Tag Archives: queer cinema

Happiest Season

Someone literally accused it of being the hap-happiest season of all, but that’s not always the case, is it? Edward Pola and George Wyle wrote It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year specifically for Andy Williams to have something original to sing on the holiday episodes of his show. The song boasts hosting parties, spontaneous visits from friends, universal social gaiety, spending time with loved ones, sledding for children, and roasting marshmallows as prime causation of holiday happiness, but not only do these things not guarantee joy, rarely does a Christmas song mention the other side of Christmas reality. The dry turkey, the overspending, the cranky kids, the ubiquitous pine needles, the dangerous driving conditions, the kids table, the inevitable disappointment. While the happiest seasons are happy in the way described by Pola and Wyle, the worst seasons are distinctly terrible in their own ways. Happiest Season tells us about Abby’s.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) isn’t that into Christmas, but girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is, so Abby makes the effort, pawning off her holiday pet-sitting duties to pal John (Daniel Levy), and spontaneously joining Harper on her trip home for the holidays. Abby’s never met Harper’s family, so this is a pretty big deal. Big enough that Abby plans to propose to Harper over Christmas dinner since the season means so much to her, making it the first of many happy holidays together. Except.

Except it turns out that Harper isn’t out to her family, and she’s been lying to Abby about it. Frantically confessed at the last possible moment, she implores Abby to keep her secret, and to lie about her own sexuality as well, because dad Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor in Homophobe, USA, and we wouldn’t want to hurt his campaign. Actually, it seems Harper’s sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland) also govern their lives in order to best impress their parents. Ted and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) make no bones about expecting perfection, playing favourites, and rewarding success with affection. When Harper arrives, mom Tipper literally says “You get more and more beautiful every time I see you. Did you bring concealer?” And Harper’s the favourite! It’s not a great situation to be walking into, but Abby reluctantly agrees with the fateful line “It’s 5 days – how bad can it be?”

You’ll have to tune in to Hulu on November 25, 2020 to find out just how bad it can be – and then be thrilled, surprised and titillated when it gets even worse.

Happiest Season is a comedy but as a rare LGBTQ holiday romance, it also tells a stark reality: that Christmas (and other obligatory family time) can be really hard on queer people whose families aren’t accepting. Kristen Stewart literally gets shoved back into a closet in this movie, which isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence. Gay members of the family may be forced to suppress foundational facets of themselves, to deny lovers and celebrate separately from partners. And that’s the “lucky” ones who haven’t been outright rejected and ostracized. It isn’t a happy time for everyone, and it gets increasingly unhappy for Abby.

John is the unsung hero of Happiest Season, the friend Abby can call when things get emotionally turbulent, the friend who will always champion her happiness, the friend who will show up for her when things get tough. Daniel Levy, recently named one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive (and how!), is great in this, as he’s great in everything. But truly, this is an ensemble comedy and it succeeds on the backs of many fine performances. Mary Steenburgen plays Icy Snob to utter perfection, Mary Holland is lovably awkward and hopelessly clueless, Aubrey Plaza has a small but sweet part – even your favourite drag queens, Ben DeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon have a campy cameo. But most of all: Kristen Stewart. I do believe even Stewart’s harshest critics (and they are harsh) would have to admit she’s natural and lovely and relaxed in this role, but she’s also able to communicate with subtle signals that she’s going through more than she says. As a supportive girlfriend, she understands this is difficult for Harper, but as a woman with self-respect, she’s uncomfortable quashing her authentic self. While Harper and her competitive sisters are clashing in the kitchen, and at the mall, and right into the Christmas tree, Abby’s conflict is internal. And Harper’s dilemma might feel painfully familiar to some – whether to choose Abby, or her family – and the accompanying fear that in trying to have both she might lose both.

Director Clea DuVall wrote the script along with Mary Holland but they aren’t delivering some gay powder puff Hallmark movie. They haven’t shied away from the tough truths of queer Christmas, but they do manage to pull it all together into something that is as entertaining as it is festive.

TIFF20: Ammonite

In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked (translation: female) fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) reluctantly agrees to act as a caregiver to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sickly wife of a wealthy man, prescribed a convalescence by the sea.

Every morning, Mary prowls the beach by her home in Lyme Regis, a town in West Dorset, searching for and carefully unearthing fossils. She dons rough clothes and men’s boots and has permanently roughened knuckles and a rime of clay under her torn fingernails. It is unusual work for a woman; Mary is an unusual woman. She is not exactly pleased when Charlotte joins her on the beach. Charlotte’s health is as dainty as the heels on her boots, her frills and lace a liability, her bonnet as prim as the purse of her lips. No one is more aware of the difference between their class and social status as Mary is, but Charlotte’s ill health and Mary’s careful caregiving put them on more equal footing. At one moment they’re peeling vegetables side by side, the next they’re having frantic sex.

It sounds as abrupt as it felt. Touted as a period lesbian romance, there isn’t actually a whole lot of romance to the affair. The two women are chronically lonely. Charlotte’s primary ailment is probably grief, and unhappiness, while Mary is burdened by a simmering anger. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two, nor any passion outside quick (and quiet -mom’s down the hall) trysts in the bedroom. There isn’t a flirtation or a sweeping exchange of intimate secrets. There is toil, there is the unyielding sound of crashing waves, there is a muddy crust at the hems of their skirts.

Of course, in the 1840s, there is no happily ever after for a couple of “opposites attract” lesbians. Charlotte has her grief to get back to, not to mention a husband. Mary has her work, her resentment, her private anguish. Their brief love affair will have certainly changed them, but at what cost?

Writer-director Francis Lee sets his movie against a backdrop as bleak and as muted as the fine performances by Winslet and Ronan, both at the very top of their game. Their brief connection has no bearing on the unrelenting sea, and no comparison to the 195 million year old bones buried in the cliffs. Theirs is the briefest of blips, inconsequential in the face of the endless ocean. Lee tends to introduce the landscape as the third character in his love stories. His style is sparse but tactile, the environment more alive than even the love between Mary and Charlotte.

And of course the ubiquitous ammonite, a particular fossil of extinct cephalopods found in marine rocks. They are so abundant Mary polishes them and sells them to tourists; the shelves of her modest curio shop overflow with them, Lee finding the metaphor quite irresistible. What is a fossil but an organism that has become petrified over time? Mary was perhaps once a vibrant and content organism but life has hardened her, leaving behind only the impression of someone who once lived – really lived. She is briefly reanimated with Charlotte, but a fossil is also something resistant to change, and Mary is nothing if not set in her ways.

Ammonite has much to admire but far less to actually like. With so little to hold on to, it was hard to be invested in such a thin relationship. With no burning passion to sweep us away, I felt oppressed by the heavy skirts, the lack of privacy, the ceaseless work and the grime. It is a long, slow slog with so little reward that even Winslet’s ferocious work doesn’t seem worth it.

A New York Christmas Wedding

Jennifer loves David but her overbearing almost-mother-in-law is pushing them into a high-society Christmas Eve wedding in just a few months that Jennifer doesn’t really want. Having lost both her parents and her childhood best friend Gabby, the holidays have always been hard for Jennifer, and she’s worried her loneliness will be more pronounced. But never mind that: Jennifer (Nia Fairweather) is about to meet her fairy godfather (Cooper Koch) who sends her to an alternate universe to, you know, learn a lesson or whatever.

Alternate Jennifer is in a committed relationship with her dead childhood best friend Gabby (Adriana DeMeo), who is not dead in this version of reality, obviously. Neither is her father, which is nice. But instead of an overbearing mother-in-law ruining her impending wedding, they’re now dealing with a heartbreaking rejection from their catholic church. Father Kelly (Chris Noth) has been instrumental in their lives but his hands are tied – the church does not permit or approve of same sex marriage.

Full disclosure: there are no Christmas weddings in this movie. There is no Christmas, period. Writer-director Otoja Abit (he also plays David) seems to be trading on the romantic holiday theme to bring attention to his gay rights in the church movie. Which is a little dishonest, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.

It’s a timely film considering a documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky called Francesco that premiered at the Rome Film Festival a couple of weeks ago featured comments by Pope Francis that seemed to indicate his acceptance of same sex civil unions. Not of marriage in the church of course, and certainly not of “homosexual acts” which are of course still very very wrong and very sinful. But hey, if two dudes want to spend a committed life together, raise a family and share a marriage, that’s cool, they can put a ring on it and get the tax breaks as long as they promise to never have sex.

That Father Kelly even considers their request is a work of more fantasy and fiction than the godfather’s alternate universe in which it exists. I guess it’s nice to dream.

If it sounds interesting to you, A New York Christmas Wedding is a tolerable watch. It has that much in common with the romantic holiday movie it pretends to be: it’s low budget and medium quality but don’t mind the genre, then you won’t mind it’s production values. It’ll do.

TIFF20: Good Joe Bell

I don’t know who gave Good Joe Bell his nickname, but they were about as accurate as they were inventive. According to the movie’s log lines, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is a father from Oregon who sets out on a walk across America in honour of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Which is bullshit. I don’t dispute the Oregon part. Or the walking part either. He definitely does some walking, pushing a cart containing whatever camping gear hasn’t been stolen yet today. It’s the whole in honour of his son part that rankles. Joe may believe, or choose to believe, or fool himself that he’s walking for his son, but he’s really walking for himself. He’s walking for absolution. He’s trying to out-walk his guilt.

When his son came out to him, Joe didn’t exactly win any father of the year awards. He thought it was enough to not kick him out. Despite his wife’s pleas (Connie Britton), he didn’t work too hard at acceptance or even tolerance. He hid his disapproval behind thin veils and assumed his son would and should do most of the work to make his father comfortable, presuming this wasn’t some sort of phase, which Joe was of course hoping it would be, right up until Jadin took his own life.

So now Joe is walking across America, neglecting his wife and remaining children, stopping at schools to preach his an anti-bullying message, and at any community even that will have him to warn parents not to reject their gay kids. None of his missives is particularly effective, but blaming bullying is easier than dealing with his own complicity in his son’s suicide. Joe “talks” to his dead son on his walk but never seems to truly understand him – neither does Mark Wahlberg, for that matter, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green seems indifferent. With such a shallow approach, this feels like a movie from 25 or even 35 years ago, so heavy-handed and so proud of itself for so little. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but that’s hardly enough, for a message or a movie.

The only thing this movie does well is casting Mark Wahlberg, who is a little too believable as a homophobe and a failure at fatherhood. The rest is a mess. Its broad perspective renders it obsolete, it lacks self-awareness, and I don’t believe anyone involved has truly considered what or who this is actually for and about.

Killer Unicorn

Danny (Alejandro La Rosa) is a bartender and used to be a bit of a party boy. His friends are queer, his best friends are drag queens, and they always stop by to invite him out. For the last year or so, Danny has passed. He’s had some trauma and no longer feels safe going out. However, the community’s epic Brooklyn Annual Enema Party (it’s exactly how it sounds) is just around the corner, and everyone’s trying to pump Danny up for the big day. A new love interest named PuppyPup (José D. Álvarez) makes him want to give the nightlife a second chance. Unfortunately, it becomes an even harder sell when it seems a serial killer is stalking the Brooklyn queer community and making drag queens disappear.

The Killer Unicorn gets his nickname in the least original way ever – he wears a unicorn mask. And not much else besides a pair of sequined booty shorts. The queens must like what’s in those shorts an awful lot because even though there’s a known Killer Unicorn on the loose and murdering their friends, a good many of them still agree to meet in dark, isolated places for a hookup – even when texts contain both unicorn and knife emojis. That’s practically a confession!

Writer José D. Álvarez can’t write. He can’t write dialogue, and none of director Drew Bolton’s cast can deliver it, so at least there’s some equanimity. It makes for a pretty garbage movie, and that’s even before you consider the vicious slander foisted upon the unicorn community. Who would want to desecrate these magical, beauteous creatures? They burp glitter and toot rainbows and yet some cretin has besmirched the good unicorn name. How dare you cast aspersions? HOW DARE YOU?

Apparently the script was written with specific queens in mind; it’s a shame Álvarez has such talentless friends. I don’t want to talk out of turn, but it would seem that RuPaul has turned the NYC drag family upside down and given it a good shake – even Drag Race’s losers go on to have stellar careers, but the leftovers in Brooklyn are clearly the dregs. Still, I don’t wish death upon them, and certainly not the particularly gruesome deaths this sick fuck in a unicorn mask inflicts. But aside from a few inventive kill scenes, there’s not much to recommend this film and plenty to warn you away.

But there a couple of you, just a couple, who are curious enough about the booty shorts and maybe even the enemas, who are going to watch it anyway. I see you. And what the heck, go ahead, enjoy it, you weirdo.

Saint-Narcisse

Well, if film festivals didn’t challenge you, it would just be going to the movies. Bruce LaBruce was never going to let that happen though. He’s Canada’s queercore king, the avant-garde and unapologetic gay answer to the punk movement. He famously blends an indie sensibility with gay porn imagery, exploring taboos and limits and putting his audience through an unforgettable adventure, one way or the other.

Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval) is a young man with an unexpected fetish – himself. His own face and flesh are the only things that turn him on. He masturbates to Polaroids of himself and has never met a reflection he didn’t like. This is one of LaBruce’s signature transgressions against cultural norms, but he pushes that button quick, and moves on to the next. Dominic was raised by his grandmother believing his mother to be dead but new information sets him on a road trip to find her. Turns out she’s a witch, or at least that’s what the locals of Saint-Narcisse call the old woman living in an isolated cabin in the woods, living with a young woman who may or may not ever age.

His arrival finds Beatrice away from her cabin in the woods, but young Irene (Alexandra Petrachuk) is there, brandishing a gun rather than a welcome wagon. Naturally he waits for his mother in the garden, where he gets naked and takes a shower. As you do. But either when the maybe-mother son reunion happens, Dominic’s story still feels incomplete. Beatrice’s (Tania Kontoyanni) story has some pretty big holes in it, but luckily Dominic’s already fixated on someone else – Daniel, a monk in the monastery next door, who Dominic believes is a dead ringer for himself.

Daniel the monk enjoys homoerotic romps in the river with his order of brothers, and to masturbate to flyers of underwear ads while self-flagellating.

If you thought LaBruce was going to let you off easy, you don’t know your LaBruce. He’s going to continue to shock and subvert. But he also rather consciously pushes us to recognize our own role in the voyeurism (It is Not the Pornographer That is Perverse).

The story is a vehicle for naughty and immoral things, for pushing up against explicit boundaries and seeing how far they’ll give. It is not a movie with mass appeal. LaBruce and writing partner Martin Girard have much less interest in story than in shock value. It’s as if they’re daring their audience to look away, and by god they’re going to do everything in their power to win.

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.

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.

Good Kisser

Jenna (Kari Alison Hodge) and Kate (Rachel Paulson) are ubering to their first threesome as a couple. Jenna is nervous, blabbering to their driver. Kate is excited, anxious to appease Jenna’s insecurities. They discuss code words and safe words and rules and limits but all that good stuff goes right out the door in the heat of the moment.

To Jenna, Mia (Julia Eringer) is a mysterious but seductive stranger. Kate and Mia, however, have some sort of history, one that Kate seems pretty intent on rekindling, pressuring Jenna to get those fires lit quick. But while Kate wants it more, it’s Jenna and Mia who seem to really connect, at least on an intellectual level. They have great chemistry outside the bedroom, but inside is another story, Jenna’s anxieties prevent her from really enjoying an intimate encounter with a random person, an issue that should have been clear to both Jenna and Kate, her partner of nearly two years, well before they got into bed with a third party. But it seems this was an effort to “spice up” their relationship, and is clearly a mostly one-sided endeavour. You’ll never see this coming but – spoiler! – turns out, a threesome isn’t a quick fix for a rocky relationship. In fact, it seems to be extra good at exposing the flaws in the foundation.

This is an indie movie with a pure, pure heart. Talented writer-director Wendy Jo Carlton has put her soul all over the page and the screen. None of the actors are completely natural on camera yet, but their professionalism and eagerness go a long way. And so does the spirit of the project itself, an LGBT movie that speaks to its own people. Far too often, movies about lesbian couples especially get made for the male gaze, the male hetero gaze, it probably goes without saying. That’s how you make a lesbian movie marketable. But Good Kisser isn’t afraid to deviate from the kissing. It’s talky, it’s neurotic, it’s questioning without being judgmental. What started out as a night billed as pleasure turns into one of pivotal evaluation and reassessment. If Good Kisser isn’t quite a Good Movie, it is at least obviously from a Good Director who deserves to have her next project have a Good Budget.