The Boys In The Band

Michael (Jim Parsons) is throwing a birthday for his friend Harold. He’s decorated the terrace of his New York City apartment, bought ice for the voluminous quantities of cocktails about to be consumed, and thrown together a guest list he flippantly describes as “all the same tired old queens.” Michael is a screenwriter who spends and drinks more than he should, and both are catching up to him. Michael’s former flame Donald (Matt Bomer) is unexpectedly in town for the event, filled with all the gems he’s been collecting in psychotherapy. Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) arrives with knee pads he’s bedazzled and monogrammed himself as a gift, and Emory (Robin de Jesús), a flamboyant decorator serves up what I believe is a lasagna laced with a little something special. Emory’s shared a tense cab ride over with lovers Hank (Tuc Watkins), who’s recently left his wife for Larry (Andrew Rannells), who doesn’t believe in monogamy.

If you’re thinking this birthday party, set in 1968, sounds a little ripe for conflict, you’re not wrong, but you don’t know the half of it. It’s about to be crashed by two unexpected guests: the first is a hooker named Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a big beautiful dummy meant to be Harold’s gift for the night, the second is Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s straight college roommate to whom Michael is not out and asks the others to be discreet as well. Alan isn’t technically invited but shows up anyway, emotional, and well on his way to drunk. And only then does birthday boy Harold (Zachary Quinto) finally show up, chronically late, razor-tongued, cripplingly insecure

Repressed sexuality and alcohol: a powder keg that’s absolutely, definitely going to blow up, the only question is whether it’ll be before the cake or after.

Joe Mantello directs a rather faithful adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play, allowing it to sit in a period when homosexuality meant so many different things: dangerous curiosity, underground relationships, chosen families, and more. Navigating this landscape is difficult, and each of these characters represents a different perspective, but they’re all just desperate to live life on their own terms. It’s the original cast from the 2018 Broadway revival, so not only is the cast extremely comfortable in the skins they’re temporarily inhabiting, but production can proudly claim that all 9 leads are themselves openly gay men. The ensemble isn’t just talented, but believable as a group with many permutations and entanglements, yet who continue to choose each other and probably always will.

This film is not just a fossil of its source material but a living, breathing thing where pain and expectation are lying in shallow graves, waiting to wound again.

Apples (Mila)

Any director lucky enough or prescient enough to be working on a movie about global pandemics just as one spread in the real world is probably going to have an automatic in this year, as we are greedy to see our own lives reflected in film, for both the drama and fear instilled by a rapidly spreading virus, and the stillness and isolation as the world shut down in response. These are strange times.

But not all pandemics are created equal. The one writer- (along with Stavros Raptis) director Christos Nikou imagines causes sudden amnesia. After a blinding pain in the head, the victim finds him- or herself void of memory. When Aris, a middle-aged man, wakes to the bus driver shaking him, his wallet is as empty as his head. Transported to hospital by ambulance, he can’t answer any questions, and after a few days on the ward, he is still unclaimed by friend or family. He’s not the only one. In response, a rehab program attempts to fill the void, a recovery method designed to help unclaimed patients build new identities and lives. Living in a sparse apartment and armed with a polaroid camera, he is given daily tasks on a cassette, meant to be performed and captured on film. It’s a strange life, and a lonely one, until he meets a woman on the same path (Sofia Georgovasili).

The treatment is unexpected, jarring, and increasingly bizarre. Just like Nikou’s film. As a feature film debut, it’s bold, and immediately establishes itself as a smoldering new entry among the Greek New Wave of weird cinema. And isn’t it glorious.

More than just memory, Apples is a meditation on nostalgia, reality, grief, and existential reminiscence. But between Nikou and the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital, what Apples really touches deep within its worldwide audience is our collective identity crisis. Sure it’s surreal and inevitably absurdist, but through its analog attempt at rediscovering personality, it’s a subtle condemnation of the hollowness and inauthenticity of the digital age, and it gives us all the space and permission to grieve.

Buffaloed

I have an innate (and probably unfair) dislike for celebrity kids who slide into the business. Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) may never win me over. Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) seems like he isn’t even trying. There are definitely exceptions to the rule (loving John David Washington, son of Denzel) but Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) wasn’t one of them. However, even my black heart and mega-level skepticism can occasionally be warmed by excessive and persistent charm.

In Buffaloed, she plays Peg Dahl, a low-level Hustler on the mean streets of Buffalo, New York. She’s not so much criminal-minded as highly motivated by money and not particularly phased by laws. Which is inconvenient when she starts dating the lawyer who once sent her away for a 40 month stint (Jermaine Fowler). However, her biggest entanglement is with her former boss and current rival, Wizz (Jai Courtney). Their business is debt collection, a dirty business even when you do it legally, which no one does, because money. Money money money.

The movie’s uneven, or going through an identity crisis. It’s got the heart of Wolf of Wall Street, a breath of The Big Short, the soul of Hustlers, and a light freckling of The Departed. But since those are pretty good references, it’s not much of a problem. Director Tanya Wexler pulls the best out of the chaos, and if you’re not sure what to expect one scene from the next, rest assured Deutch is will be your bewitching, effervescent guide through the bedlam. She’s so dazzling I wish the script had thrown a few more layers her way. Peg is clearly amoral and dare I say it – ruthless – but the script is so sympathetic toward her we don’t dwell on the darker side of her character. Deutch hints at it with a maniacal smile and her balls-to-the-wall performance.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

You know what they say – “don’t wait for college to start having fun” – or at least that’s what Sarah’s crush tells her out of no self-interest whatsoever. He’s inviting her to some show that Sarah (Madison Iseman) can’t go to because she’s locked down all week between the writer’s block hampering her college essay on fear, and babysitting her younger brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who are running a secret junk removal business to bolster their true aim of treasure hunting.

Of course the mysterious old lady who contacts them for junk removal refers them to an undoubtedly haunted house, completely abandoned and filled with dusty junk but also an actual treasure chest! Disappointingly, it contains only an old book. Until it suddenly also contains a creepy ventriloquist puppet that is not only sentient, but make shit happen (like homework, and revenge on bullies).

But, because this is a Goosebumps movie, you know this puppet isn’t exactly going to work out like a genie in a magic lamp. This puppet (his name is Slappy) has his own ambitions, and you bet your candy stash they’re evil. So poor babysitting Sarah is going to have an awful lot of trouble on her hands and you know she’s not getting paid nearly enough for this shit (like most oldest sibling babysitters, she’s probably not getting paid at all).

This movie has just been added to the Netflix library, so if you missed it the first time, it’s perfect for your Spook-tober movie nights – family movie night, at any rate. It’s got a PG rating and does have some scary monsters, so depending on the kid and the age, it may not be appropriate for everyone but it will appeal to most kids, at least in the 7-11 range. We’re diving quickly toward our second wave of COVID-19 here so I’m not sure exactly what Halloween will entail this year; trick-or-treating may be off the table. But you can still plan for a special evening (it helps that it’s a Saturday this year!) and a movie like this might be just the ticket. One note, however: while we at Assholes Watching Movies 100% endorse movie snacking, you may want to leave gummi bears off the list, just this one time.

TIFF20: Shiva Baby

Danielle is a good-ish Jewish daughter, so when her parents ask her to attend a funeral, she takes time out of her busy life as a college senior to do it. Is she on time? She is not. Does she know who died? Does it matter? She’s there, she’s putting in face time, fielding questions about job prospects and marriage prospects, putting up with frank evaluations of her body, her choices, her independence, her future, her past. It’s a lot, and she hasn’t even had a bagel yet. Has she been eating, by the way? The ones who aren’t grilling her are gossiping about her. Has she been a good daughter? A good student? A good girl?

It sounds painful, and it is, but I haven’t even told you the worst part. The worst part is that Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has an ex in the room, a sort of ex anyway, a secret ex. It’s family friend Maya (Molly Gordon), the girl next door that Danielle grew up with, went to prom with, went all the way with. And while their status is never mentioned directly by anyone in the room, not even by the young women themselves, there are enough furtive glances and averted gazes to indicate that their history isn’t as secret as they think. BUT, there’s an even bigger secret in the room. Danielle’s current beau is also there. With his wife and baby. Well, beau might be a bit of a strong word for Max (Danny Deferrari). I believe the website they use calls his position “sugar daddy,” though if he is surprised to find out that Danielle is a) not in law school and b) supported generously by her parents, she’s equally surprised that the cash he gives her after their encounters is apparently drawn from his wife’s account, and the bracelet he gave her this morning matches the one on his wife’s wrist.

Writer-director Emma Seligman has rigged this funeral like a powder keg ready to blow, and knowing the whole thing is always just one disclosure away from implosion gives the scene an electric crackle. This is the kind of comedy that’s only funny in the car on the way home, and that’s as long as you weren’t one of the main players. At the time, it’s painful and awkward, and yet no one can quite resist poking the bear. Seligman delivers a pretty big bear and a lot of eager pokers.

The ensemble cast, including Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron, is exceptionally good at driving this thing to its inevitable tipping point. And though Danielle’s lies outnumber her truths and her antics relegate the deceased to the forgotten, Sennott makes sure she is still drawn with a certain sympathy. Burdens and expectations are piled upon her like so much potato salad on her dumpy paper plate, and well-meaning though they may be (and I’m dubious about that), the barrage of questions are prying, invasive, and unwelcome. But they must be borne. All part of the price of being a good Jewish daughter, Seligman’s script implies, but it also implies that’s an achievement all but impossible.

Shiva Baby is a cringey comedy about running into your sugar daddy at a family funeral, but there’s a universality to it that rings true for many of us. When Selgman writes about family, she writes about obligation, comfort, ritual, values, pride, disappointment, and perhaps most of all, steadfastness. Which in fact is not so universal after all. Danielle may endure quite a bit at the hands of her family, but at the end of the day, blood is thicker than coffee stains. They’ve got her back, and that’s more than many of us can say.

TIFF20: Beans

The Oka Crisis. It’s an ugly piece of Canadian history that those of you outside our borders will not have heard of and those of us inside find shameful and painful to own. But own we must.

In brief: white people set sail to find a route to Asia and landed in and around Canada instead. White people are lousy sailors but they’re awfully good at taking what isn’t theirs. We even gave it a fancy word: colonization, a polite term for stealing land and dispossessing current inhabitants. By 1956, the Mohawk First Nation had just six remaining square kilometers from their original 165 around the Oka area and in 1959 the town (of white people) approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course on a portion of that land. The project bordered a sacred Mohawk burial ground in use for nearly a century but the Mohawk were not consulted and soon a parking lot bordered their cemetery. In 1990, it was announced that the golf course would be expanding by an additional nine holes and even more land would be bulldozed to make room for condos. In protest, the Mohawk people erected a barrier blocking access to the area. This land dispute lasted 78 days, with 2000 provincial police and 100 special operatives, as well as 4500 members of the Canadian Forces deployed to “keep the peace.” Tactical units used tear gas and concussion grenades on the barricade, prompting gunfire exchanged from both sides, killing one. At the time, there were only about 30 armed Mohawks behind the barricade. That number doubled after the raid, but obviously the sides were still incredibly uneven. The Mohawks had support from other First Nation communities across Canada but their white neighbours lined the streets to throw rocks at cars of evacuating women and children.

The Oka Crisis wasn’t so much resolved as ended with both sides feeling used and bruised. It was a dramatic stand-off for sure, but only a symptom of a much larger problem in Canada and in many countries where indigenous populations were pushed aside and marginalized in their own territories. The relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal people is still uneasy, with systemic racism practically baked right into the foundation of our country.

There have been many documentaries about this turbulent time in Canadian history, but Beans is the first narrative film, one that captures the time and the tension rather eloquently. The film is told from the perspective of an 11 year old girl behind the barrier called Beans (Kiawenti:io Tarbell) and largely divorced from politics. It is a humane and personal account of the crisis, which writer-director Tracey Deer experienced herself as a child.

Beans has no agenda. She’s just a kid who loves riding her bike and is excited to meet the new baby her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) is carrying. Beans is a bright kid but she’s young, and susceptible to peer pressure. She doesn’t realize she’s living through a historical event, she’s just trying to make it through the summer without embarrassing herself in front of the older kids she’s been hanging out with. But as the tension becomes undeniable and the violence ever closer to her home, Beans is about to face things no kid her age ever should.

Because Deere (along with co-writer Meredith Vuchnich) is recounting events from the perspective of a child, the conflict itself is simplified and we experience it on a visceral rather than diplomatic level. We feel her fear, her shame, her confusion. There may be two sides to every dispute, but there’s no excuse for terrorizing a pregnant woman and her children. There are certainly challenges for Beans and her peers growing up on the reserve, but outside of Mohawk territory, the racism alone poses a real danger and threat.

Deere isn’t condemning anyone with her film, but she is exorcising some ghosts she’s clearly carried with her into adulthood. Her images are beautiful, her story is balanced, and she’s made an important contribution to our cultural legacy – for better or for worse.

TIFF20: Pieces of a Woman

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excited to welcome their first child. Well, excited/terrified in proportions that vary wildly from moment to moment, and depending on what kind of shade Martha’s judgy and manipulative mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is throwing. Usually it’s quite a lot, but what can they say when she’s co-signing the loan on their new minivan?

Martha is opting for a home birth but of course when she goes into labour, some other thoughtless pregnant lady is monopolizing her midwife and she has to settle for her back-up, Eva (Molly Parker). It’s not exactly the birth plan Martha had naively hoped for, but none of it matters once those contractions get serious. Her labour is long and difficult, and we get a front row seat. It is raw and captivating, told in a good 30 minute chunk of some of the most intimate film making I’ve ever seen.

Director Kornél Mundruczó shows the birth of a beautiful baby girl in excruciating, glorious detail. Her death is much more swift. It is easy enough to show a baby’s arrival, and I suppose also her loss, but it is another thing entirely to show a mother learning to live without her.

Vanessa Kirby is astonishing in this – numb with grief, achingly lonely, and finally, explosive with anger. The film’s second half can’t quite compete with its dizzying first (very little can), but even if it occasionally slips, Kirby does not, she soldiers on, the portrait of a woman fractured by her loss, still wearing badges of motherhood without the defining, essential thing. Her life, her home, her relationship have all become haunted by the ghost of such brief life. Martha stumbles along the path toward some kind of acceptance, but Kirby’s Oscar track is sure-footed and just.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals

A bunch of teenagers get sent to summer school and find they have something in common: they’re all second-born royals. Their older siblings are destined to inherit thrones while they are the spares, side-lined and over-looked. Not this time. This time, teacher James (Skylar Astin) tells them they’ve all been sent here under false premises; this isn’t summer school, it’s a training academy designed to awaken their super powers.

Super powers? You heard right. They’re just as surprised as anyone, but the story checks out: Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) has super senses, Tuma (Niles Fitch) can get anyone to obey him, Roxana (Olivia Deeble) can turn invisible, Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) can command insects, and January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) can borrow anyone else’s super power by touching them.

This movie is not meant for adults but tween girls 8-12 should be in heaven. It basically borrows from the Netflix blueprint for princess-themed romantic movies that usually air around Christmas with a dash of Artemis Fowl with a light Hamlet twist. Rebellious teenagers, royal jewels, family secrets, cute boys, and what passes for rock and roll these days: what more could a girl possibly want?

It’s definitely wholesome enough for family viewing and while parents probably won’t enjoy it, it’s also not the worst thing to get stuck watching. There’s a training montage that rivals popular game show The Floor Is Lava, sparkling tiaras and the plump little pillows they sit on, some truly terrible CGI, a few surprisingly bottom-of-the-barrel super powers, royalty-free jamming, a dead dad, an extremely brief cameo from Prince Harry, a diverse cast of talented kids, and a dog named Charlie.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is deeply inoffensive and perfect for family viewing. Find it on Disney+.

A Good Man

Ben and Aude have been together six years. They’ve been through a lot, a LOT, and come out stronger together. But when Aude learns she can’t have kids, it’s a devastating blow. She tells Ben to leave her. He deserves to have a family, to be happy, to be with someone who can give him what he wants. Ben doesn’t even consider that an option. In fact, he’s’ willing to try something quite drastic in order to make their dreams of a family come true. He’s willing to carry the baby himself.

It’s not an option that most men have but Ben is trans, pre-op. It is technically possible but it’s going to be emotionally and psychologically punishing. First, he’ll have to delay the surgery that’s going to make him feel whole and right in his skin. Then he’ll have to stop the testosterone, risking the masculine characteristics he’s gained and inviting the return of some feminine ones. He’s battled depression before, and Aude is so worry that his mental health won’t stand up to this test. Not to mention the fact that they’ve just moved to this small town where they hope they are blending in more anonymously. Still, they live in fear. Something as simple as having to show ID could out Ben to the entire town. Having a pregnant belly is going to be a pretty big tell. So you can imagine how committed he is to his relationship and their parenthood that he still goes through with it.

Will Ben’s mind transform at the same rate that his body does? Will his secret be safe? Will he receive adequate and appropriate medical care? This movie bites off an awful lot and really spends its time chewing. These are very complicated and sensitive issues and as carefully as they’ve considered everything, they haven’t possibly considered everything. And as most parents will tell you, pregnancies don’t just transform bodies and spare bedrooms, they change the couple as well.

As Aude, Soko navigates the highs and the lows very well. She allows the character’s arc to inform her performance and manages a delicate balance including longing and fear, hope and rejection, awe and anger. As Ben, Noémie Merlant  has an even taller order and few sources to draw on for inspiration. But you can tell she discovers the character at his core. She has respect for his unique experience, his fervour and his courage. But as good as she is, it still feels a little wrong that this part didn’t go to a trans actor. This is a very specific experience and not only would it be better explored by someone who can authentically relate, it feels especially important to get more trans men in front of the camera and in the media generally. Like every industry, the movie industry commodifies women – the younger and the more beautiful the better – Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards. Trans men are much less visible and their stories less often told.

A Good Man is both a beautiful movie and a missed opportunity.

TIFF20: Another Round (Druk)

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) has been burned out and running on autopilot for some time. There’s little time or reason for joy. His job has become dull and burdensome for both himself and his students. I’m not excusing the behaviour that’s to follow, but I am giving you the context in which Martin and friends/colleagues Peter (Lars Ranthe), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) agree to conduct a social experiment.

Under the guise of “research,” they agree to test the theory that people operate better with a constant 0.05 blood alcohol level. Drinking at work: what could go wrong? Certainly four professionals should know better than to fall for such pseudoscience and likely they do, but caught up in some major midlife malaise, any excuse to numb the drowning desperation sounds like a good one. Drinking all the time to maintain that certain level needs not only commitment but opportunity which does involve some risk. But soon their classrooms are enlivened, their home lives invigorated. Martin and his friends are relaxed, they’re enjoying life again, people notice they’re less inhibited.

You and I can spot the problems coming a mile away, but feeling cocky, and perhaps with slightly impaired judgment, they all agree that since 0.05 is good, more must be better. This is the inevitable folly of man. Soon Martin and his gang are dosing themselves at ever-increasing levels. It’s fun, at first. They’re completely stress-free at work and they’re spending loads of their free time in each other’s company, where everyone is similarly inebriated and having a good time. Everyone else seems so uptight in comparison, but together they mix drinks and dance. They dance! Four white middle aged men just dance around their living rooms unselfconsciously. And since more is so much more fun, even more must be even better right? So now they’re alienating their families and risking their jobs but they don’t care or notice because they’re so intoxicated.

No matter how low they go, director Thomas Vinterberg, who wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, manages to keep the film quite dignified even when its characters are not. We are witnesses to a social experiment, it’s just not quite the one that Martin and friends set out to prove. It feels dangerously easy for such a film to veer off course into raunchy comedy mode but Vinterberg maintains a steady hand and a thoughtful introspection

Mads Mikkelsen is at his very best in the film, teetering on one ledge or another, giving a thrilling performance that is being constantly and expertly recalibrated. But at its heart, Another Round is an ensemble, and Mikkelsen is very ably supported by Ranthe, Larsen, and Millang. The script gives them each something to chew on, ensuring that the audience gets an impressive menu which ultimately ends in a very satisfying meal.