We’re celebrating Queer, Black, Female voices in Hollywood. It’s still Pride Month, people, drop us a Thumbs Up and show you care!
During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) lives on a large countryside estate with her abusive uncle. A new handmaid, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) arrives in the house to assist her, only the two bond in unexpected ways.
But what Hideko doesn’t know is that Sook-Hee was raised in a den of thieves – and pickpockets, forgers, human traffickers, and so on. A fellow criminal, playing the long con and posing as Japanese gentleman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), came to her with a proposal. Lady Hideko stands to inherit a vast fortune. If Sook-Hee agrees to help Hideko fall in love with him, they’ll rob her of her money and have her locked up in a madhouse. Sook-Hee accepts. But as she encourages Hideko’s seduction, she herself is falling for the lady, but her poverty and pride won’t let feelings get in the way of fortune.
The Handmaiden is an exceedingly beautifully-shot film with a score that sounds an awful lot like Downton Abbey. It’s loosely based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel, Fingersmith, but director Chan-wook Park (yes, the very same who gave us Oldboy) has his fingerprints all over this adaptation. His interpretation is visually luscious, of course, and the story more complex than it seems. This one too cleverly hints at the various power dynamics at play – between sexes, classes, and even colonized and colonizer.
While the erotic scenes are somewhat familiar and cliched, one bathtub scene involving a thimble will go down in the history books as a delightfully powerful lesbian maneuver. The Handmaiden is lush and decadent and often disturbing.
Netflix just dropped a bizarre comedy this weekend starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Netflix will green-light just about everything, which was music to Ferrell’s ears – literally. Finally, his semi-chub for Eurovision would pay off! If it’s not already the #1 viewed film on the streaming platform, I’m sure it will be soon. And it does have its funny moments, even I can admit that.
But Straight Up is also a new release on Netflix, and this one’s a movie you actually should see.
Todd (James Sweeney) is a confused young man. He’s neurotic, he’s OCD, he’s phobic, he’s addicted to therapy, which tends to stir up more questions than answers. One recent question is: am I actually gay?
Sexuality may be quite obvious to most, but Todd is wondering if maybe he just internalized the label from having been bullied as a child. He hasn’t really had any relationships, nor has he had sex thanks to an aversion to bodily fluids. He tests out this new theory on two long-time (/only) friends, who are less than enthusiastic for this line of thinking. Of course he’s gay, they assure him. Of course. But Todd is petrified of dying alone, and since adding females to the mix more than doubles the dating pool, the math is on his side. More or less. It may be a tad difficult to attract women with his distinct “I’m gay” vibe.
But not, it turns out, impossible. He meets Rory (Katie Findlay) and they immediately bond of Gilmore Girls, which is apt because they too are hyper-verbal. The dialogue zings between them rapid-fire and yet feels natural. Sweeney and Findlay have an incredible chemistry that belies an instant connection and intimacy. They are intellectual soulmates. But can they sustain a romance?
This film is all kinds of incredible. First, we get to explore a young and fluid concept of sexual identity. These kids are not afraid to redefine society’s so-called institutions to suit their own needs. They don’t ask whether they can be romantic partners but not sexual ones – they just get to it. Nothing’s off the table and everything can be negotiated.
It’s still pride month, and you may have noticed that among all of the letters of the rainbow (LGBTQia2+), the Q stands for both queer, and for questioning, which doesn’t necessarily mean that someone’s sexuality is in limbo. It can simply be an admission that sexuality is a spectrum, and one’s place on it may be in flux (a sort of agnosticism for sexual orientation, if you will). Generation Z much more readily embraces these gradations. And I don’t mean that it’s easy or it’s perfect, just that our understanding continues to expand, and there’s a lot more nuance than just the binary female/male, hetero/homosexual.
Five years ago, James Sweeney was a lowly assistant to Duke Johnson, who himself is not a household name, but he was co-director on that wonderful stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa. Flash forward only a few years, and he’s already writing and directing his own films, and even more incredibly, they’re actually first rate. He’s not just putting sexuality on trial, he’s questioning our basic definition of romantic love. As he should. The truth is, no relationship strictly conforms to a dictionary’s ideal. Maybe love can only be defined by the people who are feeling it. And maybe we should just chuck out these meaningless labels anyway.
I feel energized by these challenges to the status quo, but most of all I was just falling a little in love with Rory and Todd myself. Their wit and effervescence perfectly captures that consuming and in fact addicting aspect of new love. Recognition of this higher connection is intoxicating and exhilarating and you just want more, more, more. While I would categorize Sean as “distressingly straight” and myself as “pansexual,” still we recognize a bit of ourselves in this young couple, because those first heady days of romance are unmistakable. Sweeney and Findlay give generous performances and make easy work of what I can only imagine was a pretty hefty script. And an impressive one at that.
Look for Straight Up on Netflix.
By the early 1980s, Queen was one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Their set at the 1985 Live Aid concert is basically the most significant live performance of all time. Queen meaning Roger Taylor on drums, Brian May on guitar, John Deacon on bass, and Freddie Mercury on piano and vocals. Mercury was a flamboyant showman on the stage, an inimitable presence with an incredible voice. When he died in 1991, the band more or less died with him; his bandmates were his friends, and they needed to mourn him away from the music.
I can’t remember when I was first aware of Queen because I was born into a world already obsessed with them. I remember being in my mom’s van and hearing the telltale bassline of Under Pressure and being mad, SO mad, when it turned out to be “that old song” by Queen, and not Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, a flash in the pan hip-hop monstrosity that sampled from Queen/David Bowie without crediting them. Imagine being disappointed by Under Pressure. Imagine. I have been atoning for that musical folly ever since.
I have probably never been to a hockey game that didn’t play We Will Rock You at least 5 times. As a kid I probably thought it was specifically written for hockey. But in 1992 the band got an even bigger boost from a different Canadian export, Mike Myers. Wayne’s World was released just a few months after Mercury’s (AIDS-related) death, and the studio begged Myers to go with a Guns N Roses instead, but Myers was insistent. The film propelled Bohemian Rhapsody to #2 on the charts 17 years after its first release. Mercury saw the head banging scene before his death, found it hilarious, and approved the song for the film’s use. It was a nice way for new fans and old fans to appreciate Queen once again. Just two months later, in April 1992, the remaining Queen members put on a benefit, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, to which 1.2 billion viewers tuned in (they made the Guinness Book of Records!). Performers including Robert Plant, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, and David Bowie performed alongside the original members, and they raised over £20M for AIDS charities.
This would prove a wise and prophetic move: Queen never tried to replace the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury. When they were ready to perform again, they performed as Queen + ________. John Deacon retired in 1997, but a new Greatest Hits (III) album was released in 1999, Queen + Wyclef Jean on Another One Bites the Dust, George Michael on Somebody to Love, and Elton John on The Show Must Go On (among others). And beginning in 2005, they toured + Paul Rodgers. Fans could enjoy the music they loved without feeling their Mercury had been replaced. May and Taylor could play again, in tribute to their friend of course, but also because this was their music too, their passion.
In 2011, Queen began playing with American Idol loser, Adam Lambert (that year’s winner, Kris Allen, has long since been forgotten – the show has a pretty crummy record: out of 17 seasons, only 2 early winners ever had any lasting success, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). But Queen knew a winner when it saw one.
This documentary covers a lot of ground. A LOT. But it’s Queen, so let’s gobble it up. And it’s kind of cool that this iconic band, now consisting of two aging rock stars, can see in Lambert a little bit of their old friend. Adam Lambert is himself a flamboyant showman, but he doesn’t invite comparison to Mercury, which is what makes this union work. He is a confident performer in his own right, and May and Taylor seem re-energized in rediscovering their old hits with him, old hits that, like me, Lambert has grown up just knowing. And though he’s also passionate about his solo work, Lambert knows what a huge opportunity this is, how lucky he is to perform to arenas filled with people. But most of all, it’s just cool to see how things have changed, from Freddie Mercury’s deathbed confession of AIDS, to Lambert being able to perform as an openly gay man. Many great bands continue to tour long past their prime, eventually becoming a sort of cover band of themselves. Queen, however, has lasted because it’s been open to change, it has evolved. They never wallpapered over their past. They knew they had a once in a lifetime thing with Freddie, but they also admit they’ve somehow found it again with Lambert.
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Disclosure gives us an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact those stories have had not just on a transgender lives but on American culture as a whole.
Director Sam Feder puts together a documentary of enormous value, not just because of the breadth and depth of its interview subjects (actors certainly, but also historians, researchers, activists and more) but because this film acts as a valuable resource for cis-gendered people to learn and reflect more on the topic without burdening the trans community. Often we lean on minority communities to teach us how to value and respect them when we should be doing the work ourselves. Feder has generously accounted for our laziness and apathy and has made this easily-digested anthology on trans representation widely available through Netflix. No excuses: just watch it.
Let trans people tell you how it’s felt to grow up watching what few transgendered roles there are be of trans people being trafficked, raped, beaten, and murdered. And yet still they were grateful just to know that somewhere out there, someone else felt like them. Or what it’s like to see cis-gendered people playing trans-gendered characters, perpetuating the notion that some sort of trick is being played, or that gender is a kind of performance. And how important it is just to have any kind of representation at all, since the vast majority of us either don’t know someone who is transgendered, or don’t know that we do – and this includes most young people growing up who are trans themselves. Movie and television characters, however, come into our homes and our consciousness, so we need to get them right.
This documentary could easily shame me for not asking the right questions, not saying the right things, not knowing the right people. Instead, it just allows us to be a part of the conversation, to start thinking in the right direction, to start noticing the gaps, and to meet some people outside of our normal circles. They have every right to be angry and yet Feder and company flood us with hope and optimism. They show us the path forward with respect and dignity, and the very least we can do is take that first step.
Join us on Youtube for further discussion.
Like many of you, when I heard the title, I naturally assumed the movie was about this guy:
His name is Herbie but he literally answers to Handsome Devil, a name he lives and breathes every single day.
It’s quite effortless, and quite evident in his swagger. But anyway,contractually I have to eventually boomerang this runaway movie review and get back to the topic at hand: handsome devils who are not my verygoodboy Herbie.
Enter: Ned (Fionn O’Shea). He’s a teenager at boarding school, a constant target of bullies because he’s gay. And then the worst thing happens: the new kid Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), star rugby player, rooms with him. Which means all the jocks (aka bullies) now have an open invitation to hang out in his bedroom, and Ned no longer has a single safe sanctuary on the entire campus. Nor does he own enough boxy furniture to build an adequate barricade around his bed, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
As you might guess, the proximity does eventually break down their defenses (literal and figurative), and Ned and Conor start to bond. They’re not so different after all! With the encouragement of the new English teacher (Andrew Scott), who challenges students to find their own voices, the two boys find common ground in music.
A simple message, but one we apparently still need to hear. People fear what they don’t know, but all it takes is one friendship outside your normal social circle to expand your horizons and overcome some of the invisible barriers between us. The differences between skin colour. sexual orientation, gender, etc, are superficial at best. Friendships, relationships, even just basic respect – these are based on our shared values and interests.
School is not always a safe space for queer kids (or different kids, or kids), and we’ve been telling them ‘it gets better’ for a long, long time. Which is true: it does get better. But it’s nice every once in a while to hear a story where better starts happening NOW. Queer cinema can often be a bit of a tragedy fest, and while it’s important to remember those experiences as well, it’s really nice to celebrate the victories. O’Shea and Galitzine have a wonderful, subtle chemistry, and give their characters an authenticity I know a lot of us will relate to.
God’s Own Country is the poor man’s Brokeback Mountain. Well, that’s not fair. It’s not just the men who are poor, even the mountain is more of a hill, or just, you know, fairly flat land, maybe?
It is spring on the Yorkshire farm where Johnny (Josh O’Connor) works from dawn until dusk. It is perhaps not anyone’s first choice to waste one’s youth doing backbreaking work on an isolated farm, but for Johnny, there’s not much choice at all. The family farm is in disrepair and he’s the only labour, the only other inhabitants being his disabled father Martin (Ian Hart) and his elderly grandmother (Gemma Jones), who shower him with love and gratitude. Just kidding. What would be the movie in that? Johnny toils ceaselessly only to be met with criticism and an ever-growing list of tasks. It’s no wonder he escapes into town at night, to numb his frustration with shots and casual sex. He’ll be wrecked in the morning, and take abuse for it, but there is literally no other joy in his life.
And then lambing season comes. Johnny will spend it camping in whichever remote location the ewes have chosen. They hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker, to help out, and as we know from Enis Del Mar and Jack Twist, those cold and forbidding nights inevitably end in some hot hot heat. They fall upon each other roughly, their early lovemaking looking a lot like rodeo calf roping, as only sex between cowboys and farmers can. Their initial passion is hungry and desperate but eventually makes way to an intense but intimate relationship.
Writer-director Francis Lee is speaking to us from experience. His story is not about forbidden love or being different, or searching for acceptance. His theme is much more universal: it’s about loneliness. It’s about how love can give meaning to your life if you let it. It’s about the bravery necessary for letting love in even when you feel like a garbage person. I’m paraphrasing of course, but Johnny doesn’t feel ashamed to me, or all that concerned about hiding. Mainly he seems broken and helpless and angry.
The setting is of course thrillingly authentic, painted in graphic, gritty detail. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards does amazing work, allowing Johnny to literally come into the light.
O’Connor and Secareanu give performances filled with achy longing; even as they repair holes in the farm’s fencing, they are dismantling their own barriers. Francis Lee delivers his romance with a dose of reality; we don’t smell roses, we smell manure. But there is beauty in honesty, and underneath the grime and filth is transformative vulnerability.
Despite my initial impression, God’s Own Country is not some poor relation of Brokeback Mountain. It is its son, born of a generation more hopeful and more tender. Jack and Enis would be proud.
Everywhere, there are rainbows, co-opted to bring hope and cheer to a world self-isolating from a deadly virus. Normally, a rainbow spotted in June meant Pride Month was being celebrated and acknowledged. This June, however, things are more sedate. Pride events have been cancelled, or moved online at best, to be observed virtually, from one’s home computer. Except home isn’t always a safe space for queer folk. Many have been forced back in the closet, or back into the wrong gender’s clothes and pronouns for the duration, not daring to risk being caught on the wrong website, further isolating an already marginalized population. This pandemic has deprived the queer community of the few safe spaces they can comfortably exist in their own skin: queer bars, sexual health spaces, support groups. Worse still, many of these spaces were already teetering on the brink of inadequate funding when COVID forced shut downs. Many will not reopen. In fact, many queer and trans services rely on Pride Month events for essential fundraising, especially since members of the LGBTQ community were already at higher risk for unemployment, food insecurity, and lack of insurance even before the pandemic hit.
Most of all, though, a pride event is about visibility. It’s about celebrating the victories and honouring the sacrifices and acknowledging the gaps. It’s about giving people a sense of community and belonging. There are still countries where homosexuality is illegal, and even punishable by death. But even many “progressive” countries are still getting it wrong; Trump’s Affordable Care Act rule would allow health care to discriminate against LGBTQ people, the Supreme Court is deciding whether employers can fire people just for being queer or trans, the UK’s Women and Equalities Minister has considered revising the Equality Act to keep trans women out of women’s spaces.
If you are cis and straight, do your part to create and maintain safe online spaces for queer people. Reach out to queer friends and ask if they are really okay. And check out some queer stories because yes, representation matters.
A short list of a rare genre: happy LGBTQ movies
The Half Of It is not the kind of teenage romance we’re used to. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a small town high school outcast but for the fact that she writes term papers for hire and nearly all of the student body has bought an essay or two from her. She is the most well-rounded teenager you’ll ever meet; she works hard, studies hard, writes eloquently, plays several instruments and composes music, she knows old movies and French philosophers and somehow manages to keep her household running. In service of this last item, she breaks her own rule and accepts a different kind of paid writing assignment – a love letter from shy jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) to the school’s prettiest girl, a pastor’s daughter, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), who is already dating the school’s most popular jerk-off. Normally Ellie would refuse on moral grounds, but the electric company’s put the squeeze on so she accepts, unable to anticipate the complicated web she’s just started spinning.
Basically: Ellie’s letters are a little too convincing. A few are exchanged back and forth, and both parties, Aster and Ellie-as-Paul, are literary junkies and deep thinkers, and there are plenty of sparks on the page. But when Aster agrees to meet Paul in person, he comes off as a bit of a dud. He’s a nice guy, but he’s got nothing but blank stares rather than banter. The chemistry from their letters seems to dissipate in person. But Ellie keeps saving things with witty texts and thoughtful letters, so Aster’s falling for the Paul on the page, who is actually Ellie, while Paul is starting to feel like maybe he likes Ellie rather than Aster, and Ellie is starting to wonder if maybe she likes Aster. Like, like likes Aster.
Which is why I say this isn’t the kind of teen romance we grew up on. It isn’t light hearted fun, or sexy cat and mouse. It’s a rather mature meeting of minds, a slow-burn wooing. And Ellie is a new kind of 21st century protagonist who never needs to take off her glasses and let down her hair to be appreciated. She can be our hero just as she is, in overalls and chapped lips. She doesn’t have to play dumb or be oversexualized.
Sean felt the movie was slow to get going and a bit of a drag but I really felt refreshed by this story line, by the credit writer-director Alice Wu gives to her characters. And by turning the film into a tribute to all kinds of love, including platonic, she brings an emotional complexity to the concept of soulmates is are rarely if ever witnessed in a teen rom-com. The future isn’t just female: it’s queer, it’s intellectual, it’s responsible, it’s proud to be different. And isn’t that inspiring?
If you’ve ever seen A League of Their Own, then you already know a bit about Terry’s youth. She was a Canadian ball player who went to America to try out for the American Baseball League, an all-female league that played in the 1940s while all the men were at war. She made the roster and played for them all four years, the ladies proving quite adept at baseball and the league gaining surprising popularity, a worthy distraction during difficult times. But when the war was over, so was baseball, at least for women.
Instead of returning home to a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Terry and her cousin, hockey player Pat, bravely decided to move to Chicago together, safety in numbers. Further bucking social norms, both ladies went to work and had careers. Though they each had their share of beaus, they stuck together, building a home in Chicago and to the shock of their families, they lived there contently for decades. But now, in (nearly) present day, Terry and Pat are both elderly ladies, and Terry in particular is suffering declining health. Her beloved niece is begging them to come home to Canada, to move into a nursing home near family where they can be cared for. But after a life of independence, Pat in particular is loathe to give it up. When they are finally persuaded, they decide to move into a retirement home together, and for the first time in their almost 70 years together, to live openly as a lesbian couple.
This film is really an attempt to document their love story, a beautiful story that they kept secret for longer than most of us have been alive. Some family members are shocked, some are not, and some feel an ounce or two of betrayal. But within their own community, Terry and Pat have a robust social life, a second family of their choosing, and it’s very sad to see them leave it. Even sadder is the packing up of their home together, mostly because of the shreds of mementos the packing uncovers, touching love letters saved but also anonymized, the signatures torn off just in case it should be seen by the wrong eyes.
Terry and Pat were rebels. They chose happiness, and they created it together, on their own terms. There’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with them yourself, Terry the sweet one, Pat just a little saltier, but so devoted to and solicitous of her longtime love. Director Chris Bolan offers contextual evidence that reminds us why the lies were necessary, but the joy of finally living their truth is right there on their faces. This is a love story for the ages.