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“Star Wars” comes of age with “The Last Jedi”

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Carrie Fisher makes her final appearance as Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi.” Photo courtest of Disney/Lucasfilm.

When George Lucas conceived the first “Star Wars” movie, it was as a nostalgic homage to the space-cowboy movie serials of old, shaped by his own cinematic influences and informed by classical myth; but along with all that, it was also a sort of political parable that captured the zeitgeist of a society emerging from the polarizing murkiness of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.  In its tale of plucky rebels standing up to an oppressive regime, it expressed a yearning for a better world, and, through two sequels, carried that hope to a triumphant conclusion.

In the intervening years, much of this context has been lost on audiences introduced to these movies after the fact; what was once an expression of optimism for the future came to be considered mere escapist fantasy, a commercial enterprise designed to reinforce a kind of juvenile idealism while raking in unimaginably huge amounts of cash.

With J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” the rebooted saga regained much of its sense of giddy joy and excitement, echoing the original in its playful tone while hinting at deeper payoffs to come –  but nothing in it prepared us for the way “The Last Jedi” boldly reclaims the urgency and relevance that made the series a cultural touchstone in the first place.

As hero-turned-recluse Luke Skywalker says in the film, “this is not going to go the way you think.”

Throughout Johnson’s iconoclastic film, every preconception is undercut and undermined.  He plays on the audience’s familiarity with the territory, serving up all the comfortable tropes only to smash them and send the story careening off into unforeseen directions.  Heroes make bad choices, missions fall apart, daring plans backfire; everything we think we know about “Star Wars” is challenged and summarily dismissed.

The archetypes that populated this saga are humanized in his vision; weary, conflicted, blinded by hubris, and full of regret, they are haunted by the mistakes of the past – just like the tragic heroes of the Greek myths which have been the blueprint for these continuing adventures all along.  The “Force,” instead of being treated like a super power, regains its mystical status – a cosmic mystery to be grasped, rather than a magic weapon to be wielded.

The movie’s biggest departure, however, has to do with the way that Johnson dismantles the black-and-white morality that has always been a defining condition of these films.  The lines between the good guys and the bad are suddenly blurred, and we begin to see elements of each in the other.  In this way, “The Last Jedi” approaches the maturity that has always been waiting, just out of sight, within the “Star Wars” mythology.

That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t retain all the good-natured charm of its predecessors, or that it discards all their recognizable elements.  Indeed, it’s full of the kind of quippy one-liners and self-referential humor that has marked these films from the beginning.  Chewbacca is still around, of course, along with the anticipated menagerie of fanciful creatures and all your favorite droids. There are dazzling special effects, imaginative new worlds, breathtaking space battles, and plentiful light saber action, all accompanied by the mandatory strains of John Williams’ soaring musical score.

Still, it’s Johnson’s determination to tear down the old and make way for the new that allows his film to strike a resounding chord that fits the era just as deeply as the one sounded by the iconic original back in 1977.

The most obvious reverberation comes from the unabashed parallels between real world politics and the situation portrayed in the film’s conflict between an alliance of freedom fighters (notably called “the Resistance”) and a fascistic regime bent on enslaving the galaxy.  In Trump’s America – despite the film having been written months before the 2016 election – the allegory seems almost too perfect; and the film’s emphatic rejection of a conventional narrative underscores its clear message that it’s time to discard old ways of thinking that no longer serve us and open ourselves up to new ideas.

It also offers up a clear suggestion of where to look for those ideas.  While past incarnations of the “Star Wars” world have been dominated by white male characters, the newer films have made a deliberate effort to introduce diversity into this galaxy far, far away.  “Jedi” takes that even further by emphasizing a host of strong, brave, and intelligent women among its throng of protagonists.  It is they who provide the true leadership, while the “traditional” heroes – stuck in their old patterns – are trying to blow things up or turning away from the fight in disgust.  This is not to say that Luke Skywalker doesn’t live up to his reputation and enjoy his day in the sun (or rather, suns); but it is notable that the movie takes pains to remind us that women are more than deserving of their place at the table.

Although acting has never been the first hallmark of any of these films, there are some truly impressive performances.  Mark Hamill, taking delight in the opportunity to strip away the shine of his iconic character, gives us the best performance of his onscreen career as the older, crankier Luke; and Adam Driver doubles down on the brooding instability he brought to Kylo Ren in “Force,” continuing to evoke the angsty millennial even as he develops this complex character into one of the most compelling movie villains in recent memory.

Of course, special mention must be made of the late Carrie Fisher, making her final appearance in the role that made her a star.  Princess (now General) Leia is an important presence in “The Last Jedi,” allowing the actress the chance to leave a lasting and vivid impression of both herself and a character that has become a symbol of hope and empowerment for women – and rebels – the world over.

Ultimately, though, the true MVP of “The Last Jedi” is the man at its helm.  Director Johnson has brought a fresh, contemporary style to his undertaking that makes this arguably the most elegantly cinematic “Star Wars” entry to date.  Exquisitely framed, artfully staged, and poetically orchestrated, his movie is both exciting and eloquent – a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that transcends pop entertainment to become art.

It’s also proven a slap in the face to some fans, who have taken to the internet to accuse “The Last Jedi” of betraying the “Star Wars” heritage; such is the nature of popular culture in an age where everyone has instant access to a public forum to express their disappointment when things don’t turn out the way they want.

LGBTQ fans may have their own reason to be disgruntled.  Despite hopeful theories from fans, [MINOR spoiler alert] Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) don’t become a couple in “The Last Jedi.”  To be fair, there’s not much time in the action for romance, and the possibility remains that at least one of these characters may yet come out as the franchise’s sole representative of the gay community.  Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy – the ultimate decision maker for the franchise – has said more than once that she is open to introducing a gay character, so there’s still good reason to hope that the concluding film of this current trilogy may finally bring a queer presence to the universe of “Star Wars,” and at last round out the inclusive environment its creative team has taken such pains to bring to “The Last Jedi.”

Of course that message of inclusivity, though it may be welcomed by the majority of fans, has drawn the ire of some in the “Alt-Right” community – so much so, in fact, that a group called “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys” took it upon themselves to subvert the movie’s audience approval score on the popular (and influential) Rotten Tomatoes website by using “bots” to post thousands of negative reviews and skew the percentage.  A moderator for the group admitted to the campaign to trash the film because of its “feminist agenda.”

Any true fan knows, of course, that “Star Wars” has always had social justice at its core – and the effort  Johnson’s movie makes to embrace that ideal and bring it to the forefront is reason enough to celebrate “The Last Jedi.”

The fact that it annoys the Alt-Right is just icing on the cake.

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Notables

Equality Florida’s Nadine Smith named to Time’s Top 100 list for 2022

“In the fight for equality in Florida, there has perhaps been no greater advocate for LGBTQ people than Nadine Smith”

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Courtesy of Equality Florida

ST. PETERSBURG, FL. – Time magazine released its annual 100 most influential people list and this year one of the honorees was Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith. In the biographical sketch accompanying Smith’s listing, Time writer Kristen Arnett noted “in the fight for equality in Florida, there has perhaps been no greater advocate for LGBTQ people than Nadine Smith.”

“I am deeply honored to be included in the TIME100,” said Smith, a Black, queer woman. “This recognizes decades of work not only by me, but by the dedicated team of volunteers, staff and supporters I’ve had the privilege to work with at Equality Florida.  Our work is far from done as Florida, once again, stands at the center of the fight against extremism and hate.  We are bearing the brunt of a governor willing to sacrifice the safety of children and destroy our most basic liberties in his desperate bid to be President. But this is not simply Florida’s fight. The wave of anti-LGBTQ, racist, freedom-destroying bills sweeping the country calls each of us to fight for our rights and, indeed, our democracy.”

The list, now in its nineteenth year, recognizes the impact, innovation and achievement of the world’s most influential individuals. 

Smith comes from a long line of activists and barrier breakers. Her grandparents helped form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union to fight for the rights of sharecroppers. While in college, Smith co-founded IGLYO, the world’s largest LGBTQ youth and student organization. She co-chaired the 1993 March on Washington that drew a million marchers and she was part of the first Oval Office meeting between a sitting President and LGBTQ leaders. In the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Smith and her team coordinated a national response including raising millions in direct resources for survivors and families of the 49 killed. 

Smith’s recognition comes as Florida has taken center stage in the right wing, anti-freedom agenda aimed at erasing LGBTQ people from classrooms, propagandizing curriculum, censoring history, banning books, and putting politicians in control of personal medical decisions.

“Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential ambitions have fueled bills like Don’t Say Gay, the Stop WOKE Act, a 15-week abortion ban, and dangerous national rhetoric that seeks to dehumanize LGBTQ people in service to the most extreme segment of his base,” Equality Florida stated in a press release Monday.

The 2022 TIME100, and its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, with related tributes appear in the June 6/June 13 double issue of TIME, available on newsstands on Friday, May 27, and online now at time.com/time100.

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Outfest

Blow your mind with today’s hottest Queer TV- 2nd annual OutFronts

Queer television is here, and it is just getting started to shine.  Buckle your rainbow belts, this unicorn is ready to fly

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WEST HOLLYWOOD – Back in the day, getting a whisp of any queer media, whether it was a short “gay” movie or a quick queer themed storyline, was hard to come by. Sure, there was OutFest started in 1982 by some UCLA students. Roseanne kissing a girl, a lesbian wedding on Friends, and Ellen’s bursting media’s mind before it crashed and burned her.

Not anymore. OutFest has made that clear with its second annual OutFronts, a four-day hybrid festival. Queer television is here, and it is just getting started to shine.  Buckle your rainbow belts, this unicorn is ready to fly.

The festival combines free-to-view virtual panel discussions with ticketed in-person events as part of the Los Angeles area’s Pride season. The festival kicks off on Friday June 3rd and extends through Monday, June 6th. It features episodic premieres, advanced screenings, and both in-person and virtual discussions with the talent from some of the most exciting LGBTQIA+ programs available on television today.    

The in-person festival events include:

  • QUEER AS FOLK presented by Peacock  This is the world premiere screening of the new Peacock series, a vibrant reimagining of the groundbreaking British series exploring a diverse group of friends in New Orleans.  The program includes a panel talkback with cast and creative team.
  • “Love, Victor” presented by HULU and DISNEY+  It is the show’s third and final season, and OutFronts is proud to show the premier episode of the season!  The program includes  “Love, Victor’s” showrunner and young cast present to discuss the impact of the show’s run, what we might expect from season 3, and bid a farewell to the groundbreaking series.  
  • QUEER FIREFIGHTERS ONSCREEN AND IRL Queer firefighters on TV sit down with their real-life counterparts to discuss being queer and saving lives. The in-person discussion will include Ronen Rubenstein (9-1-1: Lone Star), Brian Michael Smith (9-1-1: Lone Star), Traci Thoms (Station 19), others.
  • LEGENDARY   LEGENDARY is the groundbreaking competition series now in season 3 on HBO Max.   The OutFronts program includes LEGENDARY host and MC Dashaun Wesley will conduct a talk-show style look back at some of the most earth-shattering moments from the show’s history, and a candid talk about all the unfolding drama of the current season.

The virtual events include:

Topic panels  

  • Presented as virtual panels, these panels cover hot queer television topics. These include exploring social media influencers who have used their clout to cross over into the acting world – with Gigi Gorgeous, Kalen Allen, and Boman Martinez-Reid. Another panel looks at “TV’s Queer Pioneers”, with actors who were among the first to regularly appear as three-dimensional queer characters on television, including Wilson Cruz, Amber Benson, and Jane Sibbett. A panel looking to create the next icons spotlights actors who have created some of the most impactful queer characters of recent years, including Harvey Guillen (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS), Javicia Leslie (BATWOMAN), Brandon Scott Jones (GHOSTS), and Vico Ortiz (OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH).

Series panels  

  • Presented as virtual panels, these programs feature discussions of hot shows and their new season offerings:  a talk on SyFy and USA Network’s CHUCKY moderated by Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, with CHILD’S PLAY franchise creator Don Mancini and cast members Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Fiona Dourif, Zackary Arthur, and Bjorgvin Anarson; a one-on-one career-spanning conversation with comedy legend Paula Pell upon the release of GIRLS5EVA season two on Peacock; a discussion with the cast and creators of Freeform’s MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM in advance of the series’ final season; a talk with GENTLEMAN JACK creator Sally Wainwright and actor Lydia Leonard; a focused conversation with the queer talent and characters from Showtime’s smash-hit YELLOWJACKETS; as well as panels featuring talent from HBOMax’s SORT OF and THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS, VH1’s RuPaul’s DRAG RACE, Prime Video’s HARLEM and THE WILDS, The CW’s TOM SWIFT and THE 4400, and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL – THE SERIES from Disney Plus and Disney Branded Television.

The inaugural year of OutFronts saw nearly 70,000 participants from across the globe. This year should see even more. “It’s inspiring to know that one festival couldn’t possibly cover all the wonderful LGBTQIA+ stories being told on television today,” said Outfest’s Director of Festival Programming, Mike Dougherty. “The OutFronts by no means represents an exhaustive account of all that is queer in TV, but they do gather a multitude of brilliantly talented queer artists and allies whose diversity of perspective and experience are on full display in these funny, entertaining, and emotional conversations. I can’t wait to share them with the world.”

It’s time to join the Queer Television Fandom community, whether you want your seat to be in a happening LA theater, or in your own living room, your piece of the rainbow awaits! See you at OutFronts 2022!

All panel discussions will be free of charge to view online and via Outfest’s OutMuseum platform. The OutFronts are presented by IMDb and media sponsors are The Los Angeles Blade, ABC7 Los Angeles, Clear Channel Outdoor, Edge Media, KCET/PBS SoCal, Pride Media, Queerty, Rainbow Media, Autostraddle, and Variety. RSVP and view the full calendar of The OutFronts programming at theoutfronts.com

**********************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more. He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine. He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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Movies

Join Joel Kim Booster on ‘Fire Island’ this summer

Gay rom com features queer Asian cast

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Joel Kim Booster stars in ‘Fire Island.’ (Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

It would be an understandable mistake to see Joel Kim Booster on one of the two “Out Traveler” magazine covers he’s gracing this month and assume he was just another sexy fashion model, but the 34-year-old Korean-American comedian is not having a moment in the blazing sun of queer pop culture just because of his undeniable talent for rocking a Speedo. 

He is actually in the middle of the publicity push for the upcoming film “Fire Island,” which he wrote and in which he co-stars with (among others) close friend Bowen Yang and comedy legend Margaret Cho, and which begins screening exclusively on the Hulu streaming service just in time for Pride month.

Directed by Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”), it’s a movie that’s generating a lot of buzz, partly because it’s the first predominantly queer film to be backed by a major movie studio (Disney, through its Searchlight Pictures division). We’ve been burned too many times not to be skeptical about such a project, but anyone already familiar with Booster’s work will undoubtedly tell you it’s not likely to be another watered-down, safe-for-the-mainstream offering designed to check off boxes on the diversity agenda. Since he first made a splash with an appearance on “Conan” in 2016, he has gained a following among queer and straight audiences alike with his unapologetically gay, unabashedly sex-positive comedy, leading to what some might call a meteoric rise to the brink of superstardom through an acclaimed stand-up career, his roles on TV in shows like the short-lived sitcom “Sunnyside” (on which he was a regular), “Shrill,” and “The Week Of” (as well as his writing for shows like “Billy on the Street” and “The Other Two”), and his popular podcasts (“Urgent Care with Joel Kim Booster + Mitra Jouhari” and “The Joy Fuck Club”).

Now he’s poised to become a movie star with “Fire Island,” a gay romantic comedy set in the titular vacation retreat that dares not only to feature a cast made up entirely of queer characters, but doubles down by putting the focus on queer characters who also happen to be Asian. To top it all off, it gives Booster a chance to show off his literate side with a story – which concerns a group of gay best friends out for sexual adventure, and possibly even romance, on what might be their last trip to the iconic gay getaway – adapted from no less esteemed a literary source than Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

The Blade was fortunate enough to chat with Booster in the middle of this very high-pressure month before his feature film debut, and our conversation was informed by the kind of erudite and compassionate intelligence that has marked the young comedian’s career from the start.

BLADE: In your comedy, you’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from being raised as a Korean adoptee by white American parents in a deeply Christian midwestern community. Does that experience figure into the movie, too?

BOOSTER: Of course! As a transnational adoptee, my entire life I’ve been fighting against this nagging feeling of not quite fitting in – and that’s whether I’m around white people, or Asian people, or even some gay people. It’s tough, and it’s been such a paramount part of my life to find people who make me feel seen and accepted and to keep them close, so it felt really important for the theme of chosen family to stay in the forefront when I was making this movie. As much as it’s a “rom com,” it’s also about friendship – about relationships with people who, like I say in the movie, “fill in the gaps.”

BLADE: How did you hit on using Jane Austen as a source?

BOOSTER: It was really a lucky accident. I brought “Pride and Prejudice” with me on the first trip Bowen and I ever took to Fire Island. I would be lying there on the beach reading it and thinking, “It’s amazing how the things she was writing about are so relevant to what we’re experiencing on this island right now.” It was kinda wild, and it started out as threat, a joke – I would keep saying, ‘I can’t wait to write an all-gay adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set on Fire Island,’ and people would boo and throw things at me. But after that I would always bring an Austen book with me to read on the island, because it felt special to me. There was just something so prescient about what she wrote, and about her observations on class, especially reading it in this place where we had sort of created our own class system, as gay men.

BLADE: When did it stop being a joke?

BOOSTER: Actually, my agent suggested that I should write it, because I was in between projects. I just had a pilot that was passed on by Comedy Central, I was depressed, I had nothing to do – so I ended up writing it as a half-hour pilot script. But nobody wanted it until Quibi [the short-form entertainment platform that launched and folded in 2020 after failing to meet projected subscription levels]. Say what you will about them, but they really invested a lot of money and time into new and young voices, and they took a lot of chances. They took a chance on me, and when they folded I had this script that I could point to which I had written and developed with them. This movie was a tough pitch to sell on just a log line, but I had this finished project, this complicated piece of work to show people, that was much more intricate than I think “Gay ‘Pride and Prejudice’” would maybe lead people to believe.

BLADE: Your movie is just one of several big queer titles on deck for 2022, including Billy Eichner’s rom com, “Bros.” How do you feel about that?

BOOSTER: Honestly, it really takes some of the pressure off. When we get, like, one gay movie a year, a lot of attention and scrutiny gets put on that movie and it’s expected to be everything to everyone in our community. And our community is huge, and it’s diverse, and there are so many stories that aren’t being told. I’m so glad Billy’s movie is coming out as well, he was my first comedy boss, and I’m really happy that people in our community are going to have two big gay rom coms to choose from.

BLADE: We haven’t seen “Bros” yet, but we’ve seen “Fire Island.” There’s a review embargo [until May 23], but I think it’s safe to say nobody is going to boo or throw things at you. Do you feel any sense of competition about it?

BOOSTER: My hope is that people love both, but it’s nice that if somebody goes to see my movie and says, ‘That’s not for me, I don’t see myself there,’ then a couple months later they’ll see Billy’s and they’ll have another shot at it. And I hope both of our movies are successful enough that they create a million clones. I hope it’s just the beginning.

“Fire Island,” which also stars Conrad Ricamora (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and a host of other familiar queer performers, premieres on Hulu on June 3. 

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