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New thriller ‘Us’ is sleek and scary update on American Dream gone awry

Lupita Nyong’o, Elizabeth Moss are stellar in Jordan Peele-helmed horror pic

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Us movie review, gay news, Washington Blade

Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke in ‘Us.’ (Photo courtesy Universal)

Two years ago, writer/director Jordan Peele leapt into to international prominence with his first film, “Get Out.” Peele’s dazzling blend of satire and horror won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the movie was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya).

“Us,” his second film, is a chilling nightmare version of the American Dream that will certainly join the pantheon of great horror movies. With flawless timing and the pitch-perfect manipulation of comedy and terror, Peele puts a contemporary spin on classic horror movie tropes and turns a funhouse mirror on middle-class mores. It opens today (Friday, March 22) nationwide. 

As the movie opens, Adelaide Wilson (an impeccable Lupita Nyong’o) is bringing her family to her childhood home for a summer vacation, despite a growing sense of unease fueled by dim memories of a traumatic incident from her past. After a tense day at the beach with the family of her old friend Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), Adelaide’s fears materialize when a mysterious yet somehow familiar family suddenly appears outside her house.

To say anything further about the plot might spoil the terrific roller coaster ride that Peele and company have created. Peele’s work as writer and director is flawless. There’s not an extra word or a wasted shot and every detail is meticulously planned. With its careful focus on masks, mirrors and reflections, the movie is also a visual delight. Thanks to his seamless collaboration with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, editor Nicholas Monsour and especially composer Michael Abels, Peele ratchets up the tension until a breath-taking final revelation and a closing image that is somehow both deeply disturbing and very funny.

The entire cast is terrific. Nyong’o is thrilling as a woman confronting her own past and the monsters that threaten her family. Moss is wonderful as the shallow friend whose vanity and unmet ambitions become a fascinating part of Peele’s thoughtful commentary. Winston Duke is delightfully goofy as Gabe Wilson. He provides crucial comic relief, as does Tim Heidecker as Kitty’s husband Josh. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex turn in fine performances as the brave Wilson children.

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Gender expression is fluid in captivating ‘Paul & Trisha’ doc

Exploring what’s possible when you allow yourself to become who you truly are

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Paul Whitehead and Trisha van Cleef in ‘Paul & Trisha.’ (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Given the polarizing controversies surrounding the subject of gender in today’s world, it might feel as if challenges to the conventional “norms” around the way we understand it were a product of the modern age. They’re not, of course; artists have been exploring the boundaries of gender  – both its presentation and its perception – since long before the language we use to discuss the topic today was ever developed. After all, gender is a universal experience, and isn’t art, ultimately, meant to be about the sharing of universal experiences in a way that bypasses, or at least overcomes, the limitations of language?

We know, we know; debate about the “purpose” of art is almost as fraught with controversy as the one about gender identity, but it’s still undeniable that art has always been the place to find ideas that contradict or question conventional ways of viewing the world. Thanks to the heavy expectation of conformity to society’s comfortable “norms”  in our relationship with gender, it’s inevitable that artists might chafe at such restrictive assumptions enough to challenge them – and few have committed quite so completely to doing so as Paul Whitehead, the focus of “Paul & Trisha: The Art of Fluidity,” a new documentary from filmmaker Fia Perera which enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit and is now available for pre-order on iTunes and Apple TV ahead of a VOD/streaming release on July 9.

Whitehead, who first gained attention and found success in London’s fertile art-and-fashion scene of the mid 1960s, might not be a household name, but he has worked closely with many people who are. A job as an in-house illustrator at a record company led to his hiring as the first art director for the UK Magazine Time Out, which opened the door for even more prominent commissions for album art – including a series of iconic covers for Genesis, Van der Graaf, Generator, and Peter Hammill, which helped to shape the visual aesthetic of the Progressive Rock movement with his bold, surrealistic pop aesthetic, and worked as an art director for John Lennon for a time. Moving to Los Angeles in 1973, his continuing work in the music industry expanded to encompass a wide variety of commercial art and landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as painter of the largest indoor mural in the world inside the now-demolished Vegas World Casino in Las Vegas. As a founder of the Eyes and Ears Foundation, he conceived and organized the “Artboard Festival”, which turned a stretch of L.A. roadway into a “drive-through art gallery” with donated billboards painted by participating artists.

Perera’s film catches up with Whitehead in the relatively low-profile city of Ventura, Calif., where the globally renowned visual artist now operates from a combination studio and gallery in a strip mall storefront. Still prolific and producing striking artworks (many of them influenced and inspired by his self-described “closet Hinduism”), the film reveals a man who, far from coming off as elderly, seems ageless; possessed of a rare mix of spiritual insight and worldly wisdom, he is left by the filmmaker to tell his own story by himself, and he embraces the task with the effortless verve of a seasoned raconteur. For roughly the first half of the film, we are treated to the chronicle of his early career provided straight from the source, without “talking head” commentaries or interview footage culled from entertainment news archives, and laced with anecdotes and observations that reveal a clear-headedness, along with a remarkable sense of self-knowledge and an inspiring freedom of thought, that makes his observations feel like deep wisdom. He’s a fascinating host, taking us on a tour of the life he has lived so far, and it’s like spending time with the most interesting guy at the party.

It’s when “Art of Fluidity” introduces its second subject, however, that things really begin to get interesting, because as Whitehead was pushing boundaries as an in-demand artist, he was also pushing boundaries in other parts of his life. Experimenting with his gender identity through cross-dressing since the 1960s, what began tentatively as an “in the bedroom” fetish became a long-term process of self-discovery that resulted in the emergence of “converged artist” Trisha Van Cleef, a feminine manifestation of Whitehead’s persona who has been creating art of her own since 2004. Neither dissociated “alter ego” nor performative character, Trisha might be a conceptual construct, in some ways, but she’s also a very authentic expression of personal gender perception who exists just as definitively as Paul Whitehead. They are, like the seeming opposites of yin and yang, two sides of the same fundamental and united nature.

Naturally, the bold process of redefining one’s personal relationship with gender is not an easy one, and part of what makes Trisha so compelling is the challenge she represents to Paul – and, by extension, the audience – by co-existing with him in his own life. She pushes him to step beyond his fears – such as his concerns about the hostile attitude of the shopkeeper next door and the danger of bullying, brutality, and worse when Trisha goes out in public – and embrace both sides of his nature instead of trying to force himself to be one or the other alone. And while the film doesn’t shy away from addressing the brutal reality about the risk of violence against non-gender-conforming people in our culture, it also highlights what is possible when you choose to allow yourself to become who you truly are.

As a sort of disclaimer, it must be acknowledged that some viewers may take issue with some of Whitehead’s personal beliefs about gender identity, which might not quite mesh with prevailing ideas and could be perceived as “problematic” within certain perspectives. Similarly, the depth of his engagement with Hindu cosmology might be off-putting to audiences geared toward skepticism around any spiritually inspired outlook on the world. However, it’s clear within the larger context of the documentary that both Paul and Trisha speak only for themselves, expressing a personal truth that does not nullify or deny the personal truth of anyone else. Further, one of the facets that gives “Art of Fluidity” its mesmerizing, upbeat charm is the sense that we are watching an ongoing evolution, a work in progress in which an artist is still discovering the way forward. There’s no insinuation that any aspect of Paul or Trisha’s shared life is definitive, rather we come to see them as a united pair, in constant flux, moving through the world together, as one, and becoming more like themselves every step of the way.

That’s something toward which we all would be wise to aspire; the acceptance of all of our parts and the understanding that we are always in the process of becoming something else would certainly go a long way toward making a happier, friendlier world.

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New Cyndi Lauper doc brings overdue spotlight to queer ally

‘Let the Canary Sing’ captures a unique, era-defining star

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Cyndi Lauper’s remarkable career is revisited in ‘Let the Canary Sing.’ (Photo courtesy of Paramount Plus)

Every era in our cultural memory has given rise to popular artists that helped to define them, but few can be said to have made as definitive an impact as Cyndi Lauper in the early ‘80s. Splashing onto our airwaves and across our television screens (courtesy of the newly minted MTV) with a defiantly upbeat and colorful blast of society-shifting energy, her proclamation that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” caught the world off guard with a feminist anthem disguised as a good-time party song, and her sense of quirky punk style became an iconic influence over the “look” of an entire decade. In some ways, you could almost say Cyndi Lauper was the ‘80s.

For many people who grew up or came of age during her rise from unknown girl singer to pop music phenomenon, that might be the extent of their knowledge of her life and career. Despite the success (and Grammy Award) she achieved with her first few hits, the ever-roving eye of public attention inevitably moved on to the next new superstar, and her later efforts – while not exactly ignored – never managed to garner as much attention.

That doesn’t mean she has been inactive, though, as her die-hard fans (and there are many) well know; this is especially true in the queer community, where she has long been recognized and celebrated as a staunch ally – which is why it seems apt that Pride month should coincide with the release of “Let the Canary Sing,” a new documentary profile of Lauper that premieres on Paramount Plus this week.

Directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Alison Ellwood, “Canary” takes its name from a comment made by the judge in a legal case that opened the door for Lauper’s stardom – no spoilers here, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out more. It undertakes the telling of a well-rounded and comprehensive life story to cast that stardom in a new light. Maintaining a comfortable sense of chronology, it begins with Lauper’s childhood, growing up in Brooklyn (and later, Queens) in a close-knit family as the middle child of three with a divorced single mother, and follows the trajectory of her life – rebellious, risk-taking teen to driven, passionate artist and activist – through her love of music, her rise to fame, her struggle to evolve in an industry that rewards predictable familiarity, her emergence as an LGBTQ advocate, and her expansion into a genre-leaping artist whose reach has extended beyond pop culture to earn her renown for her versatility. It also covers her accomplishment as the first woman to win a Tony Award as sole composer of the music and lyrics of “Kinky Boots,” the Harvey Fierstein-scripted drag-themed Broadway musical which made a star of Billy Porter – and nabbed her another Grammy (for its Original Cast Recording), to boot. Bolstered by extensive current interview footage with Lauper herself, as well as elder sister Elen, younger brother Fred, and other important figures from her personal and professional life, it finds an arc that reveals its subject as an authentic and uncompromising visionary dedicated to “lifting up” the entire human race.

That would sound hyperbolic – and probably more than a little disingenuous – if Lauper did not come across so palpably on camera. Whether it’s footage from a decades-old Letterman show or newly filmed commentary shot specifically for the film, her “true colors” come shining through (forgive us for that one, we couldn’t resist) to provide ample evidence that, even if she didn’t always know where she was going, she always knew it would be the direction of her own choosing. Indeed, as the movie makes clear, much of the reason behind Lauper’s fade from the pop spotlight was the result of her refusal to repeat herself, to compromise her own path by delivering pale copies of the formula that had made her an “overnight success” after 15 years of trying. Although the documentary doesn’t insinuate this, it’s impossible for us not to suspect that homophobic backlash following her public embrace and advocacy of the queer community – something surely intertwined with her close bond to sister Elen, an out lesbian who is positioned in Ellwood’s film as a key pillar of both emotional and artistic support in Lauper’s life – may have had something to do with the mainstream music industry’s ambivalence toward her as she pursued her artistic impulses beyond the flashy appeal of her debut album. 

In any case, “She’s So Unusual,” as a debut album title, proved to be an ironic foreshadowing of the very reasons she was unable to “stay in her own lane” well enough to remain in the good graces of a public (or, perhaps more truthfully, of record executives) that only wanted more of the same. Lauper has never been one to conform, and it’s made her vulnerable, like so many other unrelenting female voices both before and after her, to the mainstream insistence on reinforcement of the comfortable over the breaking down of boundaries.

“Let the Canary Sing” captures all of this succinctly, yet with layered and sophisticated nuance, as it pays its tribute to a pop icon whose seminal work has continued to resonate after more than 40 years. Unavoidably, perhaps, it sometimes feels like a “Behind the Music” episode or a “puff piece” for an artist about to launch a new project – indeed, Lauper announced a “farewell tour” of 23 cities, as well as a “companion piece” greatest hits album release, on the eve of the movie’s streaming debut – but it pushes past such irrelevant comparisons thanks to the palpable sincerity conveyed onscreen, not only from her, but from all the people in her orbit whose comments about her are included in the film.

Of course, it must be said that anyone who’s not a “Cyndi Lauper fan”, whether by virtue of generational gaps or personal tastes, will probably not be drawn to watch a filmic love letter to her, and that’s a shame. It (and she) has the power to make viewers into true believers not only in her talent, but in her message of acceptance, inclusion, and unconditional love. Part of that, hinges on Ellwood’s skill as a filmmaker and teller of real-life stories, but the lasting impact rests on the persona of the star herself, who exudes a genuine air of transcendence and makes us not only feel instantly comfortable, but completely “seen” and validated, no matter who we are or which spectrum we might be on.

It’s hard to fake the kind of sincerity that makes that possible, and nothing about “Canary” suggests that Cyndi Lauper has any interest in being fake, anyway.

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Lesbian, bi, trans stories dominate queer crop of summer movies

Comic book adaption, horror thrillers, and more on the way

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Megan Stalter stars in ‘Cora Bora. (Photo courtesy Brainstorm Media)

Summer is almost upon us, and that means it’s time to look ahead toward another season of movies – but for queer movie fans, the typical “popular” summer escapist fare might not have quite the right appeal. Not to worry: the Blade is here to offer up our usual list of titles to watch for.

Backspot (May 31, in theaters) Helmed by nonbinary Toronto filmmaker D.W. Waterson in their feature directorial debut, this Elliot Page-produced sports drama has been described as “Whiplash” for competitive cheerleaders. Focusing on ambitious cheerleader Riley (Devery Jacobs of “Reservation Dogs”), it’s a heavily queer-themed coming-of-age tale that weaves romance with hard-hitting “behind-the-scenes” as she and her girlfriend, selected for an all-star squad, square off against a hard-edged head coach (out queer “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood) who demands a drive toward perfection – forcing Riley to confront her own crippling anxiety to keep her dreams from crumbling into dust. Also starring Shannyn Sossamon (“A Knight’s Tale”), Kudakwashe Rutendo, Thomas Antony Olajide, and Wendy Crewson

Let the Canary Sing (June 4, Paramount Plus) Billed as “the story of music’s most authentic superstar,” this career-spanning profile of queer-adjacent pop icon Cyndi Lauper from award-winning documentarian Alison Ellwood delivers a chronicle of her ascent to stardom and an exploration of her impact and the legacy that she has bestowed through her beloved music, iconic style, unapologetic feminism and fearless advocacy. There’s not much we can say about this one except that it’s a perfect treat for fans – and an enticing invitation for future fans – to get a close-up look at a legend who has truly earned her status.

Queendom (June 14, in theaters/on demand) Filmmaker Agniia Galdanova is behind this award-winning SXSW documentary, which follows queer Russian performance artist Jenna Marvin as she takes to the streets of Moscow to stage theatrical protests against the country’s Putin-led authoritarian regime – all while working behind the scenes to escape her homeland and flee to a place where her queer identity isn’t a crime. Coming in the middle of Pride month, it’s a potent reminder that – in many parts of the world – queer people still live in fear of homophobic suppression, but it’s also an inspiring story about the risky business of speaking truth to power.

Summer Solstice (June 14, in theaters) It should go without saying that telling trans stories is important right now, and this film from Brooklyn-based director Noah Schamus is exactly the kind we need. Following trans man Leo (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) as he hustles his way through a life of auditions, acting classes, barista jobs, and “situationships,” it segues into a thoughtful exploration of interpersonal gender politics when an old friend – cisgender and straight Eleanor (Marianne Rendón), takes her on an impromptu weekend getaway in upstate New York. Dealing with the new dynamics (and old emotions) of relationships after transition, it’s a movie which goes a long way toward revealing both the commonalities and the unique complications that ultimately make any trans story, told authentically, into a human story.

Cora Bora (June 15) If you’re a fan of Max’s queer-friendly queer-favorite series “Hacks,” you’ll need no introduction to the comedic personality at the center of this “dramedy” from director Hannah Pearl Utt. Out bisexual comedian and actress Megan Stalter stars as a “failed girl musician” who sets out not just to revitalize her career prospects but to win back the affections of her ex-girlfriend – and forges a new life path for herself in the process. Stalter, known mostly for her endearingly painful, over-the-top comedic portrayals of deluded-but-inextinguishable confidence, gets an opportunity to show a much wider range of layers here than she’s been allowed to explore before – but don’t worry: she’s still hilarious! Jojo T. Gibbs, Manny Jacinto, Ayden Mayeri, Thomas Mann, Chelsea Peretti, and queer comedy icon Margaret Cho also star.

Fancy Dance (June 21, in theaters/AppleTV) This debut feature from filmmaker Erica Tremblay is also the eagerly awaited return to the big screen of Indigenous American actor Lily Gladstone, whose Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” not only made history but made them into a star. Here, they play a queer hustler who becomes the guardian of her niece (Isabel DeRoy-Olson) when her sister disappears. Trying to stay one step ahead of a deadbeat dad (Shea Wigham, “White Lotus”) and an American justice system that is weighted against the rights of Indigenous women, they hit the road into the backcountry of their Oklahoma reservation on a quest to find the missing mother. The “buzz” is already predicting another Oscar nod for Gladstone, but whether or not that’s just Hollywood hyperbole, it’s sure to be one of the summer’s must-see picks.

Sing Sing (July 12, limited theaters/August 2, wide release) Speaking of last year’s Oscar nominees, powerhouse out-gay-thespian-of-color Colman Domingo is the lynchpin of this based-on-a-true-story prison drama about a wrongly convicted inmate at the notorious correctional facility who finds solace in a rehabilitation theater program, mounting productions with fellow prisoners and rising above the crushing isolation of incarcerated life. Intense and topical, yet also inspirational and uplifting, it debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival alongside Domingo’s other starring vehicle, “Rustin” – and his performance in it was praised as superior, Oscar nod notwithstanding. Consider that alone a recommendation to add this Greg Kwedar-directed real-life tale to your watchlist.

Deadpool & Wolverine (July 26, in theaters) It’s rare for us to include a big-ticket comic book film in our list of upcoming queer titles, but we can’t ignore the appeal of this new Marvel entry in which the two title characters are thrown together for a mission that will rewrite the history of the “MCU” forever. Sure, it sounds like a convenient way to hit the “reset” button and take the blockbuster franchise in a new direction – but it’s also the irresistible culmination of a longstanding “man-crush” held by the “canonically pansexual” Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) for X-Man MVP Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), fueled enthusiastically by both stars since long before this clever concept vehicle ever got greenlit. Directed by Shawn Levy, and also starring nonbinary actor Emma Corrin in their first “villainous” role, it features Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, and Matthew Macfadyen, too – and while it may not be highbrow cinema, based on the irreverent, borderline absurdist tone of both the “Deadpool” comics and the previous film installments made from them, it’s likely to be a lot of fun.

Cuckoo (Aug. 9, in theaters) Last but not least, this German-American co-production – a “Shining”-esque horror tale about a family vacationing in the Alps that find themselves endangered after discovering the resort town in which they are staying harbors a web of disturbing secrets – will undoubtedly draw the attention of hardcore horror fans. But it also has strong, built-in queer appeal in the form of its transgender star, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”), who takes on her first starring film role as the movie’s “final girl.” Dan Stevens, Jessica Henwick, Jan Bluthardt, and Martin Csokas also star, with direction and screenplay both coming from Tilman Singer.

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Queer ‘TV Glow’ a surreal horror gem

Challenging and surprising us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious

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Justice Smith and Bridgette Lundy-Paine in ‘I Saw the TV Glow.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

In an age when so much of our consciousness is fixated on screens, it’s no surprise that the year’s most effectively soul-shaking horror film so far should be about precisely that.

It’s certainly not the first movie to take on the topic. Using television and computer screens to evoke creepy chills was a “thing” even before David Cronenberg used “Videodrome” to blur the lines between the physical world and the electronically conveyed imitation of it we often substitute for the “real thing.” In “I Saw the TV Glow,” however,  the focus is not so much about the natural fears that arise from our reliance on technology to help us navigate our lives – the dangers of artificial intelligence or the violation of privacy to manipulate us or make us vulnerable – as it is about something much more primal. Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s second feature might center on our fears around pop culture obsessions and the dangerously delusional fantasies they inspire, but its real agenda lies in a somewhat less obvious direction.

Tapping into shared millennial memories about the kid-friendly fan-culture fodder our televisions fed us in the 1990s, Shoenbrun’s movie revolves around Owen (Justice Smith), whose early teen years take place within that era. Reserved, anxious, and out-of-step with the conventional expectations embraced by his parents (Danielle Deadwyler and Limp Bizket frontman Fred Durst), seventh-grade Owen (Ian Foreman) finds himself drawn to lesbian ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) when he spots her reading a book about a TV show called “The Pink Opaque.” His fascination, partly fueled by the “forbidden” nature of a series that airs past his strictly enforced bedtime, leads the two into a secretive friendship, in which they bond over the quirky fantasy it presents – in which two teen girls with a psychic connection battle monsters together despite living on opposite sides of the world – and come to experience it as an escape from reality, which reflects and helps to alleviate their own respective unaddressed personal traumas.

Fast forward to roughly a decade later, when Owen, now working in a go-nowhere job at the local movie multiplex, reunites with his former friend – surprisingly, considering that she had disappeared around the same time that their favorite TV obsession was canceled abruptly, with a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger left as a final discordant note. She tells him a disturbing tale of being trapped inside “the world of the show” after memories of “The Pink Opaque” began to blend with reality in her mind, suggesting that their own identities are somehow tied to its two heroines and that its outlandish mythology is somehow more “real” than the lives they remember living themselves – and triggering a similar process in Owen after their encounter leaves him questioning his own memories of the series and its influence over his fate.

Anyone who has seen Schoenbrun’s debut feature – “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (2021), which, like “I Saw the TV Glow,” premiered to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, putting the nonbinary filmmaker in the upper bracket of rising talents to watch – will know that their unique narrative approach has a way of keeping the viewer off balance, and that’s something that works brilliantly to give the newer feature its disconcerting impact. Though it incorporates elements of the “body horror” subgenre to elicit some squirmy moments, it’s more unsettling than outright scary, achieving its creepiness by undermining our perceptions and reminding us of the unreliability of memory – in essence, by removing the illusion of certainty from our experience of reality, calling everything we assume about it into question. We aren’t the first to note the similarities between the filmmaker’s approach and that of David Lynch, whose disorienting nonlinear style would have obvious parallels to theirs even if it wasn’t peppered with visual callbacks to some of the latter director’s iconic work; far from being mere imitation, however, it’s the use of a shared visual language to take us on a surreal and sometimes nighmarish journey, which operates under the malleable rules of dream logic as it shape-shifts its way through a narrative that feels as much like free-association as it does a story. 

What makes it particularly effective is that it captures the kind of cultish fandom those of latter generations feel around the precious TV memories of their youth – frequently around the kind of loopy, outlandish sci-fi fantasy shows like the one at its center – and the reasons why such pop culture fodder have such appeal for anyone who, like its two protagonists, feels like an outsider in a world that seems to have no place for them. We’ve all felt like that at some time or another, no matter which generation we are from, so we can relate – just as we can relate to the experience of revisiting a show we loved from our youth and finding it different than we remembered, something this movie deploys brilliantly to hook us into its premise and spark our own paranoid fantasies about mind control over the broadcast waves, supernatural or otherwise.

But while Shoenbrun’s film succeeds masterfully at triggering all those “hidden message” fantasies that emerge in our pop culture – the hubbub over “backward masking” on rock albums comes to mind, or the uproar over the demonic influence of role playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” – it delivers a much more existential level of fear almost through its stylistic approach alone. By challenging not only our memories of the past but our perception of the here-and-now, “I Saw the TV Glow” pulls the rug out from under our belief in a concrete reality. Further, by following its saga through several stages of life – it follows Owen over a course of 30 years – it drives home the inevitable connection between aging, loss of control over our own minds, and ultimately, death itself as the fate which awaits us all. 

Yes, that sounds pretty grim, and melancholy to boot – but after all, why shouldn’t a horror film embrace those qualities? And like the best horror films, this one finds a transcendent beauty in the twisted darkness it shows us, even if it offers us little  – beyond the escapist fantasies we cling to from our youth, that is – to comfort us as we face the grim uncertainties of our own lives.

How it accomplishes that is something we’ll leave you to discover for yourself, but we would be remiss not to note the movie’s deeply queer/trans subtext – both its lead characters are ostracized for non-conformity in their sexual or gender orientations, though most of that is conveyed “between the lines” rather than explicitly explored – which brings a tangible and resonant layer of metaphor to the proceedings.

Admittedly, “TV Glow” might not be the kind of horror film for all fans of the genre – its nonlinear style and surrealistic resistance to concrete interpretation are sure to alienate those looking for a more easily-digestible experience. Nevertheless, it’s a rare genre film that steps outside its expected boundaries to challenge and surprise us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious – and that’s more than enough for us to jump on board.

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It’s game, set, and mismatch in unfulfilling ‘Challengers’

Not quite a bisexual love story for the ages

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Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connell in ‘Challengers.’ (Photo courtesy of MGM Amazon)

For months now, most of the buzz around Luca Guadagnino’s newest film – “Challengers,” starring Zendaya as a professional tennis coach caught in an ongoing romantic triangle with a pair of male rival players – has been about how “bisexual” it would be.

After all, this was the man that brought us “Call Me By Your Name,” and even if the Italian filmmaker’s work has not always been that queer in focus, this premise was begging for it; and when the trailers started to drop, heavily laden with imagery that made the bisexual subtext blatantly obvious, the speculation – and the anticipation – only grew.

As it turns out, “Challengers” wasn’t teasing us in vain – but it may not even matter, because after spending two hours and 10 minutes with these characters, it’s hard to imagine any viewer, whether straight, bi, or a total “Kinsey 6,” wanting to feel represented by them.

Told in a non-linear patchwork format, Guadagnino’s movie – penned by Justin Kuritzkes – chronicles the complicated relationship that develops when two high school tennis champs, boyhood friends Patrick and Art (Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, respectively), encounter high-profile pro prospect Tashi (Zendaya) at the US Open juniors. Infatuated at first sight as much by her prowess at the game as by her looks or personality, they woo her together, resulting in a steamy but thwarted three-way experience that ends with her promising her phone number to the one who wins the next day’s match.

More than a decade later, Tashi and Art are a married, wealthy power couple with a child; they’ve risen to fame after Tashi, sidelined by injury into a career as a world-class coach, has helped Art rise to international prowess, while Patrick, who originally won the challenge to become Tashi’s lover, has sunken to the level of low-ranked has-been after brief professional success. Art has hit a slump in his upward trajectory, so to freshen up his game, Tashi enters him into a small-time “challenger” tournament where Patrick, now scraping by on his meager winnings from lower circuit events such as this one, is a “wild card” entry. The rekindling of old rivalries and complex feelings between this intertwined trio of “players” results in a final competition in which the outcome has more to do with unrequited personal passions than it does with tennis.

Ostensibly both a sports movie and a romantic drama, it’s a film that wastes no time in tying its two themes together for an exploration of how the competitive instinct that might be essential to one can be a major obstacle when it comes to the other. Thanks to its back-and-forth time structure, we are rushed through all the necessary twists and turns of a 13-year romantic triad quickly enough to recognize immediately that the need to “win” supersedes every other desired outcome for these three people; more than that, in the broad strokes that emphasize the quick deterioration of their affections in the pursuit of the “game” (a word we use here both literally and figuratively), it becomes obvious that none of them are capable of recognizing how much influence their lust for victory has over their relationships with each other. To put it bluntly, in an era when polyamory has gained traction as a legitimate variation on the spectrum of human commitment, “Challengers” reads a little bit like a primer on how NOT to do it right.

That might, of course, be a big part of the point. In a story about professional athletes driven by the urge for victory trying to negotiate the delicate balance of self-respect and selflessness required to maintain a successful romantic partnership – no matter how many partners may be involved – it’s probably an inescapable element of the plot that there would be a struggle to reconcile those two conflicting impulses. The trouble is that, here, the three characters involved are so far removed from typical human experience that it becomes difficult to relate to any of them. They operate within a privileged world that is out of reach for most of us, and the conflicts that arise in their triad dynamic mostly arise from pure ego. It’s hard to feel empathy for such individuals, frankly, especially when it’s clear that their own mindset is the greatest obstacle to fulfillment in their lives, both professionally and personally. They’re all spoiled brats, and unrepentantly so.

It’s because of this that “Challengers” comes off as the kind of glossy, old-Hollywood fantasy that is more about wish fulfillment than anything else. Each of its protagonists is impossibly attractive; fit, sexy, and living an enviable life even when they’re struggling just to get by. They are the kind of people many of us wish we could be – and that, ironically, perhaps makes us dislike them all the more.

None of this is the fault of the players, who uniformly give the kind of fully invested performance that illuminates the humanity of their characters beyond negative cliches. Zendaya, never shying from her role as master manipulator in the film’s twisted “long con” romance, makes us feel the visceral need for competition that eclipses her less imperative impulses toward personal connection. O’Connor (“God’s Own Country,” “The Crown”) and Faist (Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) are not only eminently likable, but present an unvarnished and completely believable chemistry as would-be-lovers who can’t quite get past their self-judgment to embrace the obvious feelings they have for each other. The fact that we believe equally in their impulse toward the dazzlingly self-actualized Zendaya makes their performances all the more stellar. Unfortunately, within the larger context of the film, their appeal is tarnished by our ambivalence toward the dynamic the characters perpetuate between themselves.

And what of their sexuality? Is “Challengers” that rare mainstream movie that vaults over the film industry’s long-lamented “bi erasure” to present a bisexual love story for the ages? Not quite. Even if its ending (spoiler alert!) suggests that the entire movie has been about two men getting over their toxic masculinity to embrace their true feelings for each other, the fact that it never defines that relationship as a queer one and chooses instead to leave it up to our individual interpretation feels like something of a cop out. In the long run, perhaps, it’s a better tactic to avoid labeling its relationships in terms of sexuality, since the cultural “endgame” at stake has arguably more to do with normalizing diversity than amplifying an individual sense of identity – but even so, it can’t be denied that, when “Challengers” reaches its final moment, we’re left with a sense of ambiguity that feels far too “safe,” too much a capitulation to the fragile mainstream sensibility, to advance a sense of acceptance for the “B” in “LGBTQ.” In the end, it’s a movie that stops short of the mark for the sake of the lowest common comfort zone.

Which is why, sadly, we have to set “Challengers” aside as a failed – if well-meaning – attempt at providing visibility for the most traditionally invisible faction of the queer community, instead of the unequivocal validation of bisexual attraction we’re still waiting to see.

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‘Housekeeping for Beginners’ embraces true meaning of family

Another triumph from young filmmaker Goran Stolevski

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The cast of ‘Housekeeping for Beginners.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Once upon a time in America, queer people sometimes adopted their lovers as their “children” so that they could be legally bound together as family.

That’s not a revelation, though some queer younglings may be shocked to learn this particular nugget of hidden history, nor is it a call to political awareness in an election year when millions are actively working to roll back our freedoms. We bring it up merely as a sort of context for the world that provides the setting in “Housekeeping for Beginners,” the winner of the Queer Lion prize at 2023’s Venice Film Festival, which opened in limited U.S. theaters on April 5 and expanded for a wider release last weekend. 

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski – a Macedonian-born Australian filmmaker whose two previous films, “You Won’t Be Alone” and “Of An Age,” both released in 2022, each met with critical acclaim – and submitted (unsuccessfully) as the official Oscar entry for International Feature from the Republic of North Macedonia, it’s a movie about what it means to be “family,” which touches on the political while placing its focus on the personal – in other words, on lived experience rather than ideological argument – and, in the process, drives home some very important existential warnings at a time when things could go either way.

Set in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje, it centers on social worker Dita (Anamaria Marinca), a middle-aged lesbian, whose house is a safe haven for a collection of outcasts. First and foremost is her girlfriend Suada (Alina Serban), a single mother of Romani heritage, but the “chosen family” in the household also includes Suada’s daughters, teenaged Vanesa (Mia Mustafi) and precocious 5-year-old Mia (Dżada Selim); Dita’s long-term friend Toni (Vladimir Tintor), a middle-aged gay man who works night shifts at a mental hospital; Toni’s new, much-younger boyfriend Ali (Samson Selim); and Elena (Sara Klimoska), an older and more worldly schoolmate of the other girls who serves as a makeshift big sister.

It is, unsurprisingly, a chaotic environment, a sea of revolving situations that largely goes on without Dita’s direct involvement, though she occasionally asserts more authority than she either has or cares to wield. That all changes, however, when Suada is diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer, leading her to extract from her lover the promise that she will be mother to her children when she’s gone.

If you want a spoiler-free experience, you should stop reading now; further discussion of “Housekeeping for Beginners” requires us to reveal that Dita is forced to make good on that promise, even though she’s never had the desire to be a mother, and it’s not just a matter of making sure the kids get all their daily meals and show up for school on time. In North Macedonia, where same-sex relationships are not illegal but are neither granted the validation of lawful protections, the adoption of children requires a woman to have a husband, which means entering into a sham marriage with Toni – who is not quite a 100% onboard, himself  – and listing him as the girls’ father. More difficult, perhaps, is gaining the trust of Suada’s two daughters, neither of whom is exactly receptive to the prospect of exchanging their real mother for a half-willing replacement. It’s this challenge that proves most daunting, triggering a crisis that will put every member of this cobbled-together family group to the test if they are to have any hope of hanging on to each other and making it work – something to which Dita finds herself growing deeply committed, despite her initial reticence about taking on the role of default matriarch.

Shot in Stolevski’s accustomed milieu – an intimate, cinema verité style built on handheld camerawork and near-exclusive reliance on close-up framing to capture the awkward blend of comfort and claustrophobia that often accompanies life in a crowded household environment – and leaving most of the expository cultural details, such as the impact of ethnic “caste” and the complicated hierarchy of layers involved in negotiating a peaceful coexistence with “normal” Macedonian society when your domestic and familial structures are anything but “normal”,  to be gleaned by context rather than direct explanation. It works, of course; there’s something universally recognizable about the difficulty of “blending in” that helps us bridge the gap even if we don’t quite understand all the fine points as well as we might if we, like Stolevski, had grown up having to deal with them directly.

Even so, there are times when a bit of distance might be missed by audiences in need of a wider scope; it’s hard, after all, to get a palpable sense of space and location when most of what we see onscreen are the upper thirds of whichever cast members happen to be featured in each particular scene. But in case that sounds like a criticism, it’s important to point out that this is part of the film’s magic spell – because by making its physical environment essentially synonymous with its emotional one, Stolevski’s movie delivers its human truth without the unnecessary distraction of learning the ins and outs of a foreign cultural dynamic. The things we need to grasp, we do, without question, even if we don’t quite understand the full context, and what we walk away with in the end is a universally recognizable sense of family, carved in stark relief among a group of people who find it among themselves despite the lack of blood ties or common history to bind them to each other. That makes “Household for Beginners” an unequivocal triumph in one way, at least, because by driving home that hard-to-convey understanding, it manages to underscore the injustice and inhumanity of any world in which the validity of a family is subject to the judgment of cultural bias.

That’s not to say that “Housekeeping” is an unrelenting downer of political messaging. On the contrary, it is lifted by a clear imperative to show the joys of being part of such a family; the humor, the snark, the bright spots that arise even in the darkest moments – all these are amply and aptly portrayed, making sure that we never feel like we are being fed a doom-and-gloom scenario. Rather, we’re being reminded that it’s the visceral happiness that comes from being connected with those we love that matters far more than the rules and judgments of outsiders, which makes the hoops Dita and company have to jump through feel all the more absurd.

Though Stolevski, an Aussie citizen unspooling a narrative based in his country of origin, might not have intended it as such, the message of his film strikes a particular chord in 2024 America. The hardships of Dita and her brood as they try to simply stay together are a clear and pointed warning not to take for granted the hard-won freedoms that we have.

Add to that a superb collection of performances (BAFTA-winner Marinca and first-time actor Selim are standouts among the many), and you have another triumph from a young filmmaker whose reputation only gets more stellar with each effort.

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After 25 years, a forgotten queer classic reemerges in 4K glory

Screwball rom-com ‘I Think I Do’ finds new appreciation

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Alexis Arquette and Christian Maelen in ‘I Think I Do.’ (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

In 2024, with queer-themed entertainment available on demand via any number of streaming services, it’s sometimes easy to forget that such content was once very hard to find.

It wasn’t all that long ago, really. Even in the post-Stonewall ‘70s and ‘80s, movies or shows – especially those in the mainstream – that dared to feature queer characters, much less tell their stories, were branded from the outset as “controversial.” It has been a difficult, winding road to bring on-screen queer storytelling into the light of day – despite the outrage and protest from bigots that, depressingly, still continues to rear its ugly head against any effort to normalize queer existence in the wider culture.

There’s still a long way to go, of course, but it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come – and to recognize the efforts of those who have fought against the tide to pave the way. After all, progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and if not for the queer artists who have hustled to bring their projects to fruition over the years, we would still be getting queer-coded characters as comedy relief or tragic victims from an industry bent on protecting its bottom line by playing to the middle, instead of the (mostly) authentic queer-friendly narratives that grace our screens today.

The list of such queer storytellers includes names that have become familiar over the years, pioneers of the “Queer New Wave” of the ‘90s like Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, or Bruce LaBruce, whose work at various levels of the indie and “underground” queer cinema movement attracted enough attention  – and, inevitably, notoriety – to make them known, at least by reputation, to most audiences within the community today.

But for every “Poison” or “The Living End” or “Hustler White,” there are dozens of other not-so-well-remembered queer films from the era; mostly screened at LGBTQ film festivals like LA’s Outfest or San Francisco’s Frameline, they might have experienced a flurry of interest and the occasional accolade, or even a brief commercial release on a handful of screens, before slipping away into fading memory. In the days before streaming, the options were limited for such titles; home video distribution was a costly proposition, especially when there was no guarantee of a built-in audience, so most of them disappeared into a kind of cinematic limbo – from which, thankfully, they are beginning to be rediscovered.

Consider, for instance, “I Think I Do,” the 1998 screwball romantic comedy by writer/director Brian Sloan that was screened last week – in a newly restored 4K print undertaken by Strand Releasing – in Brooklyn as the Closing Night Selection of NewFest’s “Queering the Canon” series. It’s a film that features the late trans actor and activist Alexis Arquette in a starring, pre-transition role, as well as now-mature gay heartthrob Tuc Watkins and out queer actor Guillermo Diaz in supporting turns, but for over two decades has been considered as little more than a footnote in the filmographies of these and the other performers in its ensemble cast. It deserves to be seen as much more than that, and thanks to a resurgence of interest in the queer cinema renaissance from younger film buffs in the community, it’s finally getting that chance.

Set among a circle of friends and classmates at Washington, D.C.’s George Washington University, it’s a comedic – yet heartfelt and nuanced – story of love left unrequited and unresolved between two roommates, openly gay Bob (Arquette) and seemingly straight Brendan (Christian Maelen), whose relationship in college comes to an ugly and humiliating end at a Valentine’s Day party before graduation. A few years later, the gang is reunited for the wedding of Carol (Luna Lauren Vélez) and Matt (Jamie Harrold), who have been a couple since the old days. Bob, now a TV writer engaged to a handsome soap opera star (Watkins), is the “maid” of honor, while old gal pals Beth (Maddie Corman) and Sarah (Marianne Hagan), show up to fill out the bridal party and pursue their own romantic interests. When another old friend, Eric (Diaz), shows up with Brendan unexpectedly in tow, it sparks a behind-the-scenes scenario for the events of the wedding, in which Bob is once again thrust into his old crush’s orbit and confronted with lingering feelings that might put his current romance into question – especially since the years between appear to have led Brendan to a new understanding about his own sexuality.

In many ways, it’s a film with the unmistakable stamp of its time and provenance, a low-budget affair shot at least partly under borderline “guerilla filmmaking” conditions and marked by a certain “collegiate” sensibility that results in more than a few instances of aggressively clever dialogue and a storytelling agenda that is perhaps a bit too heavily packed. Yet at the same time, these rough edges give it a raw, DIY quality that not only makes any perceived sloppiness forgivable, but provides a kind of “outsider” vibe that it wears like a badge of honor. Add to this a collection of likable performances – including Arquette, in a winning turn that gets us easily invested in the story, and Maelen, whose DeNiro-ish looks and barely concealed sensitivity make him swoon-worthy while cementing the palpable chemistry between them  – and Sloan’s 25-year-old blend of classic Hollywood rom-com and raunchy ‘90s sex farce reveals itself to be a charming, wiser-than-expected piece of entertainment, with an admirable amount of compassion and empathy for even its most stereotypical characters – like Watkins’ soap star, a walking trope of vainglorious celebrity made more fully human than appearances would suggest by the actor’s honest, emotionally intelligent performance – that leaves no doubt its heart is in the right place.

Sloan, remarking about it today, confirms that his intention was always to make a movie that was more than just frothy fluff. “While the film seems like a glossy rom-com, I always intended an underlying message about the gay couple being seen as equals to the straight couple getting married,” he says. “ And the movie is also set in Washington to underline the point.”

He also feels a sense of gratitude for what he calls an “increased interest from millennials and Gen Z in these [classic queer indie] films, many of which they are surprised to hear about from that time, especially the comedies.” Indeed, it was a pair of screenings with Queer Cinema Archive that “garnered a lot of interest from their followers,” and “helped to convince my distributor to bring the film back” after being unavailable for almost 10 years.

Mostly, however, he says “I feel very lucky that I got to make this film at that time and be a part of that movement, which signaled a sea change in the way LGBTQ characters were portrayed on screen.”

Now, thanks to Strand’s new 4K restoration, which will be available for VOD streaming on Amazon and Apple starting April 19, his film is about to be accessible to perhaps a larger audience than ever before.

Hopefully, it will open the door for the reappearance of other iconic-but-obscure classics of its era and help make it possible for a whole new generation to discover them.

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Trans filmmaker queers comic book genre with ‘People’s Joker’

Alternative ‘Batman’ universe a medium for mythologized autobiography

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Vera Drew and a friend in ‘The People’s Joker.’ (Image courtesy of Altered Innocence)

It might come as a shock to some comic book fans, but the idea of super heroes and super villains has always been very queer. Think about it: the dramatic skin-tight costumes, the dual identities and secret lives, the inability to fit in or connect because you are distanced from the “normal” world by your powers  – all the standard tropes that define this genre of pop culture myth-making are so rich with obviously queer-coded subtext that it seems ludicrous to think anyone could miss it.

This is not to claim that all superhero stories are really parables about being queer, but, if we’re being honest some of them feel more like it than others; an obvious example is “Batman,” whose domestic life with a teenage boy as his “ward” and close companion has been raising eyebrows since 1940. The campy 1960s TV series did nothing to distance the character from such associations – probably the opposite, in fact – and Warner Brothers’ popular ‘80s-’90s series of film adaptations with gay filmmaker Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in costumes that highlighted their nipples, which is arguably still the queerest superhero movie ever made.

Or at least it was. That title might now have to be transferred to “The People’s Joker,” which – as it emphatically and repeatedly reminds us – is a parody in no way affiliated with DC’s iconic “Batman” franchise or any of its characters, even though writer, director and star Vera Drew begins it with a dedication to “Mom and Joel Schumacher.” Parody it may be, but that doesn’t keep it from also serving up lots of food for serious thought to chew on between the laughs.

Set in a sort of comics-inspired dystopian meta-America where unsanctioned comedy is illegal, it’s the story of a young, closeted transgender comic (Drew) who leaves her small town home to travel to Gotham City and audition for “GCB” – the official government-produced sketch comedy show. Unfortunately, she’s not a very good comic, and after a rocky start she decides to leave to form a new comedy troupe (labeled “anti-comedy” to skirt legality issues) along with penguin-ish new friend Oswald Cobblepot (Nathan Faustyn). They collect an assortment of misfit would-be comedians to join them, and after branding herself as “Joker the Harlequin,” our protagonist starts to find her groove – but it will take negotiating a relationship with trans “bad boy” Mr. J (Kane Distler), a confrontation with her self-absorbed and transphobic mother (Lynn Downey), and making a choice between playing by the rules or breaking them before she can fully transition into the militant comic activist she was always meant to be.

Told as a wildly whimsical, mixed media narrative that combines live action with a quirky CGI production design and  multiple styles of animation (with different animators for each sequence), “People’s Joker” is by no means the kind of big-budget blockbuster we expect from a superhero — or in this case, supervillain — film, but it should be obvious from the synopsis above that’s not what Drew was going for, anyway. Instead, the Emmy-nominated former editor uses her loopy vision of an alternative “Batman” universe as the medium for a kind of mythologized autobiography, expressing her own real-life journey, both toward embracing her trans identity and forging a maverick career path in an industry discourages nonconformity, while also spoofing the absurdities of modern culture. Subverting familiar tropes, yet skillfully weaving together multiple threads from the “real” DC Universe she’s appropriated with the detailed savvy of a die-hard fangirl, it’s an accomplishment likely to impress her fellow comic book fans — even if they can’t quite get behind the gender politics or her presentation ot Batman himself (or rather, an animated version voiced by Phil Braun) as a closeted gay right-wing demagogue and serial sexual abuser.

These elements, of course, are meant to be deliberately provocative. Drew, like her screen alter ego, is a confrontation comedian at heart, bent on shaking up the dominant paradigm at every opportunity. Yet although she takes aim at the expected targets – the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, corporate hypocrisy, etc. – she is equally adept at scoring hits against things like draconian ideals of political correctness and weaponized “cancel culture”, which are deployed with no quarter from idealogues on both sides of the political divide. This means she might be risking the alienation of an audience which might otherwise be fully in her corner – but it also provides the ring of unbiased personal truth that keeps the movie from sliding into propaganda and elevates it, like “Barbie”, to the level of absurdist allegory.

Because ultimately, of course, the point of “People’s Joker” has little to do with the politics and social constructs it skewers along the way; at its core, it’s all about the real human things that resonate with all of us, regardless of gender, sexuality, ideology, or even political parties: the need to feel loved, to feel supported, and most of all, to be fully actualized. That means the real heart of the film beats in the central thread of her troubled connection between mother and daughter, superbly rendered in both Drew and Downey’s performances, and it’s there that Joker is finally able to break free of her own self-imposed restrictions and simply “be” who she is.

Other performances deserve mention, too, such as Faustyn’s weirdly lovable “Penguin” stand-in and Outsider multi-hyphenate David Leibe Hart as Ra’s al Ghul – a seminal “Batman” villain here reimagined as a veteran comic that serves as a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure in Joker’s quest. In the end, though, it’s Drew’s show from top to bottom, a showcase for not only her acting skills, which are enhanced by the obvious intelligence (including the emotional kind) she brings to the table, but her considerable talents as a writer, director, and editor.

For some viewers, admittedly, the low-budget vibe of this crowd-funded film might create an obstacle to appreciating the cleverness and artistic vision behind it, though Drew leans into the limitations to find remarkably creative ways to convey what she wants with the means she has at her disposal. Others, obviously will have bigger problems with it than that. Indeed, the film, which debuted at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, was withdrawn from competition there and pulled from additional festival screenings after alleged corporate bullying (presumably from Warner Brothers, which owns the film rights to the Batman franchise) pressured Drew into pulling it back. Clearly, concern over blowback from conservative fans – who would likely never see the film anyway – was enough to warrant strong arm techniques from nervous execs. Nevertheless, “The People’s Joker” made its first American appearance at LA’s Outfest in 2023, and is now receiving a rollout theatrical release that started on April 5 in New York, and continues this week in Los Angeles, with Washington DC and other cities to follow on April 12 and beyond.

If you’re in one of the places where it plays, we say it’s more than worth making the effort. If you’re not, never fear. A VOD/streaming release is sure to come soon. 

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Star turn makes excellent ‘Ripley’ a showcase for Andrew Scott

Reasserting the queerness of an author who boldly pushed boundaries

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Andrew Scott stars in ‘Ripley.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There’s something about an anti-hero that appeals to us all. Why else would so many of our greatest stories revolve around a character whose behavior goes against everything we’ve been raised to believe is right?

Actually, that question probably answers itself. For many of us, the things we are raised to accept about life in the human world often feel less acceptable once we’ve gone through a few years of adult experience, which tends to put us at odds with the so-called “norms” of conformity. Naturally, this can be frustrating from time to time – and while that might not be enough to make us go “rogue” without regard law or ethics, it’s certainly sufficient to fuel our guilty fantasies.

That, along with the literary skills of Patricia Highsmith, the queer novelist who created him, is why the character of Tom Ripley has been engrossing us in various forms for nearly 75 years. The eponymous anti-hero of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (originally published in 1955) went on to feature in three additional books by Highsmith, and was subsequently brought to life in multiple small-and-big-screen incarnations, perhaps most prominently by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation. These versions managed to skirt the book’s obvious queer subtext, but queer audiences recognized it anyway. Now, thanks to creator, writer, and director Steve Zaillian, Highsmith’s starry-eyed sociopath has returned in an eight-episode series – which pares the title down to the short-but-evocative “Ripley” – that debuts on Netflix April 4, and portrays his adventures with an eye toward honoring Highsmith’s intent while delivering the kind of up-front queerness that the author could never have dreamed of accomplishing in her heyday.

Not that this “Ripley” is exactly “out and proud,” though the actor who plays him – Andrew Scott (“All of Us Strangers”) – certainly is. The acclaimed Irish thespian brings his own queerness to the table in illuminating a character whose survival depends on never calling attention to himself – and though the series moves the action ahead a few years to1960, it’s still a world where any hint of “deviance” is likely to draw suspicion. That’s the last thing Tom Ripley needs; he’s a con artist, the mid-20th-century equivalent of modern-day “phishing” scammers, grifting gullible marks from his squalid, one-room New York City apartment. He’s good at what he does, an anonymous figure hiding in a sea of strangers – but when a wealthy shipping magnate tracks him down with a request for help and the offer of an all-expenses-paid excursion to Italy, he sees it as an opportunity to change his life for the better.

That opportunity, as it turns out, involves a barely remembered college acquaintance named Dickie (Johnny Flynn), whose post-graduation trip to Europe has become a years-long vacation on the Mediterranean coast from which his father – Ripley’s surprise benefactor – would like him to return. Sent on a mission to convince his old schoolmate to go home, he is instead spellbound by the idyllic seaside setting and opulent lifestyle that surrounds him – and also by Dickie himself. He ingratiates himself into the young man’s life, winning his sympathies despite some initial awkwardness. Not so easily persuaded is Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), whose lingering distrust must be overcome if Ripley is to enact his new master plan to claim Dickie’s life of expatriate luxury as his own.

Thanks to its source’s relative familiarity, “Ripley” makes no effort to hide the fact that its anti-hero is a shady guy; we see from the start that he’s a liar and an opportunist. What Zaillian manages to do, unlike others who have adapted the novel, is move past a clinical focus on Ripley’s psychology to give us a less prosaic – and therefore more complex – interpretation of the character. Much of this comes from a script that echoes Highsmith’s hard-boiled style by framing the story (and its protagonist) in a shadowy, amoral universe, enhanced by the stylish black-and-white treatment delivered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which leans into both the paradigm-challenging Euro “art cinema” from the period of its setting and the gritty chiaroscuro contrasts of film noir, setting up an instinctual understanding that this narrative, like its visuals, is composed entirely in shades of gray.

In the show’s engrossing first episode, this is a particularly effective hook, style coupling with context to underscore the bleakness of Ripley’s daily routine in New York, which is no less soul-crushing, perhaps, than the more lawful ones into which most of us are locked. Though we see that he’s a predator, it’s hard not to relate to his struggle, and by the time we get to the next chapter and meet Dickie and Marge, we’ve already entered a mindset in which easy ethical judgments become unconvincing and shallow. Our sympathies are effectively split; we’re either on nobody’s side or on everyone’s, and maybe it’s a little bit of both.

Needless to say, perhaps, this tricky transference would not be possible without the presence of a consummate actor in the title role, and Scott fits the bill beyond expectation. Though at first he reads as a bit old for the character, that notion quickly disperses – indeed, his weathered features bespeak the effects of a hard-knock life, the kind that makes a person willing to do anything to break free. More crucially, the unmistakable authenticity of his inner life is communicated with exquisite precision, engaging our empathy even as we recoil from the Machiavellian logic that guides him, and the clear conflict between his not-so-hidden feelings for Dickie and the agenda to which he has committed is made all the more stark by the ring of queer truth that underpins the performance. It’s a tour-de-force turn by an actor whose skills become more breathtaking with each subsequent role.

Fanning, whose equally adept performance provides a powerful counterpoint to Scott’s, is a strong contender for our sympathies, by virtue as much of the intelligence she brings as the peril into which it will eventually put her, and Flynn’s Dickie wears the weight and damage of his upper class status like a chain he can never quite break, making us dread the seemingly inevitable fate that awaits him even as we subliminally sign on to Ripley’s endgame with a sense of guilty (but unapologetic) satisfaction. Also notable is nonbinary actor Eliot Summers (child of former Police frontman Sting), who brings another level of queer identity into the narrative as another old acquaintance of Dickie’s that throws an unwelcome wrench into the works of Ripley’s plan.

Based on its first two episodes, “Ripley” certainly lives up to the anticipation that naturally awaits any adaptation of a high-profile story, and reasserts the queerness of an author who boldly pushed boundaries as far as censors of her time would allow. That’s more than enough to warrant staying with it until the end – and, if audience numbers warrant a renewal, through additional installments that might chronicle the less well-known escapades spun in Highsmith’s sequels. What cinches the deal, though, is the masterful performance that takes centerstage, which represents yet another escalation – and well-deserved triumph – in the rise of the talented Mr. Scott.

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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ delivers retro lesbian thrills

A skillful blend of campy bold strokes and a spirit of rebellion

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Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart star in ‘Love Lies Bleeding.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

This month’s movies have been shaded with an awful lot of “noir.”

Not only that, but a surprising number of these movies – more accurately described as “neo-noir” to distinguish them from the formative black-and-white classics in this murkiest of all genres – are also very queer. We’ve seen Ethan Coen’s Tarantino-esque darkly comic lesbian road trip “Drive-Away Dolls” and the UK drag queen revenge drama “Femme”; now, from sophomore director Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) comes “Love Lies Bleeding,” which might be queerest of the bunch so far.

It might be the “noir”-est, too; though there are a lot of vagaries around the characteristics that are required for applying that label, one of the most essential qualities is surely a morally ambiguous story. And morality can’t get much more ambiguous than it is in this retro-nostalgic throwback tale set on the fringes of the Albuquerque underworld of 1989. That’s where Lou (Kristen Stewart) has been for her entire life, and where she continues to stay – working as the manager of a run-down gym – out of protective loyalty to her sister Beth (Jena Malone), despite a longtime estrangement from her father (Ed Harris) and a desire to distance herself from the shadowy family “business” that he runs. 

Reclusive and guarded, she mostly avoids social interaction – until an aspiring bodybuilder named Jackie (Katy O’Brian) hitchhikes into town on her way to a championship competition in Las Vegas and in need of a place to crash. There’s an instant spark between them, which quickly leads to flaming passion. Unfortunately, it also leads to an incident of explosive violence which puts both of them not only into the crosshairs of Lou’s ruthless and powerful dad, but those of the law as well.

There’s no need to say more than that in terms of synopsis; in fact, it would be unfair to the film, which unfolds with an exquisitely slow burn before igniting into a climactic powder keg as satisfying as it is gripping, because so much of the thrill comes from the feeling of uneasy expectation it delivers through its gradual revelation of details. Even without knowing more, however, it’s clear that there’s a lot going on in “Love Lies Bleeding” that doesn’t quite line up with the comforting ethics of a black-and-white worldview – and that, of course, is what gives it the kind of unpredictable edge that makes it both a tautly engrossing thriller and a deliciously subversive saga of queer and feminine empowerment.

This latter quality is something it shares with movies like “Bound” – the 1996 debut feature by the Wachowskis, which pushed mainstream acceptance by presenting its lesbian protagonists in a realistic manner and refusing to frame them in the then-usual trope of “queer victimhood” – and elevates to a refreshingly contemporary tone while still reveling in homage to the stylistic flourishes of their era. 

Indeed, Glass peppers her film with echoes from dozens from the past that so clearly provided inspiration in both its visuals and its themes; from the twisted duplicity of Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” to the chaotic irony of the Coens’ “Blood Simple,” from the slick-but-gritty nihilism of William Friedkin to the disquieting body horror of David Cronenberg and the transcendental surrealism of David Lynch, “Love Lies Bleeding” borrows liberally and unapologetically from an array of cinematic touchstones almost as exhaustive as the one employed by Greta Gerwig in “Barbie” – and, like Gerwig, manages to incorporate them all in a sort of “metasphere” that allows our recognition of them to enhance and inform her own piece. Far from coming off as derivative, the effect is something akin to a “mash-up” of iconic eighties and nineties films and genres that uses their easy familiarity to both pay open tribute and tickle our nostalgic fancy, even as they are deployed as the building blocks for something with a singular identity of its own.

If you think that all sounds a little campy, you’re not wrong; there’s a definite element of tongue-in-cheek self awareness that permeates it, and a deliberate will toward underscoring the grimness of its outward scenario with the sly satire of its subtext. That, after all, is something else it shares in common with many of the older films it draws upon, in which “coded” characters and plotlines often served as subtle lampoons of the absurdly conventional messaging being conveyed on the surface. Camp is one of the oldest weapons in the queer artist’s arsenal, and Glass wields it like a pro.

Yet while she might use it to undermine cliches and upend expectations, the director never lets it distract – for long, at any rate – from the deadly stakes of her story. With a tight, terse screenplay (penned by Glass alongside Weronika Tofilska) that patiently sets up the dominoes for us until we’re quivering in anticipation of their fall, “Bleeding” takes time to relish in the details – the quirks of its characters, the unspoken dynamics between them, the secrets they keep and the moments they choose to reveal them – while making sure every one of them serves to wind the tension tighter. The effort pays off in a series of escalating climaxes that we know are coming yet still manage to surprise, shock, and ultimately, thrill us.

Gorgeous cinematography from Ben Fordesman helps, as does a period-perfect Tangerine Dream-esque score by Clint Mansell, but in such a character-driven film as this one, it’s always the actors who are most crucial to selling the director’s vision. In this case, Stewart and O’Brian are the linchpins, delivering a pair of deeply realized performances and a sultry-yet-sweet chemistry that wins us over almost before it does their characters. Both shine, with Stewart’s growth as an actor continuing to stretch her beyond her “Twilight” years and O’Brian’s earthy femininity bringing a welcome – and provocative – layer of gender ambiguity to the mix.

Backing them up are fine supporting turns from Malone and Anna Baryshnikov, whose hypnotically oddball performance as a clingy admirer who complicates Lou’s newfound romance is a highlight – as is Dave Franco’s simultaneously hilarious and repellant performance in a role it’s best we let you discover for yourself. Finally, though, it’s veteran screen baddie Harris who dominates, filling us with the kind of irrepressible dread that the most memorable movie villains always inspire – all while sporting a set of over-the-top hair extensions that immediately (and intentionally, we’d like to think) call to mind Richard O’Brien’s Riff-Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Because of its skillful blend of such campy bold strokes and a genuine spirit of righteous rebellion that makes even its most broadly ridiculous moments cut with both sides of their satirical blade, we find “Bleeding” to be a new addition to an ever-growing canon of “essential” queer movies – with the disclaimer that some of its “weirder” moments might leave some viewers a bit perplexed, and those with a low tolerance to “gratuitous” violence and uninhibited sex scenes will likely want to skip it.

If, on the other hand, those things are a “plus” when deciding what to watch, then this is the movie for you.

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