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In ‘Swan Song,’ Todd Stephens gives a fabulous queer elder his due

Cult film icon Udo Kier delivers stellar performance in new film



Udo Kier is reborn in ‘Swan Song.’ (Photo courtesy Magnolia)

LOS ANGELES – Not many of us would have expected 2021 to be the year that Udo Kier made a comeback – but thanks to Todd Stephens, that’s the world we live in. And we are all the better for it.

The German actor, now 76, became part of the art house cinema scene when he starred in “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (1973). A prolific career in campy horror movies made him a cult film icon, and his fame and stature rose through associations with directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant, and Lars Von Trier. He’s even established himself in the mainstream with roles in movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Armageddon.” A career to be proud of to be sure – and even if he never really became a household name, Stephens’ latest film “Swan Song” might just be the movie that changes that.

Now in limited theatrical release and launching on VOD platforms Aug. 13, it stars Kier as Mr. Pat, an elderly man who once owned the most fabulous hair salon in his small Midwestern town. Now in a nursing home with his glory days long behind him, his routine consists of sullenly defying his caretakers and sneaking smokes in the stairwell – until he receives word that one of his former clients has died with a stipulation in her will that only he can do her hair and makeup for her funeral. Boldly escaping from the rest home, he sets out on an odyssey across the town where he was once a legend, revisiting the geography of his life as he makes his way to keep one final appointment.

The film is an unexpected delight, and Kier gives a jaw-dropping performance. His Mr. Pat feels instantly iconic, a master class in the art of subtlety and shade, and his journey – in which he confronts a personal history of love and loss that will be all too familiar for many older queer viewers – feels like the kind of authentic representation an entire generation is hungry for. 

Yet while Kier may be the shining star, his work is all in support of the film itself, which strikes just the right blend of irony, compassion, and laugh-out-loud humor to keep us watching with an irresistible smile on our face – even as it confronts the uncomfortable topics that give it weight.

Anyone familiar with Todd Stephens should not be surprised. He’s the director behind 2006’s “Another Gay Movie” and its sequel, which hilariously claimed queer space in the teen sex movie genre – but before that, he wrote (with director David Moreton) the screenplay for 1998’s “Edge of Seventeen.” Part of a fresh wave of queer cinema empowered by the indie film movement, it was a nostalgic coming-of-age tale that became a touchstone for audiences who, like Stephens, came of age in the ‘80s. 

Now, with “Swan Song,” he returns to the small-town world of “Seventeen” (which, like the current film, is set in Stephens’ own hometown of Sandusky, Ohio) to create another touchstone for his generation – one inspired by an unsung hero from his childhood.

Stephens spoke with the Blade ahead of the film’s premiere, and before talking about anything else, he wanted to talk about the REAL Mr. Pat.

TODD STEPHENS: The real Pat was this fabulous creature, and he was this guy that I would see walking around downtown. I was a little gay boy, I didn’t know it then, but I would be fascinated when I would spot Pat, because he looked so proud and glamorous and fabulous. And then years later when I got up the nerve to go to our small-town gay bar, I walked in and there, glittering on the dance floor, was this man that I had seen all my life growing up, and I just felt like I was home. I always had a fascination with him because he was so different from everyone – not just gay, but queer, and that was how I felt. I never really knew him very well, but I always wanted to make a movie about him.

BLADE: How much is he mythologized for the film?

STEPHENS: A lot of things are straight from his life. I used a lot of the stories I heard from his family and all his friends – the ones who didn’t die of AIDS and are still around, which isn’t many. Things like the folding of the napkins – that was real. When Pat died there were boxes and suitcases full of neatly folded napkins. He smoked that exact cigarette, he wore a ring on every finger, he dressed in brightly colored pantsuits – so a lot of it is him. But the part where he breaks out of the nursing home and goes on this journey to style a dead woman’s hair – I made that up.

BLADE: The film is different from a lot of contemporary queer stories because of the setting. You don’t see many movies about small-town gay men, especially older ones.

STEPHENS: Part of what inspired the plot is that Sandusky is this rust-belt factory town in the Midwest, where all the Ford and GM plants are now gone and was kind of like this forgotten town. But it’s having a rebirth now, and a lot of people that grew up there have come back home and rebuilt the town. So, seeing my hometown come back to life helped inspire my story about this man who is basically dead inside at the beginning of the movie, and then gets his groove back. And I wanted to make my hometown into a real character in the film, so as Pat comes back to life so does the town, and the color palette and all that.

BLADE: It’s not just the town that’s changed. The whole world is different since Mr. Pat was participating in it, and that’s part of the story, too.

STEPHENS: For Pat’s generation coming out back then – and this is true with myself to a certain extent –you were used to being different, to being “other,” and that was part of your identity. Now it’s become more mainstream to be gay, it’s like you almost don’t know how to wrap your head around it. So, seeing an apple pie moment like the one in the film of two guys teaching their child to play catch – something like that is so foreign to our upbringing that it’s almost strange. It’s beautiful, but it’s bittersweet, because the elders like Pat will never have that. Yet they were the ones that blazed the trail for that – but also, who even knows that, or remembers?

BLADE: There’s another moment where Mr. Pat finds out the local gay bar is closing and he asks, “But where will we dance?”  That really resonates for a lot of us today.

STEPHENS: I tried to really pose that question, to invite a dialogue. Is it OK that queer spaces are vanishing? Do we need a place to dance? What does it mean to not have one? I’ll leave that to future generations to figure out, to some extent.

But it is an interesting question. You know?



‘Maestro’ captures passionate essence of queer musical giant

Cooper’s titanic performance honors the legendary composer



Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in ‘Maestro. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

It’s hard to think of a modern celebrity who holds an equivalent place in popular culture to the one held in his day by Leonard Bernstein – the subject of Bradley Cooper’s ambitious biopic “Maestro,” now in theaters ahead of a Dec. 20 drop on producing studio Netflix’s streaming platform. 

A “highbrow” musical prodigy who gained mainstream celebrity after a spectacular debut as a substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic, he forged a path as an orchestral leader and composer of masterpieces across a range of genres, from symphonies to film scores to Broadway musicals. Youthful, erudite, passionate, and handsome, he brought classical musical education to the masses via popular television broadcasts, becoming identified with the sophisticated culture of intellectual humanism epitomized by the hopeful “Camelot” of the Kennedy era. 

Of course, the Bernstein known to the public in those heady days was not the real Bernstein – or not all of him, anyway – and the story behind the scenes is part of what Cooper, who not only directed and stars in “Maestro,” but co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar-winner Josh Singer (“Spotlight”), aims to illuminate. Picking up the narrative in the early days of its subject’s fame, it conveys the essence of his professional career in broad strokes, but concerns itself mostly with his private life. More specifically, it focuses on his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), whom we meet as she enters his life in the wake of his sudden success. There’s a definite chemistry – but there’s also Bernstein’s involvement with musician David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), with whom he shares both an apartment and a bed. 

Nevertheless, and with full knowledge of what they’re getting into, the two eventually marry; through specific episodes in their life, it tracks the inevitable ups and downs – from the soul-mate joy of their special intimacy to the strain imposed on their bond by a parade of male companions brought into the household across the decades – to present a portrait of an unorthodox marriage between two unorthodox people whose bond ultimately transcends conventional notions of love, sexuality, and commitment.

That doesn’t mean things don’t get messy, however, and it must be admitted that the last third of the movie devolves a bit into domestic melodrama tinged with a touch of histrionics, and then threatens to go full tearjerker, to boot. But then, so does life, sometimes, and “Maestro” brings enough compassion, insight, and authenticity to the complex emotions at play that it is able to go deep, in the end, for the save.

Indeed, some of this melodramatic flair might be a function of Cooper’s stylistic approach, which blends fact, fantasy, and flights of fancy – such as a surrealistic “dream ballet” sequence inspired by “On the Town” (Bernstein’s first Broadway hit), as well as shifting from black-and-white to color and presenting much of the movie in an old-fashioned 1:33 aspect ratio – to form a sort of impressionistic view of Bernstein’s life. The elegant flamboyance of the film’s visual and narrative style flows naturally from the lavish mid-century aesthetic that informed the cinema that sprung from the cultural movement of which he was a part; and as for the man himself, his florid conducting style, to say nothing of the sweeping and dissonant passion of his compositions, were ample evidence that he would never be averse to tugging at a few heartstrings before building to a “wow” finale, so allowing a little indulgent sentimentality to assert itself along the way seems perfectly apropos.

At the same time, there is little about Cooper’s performance in the title role that could be called sentimental, or indulgent for that matter, despite the obvious license to “chew the scenery” when playing a flamboyantly bigger-than-life figure like Bernstein. Executed with a clear attention to detail and a fully invested personal connection to the character, Cooper’s portrayal expertly captures his intelligence and charm, as well as a remarkable level of chameleonic mimicry – enhanced by a dazzling physical transformation from makeup designer Kazu Hiro – that never once feels like “showboating,” and wins us completely with an unvarnished candor in depicting his less noble qualities. 

Perhaps most impressive (especially in a biopic), at neither end of the “moral” spectrum does it ever feel as the actor is bringing any judgment to the role, only observation. It’s a titanic performance, even without the reenactments of Bernstein’s conducting prowess, which honors the legendary composer simply by rendering him as a flawed, if exceptional, human being.

Yet as superb as his work might be, and despite “Maestro” being ostensibly about Bernstein himself, the movie’s star turn comes from Mulligan, whose top-billed performance as Montealegre is employed as the story’s emotional core. It’s her journey, from bold best friend to supportive muse to estranged “ex” and back again, that give the film its meat. She takes it from start to finish without a misstep, and in the process almost makes Cooper’s Bernstein a foil in his own movie. It’s a testament to his own artistic integrity that he allows, even amplifies, every opportunity for her to do it.

For queer audiences, of course, it might be a disappointment that the movie chooses to center itself on Bernstein’s heterosexual marriage instead of exploring any of his now-well-known same-sex affairs – little time or development is spent on any of those relationships, not even with Oppenheim. Still, it makes no effort to hide or downplay his sexual identity; indeed, it is at the center of the conflict which drives the entire film, and it reflects with compassionate honesty the reality of living as a queer person in a time and culture in which one’s queerness must be kept hidden as a matter of simple survival. What emerges instead of a cold dissection of a fraudulent “marriage of convenience is an idea of love that exists beyond the constraints of sexuality or gender – and that lifts “Maestro” above such moralistic notions, allowing it to celebrate the commitment between two people willing to live beyond them, even when things get tough.

The film is loaded with memorable performances from others, too; in particular, Bomer – especially powerful in the scene where he is introduced to the woman he already knows will take his lover away from him – reminds us how good he can be when afforded material that stretches him beyond his pretty-boy looks, and comedian Sarah Silverman has some rich moments as Bernstein’s sister, Shirley. So too, it is distinguished by a comprehensively detailed production design, which traces the evolving look and feel of the era it covers in succinctly evocative detail, delivered through outstanding cinematography by Matthew Libatique. In the end, however, it is Bernstein’s music itself that stands as the key element in capturing the irrepressible passion – the “singing of summer” inside him – that made him an incomparable artist and informed his life as a whole.

In the end, that’s what Cooper’s movie wants us to take away, more than any insights into its subject’s musical genius or the difficulties of navigating a divergent sex life among consenting adults in a time where such things were beyond taboo: the importance of embracing and expressing our lives to the fullest, whether by creating art or simply experiencing the raw truth of our existence in the moment, for better or for worse, in all its contradictory, beautiful glory. The Bernstein it shows us is, like all of us, impossible to define in a single quality; rather it strives to depict a life made whole and complete through the interplay of myriad conflicting passions.

“Maestro” might be a big, glossy biopic that – on the surface, at least – sometimes falls into familiar tropes, but it’s worldly and wise enough to get that right, which is enough to elevate it above at least 90 percent of other films in its genre.

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Gnarly ‘Saltburn’ takes us on a sexy, savage ride

Buzzed-about film manages to shock even when we expect the jolt



Alison Oliver, Jacob Elordi, and Barry Keoghan in ‘Saltburn.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios/Prime Video)

When a movie comes with as much buzz behind it as “Saltburn,” one can’t help but have expectations.

This is especially true when the buzz is fueled by rising talent, both in front of the camera (in this case, Oscar-nominee Barry Keoghan in his first leading role, alongside “Euphoria” sensation Jacob Elordi) and behind it (Oscar-winning writer/director Emerald Fennell, following up her debut feature, “Promising Young Woman”). When you add a deliberately vague, shamelessly provocative publicity campaign, which offers little more than a suggestion of the film’s premise while luring us in with imagery that implies a dark but sexy wild ride through the world of the decadent upper class, it’s almost impossible not to walk into the theater without feeling like you’re in for a thrill.

That, of course, is exactly what Fennell and company want you to feel. “Saltburn,” which opened in wide release the day before Thanksgiving, is a movie that counts on both your expectations and your ignorance; it needs you to be prepared for anything while knowing next to nothing, and it relies on your imagination to make assumptions and draw conclusions as you go. It’s the story of Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a first-year student attending Oxford University on scholarship in the mid-2000s. Relegated at first to outsider status among his privileged peers, he becomes infatuated with wealthy Felix Catton (Elordi), a handsome and popular classmate, and gains his attention through a chance encounter. The two become close companions, and when the school term ends he is invited to spend the summer with Felix at Saltburn – his family’s sprawling country estate.

It’s there the movie begins to follow a more gnarly path. Immersed in the idyllic, dilapidated luxury of Saltburn, Oliver finds himself entangled in the dysfunctional dynamic of the household; he easily wins the approval of Felix’s father and mother, Sir James and Lady Elspeth (Richard E. Grant, Rosamund Pike), but jealous sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and scheming cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a “poor relation” who sees him as a threat to his own tenuous position in the family, are a different matter, and he must learn to navigate the behind-the-scenes politics required to keep them at bay.

It’s impossible, really, to say much more about the events that unfold beyond that point, other than to say that it’s a far cry from the nostalgic, semi-sweet gay coming-of-age story it might seem to be in the beginning, if the occasional ominous chord in the soundtrack and the glimpses of ugly human behavior on the screen didn’t suggest otherwise. “Saltburn” is one of those movies that demands to be seen knowing as little as possible about its plot if one is to get the full experience, and we won’t be revealing anything here that would ruin that – not even whether the “will-they-or-won’t-they?” steaminess of Oliver and Felix’s bromance ever comes to fruition.

What we will tell you is that Fennell – whose first film electrified audiences with a devastating twist ending – knows how to play an audience. She sets up “Saltburn” as a flashback; we know from the beginning that something big and presumably bad has happened, and its protagonist is a likable misfit who proceeds to narrate how it came to pass. From the film’s first moments, we are anticipating the twist – which begs the question of how a twist can be a twist if we already know it’s coming.

“Saltburn” addresses that question, though some viewers might not like the answer, by playing not just on our expectations, but on our hopes. While we may expect to be shocked, we also hope for a certain outcome; more than that, we become so attached to that hope that it can blind us to reality, so that when it finally hits us, it feels like we never saw it coming even though it was in plain view all along. That’s the best we can do in explaining how Fennell’s wickedly subversive, deeply disturbing mindfuck of a movie manages to shock us even when we expect the jolt.

Of course, it also delivers plenty of other shocks — drugs, sex, homoeroticism, lots of full-frontal nudity — before it gets there, and quite a few more disquieting, transgressive moments in which we see things that jar our understanding of what we are seeing or simply can’t believe what we’re seeing. When the gravesite scene comes up, you’ll know that’s one of the moments we’re talking about.

Still, it takes more than shock value to make a movie worth watching, and “Saltburn” doesn’t rest its laurels on a bag of manipulative tricks, no matter how skillfully they’re executed. Fennell’s movie delves deep into the economic class divide – a worldwide phenomenon epitomized by the genteel squalor of its upper-crust English setting – through its microcosmic portrait of the Catton family, whose benign and polite demeanor barely conceal the casual cruelty and shallow banality of their lifestyle. Even Felix – who, as superbly played by Elordi, seems genuinely kind and much more grounded than the rest of his clan – is ultimately a spoiled “golden child” used to getting what he wants and not above using his considerable charms to do make it happen. More than that, it plays with the uncomfortable notion that there’s a part in all of us, no matter how much we may deplore the perceived excesses of the one percent, that would be willing to do anything to live in that world. Indeed, it’s this conflicted idea that gives Fennell’s movie its teeth, made even sharper by the fact that, no matter how ridiculous or downright awful her characters may be, she makes us feel for – and even like – all of them.

Of course, she’s also an extremely literate Englishwoman, and she peppers her movie with references and themes from Shakespeare to Dickens to Agatha Christie, while paying ironic homage to the entire “country house” genre of British fiction. Her film craft is bold and distinctive, delivering (with the help of cinematographer Linus Sandgren) pastoral pleasures and Fellini-esque Bacchanales with equally arresting style. She deploys the talent of composer Anthony Willis to provide a stately-yet-gothic musical score that thrums with a low warning of menace, keeping us on edge throughout. And she has the good sense to assemble a superb cast – with the dryly hilarious Pike and the quietly heartbreaking Oliver as standouts, alongside Elordi – to make it all work. 

It’s Keoghan, though, who is ultimately the glue holding “Saltburn” together. His Oliver Quick is a character destined to become iconic, a one-of-a-kind portrait of enigmatic humanity that bestows movie star status upon the young Irish actor after a steadily impressive roster of high-profile supporting roles. When the film is over, you will either love him or hate him, but you will never forget him.

In fact, the same can be said about “Saltburn” itself, which has had its share of negative reviews from critics put off by its over-the-top style and manipulatively orchestrated storytelling. We’d have to respectfully disagree; it’s an outrageous movie, to be sure, but purposefully so – and as for the storytelling, it is through its unapologetic manipulation that a movie which might easily otherwise have been just another mindless, lurid thriller into a savage piece of cinema that you’ll want to see again and again.

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End-of-year lineup offers holiday feast for queer movie lovers

Gripping ‘Saltburn’ features stellar performances



Alison Oliver, Jacob Elordi, and Barry Keoghan in ‘Saltburn.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios Prime Video)

Looking back, we’d have to say that 2023 has been good to fans of outstanding cinema. From summer’s existential one-two punch of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to an iconic filmmaker’s delivery of a new masterwork with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” we’ve already seen enough top-notch artistry on the big screen to know there are going to be some tight races in this year’s awards season.

But don’t start making your Oscar predictions yet, because there’s still more to come, including Ridley Scott’s Joaquin Phoenix-starring “Napoleon” and Yorgas Lanthimos’ darkly fantastical sci-fi comedy “Poor Things,” not to mention Timothèe Chalamet in a purple frock coat as “Wonka.” And as our annual Blade Holiday Roundup of current-and-upcoming movies clearly shows, even if most of them aren’t exactly “seasonal” in terms of tone or subject matter, there are sure to be quite a few queer (or queer-related) titles in the mix to make the competition even more interesting.

In fact, a potential awards juggernaut is already in theaters: SALTBURN, the second film from Oscar-winning writer/director Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”), which premiered at this year’s Telluride Festival and represents the latest ascension in the rise of two sensational young actors. Jacob Elordi (“Euphoria,” “Priscilla”) is likely more familiar to many viewers – his blend of impossibly good looks and authentic talent have gained him a lot of attention for a range of reasons, and both those qualities are put to good use here. But it’s Barry Keoghan (“Dunkirk,” “The Banshees of Inisherin”) who is the real breakout star of this twisted, darkly comedic psychological thriller as Oliver Quick, a working class boy who earns a scholarship to Oxford and becomes infatuated with rich-but-sensitive fellow student Felix (Elordi). Invited to spend the summer at his boy crush’s family estate (the “Saltburn” of the title), he gradually becomes enmeshed within their privileged dynamic – and to say anything more than that would be to spoil the “can’t look away” fun that makes this savage, stylish, and sexy mindf*ck of a movie into something you can’t wait to watch multiple times. Also starring Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan in a delicious supporting turn, it goes into wide release on Nov. 22.

Another title now in theaters is NEXT GOAL WINS, from Oscar-winner and auteur-on-the-rise Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Thor: Ragnarok”), in which the uniquely whimsical New Zealand filmmaker presents his take on the “true sports” genre. It’s a comedic-but-inspirational underdog tale centered on the American Samoa soccer team, which after a brutal 31-0 FIFA loss in 2001 hired a down-on-his-luck maverick coach to turn themselves around in hopes of qualifying for the World Cup. Waititi’s infectiously winning blend of quirky absurdism and heartfelt sentiment makes this an automatic must-see, even if its handling of a trans character – real-life soccer player Jaiyah Saelua (played by Samoan “third gender” actor Kaimana), considered by FIFA as the first trans woman to compete in a World Cup qualifier game – has met with mixed response. Still, it’s one of two current films boasting the return of the exquisite Michael Fassbender (the other is David Fincher’s “The Killer,” which should also be on your list), so we think it’s worth seeing anyway; that way you can make up your own mind about the controversy over its approach to trans inclusion. Also starring Oscar Kightley, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Uli Latukefu, Semu Filipo, and Lehi Falepapalangi, with appearances by Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss.

Also currently on big screens is Todd Haynes’ MAY DECEMBER, which reunites the revered queer indie film pioneer with longtime muse Julianne Moore and casts her opposite Natalie Portman in the true-story-inspired tale of an actress who travels to Georgia to meet a woman – notorious for an infamous tabloid romance, years before – that she is set to play in a movie. Loosely suggested by the real-life story of Mary Kay Fualaau, who was imprisoned for having sex with an underage pupil and later married him, it’s steeped in the kind of uncomfortable ethical-and-emotional danger zone that is a hallmark of Haynes’s best work, so it’s no surprise that it brings out the best in his two lead actresses. The buzziest performance in the film, however, comes from “Riverdale” star Charles Melton, who has drawn raves as Moore’s husband. Distributed by Netflix, it will stream on their platform starting Dec. 1 – but why wait when you can see it in theaters now?

Bringing a double appeal for movie buffs who are also lovers of classical music is MAESTRO, going into limited release Nov. 22 before it begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 20, which stars Bradley Cooper – who also wrote and directed – as legendary conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and documents (among other things) his relationships with both wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and longtime male partner David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Though initially plagued with criticism over Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose to play the Jewish Bernstein, endorsement from the late musical genius’s family and positive reviews of his performance have helped that conversation fade into the background, and the biopic – which also stars Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Michael Urie, Brian Klugman, Gideon Glick, and Miriam Shor – looks poised to be a winner.

Releasing in limited theaters Dec. 1 and expanding wide on Dec. 8 is EILEEN, adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s acclaimed 2015 debut novel, finally hitting screens nearly a year after a splashy debut at Sundance. Set in Boston of the mid 1960s, it tracks the relationship that develops when a young woman working at a juvenile detention center is drawn in by the allure of a new and glamorous older colleague (Anne Hathaway), who may also be drawing her into something much more dangerous than a workplace flirtation. With a screenplay by the author (alongside husband Luke Goebel) and direction by William Oldroyd, it’s been described by co-star Hathaway as “‘Carol’ meets ‘Resevoir Dogs’” – and that’s enough to make it irresistible, as far as we’re concerned.

Coming to Hulu on Dec. 6 is WE LIVE HERE: THE MIDWEST, a documentary from filmmakers Melinda Maerker and David Miller that explores the lives of several LGBTQIA+ families in the American heartland; these include a trans/queer family with five children in Iowa expelled by their church, a gay Black couple with a young daughter facing homophobic and racial prejudice in Nebraska, a gay teacher in Ohio trying to create a safe space for queer students, and a lesbian couple homeschooling their bullied son on a farm in Kansas. Profiling families who struggle to remain part of a region in which they have deep roots, it’s a snapshot of a precarious historical moment in time when anti-queer legislation and sentiment is rapidly multiplying across the country, forcing queer Midwesterners to endure a clash of values as they strive to build lives in the communities they love in the face of mounting discrimination.

Another much-anticipated release comes on Dec. 22 with ALL OF US STRANGERS, the latest effort from “Looking” creator Andrew Haigh – whose 2011 “Weekend” places high on the list of all-time great queer romance films – starring top-shelf UK thespians Andrew Scott (“Sherlock,” “Pride,” “Fleabag”) and Paul Mescal (“Aftersun,” “The Lost Daughter”) in a ghostly romantic fantasy loosely adapted from Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel “Strangers.” In it, a melancholy Londoner (Scott) strikes up a relationship with a mysterious neighbor (Mescal) through a chance encounter that leaves him increasingly preoccupied with memories of his past; returning to his suburban childhood home for a visit, he finds it occupied by his parents (Claire Foy, Jaime Bell), who seem to be living in it exactly as they were when they died there, three decades before. An ethereal meditation on grief, nostalgia, and, ultimately, love – both the romantic and familial kinds – that leans more into the metaphysical than the supernatural as it weaves its disquieting tale and is somehow more haunting because of it, it’s already a fixture in the pre-awards-season chatter. Put this one on your list in bold letters.

On Christmas Day, if you’re looking for that perfect “big event” family movie to take in after the presents have been unwrapped and the feast devoured, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect candidate than THE COLOR PURPLE, which is not a remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel – though Spielberg, along with the original film’s co-star Oprah Winfrey and its composer Quincy Jones, as well as Walker herself, is one of its producers – but rather the film adaptation of the Tony-winning 2005 Broadway musical version of the book. Confused? No need to be, though we must admit the film’s advertising campaign may have contributed to that feeling by all-but-erasing any clue that it’s a musical. But with a superstar cast headlined by Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Halle Bailey, and H.E.R., along with a proven score of powerful songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, it will all make sense after you sit back and let yourself be immersed in what’s sure to be a reverent and heartfelt celebration of Black culture, history, and heritage, told through the experience of an uneducated and impoverished Black queer woman in rural Georgia of the early 1900s, that fully honors the transcendent spirit of its timeless source material.

And lastly, speaking of Christmas, this December won’t disappoint the sentimentalists out there for whom the season wouldn’t be the season without one or two of those much-ridiculed but secretly adored holiday romances, a genre which – after years of clinging to a stubborn “straights only” policy – has finally blossomed with a whole queer-inclusive subgenre of its own. In fact, Hallmark – the channel that, let’s face it, is pretty much synonymous with the whole phenomenon – has no less than 40 heartfelt Christmas love stories slated for broadcast, and among those are at least three which will be must-sees for queer fans: CHRISTMAS ON CHERRY LANE (premiering Dec. 9), starring out actor Jonathan Bennett (“Mean Girls”) and Vincent Rodriguez III as a gay couple trying to expand their family among two other intertwined stories; FRIENDS & FAMILY CHRISTMAS (premiering Dec. 17), featuring Ali Liebert and Humberley Gonzalez (“Ginny and Georgia”) as a pair of lesbians who get set up on a date for the holidays and find themselves connecting more than they expected; and though it centers on a straight romance, CATCH ME IF YOU CLAUS (premiering Nov. 23) has sure-fire queer appeal thanks to its out-and-proud star, “King of Hallmark” actor Luke Macfarlane (“Bros”), playing it straight as Santa’s son, who meets an aspiring news anchor (Italia Ricci) just in time to spice things up for the holidays. 

Go ahead and watch them all, we won’t judge you. Happy holidays and happy viewing!

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‘Nyad’ stays afloat thanks to stellar performances

An engaging story that provides visibility for strong, authentic queer characters



Jodie Foster trains Annette Bening in ‘Nyad.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Biopics are the thing this year, it seems. 

So far, 2023 has brought us big-and-buzzy movies about a world-changing scientist (“Oppenheimer”), a pop culture princess (“Priscilla”), and an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement (“Rustin”), with the much-anticipated “Napoleon” from Ridley Scott, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, soon to come. All of these have centered on more-or-less well-known real-world figures. Even Rustin, whose long-obscured historical contributions have been amplified since the Obama era, can safely be said to have a more famous name than the woman whose story (or, at least, part of it) is told in “Nyad.”

That film, produced by Netflix and released on its platform Nov. 3, relates the saga of marathon swimmer – also author, journalist, and motivational speaker – Diana Nyad, who in 1978, at age 28, attempted and failed to become the first person to complete the swim from Cuba to Florida. Someone else (equipped with a shark cage) would go on to claim that record, but the movie picks up the saga when Nyad (Annette Bening), now 60, decides to try the swim again. To make her unlikely dream come true she enlists the aid of her best friend and former coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), who reluctantly agrees to the challenges.

Bolstered by confidence, drive, and a determination to complete what she started long ago – not to mention a seasoned sea captain (Rhys Ifans) to guide her course and a team of experts brought in to help protect her from the dangers of the deep – Nyad embarks on a late-life quest to accomplish her seemingly impossible goal, refusing to give up the effort despite failure, fate, and the uncontrollable forces of nature itself.

As written by Julia Cox and co-directed by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo”), “Nyad” fully embraces all the conventions of the sports-bio subgenre, from training montages to heartbreaking disappointments to adrenalin-pumping suspense, and – to its credit – manages to do so without feeling like a cookie-cutter repetition of formula. Part of this, of course, can be attributed to the “edginess” points it earns by focusing on an athletic hero that is not only female, but a 60-something gay female at that.

Another key factor is its adventurous environment and setting, which puts us into a world that most of us will never visit and forces us to imagine a feat almost none of us could hope to achieve. The thrill of the ride is more than enough reason to take the journey, and it’s easy to be sucked into the vicarious experience as we root the movie’s eponymous real-life heroine on toward a hoped-for triumph.

Still, it’s impossible not to observe a certain rote quality to the film’s approach. Even for those who go into “Nyad” without knowing her story (which, with the exception of those with an interest in the world of competitive long-distance swimming, is likely to describe most of us), it seems unthinkable that Diana Nyad won’t accomplish what she sets out to do – after all, why would a movie about her exist had she not done so? Presumably recognizing the same point, Chin and Vasarhelyi angle their movie toward the visceral, attempting to immerse us in a first-person experience instead of keeping us hanging on the eventual outcome. This is a story about a personal journey, about the friendship and teamwork that make it possible, and not a “will she make it or not?” nail-biter.

To that end, “Nyad” benefits most from the two stars who anchor it. As Nyad, Bening is an indomitable – sometimes imperious – spirit, driven to the point of obsession, and might well come off as something less than likable were it not for the perfectly balanced counterweight provided by Foster’s breezy, down-to-earth Stoll. There’s an easy chemistry between them, a symbiotic alignment that works to both their benefits. We like Nyad better because Stoll likes her, and we respect the easy-going Stoll more because Nyad does. These two film veterans allow us to see their characters reflected through each other’s eyes, heightening the emotional connection we feel toward both and giving the movie a loving heart – albeit a platonic one, since “Nyad” refreshingly focuses on a story of female friendship without imposing a perfunctory and unnecessary “Hollywood” love story into the middle of it – with which we can all relate even if we can’t wrap our heads around the intense physical and psychological pressure of being a long-distance open sea swimmer. 

Yet even with two superb performances leading the charge, there’s still an air of disingenuousness to “Nyad,” a showy, exaggerated sense of drama that feels designed to keep things exciting. After all, no matter how intense a real-life marathon swim might be for the person in the water, watching it from the perspective of an observer would mostly be a monotonous affair, and the film tries hard to keep itself moving briskly, leaning heavily into edgy cutting and a rapid-fire narrative style as it elides its way over the routine stuff between the obstacles and setbacks. It’s an understandable approach, but one that fails to generate real suspense, because (as noted above), Nyad’s eventual success feels like a foregone conclusion from the beginning, even when things lean hard into the stakes-raising drama of swimming with hungry sharks and poisonous jellyfish. As a result, when these things happen, they feel manufactured.

Indeed, some of the events in the narrative are manufactured, and while such examples of artistic license have always been standard practice in “fictionalizing” true stories on the screen, there have been criticisms leveled at the film’s representation of events – particularly its depiction of Nyad’s final swim, some details of which were poorly logged and subject to conflicting accounts from members of her support team. Those controversies are omitted or glossed over here, which can’t help but tarnish the movie’s clear intent to celebrate a queer hero.

Nevertheless, as a piece of old-fashioned, inspirational Hollywood entertainment, it works well enough, thanks largely to Bening and Foster, who elevate it to awards-worthy status in spite of itself. And if, in the long run, it doesn’t rise to the level of their performances, it’s still an engaging story that provides all-too-rare visibility not just for strong and authentic queer characters, but for strong and authentic older ones, too.

In Hollywood, that’s got to be almost as remarkable a feat as swimming 100 miles in the open ocean.

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Long-awaited ‘Rustin’ restores queer hero to the historical record

A career-making, Oscar-worthy turn for Colman Domingo



Coleman Domingo (with Aml Ameen, left) stars in triumphant biopic 'Rustin.' (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Though his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were monumental, the late Bayard Rustin has long been considered one of America’s most unsung heroes. 

Now, that name (or the second half of it, at least) is the title of one of the year’s most highly anticipated movies, and if the real Rustin was anything like the Rustin delivered to us by star Colman Domingo in the film – and we’d like to believe that he was – it’s likely he’d get an ironic chuckle out of all that.

What the real Rustin was like, of course, is the essence of what “Rustin” – now playing in theaters for a limited run due before dropping on Netflix next week – aims to convey. Like all historical biopics, its essential goal is to present an iconic figure as a relatable human being, and thanks to a slickly crafted screenplay by Julian Breece and Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, this one devotes much of its screentime to doing exactly that. But since their script must also address the additional challenge of educating a presumably unfamiliar audience about their subject’s place in history, they also apply the same knack for conveying both political atmosphere and cultural context that Black deployed with such success in 2008’s “Milk” to chronicle Rustin’s signature political accomplishment – spearheading the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his culture-shifting “I Have a Dream” speech – with all the succinct-but-nuanced precision necessary to get the point across.

The film – after establishing Rustin’s initial break with King (Aml Ameen) when threats to expose his homosexuality threatened to undermine the latter’s political viability – follows Rustin as he conceives the largest demonstration in history and sets about reuniting with his estranged comrade to make it a reality. Observing the interplay between politics and idealism as it interweaves the romantic dramas of Rustin’s fictionalized private life, it chronicles the various hurdles the pair face on the treacherous path toward fruition of their history-making plan.

Breece and Black’s screenplay – upon which the success or failure of “Rustin” as a worthy tribute to the queer man whose life it aspires to encapsulate hinges – succeeds to a higher degree than most biopics. By limiting its scope to a single chapter in Rustin’s career, it’s able to emphasize the qualities that define Bayard Rustin as both a man and a cultural hero, and that scores a lot of points; many ambitious biopics have settled for an idealized portrait in an attempt to define an entire life, only to fall short by ignoring or sugarcoating the darker corners that exist within any person’s tenure on Earth.

Still, a screenplay is only one aspect – albeit a crucial one – contributing to the success or failure of a film’s ambitions, and fortunately for “Rustin,” the other indispensable elements are all firmly in place, too.

To begin with, attention must be called to the direction by George C. Wolfe, a two-time Tony-winning theater veteran (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”, “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk”) whose screen credits include the much-acclaimed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and who brings a larger-than-life sense of dramatic storytelling to the mix. Blending tried-and-true narrative approach with an internet-era edginess of flow, he manages to weave a story involving multiple important-yet-little-known historical facts and figures without being mired in clumsy exposition. 

Far more importantly, his finger is planted firmly on the human element, allowing factual details to become secondary to the insights he ekes from the history explored in his film. Though he never fails in delivering the emotionally weighted cinematic call to action his subject demands, he allows the personal to take center stage within historical events that far eclipse the individual lives of any of its players. The personal impact of warring ideologies – and of deeply ingrained cultural homophobia – comes to the forefront of the story as he tells it; driven by a freeform, improvisational-toned jazz soundtrack from Branford Marsalis, and informed by a commitment to lived truth over normalized homogenization, his film is clearly designed to cut through political posturing in pursuit of a scrupulously honest portrait of both its titular character and the vastly important sociopolitical movement in which its story is set.

Most important of all, however, is the contribution of the film’s leading player. As Rustin, Domingo is a singular force to be reckoned with, an unflinching and entirely approachable portrait of a man both physically and psychically scarred by a life of uncompromising activism. It seems a shame even to have to add that his identity as an out gay man lends an aura of authenticity that provides measureless value and impact to his performance; it’s a career-making, Oscar-worthy turn which in our view places him neatly as a front-runner for this year’s “awards season” honors. If the film lands solidly – and it does – it’s on the strength of this star-making performance.

There’s also a host of outstanding supporting performances, though Chris Rock’s turn as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins feels jarringly one-dimensional, in addition to being hampered by a less-than-convincing application of age makeup to bridge a gap of not-very-many years; yet “Rustin” can’t help but be slightly diminished by a permeating aura of Hollywood “gloss.” Well-intentioned as it may be, it’s a film with an obvious imperative to present its title character as a hero, though it must be said that, for queer audiences, Rustin’s refusal to obscure his own sexuality for the sake of political convenience renders such efforts unnecessary. Nevertheless, while it never flinches from presenting Rustin’s queerness or exploring the (arguably problematic) inconstancy of his romantic commitments, it conveniently avoids addressing more challenging aspects of his record – for example, his late-in-life evolution away from pacifism and embrace of neoconservative ideals in international policy – in service of cementing his reputation as a pillar of the modern human rights movement.

In the long run, of course, such matters do not erase his earlier contributions, nor can they be summarily condemned in the context of contemporary world politics. Yet we can’t help but feel that, by omission, they render a less than-fully-honest cinematic portrait of a man who, as a queer person of color, inarguably deserves his status – warts and all –  as one of the most impactful forces in the fight toward equal rights, regardless of either race or sexual identity.

That said, “Rustin” is still one of the most engaging and unflinchingly heartfelt films we’ve seen this year, a perfectly apt tribute to a towering figure who is only now – nearly a decade after receiving a posthumous Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama – receiving due credit for his impact on the fight for equality, and possibly the most overdue recognition Hollywood has ever bestowed upon a non-heteronormative public figure in recent memory.

There’s a reason it’s accompanied by a buzz, one that’s more than enough to make it a must-see for anybody “in the fight.” And if you can lend your support to Black-and-queer filmmaking by buying a ticket to see it in the theater before it streams on your TV screen at home, all the better.

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A master triumphs with career-topping ‘Flower Moon’

Scorsese cements his auteur status with true-crime historical thriller



Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’ (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/Apple Original Films)

When an artist stays both relevant and revered for a period of half a century or more, it’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest they know how to work a crowd. After all, as the late Stephen Sondheim once lyrically observed, “art isn’t easy, any way you look at it.”

That might seem like a cynical way of framing things, but in a world where free-or-nearly-free content abounds, it puts an unvarnished sense of reality on the situation. The commercial viability of art, perhaps more than ever, has become entwined with the “mood of the moment”, and only an artist with the necessary savvy to recognize – and play to – that ever-metamorphosizing fancy of the public imagination has any chance of staying in the game.

For reasons that should be obvious, there’s no art form in which this is truer than cinema; expensive, collaborative, and arguably more reliant than any other medium on the favor of the mainstream populace, the immediacy inherent in its very nature demands that it cater to the interests of its day.

This is why, with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Martin Scorsese has finally cemented the auteur status that seemed to elude him after his heyday as one of the seminal directors of the 1970s “New Hollywood” movement, because – whether by accident or intent – the iconic filmmaker has managed to capture the divided zeitgeist of an entire national identity with a story from a distant chapter of history.

Though early masterpieces like “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull” under his belt established his reputation, later reassertions of his particular genius (“Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Wolf of Wall Street) and the belated affirmation of an Oscar win for “The Departed” – while they may have ensured his position as an icon and elder statesman of his craft – never seemed to thrill with the kind of here-and-now urgency that turned those early works into the “must-see” cornerstones of popular culture they almost instantly became. With his latest film, however, the director has returned, full-strength, with a work that feels thrillingly in sync with the pulse of the American present, even though it takes place close to a century ago.

“Flower Moon,” adapted for the screen by Scorsese and Eric Roth from David Gann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, tells the true-crime story of a series of murders within Oklahoma’s indigenous Osage community in the 1920s, after the discovery of oil on their reservation made the once-impoverished tribe title-holders to an economic boom that gave them the wealth and power to withstand the tide of white incursion fueled by the imperative of “Manifest Destiny.” Our point-of-entry to the saga is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WWI veteran who comes to the Osage nation to work for his uncle, Bill “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro), a wealthy white businessman who has established himself as a friend to the local tribal community. Encouraged by his uncle to pursue a romance with prominent Osage heiress Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), he finds himself enmeshed within a wide-reaching “good ol’ boy” conspiracy to siphon the tribe’s wealth. Compromising his better instincts, he becomes a willing participant in the scheme, until an agent from the newly formed FBI (Jesse Plemons) shows up to find out why so many Osage people have been turning up dead under mysterious and un-investigated circumstances. With his own future – and freedom – in the balance, he is forced to confront the conflict between the tenuous loyalty of his blood kinship with “Uncle King” and the genuine love he feels for Mollie and her people even as he has helped to facilitate their extinction.

We won’t tell you how it all plays out, though the true-life events behind the fictionalized narrative were a matter of public record long before the book on which it was based was ever published, but we’re willing to lay our finger on why it strikes such a contemporary nerve. In this story about a little-known historical incident, America’s long-broiling relationship with racism is brought front-and-center in a way that is as impossible to deny as its ostensible protagonist’s culpability in the plot to rob his own wife of her birthright. Like the tragedy of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” another until-recently-unknown act of historic racial violence (pointedly referenced within Scorsese’s film) designed expressly to erase an entire community in punishment for its own prosperity, the serial murder of perhaps untold numbers of Osage tribespeople by opportunists bent on usurping their good fortune speaks volumes about the collective guilt still bubbling under the denial perpetrated by so many generations of white Americans.

This, no doubt, is why countless conservative commentators might dismiss “Killers of the Flower Moon” as “woke” propaganda, or why aloof critical tastemakers could be tempted to express outrage over its perceived “appropriation” of themes more rightly addressed by a filmmaker who, understandably if not quite fairly, might be branded by some as just another old white liberal elitist trying to “appropriate” a story more deservedly told by someone with a more authentic cultural connection to the victims of the crimes he presumes to document.

Make no mistake about it, though, Scorsese’s movie easily rises above the posturing of such limited responses to cut through all that sentimentalized black-and-whiteness and get past the ideological constructs behind them. More than smart, it’s wise enough to turn the same understanding of the pathology of corruption, the same mechanisms that informed his earlier masterworks about the world of organized crime and those who become twisted by it, to the service of a come-to-Jesus confrontation between proclaimed American “values” and the reality of the heartbreak and carnage hidden behind the ideals they profess to embrace. As he has done so many times in the past, Scorsese makes his monsters human, lets us empathize, even identify with them, and helps us to see the closely lived reality that allows them to justify the allowances – dare we say the cognitive dissonance? – required to help them believe they are only doing what comes naturally.

In the end, it’s clear that there’s a real and objective truth being presented here about justice, power, and responsibility; thanks to the mastery of a great American filmmaker, with the help of a stellar cast delivering career-highlight performances (as well as long-time collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker and musical supervisor Robbie Robertson, who passed away two months before the film’s release), it’s also clear that what we call “truth” is often dependent on the things we are all-too-easily persuaded to believe, and has more to do with our own appetites than we like to admit. That makes “Killers of the Flower Moon” more than just a timely commentary on systemic racism, strategically configured around Native American history rather than the politically charged subject of Black American experience, but a statement about the lies we all tell ourselves to achieve and maintain the lives we desire – even at the expense of others.

If you can think of a better summation for the moral quandaries of life in 21st century America, we’d love to hear it.

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A wild, sexy ride on the ‘Down Low’

Anti-heroes played with obvious relish by Quinto and Gage



Lukas Gage and Zachary Quinto in ‘Down Low.’ (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films/Sony Entertainment)

With a title like “Down Low,” a movie could be almost anything, from a psychological thriller to a comedic crime caper to a documentary about the blues. When it stars Zachary Quinto and Lukas Gage, however, and describes them in its tagline as “a deeply repressed man” and “a twink” respectively, millions of queer audiences will immediately know what the title means.

That phrase is universal code for online cruisers who are “looking” for fun but only if their wife/husband/straight bro/church pastor/etc. never finds out about it. Based on the most likely assumptions about how a “DL” encounter between a repressed man and a twink might take place, it’s easily possible to guess the set-up – and maybe the entire scenario of the movie – before the first scene begins.

Just in case, though, we’ll fill in a few of the details. At the start of “Down Low” – which debuted on digital home video Oct. 10 – well-to-do Gary (Quinto), nearing 50 and recently separated from his wife and children, hires a young masseur named Cameron (Gage, who became instantly gay-famous thanks to that notorious rimming scene in the first season of “White Lotus”) to come to his house for a private session – and yes, it’s that kind of massage. After an awkward beginning, Gary reveals it’s his first time being intimate with a man, prompting Cameron to turn from sex worker to life coach as he quickly decides to give his Hot Daddy client a coming-out party to remember; before long, a stranger from “the apps” is on his way to join them, setting off an outrageous night full of questionable decisions, bad luck, and escalating consequences that is probably best described as a deviously twisted, wickedly macabre wild ride – or, alternatively, as a very dark screwball comedy. Either way, it’s also a romance.

We’re not being indecisive, and neither (presumably) is the film, in failing to pin it down into an easily-assessed and clearly-definable category. As directed by first-time feature filmmaker Rightor Doyle (best known for his short-form series “Bonding,” about a gay stand-up comic who moonlights as a BDSM sex worker), it’s a movie with little interest in conforming to any particular genre; it borrows from several of them, and shamelessly so, but only in order to turn them upside down – and our expectations along with them – in a sometimes-near-farcical mashup that prevents any of them from defining it. In the end, of course, the genre it comes most closely to matching is the kind of wacky, morbid comedy-of-errors represented by movies like “Weekend at Bernie’s” or “The Hangover,” but with deeper stakes and a much darker edge to its humor.

It’s all very clever – at times, admittedly, a bit self-consciously so, leading to a kind of “predictable unpredictability” that may or may not be intentional – and keeps us on our toes simply by its willingness to turn on a dime as often as necessary. It also takes delight in the pretense of “shocking” us with its candid discussions of queer sexuality and a sort of feigned amorality that feels strongly indebted to a Gregg Araki-style sense of hedonistic nihilism. There’s a rebelliousness to its spirit, a “let’s have fun while the world burns down around us” vibe that gives it a decidedly counter-cultural flavor. After all, its two leading characters are hardly the kind of “positive queer depictions” we push the industry so hard to achieve; indeed, they are (at face value, at least) largely clichés, avatars for familiar “types” that – in the eyes of modern progressive attitudes toward queer expression and experience – might even be considered toxic by some. Who could better serve us in a vicarious revolt against conformity than a pair of guys who could be seen as “problematic” under any traditional social norm we’ve lived under so far?

That’s especially true with the anti-heroes of “Down Low,” who are played with obvious relish by Quinto and Gage – the latter of whom, alongside Phoebe Fisher, also penned the movie’s smart screenplay – and quickly overcome the hard-sell implausibility of the premise that brings them together to become an irresistibly appealing screen couple with the kind of chemistry that both heightens the film’s considerable sex appeal and evokes the snappy rapport of the classic madcap comedies it clearly wishes to emulate. More than that, the two stars fully understand and inhabit their characters, reminding us (as if it were necessary) how much of a difference it makes when actual queer people play queer characters in queer stories. It’s hard to imagine even the most gifted straight actors capturing the necessary dynamic these two obviously understand instinctively.

Still, a story about a closeted middle-aged white man and a young societal outcast who gives hand-jobs for a living – stereotypical representatives of two different queer generations drawn, we might add, with a not-too-subtle satirical eye – may not sit so well in an era when the mandate seems to be toward presenting the community as living its best life. It’s not that either of them is unlikable, it’s just that they’re both a mess.

That, perhaps, is the whole point; “Down Low” comes on strong and sassy, pitting the defiantly flamboyant and sex-positive iconoclasm of modern queer youth culture against the haunted survivor’s guilt of their Gen-X elders in a story that ultimately urges us to abandon the restrictive mindsets of the past in favor of a more open and authentic life; it’s a movie that brims with the trappings of transgressive anarchy, that leans hard into an absurdist outlook in which all our ideas of “normal” behavior become meaningless when confronted with life as it really is. Yet, for all that, it somehow retains a sweetly sentimental tone, in the form of the unlikely and yet eminently cheer-able love story that coalesces in the middle of its madness; in the end, the relatable messiness of these two mismatched misfits is meant to give us hope on which to cling as we plunge with them through the depraved-but-zany existential challenges of their adventure together.

Whether or not it does, of course, is dependent on how willing we are to buy into its multiple conceits, and that’s by no means a sure thing; viewers with a taste for over-the-top absurdism — which bubbles up from the very core of the movie’s premise and seems drawn from a theatrical tradition that includes Genet, Pinter, and Christopher Durang, at times making the film play more like, well, a play – are likely to respond better to it than those coming in with an expectation of more traditional, “realistic” storytelling. Sweetening the pot for any viewer are the performances, which in addition to Quinto and Gage include glittering supporting turns by queer-allies-and-divas Judith Light and Audra MacDonald.

Despite all those benefits, however, “Down Low” might finally be a no-go for some audiences because its title also tells us how far it (and its characters) are willing to go – and for many, that might just be a little too low for comfort.

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‘Dicks: The Musical’ is as trashy as you think

Film sets out to be gloriously stupid and achieves that goal deliciously



Joshua Sharp and Aaron Jackson flank Bowen Yang as God in ‘Dicks: The Musical.’ (Image courtesy of A24)

If you think “Dicks: The Musical” is a tasteless title, just be thankful they didn’t stick with the original name.

Of course, if you think the title is in poor taste, you likely won’t think much of the film itself, in limited release since Oct. 6 and expanding wide on Oct. 20. Directed by comedy icon Larry Charles (who rose to prominence writing for “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” before helming buzzy hit movies like “Borat,“ Religulous,” and the controversial “The Dictator”) and adapted from their original stage production by its stars, Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp, it’s the kind of movie that seems to put extra effort into making sure no line is left uncrossed.

Jackson and Sharp – who, aside from a general similarity of build and stature, look nothing alike – respectively play identical separated-at-birth twins Trevor and Craig, two hyper-driven and self-absorbed aggressively heterosexual businessmen (the “dicks” of the title) who meet and become very fond of each other when hired at the same company. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out their true relationship – twin siblings raised separately by divorced parents (Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane) – and decide to “Parent Trap” their mom and dad into reuniting. Unfortunately, both parents possess some decidedly not normal personality traits; their inexplicably wheelchair-bound mom has a seemingly tentative grasp not only on objective reality but on her own vagina, and their flamboyantly gay dad has a secret obsession with a pair of grotesque-but-oddly-adorable caged mutants he keeps in his home and refers to as his “sewer boys”, presenting greater challenges to their scheme than originally anticipated.

It’s all very over-the-top, played purely for laughs with full awareness of its own lack of substance or subtlety; there is nothing in it that could be described as believable, at least in any straightforward sense, and even our cursory synopsis above likely reveals the deeply imbedded queerness in both its storyline and its intent. Either of these factors would likely alienate a significant chunk of potential audience, and both together must surely eliminate the appeal for all but the most deviant of viewers. It’s utterly ridiculous, appallingly dysfunctional, and shamelessly perverted, all at the same time, and when it draws to a close, it offers up an unrepentantly transgressive finale presided over by none other than a very gay God Himself (Bowen Yang), who has served as narrator to the whole twisted tale from the beginning. Spoiler alert: it involves even deeper socio-sexual taboos than homosexuality.

By now, most of our savviest readers will have easily deduced that “Dicks: The Musical” is an intentional exercise in “camp” – and not just the kind that lampoons stodgy cultural tropes but the kind that does so in such a deliberately exaggerated style as to be a lampoon of the lampoon itself. That’s a thin line to walk; as a general rule, trying too hard to be campy all but ensures that the joke will end up getting lost in its own obviousness.

Whether or not that’s true of “Dicks” will depend on individual thresholds of “taste” (there’s that word again) more than any supposed ideal of how such things “should” be handled in a Hollywood movie, but what’s certain is that it takes its self-proclaimed aspiration (in publicity materials) to become a “future midnight movie classic” much more seriously than it takes any of the ostensibly “shocking” outrages within its content. Jackson and Sharp – who first created the project as a 30-minute comedy sketch for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the popular improv comedy troupe of which they are both proud alumni – have crafted a conceit and a script so committed to stylized artifice, so centered in a “meta” perspective which drives home the absurdity of sanitized “niceties” in the face of sheer human depravity, that it cannot possibly be taken seriously. In other words, anyone driven to outrage by the messaging it pushes under guise of irony can only be stymied by the obvious fact of its gleefully-embraced stupidity.

For the record, using words like “stupidity” in reviewing a movie should normally be avoided, since it ultimately says more about the reviewer than the film itself. For a film like this one, however, it gets straight to the point and does not imply any negative judgment; “Dicks: The Musical” sets out to be gloriously, giddily stupid, and it achieves that goal in delicious spades. From the first, it attempts no disguise; its leads are obviously gay men playing toxic straight male stereotypes, its irony-steeped central theme of “family” is clearly intended to turn conventional ideas of that construct on their ear, and the deeply dysfunctional personalities of its pathologically un-self-aware characters leave no doubt about its ambition toward tongue-in-cheek social commentary. Indeed, it seems to consider the points it makes so obvious as to be moot, and largely focuses instead on simply providing a good, old-fashioned, seriously filthy time.

Much of what makes it work – if it does, which, once again, is contingent on how sympatico one is to the whole idea of it – is the sheer talent of the performers. Jackson and Sharp, both of whom make their big screen debuts as leading men, manage to capture that delicate balance between self-conscious caricature and endearingly goofy sincerity that keeps us from hating them from the start, something they no doubt perfected through countless performances of their stage piece – which, just to answer the question we begged in our opening line, was originally titled “Fucking Identical Twins.” Even more valuable are the chops brought into the mix by Lane and Mullally, whose background in outrageous theatrical performance and finely wrought screen characterization turn what might otherwise be nonsensical clowns into human-ish figures with whom one might empathize. In an unlikely but inspired film debut, rapper Megan Thee Stallion steals all her scenes as a boss lady who has learned to “out-alpha the alpha,” and rounding things out is the always-game Yang’s saucily sex-and-sin-positive version of the Almighty Himself.

Also offering major support in the “pro” column are the contributions of costume designer Valerie Klarich, a delightful blend of the garish and the subtle, and the cinematography by Michelle Lawler, which evokes the stylistic flourishes of both old-Hollywood glam and bargain-basement grunge; the surprisingly catchy and devilishly clever song score, composed by Karl Saint Lucy and Marius de Vries to the lyrics by Jackson and Sharp; and, of course, director Charles’ sharp countercultural sensibilities help bring out the meat of Jackson and Sharp’s script while asserting his own iconoclastic voice in the process.

Of course, if the overtly raunchy humor that permeates “Dicks” is not to your “taste,” then none of that will keep you from finding it tiresome. If, however, you’re a fan of the unapologetic “filth” propagated in the films of John Waters, the straight-panic-spoofing sci-fi sensibilities of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or the arch satire of shows like “Strangers With Candy” – all cited as influences by the movie’s creators – you might just think it’s the best thing you’ve seen in a long time.

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Basic training turns to love in ‘Eismayer’

A heartfelt reminder of the transformation power of attraction



Gerhard Liebmann and Luka Dimić face off in ‘Eismayer.’ (Photo courtesy Dark Star Pictures)

Sometimes, the tenderest of feelings emerge in the most unexpected of places.

Consider the true-life story of Vice Lieutenant Charles Eismayer, a veteran training instructor in the Austrian Armed Forces whose reputation for toughness became a legend that struck terror into the hearts of young Austrians headed for their compulsory National Service; married, macho, and merciless, he shocked both his military colleagues and the public alike when he became one of the first officers in the Austrian military to come out as gay after falling in love with a recruit. Once seen as a paragon of hyper-masculinity, responsible for traumatizing a generation of fledgling soldiers with his brutal training tactics, he’s now widely lauded as a queer pioneer who helped to fuel a shift toward acceptance and diversity in the Austrian military.

This little-known (in the U.S., anyway) chapter in queer history is the basis for “Eismayer,” the feature debut of Austrian filmmaker David Wagner that premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival to wide acclaim from critics; after a successful tour of the festival circuit during which it garnered numerous prizes and was frequently cited as an audience favorite, it makes its American debut with a limited theatrical release on Oct. 6 before dropping on digital/DVD on Oct. 10.

Wagner’s somewhat fictionalized treatment of the story — which he wrote in film school after hearing the legend during his own stint in the National Service — begins by introducing its title figure (Gerhard Liebmann) through the perceptions of a group of new recruits who, familiar with his reputation, attempt (and fail) to avoid training under his tyrannical command. One exception is Mario Falak (Luka Dimić), who has ambitions to continue on to a career as a military officer; openly gay and determined to succeed, he quickly draws the wrath of his new superior with his cocky and defiant attitude.

Despite the perceived challenge to his authority, however, Eismayer — who, unbeknownst to his colleagues, wife, and children, lives a closeted life from which he regularly escapes with secretive anonymous sex with men — has conflicting feelings about this new recruit. Their combative relationship begins to soften, at first with mutual respect and then with something deeper as Falak starts to recognize the truth behind Eismayer’s façade. Soon the attraction between them becomes irresistible — and the drill master is forced to decide if he is man enough to step out from behind the protective lie of his tough-guy image and risk both reputation and career in order to live a life in the open.

If you don’t want to know what happens, you should stop reading here, because since the film is based on a true story it is no secret — and therefore not really a spoiler — that Eismayer and Falak eventually became a couple and entered into a domestic partnership that continues to this day. Indeed, the film arguably plays better with that advance knowledge, at least in this country, because given the American cultural climate of the moment there is much about its premise that might be hard to get past for sensitive audiences.

To begin with, of course, there is the toxic masculinity and internalized homophobia behind Eismayer’s carefully constructed persona, which might compromise his likability for some viewers; combined with what might today be considered an inappropriate power dynamic between them — as a superior officer and his subordinate — the romance upon which the movie hinges could be a non-starter for many audiences today.

Knowing that these two characters will ultimately become a couple, however, it’s easier to recognize it as a love story, rather than just another harrowing tale of bullying and abuse in a boot camp. Further, by focusing on both Falak and Eismayer from early on, the movie helps us see beyond the roles both of them play to find a deeper understanding of what is growing between them than a surface reading based in one perspective could possibly convey.

After all, even in the 1990s setting of “Eismayer,” its title character is already something of a dinosaur; when his conflict with Falak culminates in an incident early on, it is he whose behavior is questioned and rebuked by his superiors. The world is changing, and Eismayer must change with it if he is to keep going; his romance with Falak, whose openness is unencumbered by shame and cultural expectation, becomes his lifeline. The outdated toxic traits that have kept the older man safely hidden have also kept him imprisoned, and it is through the example of the younger that he discovers the softer strength within himself to break free. There’s a potent lesson there about transformative change that somehow feels just as appropriate for our own troubled and conflicted age as it does the now-decades old world of the film.

That all of this works instead of falling into a trope-dependent, agenda-driven melodrama seems a bit miraculous, given how many movies we’ve seen about military homophobia across the years; but in truth, it’s largely due to the perspective brought to the mix by Wagner, who did extensive interviews with the real Eismayer and Falak in developing the project and subtly crafts his film into a surprisingly sweet and improbably uplifting story of love instead of a scathing and depressing story of hate. 

It also owes much to star Liebmann, an already acclaimed Austrian actor who gives a remarkably layered and palpably real performance in the title role. It’s been lauded as a “star-making” turn, which in a completely fair world it should rightly be, but no less impressive, if not as showy, is Dimić’s Falak, eminently believable as a bold-hearted iconoclast who can nevertheless see beyond his own prejudices to recognize the humanity of his perceived enemy. The final glue in the mix is the chemistry between these two co-stars, which not only heats up the screen but makes their romance feel thrillingly authentic.

Despite all that, it’s undeniable that “Eismayer” will likely be unwatchable for some audiences, whether queer or straight, because of what they might consider an “unacceptable” scenario in the surface details of the movie’s plot. We can respect that.

For those who take a more nuanced view when it comes to working through ethical grey areas, or who recognize that matters of the heart have a way of defying hard-and-fast constructs about what is or is not appropriate, it’s a surprisingly entertaining and refreshingly heartfelt reminder of the transformative power of love.

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Exploring queer romance in ‘Lie with Me’

French film reminds us not to waste our lives out of fear



(Movie poster image courtesy of TS Productions)

Why do so many gay love stories have sad endings? The new French film “Lie with Me,” based on Philippe Besson’s novel, follows this familiar theme. Although recent films have ventured away from tragedy, like “Love, Simon,” the portrayal of queer love between men often denies us a happy ending. “Brokeback Mountain” tugged at our heartstrings, and the closing shot of a tearful Elio in “Call Me By Your Name” is iconic.

It’s not surprising that many gay love stories are tinged with melancholy. In fact, there’s even a book on the subject, “The Queer Art of Failure.” In a society that, until recently, rejected the legitimacy and rights of queer love, many gay writers and filmmakers felt there was no salvation at the end of the rainbow. The AIDS crisis further clouded the outlook for gay love. However, it’s a reflection of the more optimistic times we live in that contemporary gay films and TV shows, such as “Heartstopper,” can envision storybook romances.

“Lie with Me,” a love story between French 17-year-olds set in the mid-1980s, all but rules out a happy ending. Add to the mix the rural conservative values and the inevitably divergent paths awaiting the bookish Stephane and the farm boy Thomas, and you’ve set the stage for great passion and a heartbreaking finale.

Watching this movie, it’s hard not to reminisce about your first crush and the idealized dreams you once had. For those of us of a certain age, those dreams often remained in the realm of imagination. Thomas and Stephane are fortunate to experience moments like skinny dipping in an old flooded quarry, dancing in their underwear, and making love in hidden spots. They start as a mismatched pair, with Thomas initially showing interest only in sex. However, slowly they form a bond—a love that’s innocent and uncomplicated, a kind that young hearts are perfectly suited for. Stephane envisions a world beyond the small town, but Thomas is skeptical about the continuation of their journey.

The film shifts between the young Stephane and his older self, now a renowned French novelist. Upon returning to his small town, the elder Stephane spots a young man who bears a striking resemblance to Thomas. This encounter, as the film later reveals, is far from coincidental— it’s Thomas’s son, Lucas, trying to unravel his father’s early life. It’s evident that Stephane has immortalized his teenage love in a novel, setting the stage for the gradual revelation of a tragic love affair as Stephane and Lucas share fragments of the past that form a complete picture.

One of the most significant tragedies in queer lives is the un-lived life — the men and women who, out of fear and shame, choose to remain hidden, denying themselves true love, an authentic life, and happiness. Many succumb to suicide, addiction, or other forms of abuse, while others live silently and joylessly. You might wish you could shake them and say, “You have one life to live, and you cannot let other people’s ignorance and prejudice rob you of it!” But for some, the obstacles to coming out seem insurmountable, including the fear of losing family and employment opportunities. This tragedy, while less common in today’s Western societies, persists in countries where being gay can lead to arrest or even execution.

What sets “Lie with Me” apart from other gay love stories that leave us feeling despondent is that its tragedy extends beyond the personal — it serves as an indictment of a society that forces people to suppress their most innate feelings and endure immense suffering. It offers a cautionary lesson to any gay person struggling with the fear of coming out: Do not waste your life because you are afraid of what others may think. The number of queer individuals who have lived unfulfilled lives is immeasurable. “Lie with Me” pays a posthumous tribute to them, reminding us that who they truly were should not completely vanish. And in this film, it doesn’t.

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