie never actually gets at what motivated Linda to stay in such a heartbreaking, inequitable relationship. Director Irwin Winkler’s decision to hire the pop stars of today to sing Porter’s songs is also unfortunate. Their mostly mediocre cameo performances are a distraction, making the drama appear to be little more than a feature-length ad for a soundtrack.
Grade: B- Kinsey Scale: 4 (The drama doesn’t shy away from Porter’s affairs with men, but the emphasis is on his relationship with Linda. Kline previously played gay in “In & Out,” while Judd lit up the screen with Salma Hayek in “Frida.” Co-stars Jonathan Pryce and James Wilby played queer characters in, respectively, “Carrington” and “Maurice.”)
Unless nice-guy Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) can come up with $50,000 fast, his Average Joe’s Gym faces a takeover by slimy Globo Gym CEO White Goodman (Ben Stiller). The amount seems beyond the under-financed LeFleur’s reach, until gym rat Gordon (Stephen Root) suggests they enter a national dodgeball tournament that will pit LaFleur’s uncoordinated weaklings against Goodman’s steroid-pumped elite. This silly slapstick comedy might be the happiest surprise of the summer, as a cast of first-rate clowns clearly revel in the chance to deliver hilarious lines and demonstrate their superior physical-comedy skills. While there’s a bit too much of Stiller’s by-now-tedious angry-man act, Vaughn and the rest of the Average Joe’s crew comprise a team of lovable losers truly worth rooting for.
Grade: B+ Kinsey Scale: 2 (One character is bisexual and – as might be expected in a movie that takes place in the homoerotic world of sports, even if it is dodgeball – there are queer jokes aplenty. Stiller played a metrosexual in “Zoolander” and one-half of the vaguely homoerotic team of “Starsky and Hutch.” Vaughn was cross-dressing Norman Bates in the “Psycho” remake. Co-stars Hank Azaria and Jason Bateman have played gay characters.)
Filmmaking provocateur Michael Moore takes aim at the Bush administration with this passionate documentary that begins with the contested 2000 presidential election, jumps to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and then examines the aftermath of those events – from curtailment of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, to our current occupation of Iraq. Moore gathers excerpts from the administration’s own sound bites, man-on-the-street interviews, network news clips, and devastating footage from the Iraqi war zone to build his case for American regime change. He paints a devastating portrait of a rogue government – in the pocket of corporate interests – that has taken full advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear. Moore gives us the very definition of the “ugly American” with this discomforting and unforgettable film.
Grade: A Kinsey Scale: 0 (There is no sexual content of any kind, but the subject matter is vital to every American regardless of orientation.)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
In his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an inmate of Azkaban prison for his role in the death of Harry’s parents, has escaped and may be coming for Harry next. That’s the simple version: the more complicated tale involves shape-shifting animals, mistaken identities, time travel, and a very large teenager-hungry tree. Meanwhile, the kids in the cast are maturing, growing into their roles without a trace of awkwardness. The most important development, though, is the film’s running time. Even though the books get longer as the series goes on, this film installment is a little shorter than the first two, thanks to a looser, less slavish devotion to its source; as a result, it plays much more briskly. That may upset literal-minded devotees of the novels, but will delight those who want their movies to actually move.
Grade: A Kinsey Scale: 1 (The large cast has lots of experience in queer-themed projects. Oldman played Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears”; co-star David Thewlis was Paul Verlaine in “Total Eclipse”; Emma Thompson recently appeared in “Angels in America”; and Julie Walters costarred in “Billy Elliot” and the independent films “Sister My Sister” and “Just Like a Woman.”)
In 2035 Chicago, luddite detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) harbors a paranoid fear of the robots everyone else has come to depend on. When he suspects that one of them murdered scientist Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), his superiors consider the theory a fantasy until marauding machines threaten the city. With the volatile cop battling robots at every opportunity, this thriller – loosely based on Isaac Asimov stories – emphasizes action over sci-fi. Purists may scoff at that, while everyone else will be shocked by truly wretched special effects that reduce Smith’s muscular antics to cartoon mayhem, destroy any semblance of suspense, and create unintentional laughs by rendering the supposedly fearsome robots so poorly that they are about as formidable as Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Grade: C- Kinsey Scale: 1 (Though there is no pressing reason for Smith to get naked, he shows off his buff body in an early shower scene. Additionally, the actor played gay in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Cromwell appeared in HBO’s “Angels in America.”)
There is no Camelot in this mystifying de-mythification of Arthurian legend that casts Arthur (Clive Owen) as a Roman warrior and devout Catholic, Guinevere (Keira Knightley) as a teenage warrior-princess hottie, Merlin (Stephen Dillane) as a hillbilly sorcerer, and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) as a pouting pretty boy – all of whom come together to battle the Saxons. Viewers even remotely familiar with the lore will be outraged at its transformation into slasher soap opera, while everyone else will merely suffer whiplash from the attention-deficit battle scenes that are partially obscured by smoke and appear to have been edited in a blender. Director Antonio Fuqua creates a soporific work so devoid of sense and personality that it is impossible to care about this Arthur or these knights.
Grade: D+ Kinsey Scale: 1 (Owen appeared in “Bent,” while Dillane co-starred in “The Hours.”)
Octogenarian Noah Calhoun (James Garner) spends his days trying to reach out to his dementia-afflicted wife, Allie (Gena Rowlands), by repeatedly telling her the story of their early life together. That WWII-era romance unfolds as a Romeo-and-Juliet-style tale, as upper-class young Allie’s (Rachel McAdams) uptight mother (Joan Allen) tries to keep her daughter away from blue-collar Noah (Ryan Gosling). Garner’s moving performance is the best thing about this weepie based on Nicholas Sparks’ bestseller, but he’s acting in a vacuum opposite Rowlands, whose confusion never registers as authentic. The flashbacks to the couple’s youth also come across as false. McAdams and Gosling never connect emotionally; the blandly pretty McAdams offers a petulant, one-note performance, and Gosling’s shaggy, anachronistic appearance evokes not the 1940s but the 1960s.
Grade: C- Kinsey Scale: 1 (Twenty years ago Garner played sexual panic for laughs when he portrayed a straight mobster who falls for what he thinks is a drag queen in “Victor/Victoria.”)
They could have called this delightful sequel “Meet the Parents,” if that title hadn’t already been taken, because it sums up the plot nicely. Shrek (the voice of Mike Myers) and his new bride, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow, visit the land of Far Far Away to show Fiona’s parents (Julie Andrews, John Cleese) that she’s happily become an ogre in order to marry Shrek. Appalled that his daughter has wed a monster instead of the self-absorbed Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), the king enlists the help of a mean-spirited Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) in an attempt to steal Fiona back. What follows is witty, sweet, and love-affirming, leaving behind the smutty double entendres and (most of) the low-brow flatulence humor of the original. It’s that rarest of sequels – one that’s vastly superior to its precursor, and one that will leave you happily ever after.
Grade: A Kinsey Scale: 2 (Although there’s no explicitly queer content, it could be argued that the story, with its “love whom you choose” message, is a metaphor for same-sex marriage; in addition, one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters (voiced by Larry King) is a man in drag. Myers played gay in “54,” Andrews starred in “Victor/Victoria,” Saunders stars on TV’s “Absolutely Fabulous,” and Antonio Banderas, who voices Puss-in-Boots, is a veteran of Pedro Almodovar’s films and played gay in “Philadelphia.” Everett, it goes without saying, is gay full time.)
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has mixed feelings about being Spider-Man. He also has a full plate of trouble. His erstwhile girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst) may marry a man she doesn’t love; his best friend (James Franco) wants to kill Spider-Man to avenge his own father’s death; his beloved aunt is bankrupt; and, worst of all, Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) wants to destroy New York. Director Sam Raimi balances these stories and keeps breathing life and humor into a sequel-ready franchise that could, in less caring hands, simply become an assembly line of big-budget blockbusters, all sensation and no emotional weight. This Spider-Man, however, is a complicated superhero, a beleaguered, sometimes weak Everyman who happens to be able to save the lives of people in out-of-control speeding trains with his super-strong sticky web. And he’s just what the summer movie schedule needs.
Grade: A- Kinsey Scale: 1 (Molina starred as Joe Orton’s lover in “Prick Up Your Ears,” while Franco played James Dean in the TV biopic of the same name. “Queer as Folk”‘s Hal Sparks – comic-book nerd Michael Novotny – appears in a cameo role.)