Judge Brett Cullum's life is a constant battle between becoming a marine or a mixed-up emo kid in eyeliner.
Do ask and do tell.
Director Damion Dietz seems to have made a name for himself doing silly comedies like Beverly Kills and Fag Hag, but lately the he's mining his more serious side with Love Life and now Dog Tags. This dramatic film is an interesting journey where a young marine and a troubled gothic gay guy end up spending time together discovering what they share in common. Dog Tags ponders what it is like to search for who you are when a father is missing, and you're not sure how to act as a man in the modern world. The main characters surprisingly seek out the same thing even though one is a reluctant marine called Nate (fashion model Paul Preiss) and the other is a gay West Hollywood emo brat (Bart Fletcher, Death in Charge) named Andy. It sounds simple enough, but we soon discover each man is planted with emotional land mines of hidden issues and yearnings.
Dog Tags is a film that does unexpected things for a gay drama, and that is what makes it click so well. Dietz represents a "new school" of GLBT directors not overly concerned with doing the typical "coming out" stories or "AIDs dramas." Certainly we need some of those touchstone narratives told for the community, but Damion expands the universe of his scripts to include unexpected elements and characters such as a military guy bonding with a free spirit. Dog Tags is a dramatic mystery where the real questions revolve around why the two main characters have become the way they are and more importantly where they are going. The two unravel the clues by listening to overheard conversations when they eavesdrop on each other's private exchanges. Part of their shared identity has to do with who their mothers are. Nate was raised by a single mom waitress (Candy Clark, The Man Who Fell to Earth) who doesn't ever want him to contact his father, and Andy has an eccentric divorced retired actress (Diane Davisson, G.I. Jesus) who hides a shocking secret for him. The two women help define their sons, but in the end we discover their identities are far more complex. The most telling images in the film are the blank slates such as the white drive-in movie screen or a frame with no picture in it. Dietz wants the viewer to paint their own portraits of what all of this means and who these people are ultimately. Take close note of all the dog imagery as well, because it too holds some resonance to the entire narrative.
The acting is layered and deep for an indie feature as if this was a stage cast who had been doing the story for a long run, and amazingly the ensemble is full of last minute finds by the director. Paul Preiss and Bart Fletcher create interesting tension between the two main characters that bubbles up as both erotic and the simple need to connect with each other. They are never one hundred percent clear on their sexuality, and even a love scene in the later half is veiled enough to either be fantasy mixed with flashback or something more substantial. The funny thing is the story wouldn't change no matter which direction the viewer decides to go, because at root the relationship hinges more on the psychological rather than the sexual. The two moms in the movie are iconic with Candy Clark and Diane Davisson informing us about their sons with a simple exchange or even a glance thrown at the right time. Both women are masterful, and add the right notes to their scenes in the film. It is such a joy to see Candy Clark at this point in her career looking so much like we remember her from American Graffiti. She adds a great depth to the proceedings, and anchors her sequences capably.
TLA Releasing gives enough material to make Dog Tags a solid release. The transfer looks solid with only a touch of edge enhancement here and there. Colors are clear enough even though the director seems to manipulate them just a hair to make the proceedings warmer or overly saturated in key sequences. Included is a commentary from Damion Dietz which is a fun listen full of random observations such as "This is such an emotional autobiography even though I am not a Marine or an emo kid!." He's a hoot, and the track is a nice dissection of what the piece means to him. The only other extra is a photo gallery where we get to see the press pictures used for marketing.
Dog Tags is a quest for identity by two men, expanding the idea of what a gay theme movie can be. The two characters blur the traditional ideas of what audiences expect from this type of story. The leading pair have to wrestle with their responsibilities mixed with what the world demands of them, and at the same time confront their own ideas of who they are and what defines them. In essence it is simply two lost characters showing each other the right path by taking each other off the trail for a short while. The film looks amazing, and the acting is textured and deep. We get to see a veteran actress in Candy Clark mesh with two up and coming talents like Paul Preiss and Bart Fletcher. In the end, it's a heartfelt tone poem delivered as a straight-ahead narrative. Dog Tags is a beautifully crafted work depicting the infinite nature of identity, juxtaposed with the constraints of convenient definitions society seems to want to enforce. It moves the stereotype of "gay movie" ever closer to the ultimate genre of "human movie." For that reason alone, the cast and crew of Dog Tags should be proud, and viewers should be inspired enough to check it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Audio Commentary
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