I’m a little embarrassed to admit I am late to the work of gay Mexican filmmaker Julian Hernandez. Over the last decade, Hernandez wrote and directed the widely acclaimed Broken Sky, A Thousand Clouds of Peace and Raging Sun, Raging Sky. The latter two both won the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award for best queer-themed feature, making Hernandez the only filmmaker to date to win the award twice. He has also helmed a large number of short films.
Alas, I haven’t seen any of his previous movies, which makes his new I Am Happiness on Earth (opening today in Los Angeles and New York City theaters and available on DVD and VOD beginning August 19th) my introduction to Hernandez’s style and technique. As evidenced by his latest work, Hernandez can be both impressive and confounding. The film’s central character is Emiliano (played by Hugo Catalan), a narcissistic director in the mold of Nine’s Guido Contini. While shooting a new film involving dancers, Emiliano lays his smoldering eyes on the hot young Octavio (Alan Ramirez) and the two quickly begin an affair. Octavio becomes emotionally attached, to his eventual disappointment, to the philandering Emiliano, who also makes no secret of his disdain of commitment and especially of marriage via a controversial television interview.
Time passes, and Octavio moves on to dance school while Emiliano finds himself floundering and stuck in a relationship with a hustler named Jazen (Emilio von Sternerfels). Things between Octavio and Emiliano eventually come full circle, but not before an odd, lengthy film-within-a-film glimpse of Emiliano’s latest, sexually-explicit production. Art imitates life and vice versa, as is the case in so many movies about the making of movies. Hernandez is hardly breaking ground here.
There are plenty of pretty men on display in the grandiosely-titled I Am Happiness on Earth, with the barely-clad Ramirez making a particular impression when he performs Octavio’s climactic dance recital piece. That scene alone is well worth the price of admission or rental. The rest of Hernandez’s film though is heavy on slow, sensual storytelling (Alejandro Cantu’s gorgeous cinematography is a plus in this regard) that more often than not demands viewers’ intuition rather than offer clearly delineated characters and relationships. It is somewhat refreshing to see Emiliano punished to a large degree for his cynical views on relationships and marriage, but we learn precious little about how he came to his perspective in the first place. Hernandez provides loads of sexy scenery but not much sense.
Each July, there are at least a few premieres I end up failing to catch during LA’s Outfest LGBT film festival and Ken Roht’s Perfect Cowboy was one such example this year. Thankfully, one of the drama-with-music’s executive producers, Mickey Cottrell, made its brand new final cut (about 10 minutes shorter than the version that screened last month) available to me for early review.
Stage and screen veteran Roht not only wrote and directed Perfect Cowboy but heads its cast as Jimmy Poole, an alcoholic country-western singer just getting out of prison after serving three years for vandalizing an ATM. So far, so familiar, but this screenplay offers a few bold twists: Poole is openly gay, has a longtime “stand by your man” partner in band mate Tyler (hunky Jeffrey Watkins), and serves as a contentious second father to Tyler’s young adult son, Mark (the cute and emotionally expressive William Nicol, who has appeared on Showtime’s Masters of Sex). Also, Poole is returning home with HIV, which he contracted while behind bars.
Perfect Cowboy has a generally understated, emotional maturity to it that is unique, especially in gay film circles, and it is truly courageous in its handling of such hot-button issues as addiction, codependency, same-sex parenting and HIV/AIDS. Set as it is in the rural South, the movie also entails Christian themes of reconciliation, redemption and baptism and deals with them respectfully, which is also rare in LGBT films (although Patrik-Ian Polk’s current Blackbird commendably does the same). Throw in some bluegrass tunes written by Roht and Paul Goldowitz especially for the film as well as a smattering of traditional hymns, and one has a nearly-divine moviegoing experience. Watch for Perfect Cowboy on the film fest trail or at a theater near you in the not too distant future.
I Am Happiness on Earth: C+
Perfect Cowboy: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.