Queer Movie Review with C.J. Arellano: Plan B

Plan B

C.J. Arellano is a writer and filmmaker living in Chicago. He works professionally as a video editor and spends his free time creating short films, webisodes, and feature screenplays. He then tries to trick people into watching them. He and his boyfriend spend too much time searching for decent queer movies on Netflix. So far, they have found four. He studied Film/Video and Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.

Movie Review: Plan B
By C.J. Arellano

The first five minutes of Plan B (2009) give no indication of the movie’s true nature. Shot on digital video that washes every image in a pale cable-access veneer and backed by a score that sounds like it was drudged up from the deepest recesses of a Yamaha keyboard circa 1990, the Argentinean romantic dramedy sets up its sitcommish premise in the first handful of quick scenes: Bruno just dumped Laura, but now Laura’s seeing Pablo, and Bruno wants her back out of a sheer “I saw her first” motivation. After hearing about Pablo’s rumored past of same-sex experimentation, he devises what must be the oddest scheme to win back an ex-girlfriend: Bruno plans to befriend or even seduce Pablo in hopes of driving a wedge between Pablo and Laura.

With the lo-fi aesthetics and superficial concept, it might seem like Plan B is an open-and-shut case of a banal queer movie made with the most misguided of intentions. But the thrill of Plan B is how quietly it reveals its surprises. The biggest surprise is worth spoiling right out of the gate: the movie is damn good.

After a “chance” meeting in a gym locker room, Bruno successfully ingratiates himself with Pablo, and an instant buddy-buddy friendship blossoms. As aimless slackers in their 20s, Pablo and Bruno’s lackadaisical discussions are mostly the stuff of stoner philosophizing – one particularly amusing and apt digression involves the two men’s minds being blown when they parse the multiple meanings of the phrase “never land.” Their interactions have an easy charm that’s appealing to watch, especially when the friendship becomes peppered with glints of romance.

Like every rom-com setup with Shakespearean aspirations, the inevitable dramatic tension hums just beneath the surface: Will Pablo find out that Bruno only hopes to steal Pablo’s girlfriend? And can Bruno be sure that’s why he’s spending so much time with Pablo?

The offhand, improvisational feel to the proceedings is a vital component to what makes Plan B work. First-time writer and director Marco Berger populates his world with characters who kind of just say what’s on their mind and stuff, you know? Berger antes up on his mumblecore-ish, Apatowian forebears by weaving slow-burn silences throughout the movie, extending the heads and tails of scenes where most sane editors would cut and trim without a second thought. And finally, he doubles down by punctuating certain scenes with prolonged and mysterious architectural images that serve as establishing shots and then just…stay there.

Yet, though it may be hard to believe, not a second is wasted. Extended silences in movies can be dreadful and pretentious, or they can be satisfying in their weight and exactitude. Plan B’s are the latter. By making the narrative pace as lax as Pablo and Bruno, we’re invited to examine every spark between the characters as they inch toward intimacy, and we’re left to bear the suspense as they attempt to navigate their feelings toward each other. It’s Berger’s way of making the audience’s sympathy for the characters hew that much closer to empathy.

Berger also displays remarkable assuredness with his camerawork. He and cinematographer Tomas Perez Silva are left to work with little. The only locations on display are ones available to any low-budget filmmaker: apartments, rooftops, ocean shores, etc. Berger and Silva make the best of the scant resources with their ultra-specific choices in the way they frame up deceptively simple shots.

For example, for a scene in which Bruno tries to coax Pablo into crossing a boundary under the pretext of helping him with a forthcoming audition, we see the two men fidget with the situation in a one-take medium shot, causing a kind of claustrophobia that only adds to the pressure of the scene. Several of the other scenes are presented in this close-up-only fashion, with the audience never leaving a premium vantage point to read the characters’ faces and all the implied tangled thoughts that must be running through their internal monologues.

Of course, none of these exercises in cinematic craft would matter if the actual people in the movie weren’t worth watching. Certainly, Plan B’s strongest asset is the cast. Manuel Vignau plays Bruno as a gleeful schemer driven by a schoolboy’s idea of pride, his eyes darting side to side like an enthused scientist as he deploys his manipulations on the unsuspecting Pablo. It’s easy for an actor to have fun with a Danny Ocean character type, a rapscallion who’ll do anything that’s fun and self-serving, because, hey, why not? It’s much harder for an actor to temper the cocksure grins with a muted vulnerability. Moreover, it’s hard to convey a character’s confusion at his own motivation without the performance delving into outright emotional haphazardness. Even when Bruno takes some unexpected turns in the final act, Vignau excels at tracing Bruno’s murky emotional arcs with a sculptor’s precision.

Meanwhile, Lucas Ferraro imbues Pablo with the soul of a melancholic dreamer without overbaking the sensitive poet factor. Where Vignau plays to the room like an emcee, Pablo’s energy is inward, quiet. Ferraro starts out presenting Pablo as a mere wandering art student with an amicable go-with-the-flow mentality. He then evolves his performance to portray someone frustrated and self-aware toward his own naivete. Ferraro’s face has all the lost and searching expressiveness required of the introspective character. Midway through the story, Berger includes a scene that consists entirely of Pablo lost in contemplation before a smile finally wins him over. It’s a sly and playful moment because we’re never explicitly told what he’s thinking, but with Ferraro’s expressive features, one can happily venture a guess.

The two winning performances add up to an absorbing love story, though much of the movie is coy on what kind of love story we’re watching here. Plan B is interested in male friendships, heterosexual or otherwise. It starts where most American bromance movies leave off, stoking tantalizing questions about platonic relationships, intimacy, and the eternal question of gender’s role in romance. The movie has the tendency to describe sexual orientation as something liquid and malleable, an idea that remains not terribly traversed in American entertainment. From an American point of view, it’s at once compelling and hilarious to watch some characters in the movie greet the idea of shifting sexuality with a matter-of-fact nonchalance.

Perhaps that’s what makes Plan B such a terrific entry into the queer cinema library. It doesn’t draw sharp demarcations between heterosexuality and homosexuality. It doesn’t politicize its characters. It’s not intended to be a grand statement on the LGBTQ experience, nor does it comes bearing any sweeping messages regarding injustice or “tolerance.” The movie meditates on sexual orientation, but it has grander, simpler things on its heart and mind. The main characters could be a man and a woman and the movie would still resonate on some elemental level. Oddly enough, that’s what makes Plan B one of the finest queer films of the last decade: there’s a rich universality here that transcends the specificity of gender and sexuality. For anyone looking for a sweet romantic story, well-told and unassuming, Plan B is the perfect Plan A.

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3 comments on “Queer Movie Review with C.J. Arellano: Plan B
  1. jim` says:

    Really enjoyed your review of _Plan B_ and surprised we agree on so much.

    One point I haven’t heard anyone yet mention is the movie’s theme.
    Sure, it’s a “gay” movie because it’s about two guys and sex.
    More than that, it’s a love story.
    It’s also a comedy of errors.

    But if I’m not mistaken, I think the movie was about honesty, more than anything else. Let me explain.

    Between any two people, there are exactly four positions one can take:

    One can deceive/lie to one’s self; and deceive/lie to others
    One can deceive/lie to one’s self; yet be honest with others
    One can be honest with one’s self; yet deceive/lie to others
    One can be honest with one’s self, and be honest with others.

    Watching from this point of view is fun, because you get to see both Pablo and Bruno alternately switching positions: lying to themselves, lying to each other, then telling the truth to themselves and still lying to each other, then lying to themselves (again) and telling the truth to each other. Then comes the final four minutes in which they both cut the crap and tell the truth to themselves AND each other. Like you said, the main characters could be a man and a woman and it might work just was well.

    Gem of a movie, and that final scene is one of the best. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    The cinematography deserves more than a little praise, too, especially the composition. I swear, you could take a 100 random stills from the movie and 80% or better would make damn good photographs. You can even see the camera man doing it too. It’s really funny — he’ll move the camera an inch or two in some direction just to get the composition better.

    Speaking of photography, the DVD released by Network Releasing in the UK is a thousand times better than the one released here in the USA by Wolfe Distributing. The resolution is better, the colors aren’t muddy (yet still somewhat muted, as I think they were meant to be) and the sound is much clearer. He makes use of ambient sound in that film, and I missed its significance in one scene because the US version is so poorly transferred. And while I’m no great linguist (let alone a cunning one!) I thought the subtitles were a better translation, too.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Plan-B-DVD-Manuel-Vignau/dp/B003S4LEN2

    If you get a chance to reply, I’d love to know the titles of the “four queer movies worth watching on Netflix.”

  2. C.J. says:

    Thanks for reading!

    I love your breakdown of the characters’ vacillation between truth and lies, and how deception really does become the one thing that gets in the way of their happiness.

    The ending absolutely makes the movie for me. Like other fans have expressed, there was so much buildup during the movie that I wish the denouement could have been extended by a few minutes.

    I wish I could see the Region 2 version! I’d love to see a version of this movie with cleaner visuals and, as you note, better subtitled translations (especially since I get quotes from the movie stuck in my head).

    Finally, aside from mainstream successes like “Brokeback Mountain” or “Milk,” the only four decent-to-great gay-themed movies I’ve stumbled upon have been “Plan B,” “Pornography: A Thriller,” “Fire,” and “TransAmerica.” I know there are more out there – I’ve head great things about “Latter Days” and “Weekend” – but the search for quality LGBTQ-movies is a lot rougher than it should be.

    ~ C.J.

  3. jim` says:

    A video player program such as VLC Player (free)

    http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-windows.html

    will play Region 2 DVDs just fine. The UK version is cheaper, too!

    The subtitling on both is pretty good, the UK is just a bit better. Once you get the hang of the Castilian accent, the Spanish is even better, naturalamente. There’s still one scene that’s got me scratching my head, though, and that’s the conversation after Bruno gives Pablo the Viewmaster and letter.

    BTW, I though the director was pretty clever not by NOT explaining or exposing the contents of Bruno’s letter. The ambiguity and muddled motivations of both characters drives the tension between them, and keeping us in the dark about the letter adds to ours.

    Thanks for the Netflix recommendations. I’m not keen on ‘gay movies’, per se, but we seems to share similar sensibilities so I’ll give them a look.

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