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Interior. Leather Bar.

Strand Releasing // Unrated // April 15, 2014
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted April 13, 2014 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
Franco and Mathews make a meta-exploration of normal

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Mockumentaries, clever filmmaking
Likes: James Franco
Dislikes: Being preached to
Hates: Pretentious artistes

The Show
Alot of the questions about Interior. Leather Bar., a short-film experiment from big-man-on-campus James Franco and gay-documentary maker Travis Mathews, focused on just what exactly it is supposed to be. The film starts with three title cards, which sets the stage, referencing the 40 minutes of footage director William Friedkin had to remove from his 1980 film Cruising, in order to get an R rating, and Franco and Mathews' intent to re-imagine those scenes, which have never been shown publicly. While some assumed this film would be a new take on that lost footage, perhaps starring Franco, that's not the case (with just a few moments from that re-creation making it into this film.)

Instead, this movie focuses on the production effort to shoot new versions of those scenes, with actor Val Lauren taking on Al Pacino's role from the original movie. Like Pacino's character, an undercover cop working in an underground world of gay S&M clubs, Lauren isn't exactly comfortable with all the gay stuff going on, a point made clear as he asks others how they feel about the whole set-up, including a tete-a-tete with Franco, to discuss the hardcore gay sex that will be a part of the process (and film.) Lauren is receiving pressure from his girlfriend and a seemingly homophobic friend (or agent) who try to convince him to walk away from the situation, but he has a loyalty to Franco that stands strong.

The thing is, this isn't really what the film is about either. There's a whole other layer to the film, which is introduced slowly, quietly and effectively, and which may not be obvious until it smacks you in the face. Then, on a second viewing, you'll notice hints here and there that registered before but which now stand out as clues to the movie's true story. That Franco and Mathews were able to slip this concept in so subtly is a testament to their skill and creativity as experimental filmmakers, but also couldn't work without all the misdirection at play, most important of which is the explicit sex scenes. The on-screen penetrative acts and full-frontal nudity on the part of several of the actors is about as distracting an act as you can see on-screen, especially when the film (seemingly) is focused on how Val reacts to these sexual moments occurring directly in front of him, as well as how the difference between porn and art is determined.

As clever as the film's concept is, it doesn't all come together, with one of the major speedbumps coming, ironically, in the form of Franco. In addition to serving as a camera operator, he also has a handful of large speeches where he professes his distaste for his normalized ways of thinking when it comes to sexuality. Whether it's the writing, the actor or perhaps improvisation, it's hard to take his words seriously, as it comes off like he's a first-year college student who's taken intro courses in gender and LGBT studies and sociology, and now understands the world better than you do and is making sure you know it. Lauren's own eye-popping, jaw-dropping reaction to being witness to a guy-on-guy sex scene is actually even less nuanced. The problem in analyzing the parts is the story under the surface might make those choices intentional.

In the end, which comes quickly, just 60 minutes after the first frames unreel, one is left questioning what to believe about the film, and no one seems to be pulling back the curtain, with an open-ended finale leaving more questions asked than answered. That said, this is a brief distraction, and the work of some playful artists who treat the world of film as a laboratory for their entertainment and their artistic goals. SDH

This brief hour-long film arrives on one DVD, which is packed in a standard-width keepcase. The DVD feature a static, anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out extras. There are no audio options, but English subtitles are included.

The Quality
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is impressive for what is no doubt a low-budget production shot on the cheap, and the disc delivers appropriate, bright colors with an excellent level of fine detail. The palette experiences several changes along the way, and they are handled nicely. B levels are deep, keeping the darker club scenes neat and clean, while the different looks in the film are reproduced very well, with no concerns about dirt or damage or compression artifacts.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is naturally not a bombastic affair, but it performs all of its functions very well, with clear dialogue that's clearly separated from the music (when it's supposed to be) and an overall natural sound.

The Extras
Two interviews are available, with Franco (6:22) and Mathews (8:09, as they discuss the origins of the film, share thoughts about the production and talk about alternate ideas for the film, while Mathews tags on some info about the Internet chatter surrounding the film before its release and how audiences respond to it. It's good info, but a commentary would have been appreciated.

In a nice touch, related short films are included from both co-directors. From Mathews, In Their Room: SF (20:13) is another entry of his series of films on gay male intimacy, profiling several gay men from San Francisco within the confines of their bedrooms. Sex is key to this piece, with lots of crotch close-ups and talk of intercourse, along with some nudity and one man masturbating to completion. Mathews is a talented documentarian, and he paces the piece well, but the subject matter will not sit well with some people.

Franco gives us the black-and-white Feast of Stephen (4:27), where a young teen becomes obsessed with shirtless guys playing basketball, until his attention catches their attention, leading to a session of gay-bashing. However, from that point, all bets are off, in a climax that will be received differently by people, depending on certain personal convictions. However, it's interesting either way.

Wrapping things up is the trailer for Interior. Leather Bar., along with previews for four other Strand Releasing films.

The Bottom Line
People give James Franco a lot of grief for his scattershot portfolio of creative endeavors, but isn't it better for him to chase after unique clouds than make the same old movies, while living a life in the tabloids like the average movie star? The results of his whimsy here are uneven, but it's far from a typical film, and will hold your interest (as long as you either enjoy or aren't horrified by watching hardcore gay sex.) The DVD looks and sounds solid and offers a few interesting extras to pad out the disc a bit. It's hard to imagine there are many people who will need to own this movie, but there are quite a few who will want to see the fruit of Franco and Mathews' collaboration.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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