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‘Maestro’ captures passionate essence of queer musical giant

Cooper’s titanic performance honors the legendary composer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar-nominated ‘Nimona’ an essential gem for queer fans

Rescued from oblivion of studio politics, film rings palpably authentic

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The two queer protagonists of ‘Nimona.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

If you weren’t already a fan of ND Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, last summer’s release of Netflix’s screen adaptation of “Nimona” likely escaped your notice. But with its emergence on multiple critics’ choice lists and awards show ballots for 2023, it’s time for you to pay attention.

Created while Stevenson — who has since come out as a trans man — was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and initially distributed on Tumblr, the comic was published in print in 2015 to become an award-winning bestseller. It’s an adventuresome sci-fi/fantasy blend set in a futuristic world where the fairy tale knights of medieval tradition have been given a high-tech makeover; but what captured its audience even more than its high-spirited, whimsical creativity was its unsubtle exploration of LGBTQ identity, underscored by a same-sex love interest for its hero but resonating most deeply through its shape-shifting title character and a plot that revolves around the systematic suppression of “otherness” by society. Yet, “controversial” elements notwithstanding, it’s fully and unapologetically targeted toward YA readers – the very audience, of course, that is most in need of its messaging in a time when the discourse around queer identities has become an omnipresent source of existential anxiety for young people attempting to come to terms with any non-hetero-normative leanings that might be bubbling to the surface of their developing psyches.

When Stevenson – who went on from the success of “Nimona” in print to become the creative force behind numerous queer-friendly projects in various media, including a stint writing for Marvel (the comics “Thor” and “Runaways”), Disney’s animated “Wander Over Yonder” series, and the acclaimed Netflix reboot “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” – came out as trans in 2020, the themes of queer acceptance in his seminal work were illuminated beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the meantime, “Nimona” had already been optioned to 20th Century Fox Animation as the basis for a film adaptation, produced by their subsidiary Blue Sky Studios; when Disney acquired the rights to Fox and its properties, the movie fell under its control. According to staffers, commenting in the wake of Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek’s clumsy response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” political campaign, the film had already experienced pushback from studio executives over its LGBTQ themes, and especially its inclusion of a same-sex kiss – and when COVID-related financial pressures led to budget cuts, Blue Sky, was officially shut down, along with “Nimona” and all the rest of its projects.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. “Nimona” was picked up by indie production company Annapurna in 2022, with Nick Bruno and Troy Quane stepping in as directors, and Netflix granted distribution rights. The completed film, with all of its intended queer elements firmly intact, was given a limited theatrical release in June of 2023, debuting as a streamer on the Netflix platform a week later – to the delight of fans who had believed the long-awaited project to be a lost cause barely a year before.

It took another six months or so for the rest of the world to take notice, but thanks to its inclusion on critics’ choice lists and awards-season buzz in the wake of multiple nominations, “Nimona” has become one of last year’s “hidden gems.” and now stands within plausible reach of achieving the highest possible honor from the Hollywood movie industry: the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Of course, whether or not it wins that (or any other) accolade has little objective bearing on its quality as a film; while positive steps toward inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ characters and stories may be a laudable accomplishment in today’s tenuous social environment, they don’t necessarily equate to cinematic excellence from the wider perspective of aesthetic analysis. Fortunately, in this case, the two viewpoints merge perfectly to provide a movie that is at once keenly relevant to queer life in the modern age and defined by an artistic vision that transcends any political agenda or clumsy social engineering in which it might otherwise have allowed itself to become mired. While it may place its queer or queer-suggestive characters front-and-center in the spotlight, its message is unmistakably aimed toward anyone who feels (or has ever felt) like an outsider in a world that rewards conformity over individual truth – and let’s face it, that means everybody.

In Bruno and Quane’s finished film, there is no effort to obscure or downplay the story’s queer underpinnings: the hero, a newly minted knight named Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed) is unequivocally gay, deeply in a fully requited love affair with fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (YouTube star Eugene Lee Yang), and his shapeshifting sidekick, the titular Nimona (Chloë Grace Moritz), is so obvious an allegorical avatar for trans-hood that only the most oblivious of viewers could miss it. That’s fortunate: deprived of its deeper purpose of accessibility for those “outside the norm,” there would be nothing all that special about “Nimona” beyond its admittedly stunning visual design, which evokes connections to thematically related movies from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Star Wars” and everything in between. But though it makes painstaking effort to honor those and other influences within the scope of its pointedly progressive narrative, it establishes and inhabits its own distinctive milieu, carving a space for itself in which it feels neither derivative nor mired in gimmicky conceit – and it achieves this mostly through its loyalty toward (and empathy with) the characters whose status as outsiders to the mandated cultural standard makes them even more relatable.

Admittedly, it’s hard to miss the allegorical broad strokes in the plot, in which Boldheart, the first knight without a direct link to the ancient bloodline of the ruling class, is framed as a political criminal and targeted for elimination by a governing system steeped in long-standing traditions and prejudices, or to its seemingly juvenile title character, a girl with the ability to transform her physical being at will who is branded and persecuted as a “monster” because of it. As the story progresses, revealing even more hidden-in-plain-sight correlations to the “real” world, it’s difficult to imagine even the most obtusely straightforward viewer being blind to the story’s clear message about the corrupting influence of ancient and unquestioned preconceptions on the systems that govern our world.

Its aggressively deployed messaging, however, is not a detriment; “Nimona,” rescued beyond probability from the oblivion of studio politics and economic setbacks, rings all the more palpably authentic for wearing its agenda on its sleeve. In its unequivocal and undiluted embrace of the queer experience of “otherness” which lies (barely) beneath its every nuance, it becomes the inclusive, gay-and-trans-affirming parable it was always intended to be, emerging as a front-runner in the yearly race for accolades from a cautiously mainstream industry establishment in spite of its unapologetic queerness.

If that doesn’t make it essential viewing for queer movie fans, we don’t know what would.

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French ‘Lie With Me’ believes in love after love

A compelling story about the capacity of human beings to heal

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Victor Belmondo and Guillaume de Tonquédec in 'Lie With Me.' (Photo by Michael Crotto; courtesy Cinephobia Releasing)

Sometimes, a love story is about what happens after it’s over as much as how it starts.

Take, for example, the French import “Lie With Me,” which makes its U.S. debut via DVD and VOD on Feb. 15. Based on Philippe Bresson’s 2017 novel “Arrête avec tes mensonges” (“Stop With Your Lies”), it was filmed in 2021, hit the European festival circuit in 2022, and received a general release in its homeland in early 2023, and is making its first appearance on American screens at a time when most film buffs are already looking toward whatever 2024 movies might be coming our way after the hoopla of awards season fades into the background for another year.

Don’t let its status as a “late-bloomer” put you off, however. As any true film buff knows, such circumstantial factors have nothing to do with a movie’s inherent worth or quality. Indeed, it’s often the most overlooked films that ultimately prove also to be the most satisfying, and even if it doesn’t come with the kind of industry buzz that often holds a perhaps unwarranted sway over the tastes of the moviegoing public, this one strikes enough of an emotional chord for queer viewers (especially those who came of age in an earlier generation) to make it worth going out of one’s way.

Directed by Olivier Peyon from a screenplay he wrote with Vincent Poymiro, Arthur Cahn and Cécilia Rouaud, “Lie With Me” is a slice-of-life character study, set in the mid-1980s, in which a celebrated-but-controversial gay author – Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec), now in advancing middle age – returns to his hometown of Cognac as the “guest of honor” for the anniversary celebration of a company that produces the city’s namesake liqueur. It’s a bittersweet trip for him, conjuring painful teenage memories of a first love who disappeared from his life without explanation and has left him yearning for closure ever since; but his melancholy is displaced by unexpected intrigue when he discovers that Lucas (Victor Belmondo), the young man responsible for his invitation to the festivities, is the now-adult son of his long-lost paramour, opening up the possibility of finding answers he never thought he’d have – but only if he can let his defenses down enough to ask the necessary questions of Lucas, who seems to be seeking some answers of his own.

Tinged with wistful nostalgia and built around an eminently relatable coming-of-age narrative that invites comparison with movies like “Call Me By Your Name” or any of the countless similar tales of painful first love that have been a staple of queer cinematic romance since such things were “permissible” on the screen, “Lie With Me” fully assumes the wistful tenderness of its genre by interweaving his main story with the one which happened all those years ago – the unexpected and clandestine affair between younger Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) and his sullen, secretive, and deeply-closeted classmate Thomas (Julien de Saint Jean), rendered with the kind of fragile sweetness that gives such tales of youthful awakening their irresistible appeal, largely thanks to the authenticity and chemistry of the two young actors who play it out for us. Even so, it takes a more brooding and palpably melancholy tone than most of us might be used to in a love story, partly due to the fact that the romance at its center has been over for decades, yet still casts a long shadow over its haunted protagonist, who seems never to have been able to fully give his heart (or, more to the point, his trust) to anyone since. It’s a romantic movie, to be sure, but one in which the romance is viewed through the bitter hindsight of a man who was left burned by it, and becomes even more un-requitable with the revelation of tragic developments that came in the years between.

As a consequence, it can sometimes feel like a depressing slog; Stéphane’s jaded, defensively deployed misanthropy occasionally becomes as much an obstacle to our empathy for him as it does to his making real connections with the people around him on the screen, and there are times when our patience with his self-imposed emotional isolationism wears thin. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peyon’s film is not exactly a “love story” in the usual sense, but an exploration of what happens to someone in the aftermath of a loss – and the emotional devastation it has wrought on their life –  that has been kept, undiscussed and unprocessed, as a kind of lifelong “sacred wound.”

Yet it’s also an exploration of how such trauma can finally begin to be healed through connecting with others who share a common sorrow. As a balance to Stéphane’s guarded, occasionally abrasive persona comes the younger Lucas’ outgoing, approachable enthusiasm for connection, which comes in even greater contrast to his older counterpart’s attitude as we gradually discover his own hidden sense of loss; it’s this quality that serves as catalyst in bringing the two men together, despite reticence in both of their corners, and ultimately brings the story to a denouement that, while far from the kind of happy-ever-after ending so many queer viewers usually long to see, might just allow them both to achieve something like closure.

The result is a film that overcomes its own gloom to offer hope without resorting to wish-fulfillment fantasy – something it owes to its insightful and autobiographical source novel, a critically-acclaimed bestseller (transcribed for English-language publication, surprisingly enough, by actress Molly Ringwald, who enjoys a lesser-known career as a writer and translator) in its native France, and to the savvy adaptation from Peyon and his fellow screenwriters. The humanity essential for making it work, however, is delivered through the work of its two leads, with the César Award-winning de Tonquédec’s unvarnished star turn as Stéphane finding a natural symbiosis with the affable Lucas brought to life by rising talent Belmondo – and yes, if you’re wondering, he is the grandson of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the late French New Wave screen legend whose iconic looks and charisma he has certainly inherited. Alongside Gillet and de Saint-Jean, veteran French actress Guilaine Londez rounds out the main cast with a memorable performance as a provincial event coordinator with more observational savvy than she lets on.

None of that is likely to be enough to give “Lie With Me” the kind of feel-good appeal so many modern queer audiences hunger for; though drawn with enough depth and complexity to elevate it above the familiar-yet-still-relevant tropes of its narrative – doomed same-sex love, tragic queer victimhood, the self-sabotaging power of internalized homophobia – it still tells a story that feels frustratingly repetitive to the generations that didn’t live in the era it takes place, and perhaps even for many of those from the generations that did. We can’t argue with preference, so if its subject matter and thematic palette seem to you like something you would rather skip, then you’re probably right. For anyone else, though, it’s a thoughtful and ultimately compelling – if not quite uplifting – story about the capacity of human beings to heal.

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For queer film nominees, look to GLAAD, not Oscar

Annual awards highlight performances you may have missed

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Sterling K. Brown in ‘American Fiction.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

Hollywood awards season is a bleak time for new releases, simply because most of the offerings being highlighted on our screens – both big and small – are literally last year’s news. Even so, it’s a welcome chance to catch up on some of the titles we may have missed before a nomination or two earned them a place in the spotlight they might not have gotten the first time around.

Unfortunately, the competition roster for Oscar — as well as many of the other big award bodies — is woefully short on movies where LGBTQ characters and themes are placed front and center. Don’t get us wrong: There are quite a few historic nominations in this year’s mix for queer talent and content. Still, if we’re searching for the year’s best in queer and queer-inclusive cinema, we have to look elsewhere — and that, of course, means GLAAD.

The nominees for GLAAD’s 35th Annual Media Awards, presented since 1990 to “honor media for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues,” were announced on Jan. 17, in the wake of the organization’s acceptance of the iconic Governors Award at the 2023 Emmys Ceremony for its decades of unwavering advocacy and the positive impact it has made in normalizing a queer presence in mainstream television entertainment; its picks for the year’s best film offerings, though they have been (unsurprisingly) overshadowed by the Academy Award nominations that were announced a week later, embody the kind of cinematic excellence we love while also ensuring that LGBTQ stories and experience are not erased from the cultural narrative – and it’s that last bit that makes watching them feel just a little bit more like lending your support where it’s truly needed.

That’s why we’re taking the time to highlight some of the titles that can be found there. Some of them – “All of Us Strangers,” “The Color Purple,” “Knock at the Cabin” and “Blue Jean,” among a few others – we’ve reviewed previously, but we’d love to focus your attention on some of the “hidden gems” that more or less came and went without the kind of fanfare they truly deserved. Because it’s a long list (GLAAD divides its movie categories to reflect wide- and limited-release films, as well as differentiating between narrative, documentary, theatrical and streaming/made for television productions) we really only have room to point out the ones we consider the “cream of the crop.” But we encourage you to check out the full list of nominations on the GLAAD website for more. And since the awards also cover television, literature, comics, and journalism (yes, the Blade is a previous winner!), there’s plenty to explore even if your tastes run toward other forms of media than the movies.

Included alongside the aforementioned titles among the nominees are:

AMERICAN FICTION: Also up for a few Oscars, this satirical look at race in America from writer/director Cord Jefferson delivers a tongue-in-cheek narrative about a Black author (Jeffrey Wright) who adopts the pseudonym and persona of a wanted felon to make a point about the way Black stories are accepted in the white American mainstream, only to achieve success beyond anything he’s written under his own name. It’s a delicate balance between plausible premise and farfetched conceit, but Jefferson makes it work, thanks to a likable performance by Wright, and scores extra points with his treatment of a secondary plotline in which the author’s newly out-of-the-closet brother (Oscar-nominated Sterling K. Brown) embraces his life as a gay man.

ANYONE BUT YOU: Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” this fluffy rom-com follows Bea and Ben (Sydney Sweeney and Glenn Powell), who – after a fumbled first date – find themselves thrown together at the destination wedding of their own siblings (Alexandra Shipp and Hadley Robinson) and forced to make nice with each other for the sake of the happy couple. We won’t lie: it’s neither deep nor terribly insightful, but it has its heart in the right place, not to mention a lesbian wedding at the center of its premise, and the eminent watch-ability of its two charismatic stars does the rest of the heavy lifting required to make it an enjoyable, love-affirming romp.

MOVING ON: Written and directed by Paul Weitz, this revenge comedy reunites iconic “Grace and Frankie” co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as two estranged BFFs who bury the hatchet in order to get even with the husband of a recently deceased friend. The material doesn’t always match the level of talent brought to the table by its legendary leading ladies, but their chemistry more than makes up for the gap, making this one a surefire hit for a movie night on your couch.

ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE: From the bestselling YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz comes this endearingly hopeful film adaptation from Aitch Alberto, in which a pair of Tex-Mex teens in El Paso (Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales) grapple with cultural expectations and gender norms as they come to terms with their attraction for each other – and, for a refreshing change of pace, this time their immediate families are mostly in their corner. Like many queer-themed indie gems, this one shines brighter than its mainstream-produced compatriots simply by virtue of not having to care about alienating audiences still wrapped up in homophobic traditions and beliefs – making it more of a must-see for LGBTQ viewers than most of the year’s higher-profile offerings

JOYLAND: Shortlisted but ultimately passed over for nomination in Oscars’ Best International Feature category, Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s drama centers on a low-income family that is rocked when the father (Ali Junjera) takes a job in an erotic dance theater and becomes infatuated with his transgender co-star (Alina Khan). Addressing hardline cultural norms about sexuality and gender roles, it was predictably subject to censorship and controversy in its native country – but nevertheless managed to emerge on the world stage (it took both the Jury Prize and the Queer Palm awards at the Cannes Film Festival) as a prime example of cinema’s ability to “speak truth to power” in a way that transcends the moral outrage leveled by those unwilling or unable to accept its message.

ORLANDO, MY POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY: Nominated in the Documentary category, this audacious work of cinematic activism from Paul B. Preciado brings together trans and nonbinary performers of all ages in an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s century-hopping novel “Orlando,” the tale of a young Elizabethan nobleman who morphs into a woman halfway through the story. Illuminating his own transformation through the authentic voices of the players he brings together, the director captures a universal connecting thread among the trans and gender-non-conforming talent he enlists for his film, daring to suggest that the “norms” enshrined by mainstream culture are ultimately political constructs opposing the natural flow of individual self-actualization. It’s a powerful argument, making for a not-to-be-missed gem of a movie.

The GLAAD Media Awards will be presented, across two ceremonies, on March 14 and May 11, 2024.

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Miyazaki caps career with masterful ‘Boy and the Heron’

A treatise on the need for harmony between man and nature

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‘The Boy and the Heron.' (Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli)

If anyone can be said to rival the impact of Walt Disney on the field of animated films, it’s Hayao Miyazaki. Co-founder of Studio Ghibli, his work in Japan’s anime genre is legendary, with films like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” – which held the record as the highest-grossing film in Japanese history for 19 years – expanding his popularity and helping to build a global entertainment empire that, like Disney’s, includes merchandise, licensing, and even a theme park. 

Millions of fans worldwide – many of them queer – have grown up loving his movies not just for their unique blend of the fanciful, the poignant, and the profound but for the sublime visual artistry and masterful storytelling with which they are rendered.

Now 83, the revered animator announced his retirement from making feature films in 2013 – only to start work, three years later, on another one. Seven years afterward, that project reached fruition with “The Boy and the Heron,” released in its native Japan last summer. And if any proof is needed to stand as testament to Miyazaki’s popularity, it can be found in the fact that, in spite of a deliberately minimal promotion strategy (the film was released with no teasers, trailers, or fanfare besides a single poster image), it had the biggest opening weekend of any Studio Ghibli film to date, going on to become the first original anime film (and the first film by Miyazaki) to achieve number one status at the box office in both Canada and the U.S.

Initially released in the latter country on Dec. 8, and still in theaters in the wake of its Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination as Best Animated Film of 2023, “Heron” – written and directed by Miyazaki and inspired by (though otherwise unrelated to) Genzaburō Yoshino’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?” – is an autobiographically leaning story centered on young Mahito (Soma Santoki / Luca Padovan in the English dubbed version), a boy growing up in Tokyo during World War II. Following the death of his mother in a hospital fire, his industrialist father (Takuya Kimura / Christian Bale) soon remarries, with his late wife’s younger sister (Yoshino Kimura / Gemma Chan) as his new bride, and Mahito finds himself living at her family’s estate in the rural countryside. There, a mysterious – and persistent – heron (Masaki Suda / Robert Pattinson) seems to take interest in him, and he begins to feel taunted by its attentions – but when his new stepmother disappears into the surrounding forest, the bird leads him into an overgrown tower, where a seemingly all-powerful lord (Shōhei Hino / Mark Hamill) rules over a hidden underworld, and he embarks on an epic quest through its mystical landscape to rescue her, helped along the way by a swashbuckling fisherwoman (Ko Shibasaki / Florence Pugh) and a guardian fire spirit (Aimyon / Karen Fukuhara) – discovering the secrets of a magical family history stretching back across generations as he goes.

Considering its unmistakable parallels to Miyazaki’s real-life childhood (his father, like Mahito’s, was an industrialist working for a company that manufactured war planes, allowing him an affluent and somewhat sheltered upbringing in a devastated Japan), it’s impossible not to see his latest movie as a “swan song.” Indeed, it was widely branded as such by journalists ahead of its release, and the director himself declared it his “last,” though that has since been recanted by Studio Ghibli with the announcement that he is working on another. Still, while it may not be his final manifesto, it would certainly be a worthy one.

Infused with the filmmaker’s signature recurring themes – the need for harmony between man and nature, the paradoxical absurdities of technology, the value of traditional lifestyles and the importance of craft and artistry, the conflict between pacifist ideals and violence that dominates human affairs – and weaving a mythic tale that postulates a deeper reality where life and death are forever intertwined in a realm of impermanent permanence, “Heron” feels as much like a statement of belief as it does a fantasy. One might even sense that there’s an insistence that it can be both, and that life itself is a sort of fantasy, capable of being shaped by things that exist only within our imaginations, and that, of course, is the source of its power. 

Such cosmic speculations aside, however, Miyazaki’s movie hooks us not with its esoteric metaphysics, but with its meditations on loss, grief, and the challenge of finding peace in a world that often seems dominated by chaos and indiscriminate destruction. Artfully framed to suggest that the “fantasy” elements of its plot either might or might not exist only within its youthful protagonist’s delirious, wounded mind, it touches us to the heart with the harsh realities of Mahito’s young life; the opening sequence, depicting the fire that kills his mother, is horrific, leaving its shadow on the rest of the film even as it does on Mahito’s soul, and his grief, compounded and left unreconciled by his loving-but-ham-handed father’s seeming refusal to address or even acknowledge it, resonates on a universal wavelength simply because it is so fundamentally human. It’s in grappling with these elements of life – the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to which Shakespeare refers in “Hamlet,” a play which is, perhaps not coincidentally, echoed in an inverted form within the structure of Miyazaki’s narrative – that the movie brings a sense of truth to the magical realism it embraces. The comforts it offers do not feel like hollow platitudes; rather, they point us toward wisdom, much in the way of a riddle told by a Zen Master, and a way of looking at the world that is comfort enough in itself.

Yet “The Boy and the Heron” is not made of the kind of late-career introspection that robs it of its sense of fun. Full of adventure, action, and the filmmaker’s signature blend of gorgeously animated realism with adorable absurdity inspired by Kawaii (Japanese “cute culture”), it offers as much spirited adventure and comedic flair as expected from a Miyazaki film– and it’s populated with just as many whimsically grotesque creatures and characters, to boot.

Needless to say, perhaps, it’s also a stunning film to behold, evoking a classic Japanese woodcut brought to life and infused with a powerful spirit of its own; though enhanced and aided by modern technology, the animation – as with all of Miyazaki’s work – is hand-drawn, making its visual perfection even more breathtaking. Add to all this the beautiful score by longtime friend and collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and the result is irresistible.

Given that “The Boy in the Heron” is likely a top contender for the win at this year’s Oscars, it’s likely to be accessible on the big screen – in some markets, at least – for a while before it becomes available for streaming. Whether or not you can see it now, keep it on your radar – we don’t use the word “masterpiece” lightly, but we suggest this one might qualify, and you owe it to yourself to watch it so that you can decide for yourself.

We’re pretty sure you’ll agree.

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Sicilian boys in love spark ‘Fireworks’

Inspired by true story of two gay youths murdered in Italy

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Samuele Segreto and Gabriele Pizzurro star in ‘Fireworks.’ (Photo courtesy of Cinephobia Releasing)

In October of 1980, the village of Giarre – a small municipality in Catalania, Sicily – was rocked by the murder of two young men, 25-year-old Giorgio Agatino Giamonna and 15-year-old Antonio “Toni” Galatola. Found hand in hand, two weeks after disappearing together from their homes, they had each been shot in the head, allegedly executed for the “crime” of homosexuality by members of their own families and other factions within the town whose disapproval of their relationship had already made them the target of bullying and violent abuse. The 13-year-old nephew of one of the victims admitted to carrying out the killings at the behest of the two families, even claiming that the two young men forced him to shoot them to prevent shame to their families, but later recanted his confession, leaving the double homicide officially unsolved.

It was an incident that sparked widespread outrage in Italy, though much of the rest of the world had little awareness of it, and ultimately led to the formation of “Arcigay” the country’s first and largest LGBTQ activist organization. Now seen as one of the most important catalysts in jump-starting the modern queer rights movement in Italy, the killings of Giorgio and Toni – who came to be known by protesters in the wake of their murders as “The Boyfriends” – were commemorated with a memorial plaque at the entrance to Giarre’s town library in 2022.

That’s the real life story behind the Italian import “Fireworks,” which made its U.S. debut on digital and VOD platforms Jan. 18, although it serves as inspiration for a fictional retelling rather than as the basis for a docudrama. Known in its nation of origin as “Stranizza d’amuri” [“Strangeness of Love”], it tells the story of Gianni (Samuele Segreto) and Nino (Gabriele Pizzurro), two youths from a small Sicilian village in the early 1980s — though life there has remained largely unchanged for a thousand years — who meet in a moped accident and become friends. At first, their relationship meets with approval from relatives on both sides, with Gianni stepping in to help when Nino’s father is forced to step away from the family firework business due to health problems. But as their deeper feelings for each other become more obvious to those around them, their families – and the rest of the town – grow more hostile; unable to resist the attraction they feel toward each other yet facing disapproval, disparagement, and worse from the small-minded morality that surrounds them, the two boys are forced to choose between turning away from their blossoming love or defying the deeply traditional strictures of their community by living it in the open.

Directed by Giusseppe Fiorello, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrea Cedrola and Carlo Salsa in collaboration with Josella Porto, “Fireworks” might, based on its storyline, be easily classed by American audiences as one of those “doomed romance” movies that equate queer love with tragic victimhood. Indeed, knowing the real-world origins of the plot going in, it might well feel like one is being set up from the start for tragedy, and the pervasiveness of the homophobic bigotry we see enacted on the screen can’t help but remind us we’re in for a depressing ride toward a heartbreaking conclusion.

The movie, however, doesn’t quite go that way.

While it certainly establishes the repressive environment of the boys’ community, complete with the kind of ugly bullying that is all too familiar to anyone growing up queer in a similar setting, it is more interested in exploring the experience of falling into first love, and establishing the connection between its two protagonists that ultimately makes them willing to choose each other over the safety of conforming to social taboos. Thanks to the easy chemistry of Segreto and Pizzurro, who capture the tenderness between these two sweet-but-not-quite-innocent souls in a way that blends the wholesome tenderness of youthful love with the irresistible pull of budding sensuality, the harshness and abuse they must endure – as well as the bleakness of their presumed eventual fate – seems less important than the palpable joy they find in each other. Their romance becomes a haven, and their story becomes about the triumph of love instead of the power of hate.

That’s an important distinction that keeps the tone of “Fireworks” from drifting too far into the doom-and-gloom that often dominates such stories — and it’s a good thing, too. While the central romance may provide plenty of uplift, there is a cold reality encroaching upon it that cannot be ignored; and though the inevitable depictions of torment from village homophobes are brutal enough on their own, it’s the attention paid to those closer to the young lovers – the families and friends who, instead of offering support or protection, become allies to these hostile outsiders for fear of social repercussion to themselves — that will likely hit closest to home for most queer audiences. It’s this aspect of the story that is arguably more “triggering” than any of the physical violence we are shown. It hones in on the social mechanisms through which cultural conditioning is passed down from one generation to the next — a theme that manifests itself in a narrative thread that weaves its way through the film from the first moment to the final frames and leaves us devastated.

Still, what we walk away with from Fiorello’s evocative movie is a sense of beauty, of triumph claimed rather than thwarted. The filmmaker honors the memories of his characters’ real-world inspirations — who became heroes of their country’s Equality Movement not because they were killed for their sexuality but because they dared to embrace it — by celebrating the love they found instead of lamenting the fate that befell them. Indeed, the movie’s artfully ambiguous ending gives the real-life murders only a nod of acknowledgment, choosing instead to leave its fictionalized lovers in a happy moment that might almost allow us the illusion they will live on.

This choice to emphasize love over hate, of course, does not sugarcoat the fact that “Fireworks” shows us some pretty ugly things, and, for some viewers, no amount of positive focus will be enough to prevent it from being a difficult watch. Understandably, many queer film fans, weary of having our love stories turn to heartbreak and horror on the screen, are tired of such grim representation and would prefer movies to give us the same chance at a happy ending as everybody else. Those movies do exist, of course; but as long as there are still places in the world — such as Italy, still considered one of the least LGBTQ-friendly nations in Western Europe, despite the advances made since the murders that inspired this film, and other countries that are far worse, there will always still be a need for movies that expose that reality — especially when they’re as well-made, and authentic, and tender as this one.

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Emma Stone shines in ‘Poor Things’

New film less far-fetched fantasy than it is social satire

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Willem Dafoe and Emma Stone in 'Poor Things.' (Image courtesy Searchlight Pictures)

If you’re not familiar with the work of filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, you might not be fully prepared for the level of oddness you’ll encounter in “Poor Things,” the Greek director’s latest work and winner of the Golden Lion Award at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Known for the unsettling and vaguely grotesque absurdities of his mise en scène in movies like “The Lobster” or “The Favourite” the material he’s chosen this time allows his droll-but-disturbing imagination to run wild even wilder than usual.

Adapted by Tony McNamara from Scots writer Alasdair Gray’s 1992 faux-Victorian sci-fi novel of the same name, it’s the strange and Odyssean tale of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman whose past is shrouded in mystery after her experimental reanimation by a brilliant-but-controversial doctor (Willem Dafoe) following an attempted suicide. With her previous existence erased from her memory and no exposure to the outside world, she sets out to gain knowledge and experience before settling down into an arranged marriage with a young research assistant (Ramy Youssef), embarking with a debauched lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) on an extended sea cruise; it’s an adventure that shapes her rapidly developing sense of self even as setbacks along the way – along with the shadow of her forgotten former life – threaten to derail her journey toward autonomy and force her forever back into the gilded cage of isolation with which women of her era were expected to content themselves.

Ambitious, sprawling, and unapologetically allegorical, Lanthimos’ immersive film makes very little effort to disguise its true identity as a high-concept parable, even as it painstakingly builds the fantastical world in which it takes place; though its setting may look like a palpably authentic version of 19th century London (and later, beyond), it’s as much derived from familiar tropes of literature and cinema as it is from period detail, and it leans into the sci-fi trappings of its Penny Dreadful-ish mad scientist plot to transform that almost-realistic landscape into a dream-like reality that shifts ever deeper into a sort of steampunk-flavored metaverse, mirroring Bella’s quest for full personhood as it takes her further from the social constructs of the “polite society” for which she has been groomed. To that end, the production design from Shona Heath and James Price, captured by the luminous cinematography of Robbie Ryan, which shifts throughout between varying blends of black-and-white and color, creates just the right blend of magical realism and macabre whimsy to make us accept it without question. More crucially, it evokes a kind of not-so-subtle surrealism that helps us understand we’re in an esoteric world of dreams, myths, and fables, no matter how much it might look like the real one.

That’s a key element in making “Poor Things” hit home, because despite the genre trimmings in which it is wrapped, it’s a movie that is less far-fetched fantasy than it is social satire. In Lanthimos’ vision, the story’s thematic observations about the conflict between personal freedom and cultural conditioning – particularly when it comes to women – become central. Reborn as a blank slate, Bella is free from the constructs that dictate her proscribed role in society, and she acts according to her true nature – putting her in direct conflict with those she encounters (particularly the men) on her travels. Like a feminist version of Voltaire’s Candide, her episodic adventure exposes her to different aspects of the civilization around her, charting an evolution from naïve bumpkin to self-actualized wise woman that confronts her with a menu of ideological perspectives – mostly advanced, again, by men, all of whom seek to control her for reasons ranging from the protective to the predatory. Seeing it take place in a reality that seems to evolve along with her into an ever more idealized iteration of itself drives home the point that, regardless of when it takes place, it’s a story about simply being a real human in the here and now, no matter where or when that might be.

Underscoring this sense of the universal are the inherent echoes in its narrative of mythic figures, from Prometheus and Pygmalion to Faust and Frankenstein, all of whom remind us of the dangers we face when we defy “the gods” – or nature itself – in our quest to subvert their dominion over us and exert control over our own fate. Re-imagined in a tale about a woman attempting to define her own existence in a world that wants to deny her that power, these classic cautionary tales of self-defeating hubris take on a new aspect; instead of reinforcing traditional morals about “knowing our place” in the universe, it challenges us to question them instead. Add to that a dedication to the notion of empiricism as the means to true enlightenment – as opposed to blind devotion to a time-honored construct that no longer fits the world we live in – and you have a movie that feels pointedly apropos for our current reality, despite its period setting.

Yet despite all the brainy-sounding conceptual ideas it invites us to contemplate, Lanthimos’ movie doesn’t feel as cerebral as it is; thanks to his admittedly black sense of humor – more directly comedic here, perhaps, than in his earlier, drier films – it keeps us in a perpetual state of bemused curiosity, which lets us absorb its philosophical explorations without feeling like we’re attending a college lecture. On the contrary, it’s a highly entertaining, near-hypnotic treat for the eyes, ears, and imagination as well as the mind, replete with quirky details that make it sometimes feel like the cinematic equivalent of a Bosch painting. Much of that is due to the tone of Lanthimos’ finely tuned direction and McNamara’s devilishly clever, understated screenplay, not to mention the above-mentioned visual artistry and a loopily ethereal score by first-time film composer Jerskin Fendrix.

But as well crafted as “Poor Things” is, it would be nothing without its star. Stone’s Bella is one of those instantly iconic film characters, larger than life but drawn with such layered authenticity by the performer that she becomes unforgettably human. Tasked with taking her role from pre-verbal simplicity to worldly sophistication, with stops at all points in between, she executes a complicated character arc with the precision of an Olympic athlete; it’s a career-defining accomplishment, worth the price of a ticket by itself – and as a bonus, Dafoe (even through extensive facial prosthetics) and Ruffalo also deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances, with out queer comedian/actor Jerrod Carmichael shining as a cynical traveling companion that Bella meets along the way.

It should be noted that, for some viewers, “Poor Things” might push some boundaries; much of Bella’s exploration is driven, at least partly, by her sexual appetite, and the movie doesn’t hold back in showing her various carnal escapades. It’s also fallen under some criticism for depicting sex work as a means of empowerment for women, though we suspect there are quite a few sex workers out there who would dispute that point.

With that small warning out of the way, we have no qualms about urging you to see “Poor Things” – preferably on a big screen, to fully appreciate its visual style – as soon as possible. Yes, it’s strange – but its strangeness is where its beauty becomes most visible.

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A rich ‘Color Purple’

New film a musical based on the Broadway show, not a Spielberg remake

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Fantasia Barrino stars in ‘The Color Purple.’ (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer-winning novel “The Color Purple” never needed a Steven Spielberg film adaptation to become a cultural touchstone – it had already achieved that before the director’s 1986 movie version made it to the screen – but it didn’t hurt, either.

Making stars of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in the process, Spielberg’s film – his first foray into “serious” cinema – brought Walker’s epistolatory tale of early 20th-century Black life in Georgia to the attention of new audiences. Setting aside modern attitudes about Black narratives being interpreted by white storytellers, it was undeniably a “watershed moment,” when a seminal piece of Black literature – one that “spoke truth to power” while transcending notions of race, gender, and sexuality and asserting the rich cultural heritage of Black Americans – became part of mainstream consciousness.

That all happened nearly 40 years ago, but neither Walker’s book nor the multi-Oscar-nominated film it inspired have faded from public memory – and now, the latest evolution of the material that started it all has reached movie screens, just in time to become a must-see Christmas event for families across America. However, despite the impression one might get from watching the trailers, which largely evoke key moments from the Spielberg film, it’s not a remake.

Instead, “The Color Purple,” releasing on Christmas Day to join the fray for 2023’s “awards season” race, is a new iteration of Walker’s book, a stage-to-screen adaptation of the Tony-winning 2006 Broadway musical – originally crafted by playwright Marsha Norman with score and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray – penned by screenwriter Marcus Gardley. Again, the impression one might get from watching the film’s trailers, which downplay the movie’s identity as a musical to the point that many audiences will be surprised when its characters start singing, doesn’t exactly convey that information to anyone who isn’t already “in the know.”

Still, it’s not the movie’s fault if Warner Brothers, true to form for big-ticket Hollywood studios since at least the early 1970s, tried to hedge its bets in promoting the latest attempt at a blockbuster movie musical, and we can hardly blame them – the success rate for such films, in terms of both critical and audience acceptance, has been hit-or-miss for decades. No matter how much talk one may hear of the genre making a comeback, it’s never really happened. For every Oscar-winner like “Chicago,” there’s an embarrassing dud like “Dear Evan Hansen,” and that’s not even counting the inevitable controversies over the merits of original musicals like “La La Land,” which are typically derided by purist fans of the genre even as they garner acclaim from critics and industry insiders. But though it excises several songs from the stage original’s playlist (while adding a few new ones, a common ploy for Hollywood adaptations angling for an Original Song Oscar, with Siedah Garrett stepping in to replace the late Willis), the film is unapologetic about being a musical from its very first frames, rising above the politics of publicity to fully inhabit the artistic space in which it was intended to exist.

In the hands of director Blitz Bazawule (aka “Blitz the Ambassador”), a Ghanaian director (“The Burial of Kojo,” Beyonce’s “Black is King”) whose artistic monikers also include author, visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter, and record producer, “The Color Purple” is a stylistic homage that pays tribute to the nostalgic glory of classic Hollywood while remaining firmly rooted in a contemporary aesthetic. To put it more plainly, the film’s many musical set-pieces borrow heavily from iconic Golden Age movies – think choreographed flights of fancy evoking seminal creators from Busby Berkeley to Gene Kelly to Bob Fosse – yet present them in a milieu more closely related to a modern music video. The eloquent choreography (by Fatima Robinson) exists outside the film’s period setting, incorporating movement rooted as much in modern dance as in the traditional styles that might seem (for some) more fitting to the material, and the music to which it is set often feels closer in spirit and execution to present-day R&B than the old-fashioned gospel-and-blues influences we might expect. 

The result is both thrilling and jarring, an inspiring example of what can happen when a traditionally white mainstream genre is appropriated and reimagined by a rich and vibrant postmodern generation of blended ethnic ties possessing the boldness and skill to make it their own – which, in the heightened sensitivity of our divided age, might be a step too far for some viewers, but seems to us a more effective path than most toward breathing fresh life into the long-lamented musical genre, if such a thing were possible.

Yet between its many musical interludes, Bazawule’s film equally invests itself in the dramatic narrative, emulating a host of “realistic” cinematic influences beyond Spielberg’s contribution. This goes a long way toward getting us invested in the story and characters, especially given the beyond-expectation performances of the cast. Reprising the role she first played on Broadway, Fantasia Barrino creates a Miss Celie that puts the stress on under-appreciated intelligence rather than indoctrinated ignorance, giving us a different but no-less-compelling take on the character than Goldberg’s iconic turn, and Danielle Brooks (“Orange is the New Black”), also returning to her stage role, commands her every moment onscreen as the iron-willed Sofia. Taraji P. Henson, as free-spirited blues singer Shug Avery, captures the indomitable self-confidence and iron will that makes her a catalyst for more than one character’s change of heart, and Colman Domingo’s Mister succeeds at humanizing his toxicity sufficiently to clear a path for our empathy; in smaller but no-less-essential roles, Corey Hawkins and R&B singer H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson) shine brightly enough to make their presence felt among the rest of the heavy-hitters, and up-and-comer Halle Bailey scores big as the long-separated sister that serves as a lifeline throughout Celie’s struggles.

All these stellar performances, coupled with Bazawule’s solid directorial vision and the non-ambiguous queerness with which it comports itself (the romance between Celie and Shug is allowed to blossom much more fully that we are shown in the Spielberg original), gives us ample reason to recommend “The Color Purple” – but we must also add a caveat that might be more a commentary on the stage musical than on the film derived from it.

Simply expressed, one can’t help but feel that there’s a disconnect between the sparse-but-richly-imagined prose that makes Walker’s book so compelling and the florid sentimentality of its translation into the musical format. The songs, while they might ring true as appropriate within the concept, never sufficiently illuminate what we are shown by the drama; they seem, at times, disconnected from everything else, a blatant appeal to our emotions rather than an integrated part of the whole. This is a particular problem for a film clearly rooted in the intertwined music and history of the Black culture it ostensibly tries to emulate.

Even so, such scholarly nitpicking is immaterial for most of our readers; while it may not deliver the most cohesive of musical conceits, it pulls off most of what it needs to, and for anybody who loves musicals as much as we do, that’s more than enough.

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The haunting – and haunted – queer love of ‘Strangers’

Haigh’s vision makes this one of the best films of the year

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Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott in ‘All of Us Strangers.’ (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

If you’ve read any “Best Of Queer Cinema” article written since 2011, you’re almost certainly familiar with Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” even if you’ve never seen it. A sexy but poignant tale of two men who fall in love during a one-night stand, it’s regularly ranked at or near the top when critics update their lists of such things, and for good reason. It’s romantic without being sentimental, intelligent without being emotionally distant, and – most important of all – it “gets” contemporary gay love in a way that makes it a touchstone for a generation of queer viewers who came of age in the aftermath of the AIDS years.

That generation is now more than a decade older, and so is Haigh, whose reputation as a filmmaker has only been bolstered in the interim by critical acclaim for subsequent films and his creation of HBO’s “Looking,” the short-lived and controversial queer series that nevertheless found enough loyal fans to warrant a movie-length finale after cancellation. Now, with his latest big-screen effort, the British writer/director delivers another stylishly composed melancholy romance; but though it may be true to introspective form, it also reflects the inevitable shifting of perspective that comes with middle age, and while its meditations have much to do with the beginnings and endings of love, its focus expands beyond those finite moments to explore the things that linger and become eternal – or at least, feel to us as if they are.

If that description sounds to you a little like the basis for a ghost story, you’re not wrong. “All of Us Strangers” – releasing on Dec. 22 – centers on Adam (Andrew Scott), a lonely 40-something Londoner living in a new-but-nearly empty London block of high-rise flats, whose current project conjures painful memories of his parents. Traveling to his childhood home, he finds Mum and Dad (Claire Foy and Jaime Bell) still living there exactly as they were, despite their tragic death in a car crash 20 years earlier. Incredulous though he may be, he embraces the chance to reconnect with them, but a potential new beginning at home with one of his few neighbors – the handsome but palpably sad Harry (Paul Mescal) – might just be jeopardized by his growing obsession with dwelling in the literal past.

Based on the 1987 novel “Strangers” by Japanese author Taichi Yamada, Haigh’s film becomes a more personal expression by relocating the setting to London and reimagining the central character as a gay screenwriter. The scenes involving Adam’s interaction with his parents were even shot in his own childhood home. He also chose to downplay the story’s supernatural leanings in favor of a more esoteric approach to the narrative; these are not the gloomy, terrifying ghosts we meet in a horror story, but fully self-aware shadows of humanity whose only intention is to enact the redemptive completion they were prevented from achieving by their fate. Far from being mournful specters anchored in the sorrows of the past, their purpose seems dedicated to helping everyone involved, living or otherwise, move onward toward an always-uncertain future. Indeed, there is nothing about them that suggests a lack of life, if not for the inescapable fact of their deaths – something easy to dismiss as irrelevant given the vibrant reality of their presence.

However, there’s more mystery to the story than a pair of friendly ghosts. Like many of the year’s best films, the impact of “All of Us Strangers” depends greatly on a gradual revelation of details that would inevitably lose their power if they were known in advance, and though we wouldn’t exactly categorize it as a movie with a “twist” ending, it’s still better left to personal experience to discover the deeper secrets that lie beyond the premise we’ve already divulged. Suffice to say that, in crafting its not-so-spooky narrative, it places more emphasis on hope than on haunting – though it suggests that the two may be inextricably linked, despite all our assumptive instincts to the contrary – and leaves us feeling uplifted rather than unsettled. To put it another way, we can safely offer the clue that, in the blurred and nebulous reality inhabited by Haigh’s movie, the boundaries of time, space, and physical existence seem less important than the bonds that are formed by our souls, for want of a better word.

What that means, of course, is that viewers who prefer a more straightforward narrative, grounded in the commonly shared experience most of us agree to call reality, might well find Haigh’s metaphysical (and metaphoric) conceit a step too far to accept the ideas it proffers about the enduring impact of love – and the heartbreaks with which it goes hand in hand – on our lives. But even if one cannot quite get on board for the transcendent leaps the filmmaker asks us to make within his autobiograph-ish parable of grief and reconciliation, it’s hard not to be won over by the tenderness of the love story that serves as both counterpoint and bookend to the inevitable sorrow that permeates it. In depicting the burgeoning romance between Adam and Harry – two men, a generation apart, attracted to each other by a mutual recognition of sorrow and broken-ness – Haigh manages to capture an irresistibly pure sense of heartfelt connection. It’s the kind of love we all dream of finding, and thanks to the sweetness and empathy with which it is delivered, it may well convince even the most cynical audiences to believe in the possibility of its existence.

Much of that effect hinges on the gifts – and the chemistry – brought into the mix by leading men Scott and Mescal. The former, an Irish thespian best known in the U.S. for his recurring turn as arch-nemesis Moriarty opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC-imported “Sherlock” and his role as “Hot Priest” in Netflix’s “Fleabag,” delivers a breathtakingly raw performance as Adam. Without its being heavily expressed in his dialogue, he conveys the emotional quest on which his character’s life hinges without ambiguity or artifice and we feel it as if it were our own. As for Mescal, he brings a relatable yet still unfathomable vulnerability to the clearly damaged Harry; despite his heartthrob good looks, he makes us believe in the insecurity and despair that makes the equally damaged Adam feel like a lifeline for him, which helps the eroticism of their tasteful-but-unapologetic love scenes together seem as sacred as they are sexy. Bell and Foy provide deeply affecting performances, as well; and though their characters embody a different aspect of love, they deliver an equivalent emotional resonance that somehow ties everything together in an all-encompassing notion of love as a universal force that holds our hands both as we come into the world and as we go out of it.

It’s Haigh’s vision that is served by these awards-worthy performances, though, and the unexpectedly moving beauty of “All of Us Strangers” comes ultimately from him; that it comes so eloquently despite a narrative that leaves us with more mysteries than conclusions – yet still manages to vibrate with triumphant joy – makes it easily one of the best movies of the year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gripping ‘Saltburn’ features stellar performances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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