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Focus/Refocus: When Porn Kills
Given that the word "porn" appears in this film's title--and given that the majority of DVD Talk's readership is probably heterosexual men--I'm guessing the click count on this review will be a little bit higher than usual. And that makes me giggle, because I can just imagine the reaction those readers have when they realize the film features an all-male cast grinding against each other in a display of boner bulging gay lust. I figure you have three options: click on that "x" in the upper-right corner and wipe the memory from your brain; hit the "back" button in the upper-left corner and casually go about your browsing; or read on and embrace your latent man-love. Come on, you know you've always thought about it (and aren't you the least bit curious about a film that lists "JO", "Pig Daddy" and "Piglet" as three of its copious extras?).
For those adventurous readers--and for my homosexual brethren--thanks for making it this far. For those of you that aren't as "in the know" in the gay porn world, there are a handful of major studios that comprise the top tier, all of them respected for their quality and their stance on safe sex: Hot House, Rascal Video/Channel 1 Releasing, Raging Stallion and Titan. (How do I know all this? Let's just say I have a, um, brother who has been a writer and reviewer of the industry for more than a decade; he's really cute, cool and smart, too!). For the last two years, Raging Stallion has upped the ante with a few "big event" pics meant to inject more story and substance into the age-old formula. Both the military-themed Grunts and the violent Western pic To the Last Man won the Best Picture category at the GAYVN Awards (which are sort of like the Oscars, only not quite as gay).
Late last year, the studio unveiled its latest attempt at industry acclaim, a modern film noir set in San Francisco. The effort necessitated three different releases spanning five discs: Part 1 titled Focus, Part 2 titled Refocus and a P.O.V. special that combined new and old footage for a slightly different viewing experience. Including bonus features, the collection amounts to more than a whopping nine hours (!) of material. This 74-minute release from Breaking Glass Pictures removes all of the orifice abuse and presents the plot-driven scenes (including some new footage not shown elsewhere) with shorter softcore sex scenes.
Cole Streets stars as Joe Wilder, a 25-year-old unemployed attention-seeker with an addiction to porn: "I guess you could say I was over-sexed. Maybe I was making up for lost time." Not only does he spend a lot of time watching it, he also likes to film his own escapades and post them on the internet. That doesn't sit so well with boyfriend Eddie (David Taylor), who eventually dumps Joe. Their drama plays out while the cops are searching for a serial killer wandering Castro Street--the recent death of Philip Stanwyck (can you tell writer Dan Rhodes is a noir fan?) has the community scared.
That might explain why the mysterious Marlowe (Bruno Bond) is trailing Joe--who is now convinced that the murder is somehow tied to the object of his affection, popular porn star Dario Stefano (played here by popular porn star Steve Cruz). Despite the advice of friend Barton (Ryan Raz) to go to the police, Joe is determined to solve the crime himself. That's clearly a bad idea: As the film opens, Joe is in a heap of trouble--and under the watchful eye of his interrogator, Det. Callahan (a gung-ho Joe Wicht). Just who is behind the carnage?
Director Tony Dimarco has been a shot of adrenaline to the gay porn industry. After honing his craft at Lucas Entertainment (where he helped garner major accolades for La Dolce Vita, Dangerous Liaisons and The Intern), he headed to Raging Stallion and continued his progression. His style and vision is theatrical in scope, and his work is always a refreshing alternative. That quality shows here, with plenty of attention to sets and shots that pay homage to old style Hollywood (the police station scenes in particular are a postcard to film noir classics). I also love how San Francisco is saluted in many of the exteriors.
A review by my awesome doppelganger for the X-rated editions called Focus and Refocus "'event films' that blend genres and filming techniques for a fascinating watch." There's no denying that when viewed from a porn perspective, this approaches five-star territory (I'm so committed to my craft, I watched that version for, um, research purposes). The story has some cool elements as it relates to the danger of porn addiction, pointing the finger at the viewer (wait, is that a finger?!). I also like how it blends point-of-view camera footage with the professional shots, providing a nice blend that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The noir element is also a good fit--those films pretty much sweat sexuality already (for another solid lend of the genres, check out Randy Blue's Alley Cats...again, I had to watch it for research. You're welcome.).
The acting isn't terrible (at least by porn standards), with a few models showing they have what it takes to try and cross over. Taylor and Bond come across the most natural and comfortable, never looking lost as they dive into their roles with strength and conviction. Both have a striking presence (Bond looks like a classic Hollywood star) and handle their dialogue convincingly--and that's a huge revelation in regards to Taylor, who is usually pretty quiet as a performer (I watched some of his work for--you guessed it--research. Damn I'm dedicated!). This is a coming-out party for him (pardon the pun), and the new scene where he meets Joe for the first time is the best one here (also new to this version is a Marlowe voiceover, which helps explain his presence better--probably necessary for this shorter version). Streets can't quite keep up with them, but he gets the job done and is better when he isn't trying too hard.
But unfortunately, this version isn't an X-rated effort--it's a neutered 74 minutes that still spend a lot of its time between the sheets. An overwhelming amount of the film is dialogue free (unless you count dirty talk and moans), and you get plenty of careful angles that hide the actors' pride (although you are allowed to see facial grinding against clothed bulges, lone hardons and--to my surprise--brief snippets of a few money shots and a quick stroke stroke). I've never really understood the purpose of softcore porn--if you've gone that far, why not splurge? Even with the hardcore shots removed, there's still a lot of sex here--and the story isn't strong enough to maintain your interest on its own, especially with the low-production qualities this has when compared to mainstream Hollywood efforts. And there's still some requisite porno cheese on display, whether it's a laughable line ("You can play amateur detective all you want, but it's all fun and games until somebody gets cum in their eye!") or watching poor Raz unable to hold his breath in one scene that demands it. And that zany ending has more of a stranglehold on the viewer in the X-rated version.
From a porn perspective, a successful story and solid character development gives sex scenes more impact and intensity. But when you take away the sex, the filler often isn't strong enough to stand on its own (especially that tasty alley scene, my favorite of the unedited version; here it just, um, blows?). And that prevents this retail version from producing any steam. Some of the sex scenes (like the video store encounter) have absolutely nothing to do with the plot and are disposable sidetracks. If I'm critiquing the X-rated Focus/Refocus on a gay porn scale, it's fantastic. Judged as a movie alongside everything else (like the gay slasher Hellbent, which you're better off watching if you don't want any of those silly penises to get in the way), this softcore installment comes up limp.
The disc provided for this review was a screener, so we'll wait on issuing a final quality rating on the anamorphic widescreen transfer. No major issues to report; the picture is decent but not fantastic.
The 2.0 track is also adequate; dialogue (what little there is of it) is relayed sufficiently.
This screener disc had no extras, but considering the X-rated editions have some nice bonus material, I'd expect some of it to show up on the final version. The Breaking Glass website lists this as a two-disc set.
Who doesn't love gay porn?! Clearly not you if you've made it this far! Judged as an X-rated adult film, Raging Stallion's Focus/Refocus is a five-star outing that takes a look at addiction through the lens of a noir-inspired murder mystery. But this neutered softcore version can't come close to capturing the same passion--and as a "regular" film it just can't compete. I love Raging Stallion, director Tony Dimarco and the cast, but you need to Skip It and just go for the multiple hardcore discs. (I won't tell anyone, promise!)