Review: Birds of Prey

Margot Robie

Birds of Prey—which bore the Fiona Apple-esque subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn before the Warner Bros. suits switched it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey—is  a fantastic movie.  The trailers had me worried this was going to be self-indulgent and too focused on Margot Robie’s admittedly note perfect Harley Quinn, but the actual film is not quite that.  It uses Quinn as a way to bring new audiences into the world of its fantastic ensemble of characters.  The Birds of Prey—Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)—are fully realized characters I’d happily watch in three or four sequels.  Harley, who was a great character/performance in search of a decent vehicle in Suicide Squad, gets one here.

Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco, Robie, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell bring the grrl power

This is largely Harley’s movie, to be sure, but that turns out to be a good thing.  As the narrative voice of the movie, Harley holds the film together and drives much of the plot, including bringing the Birds together for the first time.  Robie is compelling and turns in dynamic, terrific work.  She’s joined by one of the strongest ensembles I can remember.  Smollett-Bell is a standout as the beguiling Canary (who does her own singing on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”), and the always dependable Rosie Perez is great as the no-bullshit, openly lesbian Montoya (her DA ex, played by Ali Wong, has a key role).  Basco is an appealingly naturalistic presence, and Winstead, though she deserves more screentime than she gets, is utterly fantastic.  Then there are the villains: Ewan McGregor is magnificent as Black Mask, and Chris Messina matches him as partner in crime (and, um, probably bed) Victor Zsasz.  The chemistry between these two is nothing short of electric.  I leaned over to my friend during the screening and whispered “they’re totally fucking.”  No, it’s not stated overtly, which is too bad considering DC is in a position to outdo Marvel’s output in this area.  But it’s all too apparent for anyone with eyes, really.  Elsewhere, the clever animated prologue includes a female ex of Harley’s; DC should be bold and give Harley a full on lady love in her next appearance (cough, Poison Ivy, cough).

Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina: yup, I ‘ship it.

Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) create a wholly satisfying package here.  There’s witty dialogue, outstanding costumes and production design (seriously, I covet Black Mask’s wardrobe), and some of the best action sequences and stuntwork I’ve seen in any film lately.  It’s all set to an engaging soundtrack made up of largely female artists like Heart, Kesha, Halsey, and Megan Thee Stallion (Robie is credited as producer on both the movie and the all-female soundtrack album).  There are also compelling themes of feminism, friendship, abusive relationships and misogyny—the type of subject matter that irks online bros but makes for satisfyingly three dimensional storytelling.  The arc of Harley’s recovery from her toxic union with the Joker (Jared Leto thankfully never appears) and struggle to find her footing as an independent human being is vividly relatable and even inspiring.  All in all, it makes for a candy coated, quirky, innovative production that might just be the best DCEU movie to date.  I’ll take a wild swing like Birds of Prey over formulaic comic book product any day of the week.  The proof is in the puddin’.

Review: Black Christmas

Imogen Poots is Riley in Black Christmas

The latest victim of toxic internet backlash, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, remakes the classic 1974 horror film for the #MeToo era.  In a society where a groundswell of support has taken down serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein even while an accused rapist sits in the White House, it’s not at all surprising that the film has “earned” a 3/10 user score on IMDb– boosted by scads of scathing reviews complaining about “sexism” (female on male, natch) and “third wave feminism.”

The truth is that the movie, while imperfect, benefits immensely from Takal and April Wolfe’s script explicitly addressing sexual assault, misogyny, and patriarchy.  The emphasis gives the film a strong point of view, sets it apart from both the original and a previous 2006 remake, and continues the horror tradition of holding up a perverse funhouse mirror to real life anxieties.  In the 1974 version, outspoken, independent women—one of whom wants an abortion despite her boyfriend’s wishes—are stalked by a mysterious killer in a college sorority house.  Here, an equally distinct, tight knit group of sorority sisters face a similar threat on the atmospheric campus of Hawthorne College.  Riley, played by Imogen Poots (who’s been quietly building a resume of interesting roles for years now) is struggling to overcome the trauma of an assault at the hands of charismatic frat boy Brian (Ryan McIntyre).  Nobody believed her then, but a campus talent show gives her an opportunity to confront Brian and his buddies.  When girls start disappearing, and Riley and her friends receive threatening text messages from someone claiming to be their school’s long dead founder, they suspect that the disgraced fraternity might be behind them.

Kris (Aleyse Shannon) faces off against the killer

The on the nose gender politics aren’t the whole show.  This is a horror film, after all, and Sakal and Wolfe’s overwritten screenplay (I mean that as a compliment) gives us characters we care about, namely: Riley, her activist pal Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and the not-as-vapid-as-she-looks Jesse (Brittany O’Grady).  Cary Elwes is in grand scenery chewing form as pretentious, smarmy Professor Gelson.  The production design is terrific, with a gothic campus and plenty of holiday atmosphere.  Sakal also stages some fun set pieces and includes clever Easter eggs for fans of the original movie.

Cary Elwes as the slimy Professor Gelson

The biggest issue here is with the third act, when the movie loses steam just when it should be hitting its stride.  The cathartic final battle between Riley and her tormentors doesn’t land with quite the oomph it should, and the supernatural machinations of the plot are a little too Harry Potter.  Still, Riley is a wonderfully real, complicated, and endearing character—one with a dynamic arc.  Black Christmas is consistently entertaining, funny, and often surprising, with a fresh and diverse cast.  I give the filmmakers props for taking a bold swing and making a statement about important contemporary issues.  The fact that this PG-13 rated film will be accessible to young women, and potentially inspiring to many of them, is profound.  That goes a long way towards forgiving its defects.

Review: Stonewall Outloud

I love gay history, so I jumped at the chance to attend a screening of the documentary short Stonewall Out Loud at the Stonewall last week.  It initially premiered on June 5 of this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the riots and is currently streaming on YouTube.  After viewing the film by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – the acclaimed directors of Inside Deepthroat and Party Monster, among others—I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm was rewarded. 

As Bailey told the crowd at the screening, there are very few photographs from the Stonewall riots, so he and Barbato had to get creative.  Their brilliant conceit was to bring audio recordings of the participants to life by having various LGBT celebrities “play” the storytellers: i.e. lip sync.  It seemed a little odd at first, seeing the likes of Lance Bass, Adam Rippon, and Isis King “speaking” for the participants, but I quickly got used to it.  Considering lip syncing’s long association with drag, the technique is actually all too appropriate; in fact, Drag Race’s Jinkx Monsoon “portrays” the legendary Sylvia Rivera.  The film also includes conversations between the actors and the still living “voices”—like Fredd E. “Tree” Sequoia, who still bartends at Stonewall today—and reflections from both generations on the significance of these events in shaping our community’s ongoing history.    There are also cinematic close-ups of smashing bottles, flashing lights, and other images evoking the riots and the context surrounding them, as well as incendiary footage of Rivera lashing out at a hostile crowd at Pride 1973.  Watching this documentary in the spot where it all happened was a truly moving experience.

“Tree” Sequoia with Adam Rippon

Afterwards, legendary journalist Michael Musto conducted a Q&A with Sequoia and Bailey before opening up the floor to audience questions.  One self-identified “zennial” (cross between a millennial and generation Z) professed that they talk about Stonewall “all the time” with their circle of friends and that it’s quite meaningful, “especially for the trans community”—this comment brought a chorus of snaps from their friends in the crowd.  With Stonewall Outloud, those young people and generations to come have an invaluable new testament.

Review: Terminator: Dark Fate

Mackenize Davis and Natalie Reyes

What if you made a sublime sequel and nobody came?  That seems to be the problem facing two new films this month: Terminator: Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep.  While I haven’t seen the latter, it’s gotten rave reviews—but underperformed at the box office this past weekend.  So did Dark Fate, which I can say unequivocally deserves to be a massive hit.

Linda Hamilton

Maybe it’s franchise fatigue.  There have been three sequels since 1991’s revolutionary Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a blockbuster sci-fi action extravaganza that made Linda Hamilton (waitress turned survivalist resistance leader Sarah Connor) a butch lesbian icon.  They’ve all been pretty meh, especially 2015’s mythology busting Terminator Genisys, which lamely swapped in Emilia Clarke for Hamilton and featured an evil cyborg John Connor (Jason Clarke), or something.  But Dark Fate distinguishes itself by bringing back original director James Cameron as a producer and Hamilton as star, while wisely ignoring everything after T2.  Essentially, it pulls a Halloween (2018): hello creators, goodbye years of convoluted mythology.

Gabriel Luna

Despite Cameron’s above-the-title billing, this movie really belongs to director Tim Miller (Deadpool), and he does an outstanding job.  The action sequences are at the same thrilling level as the first two films; if I occasionally lost track of the combatants as they chased and fought over highways and through manufacturing plants and government facilities, that’s a very minor quibble with a sensationally entertaining package.  Once again a hero and a villain face off as the fate of a future savior hangs in the balance.  This time, Mackenzie Davis’ cyborg Grace must save Dani (Natalia Reyes) from the relentless Terminator (Gabriel Luna, who’d be sexy if he weren’t so scary).  Into this fray steps Sarah (Hamilton), who’s developed a hilariously cynical sense of humor but is just as much a force to be reckoned with at age 64—I think of her as “Action Grandma.”  (According to a recent Queerty interview, the actress reminds many gay men of their own fiercely protective mothers.)  Eventually, our heroes ally themselves with a T-800 played, of course, by original franchise star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once again puts his stoic affect to comic use.

Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger

A number of factors make this a superior sequel.  It makes use of the series’ well-worn formulas while giving them enough twists to stand on its own.  At one point, Arnold picks up a pair of the same sunglasses he rocked in the original films before putting them back down, a knowing wink at the audience’s expectations.  The cast is uniformly good: Davis is utterly compelling as the androgynous Grace, and Reyes believably embodies Dani’s arc from innocent bystander to battle-ready warrior.  Hamilton, though, walks away with the film.  She’s so terrific, and displays such range, that I truly hope this movie leads to a career renaissance for her.  As iconic as she was in The Terminator and T2, I don’t know that I truly realized just what a great actor she was until this film.  The special effects, meanwhile, are predictably top notch, especially when the new cyborg and Terminator are involved.

Terminator: Dark Fate also has some intriguing socially relevant touches.  Whether purposeful or not, Grace has a gender fluid quality that might connect with non-binary audiences—for instance, in two separate scenes she chooses men’s clothes over women’s.  It could be coincidence, but Miller’s last film Deadpool 2 certainly suggests he’s comfortable with queerness.  There’s also a stretch of the film detailing the characters’ tortured journey across the Mexican border, ending in a detention center—when Grace asks a guard where “the new prisoners are taken” she insists that they refer to them as “detainees.”  It’s a timely plot element that isn’t overly didactic or preachy, and grounds the film as firmly in the twenty first century as T2 was in the 1990s.

Ultimately, this is a funny, exhilarating entry that rewards longtime fans.  Regardless of the box office, time will be kind to it, and if this is the end of the line for Cameron’s creation, it’s a satisfying finale.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Spiral review

Spiral is the quintessential film I wanted to like more than I actually did.  I was excited to review a queer horror film, especially one specifically addressing homophobia in the 1990s.  Alas, Spiral’s reach winds up exceeding its grasp.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

In director Kurtis David Harder’s film, a gay couple with a teenage daughter move to a small town—and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) soon suspects something is amiss.  Are the neighbors part of some bizarre cult?  Did the lesbian family who lived in the house previously suffer a horrible fate?  Or is Malik—still traumatized from a hate crime years earlier– just suffering from a delusion?

Bowyer-Chapman (UnREAL) is the best part of the movie.  He gives an arresting performance and is believable, endearing, and sexy as a gay man trying to find his footing in a relationship with an older man and as a step parent.  As his partner Aaron, Ari Cohen essentially plays the standard disbelieving husband role we’ve seen in countless horror films, but for the most part he avoids coming off as unsympathetic (he’s a cute daddy, too).  Jennifer Laporte is the other cast stand out as daughter Kayla, whose angst never rings false. Lochlyn Munro (Betty’s slimy dad on Riverdale) is effortlessly slimy here as the suspicious neighbor.

 The set-up is tight, with the film seemingly aspiring to be a gay take on Rosemary’s Baby and/or Get Out.  Intriguing threads are set up: Malik realizes the documentary he’s editing is about a conversion therapy advocate; the grieving man from next door seems like he might be interested in Malik; blackmail photos appear to threaten his relationship with Aaron.  But the shift to overtly supernatural content feels jarring and a little silly, and those three threads never really pay off.  By the time the end game is revealed, Spiral has trampled over the goodwill it earned during its first hour.  The tone is a problem, too; the premise is fairly ludicrous, but the movie wants to be deadly serious.  If it had leaned into the campiness a bit, it might have been an enjoyably pulpy allegorical thriller.  Instead, the movie comes off as pretentious, with its statement on the shared struggles of different marginalized groups landing with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil.  (A quote lifted from Harvey Milk feels almost blasphemous.) What’s more, the audience’s investment in Malik and his family is betrayed rather callously by the narrative.  Ultimately, Spiral is a misfire, though I’d love to see Bowyer-Chapman in bigger and better things. 

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Slayed! Review

“Bathroom Troll”

This year marks the second year for Slayed! LGBTQ Horror Shorts at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.  This co-presentation with NYC’s queer NewFest film festival continues to offer an eclectic and interesting selection, even if a couple of entries fell a little flat.

In “Jeremiah,” a young Asian man with a crush on his football teammate is troubled by visions of a folk tale monster he grew up dreading.  The eerie cinematography and locations are top notch, as are the young actors playing the boys; they have a believable chemistry.  The Hitchcockian score also adds a sense of dread.  But the short left me wanting more information on the monster and the storyline—it may be intended as a pitch for a feature length film.

In the Spanish language “Estigma,” my favorite of the program, two young men start to get it on—but a freakish insect interrupts their liaison.  I’ve long remarked that some of the best horror exaggerates real life fears, and this short dramatizes the anxiety experienced by HIV positive men quite well.  The makeup and practical effects really help sell the film, and the two leads are authentic and sexy.

“The Original”

The black-and-white “The Original” concerns a lesbian couple and has an intriguing premise: a specialized surgery can transfer the ailing partner’s mind into a healthy new body.  But although the piece is emotional, creepy, and at times darkly humorous, the ending didn’t quite land for me.  I was left with a lot of questions; maybe this, too, is a stealth feature film proposal.

“Penance”

My two least favorite shorts, though very different, both come off as one-note gags that barely justify their extremely brief runtimes.  “Penance” is a smug, heavy handed take that! to the Catholic Church’s homophobia.  It’s a deserving target—I say that as a former Catholic myself—but the gruesome perversion of communion doesn’t really go far enough to be truly satisfying.  It abruptly ends before it can justify its own existence.  Meanwhile, the bizarre “Docking” was somehow selected by the Sundance Film Festival; I can only assume somebody wanted to be cool and subversive by picking it.  It’s nothing but a dirty visual joke with giant erect penises subbing in for Star Wars spaceships.  I’m no prude, but this just felt like a waste of time, effort, and money.

“Bathroom Troll” is a candy colored satire that, while not as clever or as much of a statement as it thinks it is, is nothing less well-executed and quite fun.  The crowd-pleasing Carrie takeoff has “Cassie,” an androgynous teen, getting tormented in the bathroom by mean girls and then roped into a plot by her religious zealot mother.  The twist is that, unlike Carrie’s mom, Cassie’s is a Satanist, and the pair conjure up a demon to enact vengeance.  The demon is entertainingly campy/vicious in the Freddy mode, and every actress (it’s an all-female ensemble) knows exactly what tone to hit to make this short work.  I just wish there was a clearer transgender element, since the recent “bathroom panic” was clearly the inspiration here.

“Switch”

The program ended on a high note with the endearing “Switch,” a sort of 21st century Orlando with a teen who inexplicably changes genders– and lovers.  It’s fun, engaging, and sexually explicit, but in a very heartfelt and tender way.  The young cast is appealingly naturalistic, and the performers who play the lead’s two personas complement each other quite well.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Review: Carmilla

Devrim Lingnau and Hannah Rae in Carmilla

It feels like it’s been a few years since we had a good old fashioned Victorian horror film; perhaps not since Guillermo Del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak.  So the moody, intelligent Carmilla (inspired by the gothic novel by Sheridan Le Fanu) is a welcome addition to the genre—not to mention a queer one!

Writer/director Emily Harris’ film immediately makes a strong impression with gorgeous cinematography and a vivid locale.  Teenage Lara (Hannah Rae) lives a lonely existence in an isolated mansion.  Her well-meaning governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is caring but strict; her father is usually away on business.  More than anything, Lara wants a friend, and one finally arrives in the form of Carmilla (a gorgeous Devrim Lingnau), who the family takes in after she survives a mysterious carriage crash.  The two immediately form a close bond that develops into a romance, but there may be more to Carmilla than meets the eye

Rae and Jessica Raine

 Carmilla is essentially a drama with horror elements, a character-driven film that showcases terrific acting from all three of the women featured.  Rae and Lingnau come across as genuine teens, not the twenty-somethings who play high schoolers in so many movies and shows, and their performances feel wonderfully authentic.  Raine, meanwhile, is outstanding in her role.  She comes off as fully three dimensional and compassionate despite her old fashioned beliefs and strict rules for Lara.  In one standout scene, she hints at her own same sex attractions while trying to steer Lara away from her feelings for Carmilla.

Lara’s growing attraction to the other girl gives way to a tender eroticism.  Harris does a terrific job of capturing their chemistry and generating heat; it’s a rare treat to see any kind of love scene in movies these days, and all the sweeter to have ones involving two women.  There’s also a moment of unexpected and powerful sexuality between two other characters late in the film.

Carmilla is a dynamic and well-crafted movie, pleasingly ambiguous and understated with its horrific elements.  When things get creepy it feels organic – Lara has some morbid interests and fantasies, which Carmilla appears to share–and in keeping with the serious tone of the film. The movie is brimming with interesting motivations and relationships, and keeps you involved all the way through its poignant finale.

Interview: Joe Zaso, the Himbo Chef

“It was one of those freezing cold days,” author and actor Joe Zaso recalls, explaining the genesis of his series of “Café Himbo” cookbooks, “I was home and I love to cook, and I decided to start dabbling in recipes and things.  Back then I was in the West Village.  Jessica Harper [from the original Suspiria] had just written a book called The Crabby Cook Cookbook and I was very inspired by [it], so I said, I think I’m gonna start a blog.  So we can exchange recipes.  And because I’m called the Horror Himbo by some sites, [like queer horror site Camp Blood] I made the name the Café Himbo, which became a blog, which became a cookbook, which became a little featurette show on YouTube, which became a brand, and here we are, still going strong.”

Zaso and I are chatting in a coffeeshop in his current neighborhood in the lower east side.  Zaso is jovial and easygoing, talking quickly and excitedly and using his hands.  He has an amusing tendency to imitate the voices of the people in his life—and books—perhaps reflecting his background as an actor.  Apart from his own roles in horror films like Revenge of the Egg and 5 Dead on the Crimson Canvas, the “Himbo Chef” is a lifelong fan of the genre himself, and his books are filled with recipes from other horror players like Rutanya Alda (Amityville II: The Possession, Mommie Dearest) and Candice Azzara (Pandemonium).

“It’s what’s so surreal about people like Rutanya Alda, I’ve been watching them in movies since I was kids, with my brother on HBO, and here I am 30 years later and we’re talking about their cats, kvetching about rent, she’s telling me about her past relationships,” Zaso says.   “She will slip into Amityville II, here and there, but, you know, we’ll be meeting here and she’ll tell me how she’s into gluten free [foods].”  Zaso draws collaborators from his personal life, horror conventions, and occasionally messaging people on social media.  “It’s cute because everybody, I think they find it flattering and fun,” he states.  “Some people they don’t return emails, or they say thank you for asking.  Camille Keaton, from [the notorious “rape revenge” film] I Spit on Your Grave, she said that she makes popcorn, and that’s about it.”

For his latest book, The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends, Zaso teamed up with his friend Beverly Orth-Geoghegan.  “She’s fun to work with, she’s very seasoned, she knows her wines, she’s a good cooking partner,” Zaso enthuses.  “So I was like let’s write a book together.  And she said, [Zaso slips into an impression] ‘oh, it would be fun!’  We exchanged recipes, and cooked at each other’s places.”  Orth-Geoghegan has a horror connection herself; her husband Ted Geoghegan is a writer/actor who wrote the critically acclaimed independent film We Are Still Here (2015) and appeared in last year’s The Ranger.

As the title indicates, Zaso’s latest focuses on comfort food, from “Tiramisu French Toast” to “Creamy Dreamy Tomato Parmesan Soup” to “Single White Trash Chicken” (the latter from Rockbar co-owner and fellow horror fanatic Jason Romas).  “The book is about comfort food and just comforts, period,” Zaso explains. “There’s just unease at the moment, you almost feel guilty for having fun and doing certain things.  On Facebook I would see people posting every day with their favorite junk foods and all these decadent things, and I said, ‘didn’t we used to be really health conscious?’  And I think people are just saying ‘no, we want fun right now.  We want to be healthy, but right now we want to be, you know, are souls need to be improved.’”

Zaso finds certain horror films from the 70s and 80s to be a sort of comfort food, and was tickled to include some of their stars in his latest.  “One person I like very much is this actress Elizabeth Shepard, who you may know as Joan Hart, the woman who got pecked by the raven in Damien: Omen II,” Zaso says.  “She is such a doll.  She lives uptown, she teaches Shakespearean classes down here.  She gave me a whole bunch of recipes over the years.  The weirdest, most interesting recipe I got from her was for Pigeon Pie, which is very Northern English, it’s like squab, so we made a joke, ‘in honor of my attacker.’  For this one she gave me Welsh Rare Bit and Elizabeth Shepard’s Shepard’s Pie.”  The book also features Lynne Griffin, who famously played the first victim in the original Black Christmas (1974) and has found more recent success starring in Hallmark movies like Santa Baby (2006).   “She’s bubbly,” Zaso shares.  “And she has her fans, she has her horror fans, and if you’re like my mom– and I’m becoming a bit of one myself– she has Hallmark.  She’s such a good cook herself, she has such great advice.  She and her husband have recipes galore in the book and they’re just wonderful.”

I ask Zaso why he thinks horror has such devoted queer fans, and he ruminates on the topic a bit.  “I have this theory that half the horror fans in this world are gay people,” he says.  “What made me discover this is when you go to newsstands and Barnes and Noble, all the horror magazines are near the gay magazines.  Everyone who likes Pino Donnagio [composer of films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill]they always turn out to be gay, I don’t know why.  What is it about horror sequels: Damien: Omen II, Exorcist II, Elm Street II, they are always big with gay fans.  What is it?  There’s something there.  I don’t know what it is.  There’s something in horror that just speaks to their soul.”  Later, Zaso brings up a theory a friend once offered about the author’s personal connection to the genre.  “My friend Ricardo, from Rome, who’s straight, he said, ‘I think you liked horror in the 80s and 90s more, were you out yet?’  And I said, no.  And he goes, ‘when you came out, you noticed that you liked horror less, maybe it’s an exchange of aggression, maybe it was your guilt, or like hatred or darkness that exchanged,’ and he was being very philosophical and as soon as I became more comfortable with being gay I stopped liking horror as much.  I don’t know if that had something to do with.”

Zaso is more assured when it comes to advice on becoming a good cook.  “Patience and space, are the two vital things that will help you become a better cook,” he declares.  “Because when you have that, then you want to try things and relax and not rush and not burn things, and you want to take a little more time to cut that tomato up and not just, you know, hack away like Jason.  When you have a nice kitchen, and you have people there, and you have a glass of wine, and you’re talking, it’s pleasant, it makes the whole experience fun.”

The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends is now available in physical and e-book form on Amazon and at joezaso.net.

The Gay Canon

My geeky, Pokemon Go loving friend Mick came out not too long ago, and I got the idea to make him a list of my personal “gay canon” of films and TV (with a few books thrown in for good measure).  I sent him this list on the occasion of this past weekend’s Pride celebration in his hometown of Manchester, England.

Armie Hammer and Timothy Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name

Philadelphia (1993)—It may play as outdated now, but Jonathan Demme’s drama, the first studio movie about AIDS, is a significant time capsule and features a terrific Oscar winning performance by Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer who sues his firm for firing him when they learn he has the disease.  Denzel Washington is equally strong as the initially homophobic lawyer who represents him on the case, and it’s a compelling and undeniably affecting tear jerker.  The soundtrack, featuring Bruce Springsteen’s award winning ballad “Streets of Philadelphia” as well as Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, and the Indigo Girls, is also terrific.

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in the original Tales of the City

Tales of the City (1993-2019)—Armistead Maupin’s saga of the lives and loves of straight and queer San Franciscans isn’t just one of my favorite gay series, it’s one of my favorite things, period.  The original 70s-set miniseries brilliantly captured the excitement and uncertainty of living on your own for the first time, as Mary Anne Singleton (a terrific Laura Linney) moves into a magical apartment complex lorded over by sage transgender landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, sublime) and becomes fast friends with adorably wide-eyed Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and acerbic, frizzy haired omnisexual Mona, who memorably melts down in a board meeting with a snooty client by bellowing “crotch, crotch, CROTCH!!!!”  The three original series—Tales, More Tales, and Further Tales—possess an irresistible mixture of soapy shenanigans and genuine heart.  Later, un-filmed books in the series included Babycakes, the first work of fiction to address AIDS, Significant Others, Sure of You, Michael Tolliver Lives, and Mary Anne in Autumn. All are worth reading, and this year’s Tales of the City, while not a direct adaptation of any of them, incorporates elements and characters while perfectly updating the franchise for the 21st century.  (Just try not to think about how Linney and the other returning players are nowhere near old enough to have aged forty years since the originals.)  The newest installment pays particular care to the trans characters, including casting trans actress Jen Richards as a young Ana Madrigal in a captivating flashback episode.


The Broken Hearts Club (2000)—A friend once mocked this film, written and directed by future TV mega producer Greg Berlanti, as the story of a young man who becomes enmeshed in a world of shallow West Hollywood gayness.  There’s some truth to that, but Broken Hearts Club is still an entertaining, occasionally affecting, and trailblazing comedy about the lives and loves of a group of gay friends.  There’s an inspired bit of casting with TV Superman Dean Cain as a man-eating lothario, plus lots of retroactive recognition with Timothy Olyphant, Justin Theroux, Zach Braff, and Billy Porter in the mix.  John Mahoney shines as the mother hen of this squabbling but ultimately loving and supportive group.


Queer As Folk (2000-2005)—Let me start by admitting I never watched the British original—set in Manchester, appropriately enough—and have heard it’s great, and maybe superior.  But QAF, as fans in the know called it, was an endearing if occasionally dopey and maddening soap opera that portrays “boys becoming men” in that well known American gay capitol… Pittsburgh.  The whole cast is great, but Peter Paige is transcendent as unapologetically queeny Emmett, and Robert Gant is charming and extremely sexy as HIV positive professor Ben.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)—John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in this brilliant, intensely cinematic rock musical about a “little wisp of a girlie boy” who escapes East Germany via a botched sex change operation for the promise of a better life in America.  Abandoned by his would be sugar daddy, Hedwig falls in love with Tommy, a teenage Jesus freak, then winds up stalking him across the country when Tommy gets famous off the songs they co-created and embarks on a national tour.  The songs are terrific, the performances are outstanding, and one liners abound in this sardonically funny, moving film.  It’s considered somewhat problematic in these more enlightened times, but I think its genuine heart and innovation outweigh any such concerns.  Mitchell has gone on record stating he doesn’t consider it a representation of the transgender experience, a sentiment with which many would agree.

Mary Louise Parker and Justin Kirk are some of the disparate souls whose worlds collide in Angels in America

Angels in America (2003)—Mike Nichols’s made for HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” puts most feature films to shame for sheer ambition and cinematic art.  An indomitable cast led by Al Pacino and Meryl Streep breathe life into this elaborate work of magical realism, which dramatizes the anguish and inspiration of the AIDS crisis and a particular moment in queer Manhattan.  It’s a really extraordinary and engrossing production.  Related: I’ve always wanted to see the two part play live. Maybe you’ll get the chance sometime.


Brokeback Mountain (2005)—Ang Lee’s heartbreaking shoulda-been Best Picture is certainly depressing, but it’s a sublimely crafted and essential film in queer cinema history.  Heath Ledger was rightly praised for his tormented ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, but the entire cast is first rate, including Jake Gyllenhaal as his lover Jack Twist (swoon), and Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as their long-suffering wives.  The cinematography and Oscar winning music are excellent, too.  Related: Annie Proulx’s gorgeous short story.

The L Word stars Leisha Hailey and Kathering Moennig

The L Word (2004-2009)—The trailblazing saga of the lives and loves of lesbians—and occasional straight women and trans folk—in very glamorous Los Angeles could be all over the place, but it was never boring and often moving.  A strong, almost entirely female cast (many writers, directors, and crew members were women as well) portrayed women’s struggles with sex, relationships, monogamy, family, and, um, the high stakes world of lesbian poker (?!).  There were some missteps—the cynical and unnecessary killing off of a beloved character, iffy trans storylines—but this was still an addicting and often rewarding series. The L Word: Generation Q , a “woke” revival with original cast members Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Katherine Moennig (my favorite character, womanizer with a heart of gold Shane) is coming in December, so cram now!

Left to right: Emile Hirsch, Kelvin Han Yee, Sean Penn, Alison Pill, and Joseph Cross in Milk

Milk (2008)—One of the best biopics ever made, Gus Van Sant’s dramatization of the brief career of America’s first openly gay elected official is perfect in every aspect.  The performances are uniformly excellent: Sean Penn rightly won an Oscar as Harvey Milk, a darkly compelling Josh Brolin plays troubled assassin Dan White, and a luminous Emile Hirsch brings sass to budding activist Cleve Jones.  The film makes great use of San Francisco locations and balances character with story.  Despite a tragic ending, it remains buoyantly hopeful and inspiring.  Related: Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street and Cleve Jones’ memoirs Stitching a Revolution and When We Rise.


Call Me By Your Name (2017)—There was backlash and criticism of the age disparity in this celebrated gay romance, but the beauty and eroticism of Luca Guadagnino’s film is undeniable.  Timothy Chalamet is sexy and utterly convincing as the teen who finds himself inextricably drawn to Armie Hammer’s hunky grad student one sumptuous summer in Northern Italy.  Dad Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech to his heartbroken son is one for the ages, and Sufjan Stevens’ songs, as well as a needle drop of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” provide the perfect accompaniment.

Left to right: Ryan Jamaal Swain, Angel Bismark Curiel, Indya Moore, and MJ Rodriguez on Pose

Pose (2018-Present) — I consider this the best thing Ryan Murphy has ever done.  He and creative partner Brad Falchuk were smart in teaming up with Steven Canals to offer an authentic point of view on the world of Ballroom culture.  Pose applies somewhat formulaic, crowd pleasing tropes to characters that have never before been the center of a narrative.  The record-breaking number of trans, queer, and people of color in the cast make this a show that finally centers non-whites in the LGBT community.  The series also serves as a history lesson, especially as it delves into the devastating AIDS epidemic and dramatizes real-life incidents like a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Related: the coming of age musical Saturday Church, co-starring Pose’s MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore.

Review: Queerskins: a love story

“A lot of VR asks you to ‘pretend you’re a Black person for five minutes’ or ‘pretend you’re a trans person,'” explains Ilya Szilak, co-creator (with Cyril Tsiboulski) of the virtual reality experience and real world installation Queerskins: a love storyQueerskins premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, when this piece was originally written, and went on to win a Peabody Futures of Media Award.  It returns to New York City this week for World Pride with the addition of a second chapter, “The Ark.”  Szilak continues, “We don’t actually want anyone to pretend to be anyone other than who they are and bring all their history, all their baggage, all their prejudices, into this space. The show is about reconstructing this character Sebastian [a young gay man, estranged from his Catholic family, who dies of AIDS in 1990] from a box of photographs and a diary, so your relationship to those photographs and those objects is going to be very different depending on who you are.”

Sebastian’s bedroom installation at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival

With Queerskins, the immersion begins before you even put on the headset; you’re ushered through a recreated attic bedroom, past shelves and mirrors and authentic knickknacks, to one of two chairs. Once the VR commences, you find yourself riding in the back seat of a car. A man and a woman, Sebastian’s parents, have a tense conversation bubbling with tension, regret, and barely suppressed emotions. Outside, diminishing sunlight filters through the windows as the rural Missouri countryside passes by. I was instantly reminded of similar rides with my own family through western Massachusetts. A box of belongings keeps refilling with items on the seat beside you; I rummaged through a book of Saints, an old muscle magazine, and a stuffed rabbit with my ghostly blue hands. I put on a Hulk mask and a baseball cap. The ride reaches its destination and hits a climax of sorts, but I was left wanting more. In fact, future installments and experiences are planned, including one that promises to simulate intimacy with a virtual lover.

For me, the most engaging part of the experience kicked off once I removed the headset and returned to the real world. I had as much time as I wanted to explore every inch of the bedroom. Visitors are encouraged to touch whatever they like, to pore over every item that draws their interest. “Don’t miss the closet!” Szilak had told me; I opened it to discover an interior collaged with images of black and white muscle gods, the word love glowing in fabulously lurid neon pink at the bottom. I selected and played a record of 80s hits: “We will find you acting on your best behavior/turn your back on Mother Nature,” Tears for Fears intoned. I thumbed through a People magazine revealing the AIDS death and sexuality of actor Rock Hudson. In fact, the specter of AIDS was everywhere, from the photo print out of a protest march to a cheeky card commanding “Men use condoms or beat it.” I signed a guest book marked A Celebration of Life, placed alongside flowers and a statuette of the Virgin Mary. The experience reminded of the song “And When I Die,” so I jotted down some lyrics, ending with the line “there’ll be one child born to carry on.” I associate the recording with the loss of my grandmother several years ago, and yet the song carries a sense of hope that I felt resonating from the Queerskins installation. Like the guest book, Queerskins is largely about death, and yet it celebrates the life of Sebastian, and of the viewer—and, by extension, of those we’ve loved and lost.


Queerskins: a love story is shown in a site specific installation at 325 Canal Street, New York, June 26-30 from 11am-7pm (11-9 Thursday).  Visit vr.queerskins.com for more info.