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‘Women Talking’ is the timely film everyone should be talking about

Filmmaker Sarah Polley explores shocking abuse in culturally significant effort

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Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy in ‘Women Talking.’ (Photo courtesy of United Artists Releasing)

With the Hollywood awards season well underway, the public conversation around movies these days is mostly around the movies that have begun to emerge as early champions. 

That makes this the perfect time to bring up “Women Talking,” a movie not many people have seen – yet – but that more people should be talking about.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, it’s based on a 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews (which itself was loosely based on real-life events in Bolivia), and set in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony, isolated from the wider world by both distance and strict religious tradition, in which dozens of girls and women have been drugged with animal tranquilizers and sexually assaulted in the night by a group of men over the course of several years – only to be accused of lying or told that their attacks and injuries were perpetrated by “ghosts or demons.” Now, they’ve now been offered a choice – either forgive their attackers and continue living in fear or leave the community and be expelled from the church; with only a few short hours to decide, a group of townswomen convene in a barn to weigh the dilemma, and to make the impossible choice of what to do.

In Toews’s book, and therefore Polley’s film, the shocking circumstances of the story are reimagined in an American setting, and the scenario is framed – in the spirit, perhaps, of an increasing sense of public conscience that favors commemorating the victims of violence over elevating the victimizers’ names in the cultural record – through the eyes of the women; we never see the faces of their attackers, nor hear their names. Their identities, in fact, are irrelevant; for these women, what matters is making an impossible choice whether to brave the unknown evils of a world outside their experience or resign themselves to endure the all-too-familiar evils to which they are accustomed, forced upon them by male elders who seemingly think of them as little more than human livestock.

That’s a position that feels unsettlingly relevant in the climate of today’s America, and though both book and movie were conceived and executed before the devastating Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, the timing of “Women Talking” couldn’t be more powerful or relevant. In watching these onscreen women attempt to find justification within their faith to defy the strictures that leave them powerless and without protection, it’s impossible not to notice the reflected significance; though the arguments they rehash – obedience to the teachings of their church, accepted gender roles within their culture, the “rightful place” of women in society, and all the other well-rehearsed topics inextricably tied to the ideals of feminism and basic human rights – often feel to us like the antiquated rhetoric of a bygone era, we cannot help but be aware that the principles they struggle to define, considered by many of us to be long-settled and self-evident, are currently anything but.

That’s entirely the point, of course. Polley’s film derives considerable power from the juxtaposition of an old-fashioned lifestyle into a contemporary setting; most of what we see on the screen – clothing, mores and manners, the quaint routine of a daily life lived without technology and off the grid – belies any connection to the 21st century, and when we are occasionally reminded that we’re watching a story that takes place in modern times, it’s jarring.

Indeed, there’s an unabashedly “meta” effect that permeates throughout, heightened by a theatrical approach to the narrative that spends more of its time on dialogue than on action – after all, the title is “Women Talking” – and takes place mostly in a single location. The movie’s studied mix of emotion and intellect, its prominent agenda and its progressive political leanings, all land with us as if we were watching a play, rather than a movie. Yet Polley ingeniously expands into the cinematic realm to connect with us though our eyes as well as our ears, particularly with the use of rapid-paced flashback collages that cut away from a character to wordlessly convey crucial details of their backstory, deepening both our insight and our empathy in the process.  

She also takes pains to illuminate the emotional triggers – fear, rage, even guilt over perceived culpability – that bubble to the surface as her traumatized characters try to form a unified front; by tracking the way these lingering psychic scars affect the dynamic among this group of survivors, determining the positions they take and setting them at odds against each other, her movie helps open us up to empathy for those whose memory pain sometimes drives them to act against their own self-interest. Yet things aren’t unrelentingly grim, nor are they always somber; there are frequent interspersions of humor, appreciations of beauty, and expressions of love. It’s this focus on lived inner experience that keeps “Women Talking” grounded in the human and enables it to indulge in lengthy theoretical discourse about justice, ethics, and theology without feeling like an exercise in aloof didacticism.

To that end, a gifted ensemble of players, each obviously relishing the chance to do work of such substance, turns in a remarkably gripping collection of performances. Standing out in the showiest roles, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley offer up unforgettable moments throughout the film, while a softer Rooney Mara serves as a warm and intelligent heart; screen veterans Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy bring depth and dignity to their roles as elders in this female contingent, with multi-Oscar-winner Frances McDormand leaving her stamp in a brief but indelible supporting turn; out gay actor Ben Whishaw shines as a gentle schoolteacher enlisted by the women to take the minutes of their meeting, a sole reminder that men can be allies, too; and nonbinary performer August Winter, cast as a transmasculine colony member, adds an affirming thread of queer inclusion to the mix, opening the door for one of the film’s most unexpected – and powerful – moments.

It’s not surprising, given the talents of Polley and her cast (not to mention the expert cinematography of Luc Montpellier and a stirring score by Hildur Guðnadóttir), that “Women Talking” has quietly gained momentum as an awards contender – even though it doesn’t go into wide release until Jan. 20. Whether it can pick up more prizes than the buzzier titles currently leading the race remains to be seen. Even in a post-#MeToo Hollywood, female-led films are often overlooked for the big awards, and the industry’s supposed progressive leanings rarely prevent it from shying away from polarizing subject matter.

Incredibly, in 2023, the subject of women seeking freedom to have agency over their own bodies feels more polarizing than ever, and women are fighting for it under oppressive regimes from Iraq to Indonesia, let alone in parts of the USA.

That’s why, whether it wins any awards or not, “Women Talking” is still one of the most culturally significant movies on the shortlist.

Movies

The year’s best in queer TV and film

‘Fire Island,’ ‘Bros,’ ‘Heartstopper’ made for memorable 2022

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Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in ‘Fire Island.’ (Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures)

It’s that season, once again, when everyone is compiling their lists of the year’s best film and TV offerings – and naturally, the Blade is no exception.

Unlike many “Best of” lists, however, ours narrows the scope a little. Since our coverage of film and television is geared toward queer-focused or queer-inclusive content that is relevant to our LGBTQ readers, we like to limit our selections to the movies and shows that match that criteria – and further, to keep it honest, we prefer to limit our choices to the titles we’ve covered over the last 12 months.

That means you won’t see the same kinds of big mainstream films or series on our list that you’ll find on others – but you’ll see those mentioned in plenty of other places, anyway, and we think it’s far more useful to remind our readers of the standout gems we’ve particularly loved. It’s our way of celebrating the screen memories that have stuck with us throughout the year, and to make sure you add the ones you may have missed to your year-end catch-up list.

With that in mind, here are our five favorite films and five favorite TV shows from all those we’ve covered in 2022.

FILM

1. “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michele Yeoh in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

If you haven’t yet seen this genre-bending, queer-inclusive indie sci-fi comedy – conceived, written, and directed by The Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) – you might be surprised to find it at the top of our list. If you have seen it, however, you’ll already understand why. Audaciously joining the ever-growing fray of “multiverse” movies and arguably besting them all, it’s a fast-paced but smooth-flowing wild ride in which a middle-aged Chinese American laundromat owner (Michelle Yeoh, in a career-topping star showcase) finds herself recruited into a battle against a sinister entity who seeks to destroy reality itself. 

Quirky, clever, and laced with delicious absurdity, it’s a madcap caper from start to finish; but it grabs us by the heart, too, and uses the same overblown fantasy trope it creatively lampoons to gently remind us that, in a universe of infinite possibilities, we have the power to change our reality with every choice we make. It also shows us a universe where humans have fingers like hot dogs and gives us scene-stealing Jamie Lee Curtis as a frumpy and hostile tax auditor, so is it any wonder we put it at the top of the list?

2. “Tár”

Cate Blanchett stars in ‘Tár.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Audiences were even more divided than critics in their response to Mike Field’s lengthy, inscrutable, and culturally provocative character study of a revered, world-class orchestral conductor (Cate Blanchett, surpassing her own brilliance yet again) whose reputation and career begin to unravel when implications of sexual misconduct subject her private life to public scrutiny. It’s easy to understand why; it’s as challenging as it is meticulous, as unsettling as it is mesmerizing, and as unsentimental as a clinical case study. 

Though decried by some who saw it as an indictment against “cancel culture” or found it out of alignment with queer or feminist ideals, we found its true power beyond its purposefully contradictory politics; in its instinct for finding big truth in tiny details and its merciless focus on the uncomfortable secret corners we keep in the blind spots of our lives, it’s ultimately a movie about the masks we wear to disguise the desires we don’t want others – or even ourselves – to see.

3. “Neptune Frost”

Cheryl Isheja stars in ‘Neptune Frost.’ (Photo courtesy Kino Lorber)

Another quirky, genre-bending sci-fi movie makes our list with this unique cinematic experience created by acclaimed multi-hyphenate artist Saul Williams, who co-directed with Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman. Self-described as “an Afrofuturist sci-fi punk musical,” it traces the separate journeys of two refugees – a miner running away from a life of enforced labor and an intersex tribesperson fleeing the oppression of their native village – and their assimilation into a collective of rebel hackers dedicated to overthrowing “The Authority” and elevating the world’s consciousness. That vague plot outline, however, falls short of capturing the film’s multi-layered essence; equal parts primal myth and dystopian techno-drama, it’s more a surreal allegory than a narrative, laden with bold visual strokes and reverberating with a proud and defiant Black voice – but the issues it thrusts into our consciousness go far deeper than race. It’s hard to explain this movie better than that, so if you’re curious for more, you’ll have to watch it for yourself. Trust us, you won’t regret it.

4. “Fire Island”

It’s been a banner year for queer rom-coms, but for our money, this smart, sharp, sweet, and sexy reimagining of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” – starring and written by Joel Kim Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn – is the cream of the crop. Skewering the attitudes and agendas of modern gay life as it follows the exploits of a group of friends who have gathered for a week of comradeship and debauchery at the queer mecca of its title, it revels in its diversity – three of its four romantic leads are Asian American, for starters – and celebrates the joys of chosen family while good-naturedly reminding us that snobbery cuts both ways. It’s everything you could want from a summer romance and more – including a ridiculously corny, over-the-top happy ending and a sparkling cast that includes queer fan favorites Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, and Conrad Ricamora.

5. “Bros”

Luke MacFarlane and Billy Eichner in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

OK, we know. This much-hyped romantic comedy from writer/star Billy Eichner and writer/director Nicholas Stoller ended up with a disappointing box office take despite its historic use of an almost-all-queer cast and creative team – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie. Though Eichner’s manic, sometimes abrasive persona can be a hard sell for some audiences, it works to his advantage as he uses his role as a defiantly oddball over-achiever to go deeper, and his chemistry with co-star Luke Macfarlane (in a bravely vulnerable performance) is surprisingly potent; and while the film’s self-consciously pro-LGBTQ checklist of topics sometimes feels like an obtrusion on its unexpectedly nuanced central love story, that somehow becomes part of the point. 

For us, though, the biggest reason for including this one on our list of the year’s best might be its candid and relatable depiction of romance in a more mature queer demographic than we’re used to; that, alongside its unapologetically queer attitude, its artfully downplayed generosity of spirit, and its sex-positive treatment of non-hetero-conforming intimacy, is more than enough to render its box office receipts irrelevant.

TELEVISON

1. “Heartstopper”

Kit Conner and Joe Locke in ‘Heartstopper.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

This one is a no-brainer. The British Netflix import based on the webcomic by Alice Oseman (who adapted it for the screen) is a show to win the heart of even the most cynical viewer and have them ready to binge it straight to the end after watching only the first five minutes. The story of two boys’ school students – on opposite ends of the campus popularity spectrum – who form an unlikely friendship that blossoms into something more, is infectiously sweet and unrelentingly positive without feeling like an impossible fairy tale. More than that, its tender depiction of two youthful hearts negotiating the pangs and pressures of first love while navigating their school’s deeply ingrained social hierarchy has enough universal and multi-intersectional appeal to help it transcend its “queer content” genre and become an all-inclusive touchstone for younger generations – and to make older viewers wish they had grown up with a show like this one. None of it would work, however, without the soulful and endearing performances of series leads Joe Locke and Kit Connor, whose individual talents and shared chemistry make this big-hearted show a classic for the ages.

2. “Interview With the Vampire”

Sam Reid and Jacob Anderson in ‘Interview with the Vampire.’ (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Three decades after Anne Rice’s saga of love among the undead was turned into a plush big screen star vehicle for Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, fans of the late author’s wickedly sexy and thrillingly subversive novel – and the multi-book series that followed it – finally got the version they deserved with AMC’s electrifying adaptation. 

Reimagining key details of Rice’s seminal narrative (changing her lead vampire’s origin story in old New Orleans to make him a Black creole entrepreneur instead of a wealthy white plantation owner with slaves, for one) to update its cultural relevance, it still maintains a strong connection to the passionate, poetic spirit of the original tale; even better, it more than makes up for the film version’s comparative “straight-washing” by embracing the same-sex romance between the story’s beloved protagonists – sensitive fledgling vampire Louis (Jacob Anderson) and his flamboyant creator-turned-lover Lestat (Sam Reid) – to cement the connection between Rice’s brooding, sexually fluid vampires and the millions of queer fans that have seen themselves reflected in the pages of Rice’s books all along. To top it all off, it pulls no punches in rendering both the gory savagery of the story’s horrors and the brazen eroticism of its sensually enhanced supernatural heroes – meaning that even if you’re never heard of Anne Rice, you’ll be hooked by the end of the first episode.

3. “The Andy Warhol Diaries”

Netflix makes the list again with this comprehensively drawn Ryan Murphy-produced docuseries that takes a deep dive into the text – and between the lines – of the infamous queer pop artist-and-tastemaker’s notoriously opaque posthumously published diary. Supplemented by insights from surviving members of Warhol’s inner circle and imagery from the extensive archives he left behind, it attempts to reveal the fragile inner life of an enigmatic figure who made lack of substance a cornerstone of his career; it succeeds beyond expectation, revealing a heartbreakingly human voice behind the minutiae he recorded from his daily routine, casting light on the romantic relationships he took pains to keep separate from his public image, and hinting at a greater connection between his emotional life and his art than critics and commentators have previously acknowledged. 

While it might not drop any bombshells or change the cultural conversation around Warhol and the era he helped to define, it gives us a behind-the-curtain glimpse that expands our empathy toward one of our greatest queer icons – aided by the controversial-but-effective AI-enhanced voice of actor Bill Irwin reading excerpts from the diary as Warhol – and that’s perhaps a much more meaningful accomplishment.

4. “Reboot”

Cast of ‘Reboot.’ (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

The most traditional series on our list, perhaps, is this queer-inclusive Hulu gem from “Modern Family” co-creator Steven Levitan, in which a young television writer (Rachel Bloom) gets a green light for her proposed reboot of a beloved ‘90s sitcom, which she plans to reinvent for a modern audience; her plan hits a snag, however, when the network brings in her father (Paul Reiser) – the original show’s creator – as a showrunner. 

Complicating things even further is the show’s returning cast (Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, Johnny Knoxville, and Calum Worthy), a dysfunctional collection of now-faded stars whose off-camera lives and relationships continually threaten to derail the production. The premise not only sets up a ripe field for comedy about the cultural conflicts and differing attitudes between older and younger generations, but it also provides limitless possibilities for Hollywood’s favorite pastime of making fun of itself; a top-flight, talented cast makes sure neither of those tropes feel tired, and Levitan’s signature rapid-fire comedic style ensures that every episode is laugh-out-loud funny. Our only complaint is that it’s so binge-worthy we burned through the debut season – which with only eight episodes feels frustratingly brief – and now we’re forced to wait for the next one.

5. “The Sandman”

Tom Sturridge in ‘The Sandman.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic book and its darkly beautiful, queer-inclusive mystical universe have been waiting for more than 30 years to see it come to the screen, but this moody and stylish Netflix adaptation proved to be well worth their patience. With an excellent Tom Sturridge heading the cast as Morpheus – the saga’s mercurial “hero,” who rules over the Kingdom of Dreams and holds the fate of the human world in his immortal hands – and big-budget production values that bring the striking visual aesthetic of the original comic to thrilling life, it captures Gaiman’s macabre metaphorical fantasy saga and its wide assortment of conflicted, complex characters and themes to a pitch-perfect tee. Sure, some purists might quibble about the gender-swapping and/or reimagining of characters to create an even more diverse and inclusive blend than the original comic – but to us, those flourishes feel like a healthy evolution that only strengthens the appeal of a timeless classic. Besides, any show audacious enough to give us Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer is a masterpiece, in our book.

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‘Pelosi in the House’ a fascinating, must-see documentary

Speaker is a force, whether doing laundry or surviving Jan. 6

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‘Pelosi in the House’ a fascinating look at an LGBTQ ally. (Image courtesy HBO)

‘Pelosi in the House’
Directed by Alexandra Pelosi
Available on HBO platforms

It’s often said that Washington, D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people. This may be true for uncharismatic politicos. But “Pelosi in the House,” a documentary just out on HBO, directed by documentarian Alexandra Pelosi, shows that this trope doesn’t describe Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

From the get-go, in this 145-minute film, Nancy Pelosi, 82, who announced that she’s stepping down as Speaker of the House, holds your attention.

Whether she’s at her home doing her laundry during a (remote) meeting with former Vice President Mike Pence, dancing with one of her grandchildren or going through the halls of the Capitol (stilettos clacking), Pelosi is captivating.

She’s an extraordinary vote counter, fundraiser, campaigner, and party leader, while fighting sexism and the glass ceiling. And she looks great wearing a red coat and sunglasses, or pajamas.  

If politics is your jam, you’ll enjoy this documentary. If you’re expecting an intimate look into Pelosi’s psyche, you’ll likely be disappointed.

It’s hard to think of a more steadfast LGBTQ ally than Pelosi (D-Calif.). From her first floor speech about AIDS in 1987 to her pivotal role in securing passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, Pelosi has championed the queer community. 

During her decades of service, Pelosi shepherded the passage of much legislation, perhaps most notably the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re a tough nut to crack,” Alexandra Pelosi, one of Nancy Pelosi’s five children, says to her mother in “Pelosi in the House.”

Alexandra Pelosi tries to keep up as her mother power-walks through the Capitol, reminds Democrats who resist voting for Obamacare that there are no “free passes” and advises Barack Obama (then president) not “to go too far left.”

But Alexandra Pelosi’s talent as a filmmaker doesn’t help her to decode her mother. We watch as Nancy Pelosi dances with a grandchild and looks for a birthday card for a grandkid. Though totally consumed by her work, the Speaker is devoted to her family. You sense that she has feelings about life — her family, etc. — but Pelosi isn’t going to reveal them. Not even to her daughter.

“If that’s what you want to do,” the Speaker says to her filmmaker daughter trying to break her facade, “Crack your mom.”

You can tell that Alexandra Pelosi loves her mother. But, she’s not a partisan filmmaker. “Pelosi in the House” is the 14th documentary she’s made for HBO. 

Her documentary “Journeys with George” is about the 18 months she covered George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as a NBC News producer. The film received six Emmy nominations.

Her other documentaries include “Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi,” a film on evangelical Christians; and “Outside the Bubble,” a film about Trump supporters. Contrary to what you might expect, these documentaries aren’t hatchet jobs.   

Alexandra Pelosi isn’t a right-winger. But her documentaries on evangelicals and Trump voters are illuminating, not demeaning. 

“Pelosi in the House” doesn’t reveal Nancy Pelosi’s inner world. But it’s revealing to anyone who cares about not only politics, but democracy.

The film, shot in cinema verite style, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at vote counting and negotiating. There are poignant moments. Scenes of Pelosi and George W. Bush – of Pelosi on the phone with John McCain – remind us of when politicians saw each other as human beings, not just as demonized opponents.

“Pelosi in the House” is terrifying in its last half hour when it shows Nancy Pelosi in the midst of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

This footage has been shown at the Jan. 6 committee hearings. But watching it on screen, you get in your solar plexus, how our democracy nearly imploded.

Hitchcock couldn’t have dreamed up anything more frightening than the riot in the Capitol. Or more sinister than the recent brutal attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

Pelosi has received death threats and been the object of vicious right-wing ads. Being Speaker makes you a target “sometimes of mockery,” Nancy Pelosi says in the documentary, “sometimes of violence.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she says.  

“Pelosi in the House” is a fascinating must-see. 

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Brendan Fraser reclaims his star in ‘The Whale’

Film overcomes criticism of straight casting, use of fat suit

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Brendan Fraser delivers a powerful performance in ‘The Whale.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

We’re not going to lie to you: “The Whale” is a hard movie to watch.

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Darren Aronofsky, who has been disturbing audiences ever since “Requiem for a Dream” – his second feature, released in 2000 – subjected them to a grueling portrait of multiple characters driven to debasement and self-destruction by addiction. It was the kind of can’t-look-away cinematic experience that turned many viewers into instant fans even if they never wanted to see it again.

His latest film is comparatively less shocking, but it somehow manages to be almost as disturbing. Adapted for the screen by Samuel D. Hunter from his original play of the same name, “The Whale” documents a crucial week in the life of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a 600-lb shut-in who teaches a writing course for an online college. Consumed by grief over the death of his partner and haunted by guilt over abandoning his wife and child to be with another man, he has survived in his reclusive lifestyle thanks to regular visits from his only friend (Hong Chau), a professional nurse; now, with his health declining, and painful memories being stirred by a persistent young Christian missionary (Ty Simpkins) determined to “save” him, he decides to reach out to his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) in the hope of being reconciled with her before it’s too late.

It’s a movie that comes with considerable fanfare, thanks in no small part to its star, who disappeared from the limelight nearly two decades ago after a series of personal setbacks – including an alleged sexual assault, revealed by the actor in 2018, in which he claims to have been groped by former Hollywood Foreign Press Association President Philip Berk during a 2003 function in Beverly Hills – led him to abandon his career as one of Hollywood’s most likable leading men. News that Fraser had been cast in Aronofsky’s film prompted a wave of social media attention from a legion of Millennial fans eager to see a much-deserved comeback, and when the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, glowing praise for his performance – as well as a six-minute standing ovation for the movie itself – only served to heighten the buzz.

Yet alongside the feel-good narrative of a beloved actor’s triumphant return, there has also been a swirl of controversy – some over the casting of the heterosexual Fraser as a gay man, but mostly over criticism over the choice to put him in a prosthetic “fat suit” and what some cultural observers perceived as a stigmatizing portrayal of obesity.

For his part, Fraser rises above the fray to deliver a truly hype-worthy performance which validates the promise he showed but could never fully realize in his early career. Guided by consultations with the Obesity Action Coalition – which acknowledged the controversy around the use of prosthetics but endorsed the film for its “realistic” portrayal of “one person’s story with obesity” – and bolstered by extensive dance training to help him capture the physicality of moving with excessive weight, he seems to fully inhabit Charlie; there is no performative self-awareness to make us doubt his sincerity or distract from the emotional nuance he brings to the role, and he deploys the characteristic earnestness that made him an audience favorite in the ‘90s to undercut any suggestion of the morose. No matter where you stand on the cultural conflict over on-screen representation, it’s hard not to be impressed by a performance so refreshingly devoid of ego.

The same cannot be said for the film in which that performance exists. The ever-polarizing Aronofsky has been explicit in his insistence that “The Whale” is meant to be empathetic, yet for many viewers its messaging contradicts that assertion. Shooting the movie in an old-fashioned 1:33 aspect ratio, the director crowds his protagonist into the frame, further amplifying our impression of his size; his editing and camera angles emphasize – even exaggerate – the grotesque, treating close-ups of Charlie’s body like “jump scares” in a horror film and infusing his episodes of physical distress with a fascination that borders on fetish. He does everything he can to confront us with Charlie’s weight in ways that seem designed to repulse us.

These flourishes of excess are visually hard to take – after all, this is Darren Aronofsky – but what makes them even more unsettling is the challenge they present to our self-perception. Our visceral response to them forces us to measure our own level of empathy, to question the judgments we carry, and to think about the deeply ingrained cultural stigma that influences our attitudes about body acceptance.

The same confrontational approach pervades Hunter’s script. Embracing its theatricality, his adaptation never expands the action beyond Charlie’s cramped apartment and indulges in lengthy didactic exchanges that serve as a litmus test for our prejudices around religion, homophobia, marital infidelity, and more. Further, prompted by Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as a central element in Charlie’s obsessions (SPOILER ALERT: that’s why it’s called “The Whale”), we are strongly encouraged to interpret things with a strong dose of literary irony.

All of this might make a case for Aronofsky and company’s good intentions in making a film that promotes empathy, but it’s not likely to satisfy viewers who believe those intentions fail to justify a portrayal they see as demeaning. Though a majority of reviews so far have been positive, many critics have taken a harsher perspective, rebuking “The Whale” and its director over what they deem an insensitive depiction, and it’s not our place to say they’re wrong.

Even so, it has much to recommend it for cinephiles who take a wider view; though its approach may raise some hackles, it pushes us to look past self-satisfied pretensions of supportive solidarity and consider the reality of existence for those who struggle with extreme weight. Charlie’s self-esteem can’t be fixed by adopting a body–positive outlook, nor can the life-threatening impact of his size on his health be erased by acceptance; in the face of his profoundly traumatic lived experience, such solutions feel like shallow platitudes – and that’s a big part of what makes “The Whale” such a bitter pill to swallow.

That doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; constrained by its structure, it requires us to accept too many pat-and-perfect coincidences among its five characters to buy into its narrative, and some of its most cathartic moments feel unearned, even hollow, as a result. Then again, considering Aronofsky’s penchant for making films that feel more like parables than cinema, an expectation of realism might just be one more pretension the director is aiming to deflate.

In any case, Fraser is reason enough to give “The Whale” a chance. The movie belongs to him (though the whole cast is excellent, with standout turns from Chau and Sink), and his performance transcends its divisive provocations; and though Aronofsky may fall somewhat short of his ambitions, sometimes even undermine them, he nevertheless succeeds in shaking us out of black-and-white oversimplification and pointing us toward a deeper understanding of the world. In our book, that’s never a bad thing.

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Golden Globe nods reflect more queer inclusion, but is it enough?

Awards season is in full swing

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Evan Peters in ‘Monster — the Jeffrey Dahmer story.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Ready or not, Hollywood’s annual awards season has arrived.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association – better known as the institution behind the annual Golden Globe Awards and undoubtedly eager to kick off their comeback after scandal, censure, and boycott sidelined them from the limelight last year – started the week with a pre-dawn Monday announcement the nominees for the 80th annual awards presentation, honoring the best in film and television for 2022. 

For those who weren’t paying attention or simply don’t recall, the HFPA fell into disfavor within the industry after a bombshell 2021 LA Times investigation revealed a lack of diversity within its voting body and strongly suggesting numerous improprieties around its nomination process and financial practices. A majority of Hollywood heavy-hitters opted to boycott the Golden Globes – three-time winner Tom Cruise, for instance, returned his trophies in protest – and NBC, the network that had long been home to the annual presentation, canceled the telecast. The 2022 awards (for content released in 2021) proceeded, but they were announced via a comparative non-ceremony on Twitter.

Now, however, after implementing a self-imposed list of guidelines (including restructuring its voting body with a 50% increase in membership and a deliberate focus on diversity and BIPOC inclusion, along with reforms to limit and restrict gifts and promotional materials to HFPA members from studios and publicists), the Golden Globes have been restored to favor, and are slated to return to NBC for the live broadcast of their awards ceremony on Jan. 10.

Whether or not the organization’s reforms will result in any meaningful change remains to be seen. Either way, the Globes — long seen as a precursor to the Oscars — are back in the awards game; and as always, the Blade is here to offer a queer perspective on the films and individuals in the running to take home a trophy.

At first glance, many observers accustomed to the traditional Hollywood erasure of any LGBTQ presence from its content might see the list of 2022 nominees as disappointing; yet while it’s true that there are few openly queer people or directly queer films among the honorees, the overall slate reflects a shift in industry inclusivity that makes that conclusion feel much less cut and dried.

For instance, among the nominees for its major film categories are such titles as “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Tár,” “The Whale,” “Babylon,” and “The Inspection,” all of which feature queer characters or storylines, and queer filmmaker Baz Luhrmann earned a nod as Best Director for “Elvis.” Likewise, the TV nominations include queer inclusive shows like “Ozark,” “Hacks,” “Euphoria,” “Better Call Saul,” “The White Lotus,” “Andor,” “Severance,” and “Only Murders in the Building” – not to mention “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the controversial but acclaimed Ryan Murphy limited series that is arguably the most overtly queer title in the crop.

As for the performers, several of them earned their nods for playing LGBTQ characters. Among those in the film acting categories are frontrunners Cate Blanchett (“Tár”) and Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”), both straight actors giving sensitive and widely praised performances, and out queer actor Jeremy Pope (“The Inspection”). “Everything Everywhere” actresses Michele Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis, nominated in the Lead and Supporting Actress Comedy categories, respectively, could arguably be added to the list, too, since the film features scenes of an alternative universe in which the two are in a lesbian relationship.

As a relevant side note, Fraser has already vowed to boycott the ceremony, citing his accusation that he was groped by former HFPA president Philip Berk in 2003.

On the TV side, nominees like Zendaya (“Euphoria”), Colin Firth (“The Staircase”), Evan Peters (“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”) and out bisexual actress Hannah Einbender (“Hacks”) snagged nods for playing queer characters, while bi actresses Aubrey Plaza (“The White Lotus”) and Niecy Nash (“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”), as well as nonbinary talent Emma D’Arcy (“House of the Dragons), scored for their work, as well.

What does all of this say about the state of LGBTQ representation in Hollywood? While it’s true that straight performers are still earning accolades for “playing gay” on film, a lingering tradition decried by many observers as being out of step with evolving ideology around queer representation, the fact that they are sharing the spotlight with authentic queer nominees represents an unmistakable step forward. Similarly, though few of the nominated films and shows are predominantly focused on queer subject matter, a significant percentage of them – including Best Picture nominees “Everything Everywhere” and “Tár” – include a strong LGBTQ presence, and many heavily feature LGBTQ characters and plot lines within their larger scope. On top of those points, it should not go unnoticed that queer comedian Jerrod Carmichael has been tapped to host the Golden Globes when they air in January.

In other words, it just might be that we are entering an age when we must adjust our assessment of queer representation in Hollywood to fit an evolving model in which LGBTQ people are so regularly woven into the tapestry of film and television content as to be ubiquitous. It will always matter for openly queer actors to be acknowledged for their work, it will always be important for some percentage of movies and shows to put queer stories front and center, and it will likely always be necessary for us to fight to ensure those requirements are met by an industry that has traditionally treated us as irrelevant – but maybe, just maybe, if the trend suggested by the HFPA’s picks continues to hold, it might also be a little less necessary to keep such a tightly watched score card when it comes to being included.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the brilliant but hopelessly straight Martin McDonough film “The Banshees of Inershin” leads the Golden Globes tally with seven total nominations, and that among the notable snubs were Netflix’s “Heartstopper” and any number of other strong, positive queer-centric titles. So perhaps, after all, it’s a little early to ease our pressure on the entertainment establishment; it might be doing better, but it still has a long way to go. Until it gets there, we’ll keep looking at awards season as a barometer for Hollywood’s evolution into a queer-friendlier place.

In that way, it seems the Golden Globes are still relevant, after all.

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‘Framing Agnes’ unearths historic trans narratives for engaging doc

Pioneering figure beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game

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Chase Joynt and Zackary Drucker in ‘Framing Agnes.’ (Image courtesy of Kino Lorber)

You might assume in 2022 that information about our cultural heroes from the past would be readily available. After all, we carry the entire repository of human knowledge, or at least the potential for accessing it, in the palm of our hands; if someone has made a significant impact in our history, even within the history of a specific community, it stands to reason that a factual chronicle of their life would exist.

What happens, though, when an important figure is part of a community that has been historically disregarded by the mainstream narrative? When the influence they’ve cast across the years has been buried deep in anonymity by a determined effort to marginalize or even erase the community they represent?

That’s the question explored in “Framing Agnes,” a new film from transmasculine Canadian director Chase Joynt (“No Ordinary Man”) that blends documentary, narrative, and speculative analysis as it goes on a deep dive into the buried case files of an infamous gender health study headed by psychiatrist Robert Stoller at UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s. The “Agnes” of the title refers to the pseudonymous “Agnes Torres,” who was one of dozens of individuals interviewed as part of the research about transgender identity.

Agnes, portrayed in Joynt’s movie by Zackary Drucker (“Transparent”), has become legendary within the trans community for successfully navigating an institutional system to access the gender-affirming care it would otherwise have denied her. At a time when surgery was only granted to intersex individuals, she lied about having taken estrogen to feminize her body from an early age, claiming instead to have been born with physiological characteristics of both genders; she was given access the procedure, which was performed in 1959, and continued to participate in the study. Years later, she confessed her ruse to Stoller, who was then forced to retract and rethink the findings which had formed part of the basis for his influential writings around transgender identity — writings, it should be said, that approached the subject as a “pathology” and considered it a psychological condition to be corrected or prevented.

It’s easy to see why Agnes would be a heroic figure to today’s trans community. After all, she not only beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game, she also managed to single-handedly sabotage the credibility of theories that were being used to legitimize anti-trans bias. Though her real identity may be forever hidden to us, her audacity alone is more than enough to elevate her to the status of trans icon.

She was, however, not the only one. The interviews – which were conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, Stoller’s collaborator on the study – also document the lived experiences of many other anonymous participants, and Joynt’s film positions Agnes as only the best-known among what was, in fact, a much wider and more diverse sampling of individuals, all with relatable stories about living a trans life in mid-century America. These include trans women of color as well as trans men, who were far outside the boundaries of what most Americans were willing to accept in an era when Christine Jorgensen – pretty, blonde, and “respectably” cultured – was the only face of “transsexuality” in the public eye.

In “Framing Agnes,” Joynt elevates a handful of these unsung trans pioneers alongside Agnes, collaborating with several notable trans performers – besides Drucker, Angelica Ross (“Pose”), Jen Richards (“Mrs. Fletcher”), Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira are among the cast – to re-enact their interviews with Garfinkel on camera. Eschewing a straightforward approach in favor of a more artful conceit, these segments are presented not in their clinical setting, but in the style of a Mike-Wallace-style TV interview of the era, with Joynt himself taking on the role of Garfinkel opposite each of his subjects. Even further, he intersperses the re-enactments themselves with footage and interviews documenting the creation of the segments – something akin to a “making of” special feature built right into the movie itself – and commentary focused on putting these historical snapshots of trans life into the context of what we now understand about transgender identity.

While it all might sound a trifle art-y, the filmmaker maintains a loose, accessible, even playful tone to the style – while still respecting the subject matter, and the subjects – that no doubt contributed to the movie’s win of both the Audience Award and the “NEXT” Innovator Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival. Rather than interrupting the flow, this stylistic format illuminates the material as we go, giving us a chance to share the insights of the artists as they work to bring these nuggets of history to life, and offering an opportunity to reflect on how these long-hidden tales of queer existence connect to our own in the here and now.

Yet there are times in “Framing Agnes” – particularly in its latter half – when one can’t help but feel frustrated by a sense of distance. We are ultimately given only snippets of these compelling narratives and left only with conjectured facts that can be extrapolated from contextual circumstance or by reading between the lines; the onscreen discussion around them – helped immeasurably by the availability of language around the subject matter that didn’t exist at the time they were recorded – serves to enlighten, to amplify, and to humanize, but we are never allowed to get deeply enough inside them to really know the people at their center.

That, of course, is the answer to the question we posed in the beginning. When the record of our heroes has been suppressed, all we have left are icons. We can surmise, project, interpret, and guess as much as we want, but we can never know much, if anything, about them beyond whatever words they may have left us. In the case of Agnes and her fellow interviewees, those words reveal much about what it was like to be trans in their time, and verify many of our assumptions about it while contradicting others. 

They tell us things about their feelings, their relationships, their self-esteem, their survival tactics, and many of the other universal touchstones of experience that can evoke solidarity between generations an era apart; beyond these things, they tell us nothing, and we can only rely, like the artists who came together to create “Framing Agnes,” on our imaginations.

It helps that each of the performers seems deeply invested in their character – further proof, if any were needed, of the value of lived experience over outsider assumption when it comes to acting in such roles – and that the vintage segments are executed with meticulous skill and attention to detail. And if we are denied, perhaps, the opportunity to fully access the lives of the people Joynt’s movie profiles, we are welcomed into the conversation about them – indeed, into the whole creative process – by the artists who brought them to us.

“Framing Agnes” is currently in a limited theatrical run before expanding to select cities nationwide. If it doesn’t make it to a screen near you, don’t worry – it’s slated for a streaming debut early next year.

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The ‘Spoiler’ is you’re going to cry

Love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly

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Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge star in ‘Spoiler Alert.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

It’s been a refreshing year for LGBTQ love stories on the screen. From “Fire Island” to “Bros,” from “Crush” to “Anything’s Possible,” we’ve seen narratives that offer up hopeful and positive alternatives to the gloomy outcomes presented by movies of the past. Instead of stories that reinforce the tired trope of doomed queer romance, we’re finally seeing ourselves get the same chance at a happily-ever-after ending as everybody else. 

It’s been a welcome change – but just when Hollywood finally seems to have finally figured out that all our relationships don’t have to end in tragedy, “Spoiler Alert” has come along to remind us that sometimes they still do.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Michael Ausiello (“Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies”) and directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by David Marshall Grant and gay blogger/author/pundit Dan Savage, it’s the true story of a couple (Ausiello and his eventual husband, photographer Kit Cowan) who find love and build a relationship over the course of more than a decade only to face the heartbreak of Kit’s diagnosis of – and his (SPOILER ALERT, hence the title) premature passing from – a rare form of terminal cancer. Though It’s not exactly a rom-com, it does try to keep things light-hearted, and it aims for the uplift despite its foregone tragic conclusion.

That’s a tough tightrope to walk. The book, penned by veteran television and entertainment journalist Ausiello, pulled it off successfully, becoming a bestseller – and not just among queer readers – with its warts-and-all celebration of what it truly means to commit to love. After all, we may adore our fairy tale fantasies, but we all know that even a couple’s best-case scenario is guaranteed a sad ending; Ausiello’s first-person written narrative managed to get the point across that it’s all worth it, anyway.

Sometimes, though, a literary device that works on the page doesn’t translate easily to the screen, and on film, Ausiello’s “we-already-know-the-outcome” approach faces a more resistant challenge.

In the first act of the film, which details the meeting and early romance of its two lead characters (Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge as Michael and Kit, respectively), our knowledge of the ending becomes an obstacle. This may be particularly true for more jaded viewers, who are apt to be keenly aware of the emotional payoffs being set up in advance. Heartwarming moments can easily come off as deliberate, even manufactured, and one might sense an obvious bid to force our identification with the characters in the movie’s deployment of all the standard “new gay relationship” tropes. In reading, it’s easy to personalize such universal moments through our own imaginations, which can fill in the spaces (and the faces) in a way that rings true for us. On film (this film, at least), such communally identifiable experiences run the risk of feeling manipulative: a little too perfect, a little too pat, a little too “meet-cute,“ and a little too… well, precious.

The dissonance between formulaic fantasy and genuine lived experience is sometimes made even more obtrusive by occasional flashbacks to Michael’s childhood, framed as excerpts from an imagined ‘90s sitcom, which distance us further from the story – a stylistic ploy that seems intended to keep the tone of the narrative as far from tragic as possible.

When it’s time to get real, however, Showalter’s film lands on more solid ground. Once the blissful “happy-ever-after” couple-hood of the two men is established, the movie takes us into deeper, more mature – and therefore, less predictable – territory. Things don’t end up being perfect in Michael and Kit’s ostensible lover’s paradise: jealousies, self-esteem issues, and the inevitable individual growth that sometimes drives wedges between us in our relationships take their toll. As any successful long-term couple – queer or otherwise – is bound to discover, relationships take a lot of work, and seeing the two protagonists confront that seldom-told part of the story goes a long way toward making their experience more relatable for those who are looking for more than mere aspirational fantasy.

So, too, does the acting from the two leads. Parsons, who struggles against the obvious artificiality of playing against being two-decades-too-old in the film’s earlier scenes, blossoms once the story moves ahead in time to deliver an emotionally brave and affectingly authentic portrait of a man overcoming the baggage of his awkward and socially isolated youth (there’s a Smurf addiction involved, need we say more?) and finding the resilience to weather a battle for his lover’s life. Aldridge, a Brit flawlessly playing American, is perhaps even better – not that it needs to be a competition – as Kit, whose easy-going self-esteem masks a world of unresolved insecurities and makes an almost-too-good-to-be-true character endearingly real; perhaps more importantly, the emotional journey he’s tasked with portraying requires an absolute dedication to unornamented truth, and he delivers it impeccably.

It helps that the two actors, who carry most of the movie’s running time, have a convincingly natural chemistry together that gradually persuades us to invest in these characters even if we had resisted becoming invested in them before. Bolstering the emotional solidity even further is the presence of seasoned pros Sally Field and Bill Irwin as Kit’s parents, who deepen this not-as-clueless-as-they-seem pair beyond the familiar stereotype they represent and raise them above the easy sentimentality they might otherwise have carried into the story’s already-poignant mix. 

These considerable advantages are enough to help us forgive the movie’s contrived expository beginnings, though its ongoing sitcom conceit for childhood flashbacks – as well as its occasional fourth-wall-breaking interruptions from Michael’s TV obsessed imagination – continue to feel a little gimmicky, especially after the plot has passed the point where such amusements are welcome or even necessary.

Still, the movie’s fortunate choice to play against its tearjerker underpinnings – such as when it undercuts a particularly histrionic scene of hospital drama by calling itself out on its own shameless nod (which any gay movie buff will surely already recognize) to an iconic moment from a cinema classic – keeps the tears which finally come from feeling as though they’ve been shamelessly manipulated out of us. It’s this quality that marks the best entries in the tearjerker genre; the thing that movies like “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolia” have in common (besides Shirley MacLaine) is their ability to lean fully into the artifice of their own weepy, sentimental style without sacrificing the sincerity of their emotional payoffs. Films like these don’t play their big moments for drama, or even for laughs, to keep us involved – they play those moments for truth. “Spoiler Alert” clearly aspires to the same standard.

It mostly succeeds, after an awkward start; though some viewers might find its quirkier narrative conceits to be an overcompensation for its weepy ending, its characters are real enough to get past all that and win us over. And though it’s hard to deny that it’s ultimately another tragic gay love story, it manages to remind us that love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly.

After all, just because a romance is doomed doesn’t mean it has to be a downer.

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A queer screen roundup for the holidays

Hotly anticipated films like ‘The Whale’ and a Whitney biopic are just around the corner

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Brendan Frazier stars in ‘The Whale.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and we all know what that means.

No, we’re not talking about digging out all those saved recipes for using leftover turkey. We mean, of course, that it’s time for the Blade’s annual Holiday Entertainment Preview, when we round up all the new LGBTQ viewing options coming our way during the upcoming season. No, they’re not all themed for the holidays (because, let’s face it, sometimes everybody needs a little escape from all that seasonal cheer), but they’re all definitely worth spending a couple of hours’ worth of your time in between shopping, planning, partying, and going to the gym to work off all those giant meals and decadent sweets.

“She Said” (in theaters Nov. 18)
Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan star as New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in this true-life drama about the investigation that led to the bombshell 2017 report exposing Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual misconduct against women. There’s no direct LGBTQ connection here, per se, but the #MeToo movement inspired by the revelations is cause enough for us to include it on our list, simply in the name of solidarity. The fact that it’s female-written and female-directed (by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Maria Schrader, respectively) bodes well for the messaging in this one, which also stars Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Morton.

“Wednesday” (Netflix, Nov. 23)

Again, there’s no direct LGBTQ connection within the content here (at least as far as we know, yet), but surely none is needed to explain why this new supernatural comedy/mystery series from Executive Producer Tim Burton and creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar – detailing the crime-solving adventures of now-teenaged Wednesday Addams as she navigates her high school years at Nevermore Academy – has our recommendation. The goth daughter of Gomez and Morticia has long been a queer fan favorite, after all, and there are plenty of other reasons to look forward to this new iteration of “The Addams Family” and its “creepy and kooky” world. Starring Jenna Ortega in the title role, with Gwendoline Christie, Riki Lindhome, and Jamie McShane – and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzman, and Fred Armisen making guest appearances as Morticia, Gomez, and Uncle Fester, respectively.

“The Holiday Sitter” (Hallmark, Dec. 11)

This one not only has LGBTQ appeal, it’s an actual holiday movie. From the notorious-but-beloved Christmas universe of the Hallmark Channel comes the network’s first holiday rom-com about two men (a queer couple was featured in 2020’s “The Christmas House,” but it wasn’t about them falling in love) starring out “Mean Girls” star Jonathan Bennett as a workaholic bachelor who finds himself overwhelmed while babysitting for his out-of-town sister and her husband and recruits a handsome neighbor to help him. We’re sure you’ll know where things will go from there, but it should be a cozy seasonal watch, anyway. Also starring George Krissa and Chelsea Hobbs.

“Spoiler Alert” (in theaters, limited Dec. 2 / wide Dec. 9)

December’s awards season push kicks off with this adaptation of Michael Ausiello’s bestselling memoir, in which a young gay couple meet, fall in love, and build a life together for over a decade – only to be faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis for one of them. We know it doesn’t sound like holiday cheer, but it takes as light an approach with the subject matter as possible; that doesn’t mean you won’t cry, of course, but this Michael Showalter-directed tearjerker is hoping you’ll get the point that love is worth it even when you know there’s going to be a sad ending – and you can’t ask for a more appropriate seasonal message than that. Starring Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, and Bill Irwin.

“Framing Agnes” (in theaters, limited Dec. 2/Dec. 9)

Not quite a documentary, not quite a fictional narrative, this innovative cinematic exercise from director Chase Joynt takes the story of Agnes – a pioneering transgender woman whose participation in an infamous UCLA gender health study in the 1960s allowed her to gain access to gender-affirming healthcare – and blends it with other stories from long-shelved case files to “widen the frame through which trans history is viewed.” Promising “vividly rendered” re-enactments of vintage trans history, collaboratively created by an all-star cast of trans performers, artists, and thinkers, this one is only getting a limited theatrical release, for now – but even if it doesn’t screen near you, keep your eyes open, because it looks like it’s worth waiting for. Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, and Zackary Drucker are among the featured stars.

“The Whale” (in theaters, Dec. 9)

Another award contender surfaces with this buzzy new drama from the ever-intense Darren Aronofsky, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play and featuring the long-anticipated return of former Hollywood hunk Brendan Fraser – who stars as an obese middle-aged man trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter after abandoning her and her mother to be with another man. It’s won awards already, at Venice and other film festivals, and if the advance praise we’ve been hearing – both for the film and for Fraser’s comeback performance – is to be believed, it’s probably going to get several more. But that’s not why we recommend it; we just know you love Brendan Fraser as much as we do. Also starring Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton.

“Babylon” (in theaters, Dec. 23)

“La La Land” filmmaker Damien Chazelle returns with this original period epic set in 1920s Los Angeles, and he doesn’t skimp on the star power. With Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva leading an ensemble cast, this lavish look at early Hollywood traces the rise and fall of several intertwined characters to spin a tale of “outsized ambition during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity.” We’re told there’s a queer storyline involved, though there are no details yet – but regardless of that, we’re in based on that description alone. Also starring Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, and Olivia Wilde, this is bound to be another awards favorite, and probably a whole lot of opulent fun, too.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (in theaters, Dec. 23)

Finally, this eagerly awaited biopic of Whitney Houston – directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten – shows up just in time for Christmas to deliver “a no-holds-barred portrait” of the iconic pop star, following her life and career from New Jersey choir girl to one of the best-selling and most awarded recording artists of all time. Starring BAFTA winner Naomi Ackie as Houston, it promises to take us on “an inspirational, poignant – and so emotional – journey” through the late singer’s “trailblazing life and career,” with “show-stopping performances and a soundtrack of the her most beloved hits as you’ve never heard them before.” That’s a lot of hyperbole, but frankly, we’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get real about Houston’s long-obscured sexuality. Even so, it gets our tentative recommendation on the basis of diva interest alone.

Happy holidays!

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Gay Night at Hollywood Chinese

“As a gay Chinese American, I wanted to make sure that the gay part of my identity would be out front” Dong said

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Arthur Dong (Photo by Michael Baker/Academy Museum Foundation)

LOS ANGELES- The Academy of Motion Pictures is hosting a “gay night” on Friday November 18th and 7:30PM, as part of Arthur Dong’s twenty-three-day-long curated series, “Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years.” The showing will include a double feature of M. Butterfly with The Wedding Banquet as well as a conversation between Dong and Andrew Ahn.

Dong is an Oscar-nominated and award-winning filmmaker, author, and curator best known for his work centered around Asian American and LGBTQ stories. Some of his notable works include films Coming Out Under Fire, Licensed to Kill, and Family Fundamentals, and books based on his documentaries Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970, and Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films. 

“Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years” showcases a film series that both critiques and celebrates Hollywood’s depictions of the Chinese and presents groundbreaking Chinese and Chinese American artists who navigated industry challenges from the beginning of film history to now.

“When the Academy Museum commissioned me to guest curate this series, I knew I had to include a gay element somehow,” says Dong. “After all, an important task in my programming the series was to undo the erasure of the Chinese from American film history. As a gay Chinese American, I wanted to make sure that the gay part of my identity would be out front.”

AndrewAhn (Photo by Janice Chung)

Filmmaker Andrew Ahn’s latest feature, FIRE ISLAND (Searchlight Pictures), starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, and Margaret Cho, is currently streaming on Hulu. He has promoted diversity in the arts by mentoring youth filmmakers through programs like Pacific Arts Movement’s Reel Voices, Outfest’s OutSet, and the Sundance Institute’s Native Filmmaker Lab. 

The conversation between Dong and Ahn will center around the significance of the two films as they relate personally to Andrew, his films, and his growing up gay, the significance of the two films in the history of LGBTQ AAPI films, and the state of LGBTQ AAPI films and filmmaking today.

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‘Far From Heaven’ still packs a punch 20 years later

Queer classic a merciless deconstruction of American identity

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Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid in ‘Far From Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

One of the joys of great movies – as any real cinema buff can surely attest – is the ability to revisit them through a new set of eyes. Though the images they show us are frozen, unchanging from the day they were first captured, you the viewer and the world you live in are different each time you watch them.

This shift in perspective becomes even more apparent when the movie in question is one you haven’t seen in many years. There’s a risk involved, of course: re-watching a favorite, you may find it doesn’t live up to your fond memories. On the other hand, you could discover previously unappreciated layers that make you love it even more than you did before. Either way, you’re likely to experience the movie as if it were completely new.

Sometimes, though, the power of a movie over time can be deepened by just how much watching it feels the same – and that’s why queer filmmaker Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” which turns 20 years old this month, speaks even louder to us now than it did in 2002.

Even then, of course, it was a look back at a faraway past. Set in the upper-middle-class world of Hartford, Connecticut, in the late 1950s, it transported us into a seminal period of our history and forced us to take stock of just how much things have changed – and just how much they haven’t – in our own time.

Borrowing more than a page from the glossy Technicolor melodramas of the era in which it takes place – in particular, the work of Douglas Sirk, a German immigrant whose outsider’s eye tinged the soapy escapist films he directed with a subtle undercurrent of social criticism that would only come to be appreciated by a later generation – “Far From Heaven” is both a painstaking homage to a classic genre and a merciless deconstruction of American identity. 

Awash in rich fall colors and adorned down to the smallest detail with pristine replication of the period’s iconic clothing, architecture, décor, and automobiles, its aesthetic – breathtakingly beautiful from start to finish – was accomplished by team effort. Haynes wrote a screenplay ripe with the familiar over-the-top style of the vintage films he wanted to recreate and directed with an eye toward emulating the visual conventions – framing, camera angles, editing choices – with which they were composed, even to the point of using old-fashioned rear projection process shots for driving scenes; cinematographer Edward Lachman captured it all on film utilizing the same lens filters and lighting techniques used by his 1950s forebears; Elmer Bernstein, who composed the music for many of the same classics that inspired the film, envelops the narrative in the lush romantic strains of his final major score, adding an even more tangible layer of authenticity to the package; and an impeccable cast of gifted screen actors, led by Julianne Moore in a performance that won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival (and should have won her an Oscar, according to many awards-show pundits who consider her loss to Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” one of the Academy’s most egregious snubs), play out the drama with all the skill required to honor the movie’s mise-en-scène while still making each moment feel palpably real.

Yet as impressive as the film is as a technical achievement in style, it’s not defined by that measure alone. Rather, the style functions entirely in service of a larger goal, in which the myth of “the good old days” is lavishly rendered onscreen only to be torn down by a narrative that asserts all the reasons why they weren’t so good after all.

First and foremost, our identification is imprinted upon Moore’s character, Cathy Whitaker, a housewife living within a picture-perfect existence as an ideal and dutiful homemaker. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is a higher-echelon executive at a television manufacturing company – the 1950s equivalent, perhaps, of a tech bro – whose paycheck she spends in the daily running of the household she shares with him and their two young children, a job made considerably easier by the presence of hard-working housekeeper Sybil (Viola Davis); her personal time is filled with the obligatory demands of her class position – organizing fundraisers, car-pooling kids to school and extra-curricular activities, and planning parties designed as much to show off her family’s position of status and privilege as for anything else. Her idyllic existence, however, is about to be disrupted.

Frank, as she discovers in the most awkward way imaginable, turns out to have long-repressed homosexual desires, upon which he has begun acting by delving into the hidden underground world of closeted 1957 queer life and which have put an even greater emotional distance into their already-perfunctory marriage. At the same time, she begins a friendship with her Black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a widowed father raising a daughter on his own while operating a successful landscaping business that serves the prosperous white community. Naïve but good-hearted, she clings to the hope that psychological conversion can “cure” her wayward husband, while denying her own feelings toward Raymond and remaining willfully dismissive of the “Karen-ish” outrage and salacious gossip that infects her social circle – even her closest friend (Patricia Clarkson), whose loyalty ends up extending only as far as her own prejudices will allow – about the nature of her relationship with him. Even in a real 1950s melodrama, she would be in for a hard lesson.

That lesson might be entirely predictable from our contemporary point-of-view – most of us have long acknowledged the homophobia and racism hiding behind the cheery domestic bliss of the Eisenhower years, and the punitive stigma levied against anyone who dared defy that social order is sadly still an oft-told tale. It’s easy for us to foresee how wrong things will go for Cathy as she persists in going against the grain to follow the yearnings of her heart – but what makes her story resonate with modern audiences has nothing to do with any expectation of a happy ending.

Instead, the power of “Far From Heaven” lies in the uncomfortable realization that sexuality and race are still, decades later, a great divider within the American social order, and the melancholy chill which comes from watching Cathy (and Frank, too, for that matter) fall inevitably from grace into ostracized “other” status. Haynes – who rose to prominence as one of the architects of the “new queer cinema” of the ‘90s by exploring the traumatic memories of Boomer childhood in films that questioned then-dominant assumptions of established norms and illuminated the crushing isolation of being someone you’re not “supposed” to be – crafts his film with a heightened reality that feels more like a sedative-induced hallucination than a tranquil dream; in paying tribute to the Hollywood tearjerkers that influenced his youth, he re-imagines them through the lens of hindsight, revealing the “American Dream” that reinforced our preconceived assumptions about the “natural order” of things to be nothing more than a cruel and manipulative lie. That message was clear two decades ago; now, it rings truer than ever.

In 2002, it was a quietly devastating assertion that only the privileged few had reason to look back fondly on mid-20th-century life in our country. In 2022, in the wake of a disastrous conservative push to “make America great again” by regressing to the strictures of a long-tarnished fantasy, it’s a chilling reminder of just how much we have to lose.

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Movies

Blanchett triumphs with tour-de-force in ‘Tár’

Year’s best film so far a testament to genius of Todd Field

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Cate Blanchett stars in ‘Tár.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The only thing you need to know before going to see “Tár” is that it is not a true story. 

Lydia Tár, the acclaimed female conductor profiled in Todd Field’s newest film, is entirely fictional, despite confusion online from people who mistakenly believed otherwise. It’s easy to see why; a story about a respected cultural figure’s fall from grace might easily be drawn directly from current headlines, and the world depicted onscreen – an exclusive, insular environment in which high art, big money, and base motives exist eternally in uneasy tension with each other – comes across as completely authentic, down to each granular detail. It feels real, even if it’s not – and that, of course, is one of the things that make “Tár” such a singular film.

This shouldn’t surprise those familiar with writer-director Field, whose short-but-eloquent resume – he’s made only three films in 21 years, perhaps mirroring the less-than-prolific pace of former mentor Stanley Kubrick, and “Tár” is the first since 2006 – speaks volumes about his mastery of cinematic craft. His earlier works – “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Little Children” (2006) – were distinguished by a literary instinct for finding big truth in tiny details and for a keen, almost merciless understanding of the psychology of their characters. In each case, too, there was a focus on the uncomfortable corners of our lives – grief, adultery, domestic violence, pedophilia, murder – and on the way that our intimate secrets spin webs into our public lives. Above all, perhaps, those films were about the masks we wear to disguise the desires we don’t want others to see.

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is the natural legacy of these previous explorations, a culmination of all those potent themes in one enigmatic character. As maestro of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, she’s at the peak of an already monumental career; she’s renowned for her interpretations of the classical canon and an accomplished composer in her own right, a respected musical theorist and practitioner who has achieved world-class fame and success as a woman in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. She’s also a lesbian, raising a young daughter with her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss).

None of these biographical facts, however, tell us anything about who she really is. To learn that, we have to watch as Field’s intricately crafted movie unspools her for us.

More a montage of slice-of-life episodes than a traditional narrative, “Tár” introduces us to its title character through a series of text messages about her between unknown others, just enough to imply that something about her is not what it seems. From then on, everything we see is tinged with suspicion. Field examines her life like a researcher documenting observations, drawing us in with a perspective heightened by specificity – more hyperreal than surreal – as he reveals the gradually widening cracks in her inscrutable façade. 

At first, she seems an aspirational figure – brilliant, poised, and supremely confident; gradually, her personal interactions – with overworked PA Francesca (Noémie Merlant), or fawning associate-and-rival Eliot (Mark Strong), or promising young cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer), among others – reveal glimpses of more questionable qualities, perhaps even a hint of narcissism; finally, a pattern emerges, and we begin to recognize, even before she does, that Lydia’s compartmentalized life is about to come crashing down around her.

It’s an intensely visceral experience, a twist on the “unreliable narrator” motif that invites us to identify with a character that will later be revealed as a fraud. It’s hardly a new tactic, but in Field’s provocative movie, it strikes a hauntingly dissonant chord – in large part because of the cultural moment in which it comes.

Without revealing too much detail, it’s clear enough that sexual misconduct is part of the equation in “Tár,” so it’s not a spoiler to discuss the way the film subverts the all-too-familiar narrative around that sensitive subject. We are now, sadly, so saturated with scandals around men who use their power as a vehicle for sexual predation that they are dangerously close to becoming a trope. By suggesting that a woman might be the predator, Field challenges our assumptions about that dynamic; yet, far from diminishing the culpability of male abusers by showing females are capable of the same behavior, he reminds us that “toxic masculinity” is a systemic phenomenon. Lydia Tár is the product of a long-established order in which the road to professional success is both paved and defined by male-centric hierarchy; though that order may have become more inclusive, the hierarchy remains unchanged – and the gender lines around sexual predation have become blurred.

Some queer audiences, it should be said, may find further controversy in the film’s presentation of the queer woman as victimizer – an old and toxic bit of coded subtext that has been a part of cinematic storytelling ever since the days of the silent vamp. While this might feel particularly tone deaf when current conservative rhetoric includes terms such as “grooming” in its effort to stigmatize LGBTQ people, there’s no homophobic agenda in “Tár” – only a cautionary assertion that real life is not subject to the expectations of the bubbles in which we find safe haven. More than that, Field arguably accomplishes the fairest representation possible by allowing its queer protagonist – and despite whatever moralistic judgments his movie may invite us to explore, that’s what she is – to be as imperfect a human being as anyone else.

There are many other perspectives, as well, through which to view “Tár” – much has been made by commentators about its focus on “cancel culture,” for example, and the influence of social media and virtual discourse over our social mores and ethics. It’s a testament to the genius – yes, we’ll use that word – of Todd Field that all of them are valid, but none of them define his film. 

Great as his talent may be, though, none of what works about the movie would be possible without its star. Field has said he wrote the role for Blanchett – if she had declined it, the movie would never have been made – and she gives a career-defining performance as Lydia Tár; her dedication goes much further than simply learning the necessary musical skills required – which she did, in order to flawlessly play piano and conduct a live orchestra onscreen – to realize a monumental and multi-faceted character from the ground up. Fierce yet vulnerable, tender and loving yet cold and compassionless, she’s a walking contradiction, subject to the same hubris as the rest of us; because of this, we are able to find empathy for her no matter how far out of control she goes – and without that crucial element, the film would fall flat.

It doesn’t. Instead, it’s an engrossing, even thrilling piece of cinema that keeps us wrapped around its finger for a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time that feels far shorter than that. It’s also the kind with which one must sit for a while before deciding whether we loved it or hated it, and the kind for which there can really be no response in between.

That means we can’t guarantee which side you’ll come down on, or for what reason – but for our part, “Tár” might just be the best film of the year so far.

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