Tag Archives: queer cinema

Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall

Dear Todrick Hall,

I’m sorry. As a film reviewer at a festival, we have dozens and usually hundreds of choices to make, and a tight schedule to keep, and we just cannot see them all. This documentary was available to me and I didn’t make time for it because I had no idea that it would blow me away. I’d have to wait to discover that for myself on Netflix. So I’m late to the party, but I brought tequila and nachos. Peace?

You may or may not know Todrick Hall as a Broadway and Youtube star. Having found the roles for gay African-American men to be quite limited, he simply started creating his own. He re-wrote other people’s songs and created short films to accompany them, and gained huge notoriety on Youtube because of it.  But Todrick Hall is no flash in the pan; his talent is of such cosmic, galactic proportions that of course he would burst out of MV5BNDY3YmM4OTUtYjRiMy00ODMyLWI1OTEtM2ZjNmRiNzJiMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI4MjIwMjQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Youtube and make a scene wherever he landed. But one of his absolute greatest accomplishments is a musical that he wrote and produced himself. Biographical, and inspired by The Wizard of Oz, Straight Outta Oz is an all-original production that covers the yellow-brick road he followed from being gay in small-town Texas and the struggles and hurdles that led to fame and acceptance and being fabulously gay anywhere he goes, including but not limited to small-town Texas.

Hall is enormously talented and handsome enough to coast on his looks, but what makes this documentary great is that he’s transparent and genuine. Behind The Curtain means actual access. And director Katherine Fairfax-Wright’s skill is for setting her subject within real social context. This musical was being mounted in a time when young black boys were being gunned down by police, a fellow Youtube star by the name of Christina Grimmie was murdered by a “fan”, and Hall’s old stomping ground, Pulse nightclub, was terrorized, a hate crime that left 49 dead. Both Todrick Hall and this documentary operate within this very real world, but both manage to remain optimistic and inspiring.

I hope one day I’m lucky enough to sit in his audience, but until then we can content ourselves with some of the amazing Youtube content he’s created.

I’m sorry we still live in a world that couldn’t immediately recognize the glittery, amber rays emanating from this shining star, but this kind of light cannot be contained under a bushel for long. Todrick Hall is destined for success because he knows the value of friendship, which is evident by the tight crew he keeps around him and the family that he’s made of his own choosing. And because of his voice, which is strong and knowing. And because he actually has lots to say with it, and the means to write it down, coherent and catchy. And because he wants it. He wants it so bad he’s not going to sit down and wait for it, he’s going to go out there and create it, and god damn do I admire that.

 

 

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The Cakemaker

One day, a handsome man named Oren walks into Thomas’s German bakery, looking for cake and coffee, and possibly a gift suggestion for his  young son. By the end of the day, Oren and Thomas are lovers, but their affair must be put on hold as Oren returns to Jerusalem to see his son and wife. A month, he tells Thomas as he walks reluctantly out the door, trying to make it sound insubstantial. One month.

Only Oren never does return, and Thomas’s calls go unanswered. There’s been an accident in Jerusalem, and Oren was killed. He isn’t coming back, to Thomas or to anyone. Grief-stricken, Thomas travels to Israel to feel close again to his ex-lover, MV5BZWRjODFhZGYtYzI4NC00M2M0LWI4MmQtZjQ4ODk5ZWIwNjQzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTUwNDQ4NQ@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,744_AL_wrapping himself up in the city where he last knew he was alive, and he finds himself in the cafe of Oren’s widow, Anat. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) takes solace by inhabiting different aspects of his dead lover’s life, and it’s not long before he’s helping out in Anat’s cafe, and erm, doing other things for Anat (Sarah Adler) besides. Of course, Anat is unaware of the relationship her husband had with Thomas, so it’s only her grief pushing her into Thomas’s strong but unfamiliar arms.

The Cakemaker is slow and deliberate. It feels a bit like a recipe, with ingredients lovingly chosen and carefully measured, and everything kneaded together with slow, sensuous strokes. There are no surprise ingredients, but the way they’re blended makes for a very interesting movie, equal parts delicate and passionate. Writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer stirs his creation in a way which suggests that our identities, religious, political, sexual, whatever, they’re fluid. And grief is complicated. It’s sad of course, because love is inevitably sad, but it’s the journey more than the destination, the story of survival, the getting there, and the rest is just cake crumbs.

 

 

The Cakemaker screens as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and if you’re lucky, you can catch it tonight, May 9, 8:30pm, at the Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk 9.

Wild Nights With Emily

Emily Dickinson, that is.

This movie started and I was like: ugh. They’re really flaunting their teeny-tiny budget. This is a period piece but the costumes look rented and the sets are old (but not old enough) houses and the accents are atrocious and the props are vintage perhaps but certainly not antiques. But once I let go of my authenticity bias, I relaxed and could appreciate that no, this film can’t afford to look like an ethereal Austen period piece, but it does have something important to say.

Emily Dickinson was a brilliant American poet who was never published or recognized during her lifetime because her lifestyle was not “becoming.” In order to publish them MV5BOGIyNjg0NWItYjMzMS00N2I0LTllYjUtMzBhMjJkMDgzMWM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc5OTQwMzk@._V1_posthumously, a narrative was created about her that has ever since called her a recluse, a virgin, a socially awkward spinster, which are all words attributed to women who just didn’t fit the mold. In reality, Emily had a passionate love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Many of her fieriest poems are dedicated to her – and name her. Traces of their relationship were of course literally erased from history in order to sell her poems to a conservative market. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways and this movie’s ambition is to have us reconsider the things we think we know about her.

Director Madeleine Olnek knows that letting Dickinson’s true flag fly may prove controversial, and that people generally don’t enjoy lectures about feminism, so she’s made a film that we can laugh at. And the best signal that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek is her casting of Molly Shannon as Ms. Dickinson. Molly gives Emily an energy and a joie de vivre that has been absent in our conception of her. But it’s clear from her poetry that Dickinson was in fact a woman of real passion – she loved and was loved. She was also constrained by her gender, class, and status, and all of those things have shaped our image of her. It’s only thanks to Susan’s daughter that we know of their great love and lifelong relationship, and to dedicated scholars who have uncovered the clues that were of course there all along. Don’t watch this movie if you can’t think outside the box. But do watch if you think the world needs more feminist, lesbian heroes – they’ve always existed, they just need our acknowledgement.

SXSW: The Shorts

Are We Good Parents?

Director: Bola Ogun

One day before school, a daughter lets slip she’ll be shopping for her homecoming outfit, and her parents are floored to find out that a certain “Ryan” will be picking her up for her first dance. As soon as the daughter’s out of earshot, Mom and Dad are questioning their whole parenting motif. They’d always assumed she was gay. What have they done wrong? Is she actually straight or just rebelling, or has something they’ve done or failed to do made her feel unsafe to come out?

The script is flipped from the hetero-normative expectation that a kid is straight until you hear otherwise. It’s an interesting statement to make but one which might have worn thin with a less authentic-sounding script (by Hailey Chavez). But this is no after-school special; Are We Good Parents is genuinely funny, thanks in large part to Tracie Thoms and Sean Maguire, who really tap into the self-doubting roles of two loving parents to a straight kid. This short film has big heart but it really makes you think about the assumptions we make not just as parents but as a society, and what ‘coming out’ really entails.

A first-generation American from Nigerian heritage, Ogun was born and raised in Texas and has a bright film making future ahead of her. Her film is making its world premiere at the SXSW film festival on March 10 and screens again March 12 and 15 as part of the Shorts Program 3.

 

The Coffin Club
Director: Briar March
This short is a documentary about a club formed by senior citizens in New Zealand. Through a lively musical number, the real members of the club tell us how they’ve formed a club that makes their own coffins. Sure they save some cash with their hand-made confections, but the best part is how they personalize their final resting places with glitter, paint, and pictures of Elvis. The film is 3 and a half minutes long, the whole thing sung (with Jean McGaffin and Kevin Quick providing spirited vocals), and it covers the snacks they nibble on between their morbid arts and crafts, and the trouble they got into from local funeral homes who felt their bottom lines were being hurt.
I am several decades too young and not a joiner by nature but I am desperate to be a member of the Kiwi Coffin Club. These are people who know that a box is just a box – but why not make the thing beautiful? They’re demystifying death, and preparing for it in their own way, putting their own stamp on a funeral that is usually designed by others. But it’s also clearly a social thing, with lots of camaraderie. If the club is looking for new members, I’m a great beaker and I have my own glitter, a glue gun of course, and a whole drawer full of ribbons. I’m not much of a singer, but I can snap and believe I look quite fetching in a top hat.
This doc is just minutes long but I felt like I’ve made some real friends. I could have watched for hours more. The production is great, and director Briar March turning the thing into a musical extravaganza shows us there’s more than one way to flip death the bird.
This film screens in the Documentary Shorts 1 block on March 10, 12, and 15 and honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Love, Simon

I wondered whether we needed a ‘coming out’ movie in 2018, but Love, Simon surprised me. It surprised me most of all by being good, but also by making a case for its existence. Simon is a high school student with a secret. He’s gay. And it’s not that he’s particularly afraid of how his family or friends will react to the news, which is nice, and sadly not everyone’s experience. But Simon’s still holding back just because he feels that life will change for him once he’s out, and he’s not feeling ready to rock the boat.

The thing is, no matter how gently the boat would actually rock, it still should be Simon’s choice when and how to come out – and that should remain true until the proverbial ‘coming out’ is no longer necessary (ie, when hetero is no longer the ‘default’). But in the MV5BZjdmNjI4NjctNWEwNi00M2EwLTg4MzItMWFmMTU0MDJiMzA0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE0MDE1MjQ@._V1_film, Simon (Nick Robinson) has that stolen from him. Another kid, Martin (Logan Miller), learns his secret and exploits it, uses it to blackmail him for his own ends. Which, okay, further illustrates that everyone in high school is desperate and scared and going through something. But saving yourself should never  be at somebody else’s expense. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson both Martin AND Simon will have to learn, because to protect his secret, Simon makes some bad choices that will hurt the very friends who will love and support him if and when he does choose to be out.

It’s a pretty solid cast and a pretty solid story and a good reminder that just because being gay is a little more…mainstream? tolerated? understood? – it can still feel like a thing that sets you apart. And while being gay is not a choice, we should all be allowed to choose our own path. Sexuality doesn’t really set us apart but secrets do. And living your truth is the only way out.

Miles

Ron’s heart bursts while reading the Saturday morning paper in his lazy-boy. He leaves behind a wife, Pam (Molly Shannon), and a teenage son in his senior year of high school, Miles (Tim Boardman). His family is devastated, but not in the usual way. Miles is desperate to escape the confines of his small town for film school in Chicago next year, and Pam has been slowly asphyxiating in her crappy marriage for years. Turns out Ron wasn’t a very nice person, and he recently used his son’s college fund to buy his mistress a Corvette. The mistress is the only one without dry eyes at the funeral.

Pam copes by flirting with a widower (Paul Reiser) in her grief group, and by threatening the mistress, and the mistress’s mother. Miles copes by joining the girl’s volleyball team. Apparently it’s the only scholarship he’s eligible for.

The movie is set in 1999, which means the AV club consists of rolling a large tube TV around on a trolley and chatting looks boxy and pixelated and awful. But it still encompasses a pretty big chunk of the plot. There’s really to recommend setting the movie in 1999 except it’s based on a true story, which is also an awkward implication.

But anyway: we’re going to rock the boat in small town wherever, circa 1999, when boys didn’t play on girls teams and coming out to your parents was still an occasion. So maybe there’s still room for this kind of courage, whatever that means. There’s an effort here to be relevant but the truth is, our protagonist is narrow-minded in his own way. He sees only his own needs and wants, not the larger picture, so it’s hard to really extrapolate the kind of meaning that would make this film feel satisfying.

Call Me By Your Name

Seventeen year old Elio is facing another season at his parents’ summer home somewhere in boring, idyllic Northern Italy when the clouds part, the angels sing, and a yellow ray of sunshine pools on the golden head of a god, arriving by taxi. Actually it’s Oliver, a grad student about to spend the next 6 weeks helping out Elio’s father, a professor. Elio is immediately smitten.

It’s complicated, though, and it’ll take those full 6 weeks for the two young men to reach the peak of their affair. It’s the summer of 1983 and neither one is ‘out’; what we see is their friendship, the confidences they share, the fumbling flirtation. It’s a quiet movie, as 913a movie must be between two characters who are still learning about themselves, and in some cases, learning to repress. The pace is languid, but after 132 minutes, I’m thinking more about what’s left out than what is covered. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) share a mostly silent passion. Have they ever been attracted to men before? Are they afraid of being seen? Their affair exists within a bubble – isolated in a small village, surrounded by intellectuals, sheltered. But there’s always a sense that the affair cannot last.

We feel the blush of their first love. But director Luca Guadagnino does not want us to see much more than that, does not want the reality of gay sex to change the tone of the movie. Why doesn’t he trust us? In an otherwise beautiful film about desire, theirs is the only physical intimacy that we don’t see. When one of them hooks up with a woman, we eavesdrop on their thrusting and grunting. We even get fairly graphic with some person-on-peach sex. But when Elio and Oliver come together the camera looks away. The only real nudity is female.

And that has left me feeling off-balance. I can only praise the performances by Hammer and especially by Chalamet – his energy, his wit. Although Elio is the younger of the two, and voices more self-doubt, we actually see them negotiate a balance in their relationship that feels very healthy and mature. And though Oliver is adamant that he wants neither of them to get hurt, we see how woundable Elio really is, how vulnerable. This isn’t just love but self-discovery, mutual discovery, only some of which will be lasting.  Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) counsels him to stay this way, thin-skinned, to not close himself off to pain, even in heartbreak. And Oliver wonders if that’s the real difference between the two: not their age or experience, but their parents. And we’re left to think on that as the credits roll. Who might they have been had they both had supportive families? It is in these final minutes of the film when we finally feel emotionally connected to the material, and to the characters. This is the beating heart of the film. It’s just too bad it’s saved for last.

Torrey Pines

So here’s a movie for all you people who like to take some risks with your cartoon watching!

Torrey Pines is stop-motion animated, but there’s no clay in sight, it’s all paper cut outs, which I kind of loved. I mean, I’m a sucker for stop-motion any day of the week, but this one looks like something your or I could do, if only we had tonnes of time and talent and patience and a kick-ass story to tell. Clyde Petersen has all of those things, and this is (sort of) his story.

It’s about Clyde when Clyde was still a 12 year old girl dealing with gender identity and the struggle of finding his way. The film is filled with wild hallucinations and MV5BMjEzNjMwMTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk4NDg4MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1763,1000_AL_psychological projections, so even though the movie is without dialogue, we still feel what Clyde is feeling. When in the car with his mother, we don’t hear them argue, but when a speech bubble features a bear biting off the head of a rabbit, we get the gist. Clyde’s mother is schizophrenic, and what she sees as a fun-filled family road trip from San Diego up to New York, the rest of the world views more as kidnapping. It’s a trip that will change Clyde and his family forever.

My love for stop-motion exists because there’s just no better way to visually represent the love and attention that goes into making a film. Stop-motion will often show us how something works close up, and we see beauty in this new perspective. Torrey Pines doesn’t disappoint; I particularly loved seeing the jointed fingers at work. But it’s also not traditionally beautiful animation. It reminded me of being in high school – my friend Kelly one day said to me that my shoes were so ugly they were cool. Up until that exact moment I’d only seen the cool in them, and forever afterward couldn’t stop seeing the ugly (she was right). The look of Torrey Pines is also ugly-cool (although legitimately both), and perhaps there is no better aesthetic to explore a coming of age story in the 1990s.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no dialogue to this movie, and that definitely proved challenging for Sean. Maybe it’s not for everyone but I liked that this film was a rule-breaker. Music and score play a much larger role in the film because of the lack of speaking roles, and it really moves us along through the stages of the film. There’s a lot to see and think about in this movie, heavy stuff, but really relatable and authentic  with a flavour all its own.

TIFF: Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari

Ferentari is an impoverished ghetto of Bucharest. Adi, an anthropology student, moves there to work on his thesis on manele pop music. He soaks up the local culture at a seedy bar where he meets a guide, Alberto. Alberto is a colourful character, to put it politely, a gregarious man with a gambling addiction and 14 years of prison under his belt. Alberto knows how to work Adi, scheming for drinks and smokes on top of cash payment. He’s got the whole neighbourhood figured out.
The relationship between the two blossoms curiously; Soldiers is an exploration of the soldiers_story_from_ferentari_02tough and the tender, the blurring of the line between the two. Adi (Adrian Schiop) is a fish out of water, and Alberto (Vasile Pavel), rough as heck around the edges, provides interesting if skewed insight. Soon their companionable partnership turns into something sexual, quasi-romantic. It’s a quite modern gay love story from behind the poverty line and director Ivana Mladenovic’s lens is intimate and gritty.
Soldiers is Mladenovic’s feature length debut but her work is already assured and distinguished. Based on the fictionalized biography of screenwriter (and actor) Adrian Schiop, the story follows the two lovers as they move from friendship to lust to love, but it’s when things start to turn sour that the movie really has something to say. The cultural, ethnic, and economic power dynamics become unmistakable as we glimpse a side of Romania we don’t often consider.

 

I Am Michael

Based on a true story, Michael Glatze (James Franco) is a gay activist, a writer for a popular queer men’s magazine, and one half of a couple passionately in love. Yet in ten years’ time, Michael will have publicly denounced the LGBTQ community, “turned” straight, and married a woman. How on earth did this happen?

Zachary Quinto is just as baffled as you are. Well, okay, Quinto plays Bennett, 201507682_1_IMG_FIX_700x700Franco’s other half in this film. And Bennett gets left for another man, who happens to be God. Michael starts out curious about religion because some of the queer youth he advocates for have been spurned by parents and schools in the name of religious belief. But the more he studies, the more susceptible he becomes to some very old, out of date, uncompassionate teachings. And things twist around in his mind so much that he makes the decision to “stop” being gay. He becomes a pastor himself, the kind who will sit down in front of a vulnerable kid and tell him “gay doesn’t exist” and he’ll have to “choose heterosexuality in order to be with God.”

 

I Am Michael attempts to tackle this surprise conversion with as much fairness and balance as possible, but it’s still stifling and sad to watch a man learn to loathe himself. Franco slides from determined advocacy, to, well, madness. He convinces himself that the voice he hears is God giving directions, but I sure as hell wasn’t convinced. I thought he was clearly troubled and had mounts of unresolved grief, both parents having died when he was quite young. And while it’s natural to want to be reunited with one’s mother, the lengths he goes to in order to guarantee his ascension into heaven is really tragic. And it made me angry all over again, this presumption of the church to tell people that they are mistakes, and those mistakes are bad and sinful and that God can’t possibly love them or accept them as they are (as He Himself made them???).

But the truth is, the fire that I feel for this subject wasn’t enough to sustain me through this movie. I thought it blandly and boringly told. It felt more like a powerpoint presentation than a movie. Michael’s struggle is largely internal, so the drama just doesn’t manifest. And because we don’t see or understand what must be a torturous process, the film feels slight, inconsequential.

I Am Michael is a fascinating premise that didn’t really work for me as a film. The director works so hard at being fair that the movie never really has a point of view. For all the talk of spirituality, there’s no real fire. It’s an interesting story uninterestingly told.