Camera Obscura 

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One Thumb Down

Writer-director Tommy O’Haver should have thought twice about using film to tell the story of Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. The movie’s best moments—monologues accompanied by the protagonist’s Polaroids—are explicitly theatrical. And its worst aspects—rushed, undifferentiated dialogue and sketchy characterizations of supporting roles—might be forgiven in the artificial context of a stage play. With leading man Sean P. Hayes outshining nearly all his surroundings, O’Haver’s creation feels like a movie in search of a one-man show.

Or maybe a two-character one-act, since Billy’s love interest Gabriel (played by Brad Rowe) almost has the straight chops to match Hayes’ portrayal of the title character, a gay photographer from middle America looking for love and art in L.A. Billy falls for model-handsome Gabriel, who plays bass and talks unconvincingly about a girlfriend in San Francisco. While starring Gabriel in a photo series that uses drag queens to recreate famous movie kisses, he tries to walk the fine line between being a friend and putting down the sexual welcome mat. The scenes between Hayes and Rowe have all the uncomfortable pauses of a relationship on the sexual fence. And their very distinct acting styles—Hayes a gay Jon Cryer, Rowe channeling a serious Brad Pitt vibe—give these scenes some tension and life.

Surrounding that central relationship in a vague fog, however, are Billy’s disposable compatriots, such as a token woman friend (played by coproducer Meredith Scott Lynn), a patron of the arts (Richard Ganoung), and, most stereotypically, a pretentious fashion photographer (Paul Bartel). These characters seem to have been given lines Billy could have uttered just as easily; they exist solely to allow Billy a conversation with someone outside his subconscious. Consequently, these scenes are full of rushed, amateurish line readings, which director O’Haver tries to cover by overediting.

The notion that Billy himself could take the place of all these superfluous characters emerges once you’ve heard Hayes’ skill at articulating the actions and feelings of others in his monologues. Billy tells the story of his first Polaroid camera and his first high-school crush with sensitivity, but he avoids the blurry, paper-doll flatness that plagues other scenes by focusing on specifics (a Ding-Dong birthday cake, a Violent Femmes concert). And he’s obviously not so immersed in gay culture that he can’t see its absurdities and gently mock himself from a straight perspective. All these changes in attitude and point-of-view can be mined from one character with the help of a talented actor. If Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss had the courage to chuck all its conventional movie clutter, it could reinvent itself as something truly engaging—say, a virtuoso evening of off-Broadway theater, starring Sean P. Hayes.

—Donna Bowman

As regular viewers of Siskel & Ebert know, Chicago film critic Gene Siskel underwent brain surgery this summer, which led to the bizarre sight of his partner Roger Ebert conversing over the air with still pictures of Gene, who sported expressions that ranged from “worried” to “gassy.” But the surrealism didn’t end when the fully animated Siskel returned to the program.

Always the more level-headed and reliable of the pair, Siskel suddenly turned downright capricious, making baffling and confused statements about movies that should’ve been no-brainers (no pun intended). He called Out of Sight “hard to follow,” he dissed Antonio Banderas’s performance as Zorro because “he’s too much of a Latin-lover type,” and his vague, disparaging comments about The Last Days of Disco and Mulan left viewers scratching their heads. Meanwhile, he can’t stop talking about There’s Something About Mary.

Recent years have seen Siskel boldly claim, “I won’t see a better film this year than Crumb,” or, “I won’t see a better film than Fargo.” This year, judging by his muddled comments, Siskel’s favorite films are the soggy, saccharine Simon Birch and What Dreams May Come. Far be it from us to mock the infirm, but what exactly did Siskel’s brain surgeon remove—his critical faculties?

—Noel Murray

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