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No problem with ‘Problemista’

Julio Torres’s debut film hints at greater achievements to come

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Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in ‘Problemista.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

Confronted with the title of queer SNL alumnus Julio Torres’s debut feature film, the first question that comes to mind for many people might be, “What’s a ‘Problemista’?”

For the millions of retail workers, reception staffers, and hospitality clerks, however,  or anyone else whose job it is to interface with the public, the label – coined by Torres to describe the particular kind of driven personality embodied in his movie by headliner Tilda Swinton – may be, if not familiar, at least evocative enough to convey its meaning. 

We’ve all encountered them, actually; entitled, self-righteous, demanding, aggressively impatient, and unwilling to accept anything less than complete capitulation for an answer, they are the people every cashier dreads to see (and every customer loathes to be behind) in line. They seem to thrive on drama, and they don’t care how much it inconveniences or disturbs anyone in their radius. In fact, they seem at times to relish doing so, as if they were striking a blow against social injustice by bullying a grocery clerk into honoring an expired coupon. In short, they might be described as a sort of contemporary urban warrior whose response to a problem is to become a problem until they get the solution they want. But by legions of waiters and customer service reps, they are typically just described as “the customer from hell.”

The central character in Torres’s stylish, smart, and surrealistically infused contemporary New York fairy tale – Alejandro (played by Torres himself) – is not such a person, at least not when we meet him. His creative imagination nurtured by his artist mother (Catalina Saavedra) in El Salvador, he’s now a young immigrant on a work visa in the U.S., getting by in his daily life by making as few waves as possible while dreaming of being a toy designer for Hasbro. But when a minor flub gets him fired from the cryogenic company where he works, he inadvertently finds himself drawn into the never-peaceful orbit of the titular “problemista” herself: Elizabeth (Swinton), an outcast art-world maven and wife of a terminally ill eccentric painter (Wu Tang Clan founder RZA) that has frozen himself in hope of being revived when a cure is available to save his life. 

Tasked with tending to her not-quite-late husband’s legacy and estate, she is harried from her efforts to enforce her husband’s wishes via a campaign of unreasonable requests and non-negotiable demands, and sorely in need of someone to help manage the burden — and with his future in America now hanging by a thread, Alejandro takes on the challenge, hoping this terrifying woman whose path he has crossed can keep him from deportation until he can land the career opportunity he’s been waiting for.

It’s at once a familiar and an oddball conceit, a tale of toxic mentorship with shades of “The Devil Wears Prada” that weaves a strangely heartwarming sense of unexpected but perfectly matched kinship into the mix and takes us past tropes and cliché to discover a perspective that illuminates the extremes instead of reinforcing the bland status quo of our lives. While most audiences may not have experience within the elite cultural circle in which Swinton’s Elizabeth asserts her presence, the core essence of her persona is instantly recognizable to us all. And although Torres’s screenplay gets a lot of mileage – and indeed, the movie gets a lot of its appeal, thanks to Swinton’s masterful performance – out of parodying that “high-maintenance” image, it also takes us slyly past our easy judgments to reveal all the easily relatable human qualities behind the stereotype. By the time it’s over, we might still see her as a “monster,” but perhaps no more so than any of the rest of us. We might even, like Alejandro, start to see her seemingly insufferable approach to life as something a little less clueless and a lot more justifiable than we want to assume – and recognize that, even if it makes people cringe when they see her, it might sometimes be the only way to get by in a world bent on maintaining a veneer of calm banality. It might even be the only appropriate response to – and best rebellion against – the indifference of a system whose first priority is always the preservation of a placid status quo.

That, of course, is the joy of “Problemista,” a movie that successfully gets a load of intelligent laughs from the eccentricities of both its unorthodox lead characters – a non-specifically but unmistakably queer protagonist and a ferociously uncompromising “difficult woman” – yet somehow manages to turn them both into aspirational figures. It successfully pokes a savvy kind of fun at the rarified cultural niche in which it takes place – as well as at the not-so-subtly delusional constructs which govern the lives of anyone who fits within its boundaries – without diminishing or degrading its characters or making their individual pursuits feel foolish; it accomplishes this because, even in its unabashedly satirical milieu, it places the greatest emphasis on the humanity of its characters. Alejandro and Elizabeth, in almost any other film, would be supporting players – comic relief, perhaps – in a story about people whose lives were more comfortably mainstream; here, they take center stage, allowing us to laugh at their eccentricities but never letting us lose sight of the real human impulses behind them.

For that, we can thank the deeply committed performances of Swinton, an actress of legendary caliber whose background in underground and counter-cultural theater and film brings a considerable layer of stature to Torres’ freshman effort, and Torres himself, who comes across as a fully confident and seasoned performer capable of holding his own onscreen with someone of his co-star’s stature. RZA’s amusing but somehow sweet performance in flashbacks as Elizabeth’s husband also has a humanizing effect, and acclaimed Chilean actress Saavedra casts a luminous glow in her limited screen time that nevertheless seems like a keystone element of the film’s delicate balance of magical realism and absurdist comedy.

To be fair, defining “Problemista” within a label is a problematic undertaking from the start; neither comedy nor drama, fantasy nor surrealist ephemera, it combines all these elements to approach something more profound, perhaps, or at least more useful for audiences looking for a new perspective on the sometimes-soul-crushing sea of obstacles that seems to govern our daily lives. At any rate, far more important than any of these esoteric themes, it confronts – gently, if with considerable cynicism – the existential rattlesnake of navigating the immigration system of the US, straddling multiple agendas and managing to succeed with all of them.

Torres, whose stint on “SNL” led to a successful stand-up special and a gig as the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed Spanish-language series “Los Espookys,” has managed an impressive debut as a filmmaker; it’s the kind of movie that hints at greater achievements to come, and we are eagerly on board to watch them unfold in years to come. No small feat for a first-time filmmaker, especially considering the number of ambitious sociocritical comedies that have tried and failed to pull off the same delicate balancing act – and even more especially because it’s also a lot of fun.

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

Alternative ‘Batman’ universe a medium for mythologized autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasserting the queerness of an author who boldly pushed boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ delivers retro lesbian thrills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neo-noir ‘Femme’ offers sexy, intense revenge fantasy

A work of real and thrilling cinematic vision

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George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett star in ‘Femme.’ (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

They say “revenge is sweet,” and it must be true. Why else would so many of our popular stories, dating all the way back to “Medea” and beyond, be focused on the idea of getting “even” with the people who have done us wrong?

It’s a concept with obvious appeal for anyone who has felt unjustly used by the world – or, more accurately, by the people in it – but that has particular resonance, perhaps, for modern queer audiences, long used to being relegated to the status of “victim” in the narratives we see on our screens. In “Femme” — the new UK indie thriller helmed by first-time feature directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, now in limited theatrical release and expanding wider over the next two weeks — it provides the irresistible hook for a gripping tale of calculated vengeance in the face of anti-queer violence. Like the best of such stories, however, it’s as much a cautionary tale as it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Set in London, it centers on Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), aka Aphrodite Banks, a popular drag performer in the city’s queer club scene who, after a performance one night, steps out in full costume to buy a pack of cigarettes and becomes the victim of a traumatic “gay bashing” incident at the hands of a young man goaded to violence by a thuggish gang of friends. Months later, though he’s recovered from his physical injuries, he is still deeply affected by the inner scars that linger. Robbed of the confidence that allowed him to perform, he’s withdrawn into a reclusive life, until concern from his friends and housemates prompts him to finally venture out into the world for a night of cruising at a gay sauna – where he encounters his bully doing the same thing. 

Unrecognizable and anonymously masculine out of his drag persona, Jules finds himself beginning a dangerous and duplicitous game in which he plans to “out” his former attacker – whose name, as he learns, is Preston (George MacKay) – in the most humiliating way possible. As his scheme begins to play out, however, he encounters an obstacle: in getting to know the closeted Preston, he is surprised to discover not only empathy for someone living their life in terrified camouflage, but a mutual attraction that develops despite the horrific history between them.

Framed as a self-described “neo-noir” story, a designation that implies a certain flavor of moral ambiguity as much as it does a tense and shadowy tale of intrigue or a psychologically complex tone, it’s a movie that relies heavily on style in order to sell its conceptual premise. Realistically, we might question the boldness that permits our protagonist to enact such a potentially hazardous scheme, but in the context of its genre trappings we are lulled into accepting it. And while most of us are likely “jaded” enough to question the possibility of tenderness between its two leading characters, the accepted conceits of the film noir form are enough to sell it to us – or at least allow us to grapple with it alongside Jules, whose righteously Machiavellian master plan is threatened by the feelings he “catches” in spite of himself.

That, of course, is part of the whole point. “Femme,” though it establishes itself by virtue of its very title as a testament to the struggle to “pass” for straight in a world that places a value judgment on perceived adherence to a strict norm for gender and sexuality, hinges on the idea that such things aren’t quite as clear-cut as we want to make them. Despite the black-and-white certainty we cling to when it comes to the subject of abusive or toxic relationships, there’s an emotional component that can only be ignored or dismissed at our peril, and even our most resolute intentions can be undermined by the shades of gray we discover in our hearts. 

Freeman and Ng – who also wrote the screenplay, adapting their own BAFTA-nominated short film from 2021 (starring Harris Dickinson and Paapa Essiedu) into a feature-length expansion – seem bent on challenging our snap judgments, on forcing us to sympathize with our oppressors by showing us the ways in which they, too, are prevented from living a fully authentic life by the expectations of their cultural environment. Even more challenging for many modern audiences, perhaps, may be the unavoidable observation that, in enacting his plan of revenge, Jules crosses the line between being a victim and being a victimizer – a fine point that may trigger uncomfortable implications in a social environment that has become marked by divisive moral constructs and hardline ethical posturing.

Before we scare you off with discussion of high-concept themes and “culture war” rhetoric, however, it’s crucial to bring up the elements that lift “Femme” above and beyond the level of so many such narrative films and makes it a somewhat unexpectedly potent piece of cinematic storytelling – and all of them have to do with the skill and intention behind it.

As to the former, the movie’s first-time directors manage a remarkable debut, steeping their film in moody, genre-appropriate visuals and murky morality. They pave a path beyond the easy assessments proscribed for us by conventional thinking, and force us to follow our sympathies into a disquieting confrontation between what we “know” as right and what we feel as true; at the same time, they push back against any natural sentimentality we might have about the situation, stressing the toxicity of the relationship in the middle of their film, the ironically-reversed insincerity of its dynamic – and, perhaps most importantly, the reality of the defining circumstances around it. While we might find ourselves longing for a happier resolution than the one we expect, the film makes no pretense that these two men might overcome the deep denial and traumatic associations – not to mention the calculated lack of honesty on the side of its de facto protagonist, to achieve some kind of “happy ending” between themselves. Nevertheless, we hope for it, in spite of ourselves.

That delicate dynamic works largely because of the movie’s lead actors. Both Stewart-Jarrett (“Candyman”) and MacKay (“Pride”, “1917”) deliver fully invested, utterly relatable performances, finding the emotional truth behind their interactions with as much palpable authenticity as they bring to the chemistry between them. They force us to abandon our preconceived ideas about each character by finding the human presence behind them, and it makes the story’s final outcome feel as heartbreaking as it does inevitable.

As for intention, “Femme” – which premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and went on to gather acclaim across the international film fest circuit – might be a little hard to take for the easily triggered, we won’t deny it. Still, it’s a work of real and thrilling cinematic vision that goes beyond easy morality to highlight the tragedy that comes from being forced to live behind a mask for the sake of societal acceptance. It’s also exciting, smart, and unexpectedly sexy – all of which make it a highly- recommended addition to your watchlist.

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Tommy Dorfman makes directorial debut in ‘I Wish You All the Best’

Film premiered at SXSW

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(Courtesy photo)

By Jack Morningstar

Editor’s note: Jack Morningstar attended SXSW.

Based on Mason Deaver’s novel, “I Wish You All the Best” follows Ben DeBacker (Corey Fogelmanis), a nonbinary teen who is thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister and her husband.

The film premiered at SXSW last week and stars Corey Fogelmanis, Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Alexandra Daddario and Cole Sprouse, Lena Dunham and was produced by Matt Kaplan and Tommy Dorfman. In addition to directing and producing, Dorfman also adapted the screenplay. 

“I had never read a book that centered on an experience that mirrored mine so vividly — just being a queer kid from the South — so I immediately was interested in adapting it and was putting myself up for that,” she said.

The heartwarming film brings awareness to the plight of LGBTQ kids who grow up in conservative families and communities, while also emphasizing that, as Dorfman noted, “safety can be found in many places.” In this case, the main protagonist, Ben, finds refuge in their friendship with Nathan. Fogelmanis, who plays Ben, explains that “together they have so many first-time experiences. Learning to let your walls down with someone that is a stranger, or that you don’t have a biological bond with is really scary. And then just to see all the stuff that comes up and have that person still accept you is just the greatest thing for Ben.”

Fogelmanis and Gutierrez-Riley were obvious choices for the roles of Ben and Nathan.

“It was really clear to me from a filmmaker perspective. There were a couple of people for each role that I was interested in and enjoyed working with, but Fogelmanis, from that first tape to the last chemistry read made it so clear who Ben was, who Ben is, and who Ben could be. Miles, who plays Nathan, is so amazing as well,” Fogelmanis added. “It was really effortless in a way. Reading Tommy’s words was super easy to find my way into.”

Dorfman found it particularly easy to work with Gutierrez-Riley as well since they attended the same acting program at Fordham University. 

“I remember when I was working with Miles in the audition process, I was like, oh, I know how to talk to you. That’s huge. It helped me as a first-time director,” she said.

Dorfman wanted to be careful “not fall into the trap of dramatizing Ben’s gender or coming out too much. It is important to remember that viewing people solely through the lens of their gender or sexuality diminishes their vast and complex humanity. For instance, my life extends beyond my trans identity. I’m an artist, a wife, a mother to two dogs, a sister to four siblings, an avid reader of classic literature, 10 years sober, have ADHD, enjoy arranging flowers and charming tableware, to name a few things.”

“Similarly, my film’s protagonist, Ben, doesn’t have an identity exclusive to being a queer teenager. Although their coming out experience is crucial and worth exploring, an obvious jumping-off point in my film, it’s what happens after they’re able to open up that inspired me to make ‘I Wish You All The Best,’ Dorfman added. “My film examines the discomfort of being seventeen, falling in love with a classmate, forming friendships, finding a voice through painting and self-expression, learning to love and be loved, navigating anxiety and depression, and coping with the pressures of growing up. These are universal and very human experiences that shape Ben beyond the limits of representation or perception.” 

Dorfman describes being one of the few openly transgender directors as “an honor and a disappointment.” She added, “I wish there were more of us, but there will be. It’s exciting, though, to be part of this next generation of creators and filmmakers entering this space and telling more human experiences.”

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Previewing queer movie and TV highlights for spring

New options coming despite recent Hollywood strikes

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

The Hollywood awards season has come to an end at last, which means we can finally look forward to some fresh new movies hitting screens over the next few weeks. And although the actors’ strike of 2023 has led to inevitable delays in bringing new content to our televisions for the spring, there are a few titles to watch for there, as well.

Girls 5Eva: Season 3 (March 14, Netflix)

The under-the-radar cult hit musical comedy series from Peacock, following a Y2K-era girl group that reunites to take advantage of a wave of millennial nostalgia, returns for a third season after being resurrected by Netflix. Lauded for its sharp and funny skewering of pop culture and the music industry and cut from the same zany, absurd cloth as “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (much of its creative team are veterans of that hit show), it’s the kind of giddy-but-smart, rapid-fire comedy that begs to be binged. Starring Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Paula Pell as a divorced lesbian dentist, fans will surely be logging on to watch as soon as it drops, but new viewers are encouraged to jump on board for this one, too.

Love Lies Bleeding (March 15, theaters)

Rumbling into theaters after an auspicious premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, this pulpy 1980s-set lesbian-themed thriller from director Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) is touted as “an electric new love story” and promises to take viewers on a wild ride with its story of a reclusive gym manager (Kristen Stewart) from a criminal family who falls in love with an aspiring bodybuilder (Katy O’Brian) on her way to Las Vegas to follow her dreams; unfortunately, their romance sparks unexpected violence, dragging the new lovers deep into a dangerous web of crime and intrigue. Though it was given limited release in New York and Los Angeles on March 8, it expands wide on March 15. Also starringJena Malone, Anna Baryshnikov, and Dave Franco, with Ed Harris as Stewart’s crime boss father. Consider it a must-see.

Femme (March 22/29, limited theaters with national expansion to follow)

From the UK comes this taut noir-ish thriller about a prominent London drag artist (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who, while stepping out one night after a show to buy cigarettes, is brutally attacked by a man (George MacKay) and his gang of friends. Left traumatized by the experience, he retreats into isolation – but when he recognizes his attacker in a chance meeting at a gay sauna, he begins an affair with the closeted bully, hoping to enact a plan of revenge. Co-writer/directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping developed the film as an expansion of their award-winning 2021 short film of the same name, and the resulting debut feature premiered to enthusiastic acclaim at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. Also starring Aaron Heffernan, John McCrea, and Asha Reid.

Ripley (April 4, Netflix)

This long-awaited eight-episode limited series adapts lesbian literary icon Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for yet another screen incarnation – there have been at least four so far, most famously the 1999 feature film version starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow – and stars queer Irish actor Andrew Scott (BBC’s “Sherlock”, “Pride”, “All of Us Strangers”) as the title character, who is sent by a wealthy man to persuade his son to return home from an extended trip to Italy. Once there, however, the ambitious Ripley finds himself irresistibly drawn into the privileged life of leisure led by young Dickie (Johnny Flynn) and his girlfriend Marge (Dakota Fanning), and he embarks into “a complex life of deceit, fraud and murder.” Shot in an elegant black and white that evokes its early 1960s setting, show creator/writer/director Steve Zaillian says his adaptation was crafted to provide an interpretation  more faithful to the story and closer in tone to Highsmith’s novel than has been seen before, which is great news for fans of the original Ripley, whose adventures were continued by the late author throughout three further books after the success of the first, perhaps paving the way for follow-ups to this adaptation should it live up to the high expectations that accompany it. Eliot Sumner, Maurizio Lombardi, and John Malkovich also star.

Housekeeping for Beginners (April 5, limited theaters)

Another festival darling, this Macedonian film won the Queer Lion prize at Venice in 2023, and was submitted as an official selection for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards. While it didn’t make the cut for Oscar, it’s hitting US screens for a limited release next month – no doubt on the strength of writer/director Goran Stolevski’s previous feature, “Of An Age”, an Australian coming-of-age romance between two young men that made multiple “Best of the year” lists (including ours) in 2023. Revolving around a woman finds herself raising her girlfriend’s two troublemaking daughters despite having no interest in being a mother, the synopsis describes it as an exploration of “the universal truths of family,” framed in a “heartwarming story” of clashing wills “about an unlikely family’s struggle to stay together.” The pedigree alone is enough for us to suggest catching this one, if you can, when it hits theaters. Starring Anamaria Marinca, Alina Șerban, Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Mia Mustafa, Džada Selim, Sara Klimoska, Rozafë Çelaj, Ajse Useini.

Glitter & Doom (April 9, digital)

Billed as “a fantastical queer romance set to the hit music of the Indigo Girls,” this indie oddball made a theatrical debut earlier this month, but heads to digital and VOD on April 9. It’s the “love at first sight journey” of its title characters, two young dreamers – an aspiring circus performer (Alex Diaz) and a struggling musician (Alan Cammish) – who embark on “an epic summer romance” until they find their love threatened by “the realities of pursuing their dreams.” Though we haven’t yet seen it ourselves, the buzz promises a campy yet uplifting and exuberant good time, and a star-studded queer-centric cast that includes Tig Notaro, Missi Pyle, Ming Na-Wen, Lea DeLaria, B-52s diva Kate Pierson, “Drag Race” alum Peppermint, Broadway star Beth Malone, and yes, even the Indigo Girls themselves.

Challengers (April 26, theaters)

From “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino comes this buzzy romantic triangle starring “Euphoria” and “Dune” star Zendaya as a former tennis prodigy turned coach whose husband – a champion on a losing streak (Mike Faist, “West Side Story”) – must face off against a washed-up former best friend (Josh O’Connor, “The Crown,” “God’s Own Country”) that also happens to be his wife’s former boyfriend. According to the synopsis, “pasts and presents collide and tensions run high,” and though details are scarce beyond the basics we’ve already shared, rumors (as well as a few not-so-subtle hints in the trailers) suggest that things might take a decidedly bisexual turn. Whether or not that should turn out to be true, Guadagnino’s name on the credits is enough reason to make this a queer must-see – especially with a cast as vibrant and talented as the one he has assembled.

I Saw the TV Glow (May 5, limited theaters)

Also coming from Sundance is this horror thriller from writer/director Jane Schoenbrun, produced by recent Oscar-winner Emma Stone (with husband Dave McCary) and starring queer actor Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine as two troubled teens who bond over a fantasy TV series and find their realities starting to blur after its cancellation. Praised by reviewers for its surreal style and its exploration of queer and trans themes within its mind-bending, darkly disorienting framework, it’s likely not the kind of movie that will resonate with all viewers – but it’s probably a great match for those who enjoy their horror on the abstract side. 

In addition to all these, though their premiere dates are still not set, three much-loved  TV series are set to return this spring. Streaming network Max will debut the third seasons of both Hacks and The Sex Lives of College Girls, two popular shows with heavy queer appeal. The former, starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder, is a multi-award-winning comedy about the unlikely creative partnership between an old-school stand-up legend and an edgy young comedy writer who loathe each other – or at least did in the beginning. After two seasons of alternately awkward, bittersweet, and hilarious misadventures together, they might have warmed up to each other a bit, but we’re betting that won’t keep them from locking horns. 

The latter, starring Renée Rapp, Pauline Chalamet, Alyah Chanelle, and Amrit Kaur, is also a comedy, following four freshman roommates at a fictional college as they explore love and friendship, financial stability and personal independence, and – of course – sex. It would have a draw for queer audiences even without the sapphic subplots, and for its enthusiastic fans, queer or otherwise, it will surely be a must watch.

Finally, the venerable UK sci-fi adventure series Dr. Who is set to return to the BBC sometime in May, when out queer actor of color Ncuti Gutwa (“Sex Education”, “Barbie”) officially becomes the 15th incarnation of the shape-shifting titular time lord – a role he already previewed to much fan approval in a Christmas special late last year. While the charms of this long-running fan franchise may escape viewers without an appreciation for the kind of campy intellectual fantasy that is its trademark appeal, Gutwa’s charmingly fabulous persona might be just the thing to bring a whole new army of queer converts into the fandom.

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Lesbian road movie returns with campy ‘Dolls’

A retro-inspired, neon-lit road trip/neo-noir thriller

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Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley, and Beanie Feldstein in ‘Drive-Away Dolls.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Let’s admit it: by the time Hollywood’s awards season draws to a close, most of us are more than ready for a good mindless “B movie” to cleanse our palettes. After the glut of “serious” and “important” films dominating the public conversation, it’s just incredibly freeing to watch something that feels — at some level, at least — more like entertainment than it does like doing homework.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why the timing of “Drive-Away Dolls,” which hit screens on Feb. 23, feels like a really savvy move, especially since it comes from a major Hollywood studio and boasts a multi-Oscar-winning director – Ethan Coen, who alongside brother Joel is half of one of Hollywood’s most prodigious filmmaking teams – at its helm. A retro-inspired and neon-lit road trip/chick flick/neo-noir thriller featuring lesbian leading characters and leaning hard into the visual palette of the ‘70s-era exploitation drive-in movie fodder it aims to both emulate and reinvent, it lays no claim to lofty purpose or intellectual conceit; instead, it takes its audience on an unabashedly raunchy 1999-set wild ride in which a pair of mismatched adventurers find themselves unwittingly entangled in a caper involving a mysterious briefcase and the eccentric trio of thugs tasked with tracking it down. It tells the kind of story we expect to be able to check our brains at the door for, and just sit back to enjoy the mindless thrills.

In this case, that story centers on two young queer Philadelphia women – free-spirited sexual adventurer Jamie (Margaret Qualley), whose infidelity has tanked her relationship with girlfriend Suki (Beanie Feldstein), and square peg Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), whose discomfort with the hedonistic social scene of big city lesbian life has her longing for the simpler pleasures of her childhood home in Tallahassee – who embark on a road trip together to Florida in search of new beginnings. It’s clear from the start that they’re at cross purposes; Jamie sees the trip as an opportunity to “loosen up” her uptight friend, while Marian just wants to get back to where she once belonged. Unbeknownst to either, however, a shady cadre of operatives (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson) is on their trail, thanks to something hidden in the trunk of their rental car, and their journey is about to take a detour into unexpectedly dangerous territory.

As a premise, it’s not hard to see close parallels to many of the themes one often finds running throughout the Coen Brothers’ films; the quirky trappings of its crime story plot, the granular focus on the behavioral oddities of its characters, the whimsical (if often pointed) irony it deploys for narrative effect – all these and more give Ethan’s first “solo flight” without collaboration from his brother the kind of familiarity for audiences one can only get from four decades of previous exposure. Yet while “Drive-Away Dolls” might bear a lot of the trademark Coen touches, it’s also distinctively its own creature, with a more radical stylistic approach that one might glimpse in more flamboyant outliers to their joint filmography like “The Hudsucker Proxy” or cult-favorite “The Big Lebowski,” but which here brings its heightened sense of absurdity to the forefront in service of a story which is about, as much as it is anything, the role of causality in determining the circumstances and outcomes of our lives. In other words, it’s a movie which drives home (no pun intended) the point that – at least sometimes – our paths are determined by fate, no matter how much control we think we exert.

If you’re thinking that all this analysis doesn’t quite fit for a movie that presents itself as a madcap escapist romp, you’re not wrong; in spite of its ostensible B movie appeal, Coen’s movie – co-written with his wife, Tricia Cook – evokes some pretty weighty reflections, and while that might lend a more elevated layer to the film’s proceedings than we expect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can be entertained and enlightened at the same time, after all.

Perhaps more detrimental to the movie’s effect, unfortunately, is its intricately-conceived plotting. Weaving together seemingly coincidental or irrelevant details into a chain of events that propels the story at every juncture, Coen and Cooke’s screenplay feels more devoted to cleverness than authenticity; outlandish plot twists pile up, under the guise of some esoteric cosmic significance, until they threaten to collapse in on themselves; in the end, for many viewers, it might all seem just a little too forced to be believable.

Fortunately, there are things to counterbalance that sense of overthinking that seems to permeate the script, most vital of which is the movie’s unambivalent embrace of its queer narrative. While it may borrow the familiar lesbians-on-the-run road tropes queer audiences have known for decades, it presents them in a story refreshingly devoid of shame or stigma; the sexuality of its heroines is something to be explored with nuance rather than subjected to the fetishized bias of the so-called “male gaze,” and it succeeds in giving us “tastefully” explicit scenes of same sex love that celebrate the joy of human connection rather than turning it into a voyeuristic spectacle. Even more important, perhaps, “Drive-Away Dolls” omits one particularly toxic cliché of queer stories on film by refuising to make its queer heroines into victims; they’re way too smart for that, and it makes us like them all the more, even if we don’t quite find ourselves absorbed in their story.

For this, full credit must go to Qualley and Viswanathan, who individually build fully relatable and multi-dimensional characters while also finding a sweet and believable chemistry within the awkwardness of finding a romantic love story between two friends – a complex species of relationship that surely deserves a more extensive and nuanced treatment than it gets space for in Coen’s film. As good as they are, though, it’s Feldstein’s relatively small supporting turn that steals the movie, with an unflinching-yet-hilarious tough-as-nails performance as Qualley’s ex that both acknowledges and undercuts the stereotype of the “angry lesbian” while striking an immensely satisfying blow for queer female empowerment. The always-stellar Domingo underplays his way through an effectively civilized supporting performance as the chief “heavy”, and Matt Damon makes a sly cameo as a conservative politician, while daddy-of-the-decade Pedro Pascal shows up for a brief but key role that gives winking service to fans who remember him from his “Game of Thrones” days – though to say more about any of those appearances would constitute a spoiler.

“Drive-Away Dolls” has been met with mixed reviews, and this one is no exception. There’s an unmistakable good intention behind it, and much to be appreciated in its sex-positive outlook and commitment to an unapologetically queer story and characters, but while its stylistic embellishments provide for campy enjoyment, it’s ultimately diffused by its own cleverness. Still, the queer joy that frequently peeks through it is more than enough reason to say that it’s a good choice for a fun date night at the movies.

At the end of the day, what more can you ask?

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New Bella Abzug documentary is a must-see film

‘This Woman’s Place is in the House’ highlights courageous congresswoman

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‘Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House’ movie poster.

Watching the documentary on Congresswoman Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.), “Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House,” brought back so many great memories for me. I had to watch it twice to separate my personal feelings about Bella, having worked for her and become her friend, to imagine what others would see who didn’t know her, and her life. 

Both viewings were rewarding. Jeff L. Lieberman, writer and director, has brought Bella to life for everyone. 

Lieberman tells the story of a passionate, courageous, brilliant, woman, one who made a real difference in all women’s lives. But more than that, she made a difference in everyone’s life; men, women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. Bella was a true force of nature. Using pictures and video from her younger years, Lieberman makes Bella come alive. Pictures of her mom and dad and those with the love of her life, her husband Martin. Interviews with her daughters Eve, and Liz, help tell her personal story. He brought out a side of her not everyone saw, delving into how in her younger years the experiences she had formed her life’s goals. Bella was all about fairness and decency. Bella was a leader and people followed. 

Yes, many called her ‘a tough broad.’ She brooked no nonsense or weakness in herself or others. She was tough on her staff and those around her, but no tougher than she was on herself.  Yes, Bella was loud. She could yell at her staff, other politicians, and even constituents. But she was also the Jewish mother, and many called her Mother Earth. 

The film shows the influence of her Orthodox Jewish family. How when she said Kaddish for her father after he died when she was just 13, she was relegated to the women’s balcony of the shul. It was something she fought against all her life. Bella went to Hunter College and wanted to go to Harvard Law School. At the time Harvard didn’t take women or Jews. So she went to Columbia University Law School. She formed her own firm when she graduated. 

She started wearing hats when she realized that was how she could distinguish herself as a professional, and wore them all her life. They became her trademark. As a young lawyer she went to Mississippi to fight for the life of a Black man who had been sentenced to death for a crime she didn’t believe he committed. She would sleep in a bus station because when people found out she was his lawyer, they wouldn’t rent her a hotel room. She worked so hard she had a miscarriage, but nevertheless kept fighting for him, though eventually he was executed. That experience, and others, portrayed in the film, simply drove her to fight even harder for fairness for all. For civil rights and for the rights of all minorities, including the LGBTQ community. Not everyone in the LGBTQ community knows it was Bella who introduced the first Equality Act bill in 1974. A bill still not passed today. Bella was ahead of her time in so many ways, and Lieberman shows that in this film.  

There is a funny story in the film about House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms Fishbait Miller, telling Bella to take her hat off when she entered the House Chamber. The rumor had it she told him politely to “Go fuck yourself.” Bella denied it. But many years later I sat with him at a dinner party and he confirmed it. Laughing, he said he ended up liking and respecting her. 

Lieberman’s film portrays Bella’s tenacity in Congress, standing up to the powers that be and her fight against the CIA and FBI and her push to impeach Nixon. Bella was a founder of Women’s Strike for Peace and there is a focus on her fight against the Vietnam war, and for a ban on nuclear testing. 

The film follows her campaigns, from the first winning one in 1970, where she came up with the slogan, now the basis for the title of this film, “A woman’s place is in the House, the House of Representatives.” Then her fight to keep her seat in 1972 after she was redistricted. He follows her losing race in 1976 to Patrick Moynihan, in the U.S. Senate primary, by only a whisker. Then her continued losses first in 1977 for mayor of New York City, then for Ed Koch’s old seat on New York’s East Side, and finally, a losing race for Congress in Westchester County. She wanted to get back into Congress but never did. But even when she lost, Lieberman shows us how she never stopped fighting for people and change. She ran the Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, and went to China for the International Women’s Conference in 1995. That was where Hillary Clinton declared, “Women’s rights are human rights,” even though by that time Bella was in a wheelchair.

Lieberman brings Bella’s life to us in the fullest way with a host of women, and some men, who speak about her, and what she meant to them. They include Barbra Streisand, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, and Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, among others. Former staffers, and community activists, who talk about what she meant to them and what she accomplished. He reminds us Bella was named a whip by Tip O’Neil in her third term, because she got things done. Bella got the bill passed that allowed women to get their own credit cards. She is responsible for all those curb cuts on our streets. She broke the highway trust fund allowing states and cities to get funding for mass transit. She was not only loud, and a fighter, but she was tremendously successful. 

“Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House,” will be at the DCJCC for three nights; March 14, 17,, and 18. Tickets will go fast and they are available online. I would urge every woman, every member of the LGBTQ community, and everyone who cares about peace in the world, to see this film. You will not only learn about a great woman, but seeing it may just give you that push to go out and fight for your own rights. Even more, to emulate Bella, and fight for a better world.

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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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