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
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).
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’.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 (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
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
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
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
Finlay’s sublime, affecting documentary Seahorse,
trans man Freddy McConnell embarks on a profound personal journey when he
decides to become pregnant. Freddy deals
with all of the physical challenges of pregnancy plus the added stressors of
gender dysphoria and other people’s reaction to an “unconventional” parent. I
had the chance to sit down with both Finlay and McConnell on the eve of their
world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
As it turns out, McConnell provided the impetus for the film himself.
journalist as well,” he explained, “[and] I knew I wanted to share this
process, this journey. It was sort of at
my instigation.” McConnell was
particularly concerned with finding a trustworthy collaborator. He wanted Seahorse
“to be different from the way a lot of other trans stories are told, which
is exploitative and sensationalized. I
never would have said yes to anyone who had just approached me.” McConnell had witnessed friends’ bad
experiences with producers and journalists who proved untrustworthy. “The reason the film is the way it is, is
because of the way it was made and the way it was envisaged right from the word
go,” he stated.
film is artfully made and incredibly intimate.
Every step of the process is detailed, from the dysphoria that results
after Freddy stops taking testosterone (so as not to interfere with the
pregnancy) to the painful end of his relationship with partner CJ. Finlay spoke with a lovely, soothing British
accent as she explained her role in telling Freddy’s story: “I really want to
think about the film and let the film emerge.
Like if you go in too tight with a plan, the film doesn’t grow. The point is to grow like a baby. One of the definitions of a documentary
filmmaker is to be an emotional barometer; I’m really in tune with my feelings.” Beautiful footage of Freddy’s hometown of
Deal, England, as well as close-ups of real seahorses weave through and enhance
the narrative. “I’m very sensitive to
how atmospheres and the situation make me feel and I really try to think deeply
about, what could that look like in a film?” Finlay said. “How can I create visuals that can help promote
what I felt in the moment?” This thought
process led to some scenes that seem abstract but subtly support the themes of Seahorse. “Because Deal is so beautiful I wanted that
to be part of the film,” Finlay stated. “The idea that we’re sort of sitting on
the edge of England, looking into an uncertain future.”
Was the more
or less constant filming ever too much for Freddy? “In the moment sometimes, but the reason it
was happening was because I wanted it to happen,” McConnell pointed out. “I wanted to go out and tell the story.”
“It’s my job
to make the film feel personal, intimate,” Finlay agreed. “Sometimes my job is to gently push, because when
I committed to the film, I said, ‘if I do this, I’m all in. I give you all my heart. I’m gonna do this, and it’s not gonna be
easy.’ Sometimes my job is to ask the
difficult questions. ‘What is this
like? What is the answer that you
haven’t said out loud before?’”
“It did get
hard,” McConnell said, “but the way that it was put together and the way we
worked meant that wasn’t a disaster and that didn’t mean it was the end of
it. It was just part of the process.”
wanted to share his story, in part, to let other trans and queer people know that
they have options: “The information isn’t made widely available and it’s seen
as something unsafe or shameful. Things
that we’re told aren’t always in our best interests by people who are supposed
to have our best interests at heart, like doctors.” He also hoped the film would be enlightening
for audiences unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, trans people. “People whose minds are racing with those
issues and questions they have, debates they want to have, can maybe just park that when they see, ‘oh, it’s just about
another person who has the same desires and struggles and emotions that I do.’”
commit to making a film, I want people to come on a journey with me,” Finlay
added. “’Come on, let me hold your hand
and I’m gonna take you on a little journey.’
I want people to see the ordinariness, the normalness, the smallness,
the ecstasy of people’s lives.”
“I just hope
that anyone who watches it can relate to some tiny little thing, or maybe some
huge thing, in a way that surprises them, that they didn’t expect coming in,”
McConnell said. Added Finlay: “I just always want people to feel moved, in a
small way or a big way.” There’s little
doubt that anyone who sees Seahorse won’t
Seahorse will continue to play film festivals throughout the summer and fall. Visit seahorsefilm.com for more.
When the documentary Changing the Game played at the Tribeca Film Festival, journalists were invited to a roundtable discussion with the transgender athletes featured in the film. At the cozy Battery Park offices of GLSEN, teens including wrestler Mack Beggs, skier Sarah Rose Huckman, and runner Terry Miller had a lively chat about transgender issues, their lives, and more. I was moved and inspired by their intelligence and bravery, even more so after I saw the movie.
“The film shows that we’re not just
transgender, that we live lives just like everybody else. It shows us.”—Terry
Changing the Game is an engaging and intensely
cinematic movie. It centers primarily on
three young trans athletes across three locations: Beggs in Texas, Huckman in
New Hampshire, and Miller in Connecticut.
Beggs, who isn’t allowed to compete against males under state
regulations, draws a ton of media attention, both positive and negative. Critics rail that he’s “cheating” by using
testosterone even as Beggs longs to wrestle other boys. Director Michael
Barnett introduces us to Mack’s support system: his sweet, horseback riding
girlfriend; his intensely driven, committed coach; and, most memorably, his gun
toting, Republican, and unconditionally loving grandma. These stalwarts come in handy as the quiet,
reserved Mack struggles internally with the jeers he receives at wrestling
“I’m putting out a story that can be
related to other trans people. And it’s
just amazing to be able to have a platform and use that to create good in this
world.”—Sarah Rose Huckman
perhaps the most articulate of the teens, and the most involved in
activism. From her popular YouTube
channel to her impassioned speech before the House Judiciary Committee in
support of the anti-gender identity discrimination law HB 1319, which was
eventually passed, Huckman emerges as a champion for equality—as well as a good
candidate to enter politics someday.
Like Beggs, Huckman has strong familial support in the form of her
loving adoptive parents.
“They talk about fairness, but what
about our fairness? Is that not
important, or does it not matter?
Everyone else wants fairness, so why can’t we have ours?”—Terry Miller
and her running colleague Andraya Yearwood , also a Black trans woman,
encounter their share of outspoken critics at track events. At one point a woman rants at the camera
about how neither girl will know what it’s like to run while on their period,
and eventually admits, “I forgot what the question is!” Barnett allows her to hang herself, but he
also makes a smart choice by giving screentime to the kids’ critics. These
moments and the news clips interspersed throughout show exactly what the young
athletes are up against—and underlines how brave they are to persevere in spite
of such venom.
“I take pride in being able to say,
‘I’m a transgender woman of color.’
Because there’s so many people out there who are not able to come out
and they’re afraid to.”—Sarah Rose Huckman
Changing the Game does a terrific job of depicting the
sports the teens excel at. Vivid slow
motion sequences bring the training, matches, and meets to life. There is exceptional cinematography of the
locations, such as the icy terrain Huckman skis across. Stark statistics about the realities of
transgender life appear, simply and without comment, over overhead shots.
“We just want to be known as who we
are. I’m Mack, I’m a guy.”—Mack Beggs
In a time
when transgender rights are being threatened on a daily basis, the importance of
Changing the Game cannot be
overstated. It’s a humanistic, beautiful
character study that makes a powerful statement just by depicting the
extraordinary/ordinary kids at its core.
Changing the Game will continue to
play at film festivals throughout the summer and fall.
Charles Manson’s crimes have long fascinated the American imagination, and this year’s fortieth anniversary of the murders has reignited interest. But is there anything more to say at this point? If anyone could add something new to the conversation, it’s director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, The L Word), who crafted the satiric masterpiece American Psycho nineteen years ago. They achieve this goal by focusing not on the charismatic Manson (Matt Smith) but on the three young women whose lives he ruined.
meet “Manson girls” Leslie (Hannah Murray, Game
of Thrones), Patricia (Sosie Bacon), and Susan (Marianne Rendon) in the isolation
ward of a women’s prison. Though an administrator
(Annabeth Gish) is sympathetic to their plight, it’s not until teacher Karlene
Faith (Meritt Weaver) arrives that they are able to truly connect with someone
outside of Charlie’s sinister influence.
Through vivid flashbacks, we experience life on the Spahn Ranch, where
Charlie reigned supreme and the trio lived a hippie lifestyle with dark,
apocalyptic overtones. Harron conveys a
vivid sense of place and carefully renders period details, aided by terrific
production design and costuming. It’s to
her and Turner’s credit that the movie both leans into the absurdity of the
story—tales of elves and wings, a woman biting through an umbilical cord—and confronts
its terror and misogyny. Smith is
terrific, but it’s the strength and humanity of the women’s performances that
carry the day. The writing, acting, and
filmmaking bring us into the girls’ perspective as their dream of enlightenment
curdles into a nightmare of violence. Charlie Says is a thoughtful film that avoids
exploitation and instead treats these sensational events with reverence and
It was a
banner year for LGBT documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, but even
amidst a crowded field, Circus of Books was
a standout. It takes a compellingly
quirky story and presents it with grace, humor, and heart.
artist/director Rachel Mason grew up in a fairly typical Jewish family, with a
twist. The business her parents ran for
decades was an infamous gay porn shop in West Hollywood, a reality hidden from
Rachel and her two brothers until they were in their teens. When Barry, who did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek series and invented a medical
device, was forced out of work by steep insurance costs, his enterprising wife
took notice of a newspaper ad from the notorious Larry Flynt. They bought the failing Book Circus,
rearranged the sign, and started selling both the controversial Hustler and, later, the gay titles the
enterprising Flynt bought out. They also
became involved with gay porn production, though Karen ads “we never watched
any of these movies.” A certain amount
of cognitive dissonance was exercised by Karen—who “wore the pants in the
family” according to one former employee—to juggle her conservative Jewish
faith and the realities of selling dirty magazines and sex toys. Son Josh agonized over coming out to his
parents, and though Karen struggled at first, she and her husband are now
active and proud PFLAG members.
an intimate, touching, warts-and-all-portrait of her family, especially Karen. The oft cranky matriarch is refreshingly
honest and candid throughout, whether stressing over laying off employees or
lugging boxes of material out to the dumpster.
All of the participants are revealing and frequently funny. Josh recalls how the porn tape he hid away
until he had a chance to play it alone turned out to be a Beta. Former employee Alaska Thunderfuck bemoans
the fact that he never knew about the store’s cruise-y attic. Even gay film legend Jeff Stryker turns up to
share his memories. Mason skillfully
weaves together a personal narrative and the larger picture of gay history to make
a significant and extremely entertaining documentary.
Netflix will distribute Circus of
Books later this year.
Early on in David
Charles Rodrigues’ exquisite Gay Chorus
Deep South, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Dr. Tim Seelig
is working in his office. He explains that he keeps himself surrounded by “queens,”
Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco legend—and gay hero—Harvey Milk among
them. So it’s fitting that the Chorus
takes inspiration from Milk, who famously used a lavender pen to sign
groundbreaking gay rights legislation into law, in naming their post Trump Lavender
Pen Tour. The men travel from Tennessee
to Alabama to the Carolinas, looking to spread hope and ignite dialogue. Interestingly enough, assumptions are
challenged on both sides. A queer historian
complains that the concept reeks of condescension. A Southern Baptist church, meanwhile,
welcomes the group with open arms.
Rodrigues shoots the film beautifully, with sweeping overhead shots, intimate access to the performances, and skillful editing. The music is beautiful and accomplished, naturally, and it weaves in and out of sequences seamlessly. A sequence in Selma, where the men hold a triumphant concert and walk across the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, is particularly striking. We get to know a few of the men particularly well. Seelig reveals his painful history with the Southern Baptist Church and the havoc wreaked on his family when he came out. Jimmy White is fighting cancer and hoping for reconciliation with his staunchly conservative father. Perhaps most compelling is Ashlé , who struggles to come to terms with their gender identity and finds unwavering acceptance in the men of the Chorus. Thus this film is one of several notable examples of trans stories being told at Tribeca this year; Jeanie Finlay’s beautiful Seahorse and Changing the Game being two others.
Gay Chorus Deep South takes a story that is compelling and of the moment and delivers it with precision and heart.
Gay Chorus Deep South screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.
consider it a point of pride when I see a film people walk out of. At House
of 1000 Corpses, a couple walked out as the woman loudly declared “let’s
get the FUCK out of here!”; another pair fled Suspiria (2018) after a nasty bit of body contortion. So it pleased me that a few folks just couldn’t
sit through Bliss, writer/director
Joe Begos’ hallucinogenic vampire flick playing the Midnight category at the
Tribeca Film Festival. Interestingly,
they all left before any of the bloody mayhem even got started; the visceral
intensity of the filmmaking seems to be what they couldn’t handle.
Bliss opens with a warning about strobe
effects, which seems as much part of the exploitation tradition as a legitimate
caveat. After a day glo, rock and roll
opening title sequence, we meet Dezzy (Dora Madison), a starving artist
struggling to pay the bills while battling a pretty heavy drug problem. She’s got a deadline looming for her latest
piece, an appropriately eerie painting of souls writhing in fire, but she can’t
seem to find the inspiration to finish it, despite the help of a well-meaning
boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner). Maybe
that’s because she’s too busy scoring drugs from her pal Hadrian (Graham
Skipper) and partying with her girlfriend and sometime lover Courtney (Tru
Collins, giving off trashy Lady Gaga vibes) and Courtney’s boyfriend Ronnie
(Rhys Wakefield). When Hadrian slips her
a coke variant called Bliss, Dezzy’s instantly hooked, but the bad trip it
sends her on is compounded by a simultaneous thirst for blood. Dezzy’s life quickly spins out of control—to put
Bliss is an impressively crafted movie,
with stunning cinematography and lighting and a hard driving metal
soundtrack. Madison is remarkable as
Dezzy, a character that could easily come off as selfish and obnoxious, but who
is vividly real and funny in the actress’ capable hands. The screenplay is smart and pretty damn
funny, and the intensity of the filmmaking makes Bliss a movie you experience more than watch. There’s also outstanding use of locations—the
various bars, Dezzy’s apartment, and Hadrian’s house are all vividly real
places. Where Bliss might be polarizing is with regards to the copious drug use
and the extremely intense, bloody violence (thought to be fair, isn’t that
exactly what a vampire movie should have in spades?). The finale is so gruesomely over the top that
I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.
But this movie really goes for it, and Begos and his crew are undeniably
talented. However you feel about Bliss, you won’t soon forget it.
Bliss screens Wednesday at 9:45 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.
movie fans, the existence of a documentary about the Showgirls cult is both remarkable and unsurprising. It’s unlikely subject matter in some ways,
but if you saw Paul Verhoeven’s notorious 1995 flop for the first time with a
date who did all the dance moves while watching—and then, later, with an
adoring crowd led by the inimitable Hedda Lettuce—it’s no wonder someone got a
whole ninety minutes out of this. It’s a
testament to writer/director Jeffrey McHale and his exceedingly witty, literate
commentators that You Don’t Nomi exceeds
expectations—it’s not just diverting but intensely imaginative and thoughtful,
and it becomes a film not just about Showgirls
but about movies and our love for them, too.
Showgirls arrived twenty four years ago amidst a swirl of controversy: it was the first ever mainstream NC-17 movie, and it starred Saved by the Bell good girl Elizabeth Berkley in a potentially star making role as stripper Nomi Malone. Nomi is running from a mysterious past—when friend Molly asks her where she’s from, she memorably blurts “DIFFERENT PLACES!!!!”—and is seeking stardom in the tawdry world of Las Vegas. Her big break comes via Cristal Connors (a delightful, scenery chewing Gina Gershon), the star of the revue Goddess, and her entertainment director boyfriend Zack (heartthrob Kyle MacLachlan), who’s willing to help Nomi replace Cristal in the lead in exchange for some spastic swimming pool action. Before you can say All About Eve, Nomi’s headlining at the Stardust, but at what price?
McHale forgoes “talking head” interviews in favor of a continuous montage approach. He deftly weaves together footage from Showgirls as well as Verhoeven’s other films, like Robocop and Basic Instinct, and other notable film favorites like Mommie Dearest. All the while, we hear ruminations from an engaging cast of characters: Adam Nayman, film writer and author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls; April Kidwell, a theater performer who played Nomi in the Off-Broadway Showgirls musical (pictured above) and who’s touring this summer with a new prequel show, I, Nomi; and Jeffery Conway, a poet who wrote a book of sestinas (!) based on the film. They and others offer their perspectives on Showgirls: for some, it’s an endlessly watchable piece of trash; for others, it’s a surprisingly underrated satire that brilliantly skewers cultural attitudes towards sex, entertainment, and other issues. Kidwell used her roles as Berkley’s caffeine pill addicted Jessie Spano (in Saved by the Bell: The Musical) and Nomi to overcome her PTSD following a rape; while some deride the scene in which Nomi avenges Molly’s rape, for Kidwell, it was an especially empowering and resonant moment. Another commentator points out that Nomi, in seeking success in the big city, freely using her sexuality, and building her own chosen family, is reflective of many queer people’s experience (to say nothing of the unsubtle lesbian “subtext” that pervades her interplay with Cristal).
The movie also examines why Berkeley became the scapegoat, in many ways, for the movie’s box office and critical failure. While You Don’t Nomi’s participants revel in her outlandish performance, they also take pains to demonstrate that Verhoeven directed her specifically to behave in an outsize way. They also hint at the sexism that played a part in her torpedoed career: a clip shows Gene Siskel bluntly criticizing her appearance, and Verhoeven’s misogyny is detailed at length. When Berkley is shown introducing a packed Hollywood screening of the movie in 2015—and receiving a standing ovation—her emotion is palpable.
You Don’t Nomi is a must see for fans of Showgirls, but more broadly, this is a
movie about the profound ways film can impact and inspire the lives of
audiences, particularly queer moviegoers.
You Don’t Nomi screens Tuesday at 8:30 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.