Tag Archives: queer cinema

Berlinale 2021: North By Current

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan home town after the mysterious death of his two-year-old niece, Kalla. His sister Jesse, the girl’s mother, is a suspect, his brother-in-law David is arrested, Kalla’s cause of death inconclusive, and the family tragedy as a whole is just a lot to process when there are so many eggshells to tiptoe around.

Minax is himself a trans man with a fraught relationship with his Mormon family. As he intercuts present day footage with old home movies of his childhood, it’s easy to see how his sister might have struggled with such an unstable upbringing and addiction issues. Motherhood seemed to have grounded her for a time, but the death of her daughter and her own possible responsibility and/or culpability seems to have both unraveled her but also encouraged her reproduction, replacing one baby with the next before the last one’s out of diapers. Grappling with trauma and depression, Jesse all but refuses to discuss the matter, but slowly their mother starts to open up, but she’s not exactly a great source of comfort to either. In fact, Minax’s mother is quick to point out that she’s lost two girls – Kalla, and the little girl that Minax himself used to be. While Minax’s mother may be entitled to her grief, it’s clear his transition and queer identity are still the family’s biggest challenge – even the murder of one family member at the hands of another is more easily overlooked.

North By Current is a testament of grief, tinted by faith, family, history, and isolation. Spanning topics including depression, domestic violence, motherhood and transgender masculinity, I’m not sure to what extent any true healing or catharsis occurred, but I know Minax, at least, is headed in the right direction.

Jump, Darling

What do you do when you you’re reeling from a break-up with no place to stay and no money to make things happen? To grandmother’s house you go, of course. It’s what Russell does. Russell (Thomas Duplessie) has decided to pack up his wigs and fishnets and lick his wounds in the country, at his Grandma Margaret’s place. Grandma (Cloris Leachman) is delighted to have him, not least of all because it’ll help her avoid the local nursing home, which she adamantly and steadfastly refuses to go to despite it being well established that she’s really no longer able to care for herself at home.

Russell has, until recently, pursued acting, but has dropped that passion for another – drag – which may have contributed to his breakup. His mother Ene (Linda Kash) drops in from time to time and hardly seems to know who to be most exasperated with – her stubborn, sickly mother, or her waffling, still-dependent son. Equally inefficient with both, she seems just to pop in to be a bummer and then leave again. Meanwhile, neither housemate is doing well. Russell is stagnant, torn between leaving, which means restarting, which is terrifying not to mention the whole abandoning Grandma thing, or staying, and quietly extinguishing an important part of himself. Grandma, meanwhile, is rapidly declining, but no less unwavering in her resolve to live at home. But this together time means they’re both learning about each other’s lives, their secrets, their dashed hopes, things many grandma-grandson duos may never normally exchange. Their relationship is unconventional but sweet.

Director Phil Connell keeps things simple, allowing the relationship to be the film’s primary focus. Newcomer Duplessie pours his whole self into the role. On the other end of the spectrum, this is Cloris Leachman’s final role. She died in January of this year, a talented lady to the very last, and though she seems as feisty and vibrant as ever, physically the years were taking a toll and it’s hard not to think of her demise while watching her declining mental state in the film. Still, such a meaty, involved role for a woman this late in her life is a rarity (she was 94 when she died), and Leachman was such a gem. This film isn’t her best, but it’s a great way to say goodbye to a legend.

A caveat: although I enjoyed this movie, and I enjoy drag as a whole, I do have one problem with both, and that’s the use of the word ‘fish.’ In drag, ‘fish’ is a compliment. It means the queen is looking particularly feminine, perhaps even passing as female. But fish is a dirty word, a derogatory word. I don’t mind anyone dressing up as a woman or performing as a woman but I do mind the offensive language, and I’m pretty sure you can guess where the term fish comes from. It’s a word that’s been used to shame women about the scent of their sex, as if a natural odor is somehow wrong. As a term it’s been co-opted by the drag community, the very people who apparently admire femininity so much they want to emulate it, but at the same time insult the people they’re imitating. It seems strange to put on heels and wigs and corsets and makeup and then sling sexist terms like this, but the patriarchy is pretty strong and even the marginalized will oppress those beneath them. The word is unnecessary, easily scrubbed. Let’s make that happen.

Sundance 2021: The World to Come

Picture it: mid-19th century American East Coast frontier. Life is hard; it’s round the clock, back breaking work just to stay alive. It’s dirty, full of drudgery, isolating, dark, and monotonous.

Dyer (Casey Affleck) is a poor farmer who will toil his whole life away and never have anything to show for it. His wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston) works just as hard at even more menial tasks. Their relationship is predicated on hard work and common sense. Their life is colourless, hard-scrabble, and bereft after the loss of their only child. When another couple appears in the “neighbourhood” (which is to say, another isolated cabin miles and miles away), their dreary lives are cheered just a little bit by the ability to see another face once in a while. Abigail becomes particular friends with the wife, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), though Tallie’s husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) is a real stick in the mud, another burden to be borne, but worth the price of seeing Tallie.

If Dyer notices that Abigail and Tallie are growing closer by the day, he’s hardly the type to say anything, but Finney is much more jealous, and perhaps this isn’t the first time his wife has wandered over to someone else’s homestead. Abigail and Tallie relieve their loneliness and ignite something in each other’s company. Their relationship turns intimate, and physical, a balm on their otherwise psychologically taxing existence.

The World To Come is based on Jim Shepard’s lyrical story of the same name, which is fine for a piece of literature but translated less well on screen. Katherine Waterston provides a poetic voice-over that grows tiresome very quickly, not to mention suspicious. Dyer, who eats potatoes for every meal of every day of his sad little life, hardly seems the type to have said that “contentment is a friend who rarely visits” although the sentiment, at least, rings true, the biggest excitement in his life provided by a molasses enema when he gets the flu.

Waterston and Kirby are wonderful together, and the setting is absolute perfection. The sense of longing and emptiness are well conveyed, and Waterston does a fine job embodying both Abigail’s stoic reticence and the private, flowery language of her journal. The World to Come has plenty of isolated aspects to admire but they amounted to a boring film and a frigid love story that I didn’t need to see (again: this is hardly the first of its kind). Mona Fastvold is an excellent director who picked a crummy script and failed to breathe enough life into the story to justify it or indeed to hold any emotional heft. This one left me cold.

 The World To Come will be released via video on demand on March 2, 2021.

Summerland

Alice (Gemma Arterton) is a reclusive, curmudgeonly writer, whom the locals refer to as “the witch.” Her writings often pointedly refer to the various ways women have been unfairly portrayed, but what are you going to do?

One day, a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) shows up at her door, an evacuee from London to be kept safe during the WW2 blitz. Alice doesn’t like kids. To be fair, it seems to be her general regard toward all humans, but Alice doesn’t want a kid in her house. It’s nothing personal against Frank, she just has work to do and no fucks to give. She reluctantly agrees to house him temporarily, until another family can be found. But pretty much everyone in her small village has already taken in children and she does have a big ole house all to herself.

As Frank begins to worm his way into her heart, we learn that Alice’s self-imposed isolation is the result of a broken heart, a forbidden romance with another woman, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is now just a figment of her past, though one that still haunts her. Clearly Alice has lived with only her memories for a long time, but with a real boy as her roommate, she’s brought down to the human realm where there is a war going on and people, such as Frank’s parents, are in real peril.

This film nearly lost me, being just a little too easy, a little too neatly contrived. However, it’s anchored by a performance from Arterton that just floored me. Alice’s naked longing and repressed self-expression are controlled with such precision by Arterton, it’s a remarkable role for her, but she’s actually got some very able costars from a surprising place – the kids. Both Bond and Dixie Egerickz, who plays Frank’s playmate, are wonderful, offering grounded and thoughtful performances considering these kids are growing up in a time where childhood is pretty much non-existent

I remember reading about young war evacuees when I was a kid myself, and I’ve always been fascinated by this ultimate act of mutual aid, adopting a stranger’s child, sheltering them during a difficult time, providing a safe home for kids at risk of dying in air raids in the city. Mothers had to place such trust in the kindness of strangers, and strangers had to step up with very little the way of thanks or even acknowledgment, and kids had to grow up without their parents. There would have been little communication and tonnes to worry about and it seems like such an act of grace in the middle of a literal war. So despite the film’s shortcomings, I still appreciated a window on this particular view, and what a lovely view it was, with lots of sights to behold.

To The Stars

Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is a social pariah at her high school. The 1960s were perhaps not an easy time for any woman, as evidenced by her mom, an abusive drunk who feels trapped by domesticity, and the townswomen, whose sole occupation seems to be malicious gossip, and the woman who haunts the local swimming pond after having committed suicide there, but Iris has it even worse, an outcast because her weak bladder has earned her the nickname Stinky Pants and is a daily embarrassment.

Luckily, a new girl in town, Maggie (Liana Liberato), seems reluctant to write Iris off just because all the mean girls instruct her to. And because Maggie’s big city mystique is so strong, other people start reconsidering her as well. But Maggie’s hiding some pretty major secrets of her own, and only Iris knows that she’s been lying…for now, anyway. These might still be young girls, but they’re dealing with some pretty hefty life problems, and life isn’t exactly going out of its way to be fair to them.

Martha Stephens’ beautiful movie is a tribute to female friendship and how just one friend can mean the difference between wretched loneliness and validation. Between her mother the kids at school, Iris is cowed by the cruelty, she lives shrunkenly, hunched over, avoiding all and any attention. Maggie is a necessary reminder that there is more than small town Oklahoma. A friend, for Iris, is hope. Hope that life won’t always be like this. If just one other person understands us, life doesn’t feel so alone. Hayward and Liberato serve up terrific performances, not despite their young age but because of it – only when we are teenagers do we believe that now will translate to always. It’s a bleak film that hides a positive message, one that needn’t be heard solely by teenage girls in the 60s, but by anyone who despairs that life will always feel empty. It won’t. Look up to the stars and have faith.

The Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special

I couldn’t call myself a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race if I didn’t gallop over to BenDeLaCreme’s site to rent The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special just as soon as I could. BenDeLaCreme (DeLa for short) was one my all-time favourites on Drag Race, except for the fact that she left in disgrace – not because she lost, but because she chose herself for elimination. Criminy!

DeLa and Jinkx Monsoon work together often (including in the recent Happiest Season) and have a wonderful chemistry. They’ve written the script together and they’ve got their flavour stamped all over it, which is probably why it’s so sticky.

The premise: DeLa wants to give Jinkx the perfect Christmas, with winter wonderlands, sugar plum dreams, and plenty of good old fashioned Christmas traditions. Jinkx, however, is not so keen on the whole Christmas scene. She grew up much less privileged; Santa never spoiled her and the holidays never seemed all that great. Plus, aren’t traditions those things upheld by people who don’t like gays or drag queens? DeLa can’t believe it: did she not even have a family eggnog recipe?

I didn’t grow up with a family eggnog recipe either, to be honest. Not everyone is into salmonella punch, especially not the kind animated by dead grandmas. Which DeLa’s is. Nana Nanog is still deeply invested in seeing DeLa carry out the family traditions, and luckily, our favourite drag queens have a variety of musical numbers planned for us to increase the merry and turn up the jolly.

Numbers like ‘Passive Aggressive Christmas’ and ‘Everyone Is Traumatized by Christmas’ indicate the kind of inclusivity this special is aiming for: the holidays are hard, might as well drink until they go away. Or until you see the Baby Jesus bopping around in a pair of sunglasses and a diaper.

Walt, our miniature dachshund who will be 6 months old on Christmas Day, seemed to love Santa Fa La La (he barked at all the fa la las), but I had a super fun time with their new twist on classics like Baby It’s Cold Outside, the popular holiday song with rape vibes, now rewritten to recount how God convinced Mary to put his baby inside her, and the Nativity Twist, which reclaims the birth of Christ as a feel-good, dance-heavy, nice time.

As you would expect from such drag professionals as Jinkx and DeLa, the looks are on point, the wigs are big, the shoes are high, the makeup is excessive, the costumes are spectacular and numerous. It is most certainly NOT a family-friendly affair if you don’t want your kinds finding out what rhymes with ‘bare-backing’ this Christmas, but for the rest of us, it’s exactly the celebration we deserve this year.

Find The Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special on Hulu if you’re in the U.S., and for rent on their site if you’re not.

The Christmas House

Phylis (Sharon Lawrence) has finally joined husband Bill (Treat Williams) in retirement, and she’s finding it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. With time on their hands, though, they decide to call their grown sons home and throw one last Christmas House, just like they used to do.

What is a Christmas House, you ask? Fair question. They literally empty the house of all useful contents and stage every nook and every cranny with Christmas decor, inside and out, and then invite the whole neighbourhood over to enjoy, along with cookies and cocoa of course, and even some live entertainment.

Youngest son Brandon (Jonathan Bennett) and husband Jake (Brad Harder) are able to come because their bakery is under renovation but it’s not great timing since they’re waiting to hear whether their adoption will go through – it’s been a long journey and they’ve been disappointed before. Oldest son Mike (Robert Buckley), an actor in LA, is also able to get away because his show Handsome Justice has just wrapped its first season. If the brothers are surprised to learn the Christmas House will return after a two decade hiatus, they’re even more surprised to learn that their parents plan to sell the house after Christmas – and take some time apart.

Much has been made of Hallmark finally including some LGBTQ storylines in its holiday lineup, but this isn’t much of a bone to throw the gay community, to be honest. As you can tell, Brandon and Jake are not going to be the focal point of the story; their love’s already a done deal. This is really about single (and handsome) Mike, who grew up with his eye on the girl next door, Andi (Ana Ayora), who is also convenient back next door for the holidays. Will their spark rekindle? Of course it will. But some painful memories from the past will threaten to put those flames out. Plus, mom and dad’s divorce and Brandon and Jake’s baby worries are kind of romantic bummers. But the Christmas House! That’s what’s important now, even if it’s also the only thing actually catching fire.

Oh Hallmark, how do I love thee? You’re pumping out these holiday cheese balls with such enthusiastic precision. And yet, with an impressive slate of about 40 new Christmas movies a year, this is still the first first movie produced by Hallmark to feature a same-sex married couple and a male gay couple. It’s been a long time coming and yet still manages to disappoint – give the gays their romance!

Stage Mother

Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) is pretty much what you imagine when you hear the name – conservative, christian, Texan. She’s the church choir director, a good friend, dutiful wife, and what the hell, a little catty. She’s also shocked and heart broken to learn that her only child is dead – a gay son who’s been estranged and battling addictions since he left for San Francisco years ago.

Though husband Jeb is determined to continue on as if they never had a son at all, Maybelline’s grief and regret lead her to San Francisco where she finds Rickey’s funeral is not quite to her taste. Her son’s drag family is performing their tribute to him and it’s all a little much for this mother who has never before claimed her son in public. Her clear disdain makes a bad first impression with her son’s grieving and offended boyfriend, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who is suspicious of her sudden appearance. He suspects she’s come sniffing around for an inheritance, and indeed there is one since Nathan and Rickey were never married – the drag bar where everyone performs. The bar isn’t doing well with Rickey gone, so instead of going home, Maybelline inexplicably stays and not only whips the bar into shape, but nurtures the acts of Rickey’s drag family.

There is a heart ache to this film as Maybelline is clearly transferring the love and acceptance she was never able to show her son unto the surrogates she finds at the bar. And what a tragic comment on society that so many at the bar are indeed in need of mothering, even if it’s from someone else’s mother.

Director Thom Fitzgerald chooses not to have Maybelline wallow in self-recrimination; instead, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Perhaps being useful and creating ties to her son’s chosen family is the only way she can cope. But overall, the film doesn’t carry a dark or heavy tone, it capitalizes on drag’s new mainstream status and concentrates on making things pretty and tuneful. The other drag performers are not much more than caricatures, but this is not about the resilient queer community of San Francisco, it’s about a traditional wife rejecting her husband’s bigotry and learning to judge based on the values in her own heart instead. Stage Mother is a bit old-fashioned, perhaps a bit dated in tone, but the movie’s upbeat feel combined with a terrific performance from Weaver makes Stage Mother a worthy watch.

Queer Japan

Director Graham Kolbeins’s Queer Japan has a big, open heart. The documentary examines the multi-faceted queer community in Japan with a generous cross-section of its members. Tomato Hatakeno is a transgender activist and video game guide book author; Gengoroh Tagame is a gay erotic artist known internationally for his hardcore BDSM-themed manga; Vivienne Sato is a famed artist and drag queen. But despite the film’s depth of ┬átrailblazing artists and activists, it punches most heavily when it’s sitting with everyday people, people who are making compromises and taking risks just to live some part of their truth. One young person, a misfit, a gender outlaw, commented at a pride parade “I don’t give a shit about love, I need toilets” – a brutally honest reminder of a hierarchy of needs and rights that are not addressed equally within the community (or, I suppose, without).

Curating from over a hundred interviews conducted over 3 years in various locations across Japan, Kolbein has more than enough colour to paint a rainbow. We get a back stage pass to the glossy parties and the seedy underground, meeting people living boldly in all walks of life. It’s truly a prismatic view of Japan’s deliciously diverse queer culture, and a glossary of terms is helpfully provided so we enjoy as immersive an experience as possible.

Queer Japan is a celebration of non-conformity, of alternative thinking, of living life without apology. But this party is also well-informed by that same community’s hardships, struggles, and minority status. While much of it is still lived in the margins, the documentary’s hopeful, irrepressible tone makes it clear that change is coming, and this vibrant, resilient community is not just ready for it. They’re making it happen.

Queer Japan is available in virtual cinemas and on demand December 11.

The Prom

The Prom is a new movie on Netflix based on a Broadway musical of the same name about a handful of Broadway stars looking to clean up their image by taking on a random cause. The cause in question is a prom in Indiana that the PTA would rather cancel than allow a gay student to attend with her girlfriend. It’s a pretty gay musical that Ryan Murphy manages to make bigger, better, and gayer than ever, with boatloads of sequins and buckets of wigs, and the shiniest, sparkliest cast he could assemble.

Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) is a veteran stage actress, a Broadway phenom with a Tony in her purse and an outsized sense of entitlement. When we meet her, she’s starring in the opening night of Eleanor, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Co-starring as FDR is Barry (James Corden), a Broadway mainstay who’s still chasing that first Tony, and hoping this might be it. Unfortunately, a bad review pretty much shuts them down on that first night, and someone has the temerity to point out that it’s not so much that the show is bad as that the two of them are so disliked. They’re narcissists, they’re told, though they’re not convinced that’s such a bad thing. But in the best interest of their careers, they decide to rehab their reputations by support a cause (a cause celebre, they specify) along with Broadway actor “between gigs” Trent (Andrew Rannells) and inveterate chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), who ride the next bus out of town toward homophobic Indiana.

Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is the sweet teenage girl who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is her closeted girlfriend and the daughter of Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), the “homosexual prom’s” #1 opponent. Principal Tom (Keegan-Michael Key) does what he can to mitigate the damage but he’s pretty powerless with so much opposition. Plus, now he’s start struck on top of everything else – he’s Dee Dee’s biggest fan.

As our Broadway do-gooders get to know Emma and her situation, what started out as a charitable act of self-interest turns into something a little more genuine, although the unironic, attention-hogging performance of It’s Not About Me had its charms. Both the songs and the film are uneven, but they’re also so much fun, who cares? I didn’t particularly buy Nicole Kidman as a mere chorus girl either, but do you hear me complaining? No. Because singing and dancing have put so much joy in my heart I should feel ashamed to ask for anything more.

The Prom is not a great movie, but it is boisterous, glittery good fun, full of beautiful costumes, beautiful voices, and a totally stacked cast. Ryan Murphy doesn’t do subtle, but he does have an eye for a fantastic musical number and this movie has north of a dozen. Though the feeling may be flitting, you can’t help but feel good while watching it, and what a perfect way to spend an evening near the holidays. The Prom is pure indulgence – tacky, campy, cheesy, and unforgivably feel-good. So feel it.