“Guillermo del Toro stealing my goddamn cookies”: The wonderful world of quarantine horror shorts (with links)

Great horror has come out of extremely limited resources and production values many times over the years; it’s also often fueled by tumultuous time periods.  So it seems fitting that the COVID pandemic and ensuing quarantine have led to multiple, literally homemade horror short films.  Many are engrossing and inventive, and taken together, they’re a powerful reminder of the resilient power of art even in the most trying circumstances.

Felissa Rose and Ben Baur in Unusual Attachment

The first “quarantine horror” short I saw was gay director Michael Varrati’s Unusual Attachment. Handsome Ben Baur stars as Hunter, a guy desperately seeking a missed connection on a Chat Roulette type site.  Along the way he gets video calls from his sassy friend Mateo (Francisco Chacin) and his cheerfully inappropriate aunt (Sleepaway Camp’s Felissa Rose, who basically plays her delightful self).  It feels like a frothy queer comedy, until things abruptly shift into more sinister territory.

Shadowed

Shazam director David F. Sandberg, who originally broke big with his scary short Lights Out, has made two creepy shorts during lockdown, Shadowed https://youtu.be/8yu5ymbIjaYand Not Alone in Here with his wife Lotta Losten.  Losten also stars in the simple, punchy productions, and she’s a compelling and likeable lead.  Shadowed is the best—its premise of shadows that don’t seem to belong to anything in the “real” world is fun and unsettling.  But both shorts are enjoyable; there’s a bit with a cell phone camera in Not Alone in Here that pays off wonderfully.

Rob Savage’s untitled Twitter short combines a computer-based, Zoom chat approach with the simplest of horror premises: investigating creepy sounds in the attic.  As the director’s friends watch nervously, he ascends the ladder to his attic with butcher knife and smart phone in hand.  Needless to say he finds nothing good.  It’s the only one of these shorts that actually made me scream, which brought my partner running into the room.  When I told him why he cracked, “’Did he just cut his arm off?’ ‘No, just a video on the internet.’”

3rd Eye Cult Murders is perhaps the most unique of all the quarantine horror shorts.  Directed by Todd Spence, and written by Spence and Zak White, it purports to be crime scene footage from a 1970s murder committed by a Manson-like cult.  The ’70s production design is spot on, from board games to Band Aid packaging to a rotary telephone; it really does look like footage recovered from the era.  Spence and White evidently have practice, as they regularly post short films @midnight_video on Instagram.

There Can Be Only One

A couple of horror shorts eschew scariness for laughs. There Can Be Only One, directed by Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider!) is a thoroughly enjoyable romp pitting Mendez, playing himself, against an Oreo snatching Guillermo del Toro action figure in his memorabilia filled apartment.  Taking control of one of his Pacific Rim robots, Guillermo rants that “there can be only one” Mexican filmmaker, and announces his intentions to “production design the world!”  There’s lots of action, some of it quite hilarious, involving puppets, toys, and animation, with references to classics like Aliens, Robocop, and Back to the Future thrown into the mix.  In The Egg, Canadian filmmaker Naoki Otsuki imagines the horrifying perpective of an egg waiting to be cracked, and scores the proceedings with some killer John Carpenter-esque synth music.

The only one of these shorts that utilizes exteriors is Prague’s Coronapocalypse, directed by Paul Dean and written by Scott Lee Hansen.  Relatively long at over fourteen minutes, the film concerns a young woman who ventures out of her apartment for the first time during the pandemic and is unnerved by the empty city she finds.  Constantly broadcasting online to a multitude of followers, she tries to turn to them for answers while espousing her bizarre conspiracy beliefs about the moon landing, “lizard people,” and the like.  It’s a sly commentary on people who’d rather believe fringe theories than an all too real pandemic, and our particular social media moment.

Alexandra Serio in Tingle Monsters

Tingle Monsters is similarly pertinent to our current online reality. Written, directed by, and starring Alexandra Serio, it’s billed as “the first ASMR horror film.”  It wasn’t actually produced during the lockdown, but it may as well have been.  Its set-up is incredibly simple: Serio is a popular ASMR vlogger delivering her first webcast after a long absence.  Disturbed by a follower’s inappropriately sexual comment, she’s then oblivious to a presence in her apartment even as her fans furiously type worried comments.  Serio uses an exercise with a makeup brush to set up a fantastically suspenseful game of peekaboo with the intruder.  Tingle Monsters works as both a fun suspense piece and a commentary on the toxic nature of the internet.

TFF 2020 Review: Socks on Fire

Director Bo McGuire in the opening of Socks on Fire

My early notes for Socks on Fire, Alabama-born director Bo McGuire’s unusual and personal documentary, are pretty harsh.  “Bizarre,” I wrote after the opening few minutes, with elaborate tableaus of various people throughout a house, with objects like dishes mysteriously floating in the air.  We’re dropped in with little context or explanation of who these people are or what these tableaus are meant to convey.  I jotted down “pretentious?” after McGuire drawled the first of many monologues, this one concerning his childhood belief that his grandmother’s backyard was “the forest.”  I continued to struggle with McGuire’s unique approach to his family history.  Mixed in with home videos and interviews with his mother, godmother, and uncle are elaborate recreations of events, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of those recreations.  Was he purposefully emphasizing the artificiality of these scenes?  To what end?  Was this all just a little too arch, too camp, to take seriously?

But as I continued to watch the film, and Socks on Fire established a narrative—essentially, it’s the story of how Bo’s gay uncle John was ostracized by his aunt Sharon, who tried to lock him out of the family home his mother wanted him to inherit after her death—I warmed to the movie’s offbeat approach.  With his hipster trucker hat, red glasses, and colorful suits, McGuire cuts a distinctive figure.  He relates his own experience growing up gay in a small town, and his close relationship with his grandmother and mother.  He and his aunt Sharon were close, too, but as he became a preteen and started to show more flamboyance—the videotapes from this time are priceless, and relatable—she seemed to turn against him.  He recalls how she mockingly called him “Reba,” after his favorite singer at the time, Reba McEntire, and how hurtful that was.  Following his grandmother’s death, Sharon conspired to take her house away from John, who would otherwise be homeless.  This seemed driven mostly by her immense discomfort with his sexuality.

Apart from an intriguing bit of hidden camera footage in which Sharon confronts John inside the house, McGuire dramatizes the conflict by casting John, a drag queen, in the role of his own sister.  John’s performance manages to transcend camp and get at a deeper emotional truth about his estranged sibling.  I wondered if it was unfair to make this film without giving Sharon a voice to defend herself, but it’s clear that McGuire was interested in more than a caricature or a middle finger at his aunt.  A discussion of her troubled, possibly abusive marriage and scenes of actors Odessa Young and Michael Patrick Nicholson playing young Sharon and her husband suggest a desire to understand what drives her. 

A Family Affair: Bo McGuire, his mom Susan McGuire, and his uncle John Washington

McGuire has a keen visual sense and displays creativity throughout his movie—animating photo collages to bring them to life, for instance.  His movie is a heartfelt reflection on the importance and meaning of family, with his loving and accepting mother Susan helping to explode stereotypes about Southern attitudes towards gay folks.  Socks on Fire stands out from the pack even in a festival known for its documentaries; McGuire was awarded Tribeca’s Best Documentary Feature prize for his efforts.  It challenged my ideas of what a documentary could be.

TFF 2020 Review: P.S. Burn This Letter Please

It’s rather poignant that I watched P.S. Burn This Letter Please on the day Heritage of Pride announced they were cancelling all Pride events in NYC.  Sad news, to be sure, but Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexieria’s excellent documentary about a circle of drag queens in 1950s New York City demonstrates that Pride was a year-round state of mind even before the Stonewall Riots.  Inspired by a box of letters discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit, the filmmakers have crafted a vibrant, colorful experience made up of patched together elements—it’s something like a handmade costume, appropriate given the subject matter.

Animated script written over floral backgrounds, accompanied by dynamic voiceovers by the likes of Cole Escola and Adam Faison, bring the letters to life.  (Credit designer and animator Grant Nellessen.) Filled with vintage slang that evokes the time, the letters are the heart and soul of the movie—and punctuated with eminently quotable dialogue.  “Just a demented note to say hello.”  “I never felt so cunty.  And Mary, I love it.” 

Robert Arango, aka Adrian

The documentary is enhanced by some equally compelling interviews with some of the letter writers and their contemporaries.  Particularly dynamic is Claude Diaz, who’s hilarious in his recollections of life as a drag queen but also thoughtful and introspective—at one point he’s utterly overwhelmed with emotion and sadness for a time forever lost.  There’s also insightful commentary by authors and historians like Esther Newton, who comments on fascinating dynamics like those at Club 82, a Manhattan nightclub where straights—including such luminaries as Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, and the Kennedys—came to see drag queens perform.  She characterizes it as “performance by stigmatized people for normals.”  The stigma and adversity faced by drag queens is explored throughout the film.  One participant describes them as being “revered and reviled” for representing both what people loved and loathed about being gay.  Robert Bouvard expresses his distaste for the term “drag queen” itself, preferring “female mimic” or “female impersonator,” though conceding that drag queen is now commonplace and has a function if “it means you can understand what I’m talking about.”

The scene introducing the club is emblematic of the skill with which directors Seligman and Tiexieria have crafted their film—the pair use great tricks to bring to life what it was like to descend the long staircase into this hidden world.  They vividly convey many aspects of queer life in the 50s—“trick hotels,” for instance, were rooms rented so that queens could change away from the judgmental eyes of family and friends.  Along the way there are some surprising twists and turns, like a high-end wig heist Diaz and a friend pulled at the Metropolitan Opera House and the experience of Terry Noel, whose transition and surgery were provided free of charge thanks to a co-owner of Club 82.  Noel also provides an eloquent and heartfelt explanation of transition: “To me it’s not mutilation, it’s rearrangement.  So I can live my life as I wish.”

P.S. Burn This Letter Please concludes with a nod to the broader LGBTQ rights movement and an acknowledgement of the pioneering role these subjects inadvertently played while simply living their lives; it’s a bit rushed, perhaps, but important to note.  There are also postscripts about each of the writers—including a surprising and fun revelation about “Daphne”’s identity—and the identity of who they were all writing to. The movie is a vivid and vital testimony—and a profoundly meaningful slice of gay history.

The Tribeca Film Festival was postponed, but films have been made available for members of press and industry.

Tribeca Film Festival 2020 Review: Pray Away

The conversion therapy movement, spearheaded by the national organization Exodus International, is a bizarre and upsetting phenomenon ripe for demystification.  That insight arrives in the form of Pray Away, a well-made documentary from director Kristine Solakis.  It brings together both survivors and leaders of the movement, as well as an “ex-trans” individual, Jeffrey McCall, who puts a human face on its continued existence.

As the film traces the rise of Exodus from the 70s into the 80s and 90s, I’m reminded of the absurd aspects: prominent “ex-gay” John Paulk, for instance, speaks with a very effeminate voice in all his archived appearances, despite his new life with an “ex-lesbian” wife, Anne, and children.  Exodus vice-president Randy Thomas, too, is very effeminate, and I remember thinking of these men, essentially, as villainous jokes, especially after Paulk was photographed leaving a Washington, D.C. gay bar in 1998 and claimed he went in only to use the bathroom.  (Sure, Jan.)  Watching both men in Pray Away, though, it’s impossible not to have empathy for their experience, especially after they realized all the harm they had caused.  Thomas’ “come to Jesus” moment came when he watched news reports of the LGBT community mourning the passage of California’s Prop 8 in 2008 and he was confronted with the question “how could I do this to my community?”

Julie Rodgers

The subjects are integral to the success of the movie.  In addition to Paulk and Thomas, we meet Yvette Cantu Schneider, formerly of the notorious Family Research Council and now GLAAD’s official spokesperson against conversion therapy, and Julie Rodgers, a survivor who was forced into conversion therapy from age sixteen into her mid-twenties.  Rodgers is the movie’s most compelling subject, and is able to explain why conversion therapy made sense to her even as she remembers the pain of engaging in self-harm and being pressured to speak publicly about her rape as part of her “public testimony.”  Schneider, sifting through mountains of archival video tapes, observes that they bring back painful memories, yet she doesn’t want to discard them and forget where she came from.  A conversation arranged by journalist Lisa Ling brings together Rodgers, Exodus leader Alan Chambers, and conversion therapy survivors for a confrontational exchange that one participant describes as “the most intense group therapy session ever.”  It’s a turning point for Julie, who recalls “I realized I was sitting on the wrong side of the room.”  It’s also the beginning of the end for Exodus, which announced it was dissolving in 2013.

Congregants pray with Jeffrey McCall

Meanwhile, smaller organizations carry on the torch; the sweet, soft-spoken McCall starts up the “Freedom March” via Facebook and participates in a prayer group that feels like nothing less than a gay house party.  It’s obvious that the young people attending are finding camaraderie with each other as queer people even as they profess to be leaving “the LGBT lifestyle.”  In one insightful moment, McCall receives a call from a woman whose child has come out as trans; her feelings of confusion and grief are understandable, and Jeffrey is sympathetic while reinforcing her aversion to accepting the news.  The inclusion of Jeffrey is a major asset to the movie, and humanizes those who continue the movement while demonstrating that we have a long way to go in ending the harmful practice.

Pray Away, made by a largely female crew including producers Jessica Devaney and Anya Rous, editor Carla Gutierrez, and director of photography Melissa Langer, is a significant and illuminating piece of history and activism.

The Tribeca Film Festival was postponed, but films have been made available for members of the press.

GameStop the Insanity

During these trying times we’ve all come to rely, more than ever, on the essential services that keep us fed and healthy.  Supermarkets.  Pharmacies.  Laundromats.  …GameStop?

 If you’re hearing a chorus of “One of these things is not like the others…” right now, you’re not alone.  Employees and customers alike have been confounded by GameStop’s stubborn refusal to close even amidst the escalating COVID-19 crisis and the shuttering of virtually all retail stores outside of groceries and pharmacies and stores that offer similar product.  Video game site Kotaku has done excellent reporting on this subject, from fears that corporate wasn’t doing enough to safeguard in the early days of the outbreak, to the doublespeak insistence that by providing equipment for remote work and learning, GameStop can be considered “essential” and not mandated to close– never mind that their high-end keyboards and accessories are hardly what someone would pick up for basic needs, or that midnight launch parties for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal were ill-advised in light of restrictions on large gatherings.  Employees were even provided with a letter to show law authorities in case they tried to enforce closure; in Athens, Georgia, police officers countered that letter with one of their own, which did not include the store on its list of essential businesses. A popular reddit thread started by an employee shed further light on the company’s misguided and potentially dangerous approach to the pandemic.

Police officers in Athens, Georgia, forced a local GameStop to close.

This past weekend, GameStop finally switched to a door delivery model and closed stores to customers—those that remain open or have not been forced to close by local ordinances—and officially discontinued video game trade-ins and in-store events.  Calls to a number of NYC area GameStop locations on Tuesday were either not answered, busy, or resulted in a perky message explaining that some stores have been closed in response to COVID-19  concerns.  This is clearly the right move, but as the reddit poster observed, it should not have taken this long for the company to do so.  When we come out of this pandemic, and begin to shop at retail stores, we should think carefully about where our dollars go.  GameStop failed both its employees and the buying public by disregarding their safety in a serious situation, and I, for one, will not be supporting them in the future.

Flagged: The Perils of Being Queer Online

An image of Amp Somers’ boyfriend and co-host, Kristofer Weston, ran afoul of Instagram guidelines.

“Your Post Goes Against Our Community Guidelines.”  This message and ones like it have become increasingly familiar to queer people using social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  Queer sexuality on the internet has become more of a hot button issue than ever, particularly in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA aka the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.  This piece of legislation, nominally intended to protect underage people from sex trafficking, has had a chilling effect on sex workers in particular and sexual content—especially LGBT sexual content—in general.  (Just look at Tumblr, the once hip micro-blogging platform that’s been hemorraghing users following their controversial ban on sexual content.)  I reached out to a number of queer social media users to get their perspective on this issue. 

Amp Somers

Amp Somers is a kinky sex educator who runs the popular Watts the Safeword channel on YouTube—he’s also a card carrying geek, frequently dressing in sexy cosplay or teaching viewers how to do Avengers-inspired bondage.  Fwee Carter is a photographer and frequent Flame Con tabler whose work includes the Sexy Nerd Project, featuring attractive guys dressed as everything from Ghostbusters to video game characters. The Side Kink is a gay Latino kinkster and academic who “enjoys playing the defeated hero, abducted sidekick and more”; his sexy, handmade cosplay creations have graced Flame Con on numerous occasions.  Peter Clough is a genderqueer artist interested in BDSM and gender representations, as well as an avid Magic: the Gathering player.  All of them have encountered censorship online to varying degrees.

“[There’s been an increase in censorship]to the point where [Instagram] allows harassment from conservative users who flag entire accounts,” Amp states.  “My personal account @PupAmp had a number of posts removed/flagged on Instagram. Many pictures have been removed for reasons from ‘inappropriate content’ to ‘pornography’ to even ‘including children’ in a post. Keep in mind all posts have been of me and only me and cropped out what is considered ‘inappropriate’ by their site.”

Fwee Carter

Carter shares the frustration.  “They have even started to ban the peach and eggplant emoji’s,” he comments.  “It’s getting really bad.”  Carter’s photos are sometimes risqué, but never pornographic.  That didn’t stop him from getting flagged frequently, to the point where he created a separate account,@lewdshoots, which was subsequently shut down.  (He’s since moved it to Twitter, which is very lenient regarding sexual content.)  Meanwhile, Facebook deleted his photography page and refused to reinstate it.

Sexy Nerd Project photo by Fwee Carter.

 “I have seen straight cosplayers have lots of content that runs the gamut from romantic to risque, cheeky to comical and I never really see them noting how often they get flagged,” the Side Kink explains.  “Meanwhile queer cosplayers and content can feel like its toeing a very thin line.  They don’t even have to have another person in the photos and just have a suggestion of a bulge and it gets flagged.”  The Side Kink has had his Instagram threatened with suspension on a few occasions after posts were flagged as “inappropriate.”

Peter Clough in Odalisque, performance with projection and recorded audio, 2019.

Account suspension is an especially big fear for Clough, whose Instagram @cloughabunga promotes his exhibitions.  “It’s nerve-wracking because as an artist I really rely on it,” he explains. “I’ve made a bunch of sales through Instagram and connected with galleries and curators so the idea of losing my account is actually terrifying.”  Avoiding suspension is easier said than done when making art that involves BDSM, gender, and sexuality: “my content is extremely sexual but also professional,” he declares. He has a separate, personal “finsta,” or alternate account focused on his sex life, but it’s the challenges to his main Instagram that truly rankle him. “When it’s on my finsta and it’s just smut I don’t get too bent out of shape, even though that kind of censorship really shapes people’s understanding of what forms of pleasure can be valid and acceptable,” he muses. “Erasing images of things is a lot like erasing the things themselves. But also when I’ve got a giant butt plug showing under my thong I can’t get too shocked that the world can’t handle it, as sad and puritanical as that is. But when it’s artwork, it really pisses me off, even though I’m not actually sure what the difference is.” Clough recalls a recent experience wherein he posted his friend Patrick McNabb’s “amazing show at [Brooklyn’s] Haul gallery and the images were instantly removed. There wasn’t even any nudity. I appealed the censorship, and eventually Instagram restored the post, with a sort of thin ‘apology.’ But that was a few days after I’d posted it, and the way their algorithms work, basically no one saw it anyway. That’s what’s so insidiously effective about censorship: once it’s removed, no one knows it was ever censored.”

Amp was similarly rankled by the demonetization of his YouTube channel, which prompted him to join other LGBT YouTubers in suing the company last August. He and co-plaintiffs like Lindsay Amer (Queer Kid Stuff) charged that the platform was systematically discriminating against LGBTQ content by automatically flagging videos tagged “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” as explicit and/or offensive—resulting in lost ad revenue, making them difficult for users to find, and other negative consequences.  It was Amp’s tweets about the situation that inspired this piece.

Amp demonstrating bondage techniques.

So why the increase in censorship?  A couple of my interviewees pointed to the passing SESTA/FOSTA in 2018.  “Sites became terrified of being accused of engaging in sex traffic and tamped down on any sexual content,” the Side Kink remembers. Amp, who co-hosted a talk on the subject entitled “Fuck Your Community Standards,” says that “SESTA/FOSTA actually goes after sex positive content in all forms. From sex education to ethical sex work.”

Sexy Nerd Project photo by Fwee Carter.

Others see a broader motivation for the purge. Carter thinks a desire for younger users is part of what makes Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, stricter regarding sexual content.  He also sees a double standard regarding hate speech vs. LGBT content: “Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like continue to allow hate speech but always censor LGBT content. I say content because it’s not just half naked posts. It’s articles and people fighting for justice.”

Amp agrees. “The number of posts I see on Facebook that feature death, suicide, even abortions are astounding,” he remarks. “But the second I promote sex education or sex positive resources, websites or photos, I can see a drop in engagement or, at times, a full removal of a post just because it featured a ballgag in the photo.”

Clough in a post from his finsta.

Clough sees a compelling, if troubling, explanation for this. “Images of violence reinforce our need for a police state and are therefore way less threatening to the existing power structure,” he feels. “Images of radical sexual freedom are deeply threatening by showing how oppressive that same police state really is.”

A few of my subjects attribute the censorship to a cultural shift as well as to the transformation of the internet and its platforms into a business.  “I think a lot of social media was something of a no man’s land [in the beginning],” muses the Side Kink. “When these sites and apps were developed there wasn’t a clear sign of how people would use them or even if they’d take off. As social media has become a form of communication that is more universal and more profitable companies have stepped in to make their apps appeal to the masses. These masses tend to be cis-heteronormative and steeped in a view of sex that shuns queerness and kink.”

Clough is unequivocal in his assessment: “Instagram is a deeply homophobic and sexphobic platform,” he says. “We’re seeing a shift in our whole culture to the right, and sexual freedom is very threatening because it can be a model for other kinds of freedom, like freedom of thought or freedom of choice. Neither our government nor the corporations that shape it have any interest in promoting those kinds of freedom, so censorship is a valuable tool for policing everything. The scary thing is that this sort of censorship also comes from within the gay community as well. It’s fine to put on a harness at a circuit party, but actual sexual freedom and liberation are just as threatening to mainstream gay Instagram influencers as they are to the corporations who sponsor them.”

Amp is particularly frustrated by the way social media scrutinizes LGBTQ folks more harshly than straight ones.  “Large creators like Kim Kardashian, or YouTube personalities like Trisha Paytas get away with what comes down to nudity on their profiles, which are constantly in my recommendations on websites,” he grouses. “Other straight leaning influencers can post ‘artistic nudes’ and have no problems, but LGBTQ or even sex workers who follow the rules have it much harder.”

Blowjob, 2019 video projection by Peter Clough.

The issue may be less about straight vs. gay or violent vs. sexual, but rather about the changing state of the internet itself. As Clough says, “the real problem isn’t one specific kind of censorship, ultimately. The problem is that the idea of public space has shifted into the digital realm but is controlled by private, for-profit corporations. Let’s be clear: Instagram isn’t a neutral platform, it has a specific agenda. We have no say in the values or representations that Instagram is pushing. The function of these spaces isn’t ultimately to share images; it’s to police them.”  For queer communities, who have always challenged and subverted cultural norms, that may be the biggest threat of all to free and open expression.

Amp is on Instagram and Twitter @PupAmp and on YouTube: Watts The Safeword. Fwee Carter is on Instagram and Twitter @fweecarter. The Side Kink is on Instagram and Twitter @the_sidekink. Peter Clough is on Instagram @cloughabunga.

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.