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‘The Latent Image’: Lust. Uncertainty. Violence.

The film is a slow burn thriller that patiently sets up its pieces across the board & plays a tense game full of lust, uncertainty, & violence

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Courtesy of Cinephobia Releasing

By Harrison J. Bahe | PHOENIX, AZ. – “The Latent Image” revolves around a young writer who retreats to an isolated cabin to write a mystery thriller novel but during one stormy night, a handsome, long haired stranger appears at his doorstep needing help. “The Latent Image” stars Joshua Tonks, Jay Clift, and William Tippery and is written and directed by Alexander McGregor Birrell. 

“The Latent Image” first came to me as a screener on Vimeo from Cinephobia Releasing. Knowing of the company’s repertoire for genre films, especially ones revolving around the LGBTQ+ community, I was eager to jump into the foray as I myself am a lover of many things this film encompasses: horror, LGBTQ+ films, and extreme cinema.

This excerpt comes from their website describing the kind of films they release: Launched by Ray Murray, founder of TLA Releasing and Artsploitation Films, Cinephobia Releasing is dedicated to presenting the most eye-opening genre and LGBTQ+ movies from around the world. The label is admittedly schizophrenic: offering both controversial, often sexually provocative dramas, edgy thrillers and uncompromising horror while also showcasing some of the best LGBTQ+ romances and dramas. Expect the unexpected. Expect the unexpected indeed! And boy, was I caught off guard with this one. Let’s jump in, shall we?

The Latent Image – 3.5 Typewriters out of 5

I suppose it needs to be said but I think that you’ll find yourself screaming at the screen in the opening moments of the film. Not so much from terror, but more from the inadvisable actions our main character commits. But it’s the seed upon which the whole plot grows from, so I suppose it’s necessary.

I’m speaking of course about allowing a complete stranger who broke into your cabin to continue to stay the night. The character motivations make sense however, as the reason the main character has retreated to this isolated cabin in the thick woodlands of Northern California, is that not only is he writing a crime thriller novel, he’s also having second thoughts about marrying his partner.

Perhaps some of those doubts boil down to the primal needs of any male when a strange albeit dashing long haired, leather jacket wearing stranger breaks into your cabin late at night asking for help. This is where you’ll start screaming at the screen NOT to allow this mystery man to stay the night because– well– no. Just no. 

What ensues is the meat of the film where the fantasies of our main character are externalized through visions and dreams. It is clear that he longs for his partner sexually and thus longs for this stranger sexually. Scenes of lust and sex play out but are immediately cut off only to return to the point where the fantasy took over. But the bizarre, sexually tense back and forth between our two characters is where the real strength of “The Latent Image” thrives.

The scenes of the two enacting the possibilities of an unfolding crime within the novel are so hypnotic that you’re not sure if you want them to fuck or kill each other. Maybe both. Doubt is cast into the wind about both characters and until its tense finale, it’ll have you guessing who you can trust and who you cannot. 

“The Latent Image” is a slow burn thriller that patiently sets up its pieces across the board and plays a tense game full of lust, uncertainty, and violence. The chemistry between our two main characters is palpable. The film has you second guessing motivations until its violent finale. A film that has you doing that is a winner in my book.

“The Latent Image” is set to be released September 12th, 2023 in some shape or form. My hope is that this will have a physical release because I’d love to get my hands on a copy if not just to see some of that uncompressed film grain in glorious 1080p. The Vimeo version I saw was horribly compressed.

THE LATENT IMAGE – Cinephobia Releasing (Official Trailer) 2023

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Harrison J. Bahe is an openly gay indigenous filmmaker residing in Phoenix, AZ. He continues producing short films as well as photographing local models as a semi-pro photographer all while maintaining a job as a media specialist/teacher/tutor at his reservation’s educational department in Fort McDowell, AZ.

Photography: @bahe.photography
Filmmaking: @navajojoefilms

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Bernal shines as real-life gay wrestler in ‘Cassandro’

A polished, engaging film about a real-life figure that carries message of hope

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Gael García Bernal in ‘Cassandro.’ (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

For most Americans, any knowledge of the Mexican wrestling style known as lucha libre is probably limited to what they gleaned from the 2006 Jack Black comedy “Nacho Libre,” which (it should go without saying) is not a movie that anyone should consider “factual.”

Now another movie about the subject has arrived, and this time it’s not an anything-for-a-laugh fantasy but a biopic about a real luchador who rose to international fame in the 1980s and remains one of the most celebrated and popular figures in Mexican professional wrestling to this day.

The luchador in question is Saúl Armendáriz – better known to his fans as “Cassandro” – and the eponymously titled movie about his ascendency begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 22 after a limited theatrical release on Sept. 15.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who may not be a household name but has the distinction of being the first Black director to receive an Oscar, thanks to the 2009 win of his “Music by Prudence” for Best Documentary Short), “Cassandro” stars Gael García Bernal – a longtime ally who became a queer fan-favorite thanks to his work in films like “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education” – as the openly gay Armendáriz and tells the story of his rise to fame in direct defiance of the culturally reinforced homophobia that permeated the professional environment of his field. Set in the 1980s, it follows the future superstar from the early days of his career, tracing his steps as he forges a path to success as an exótico – a wrestler who assumes a flamboyant persona based in queer (and largely homophobic) stereotypes – while simultaneously rising above the stigma of his sexuality and his impoverished upbringing to become a pioneering force in LGBTQ+ acceptance within the deeply traditional Latino culture to which he belonged.

Like most biopics, it also focuses on the personal: much of the film’s first half is dominated by the relationship between Armendáriz and his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a professional “good-time girl” whose acceptance of his queer identity is absolute yet tempered by her fear for his well-being. There is also a long-running thread about his desire for approval from his father – a married man with a “legitimate” family in which he is decidedly not included – and the pattern in his personal life of repeating that dynamic in romantic relationships with unavailable lovers like closeted big-name luchador “El Comandante” (Raúl Castillo) and an apparently fluid but firmly “on the DL” associate named Felipe (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny for those unfamiliar with his “real” name) who clearly meets more than just his need for a reliable supplier of cocaine – it is the ‘80s, after all – while maintaining a strict-if-not-quite-convincing “no homo” stance.

Ultimately, though, as presented by first-time narrative feature director Williams (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague after previously covering Armendáriz’ story in the 2016 documentary short “The Man Without a Mask”), “Cassandro” is driven by a narrative about overcoming and reclaiming the pejorative cultural tropes around queer sexuality and turning them on their ear as a means toward fully inhabiting queer identity. Blessed with a relatively supportive mother – a plainly-implied career sex worker who is depicted as much as a kindred spirit as she is a maternal figure – and comfortable enough in his own skin to flaunt his “deviance” in the public eye, the film’s version of Armendáriz moves through a clearly defined arc toward self-acceptance on his own terms.

Much of this is mirrored, of course, in the tale of his accelerated rise to stardom, in which he wins the hearts of lucha libre fans enough to subvert the accepted formula that the exótico is always the loser, and reinforced by the ways in which he responds to the various long-term relationships in his life – some nurturing, some toxic – as his career trajectory helps him to recognize his own worth. In this way, “Cassandro” becomes a true-life tale of queer affirmation, the saga of a person who overcomes hardline traditional expectations and deep-rooted social prejudice to use his own queer identity as an avenue to personal empowerment.

That, of course, is exactly what it sets out to be: it’s an unabashedly pro-queer narrative that brings the highest level of professional artistry into the mix, using it to convey that subtle blend of aloof observation and emotional engagement that can sometimes win viewers’ hearts and minds.

In recognition of that artistry, the foremost acknowledgement must go to Bernal, who turns in a career-highlight performance as both Armendáriz and his over-the-top titular alter-ego, which requires an impressive display of physicality in addition to keen emotional intelligence. The actor is more than capable on both fronts, and while it would frankly be nice to see one of our queer heroes portrayed in a mainstream film by an actual queer actor, it’s hard to complain when the actor is someone like Bernal, who finds within his own lived experience the authenticity to make it all ring true. Kudos are also deserved for both De La Rosa, who establishes an emotional core to the story that endures even after she leaves it, and openly-queer actor Roberta Colindrez as the trainer (and friend) that helps “Cassandro” conquer the world of professional lucha libre wrestling by literally flipping the script.

Still, though there is clearly a heartfelt desire to inspire behind the movie’s portrayal of its hero’s unlikely rise to glory, “Cassandro” doesn’t quite deliver the kind of unequivocal “feel-good” validation for which it aims. There’s something rote about the story as it’s told to us; Armendáriz’ success seems a foregone conclusion, and his personal struggles – though impeccably acted and depicted with sincerity – feel somehow manufactured for the sake of a desired emotional response. There’s a sense of “Hollywood” about the film’s approach, a deliberate framing of the material which makes this real-life success story seem much too easy, its subject’s struggles too much like tropes to deliver the kind of authentic satisfaction the movie clearly aims for. Built on familiar formula, it all feels a little too predictable – especially for a saga centered in such a messy, wild-and-wooly environment as professional lucha libre. Yes, it inspires, but much of that is accomplished by playing to sentiment, by what seems a deliberate effort toward building and reaffirming a legend rather than revealing the real human experience behind it, and many details of Armendariz’ real story are left out  – a suicide attempt, a struggle with substance abuse, even the origin of his iconic stage name as a tribute to a brothel-keeper of whom he was fond – that might have made for a less-sanitized and much more interesting story.

Such quibbles, however, are probably a moot point for most viewers; while “Cassandro” might feel a little too hollow to satisfy completely, it’s a polished, entertaining, and engaging film about a real-life figure that should – and does – carry a message of hope and transcendence for queer audiences.

Why would we ever complain about that?

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Despite Hollywood strikes, a number of queer films, TV shows coming in fall

‘Rustin,’ ‘Nyad’ among season’s highlights

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Colman Domingo starts in ‘Rustin.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

We’re not going to lie: the prospects for our fall entertainment (and beyond) are looking grimmer than usual, thanks to the strikes that have Hollywood’s writers and actors off the job for an indefinite chunk of the future. Sure, there are lots of titles that were in the can and ready to go before the talent walked off the set, but with no certain end date in sight and a union-mandated ban on participation in publicity efforts, much of the ready-to-go content remains in release-date limbo, while prospects for new material being produced anytime soon are pretty much nil.

Even so, we’ve managed to put together a solid list of titles that are officially on the slate for this autumn, and we think it will give you more than enough to look forward to while we all wait for the entertainment industry to cobble together some kind of mutually acceptable agreement that will allow it to get back to work.

The list, by release date, is below.

Cassandro, Sept. 15 (Theaters)/Sept. 22 (Prime Video)

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, long a queer fan favorite thanks to his roles in films like “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education,” stars as the real-life Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who reinvents himself as the flamboyant title character and rises to international stardom as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” – turning both the macho wrestling world and his own life upside down in the process. Acquired by Amazon even before its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, this wild-and-wooly biopic was directed by Roger Ross Williams, who became the first African-American director to win an Oscar for his 2009 short film “Music by Prudence,” and it has all the earmarks of a “must-see.” Also starring Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, and Raúl Castillo, with special appearances from El Hijo del Santo and Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny, for those who didn’t know).

Sex Education, Season 4, Sept. 21 (Netflix)

The cast of this runaway UK hit has come a long way since the series debuted in 2019, with the imminent debut of breakout star Ncuti Gatwa as the new titular Time Lord of the venerable cult sci-fi series “Dr. Who” and his appearance, alongside co-stars Emma Mackey and Connor Swindells, in Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster hit “Barbie,” but that’s not enough to keep the whole student body from reuniting for a final season as they join fellow headliners Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson to wrap up the deliciously scandalous storylines that have made this good-natured dramedy about life and sexual discovery in a rural English secondary school a favorite for queer and straight audiences alike. Besides taking us along with its irresistible cast of misfits on a new set of adventures, it features “Schitt’s Creek” star and co-creator Dan Levy in special appearance as a new character – but even without that extra icing on the cake, we would have been ready to click “watch now” the second this one drops. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need our endorsement to bring you on board; if you’re not, we advise you to do a catch-up binge on seasons 1-3 in time to join the rest of us as we enjoy the final batch of episodes from this refreshing, queer-embracing, sex-positive slice of saucy absurdity. 

American Horror Story: Delicate, Sept. 21 (FX/Hulu)

Can Kim Kardashian act? Find out as she stars in ‘American Horror Story.’ (Photo courtesy of FX)

The 12th season of Ryan Murphy’s now-venerable and uncompromisingly queer horror anthology series has been, like the preceding installments, shrouded in mystery – though the inclusion of reality star Kim Kardashian in a starring capacity has garnered much publicity, and not a little controversy, due to skepticism about her acting chops. Despite these misgivings, it’s still probably one of the most anticipated entries on this list, the return of a queer fan favorite that – while it may have a reputation for uneven quality, haphazard storytelling, and fizzling out before it reaches the end – continues to draw the kind of audience numbers that has made it a tentpole autumn TV staple for a dozen years and counting. Sure, it’s a guilty pleasure, but we all have our share of those, and when they come in as slick and stylish a package as this elegantly garish and unapologetically campy pulp culture stalwart, who can resist? Also starring series veteran Emma Roberts, with fellow alums Zachary Quinto, Billie Lourd, Denis O’Hare, and Leslie Grossman also coming to the table, as well as Golden Globe winner Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and newcomer to the Murphy fold Matt Czuchry (“Gilmore Girls,” “The Good Wife”).

Dicks: The Musical, Oct. 6 limited/Oct. 20 wide (Theaters)

Comedy legend Larry Charles (“Seinfeld,” “Borat”) directed this outrageously titled and absurdly satirical farce, adapted by screenwriters and co-stars Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp from a stage production they created as members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. The pair star as two self-obsessed, conspicuously heterosexual businessmen and very close friends who discover they are also long-lost identical twins, sparking a “riotously funny and depraved” plot to reunite their eccentric divorced parents (Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally). Also starring Megan Thee Stallion and Bowen Yang (as God, no less), and teasing the kind of campy, transgressive vibe that marks all the true classics of underground queer cinema, the press for this one touts it as “a queer, hard-R musical comedy which may very well additionally be a future midnight-movie classic.” Frankly, that’s more than enough to earn it a place on our not-to-be-missed list.

Eismayer, Oct. 6 (Theaters/Oct. 10 Digital)

Fans of queer foreign movies can look forward to this Austrian entry, an award-winner at Venice and other prestigious film festivals, from director David Wagner. Gerhard Liebmann stars in the title role, a legendary real-life drill instructor in the Austrian Armed Forces; renowned for his brutal toughness and his uber-macho image, he leads a double life of anonymous sexual encounters with men behind his wife’s back, but when an openly gay new recruit (Luka Dimić) challenges both his authority and his rigid ideas about masculinity, he finds himself drawn into a relationship that will leave “his closeted existence shaken to the core.” A boot camp drama that challenges toxic traditional conceptions of what it means to “be a man” – especially one that is based on a true story – is always welcome, and this one comes with a substantial amount of praise to recommend it. Also starring Julia Koschitz and Anton Noori, it might not be “feel-good” entertainment, but the buzz says it’s worth seeking out for anyone with a taste for raw and uncompromising cinema. 

The Matthew Shepard Story: An American Hate Crime, Oct. 9 (ID Discovery)

Just in time for the 25th anniversary of his death, Investigation Discovery premieres a new documentary honoring Matthew Shepard’s life and legacy, featuring interviews from Matthew’s friends and allies, as well as local journalists and community members, and commentary from key celebrity voices deeply affected by Matthew’s tragic story, including Rosie O’Donnell, Andrew Rannells and Adam Lambert. Considered one of the worst anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in American history, Matthew’s shocking murder captured America’s attention and became a turning point in the fight for queer rights, jump-starting a long-overdue conversation about the discrimination, danger, and violence that many LGBTQ Americans face – especially in rural communities – every day, and if we’re being honest, there’s been no shortage of documentaries about it. Even so, this one, which benefits from the perspective granted by time and also casts attention on the progress society has made toward queer acceptance (as well as the work that still need to be done), promises to offer the kind of scope that gives it a relevance beyond simply lamenting the unjust cruelty perpetrated against a young gay man who – like all martyrs – became an unwilling touchstone in the eternal fight against bigotry, bullying, and brutality fueled by hate.

Candela, Oct. 10 (Digital)

Another international offering with a somewhat more exotic premise, this festival-acclaimed thriller co-produced by France and the Dominican Republic is set in the city of Santo Domingo, where the fates of three strangers – a privileged young high society woman, a lonely and alcoholic police lieutenant, and a charismatic cabaret drag performer – are entwined by the death of a young poet and drug dealer on the eve of an advancing hurricane. Directed by Andrés Farías Cintrón and touted as “a Caribbean pop movie,” it’s been noted by advance reviewers for its stunning imagery and visual style, its offbeat and captivating characters, and an “edge-of-your seat” suspenseful plot full of meticulously-crafted twists and turns. Starring Cesar Domínguez, Félix Germán, Sarah Jorge León, Ruth Emeterio, Frank Perozo, Yamile Scheker, and Katherine Montes, you won’t find this one at your local multiplex, but it should be well worth the handful of clicks it takes to queue it up on your VOD platform of choice.

Anatomy of a Fall, Oct. 13 (Theaters)

French filmmaker Justine Triet’s (“Sibyl”) latest film was entered as a competitor for the Queer Palm at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, but it ended up taking the festival’s top prize, the prestigious Palme d’Or. Publicized as “a Hitchcockian procedural,” it centers on a German writer (Sandra Hüller) accused of murdering her French husband, who must prove her innocence at trial with only the testimony of her blind son – the sole witness – to back up her claims. Hüller’s performance has won raves, and the film was a hit when it went to general release this summer in its native France (only “Barbie” topped it at the box office); as for details about the nature of the movie’s queer relevance, you’ll have to find out the details firsthand, because advance press on this side of the Atlantic has remained scrupulously spoiler-free, though Triet has revealed that she drew inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, who was notoriously accused of murdering her roommate during a trip to Italy. Our verdict is that it will be worth the effort.

Nyad, Oct. 20 (Theaters/Nov. 5 Netflix)

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

Billed as “a remarkable true story of tenacity, friendship and the triumph of the human spirit,” this high-profile biopic stars four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening as marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who, three decades after exchanging the life of a world-class athlete for a prominent career as a sports journalist, becomes obsessed with becoming the first person to complete the 110-mile journey from Cuba to Florida – known as as the “Mount Everest” of swims – without a shark cage. The screenplay by Julia Cox is adapted from Nyad’s own memoir (“Find a Way”), two Oscar-winning documentarians (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, responsible for the popular and acclaimed “Free Solo”) make their narrative film debut at the helm, and Bening is joined onscreen by two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster as her best friend and coach. What else could anyone ask for in a strong, inspirational piece of lesbian-themed filmmaking? Count us in.

Rustin, Nov. 3 (Theaters/Nov. 17 Netflix)

Probably the most high-profile piece of queer filmmaking of the upcoming season is this biopic about the gay Black architect of 1963’s world-changing March on Washington, Bayard Rustin. Starring Emmy-winner Colman Comingo in the title role and helmed by five-time Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe, this ambitious fictionalized portrait of an extraordinary, history-making queer hero shines a long overdue spotlight on a man who, alongside giants like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ella Baker, dreamed of a better world and inspired a movement by marching. Notably, it also comes from Higher Ground, a production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, and its August premiere at the Telluride Film Festival resulted in a 100% (so far) approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics who were there to see it. Besides the powerfully charismatic Domingo, the film features an all-star cast including Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, and special appearances from Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald.

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‘Funny Girl’ at 55: still ‘gorgeous’

Pay attention to the love and craftsmanship that William Wyler put in

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A scene from ‘Funny Girl.’ (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

It’s a paradox that the Hollywood system, which spent decades erasing anything that seemed remotely “queer” from its product, could also be responsible for one of the most essential movies in the queer film canon – but it was.

It could be considered even more remarkable this could have happened with a movie utterly devoid of explicit (or even implied) queer content – and still, it did.

Of course, the movie we’re talking about – “Funny Girl,” which celebrates the 55th anniversary of its release on Sept. 19 – did feature Barbra Streisand, but while the multi-hyphenate megastar may have had her share of queer fans before the film was made, it was her stunning big screen reprisal of the Broadway role she had originated that was arguably responsible for turning her into a queer icon in the first place.

Revisiting the film today, it’s impossible not to recognize the absolute, world-shifting power of Streisand’s performance. In playing real-life Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice onstage she had found the perfect match of performer to material; like Brice, she was a talented “ugly duckling” with Jewish immigrant roots and a determination to achieve her dreams, and the obvious parallels in their backgrounds — combined with her remarkable gifts as a singer and actress, of course — brought enough authority and authenticity to her performance to literally make her an overnight Broadway sensation. In translating that performance to the screen four years later, she became a superstar, already well on her way toward a groundbreaking future as one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry.

Still, a generation of gay men didn’t embrace Streisand, or her debut screen performance, simply because she seemed almost supernaturally talented, nor did they do so out of solidarity with a feminist cause; as with most queer cultural touchstones of generations past, “Funny Girl” became iconic to the gay community not so much because of what it (or its star) presented on the surface, but because of an unmistakably universal subtext about the struggle of being an outsider in a world that devalues going against the grain. The experience of Fanny Brice, as an “unbeautiful” performer in a sea of classically lovely showgirls, was – in the mind’s eye, at least – not too far removed from that of countless queer people who yearned to shine without having to pretend to be something else; combined with the unstoppable force of Streisand’s charisma, her story became not just relatable, but empowering. Already well-accustomed to identifying vicariously through “straight” narratives in the movies, gay men could easily make the leap to seeing themselves reflected in this one, and thanks in no small part to the irrepressible persona of its leading lady, they liked what they saw.

There are other elements that strike queer chords, too, such as the undeniable appeal of the movie’s plot, a show-biz melodrama about a doomed backstage love affair that bears only marginal similarities to the real-life story of Brice’s relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein; he’s a suave “bad boy,” and their attraction simmers with the kind of “forbidden” chemistry that comes when we feel the spark of passion with somebody we’re not supposed to. That makes it irresistible, of course, and it doesn’t hurt that Arnstein is played by the impossibly attractive Omar Sharif, who had already embodied a subtextual queer romance onscreen opposite Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Besides that, the story’s theatrical setting naturally evokes rumination on the challenge of making “the show go on” even when our private worlds are falling apart, which had perhaps even more resonance with gay people accustomed to “keeping up appearances” in their closeted lives in 1968 than it does today.

But all these threads can be found in countless movies, going back to the earliest days of the art form, and though some of them may have earned a place on the list of queer-favorite classics, few are held up as high as this one – and while the Streisand magic is part of the reason why, it was the man behind the camera who captured it on film.

By the time he directed “Funny Girl,” William Wyler was a Hollywood legend. He rose to prominence making westerns in the silent era and went on to hone his mastery of filmcraft in a career that covered almost every genre; he had helmed three Oscar-winning Best Pictures, earned eleven nominations for Best Director, and was renowned for his ability to coax career-topping performances from his actors. Indeed, many of them won or were nominated for their own Oscars for appearing in his films – including Audrey Hepburn, who won for her film debut, his 1953 rom-com “Roman Holiday.” What he hadn’t done, yet, was make a musical – and though hearing loss made him doubt his ability to direct one, he recognized Streisand’s raw potential and was excited by the chance to guide another talented performer to stardom. He took the job.

The decades of accumulated experience he brought to it are evident in every frame of the film. The imagery is artfully shot, flawlessly composed, and endlessly beautiful to look at; awash in a mix of soft pastels and vivid pop colors, it seamlessly merges old Hollywood with new, blending long-practiced styles and techniques with the intuitive vibrance of contemporary filmmaking – something particularly notable in the handling of the musical numbers, which vary from the elaborately stagebound Busby Berkely-inspired Ziegfeld Follies numbers to the expansively cinematic (and still-breathtaking) helicopter shot of Streisand singing on a moving train in “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Perhaps more important than any of his visual stylings, his instincts for character-driven storytelling allow him to combine the nostalgia of the golden age with the more permissive sophistication that had begun to dominate movies as the old studio system faded into the past – something that Streisand, exuding a more candid combination of vulnerability and sensuality than the screen stars of Wyler’s heyday were allowed, helped to make thrillingly palpable.

It was a fortuitous moment for both director and star, who – both noted for their obsessive perfectionism – reportedly clashed often on the set but established a deep and lasting respect and friendship for each other. Like former Wyler stars Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, Streisand credited the director for teaching her how to act on film, and while she would go on to deliver other powerhouse performances, she arguably never topped this one. Indeed, she won the Oscar for it, just as Wyler had hoped – and he picked up his own twelfth Best Director nod, a record number of nominations which still stands today.

So, when you celebrate the 55th anniversary of “Funny Girl” by watching it again for the umpteenth time, perhaps it’s worth paying a little special attention to the love and craftsmanship that William Wyler put into it. It might be a vehicle for a breakout star who owns every second of it, but it’s also an impeccably made piece of cinema, which is why it remains iconic for queer audiences even in an era when direct queer representation has supplanted vicarious “coded” depictions of queer experience.

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Sundance veteran takes a wild ride with ‘Rotting in the Sun’

Silva returns with outrageous film that satirizes modern culture

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Jordan Firstman and Sebastián Silva in ‘Rotting in the Sun.’ (Photo courtesy MUBI)

Unless you’re a follower of independent cinema or the international film festival circuit, the name Sebastián Silva may not be familiar to you – yet.

The gay, Chilean-born filmmaker – also known as a musician and illustrator – has enjoyed substantial spotlight on his work over the last decade and a half, starting with a win for Best Film at the 2008 Chilean Pedro Sienna Awards for his debut feature – “La Vida Me Mata” (“Life Kills Me”) – and following up with 2009’s “The Maid.” The latter launched him into the American Indie scene, earning a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; it went on to pick up several other honors, including a Golden Globe nomination, and firmly established him as an up-and-coming young director. Since then, his reputation has lured “Indie favorite” actors like Kristen Wiig, Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman, and Alia Shawkat to star in his films, and he’s garnered more accolades and awards along the way.

Still, the kind of films Silva makes are not exactly the kind that cross easily over into the mainstream, and wider recognition has thus far eluded him. Nevertheless, he remains a festival favorite, having twice returned in triumph to Sundance for premieres of his work, most recently with “Rotting in the Sun,” which debuted at the festival earlier this year. Now set for a limited theatrical release on Sept. 8 before expanding to digital a week later, it just might be the movie that finally gets the multi-hyphenate filmmaker the attention he deserves – though perhaps not for the reasons he might wish.

Directed by Silva from a screenplay co-written with frequent collaborator Pedro Peirano, his cryptically titled film scores points for audacity from its premise alone. Casting himself and real-life social media star Jordan Firstman as fictional versions of themselves, the filmmaker weaves an outrageous stream-of-events narrative that savagely satirizes both the self-obsession and perpetually distracted state of modern culture, simultaneously skewering the business of filmmaking and “content creation” while offering a sharp, darkly humorous commentary on the impact of economic and social class in human experience. 

That sounds like a lot to juggle in a single movie, especially one with a less-than-two-hour runtime, but Silva and Peirano’s script manages it deftly with a intricately crafted structure that carries us along through a twisting plot that begins when the fictional Sebastián – nihilistic, misanthropic, and addicted to ketamine and poppers – takes an impromptu trip to a nude gay beach resort on the advice of his best friend (Mateo Riestra). There, he encounters the gregarious and flamboyant Firstman, a fan of his work who aggressively courts him for a closer relationship, both personally and professionally. With his career stalled and his finances drying up, the reluctant Silva agrees to collaborate on a show, and invites Firstman to come and stay with him in Mexico City while they write it.

From there, things don’t go quite the way we expect. Though we’ve been primed for an “opposites-attract” romance, accompanied by a bemusing clash of Silva’s existential bleakness against the life-affirming positivity of his joyously hedonistic counterpart, an unexpected turn of events veers into a new course; rom-com tropes give way to a stark and harrowing mystery, with Silva’s longtime housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra) at the center, and the film becomes a gripping thriller that blends suspense with social commentary and stark surrealism for a wild ride capable of making the heart pound and the head spin. We could say more – other reviewers have, making their jobs easier but spoiling some of the movie’s most electrifying surprises in the process – but to do so would be a disservice both to Silva’s painstaking efforts in crafting the narrative and the viewer’s enjoyment in experiencing it firsthand.

That does make it necessary to “talk around” some things; for instance, we can’t say all the things we’d like about Saavedra – returning to Silva’s fold after playing the title role in “The Maid” – and her performance without giving away key information; rigidly unsentimental, raw with emotions most of us find uncomfortable to watch, the movie hinges on her portrayal of this character, and she owns it completely.

We also can’t say much about the remarkable movement of the story, charted by the script and driven by the skillful, ever-flowing handheld camera approach of cinematographer Gabriel Díaz Alliende, which follows a singular thread of cause-and-effect through a course marked by random occurrence and inevitable consequence and plays out like an elaborate maze of falling dominoes; nor can we go into much detail about the observations the film makes about the divide between the privileged and the underclasses who serve them, who live in such different worlds that even the simplest interactions between them are often complicated by an inability to communicate or understand each other across the gap.

In a more general way, we can certainly talk about the movie’s appreciation for irony; indeed, its most sublime moments are dripping with it, and it provides the undercurrent for the tone of existential absurdism in which Silva steeps his film; for, make no mistake, in this “existential summer” marked by movies like “Asteroid City,” “Barbie,” and “Oppenheimer,” “Rotting in the Sun” fits right in – though, for what it’s worth, its inescapable dread is countered by a kind of humanistic compassion which, though it doesn’t exactly cast everything in a layer of sweetness and light, goes a long way toward leaving our hope for humanity at least somewhat intact.

Lastly, we can talk about the penises. Yes, there are a lot of them, and a few scenes of un-simulated gay sex, too; most of these take place in the early scenes at the resort, and while it would be wrong to say they are irrelevant to the larger purpose of Silva’s movie they certainly are not the point of it, prompting him to admit in a Variety interview that he was “a little bit scared that a lot of people will be centered on the cocks.” Predictably, most reviews (including this one, it appears) and much of the publicity for the film seem angled to let us know they are there. 

Ultimately, “Rotting in the Sun” is about much more than cocks, of course; it’s also about much more than the various human pretensions, constructs, delusions, and dysfunctions it both sends up and seems to caution us about. Like all great films, it contains all those things within a larger picture that points toward a more all-encompassing perspective on life – and, admirably, doesn’t try to tell us what to think of it, though it might guide us to a smaller conclusion or two about how we treat each other along the way.

Be warned: though ostensibly a comedy, “Rotting in the Sun” is not a film for the faint-hearted, and it should be noted that it explores themes of suicidal ideation that might be triggering for some viewers.

If you’re not deterred by that – and if your interest is piqued by all the things we couldn’t say – then you are heartily encouraged to watch it at your first opportunity. We guarantee that afterward, you’ll remember the name Sebastián Silva.

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‘Every Body’ casts overdue spotlight on intersex lives

Three activists move past childhood dominated by shame

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Intersex activists Sean Saifa Wall, Alice Roth Weigel, and River Gallo. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Even within the larger LGBTQIA+ community, intersex people remain something of a mystery for most of us.

That’s not meant to send anybody on a guilt trip; it’s merely an observation hinting at the power of the stigma that has kept intersex stories buried in the dusty cabinets of medical research halls even as the other segments of the queer population have been given increased representation – and with it, the chance to express their truth – in the public sphere. Guided by unquestioned assumptions about “natural” expressions of gender, the scientific and medical establishment has long shrouded the facts around intersex people, often even from the parents of intersex children, as they made autocratic decisions about medical procedures to “correct” what they perceived as nature’s “mistake.” How can someone share their truth with the world if it’s always been kept a secret from them, too?

As laid out in “Every Body,” “RBG” director Julie Cohen’s documentary profile of three prominently visible intersex individuals (now streaming on Peacock after a theatrical release earlier this summer), the answer to that question is that they can only do it by forging a new truth, based in their own experience and independent from the expectations of others.

The film’s three subjects – actor/screenwriter River Gallo (they/them), political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they), and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) have each moved beyond a childhood dominated by shame and secrecy into a thriving adulthood lived as their authentic selves – something only made possible by a choice to disregard medical advice about keeping the reality of their bodies a secret. Now leaders and advocates in a global movement for greater understanding of the intersex community, they share the narratives of the lives that have gotten them there – both the ones that were forced upon them and their families from their birth, and the ones they have written for themselves.

Woven within these profiles is a historical tale about the vastly influential yet little-remembered Dr. John Money, a sex researcher whose views on gender became central to institutionalizing a 1950s-era sensibility into accepted medical thought around intersex people; more specifically, it relates a stranger-than-fiction case of medical abuse under Money’s care, featuring exclusive archival footage from NBC News archives, and exposing the fallacies behind medical protocols that continue to linger, unchecked, years after being resoundingly debunked.

It’s through this wide-view look at the context in which intersex people have historically been framed by doctors and psychiatrists that the film provokes the most vigorous emotional response from audiences, perhaps; the real life-story of David Reimer, subject of the experiment that would eventually discredit Money’s work, is a heartbreaking one, and the footage of the film’s three subjects watching the harrowing interviews the deeply damaged Reimer gave when his story was made public provides some of the movie’s most viscerally moving moments.

Indeed, Cohen’s original concept for the movie was a straightforward exploration of the Reimer case, but after connecting online with Weigel, and through them, with Gallo and Wall, she changed direction. Struck by their commitment to the cause of greater understanding and better medical care for intersex people, she began filming their activism and their day-to-day lives. As she says in her press notes, “What had started as an archival documentary became a film very much set in the present.”

It’s a shift in approach that focuses the movie on transcendence over trauma. Through the inspirational sagas of its three central figures, “Every Body” resoundingly emphasizes the empowerment that comes with taking control of one’s own narrative, and the freedom and forgiveness that can blossom in a more fully self-actualized life than the one they were encouraged or even coerced to accept in their younger years. Watching Gallo’s tender reminiscences with their mother, or hearing Wall’s empathetic acceptance of his now-deceased parents’ choices for him in the face of what they knew or were told, is a welcome contrast to the often strident dialogue we are growing ever more accustomed to encountering around such matters in the public conversation; at the same time, there’s a deeply satisfying thrill that comes in seeing Weigel stymie a Texas Legislature or shut down a visibly shaken Steven Crowder – the controversial conservative comedian and pundit whose signature schtick spawned all those notorious “Change My Mind” memes – on his own platform by challenging their simplistic conceptions about the biology of gender, reminding us of how formidable we can be when we speak from a truth gained through lived experience.

It’s scenes like these that overcome the dark weight of a less-enlightened past to help the documentary move into the more hopeful light of today’s active struggle for something better. Having claimed, at last, the autonomy over their own body that was denied them as children, these three are ready to stand and fight for a future in which others like them will never have to face what they and countless intersex people throughout history have had to experience. When “Every Body” moves, finally, into the here and now, it drops us into a community made up of individuals who have found each other in spite of the secrecy, whose willingness to share their truth with each other and with their allies has changed the way a generation of intersex individuals learn to think of themselves. It takes us to a rally designed to bring an end to the age of secretive surgeries performed without consent on individuals too young to decide for themselves, channeling the lessons learned and experience gained from the queer and trans rights movements that came before them to work for a cultural shift toward greater acceptance, inclusion, and understanding. It leaves us feeling assured that the oft-horrific mistreatment and forced conformity of past decades might finally be replaced by the kind of compassionate and informed guidance that everyone deserves when it comes to decisions impacting the very core of their identity. Carefully-structured but organically-flowing, and infused with a sense of purpose that avoids the performative grandstanding of culture warfare to find the joy that lies behind the most genuinely persuasive movements for change, Cohen’s documentary makes its statement by leaving us on an “up” note. 

Unfortunately, like most such documentaries coming into the world now, as virulent antagonism against all segments of the queer community grows ever more ominous, the optimistic tone that may have seemed appropriate at its inception can’t help but feel a bit out of step. That’s not a flaw in the film, but a gauge of a time that feels a little more precarious than most of us are comfortable with, and when our culture’s long-standing obsession with an “either/or” binary construct of gender – made painfully obvious by the film’s opening montage of elaborate “gender reveal” party stunts – looks more and more like an immovable wedge.

Still, current moods notwithstanding, the fight must go on, and “Every Body” is the kind of movie that can inspire even the most weary warriors to push forward against the tide of closed-minded bigotry that seems so bent on engulfing our nation.

For that reason alone, it comes with our highest recommendation.

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Trans sex workers tell it like it is in ‘Kokomo City’

‘I wanted to humanize the transgender experience’

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Koko Da Doll in ‘Kokomo City.’ (Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

It’s probably rare for a film review to begin with a news report about a real-world crime, but “Kokomo City” is a rare film.

On April 18, a transgender woman known as Koko Da Doll was fatally shot in Atlanta. She was the third Black transgender sex worker killed in the city – and the 10th trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence in the US – to that date in 2023.

It was a story that made limited headlines, but comparatively far more (unfortunately) than usually accompany the killings of Black transgender sex workers; that’s because Koko – whose “non-performance” name was Rasheeda Williams – was one of four trans women, from both Atlanta and New York City, profiled in the Sundance-honored documentary “Kokomo City,” which went into limited theatrical release on Aug. 4. and is now available via digital and VOD. The film, which was executive produced by boundary-breaking queer multi-hyphenate talent Lena Waithe (among others), offers a remarkably candid, completely unfiltered, and entirely non-judgmental portrait of its subjects as they share the experiences and observations that have occurred on the job.

In the film, Koko – along with fellow sex workers Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver – provide extensive interviews in which they “get real” about the perspective on life bestowed upon them by their work. Sometimes horrifically shocking, sometimes unflinchingly blunt, their anecdotes paint a portrait of society seen from the bottom up; but it’s a far cry from the hand-wringing and moralizing some might expect to accompany a film about such a subject, instead giving these four fully self-aware individuals a chance to sound off about all the hypocrisies and social stigmas that define and constrain our culture’s view of sex in general, and queer sex in particular, while revealing the intelligence and strong sense of self – and yes, the strong sense of humor, too – necessary to survive as a member of one of the world’s most widely disregarded classes of human being. It’s transgressive in a way that many will find refreshing, even thrilling, but others will find appalling.

As much as we might wish otherwise, most of us are likely to believe that the audience for “Kokomo City” probably won’t include the people who most need to see it. Those who are predisposed to restrictive judgments around sex work and trans people are not likely to add it to their streaming queues – a shame if only for the loss of their own opportunity to recognize and empathize with the humanity of people they would otherwise demonize in their imaginations. That doesn’t matter, however, to the movie’s director – two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith, who made history as the first trans woman cast on a primetime unscripted TV show. 

For her feature film directorial debut, Smith aimed to elevate her subject’s voices not just as an expression of queer experience, but of the wider Black experience, as well. Couch-surfing with friends over a three-year period as she collected the material for her movie, she was concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the story these four women had to tell. In its final form, her documentary is a testament to individual truth within a dichotomy that has no space for it; the Black community as a whole, itself ostracized and oppressed within mainstream culture while subject to the strict norms of acceptability built into its own traditions and heritage, has long held a particular stigma against queer sexuality. As Smith offers in her press notes, “So many of our Black children grow up afraid and confused because of traditional values or admissible violence against them, sometimes leading to death. [It’s] a conversation that’s been avoided for many, many years [that] has now taken center stage.”

To hear her four interviewees tell it, those hard-and-fast-beliefs disappear quickly behind closed doors – but even so, in public, the prejudice holds fast. Indeed, Smith offered five other directors the opportunity to helm the project, and all of them balked before she decided to do it herself.

“I went out and bought a camera and a nice lens and filmed it myself.,” she says. “No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.”

Part of that truth, she says, was “to create a film that people outside of the LGBTQ+ community could be drawn to,” but she also wanted to be authentic in her presentation of these women. She was asking them to be real, so she had to be, too.

“At the time of [the film’s] conception,” she says, “there was a lot of transgender content with this narrative I call the ‘red carpet narrative.’ It’s when a fierce PR team puts a trans woman in a fabulous gown and has her speak like a pageant finalist. That’s not our real experience.”

 She wanted to present something different. “I wanted to feel something untampered with. Something that looks like my actual experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls down. In this film, I was able to share the private lives of four transgender sex workers who are never represented publicly. I offered the girls freedom. Freedom to talk like us. Look like us. Don’t worry about the politics. Forget about makeup. Don’t worry about calling your glam squad today. Just tell your story. I wanted to humanize the transgender experience.”

Captured in stark-but-stylish black-and-white, “Kokomo City” does exactly that. Putting the spotlight on four women who are anything but the so-called “norm” and who are accustomed to having their voices silenced, or at least ignored, Smith gives us a raw-yet-deeply considered perspective that challenges the audience by taking them out of their comfort zone, yet never ceases to be entertaining.

To be sure, there is an almost a joyous vibe to “Kokomo City,” no doubt largely due to the freeing, cathartic sense of unburdening its subjects must have felt in getting the chance to share their truth with the world.

Sadly, that joy must now be forever tempered by the knowledge that Koko, whose life shines so brightly from the screen, has been lost to us – who, though authorities say there is no evidence her death was motivated by homophobia or transphobia, is nevertheless yet another victim of the deeply embedded hate and violence that haunts our culture and makes movies like this one seem so very, very precious.

At the same time, hearing her voice ring among the others in Smith’s wildly entertaining documentary – which won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Award and has gone on to win acclaim at other festivals including the Berlinale and LA’s OutFest – gives it an even greater sense of urgency, a higher imperative to present both the beauty and vulnerability of trans women, and turns the film into a celebration of her unquenchable light.

It also introduces Smith as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and we are excited to see where she takes us next.

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Charming ‘Royal Blue’ surpasses rom com tropes with expert delivery

An insightful voice enhanced by artfully cinematic approach to material

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Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine in ‘Red, White, and Royal Blue.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

Before nonbinary author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 novel “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” was even in print, Amazon wanted to buy the movie rights.

It’s easy to see why. It’s a steamy-but-sweet same-sex romance between a British Royal and the son of the American president that takes place in a world where that president is a woman. Yes, it’s all optimistic fantasy – which is, of course, the whole appeal. Isn’t that what the romance genre is all about?

The book went on to become a bestseller, winning honors at the 11th Annual Goodreads Choice Awards, and Amazon went on to make its screen adaptation, hiring Tony-winning queer playwright Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) not only to co-author the screenplay (with Ted Malaher), but to make his debut as a feature film director. The finished product, which drops on the streaming giant’s platform Aug. 11, validates that choice.

Admittedly, the premise evokes one of those much-maligned Hallmark movies; First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is handsome, charismatic, and popular with the American public; across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) — second in line for the British throne — is equally adulated. Naturally, they can’t stand each other, but after an encounter at a royal wedding that snowballs into an embarrassing incident, they are both under order to enact “damage control” by pretending to be friends. Forced to spend time together, their animosity soon turns to something else, and they are drawn into a deepening romance that might not only threaten the re-election hopes of Alex’s mom (Uma Thurman) but shake the traditions of the British monarchy to their ancient core.

It would be easy enough to dismiss it all as mindless, trope-driven hokum, or to take a perspective from which the whole thing seems like just another iteration of some tried-and-true yet unrealistic “fairy tale,” if not for the insightful voice that is preserved and enhanced by Lopez’s artfully cinematic approach to the material.

Claiming advantage of the change in medium, Lopez achieves a vision of McQuiston’s novel, which captures the essence that has made classics of all the “great” cinematic rom coms. Blending the political idealism and social equity that elevated the screwball classics of the golden age above the melodrama of their predictable plotlines with the elegance and style of the saucier “sex farces” that would come later, he crafts his story by blending the traditional technique-based conceits of old with the form-bending embellishments of the contemporary age; tropes and expectations are turned on their ear by unexpected twists that emphasize modern understanding over social constructs about “normalcy” and the immutability of tradition.

As an aesthetic, Lopez’s collaboration with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (“The Hunger,” “Batman and Robin”) creates a cinematic manifestation of the novel that fully embraces both the heart-on-its-sleeve idealism of the golden age “screwball comedies” — which were always as much about challenging societal norms as they were about escapism — and the stylistically elegant romances of the 1950s, both the overwrought socially relevant melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the racy comedies epitomized by the effervescent Doris Day/Rock Hudson gem, “Pillow Talk,” in a cinematic presentation awash with both the colorful palette and near-surreal visual nuance that marks all the great absurdist comedies of modern cinema history.

For make no mistake, the film adaptation of “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is a gently absurdist comedy in the classic sense. On one level, it makes its points through the sheer ridiculousness of some of its farcical conceits; on another, it drives them home through a plot which dares to suggest that a mere reframing of our expectations is enough to render most of our objections to change antiquated, if not entirely irrelevant. What could be a more relatable way to get that across than a story about two people who realize that being in love is important enough to swim against an overwhelming tide? Even non-queer people can understand what it’s like to be attracted to someone to whom you’re not allowed to be attracted.

These themes, however, though they are there for the taking by anyone who connects the dots to find them, never threaten to overpower the movie’s sentimental tone. Unabashedly idealistic, shamelessly geared to trigger all our warmest, feel-good-iest emotional reactions and reinforce our notions about the inevitable power of love, it plays whole-heartedly into hope and humanism with its insistence on honoring the imperative of inner experience over the imposed demands of an outside world. In today’s atmosphere of scrupulously-managed public persona, such a seemingly-basic but mostly–disregarded outlook on life feels not only refreshing but subversive.

All of this is to drive home the point that while “Red, White, and Royal Blue” might appear to be nothing more than a shallow and simplistic emanation of pop culture, it contains more than enough solid material to make it worthwhile for those who might normally eschew such idealized, borderline-elitist tales of privilege in which a stigma that is unavoidable within most class hierarchies can be overcome thanks to fame, economic advantage, and (yes, let’s admit it) attractiveness. Lopez, bringing his own queer experience to the fore, manages to convey the authentic queer perspective of McQuiston’s book, and that’s what elevates his adaptation of the novel above the level of the typical. None of what we hear, see, or feel is mere “lip service” – it all comes from a genuine perspective in which “why not?” is a valid answer to the question of whether such things are even possible.

From our standpoint, Lopez is the true star of the film, but kudos are definitely deserved by the entire cast, headed by the impossibly beautiful (yet entirely relatable) Perez and Galitzine, whose considerable surface charms are given weight by the emotional truth of their performances and the tangible charge of their onscreen chemistry. Also notable is an awards-worthy supporting turn by Sarah Shahi, as an eyes-on-the-prize deputy chief-of-staff who does her best to manage the political fallout from Alex and Henry’s clandestine affair, and a deliciously ironic appearance by Stephen Fry — second perhaps to only Ian McKellen as Britain’s foremost vocally “out” queer actor — as a tradition-embracing King of England. Thurman, bringing the weight of her “star presence” to the role, makes for a more-than-sympathetic mother (and president) in a performance that plays against tropes to find a human element that transcends concerns of reputation and decorum.

Of course, even if all that praise arises from a genuine appreciation of the film’s artistic prowess, it doesn’t mean that “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is for everyone. If you’re not a fan of rom coms in general, or films that embed idealized hope into their messaging for the presumed sake of reinforcing populist sentiment, it still might not be your cup of tea.

But if you like movies that imagine the world as it could be, rather that the world as it is, it’s a surprisingly welcome treat that may not be as guilty a pleasure as it seems.

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‘Barbie’ doesn’t care about your agenda

New film a ‘truth bomb’ delivered via candy-colored Trojan Horse

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Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie go on a road trip to reality in 'Barbie.' (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

When you’re a Barbie, every day is perfect. You get to do whatever you want and be anything you want to be, whether it’s fashion model Barbie or President Barbie, and that’s just the way things naturally are.

When you’re not a Barbie, however, it might look more than a little bit like Barbie privilege.

This is, of course, a perspective flip undertaken by filmmaker Greta Gerwig in her latest film, which brings the doll of its eponymous title into the “real world” to look for answers after she experiences an unexpected existential crisis, in an endeavor to turn it into something deeper than a flashy, over-hyped toy commercial masquerading as a big screen blockbuster. It’s not the only one, but it’s the most obvious, and it has most of the movie’s inexplicably vehement detractors feigning outrage over what they deem as “woke” propaganda.

It’s certainly true that “Barbie” is loaded with the kind of messaging that conservatives deplore. In the screenplay co-authored by Gerwig with partner Noah Baumbach, Barbieland exists through the imagination of all the children who play with her; every Barbie (and Ken) lives there, but the plot focuses on their “stereotypical” iterations (Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling), who are forced to confront the differences between the idealized utopia in which they live and the still-far-from-perfect reality inhabited by their human counterparts. Barbie, crestfallen, just wants to go  home – but Ken, after seeing a world where the men seem to be in charge, is inspired with a different notion.

That premise, needless to say, gives Gerwig’s movie plenty of fodder for cultural commentary, and it holds nothing back as it goes after all the usual targets with palpable glee, so it’s no surprise a segment of the population would get their feathers ruffled over it.

What’s less predictable, perhaps, is the level of animosity aimed at the film from quarters one might expect to embrace it. This might be a function of Barbie’s “problematic” image, which has been tarnished by decades of criticism from those who (not wrongly) have called out the iconic doll – and the company that sells it – for promoting an idealized, male-defined image of femininity and undermining its purported message of female empowerment by simultaneously creating an unrealistic body image for women; let’s face it, there are people who just don’t like Barbie, for these reasons and more, and never will.

Since the film clearly addresses these controversies, however, and attempts to move past them toward a more evolved manifestation of the character, one might be tempted to suspect there’s more behind the aversion for the very idea of this movie that compels so many people to belittle it, unprompted, on their social media feeds; and since – despite dismissive declarations of shallowness that have been levied against it, sight unseen, from the moment it was announced – “Barbie” goes much deeper than the predictably divisive political constructs of the so-called “culture wars” in its ambitious effort to be more than we expect it to be, we might be able to look further into those depths for more insightful reasons.

For starters, the path the movie takes to resolve its plot leads through many ideas that, for the more jaded among us, can easily seem like lip service. The idea that empathy, that seeing what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, can fix all the problems of the world is so familiar that it can be reduced to a platitude; it’s a nice sentiment, but only the most romantic of optimists can be convinced of its believability, and perhaps of its sincerity, too. With that in mind, it’s easy to appreciate why so many people might be predisposed to resist its warm-and-cozy appeal.

Then there’s the well-publicized barrage of cinematic references – influences to which Gerwig has given a dizzyingly exhaustive array of shameless nods in her treatment of “Barbie” – that pop up as “Easter Eggs” from the movie’s very first sequence and continue without pause for pretty much its entire runtime. From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Blade Runner,” from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” she lovingly crafts her visuals to evoke connections to myriad classics that have shaped her self-evidently masterful understanding of cinema – but while those might be fun for movie buffs with a penchant for trivia, they don’t do much for the average viewer who has likely never seen anything directed by Jacques Demy, let alone have knowledge about his use of color in crafting the “look” of a film. In fact, knowing that such elements are there could even feel like exclusionary intellectual snobbery.

Still, after experiencing the film firsthand, such reasons feel like excuses to us, rationalizations to justify a dislike that stems from something more personal – and perhaps, more uncomfortable – than the rhetorical stances that often dominate the analysis and judgment of film or any other art form. Though it makes no apologies for its espousal of feminist ideals or any of the other core “liberal” principles it embraces, it nevertheless dares to suggest that the problems of the world can’t be solved by merely upending the status quo. There may be quite a few amusing jokes about “The Patriarchy” involved, but by the time it’s over, “Barbie” posits that tearing it down isn’t really the solution so many of us imagine it to be – and that’s a frightening concept for anyone who is invested in the idea that it is.

There are many standout moments in “Barbie” – and yes, you can take that as an unequivocal recommendation of the film, which to us feels like a disruptive “truth bomb” delivered via a candy-colored Trojan Horse into the heart of contemporary culture and features superb and layered performances, not only from its two oft-maligned leading players but from a host of supporting cast members like Kate McKinnon and America Ferrera (who deserves to be a front-runner in next year’s Oscar race on the strength of one show-stopping monologue alone) as well – but two of these capture its essence. The first is a “Forrest Gump”-ish exchange between Barbie and an elderly woman on a park bench, which consists of only six words; the studio, reportedly, wanted it cut, but Gerwig – who insisted on complete creative control before accepting the job – declined to concede. It’s a transcendent touch, and its power lies beyond words, so we’ll just leave it at that.

The second comes later, when Barbie confides to a mysterious woman (Rhea Perlman) she encounters by seeming chance that “The real world isn’t what I thought it was” – to which she receives the reply, “It never is.”

If “Barbie” can be said to have a moral, that’s probably it – and it’s one that has shaken humanity to its core for centuries.

Is it any wonder that so many human beings, believing themselves to be secure in their unquestioned and pre-programmed personal illusions, don’t want to hear that message?

But what do we know? Taste, like life itself, is a subjective experience, and the only opinion that ever matters – at least for you – is your own.

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Doc captures taste of ‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of American Popular Music’

A stirring look at a signature work by a brilliant queer artist

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Taylor Mac (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

If the name Taylor Mac is unknown to you, it might conjure images of some hard-edged pop diva, known for a tell-it-like-it-is fierceness and a willingness to dive into their personal life for material – and in truth, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Mac, who conceived, wrote and performed the epic performance event at the center of HBO’s eponymous documentary “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of American Popular Music,” is admittedly hard to classify precisely, though one could use any number of labels – actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer, singer-songwriter – to describe what Mac does. Just as easily, one could invoke his numerous honors and accolades – winner of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony nominee – to get across how well he does what he does. In actuality, none of those clunky, generalized designations convey who Mac is or what Mac creates, which might more aptly be understood as a blend that comes together, as needed, to create something greater – or at least, more provocative – than the sum of its parts.

Challenging, razor sharp in its observations and commentary about American culture, and deliberately confrontational, Mac’s plays and performances are also rife with absurdity, centering themselves in a comedic, deceptively campy vein as they deconstruct the social attitudes that fuel so much of our contemporary “culture wars.” In no case (to date, at least) have Mac’s gifts been distilled so liberally into the fabric of a live performance as in the “24-Decade History” project.

Created in collaboration with musical director Matt Ray over roughly a decade, it was a magnum opus that was performed as intended – as a 24-hour immersive theatrical experience in front of a live audience – only once, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2016. Part performance art, part theatrical extravaganza, part concert, it offered an alternative take on U.S. history, narrated through music that was popular in American culture since its founding in 1776 to 2016. Built on stunning, powerful musical performances and peppered with surprising and revelatory historical interpretation – as well as comedic banter and form-transcendent audience interaction – it wove a narrative compiled from “between the lines” of commonly-held history, exposing things like the casual bigotry at the heart of many of America’s earliest popular songs and the misogyny and homophobia that has continued to permeate its music until the present day; an hour was dedicated to each decade, with Mac decked out in an elaborate new era-specific costume – designed by longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle and incorporating humorous references to American life in each of the 24 decades covered in the show – for each one; each hour, one of 24 onstage musicians would depart the stage, until Mac, alone and unaccompanied except for a ukulele, was left alone to perform original songs for the final hour. It was an electrifying, “you had to be there” event, a true landmark in American theatre which garnered Mac both the afore-mentioned Tony and Pulitzer nods – but unless you were part of the crowd at St. Ann’s Warehouse for that 24 hour marathon performance, you could never “be there” yourself.

Now, thanks to HBO (and Max, where the documentary is currently streaming for subscribers), you can at least come close. As directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who also produced, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of American Popular Music,” offers an opportunity to experience the show in all its subversive, strangely moving glory – or at least, a “Cliff’s Notes” overview of its highlights – with the kind of up-close-and-personal intimacy that even those who were watching it live did not experience. Intercut with interview footage of Mac, as well as collaborators Ray, Dazzle, stage co-director Niegel Smith, and others, it provides insight into the behind-the-scenes technical choices that were geared to enhance and amplify the show’s themes, but still finds plenty of time to document the magnificent musical performances by Mac and fellow musicians, such as singers Erin Hill, Steffanie Christi’an, Heather Christian, Thornetta Davis and Anais Mitchell, among others – not to mention the show’s 24-piece orchestra and a host of shockingly cooperative audience members.

Of course, it cannot be considered a substitute for seeing the entire 24-hour production, which was recreated in six-hour segments (footage from some of these were used in the film alongside the material shot during the original production) for a subsequent national tour after the St. Ann’s performance. Even so, it succeeds better than most performance documentaries in capturing the electric energy of a live performance by someone touched with genius, as Mac surely is, which ultimately serves the film’s true purpose by documenting a queer’s-eye view of history that the heteronormative “mainstream” would prefer to keep buried.

Those who might object to the nuggets of well-researched insight and contemporary interpretation that Mac weaves into the fabric of his performance would likely be among those who find themselves confused by the star’s preferred pronoun – which is “judy” – and not altogether open to the kind of presentation judy uses to get judy’s point across. Nevertheless, the boldness with which Mac infuses judy’s stage persona quickly washes away notions of “inappropriate” or “lewd” to make it clear judy’s intention is simply to howl the truth of judy’s world as loudly as judy ever has, and if some of it makes a few midwestern conservatives clutch their pearls a little tighter, well, that feels like so much the better given Mac’s clearly stated agenda.

That agenda, as laid down by the gifted Mac early on, is to remind us that our history as Americans is in the history of our songs, and that it’s a history shaped by the underdogs and outsiders who saw a vision for a better world beyond the toxic mindsets and social hierarchies that keep many, if not most, human beings from achieving anything close to the true freedom touted by our nation’s forefathers in its gestational years. “I love the idea that a queer body could become the metaphor for America,” Mac tells the camera (and the live audience), and proceeds to remind us that it’s the sense of community, of shared need, that communicates to us through the musical landscape forged by our national chronology.

Of course, the documentary, which delivers a powerful taste of Mac and company’s charismatic and talented performative skills with songs from “Yankee Doodle” and “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Gimme Shelter” and “Born to Run” – is also breathlessly entertaining, and that’s not a bad thing, either. In any case, it’s a stirring and memorable document of a signature work by one of America’s most brilliant queer artists, which makes it essential viewing as far as we’re concerned.

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It’s a fun ride for fans to ‘Asteroid City’

Audible releases spectacular three-hour adaptation of beloved comic

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A scene from ‘Asteroid City.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

It’s tough being a Wes Anderson fan.

If you are one, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Loving the work of America’s most eccentric filmmaker means accepting the fact that there will always be a significant number of other people who can’t stand it, and that any effort to explain why you like his films to someone who doesn’t has almost as much potential for being divisive as a conversation about politics, though the stakes are admittedly much lower.

It also means putting up with the fact that his quirky directorial aesthetic, which has been parodied for decades now by TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “SNL” and become the inspiration for a massive explosion of AI-aided spoofs all over social media – is now enshrined in popular culture as an easy target for satire, almost certainly familiar to more people as the butt of a joke than as the stylish work of a meticulous auteur. To be fair, though, the jokes are usually funny, and many of those send-ups were made by Anderson fans themselves, paying tribute to the uniquely fey cinematic style they love.

The director’s latest, “Asteroid City,” is bound to provide considerable fodder for both heated debate and high-concept snark; indeed, it is such a “Wes Anderson film” that it sometimes feels like it is making fun of itself – and whether that is a good thing or not may depend on how you feel generally about Wes Anderson films.

Explaining it is complicated, but we’ll try.

The bulk of the movie takes place in a fictional tourist town in the American Southwest – built around the site of an ancient meteorite impact – in 1955; it chronicles an unexpected and mysterious event that occurs there during a convention of junior astronomers, as well as the subsequent impact it has on their lives. Yet the fictional town itself is also fictional, the creation of celebrated mid-century playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), and the story we are seeing is in fact his most famous play; the film simultaneously chronicles that background saga, as told via a vintage TV anthology series, complete with “re-enactments” of crucial episodes that took place during the creation and production of the play itself.

As for the characters, the main focus lands on former war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), whose genius teenage son (Jake Ryan) is being honored at the convention. There’s also a famous movie star (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter (Grace Edwards), a fellow honoree. Others in the mix include Augie’s disapproving father-in-law (Tom Hanks), an Army general serving as host for the event (Jeffrey Wright), the easygoing town mechanic (Matt Dillon), the politely brilliant astronomer in charge of the local observatory (Tilda Swinton), and the shifty manager (Steve Carrell) of the town’s lone motel, where the entire visiting entourage is staying. Outside the action, as it were, we also get to meet the gifted stage director (Adrien Brody) and pioneering method acting teacher (Willem Dafoe) who helped bring the play to life, and the austere but friendly television host (Bryan Cranston) who ostensibly presides over it all. And these are just the most prominent of the film’s two dozen significant characters.

All of that seems like a lot, even for a Wes Anderson movie, which typically features a large ensemble of players in a story that takes unpredictable (and often absurd) turns. Factor in the element of campy homage to the nostalgic science fiction movies of old, complete with UFOs and all the alien conspiracy theories those carry with them, and it becomes apparent that there are a lot of layers here.

Yet those elements are merely a premise, a conceit that establishes the rules of a game that proceeds to get even more “meta” from there. Actors appear in dual roles, both as their character in the central narrative and the fictional-real-life performers that portray them; there’s an inversion of styles that seems to dovetail in on itself, in which a theatrical play is experienced as a contemporary film, the “true” story about said vintage play is set up as vintage TV documentary, and supposed real-life events are presented as scenes from a play – a hall-of-mirrors pattern that suggests the fourth and unseen perspective of a real life audience – which means us – viewing the film itself. Anderson’s movie, as it turns out, is perhaps meant really to be about us, all along.

Even if that interpretation is on target, there’s still plenty of room for the signature Wes Anderson style, in this case taken to new heights of exaggeration; the familiar pastel color palette is now hyper-saturated, evoking hand-tinted vintage postcards or the lurid technicolor of 1950s cinema; that connection is underscored by countless nods to iconic films of the period, including Johansson’s image as both a Hitchcock-inspired icy blonde and an earthy Ava Gardner-esque sex goddess, with a dash of Liz Taylor thrown in for good measure.

Then there’s the inescapable fact of its mid-20th Century setting, which evokes not only the kind of corny “alien panic” sci-fi movies “Asteroid City” affectionately lampoons, but the strong current of worldwide trauma that emerged in the arts and culture of the era. After two world wars and a bomb that introduced the permanent threat of nuclear doomsday to their psyche, humanity was – understandably – preoccupied with finding meaning in a universe that suddenly felt indifferent, and the artists of the day led the search. Since Anderson’s bemusingly post-modern reassembly of these elements is centered on an imagined theatrical masterpiece that emerged from within that zeitgeist, it’s hard not to see a connection being drawn to our own time, when new daily threats force us to endure a similar state of perpetual existential crisis. In any case, Anderson’s familiar blend of precocious whimsy and melancholy nostalgia is tinged with a more profound sadness this time around, even if it is effectively counter balanced by a light heart.

What strikes us at more personal level, though, is the subtle but significant queer core that stems from the creation of the play-within-the-movie by a Tennessee Williams-esque tragic genius – whose presumed queerness is confirmed in a scene too exquisitely orchestrated to spoil. It seems a minor touch, but rather than some token effort at inclusion, it feels like a nod to the unsung influence of queer artists, whose outsider status throughout history has granted them an observer’s eye and played an important role in showing the rest of society the things it might have trouble seeing for itself – as the best artists have always done.

We could say more about this film – the sublime performances, which manage a wealth of emotional range inside the “Andersonian” parameters of the cast’s deadpan delivery; the impossibly kitschy handmade scenery; the self-referential humor that bubbles under so much of what appears on screen – but we won’t. If you’re a fan, you’ll want to pick through the details for yourself.

If you’re not, we know nothing we can say will convince you to see it anyway, and that’s probably for the best.

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