Wednesday, October 26, 2022

New Movies on Frankiesense & More

Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for six new film reviews on the next movie edition of The Good Media Network's Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing on Thursday October 27 at 1 pm ET, will also feature recaps of two recent film festivals, the 40th annual Reeling LGBTQ+ International Film Festival and the 58th annual Chicago International Film Festival. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Bros," "Moonage Daydream" and "Murina," as well as a podcast preview and two film festival recaps, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

‘Murina’ examines the quest for independence

Murina” (“Moray Eel”) (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Gracija Filipović, Danica Čurčić, Leon Lučev, Cliff Curtis, Jonas Smulders, Niksa Butijer, Milan Strljic, Marina Redzepovic, Klara Mucci, Mislav Cavajda. Director: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović. Screenplay: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović and Frank Graziano. Story: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović. Web site. Trailer.

There comes a time in life when we all believe we need to strike out on our own. It can be a challenging enough prospect in itself, but it can be far worse when our efforts are hampered by those unduly seeking to hold us back. Independence and personal power may become seemingly unattainable under those circumstances. But is that reason enough to give up? That’s the question put to a young woman seeking to become herself in the new character study, “Murina” (“Moray Eel”).

Life in the coastal community of a small Croatian island is frustrating for an ambitious 17-year-old like Julija (Gracija Filipović). Not only are there few opportunities for a meaningful social life or the ability to assert her budding sense of independence, but there’s also the expectation of obediently living under the thumb of the region’s pervasive patriarchal culture. In this case, that’s epitomized by the demands placed on Julija by her overbearing father, Ante (Leon Lučev). When she’s not performing household tasks for her complicitous, capitulating mother, Nela (Danica Čurčić), Julija regularly accompanies Ante on his diving expeditions to hunt moray eels in the surrounding waters. And, if she has any free time, she spends it longingly watching the fun and frolic of wealthy young tourists vacationing on their visiting yachts in the local harbor. She has her sights particularly set on a handsome young man, David (Jonas Smulders), and he occasionally returns her glances, though he appears to have eyes for one of his travelling companions (Klara Mucci), seemingly dashing Julija’s hopes. But, with so many responsibilities to attend to, she really doesn’t have time for playing those kinds of games anyways.

Eel diver Ante (Leon Lučev, left), accompanied by his 17-year-old daughter, Julija (Gracija Filipović, right), routinely hunts his prey off the coast of Croatia in the tense new coming of age tale, “Murina” (“Moray Eel”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

To a great degree, that’s because Ante’s demands on Julija have been particularly taxing of late. He’s preparing for a visit by an old friend, Javier (Cliff Curtis), a well-heeled property developer who’s interested in purchasing a piece of coastal land Ante owns. Javier is eyeing the property for possible conversion into a resort, and Ante wants to do all he can to make a good impression to close the deal. He believes that selling the land could provide him with a windfall that would enable him to move his family to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and the prospect of a better life. But can that dream realistically be fulfilled?

Javier’s arrival is marked by a festive reception at Ante’s home. But it also sets in motion a series of events that disrupts the family’s life in various ways. For starters, he shamelessly flirts with both Julija and Nela. Julija relishes the attention and sees his interest in her as a possible ticket out of her current circumstances. For Nela, however, it’s an opportunity to rekindle an old flame, having once been romantically linked to the visitor, even to the point of having considered marriage to the suave, handsome real estate mogul. And, when Julija learns this, she’s disappointed, partly because it not only dowses cold water on her plans, but also because she learns how her mother settled for her current circumstances, denying herself a chance at greater happiness and a better life than what she’s endured. That realization subsequently steels Julija’s resolve to create a better future for herself, one in which she rejects the passivity and obsequiousness that her mother allowed herself to embrace.

When an old friend, Javier (Cliff Curtis, center), visits the home of Ante (Leon Lučev, right) and Nela (Danica Čurčić, left), sparks begin to fly in multiple directions in the Cannes Film Festival Golden Camera Award-winning feature, “Murina” (“Moray Eel”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

In seeking to bring this about, Julija becomes more defiant toward both of her parents, acting out and even storming off to pay a visit to the handsome young visitor on the yacht. But, while Nela may only scold Julija, Ante becomes downright abusive toward her. In part, this is due to Julija’s growing rebelliousness, but it’s also anger directed at himself for tolerating Javier’s improper behavior toward both his wife and underage daughter, all to keep his cool so that he can close the business deal.

Coming of age is often a time of challenge, but it’s generally not supposed to be as difficult as this. Is this really the kind of life a 17-year-old should have to endure? But, at the same time, as a largely inexperienced adolescent, is she truly ready to strike out on her own? Also, will she be able to keep her own composure through these trying times, avoiding rash actions and decisions that could paint her into a corner? And, even though a few would-be saviors have entered her life, do they have agendas in mind that are truly honorable or quietly sinister? Indeed, are they knights in shining armor, or are they more like the slippery eels she routinely hunts with Ante? Clearly, Julija has some big decisions to make regarding her personal well-being and the direction of her future, but is she up to the task? And, if so, what path will she choose?

So, under circumstances like these, how does one realistically attain one’s sought-after sense of independence? Considering what Julija is up against, it may appear as though her dream is a lost cause. Yet, given the conditions she faces, she still believes in the eventual fulfillment of the possibility, and that’s the key – the belief in what’s achievable. Such is what makes things happen in accordance with the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience, particularly when it comes to attaining the goals we seek for our existence.

Upset with the complicity of her overly passive mother, Nela (Danica Čurčić, right), 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipović, left) struggles to contain her composure in writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut feature, “Murina” (“Moray Eel”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Still, considering the difficulties Julija is encountering, it might seem unlikely that she’ll escape her virtual captivity, no matter how convinced she might be. However, when we want something badly enough, sometimes it takes arduous conditions to galvanize us in our beliefs to a point where we adhere to them so strongly that we’re successfully able to bring them into being. And, given what she’s undergoing, it would seem she’s succeeded in creating the very circumstances necessary to make that outcome possible, counter-intuitive though that may appear to some of us.

Think for a moment what she’s manifested around her – a demanding father who’s constantly placing undue pressures on her, a mother (and, one might think, role model) whose apathy exemplifies the exact opposite of what Julija’s trying to attain for herself, and two potential liberators who seem to have the power and the means to take her away from everything she’s grown to despise. When fusing the ambition of a strong-willed individual like Julija with these increasingly unbearable conditions, what kind of outcome should we expect from such a volatile combination? Indeed, how content is Julija likely to be in continuing on under these conditions, especially given her youthful exuberance, determination and sense of conviction?

Julija’s outlooks, beliefs and subsequent actions have placed her in good stead to move forward toward achieving her objectives. Her willingness to further pursue them thus provides her with opportunities to strengthen these “metaphysical muscles,” giving her a greater sense of personal confidence and enabling her to bolster her faith in her manifestation skills, all of which bring her closer to the fulfillment of her goals. Despite the “rebelliousness” that comes with such ventures, who can realistically find fault with that? There’s much to be said for becoming who we choose to be, even if it ruffles some feathers along the way.

To escape her troubled home life, 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipović, left) runs into the arms of a wealthy young tourist, David (Jonas Smulders, right), in writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut feature, “Murina” (“Moray Eel”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Considering what this process ultimately makes possible, it’s hard to believe that anyone would take issue with what it’s designed to do. Ante and Nela, for example, have both created what they want for themselves (no matter how much any of us might disagree with their choices), so why should they be upset that their daughter has sought to do the same for herself? Shouldn’t parents want their children to realize their dreams, what’s often seen as what’s best for them? True, there might be conflicts when those objectives contradict one another, but isn’t one of the widely accepted responsibilities of parents to see that their children grow up to be independent and self-sufficient enough to support themselves upon leaving the nest? How can that happen when their efforts are thwarted by those who won’t allow them the freedom to follow their own paths?

At the same time, it could also be argued that such domineering measures are all part of the strengthening process itself. Just as the butterfly becomes stronger by struggling to free itself from its cocoon, so it might be for children seeking to liberate themselves from their parents’ control, to help them realize their own inner strength and ability to be themselves. There’s a good chance that Ante and Nela aren’t even aware that they’re doing this where Julija is concerned. But, if such efforts help their daughter attain her personal fortitude, can they truly be faulted for helping Julija ultimately find her own way?

It's important to recognize from the foregoing that beliefs may not always be what they appear to be. But, the better we’re able to recognize them and their underlying intents, the easier it will likely be for us to make use of the manifestation process in our lives – and to achieve the goals we hold most dear. And, if that’s not a true sense of independence, I don’t know what is.

Seeking to assert her independence, 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipović) contemplates her options to overcome trouble at home in “Murina” (“Moray Eel”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Adolescence is a time for finding oneself, especially when it comes to our sense of independence and personal power. That’s rarely easy, but it can be especially difficult for those trapped in controlling households, particularly those with chauvinistic fathers, a condition not uncommon in many traditional Eastern European families. Director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut feature from Executive Producer Martin Scorsese presents an intense, intimate character study of these circumstances, chronicling an individual’s search for empowerment in the face of oppressive odds and confusing circumstances that, like the clandestine behavior of the moray eels she and her father routinely hunt, deceptively conceal much of what’s actually going on. This winner of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival Golden Camera Award for best first feature simmers slowly but builds tension well, engaging viewers handily, despite some repetitive narrative elements and occasional “atmospheric” camera work whose deliberate murkiness goes a little overboard in metaphorically depicting the intended character of the story.

A number of films with themes similar to those explored here have emerged from this region in recent years, such as “Hive” (2021) and “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (2019). It’s a trend that some have vehemently criticized, claiming that these productions go out of their way to portray the region’s men as little more than abusive, misogynistic morons, and those complaints may have some merit from the standpoint of disproportionality. However, their creation would also serve as an indication that there must be a need for the expression of these notions, and, thankfully, filmmakers have successfully risen to the occasion, making the world more aware about conditions for women desperately in need of reform. Viewers obviously need to decide for themselves, an opportunity made possible by the release of films like “Murina,” which is available for streaming online.

Venturing off on our own can be a time of tremendous exhilaration and great fright. But both qualities are designed to help make us the individuals we’re meant to be. If we’re truly to become independent and personally empowered souls, we must not be afraid to allow ourselves to have these experiences, to enable them to help mold us in becoming our true souls. Julija shows us that, and we’d be wise to follow her lead in her noble quest for independence.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Same-Sex Romance on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday October 25, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Wrapping Up the 2022 Chicago Film Festival

If I had to sum up this year’s Chicago International Film Festival with one word, it would definitely be “underwhelming.” This year’s programming left much to be desired, especially in its virtual programming, which was scaled back considerably from previous years. This, in my opinion, is decidedly a step backwards.

While I understand the logic behind screening many of the festival’s offerings (particularly its best selections) in theaters as a means to encourage audiences to return to moviehouses, this doesn’t seem to put much stock in the fact that viewers’ movie-watching habits have fundamentally changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many cinephiles are still reluctant to leave home to watch movies, and offering them virtually has been a brilliant solution to offset this hesitancy. Imagine that – this practice made some exceedingly tasty lemonade from a huge pile of big sour lemons.

Streaming festival offerings also created new audiences and afforded new viewing opportunities for these pictures. Viewers were no longer locked into set presentation times, and, in many cases, they didn’t even have to be in the same geographic locale where the festival was taking place. It also made it possible to watch more festival offerings given the added convenience factor. In light of that, consider the following comparison: Think of what on-demand streaming afforded moviegoers who were previously locked into rigid cable TV schedules. They could now watch what they wanted, when they wanted it. Festival streaming essentially enabled the same. Isn’t that progress for organizations supposedly striving to expand the scope of the artform?

Chicago is not the only city whose festival programming is undergoing such changes, and that’s disappointing as well. In addition to scaling back the number of cinematic offerings, the quality of what’s been made available virtually has left something to be desired, too. If the organizers of these events truly want to maximize their audiences for their offerings (especially those they consider the cream of the crop), they should be doing more – not less – to broaden the screening opportunities for their films. If they don’t, they could suffer the effects of a double whammy – a continued perception that festival screenings are not readily accessible (except to the select audience members who deliberately go out of their way to make the effort to see them) and a perhaps permanent loss of viewership among moviegoers whose basic screening habits have changed for good.

With that said, here’s a recap of what I watched, both virtually and theatrically – a much smaller number of films compared to recent years – and what I thought of them.

“No Ordinary Campaign” (USA) (5/5); Letterboxd (5/5)

Web site Trailer

Getting the word out about a worthy cause is often an uphill battle. And, when that cause is one where those affected by it have a tremendous sense of urgency associated with it, there’s no time to lose. So it is with those afflicted with ALS, the degenerative neuromuscular illness better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a condition that has historically had a 100% mortality rate, usually within two to five years. What’s more, it’s a disease whose victims have often been ignored in terms of adequate research funding, affordable caregiving options and available clinical trials, circumstances that former Assistant US Attorney Brian Wallach found unacceptable when he was diagnosed at age 37. Together with his wife, Sandra, and a band of fiercely devoted supporters, Wallach launched a broad-based campaign to change the ballgame for ALS patients, particularly in terms of eliminating the financial and government policy roadblocks that have traditionally kept them from advancing their cause within realistic time frames. Director Christopher Burke’s latest documentary feature details Wallach’s determined efforts to raise the profile of this devastating condition and to secure changes in the way it’s addressed legislatively and by government agencies like the FDA. The film’s powerfully persuasive message makes a strong, heartfelt case for support of this cause but without becoming manipulative or maudlin. It presents a detailed chronicle of Wallach’s campaign, backed by a series of interviews with ardent backers like President Barack Obama, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Chan Zuckerberg Foundation philanthropists Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as footage of joint ventures conducted with Team Gleason colleague and fellow ALS sufferer, former NFL star Steve Gleason, subject of the inspiring documentary “Gleason” (2016). This fine offering will definitely move you, not only with a sense of compassion, but also with an unexpected sense of humor, qualities that are assured to fill viewers with a tremendous sense of hope – almost as much, in fact, as Wallach holds out for himself and those like him.

“Before, Now & Then” (“Nana”) (Indonesia) (4.5/5); Letterboxd (4.5/5), (9/10)

Web site Trailer

The search of happiness can be an elusive one, especially when confronted by challenges on multiple fronts, even for those who ostensibly appear to be superficially contented and well off. Such is the fate of a seemingly comfortable middle-aged housewife (Happy Salma) in 1960s Indonesia, whose first husband (Ibnu Jamil), a military officer, mysteriously disappeared and whose second spouse (Arswendy Bening Swara), a plantation owner, is having a less-than-veiled affair, all of which is set against the country’s political unrest of the period. It’s a scenario further complicated by her willingness to capitulate to her circumstances and by the secrets she keeps from virtually everyone. Surprisingly, though, when her husband’s mistress (Laura Basuki) moves in with the family, the two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that leads to some difficult but unexpectedly pleasant developments. Writer-director Kamila Andini’s latest feature outing tells a slowly unfolding but ever captivating tale with surprises awaiting around every corner. The deeply heartfelt performances of Salma and Basuki reach out and grab viewers throughout, portrayals all the more enlivened by the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and inventive, revelatory surreal dream sequences. Admittedly, the pacing at times could be a little more up-tempo, but this is a small price to pay for an otherwise thoroughly engaging watch, one of the Chicago Film Festival’s surprise charmers.

“Innocence” (Israel/Denmark/Iceland/Finland) (4.5/5); Letterboxd (4.5/5), (9/10)

Web site Trailer

The loss of innocence – in virtually any context – is a disappointing, heart-wrenching affair. But, when such a tragedy is writ large, as it is in director Guy Davidi’s poetic but profoundly sad and quietly infuriating documentary about the Israeli government’s heavy-handed indoctrination of its youth for its compulsory military service program, that message comes through with an undeniably enraging impact. With virtually no alternate option available for conscientious objectors – of which there is a steadily growing movement among the country’s young Jewish population – 18-year-old men and women are forced into either enlisting or facing disgrace and/or imprisonment. And those who are unable to devise a suitable alternative frequently resort to desperate acts to take away the personal pain they suffer in trying to comply with their obligations but are incapable of doing so. Told through home videos and voice-over narrations of the writings of those who tried to fit in but couldn’t, intercut with footage from training exercises, government propaganda and battlefield images, the film presents a chilling portrait of an inflexible, merciless military and bureaucracy that seek to brainwash the country’s youth into service, regardless of what their conscience will allow or even whether they’re fundamentally capable of carrying out the role of soldiers. As one objector poignantly observes, if the youth of Israel can’t change a system like this, who can? And, to expect otherwise is unrealistic, leading only to its perpetuation, of which youthful enablers are, unfortunately, willingly contributing to. That’s a strong statement – and one that rings true throughout this powerful release.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (USA) (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10)

Web site

Do the ends truly justify the means? That’s an age-old question that has been asked countless times in countless contexts, but what’s the answer? It’s a decision left open for viewers to ponder in this taut ecothriller about a group of zealous environmental activists who plan to blow up a west Texas pipeline in an effort to draw attention to such issues as global climate change and public health considerations. Writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s second feature skillfully combines elements of various cinematic genres, including Westerns, heist films, political thrillers and ecological dramas like “The East” (2013), but it does so in some highly unexpected ways. In particular, this well-constructed, smartly produced offering is heavily character-driven, presenting genuinely compelling back stories about its crew of protagonists told through a series of strategically placed flashbacks. What’s more, the picture’s gorgeous cinematography, superb editing, fine performances and intense original score all lend themselves to a splendidly crafted package, certainly much more than what one would typically expect out of a low-budget indie. Of course, these strengths aside, this still leaves open the question about the impact of this story. What kind of message does it send? Is it appropriate to make and release a picture that depicts a subversive venture such as this? Can the kind of collateral damage at stake here be justified, be it even theoretically told through a work of fiction? But, then, can society continue to willfully ignore the kinds of environmental damage that are being allowed to unfold without taking any meaningful action? And what of the law enforcement questions involved in a scenario like this? “Pipeline” gives viewers ample food for thought while simultaneously reminding us that the clock is ticking on these issues – and that we had better start making some serious decisions soon.

“My Sailor, My Love” (“Rakkaani merikapteeni”) (Finland/Ireland) (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10)

Web site Trailer

When a retired, curmudgeonly, self-centered Irish sea captain (James Cosmo) has trouble caring for himself, his overprotective, controlling daughter (Catherine Walker) hires a new housekeeper (Brid Brennan) to tend to his needs, a move the fiercely independent protagonist initially resents. However, before long, the once-tentative relationship blossoms into something more substantial, a move the skipper’s daughter questions and grows to resent. So how will this fundamental dilemma be resolved? That’s the central question raised in director Klaus Härö’s latest effort, a well-crafted, if occasionally predictable, romantic drama reminiscent of the similarly themed “Nobody Has to Know” (2021). Set against the sweeping Irish seacoast, this beautifully photographed backdrop provides the perfect stage for this heartfelt saga, one that verges on a tearjerker at times but never slides into a sappy, melodramatic, manipulative hanky fest. In large part this is due to the restrained but powerful performances of Cosmo and Brennan, who keep their characters real without becoming sentimental, histrionic caricatures. Add to this a finely polished soundtrack, and you’ve got a quality cinematic offering that merits a serious look for a variety of well-deserved reasons.

“Somewhere Over the Chemtrails” (“Kdyby radši hořelo”) (Czech Republic) (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10)

Web site Trailer

Paranoia has a habit of spreading like wildfire. So it is in this satirical dark comedy about the fear-mongering that explodes in a small Czech Republic village when a van crashes into the town square during an Easter celebration, an incident that prejudiced locals hurriedly chalk up to a terrorist attack. As the contrived explanation spreads, the townsfolk’s paranoia about other conspiracy theories blossoms as well, reaching a fever pitch where everyone is acting irrationally and creating more needless havoc than even the worst assault might have caused – as if that were even at fault to begin with. Writer-director Adam Koloman Rybanský’s debut feature reveals the work of a filmmaker with considerable promise, though this effort could use some shoring up to live up to that potential. Specifically, the picture could stand to pick up the pacing somewhat, living up to the screwball comedy that a vehicle like this was truly meant to be. Also, in conveying its message about the dangers of ignorant, undue discrimination, the story starts to get weighed down by its own heavy-handedness, putting a damper on a lot of the innate lunacy that makes the film’s premise work. Still, the picture is not without its share of fun and laughs, qualities that make for a flawed but nevertheless worthwhile view.

“Vicenta B.” (Cuba/France/USA/Colombia/Norway) (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10)

Web site Trailer

Who does a seer turn to when she needs help? Such is the lot of Vicenta B. (Linnett Hernandex Valdes), a respected Cuban spiritual advisor who sincerely helps many people in need but who feels eminently helpless when she suddenly loses her ability to divine the mystical information she’s so used to readily sharing with them. In writer-director Carlos Lechuga’s third feature outing, the filmmaker explores the mysteries of this esoteric practice and what it means both for those who engage in it and those who seek its special wisdom. The picture raises questions for those on both sides of the equation, especially when it comes to matters like knowing when to help and when to step back, the responsibilities borne by both seekers and seers, and learning how to understand those who truthfully want help and those who don’t. It also examines the transitions that individuals go through in their lives, particularly at the crucial turning points of middle age, as well as what those adjustments mean. “Vicenta B” admittedly meanders a bit and has occasional pacing issues, but, as an offering that takes a rare realistic look at this subject matter, this release genuinely shines, wiping away a lot of the nonsense and misinformation often depicted in films like this. We all need help from time to time, including those who provide it, and this production confirms that with grace, sensitivity and honesty.

“Burning Days” (“Kurak Günler”) (Turkey/France/Germany/Netherlands/Greece/Croatia) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10)

Web site Film Clip

When an idealistic young prosecutor (Selahattin Pasali) is assigned to a rural Turkish community to try a criminal case involving serious allegations involving a major infrastructure project, he quickly finds himself in over his head. Circumstances soon place him in a thorny situation where his credibility, objectivity, reputation and personal integrity are all put at risk, jeopardizing not only his handling of the case, but also his career and future. Unfortunately, as generally compelling as the narrative is at the outset, writer-director Emin Alper’s overlong saga becomes a little too convoluted for its own good. One can’t help but ask, is it a political film? A thriller? A crime story? A crisis of conscience? The film plays like it tries to incorporate some of all of these qualities in an attempt to tell a story that throws curve balls at viewers to keep them guessing. But the picture seems to lose its way in doing so, not quite sure how to wrap things up, especially when the supposedly astute big city prosecutor comes across as unbelievably naïve and clueless. These failings regrettably undercut the production’s fine performances and superb cinematography, qualities that could have helped to make this release a better offering had they been backed by a better story and script. Indeed, in the end, it’s the audience that gets burned by this one.

“Paloma” (Portugal/Brazil) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10)

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When a pre-op transexual woman (Suzy Lopes) announces that she wants to marry her boyfriend (Ridson Reis) in a traditional Catholic church wedding, she’s called foolish and unrealistic for thinking that such a ceremony would be possible in the small, conservative rural Brazilian community where she lives. Even her loving beau thinks the idea is ludicrous and tries to discourage her from pursuing the idea. But Paloma’s determined to follow through on her plan, no matter what the cost, either financially or in terms of public reaction. In writer-director Marcelo Gomes’s latest, the filmmaker presents a fictionalized version of a fact-based story that has its genuinely moving moments of happiness and disappointment, though the narrative feels padded at times, incorporating extraneous incidents that don’t quite make sense and that, regrettably, bear out the concerns of those who tried to dissuade the would-be bride. “Paloma” has frequently been compared to another Latin American trans-oriented release, the Oscar-winning drama “A Fantastic Woman” (2017), though that film has it all over this production, one that tries hard to tell a compelling and convincing story but that ultimately comes up short. Winner of the Silver Q-Hugo Award in the festival’s Out-Look Competition.

“Chile 1976” (a.k.a. “1976”) (Chile/Argentina/Qatar) (2/5); Letterboxd (2/5), (4/10)

Web site Trailer

What should have been a tense, claustrophobic look at life in 1976 Chile shortly after the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende administration and the imposition of the hard-line Pinochet regime is, unfortunately, a watered-down, meandering, unfocused tale that never fully attains its goal. Writer-director Manuela Martelli’s story of a middle-aged doctor’s wife (Aline Küpperheim) who risks her own safety to care for a wounded insurgent (Nicolás Sepúlveda) in hiding never really catches traction, filling its narrative with endless, unexplained, underdeveloped plot incidents and a woeful lack of character development, including that of the protagonist, whose motivations are never adequately explained but merely hinted at with such subtlety as to be virtually meaningless. By the time viewers reach the film’s end, they’re more left with an unsatisfying “Oh” rather than a throat-clutching “a ha!” A true disappointment given the subject matter this production had to work with.

“Band” (Iceland) (1/5); Letterboxd (1/5), (1/10)

Web site Trailer

So is this real or real fake? It’s hard to tell when watching this “documentary” about an all-female pop group trying to make it big at middle age with their own style of Björk-esque Icelandic performance art/rock music. Writer-actor-director Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir, one of the would-be aspiring musical artists, who slips back and forth in front of the camera, tries to chronicle a story where it’s difficult to know where authentic ambition leaves off and bona fide spoof begins, making it difficult for viewers to know what to believe is “real” and what’s made up. That deliberate ambiguity puts this offering in a category by itself, but it’s hard to know when viewers are supposed to laugh or lament. If it’s genuine, it tells a pathetically sad story of a woeful group of performers; if it’s not, it’s an overly silly mockumentary that often tries too hard and wears out its welcome rather quickly. But, as it drones on and on, it’s unlikely anyone is going to care, even by the end of its relatively scant 1:27:00 runtime. Indeed, sometimes trying too hard to prove one’s cleverness proves nothing, as is very much the case here.

“Rounding” (USA) (1/5); Letterboxd (1/5), (2/10)

Web site

I suppose there’s a story somewhere inside this medical drama/horror offering, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. Writer-director Alex Thompson’s second feature outing is a plodding, dull, meandering mess in which viewers wait patiently for something to happen and nothing ever does. When a brilliant young medical resident (Namir Smallwood) suffers a breakdown after losing a patient, he transfers to a small town hospital for a second chance, upon which he becomes obsessed with the mysterious symptoms of a respiratory patient (Sidney Flanigan). What follows is an unorganized collection of vague (and unscary) surreal images, tiresome dialogue laden with detailed medical jargon, unexplained and implausible plot developments, and a story that ultimately goes nowhere, one that even requires an explanation by one of the characters (Michael Potts) to enlighten the audience of what supposedly just happened. “Rounding” is a phenomenal waste of time that fails to live up to any of its hype – or potential.

“A Human Position” (Norway) (0.5/5); Letterboxd (0.5/5), (1/10)

Web site Trailer

Billed by some as “a love letter to the banality of life,” this utterly pointless offering could just as easily be billed as “a love letter to the banality of pretentiously esoteric filmmaking.” Writer-director Anders Emblem’s second feature follows the life (if you can call it that) of a bored journalist (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) living in the Norwegian seaport of Ålesund, reporting mostly on fluff pieces and minor news stories. She lives a reasonably comfortable life with her girlfriend (Maria Agwumaro) while recovering from an undisclosed medical procedure, spending much of her free time refurbishing chairs, doting on her cat and playing board (or is it bored?) games. But, when she stumbles upon a story involving the unexplained disappearance of a foreign asylum seeker, her work gives her life new meaning – or so the film’s production notes claim. The fact is, there’s really no telling that anything has changed with this revelation, given that the picture’s tone and style remain just as flat and uninteresting at this juncture as they do at the outset and throughout the entire duration of this unbearably tedious slog. The protagonist’s deadpan performance is a genuine snooze, and the film’s countless overlong incidental exterior shots supply enough cinematic padding to try the patience of even the most tolerant viewer. But, above all, given how banal real life truly can be, do we honestly need a longwinded cinematic tribute to it? This one is easily skipped – a phenomenal waste of time, energy and talent, not to mention celluloid. Don’t waste yours watching this.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 21, 2022

‘Bros’ asks, ‘What makes a relationship work?’

“Bros” (2022). Cast: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Debra Messing, Harvey Fierstein, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Ryan Faucett, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Bowen Yang, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Diaz, Jai Rodriguez, Peter Kim, Justin Covington, Symone, Brock Ciarlelli, Kristin Chenoweth, Amy Schumer, Kenan Thompson, Ben Stiller (uncredited). Director: Nicholas Stoller. Screenplay: Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller. Web site. Trailer.

Who knows why relationships succeed or fail? That’s especially true when it comes to gay male partnerships, which often come and go like the wind and whose permanence or fleeting nature frequently rests on the unlikeliest of considerations. But sometimes they somehow manage to survive, despite their conundrums, quirkiness and seemingly deceptive dysfunctionality. Such is the case in director Nicholas Stoller’s brilliant new romantic comedy about a pair of apparently mismatched partners who wade their way through the murky, uncharted waters of same-sex romance, “Bros.”

Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner) is rather discontented with his gay social life, especially when it comes to dating. He frequently complains about the guys he meets, particularly on internet dating apps. He loathes the shallowness of the profiles of many of the men he meets, and he’s grown tired of the endless parade of potential suitors who are only looking for certain “types” or for quick, virtually anonymous hookups. Of course, he doesn’t help his cause much with his often persistently grating personality, either. As a staunch advocate of LGBTQ+ rights and history – he hosts his own podcast and serves as executive director of a New York gay history museum – Bobby relentlessly and insistently pontificates about his specialized areas of interest, so much so that his loquacious manner is frequently off-putting, even to members of his own community.

And he wonders why he has trouble getting dates.

Because of this lack of a social life, Bobby’s thrown himself into his work. He tirelessly seeks to build consensus for museum projects and fund-raising efforts among his often-squabbling board members (Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Jim Rash, Dot-Marie Jones, Eve Lindley), though, considering the petty arguments he often has to settle, he just might have better luck spending his time cruising social media for connections. Still, he hasn’t given up on dating completely and makes the rounds at the bars and community events to see what the field has to offer.

While meeting at a reception at a gay club, seemingly mismatched would-be partners Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane, left) and Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner, right) embark on the start of a tentative relationship in the new romantic comedy, “Bros.” Photo by K.C. Bailey, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

While attending a reception for a new work project of his friend, Henry (Guy Branum), Bobby spies a handsome hunk, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane). They strike up a conversation, and a few sparks fly, but Bobby gets the distinct impression that he’s not Aaron’s type. In subsequent encounters, however, that conclusion doesn’t appear to play out. They begin spending more time together, and Aaron even helps Bobby tone down some of his rhetoric, especially when it comes to helping him secure financing for the museum’s fund-raising efforts. But, despite such progress, the connection still seems somewhat tentative, even when the newly emerging couple meets with Bobby’s friends and Aaron’s family.

So how will that all play out? It depends on a number of factors, such as each partner trying to decide how strongly each is willing to commit to one another – which, in turn, depends on how strongly they’re physically and emotionally attracted to one another, particularly when one of Aaron’s old high school crushes (Ryan Faucett) comes out and begins making a play for him. Then there’s the question of how well their personalities mesh – and whether the chemistry is sufficient enough to make up for any deficiencies in physical attraction. And, of course, there’s the biggest variable of all – do they truly love one another?

Does boy get boy or boy lose boy in this scenario? And what do others looking on from the sidelines have to say? As noted above, who knows why relationships succeed or fail. In this, as in virtually any other case, you’ll just have to sit back and watch to find out.

Of course, what makes anything work (or fail) comes down to our beliefs about the matter at hand. Such is the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible resources. We might not always recognize that notion, but, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we can see how its validity rings true in terms of what unfolds around us, for better or worse.

To compensate for an underwhelming social life, gay history museum executive director Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner, standing, left) throws himself into his work with his often-quarrelsome board members (clockwise from lower left, TS Madison, Miss Lawrence, Eve Lindley, Jim Rash, Dot-Marie Jones) in director Nicholas Stoller’s new romantic comedy, “Bros.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

That last part – for better or worse – is especially important when it comes to our beliefs about relationships, particularly those that pertain to more serious commitments, like marriage. The beliefs we hold in this regard play an important role in determining whether those connections ultimately succeed or fail. And that’s patently obvious where Bobby and Aaron are concerned. They each need to sort out their thoughts, beliefs and intents where commitment is involved, both individually and as a couple. That’s no easy task, either, given the considerable belief baggage that each of them is carrying around in terms of what they want, who they believe is acceptable and even who they believe is available.

Those are concerns that often make it easy to see why gay male relationships sputter, frequently after short periods of time. This is not meant to suggest that such arrangements can’t work; many do. However, such circumstances are indicative of the fact that many would-be partners don’t make an adequate effort to assess these issues before leaping into their involvements. They either don’t examine their underlying beliefs at all, or they may place too much emphasis on belief considerations that aren’t significant enough to what makes a relationship succeed. Ancillary concerns could be given far too much weight, and, when these involvements don’t pan out as hoped for, they quickly head south, frequently prompting many gay men to give up on the idea that a successful relationship is even possible.

In order for this to happen, it’s incumbent upon relationship seekers to put in the effort and do the work when it comes to their beliefs. Conducting such assessments may not be easy, because it may be a practice we’ve never engaged in them before. Or it may be difficult to pinpoint the answers to questions like those posed above. Either way, though, moving forward without taking this step is a genuine crapshoot, a recipe for uncertainty and possible disappointment.

It's also important to recognize that we must look to ourselves for these answers, that they’re not something that resides outside of us, a place many of us erroneously turn to, regardless of what type of relationship we’re looking for. Now there’s nothing wrong with seeking out the advice of a sounding board, such as Bobby does in the film when he engages in a hilarious consultation with Will & Grace star Debra Messing, a would-be museum benefactor playing a fictitious version of herself. But, as the longstanding gay-friendly icon pointedly asserts, we must all find our own paths, especially in matters as personal and intimate as our relationships. To do otherwise could potentially leave us standing on the outside looking in, never finding what we’re searching for and living a life in solitude. Do we really want that?

In spontaneous acts of affection, tentative same-sex relationship partners Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner, on the ground) and Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane, leaning forward) unwittingly attract attention in some of the unlikeliest places in the new romantic comedy, “Bros.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

We also need to take account of the fact that our beliefs can change over time. What we believe in our 20s, for instance, could be drastically different from what we believe in our 50s. It’s not unrealistic to think that such alterations can occur, either, based on our personal experiences and shifts in social consciousness. Consider, for example, how public opinion has changed with regard to the view of same-sex marriage over time. What may have been viewed as unthinkable several decades ago is now generally accepted and the law of the land. If belief changes like that can happen in society at large, is it unrealistic to think that the same can’t happen in individual beliefs, too?

So what’s the answer – what ultimately determines success or failure in a relationship? Given that we each create our own reality, there’s no single answer, no one size that fits all. But the common denominator in each case is what beliefs we hold and how well they mesh with those of another, the co-creation we forge together and how well that particular fusion works. Like much of life, this undertaking is a journey, one of discovery, revelation and understanding to see how well that mix combines to create a harmonious outcome. If we get it wrong, we can always try again. But, if it works, there’s nothing like it, a genuine illustration of the joy and power of creation.

“Bros” has had an unusual reception in the movie marketplace. It’s been a critical success despite its underperformance at the box office, yet it’s a film genuinely worth seeing, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. In some ways, this picture employs an adapted version of a rather tried-and-true movie formula of boy-gets-boy/boy-loses-boy/boy-gets-boy-back-after-a-series-of-extracurricular-flings, an approach that has earned the film its share of criticism from both gay and straight camps. However, given the universal relationship subjects it addresses, I like to think of the film as a sort of gay male version of “Annie Hall” (1977). I love the way that its basic narrative is dressed up with snappy, often-hilarious writing, ample situational and sight gags, and just the right amount of heart-tugging, inspirational drama (without becoming schmaltzy or overly preachy). Virtually all of the humor is positively spot-on, and it’s served up in an easily relatable way such that one need not be a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ+ community to grasp the jokes. The film also features an array of appearances by gay and gay-friendly icons like Debra Messing, Harvey Fierstein and Kristin Chenoweth, a variety of cameo appearances by big name Hollywood stars, and a host of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender performers.

While on a museum fund-raising trip to Provincetown, would-be romantic partners Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner, left) and Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane, right) share guest house quarters with their flamboyant host, Louis (Harvey Fierstein, center), in director Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It’s also worth noting that the film’s principal producer/distributor, Universal Pictures, deserves a hearty round of applause for taking a chance on material like this. Indeed, the backing of a romantic comedy involving alternative lifestyles by a mainstream studio is truly groundbreaking in the movie industry. And, even though the film probably would have performed better financially as a summertime release, when it wasn’t competing with as many Halloween- and horror-related offerings, it’s still an artistic success in many other regards. I’d like to hope that this savvy move by a major player opens the door to greenlighting future projects of a similar nature, a rich vein of material that’s just waiting to be mined. Sensitive viewers should be aware that there is some explicit sexual content in this release, but, considering the comic nature of much of it, it’s hard to envision not evoking laughs from even the most conservative audience members. Given how well this offering succeeds on so many fronts, it would be a shame if it were to be overlooked come awards season, especially when it comes to its writing. It’s refreshing to see a film that finally knocks it out of the park this year – and this truly is the one to have done it.

Looking for love in all the wrong places can be an annoying exercise in frustration. But looking for love for all the wrong reasons can be even more maddening, primarily because it often goes on in an endless cycle from which escape can grow progressively more difficult. However, by putting in some emotional legwork to figure out the source of the exasperation, it’s possible to see our way clear and find what truly makes our hearts sing. And anyone who doesn’t think that’s worth it should seriously take a second look – and gaze on in awe at what potentially awaits.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 10, 2022

An Iconic Artist on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday October 11, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

‘Moonage Daydream’ brilliantly profiles a consummate artist

“Moonage Daydream” (2022). Cast: David Bowie. Director: Brett Morgen. Screenplay: Brett Morgen. Web site. Trailer.

Encapsulating the life and work of a prolific and consummate artist is no easy feat. Sufficiently taking account of such an individual’s extensive repertoire without giving short shrift to significant aspects of it is indeed a challenge, especially when one’s subject is a bona fide Renaissance man artistically. Thankfully, though, that objective is masterfully achieved in “Moonage Daydream,” the new mind-blowing documentary about one of the 20th Century’s most iconic and enigmatic artists, musician/writer/painter/actor David Bowie (1947-2016).

Given the breadth of Bowie’s artistic accomplishments in so many milieus, it’s hard to know where to begin and what to include without creating a work of immense unwieldy length. What’s more, it’s perhaps even more difficult to know what to exclude without creating the appearance of oversight. Fortunately, however, director Brett Morgen has risen to the occasion with this offering, presenting a comprehensive, in-depth, insightful look at his subject in a vehicle that not only covers the basics, but also rewrites the rules of documentary filmmaking in the process. That’s quite an achievement, one that more than does justice to the artist while simultaneously fittingly drawing inspiration from Bowie’s outlooks in creating a genre-changing film truly in the spirit of his beliefs, attitudes and philosophies.

In telling Bowie’s story, the director was not content to follow tried-and-true formulas, such as those that merely recount a chronological history of the subject’s career and a laundry list of accomplishments. Instead, the picture seeks to get under the artist’s skin to examine how and why he created what he did. This is an approach that couldn’t have been easy in light of Bowie’s chameleon-like nature. As an artist who successfully manifested and lived out a series of distinctive personas throughout his career, he embodied characterizations that became so convincingly associated with him that it was difficult to know where they left off and the “real” David Bowie began. Cutting through that deliberate ambiguity, then, had to have posed a major challenge in fulfilling the project’s primary objective.

Morgen accomplishes this task primarily by telling Bowie’s story through his own words, culled from numerous interviews and media appearances over the years. These lesser-known snapshots from the artist’s life and career actually prove quite telling, revealing much about his thought processes and artistic philosophies. These film clips and audio sound bites reveal an unrestrained free spirit who often waxed philosophically, frequently delving into profound metaphysical insights that many of Bowie’s fans and followers may have previously known little or nothing about. Clearly there’s more than meets the eye where Bowie’s creative nature was concerned, and this film eloquently celebrates that in making that aspect of his being plainly known.

In bringing these insights to light, Morgen doesn’t follow a strict timeline. He shifts gears occasionally to illustrate the themes that permeated Bowie’s creative outlook. Some viewers have found this somewhat jarring, but this approach is intentional to show how certain principles permeated the artist’s works over time. In addition, the director includes a number of conflicting segments where Bowie appears to contradict himself, another criticism raised by some viewers. However, considering how many times Bowie shifted gears throughout his career, is it reasonable to think that someone so diverse as him would never change his mind over time? Such inconsistencies may appear troubling to some, but, given how much varied material Bowie produced, can he realistically be faulted for changes of heart?

As insightful as the foregoing is, however, this is not to suggest that the film is a dry, ultra-serious treatise. It’s also a vibrant celebration of Bowie’s life and work. There’s ample performance footage, much of it augmented with colorful, psychedelic graphics and inventive editing. Included are impressive renditions of When You Rock ʼn Roll with Me, Space Oddity and All the Young Dudes, along with a stirring performance of Heroes, a heartfelt version of Word on a Wing (the musical accompaniment for Bowie’s musings on his endearing relationship with model/actress Iman), several lesser-known works and impromptu collaborations with world musicians.

But the artistic celebration doesn’t end there. While Bowie may be best known as a musician, he was also a writer, painter and actor. There are ample film clips from his movie and stage appearances, including such works as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “Just a Gigolo” (1978), “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), “The Hunger” (1983) and “Labyrinth” (1986), as well as footage from his 1980 Broadway turn in “The Elephant Man.” In addition, the film incorporates an array of imagery from Bowie’s music videos and from other artistic and cinematic sources that enhance themes prominent in Bowie’s works and help to illustrate the character of the periods when his materials were released.

From the foregoing, it’s obvious that Morgen has painted an impressive portrait of a multifaceted artist, presenting viewers with an engaging, entertaining and introspective profile of this enigmatic and captivating talent. In pulling this all together, however, the filmmaker’s finished work comes in with a runtime of 2:15:00, a length that some viewers have contended is far too long for a documentary. However, in going back to my original contention, given Bowie’s prolific nature, I’d like to ask the naysayers, “What would you cut out?” How can a sincere, thoughtful filmmaker in all good conscience justifiably impose a shorter duration simply because the production may try the attention span of a few impatient viewers? That seems like a petty quibble in light of everything this release has to say – and offer.

Having so much to offer is one of the qualities I always admired most about Bowie. He had a tremendous capacity for being willing to explore creativity in many different ways, something that became readily apparent in the various artistic media in which he worked, as well as in the diverse expressions he produced in each one of them. It was almost as if he was born to create, to give birth to these conceptions, and then to move on to something new once he had done so, a process he repeated numerous times throughout his life and career. In essence, he personified the notion of the joy and power and creation, the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience – in all its forms – through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Throughout the film, viewers hear Bowie speak frequently on this topic. He was innately curious about where our creativity originated and why it existed. He routinely speculated about how this phenomenon came about, and, even if he wasn’t always able to pin down its precise source or exactly how it works, he wasn’t afraid to keep exploring to find out. He sensed that it was something bigger than us but that we could nevertheless tap into it to come up with inspired creations that provided us with tremendous fulfillment, satisfaction and beauty, often of a transcendent nature. That’s pretty deep thought for someone who was often looked upon as just another pop star.

In carrying out this mission, Bowie not only did this for himself, but also by setting an example for the rest of us. As a trendsetter in music, for example, he inspired others to follow suit, quietly nudging them to pursue their creative urges in their own right in their compositions, stage presence, costuming and other attributes. Who knows what the music industry might have missed out on had it not been for him, both in his own works and the many others influenced by him.

One thing is for certain – Bowie was never content to stay put. He was constantly changing, reinventing himself with different personas, including characters as different as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, as well as a post-apocalyptic glam rock star of the Diamond Dogs era, a dark reclusive Berlin era performer and a 1980s romantic pop star. He did the same through his acting roles, too, including stints as an enigmatic alien, a vampire, and even as such historical figures as Andy Warhol, Nikola Tesla and Pontius Pilate. Through all of these various iterations, Bowie thus came to personify the conscious creation principle that “everything is in a constant state of becoming.” That’s quite a lofty ideal to aspire to – and one that few have done so expertly as Bowie did.

As diverse as these creations were, however, they all had connections to one another, too. In part that was due to the commonality of their creator. But Bowie sensed that the ties went beyond that, that there were bonds connecting everything in existence, including elements that seemingly went beyond us, almost of a cosmological or universal nature. He mused that somehow a part of us carried on after departing the physical plane, continuing to create in new ways and new realms that we can’t completely envision or fully comprehend. To him it represented a sense of innate continuity that runs through existence, despite the seeming differences that might superficially characterize it in its various expressions.

These thoughts began to occupy a more prominent place in Bowie’s consciousness as he grew older, particularly once he quietly but steadfastly began facing his own mortality. He sought to address these questions in his last days, as seen in the music he wrote and the videos he created for his final album, Black Star, which was released just days before his death. This work was an attempt to try and capture some of these ideas artistically, as well as serving as his own way of saying goodbye to his fans, most of whom were unaware that he was ill. Despite the somewhat ominous tone of this project, it was an effort that attempted to tie together much of what he thought, believed and practiced in his life and work, combining both the sadness of loss and the hope of continuation. And, like everything else he did, Bowie did it with a sense of class, style and distinction that were all his own.

“Moonage Daydream” truly is a major accomplishment as a piece of filmmaking. That’s especially true when one realizes that the combination of elements that make it up presents a portrait of Bowie unlike others about him and those of other artists of his stripe, boldly setting this film apart from other biographies of this kind and setting a new standard for the genre. It is by far the best documentary I’ve seen so far this year, if not one of the best films overall that I have screened in 2022. Fans and followers of Bowie are sure to enjoy, even be moved, by this offering, one that raises his artistic profile (and, one would hope, the level of appreciation he justly deserves) for the diversity and depth of his body of work, something that’s bound to become more widely recognized in the years to come.

The film has already garnered recognition, too, having earned two Cannes Film Festival nominations for the event’s Queer Palm and Golden Eye awards. More accolades are almost certain to follow as awards season heats up, too. The film is currently playing theatrically, which, in my view, is the best place to see it given the dazzling visuals that went into its making. Catch it there while you have the opportunity.

It's difficult to sum up almost anyone’s life in a few hours' time, let alone someone so accomplished and prolific as David Bowie. However, thankfully, this film comes through, showing us more than just what he did but also why he did it. The art world and the world at large are better places for having had such an inspired presence in their midst, and we should be grateful that there’s a picture that brings this all to light in such a brilliant fashion.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Wrapping Up Reeling 2022

The 40th annual edition of Chicago’s Reeling International LGBTQ+ Film Festival is now in the books, having featured an array of narrative, documentary and short films on theaters and online. While the event had its strong points, the overall programming was a little less satisfying compared to past years. Nevertheless, I managed to screen 16 films during the festival’s two-week run. So, with that said, here’s my take on what I watched and what I thought.

“Chrissy Judy” (USA)

(5/5); Letterboxd (5/5), (10/10); Web site, Trailer

Are BFFs really forever? We might like to think so, but, given the inevitability of change, such permanence might be too much to hope for – and a source of tremendous disappointment. So it is for Judy Blewhim (Todd Flaherty) and Chrissy Snowkween (Wyatt Fenner), a struggling drag queen sister act. When they’re not performing in little-known clubs in New York and on Fire Island, the besties party their way across Gotham and its environs, living a life of fun and frolic. But, when Chrissy unexpectedly announces that she’s moving to Philadelphia to live with her boyfriend (Kiyon Spencer), the decision throws life into chaos for Judy, both in terms of her social life and performing career, changes that don’t sit well with her. So what’s next? And how will this all affect their friendship? Such is the high drama that unfolds in this deliciously funny debut feature from writer-director Todd Flaherty. The film’s crisp screenplay, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and fine performances by its excellent ensemble cast combine to make for a compelling, enjoyable watch, a project that in many ways plays like a gay version of a Woody Allen film. It touches on themes that many offerings in this genre seldom explore, such as gay male friendships, personal responsibility and living life outside the club scene. Also, while the picture includes many familiar LGBTQ+ community elements, it successfully avoids presenting them as clichés and stereotypes, often by taking those recognizable components and turning them on their ear. In light of all this, “Chrissy Judy” proved to be a very pleasant surprise and my favorite offering from the Reeling festival, if not one of the best films of 2022 that I have seen thus far. Drag your behind to the movies to see this one when you have the chance.

El Houb” (“The Love”) (Netherlands)

(4.5/5); Letterboxd (4.5/5), (9/10); Web site

What happens when enough is enough? For a closeted gay Moroccan man living in Amsterdam (Fahd Larhzaoui), spending his life constantly looking over his shoulder and dodging questions about marriage from his family and community have truly tried his patience. And, when his father accidently discovers him with his Ghanaian boyfriend (Emmanuel Boafo), the incident sets off a firestorm with his parents (Slimane Dazi, Lubna Azabel)) and younger brother (Sabri Saddik). But it also represents an opportunity to finally get things out in the open once and for all, a process where he symbolically locks himself in a closet in his family home and refuses to leave until the matter is resolved. Events unfold along thematic lines during the lockdown, told through tense conversations and augmented with flashbacks, surrealistic sequences and interactions with the protagonist’s younger self (Shad Issa), encounters that benefit both the elder self and his 10-year-old counterpart. This inventive storytelling approach unearths revelations that apply not only to the beleaguered son, but also to his other family members and his loving partner, who sets a courageous example by severing relations with his relatives when those relationships no longer work. Writer-director Shariff Nasr’s debut narrative feature makes an impressive, albeit controversial, statement about knowing when to hold on and when to let go to tradition, culture and even ties to kindreds where those toxic bonds no longer serve us, regardless of the cause behind such dissolutions, but especially among those forced to endure intolerable prejudice and ridicule related to one’s sexuality and lifestyle. The sequence of events may come across as somewhat meandering at times, but, given the confusion and frustration in play here, who’s to say that one could remain completely rational when undergoing such as analysis. Any deficiencies in this are skillfully concealed by the picture’s excellent cinematography and production design, as well as the superb performances of its fine ensemble cast. “El Houb” represents a noteworthy start for a filmmaker who obviously has much to offer, a career that I can’t wait to see develop and unfold.

“All Man: The International Male Story” (USA)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10); Web site, Trailer

Who would have thought that a mailorder catalog could become a culture-changing vehicle? So it was with the International Male catalog, a “magazine” used to promote the sale of provocative men’s clothing featuring models in sensual poses who epitomized the essence of virility and masculinity (for many readers, the publication’s real product). From modest, seat-of-the-pants beginnings in the 1970s, founder Gene Burkard grew the publication not only as an outlet for mailorder clothing sales, but also as source of quiet but undeniable empowerment for young gay men, prompting many closeted individuals to boldly step forward as their true selves and enabling them to embolden their emerging culture. At the same time, though, IM’s reach also extended into American culture at large, encouraging men of all backgrounds – including straight guys – to embrace clothing styles that they may have once never given a second look, making it possible for them to become comfortably fashion-conscious to a greater degree, a social shift that has persisted to this day. The widespread and often-underappreciated impact of this operation has been quietly significant, a major influence among American men in numerous ways, a phenomenon now celebrated in this fun, informative documentary from directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed. In interviews with Burkard, many of IM’s models and staff, and a number of gay community and fashion industry insiders, along with ample steamy clips from the pages of the catalog, viewers are treated to an in-depth look at the impact and history of the publication, as well as how it reflected and helped shape an evolving culture, both at large and in its individual communities. There’s considerable eye candy here, too, making for an often-suggestive but eminently tasteful watch. For those interested in learning more about the reach of this influential publication, place your order to watch this one now.

“Elephant” (“Słoń”) (Poland)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10); Web site, Trailer

Is it possible to establish a loving, open, intimate same-sex relationship in an atmosphere of intolerance? That’s the question raised in writer-director Kamil Krawczycki’s second feature about an emerging gay male partnership in a rural, ultra-conservative, brazenly homophobic region of Poland, a story courageously filmed on-site. The picture follows the story of a smalltime horse farmer (Jan Hrynkiewicz) and reluctant caregiver to his unappreciative, closed-minded mother (Ewa Skibinska) who begins falling for a long-absent musician (Pawel Tomaszewski) who returns home for his father’s funeral. But, when the duo starts spending time together, they raise eyebrows, especially given the prodigal son’s sullied reputation and the reasons for why he left years ago. As their bond strengthens, the couple faces some hard choices about their future – particularly where it will unfold. This gorgeously filmed, sensitively acted tale admittedly follows a rather prototypical narrative and experiences some occasional pacing issues, but, given how skillfully this production is executed, there’s much to be said for the picture’s overall quality. It’s the kind of saga that will undoubtedly stir the ire of some of the most prejudiced viewers – and deservedly so.

“Homebody” (USA)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10); Web site, Trailer

When a nine-year-old boy (Tre Ryder) obsessed with his adult babysitter (Colby Minifie) employs a special meditation technique to insert his consciousness into her mind and experience what it’s like to be the object of his fascination, he’s at last provided with a prime opportunity to satisfy his curiosity. However, given their differences in age, life experience and gender, the youngster soon finds himself in over his head, perplexed by what he finds and ill-prepared to handle the new challenges placed before him, often with serious but hilarious consequences. Writer-director Joseph Sackett’s debut feature puts a delightfully humorous spin on the classic gender-switching narrative, though there are places where the pacing is needlessly stretched out, causing the story to sag somewhat, especially in the final act. Because of that, it almost seems as if this offering would have worked better as a snappy short given its already-brief 1:15:00 runtime, particularly if more economical editing had been applied to the final cut. Also, the film’s underdeveloped transgender-curious themes tend to downplay what probably should have been a more significant aspect of the overall story. The picture thus tends to play more like a metaphysical tale and an exploration of consciousness than an LGBTQ+ narrative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the trans aspects seem more like afterthoughts than integral story elements. This one comes close to living up to its potential, but a little retooling of this streaming release could have worked wonders – and truly made it worth staying home for.

“Jimmy in Saigon” (USA)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10); Web site, Trailer

How does one get to know about a loved one who is no longer with us and whose life no one will talk about? The profound lack of information about said individual and the unwillingness of others to share anything they know can be frustrating, if not maddening. So how is one to come to know such person? That’s the challenge that was faced by first-time feature director Peter McDowell, who wanted to know more about his deceased older brother, Jimmy, who died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in Saigon in 1972 when the filmmaker was only five years old. He knew little about his elder sibling, who was 19 years his senior, and, when he asked his family members about him, they typically said Jimmy’s passing was too painful to discuss. Peter knew that, if he truly wanted to know more, he would have to find out for himself. Thus began a decade-long project to discover the brother he barely knew, including the details of his life, his choices and his secrets. As the picture unfolds, the mysteries surrounding Jimmy gradually dissolve as the filmmaker comes closer to a series of well-concealed truths, insights that helped the director learn more about his brother, himself and the common bonds he unknowingly shared with his kindred. This heartfelt documentary thus leads viewers on a touching tale of discovery, one that painstakingly peels away layers of taboo that have long shrouded Jimmy’s story, escorting the filmmaker and audiences to heartwarming revelations that strip away the prejudices of another time, enable long-overdue healing and provide an enlightening new view of someone who was seriously misunderstood. There are times when the narrative seems to wander a bit, but, given the challenge the filmmaker was up against, it’s understandable how this might occur. However, anything worth knowing is worth waiting and working for, a truth that this younger brother ultimately comes to discover for himself.

“Wet Sand” (Georgia/Switzerland)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10); Web site, Trailer

Intolerance and small-mindedness are unpalatable enough in themselves, but, when taken to horrifically unthinkable extremes, they become utterly repulsive atrocities. Such is the case in this disturbing tale of life in a smalltime resort/fishing village on the Georgian Black Sea coast, where those who are different in any way – be it sexually, culturally, religiously or otherwise – are more than just ostracized; they become the targets of abject humiliation, brutal repression, unrepentant discrimination and even physical abuse. To make matters worse, those who inflict these venomous ways on others are often ignorant hypocrites who profess to be pinnacles of moral and ethical standards while openly engaging in acts and deeds to the contrary. Writer-director Elene Naveriani’s second feature outing makes a powerful statement about the revulsive dangers associated with these activities and holds nothing back in doing so, telling its story with formidable performances, chilling writing and impactful cinematography. Admittedly, the pacing could stand to be a bit brisker at times, but the deliberateness with which the tale unfolds simultaneously works wonders for the picture’s rich character development and prevailing mood. “Wet Sand” may not be an easy watch, but it will certainly leave quite an impression, one that both infuriates and inspires anyone concerned about seeing these injustices rectified.

“Death and Bowling” (USA)

(3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10); Web site, Trailer

One thing is for sure – this is a film you’re unlikely to forget, even though it doesn’t necessarily work as a cohesive whole. Writer-director Lyle Kash’s debut feature – a meditation on transgender representation in media, specifically the state of “being seen” – indeed makes a statement, even if it isn’t always entirely clear what that statement actually is. In this story of a transgender male would-be actor (Will Krisanda) who often feels lost and invisible, he takes comfort in his relationship with his lesbian bowling team, particularly its wise, compassionate, no-nonsense aging captain (Faith Bryan). But, when his confidante/mother figure dies, he feels even more adrift – that is, until he attends her funeral, where he meets her long-absent son (Tracy Kowalski), a child no one knew existed. Together, the duo strikes up a bond in their search to find themselves, a process that unfolds on multiple levels. However, despite the film’s strong start and strong finish, it’s unfortunate that it sags in the middle, veering into cryptic, muddled, almost pretentious material that’s, frankly, often difficult to fathom. To its credit, the picture’s inventive visuals, creative cinematography and captivating production design distinguish this effort from what’s seen in many other contemporary releases, and its unique storytelling approach and delightful character development aptly show more than tell. But, when the film attempts to become a little too clever and experimental for its own good, it loses traction – and perhaps even viewer interest – qualities that are difficult to get back. Fortunately, all is not lost, and some of what makes this offering succeed is successfully retrieved, but not before coming perilously close to losing it all – including the impact it was intended to have. No gutter balls here, but definitely more spares than strikes.

“The First Fallen” (“Os Primeiros Soldados”) (Brazil)

(3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10); Web site, Trailer

It can be terrifying to know that something is wrong but not know what it is. So it was for many in the LGBTQ+ community in the early ʼ80s with the onset of the AIDS crisis, a disease that didn’t even have a name at the time but was simply referred to as “the gay plague.” In writer-director Rodrigo de Oliveira’s latest, the filmmaker examines this issue from the standpoint of three friends (Johnny Massaro, Renata Carvalho, Victor Camilo) afflicted with the illness in the Brazilian city of Vitória. The first half explores their growing undefined uneasiness, while the second chronicles their struggle once their worst fears are confirmed. Oliveira accomplishes this by employing a variety of storytelling techniques, some of which definitely work better than others. The picture’s second half is undoubtedly the stronger portion of the film, addressing the characters’ anguish in gut-wrenching detail and providing them with a platform for waxing hauntingly philosophically about the symbolic nature of their illness, story elements effectively brought to life by the superb trio of performances of Massaro, Carvalho and Camilo. It’s unfortunate, however, that all aspects don’t work equally well, especially those in the first half, where the protagonists’ uncertainty about their status is sometimes treated a little too subtly, even cryptically, leaving viewers wondering exactly what’s going on with them. That’s particularly true when metaphorical sequences intrude on the primary narrative, needlessly muddying the waters. Considering the impact this devastating disease has had on the world for four decades, this story represents a significant milestone in the emergence and unfolding of this crisis, a scary time when little was known and the future impact of this scourge could not be foreseen. It’s regrettable, though, that this film doesn’t quite do it justice in those regards as effectively as it might have.

“Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?” (“Bashtaalak sa’at”) (Egypt/Lebanon/Germany)

(3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10); Web site

I’ll say it up front – writer-director Mohammad Skawky Hassan’s debut feature is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s not to suggest it’s without merit. This experimental piece presents viewers with a sonnet on the nature of gay male love, relationships and eroticism in all their myriad forms. The film’s artistic, nonlinear narrative incorporates a combination of live action, animation and music video-style sequences, along with more than its share of sexually explicit sequences (sensitive viewers beware). It combines elements from a series of stories drawn from the filmmaker’s diary, creating a montage of images and poetic anecdotes styled after an array of classic works drawing from such influences as Shakespeare and Scheherazade. It's also a truly bold gay-themed work to emerge from Middle Eastern culture, an accomplishment to be praised for its audacity. The result is an intriguing mix of artistry, eye candy and camp, though the lack of a more unified narrative can be a tad frustrating, especially among those expecting a more conventional storytelling approach. Perhaps the best way to enjoy this one is to simply sit back and let this one wash over you and not try to over-analyze it.

“All Kinds of Love” (USA)

(3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10); Web site, Trailer

Romantic comedies are a pleasant way of spending some time at the movies. However, considering the longstanding nature of this genre, it’s imperative that new entries in this category distinguish themselves by incorporating stories, characters and narrative elements that are fresh, inventive and different. Unfortunately, those are qualities largely missing from this latest offering from writer-director David Lewis. In spite of its impressive production values across the board, this story of a long-tenured gay male couple (Matthew Montgomery, Steve Callahan) that, ironically enough, decides to part ways just as the Supreme Court hands down its landmark decision in the Marriage Equality case is about as sappy and predictable as a rom-com can possibly get. To be sure, this release features its share of solid performances, moments of genuinely inspired humor and several modestly intriguing plot twists, but that’s not enough, as much of the film unfolds in a wholly foreseeable fashion, leaving viewers with little to be surprised about. It’s also weighed down by a positively annoying soundtrack that plays like it was plucked from a Hallmark Channel movie. Sensitive viewers should also be cautioned about some extensive and surprisingly explicit sexual content for of picture of this nature. It’s regrettable, though, that the strength of this production’s story didn’t match that of the elements that went into telling it. But an empty package is still an empty package, no matter how beautifully it may be wrapped.

“In from the Side” (UK)

(3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10); Web site, Trailer

In-depth narrative features about lesser-known segments of the LGBTQ+ community don’t exactly come along every day, so it’s indeed heartening when one about life in one of them – specifically the gay male rugby kinship – makes an appearance in the movie market (even if primarily only at film festivals). What’s less satisfying, however, is when such a release doesn’t quite live up to its potential, as is the case with writer-director Matt Carter’s second offering. In following the clandestine love affair of two London ruggers (Alexander Lincoln, Alexander King) who attempt to conceal their secret romance from their partners and teammates, the film explores its share of ethical matters, as well as the hard choices involved in making decisions about when it’s time to hold on to or to let go of existing relationships (especially when they appear to have run their course). However, in telling this story, the film drones on far too long and seriously needs to dial back some of its melodramatic soap opera tropes. It also could stand to lose some of its heavy-handed judgmentalism about open gay male relationships, arrangements that are fairly common (and, in many cases, reasonably healthy) in the LGBTQ+ community. To its credit, though, this production features an array of fine performances (particularly among its cast of colorful supporting characters), as well as excellent cinematography of the rough-and-tumble rugby matches. Sensitive viewers, though, should beware of some sexually explicit content in deciding whether to screen this offering. But then, given the picture’s unfortunate shortcomings, viewers in general might want to consider that decision carefully as well. In my view, I’d wait until it becomes available for streaming – and an occasion when you’ve got time to spare.

“Vulveeta” (USA)

(3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10); Web site, Trailer

As she approaches her 50th birthday, former riot grrrl punk band front woman Grrrilda Beausoleil (Maria Breaux) decides to celebrate by organizing a reunion of the disbanded group after a 20-year hiatus, all of which is to be chronicled by a documentary film crew. However, as enthusiastic as she might be about this project, not all of Grrrilda’s former band mates (J Aguilar, Dakota Billops-Breaux, StormMiguel Florez, Ruby Goldberg) are on board when it comes to realizing her particular vision for the venture. Things have changed in the Bay Area arts and music scene in that time, not to mention in the lives of the musicians and in their relationships with their onetime lead vocalist. Circumstances have changed so much, in fact, that the comeback may never get off the ground before it even starts. Such are the challenges faced in writer-director Maria Breaux’s completely improvised mockumentary, a comedy with ample potential that, unfortunately, could have benefitted from some additional development and refinement before filming began. While many sequences are genuinely hilarious, others go on too long and/or fail to stick the landings. That’s too bad, especially since the premise here is solid, one that could have provided the platform for truly outrageous humor. Regrettably, the bits that don’t work are overly stretched out, fall flat or are simply too tame given the underlying subject matter. What’s more, the LGBTQ+ aspects of the story and the documentary nature of the storytelling approach are often underdeveloped, in both cases representing failures to tap into rich veins of material that could have (and should have) played more important roles in the overall narrative. To its credit, though, when it works, it works, especially in the inspired musical numbers and the camera work, such as a performance sequence that plays like an homage to the B-52s’ Love Shack music video. “Vulvetta” is by no means an awful film, but it’s one that, with a little more fine-tuning, could have been a lot better – and a great way for Grrrilda to celebrate her birthday.

“Manscaping” (USA)

(2/5); Letterboxd (2/5), (4/10); Web site, Trailer

As men have become more conscious of their appearance, that trend has extended beyond clothing to their grooming rituals, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. In the pursuit of creating distinctive looks for themselves – including everything from hair styles to skin care to the preening of their most personal regions – they have increasingly sought out the services of skilled tonsorial and cosmetological experts who practice the art of manscaping. It’s a field that has grown ever more specialized in recent years, too, with practitioners who offer unique and customized services to their clients. From that, one might think that this wide range of services would provide ample fodder for documentation and discussion. Unfortunately, director Broderick Fox’s latest documentary woefully misses the mark when it comes to this subject. This scant 60-minute release is essentially limited to the work of two manscaping professionals (Jessie Anderson, Richard Savvy) and an artist (Devan Shimoyama) whose works celebrate the barbering arts (why he was included here truly escapes me). What’s more, these subjects represent some of the more extreme examples of what manscaping is all about, excluding the work of more typical practitioners and erroneously portraying this art as a purely fringe activity. In doing this, the director leaves considerable material on the table and presents a somewhat skewed perspective on this topic. The film also annoyingly goes off topic often, exploring subject matter that’s only tangentially related to the supposed main thrust of the picture. Sadly, this offering represents a missed opportunity, leaving viewers with an underdeveloped look at something that should have been a source of fun, diversity and insight.

“Nana’s Boys” (USA)

(1/5); Letterboxd (1/5), (2/10); Web site, Trailer

Breaking up is hard to do (or so they say). In any event, that’s something no one would get from watching this largely improbable offering about an African-American gay male couple (David J. Cork, Jared Wayne Gladly) whose relationship is teetering on the brink. When a sudden and massive explosion not far from their New York apartment unexpectedly throws the partners into a mandatory lockdown, their confinement leaves them to confront one another, a process full of revelations that accelerates their assessment of their circumstances and hastens a decision about how to proceed. In all sincerity, it’s a story that seems to have its heart in the right place, but, unfortunately, the writing is so implausible and unconvincing that it’s difficult to believe that this is a couple potentially on the verge of collapse, despite the alleged sensitivity it’s trying to convey. The characters sound more like they’re reciting scripted dialogue than engaging in believable conversation, and they often behave more like they’re on a date than wrestling with the course of their future. In many ways, this comes across like a more dramatic, reworked gay version of “Scenes from a Mall” (1991), only with fewer characters and staged in a more confined space (and about as compelling and credible as its more comedic predecessor). Writer-director Ashton Pina’s debut feature truly plays like a first-time effort, one sorely in need of a hefty dose of realism, not to mention a little less overacting and a soundtrack that doesn’t sound like it was pulled from a made-for-cable TV movie. Sadly, situations like this are often messy and ugly, and their depiction shouldn’t be glossed over with the kinds of polite, make-nice tropes that riddle the narrative and screenplay here, painful though that truth may be.

“It is in Us All” (Ireland)

(0.5/5); Rotten Tomatoes (+), Letterboxd (0.5/5), (1/10); Web site, Trailer

Upon completing my watch of this indecipherable, preposterous cinematic mess, I couldn’t help but come away from it asking myself, “What the hell did I just watch?” Writer-director Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s debut narrative feature is so “nuanced” as to be utterly vague and patently incoherent. I probably gave this one more than sufficient benefit of the doubt while screening it, awaiting a payoff (or even a half-hearted rational explanation) come movie’s end, but no such luck. The meandering, improbable screenplay of this unfocused tale about a car accident victim (Cosmo Jarvis) who becomes inexplicably fixated about a younger uninjured survivor (Rhys Mannion) from the same incident makes virtually no sense, jumping from one ostensibly random situation to another without seeming rhyme or reason, much of it padded with repetitive, pithy extraneous shots of the rural windswept Irish landscape. What’s more, it’s puzzling why this offering was selected as a featured presentation for an LGBTQ+ film festival, given that there are almost no references to the protagonist’s sexuality or the gay community at large. It truly boggles my mind how reviewers have praised this incomprehensible exercise in ill-conceived, poorly executed celluloid self-indulgence. Avoid this one at all costs.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.