R.I.P. Joel Schumacher

This week we lost gay filmmaker Joel Schumacher at age 80.  Although openly gay from the beginning of his career—he started out as a costume designer before making the leap to film directing with 1981’s quirky The Incredible Shrinking Woman—he wasn’t known as a “gay filmmaker” but rather a successful A-list, mainstream director with an impressively wide range.  He directed everything from drama (the 1985 “Brat Pack” hit St. Elmo’s Fire) to horror (cult classic vampire flick The Lost Boys) to a big budget musical (The Phantom of the Opera).  But for me, and many movie fans, he’ll forever be known as the guy who directed Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), two of the most polarizing superhero movies in cinema history. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) and Schumacher on the set of Batman & Robin

I did a piece on Batman Forever five years back, reflecting on how it’s underrated and was likely a victim of homophobia; it was, however, a huge box office hit, scoring 184 million in the US.  In recent years, fans of both this movie and Batman & Robin have become increasingly vocal and have sought to change the narrative surrounding them while frequently shouting out their subversive queer sensibility.  I myself came around from ranking on B & R to enjoying its loopy charms.

Michael Gough (Alfred), Chris O’Donnell and Val Kilmer in Batman Forever

In hindsight, it seems remarkable that Schumacher was able to make mainstream, high profile movies as blatantly campy and queer as these two Batman films.  Ostensibly sequels to Tim Burton’s visionary Batman and Batman Returns, Schumacher’s installments amount to a reboot before that term became trendy.  He jettisoned the relentlessly grim tone that had marked the previous films and leaned more in the direction of the campy 60s Batman.  He finally added Robin (Chris O’Donnell, the hunk who launched a thousand gay awakenings) and played his villains as larger than life nuts, rather than the tortured souls who faced off with the Dark Knight in the Burton films.  The films featured homoerotic tension between Riddler (an amazingly fey Jim Carrey) and Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) and Batman and Robin—much is made of the latter characters becoming “partners.”  When it comes to female characters like Debi Mazar’s moll Spice and, especially, Uma Thurman’s brilliantly over-the-top Poison Ivy, a drag queen aesthetic reigns—heck, Riddler even appears in a tiara and earrings at one point.  Nicole Kidman’s hormonal Dr. Chase Meridian is so unabashedly sexual that she comes off as practically a surrogate gay man. (Earlier this year a meme circulated likening photos of Kidman in a question mark chair to gays’ infamous inability to sit correctly.)  The films can’t resist bawdy dialogue like “hang out much in biker bars, Bruce?” or Chase openly lusting after “black rubber.”  (Of course, the rubber suits featured in Schumacher’s movies notoriously added nipples.) 

Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin

All of this speaks not just to a queer sensibility, but to an overall sense of fun.  In Batman Forever: The Official Movie Book by Michael Singer, Schumacher says “This is what we do for a living.  If we can’t approach it with joy and fun, what’s the use of doing it?” In behind the scenes footage, Schumacher puts his arms around Batman co-creator Bob Kane—whose character first appeared in 1939, the year Schumacher was born—and appreciatively gushes “I wouldn’t have a job without him!”  Kane pats his head good naturedly and says “Atta boy.”

That sense of joy and fun extended to all of Schumacher’s films, which notably featured gay and lesbian performers like Lily Tomlin and Mark Blankfield (The Incredible Shrinking Woman) and John Glover (Incredible, Batman & Robin).  His screenplay for Car Wash (1976) featured a sassy Black queen named Lindy, who at one point tells someone “Honey, I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get!”  Shrinking Woman is a kooky, candy-colored variation on Richard Matheson’s sci-fi novel in which household chemicals cause Tomlin to shrink; The Lost Boys (1987) is a teen vampire thriller in which Kiefer Sutherland tries to seduce cute Jason Patric into a life of bloodsucking, all set to a killer 80s soundtrack.  Schumacher injected personality and life into larger than life moviemaking, and his talent and energy will be missed.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Interview: Director Jeanie Finlay and Freddy McConnell of Seahorse

In Jeanie 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.


“I’m a 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.

Director Jeanie Finlay

Indeed, the 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.” 

McConnell 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.’”


“When I 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 be.


Seahorse will continue to play film festivals throughout the summer and fall.  Visit seahorsefilm.com for more.

Review: Changing the Game

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 Miller

Mack Beggs (right) wrestling for the Texas girls State Championship.

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 events.


“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

Sarah Rose Huckman

Huckman is 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


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.

Beggs

“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. 

Review: Charlie Says

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.

From left: Bacon, Murray, and Rendon

We first 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 insight.

Charlie Says is in theaters now.

TFF 2019 Review: Circus of Books

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. 

Barry and Rachel in the basement with porn inventory

Multi-hyphenate 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.

Karen at a sex toy convention, making wholesale orders

Mason delivers 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.

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Netflix will distribute Circus of Books later this year.