Glimmers in the darkness

MoonlightI will repeat what everyone else has said over and over again: 2016 was dreadful, and as I write this, it continues to be wretched, with George Michael and Carrie Fisher dying as Donald Trump provokes a new Cold (or World) War. In times like these, with our waking lives enveloped by evil and despair, art can serve to distract, teach and comfort.

As I wrote in my last column, La La Land does that well; its shiny, Technicolor cheer exists in a world outside of any sadness or strife not native to its own story. It’s pretty good escapism, something that very few of the big or the good movies have offered this year. (But not great: It thinks it’s Singing in the Rain, but it’s mostly humming in the shower.)

Usually, when the world sucks, Hollywood gives more than a few great distractions. But not 2016. Zootopia, the blockbuster animated movie, is about racism and eugenics. Captain America: Civil War, the billion-dollar grossing superhero film, is about the vigilantism necessary when government fails. La La Land’s major Oscar competition, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, are extraordinary films about sadness and doubt. And Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film, is as dark as night in its explication of the perils of heroic redemptions. (If you have kids, don’t take them.) None of these movies were made with full knowledge that 2016 would be the greatest annus horribilis since 1939 (or possibly, 1914). But sometimes the zeitgeist can’t be stopped, and sometimes that zeitgeist tells us a few things we need to know and shows us some things we need to see.

At a time of dramatically increased racism, poverty and misogyny, Moonlight is the most essential film of the year. Barry Jenkins’ triptych about the young life of a gay black man in Florida is about many things: poverty, drugs, filial piety, and, especially, the performance of masculinity. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron as various ages – a boy, a teenager, a young man, respectively – as he struggles to protect, express, and redeem himself. His surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer, his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) is a crack addict, and his only real friend is Kevin (at various ages Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), whose confidence, both sexual and social, is magnetic. The film is weirdly and frustratingly timid in its depiction of homosexuality, but that doesn’t detract from its depiction of finding grace in a world of pain.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is as white as Moonlight is black, as neither have speaking roles for the other race, but it does similar work by teaching us how to make our way through suffering. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, who must figure out how to take over parenting his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after Lee’s brother Joe dies. Lee is already overwhelmed by almost unimaginable grief – it feels very 2016 in that way – and he thinks he is incapable of fulfilling Joe’s wishes and Patrick’s needs. His path is as messy as Chiron’s, fraught with the expectations of duty and manly emotions and parenthood, but Kenneth Lonnergan writes and directs Lee and Affleck to a quiet, bittersweet place of good enough. Both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea taught me how to see glimmers in the darkness.

Several other of the year’s great films do similar work. Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s masterful and gorgeous adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story about Earth’s first contact with alien life, is about connection and communication, about finding meaning in uncertainty and seeming chaos. Amy Adams is a linguist haunted by the death of her daughter as she tries to decipher the language of the squid-like, tree-like visitors. Natalie Portman gives a more mannered but ultimately epic performance as Jack Kennedy’s widow in the hypnotic Jackie, which details the week following the president’s assassination. In trying to define her flawed yet awe-inspiring husband’s legacy through his funeral, she rages, thrashes and grasps for meaning in meaningless tragedy.

Other People, Chris Kelly’s hilarious and devastating autobiographical first film, is about the year David (Jesse Plemmons), a gay comedy writer, spends caring for his mother (a miraculous Molly Shannon) as she dies of cancer. This sort of thing, David says, is only supposed to happen to other people: What do I do when it happens to me? In Swiss Army Man, Hank (Paul Dano) uses a slowly reanimating corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) to create the life he never had but always wanted, literally creating meaning out of death. The film’s power is in Hank’s ridiculous, but profound, creativity.

Several of my other favorite films don’t even bother to seek meaning or lessons beyond their horror. The nihilism of The Lobster, in which those who cannot find life partners are turned into animals of their choice (Colin Ferrel’s David chooses a lobster), is as disturbing as the cynicism of A Bigger Splash, the story of how the idle rich are consumed by petty games and jealousies while the desperate poor languish at the periphery. And Deadpool, the movie at which I probably had the most fun this year, is a comic book film that makes no attempt to be about anything but its own hyper violence and filthy jokes. In that way, it functions in many ways like La La Land, as a distraction that panders to our simplest emotions. La La Land is a hopeless romantic wish fulfillment, and Deadpool is about fulfilling the impossible to fulfill the wish that thorny problems can be solved with perfectly aimed insults, blades and bullets.

2016’s disasters can’t be killed so easily.

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

‘Moonlight’ is a movie that matters

Moonlight is a triptych about growing up black, gay and poor. When he is nine or 10 he is called Little, he was just that, smaller than all of the other kids his age. They pick on him mercilessly, and he is terrified enough to lock himself in a crack house, where he is found by a man named Juan who deals crack but is the closest thing he will ever have to a father. When he is 16 or 17 he is Chiron, his given name, he is gangly and tall, and he is both meek and angry, at his mother who is addicted to crack and at the boys at school who have graduated from brats to bullies. When he is in his 20s, finally he is Black, his exterior hardened by muscle and by jail and the streets and by making his living doing what Juan did. But he is still Little and still Chiron, his mother’s wounds always, already fresh, and he is still haunted by the friendship he had with the one boy who – mostly – treated him with kindness, as someone worthy of love.

The film is artful, literary, gorgeous, upsetting, moving and loving. Barry Jenkins, currently being feted by film critics around the world, has made a movie that is reminiscent at times of Boyhood, Pariah, Beautiful Thing and Boys in the Hood, and yet is wholly original. The immediately striking thing about Moonlight is how gorgeously filmed it is, with Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton using dawn, dusk, the searing midday sun of south Florida, and, of course, the grace of moonlight in compositions that are sometimes marked by hand-held naturalism and sometimes crafted like the photos of Gordon Parks, Mary-Ellen Mark and Jamel Shabazz. If it was just the imagery, Moonlight would be great, but Jenkins’s script, from a story by Tarell McCraney, structured both perfectly and schematically, is just as beautiful and skillful, creating indelible characters with economical, sometimes poetic lines, aging and maturing Chiron, his mother and his friend Kevin with strategic precision and overflowing empathy.

And then there’s the acting. Alex R. Hibbert plays Little, terrified, needy and sweet; he’s so believable, this third can feel like documentary. Chiron is played by preternaturally gifted Ashton Sanders, whose awkwardness, sadness and fury are both the literal and actual center of the film. Finally, Trevante Rhodes is Black. Rhodes looks like some sort of cross between 50 Cent and Tyson Beckford, and that bulk and beauty is perhaps too much of a transformation, but Rhodes shows the cracks in the perfect sculpture through the subtlest change in his eyes, from a confrontation with his mother to an at-long-last meeting with Kevin, now played by jokey, confident, sexy André Holland. Naomie Harris has an epic transformation as Chiron’s mother, and her talent and Jenkins’ direction prevent her from becoming the cartoon that Monique, in a similar but more explosive role, was in Precious. Meanwhile, the immensely charismatic and beautifully subtle  Mahershala Ali plays the drug dealer with a heart of gold not as some societal oddity but as an everyman doing both the right thing and the things he needs to survive.

Moonlight is an important movie, and not only because critics have tapped it to win Oscars, but because it’s deeply affecting. It matters. At the late, Tuesday night showing of when I saw it, the theater was packed with one of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever been part of. All of the people were there to see a movie about growing up gay and African American, about masculinity and poverty, about redemption. Many people were there because of Moonlight’s awards buzz, and I’m thrilled that their minds and hearts will be expanded by the experience. But most were there because it was what they wanted and what they needed to see, because it was their story or similar to their story: as gay, or black, or poor, or all three. Seeing this – seeing us, with us writ large – reflected on the screen is rare, and it’s especially rare for the reflection to be so aesthetically rich and so emotionally resonant.

Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Naomi Harris and Mahershala Ali
Rated R

Originally published in somewhat different form in LGBT Weekly

King Cobra

Continuing his long string of occasionally artful, but mostly exploitative gay roles, James Franco has given us King Cobra, the tawdry and dopey story of the porn star and San Diego gay celebrity Brent Corrigan, his Svengali director at Cobra Video, and the dumb-as-dirt couple who murdered the latter. As most know, Franco, who produced and co-stars as one of the killers, is not gay, but he loves playing gay and teasing us with vaguely gay antics. I can see why he was drawn to the story of Brent Corrigan, because it’s scandalous and ridiculous. But as directed and written by Justin Kelly, it’s those things, and that’s it. Unclear whether it’s a comedy, a thriller or a gay Lifetime film, King Cobra ends up being mostly silly. I was entertained, but not for the right reasons.

King Cobra

Available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

SNL’s Chris Kelly makes a remarkable directorial debut

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People

The odd distribution plan for the exceptional Other People says a great deal about how film has changed with the advent of streaming services, especially in regards to independent film. In the past, movies with tiny budgets and niche audiences (especially gay ones) could only be found in art houses in large cities before showing up on video many months later. Other People opened in a handful of theaters in the United States Sept. 9 – and none were in San Diego – but it also became simultaneously available online to rent for half the price of one of the theater tickets. While the experience of seeing any movie in a theater is always preferable to seeing it on TV, Other People is not Gravity or The Tree of Life – it’s a comic drama set mostly in suburban Sacramento and the focus is on the writing, acting, and interpersonal emotions, not landscapes, special effects, and narrative sweep. Your TV is fine. And seeing it at home might be best when you’re in the midst of an ugly cry.

Other People, a hit at Sundance that closed Outfest in Los Angeles this summer, is the directorial debut of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly. It is both funny enough to have left me with sore stomach muscles and sad enough to earn my own ugly tears. Based on his own experience dealing with his mother’s death, the film focuses on Kelly’s alter ego David (Jesse Plemons), a struggling comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento from New York after his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) has been diagnosed with cancer. David has broken up with his long-term boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) but doesn’t want to tell anyone in his family, not his mother who doesn’t need to worry about David and not his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) who can’t handle, or even speak of, David’s gayness. Joanne is fabulous and funny and she does her best to stay positive as her condition worsens. David, while helping his mother in every way he can, is wracked with self-loathing, doubt, early grieving and loneliness. When he can, he spends time with a childhood friend Gabe (John Early), whose little brother (J.J. Totah) is a precocious gay tween.

The film opens with Joanne’s death, so the ending is pre-determined, focusing the film on David and his relationships rather than on the tension of whether or not Joanne’s cancer will beat her. Kelly’s writing, both in his raw, off-kilter humor and his finely observed emotional realism, is exquisite, part Stephen Falk (You’re the Worst), part Andrew Haigh (Weekend), part Woody Allen. His direction is also striking, with smartly controlled, carefully detailed scenes featuring excellent performances from the leads, supporters and even cameos. Most notable is, of course, Molly Shannon’s truly great, Oscar-worthy performance as Joanne. It features her trademarked ebullience and enthusiasm, but she also is just as effective in subtle, quiet, raw moments as she is when she’s the life of the party. She’s brave, brilliant and devastating.

Jesse Plemons and Bradley Whitford are both fantastic, too. Plemons, perhaps with two too many ticks, is the rare gay lead without overly straight or stereotypical affectations; he’s a recognizable, complex, messy man. Whitford complicates the homophobic father, making him not a bigot, but instead limited and cloistered and simply ill-at-ease. In smaller roles, June Squib, John Early and particularly the outrageous Totah prevent even the short, filler scenes from slowing the film down. It’s a small film, but a remarkable one, worthy of the widest attention possible.

Other People

Written and directed by Chris Kelly

Starring Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon and Bradley Whitford

Rated R

Available to rent and own on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

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Author: The JT Leroy Story

Opens at Hillcrest Landmark Sept. 23

Twenty years ago, the it author of the moment – at least in avant garde, hipster, queer circles – was Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, better known as JT Leroy. A teenage sex worker, vagrant and drug addict turned literary wunderkind, Leroy started publishing autobiographical stories in 1996, when he was 16. In 1999, he released two lyrical, dark and shocking books, the novel Sarah and the story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, to immense acclaim. He had a following of major literary and arts figures, including novelists Dennis Cooper and Bruce Benderson, memorist Mary Karr and poet Sharon Olds and rockstars Shirley Manson of Garbage, Courtney Love of Hole and particularly Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. But in 2005, several journalists figured out that Leroy didn’t exist. His writing was done by the much older San Franciscan Laura Alpert and his personal appearances made by Alpert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. The scandal was bizarre and titillating and embarrassing for a number of people, and Jeff Feuerzeig’s fantastic documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story does the seeming impossible: makes sense of the whole thing.

Feuerzeig is both lucky and skilled. His subject is Alpert, who not only is unflinching in the recounting of her story, admitting every detail and explaining her practical and psychological reasoning, but she also kept everything. We are privy to her drawings, hand-written writings and the numerous recordings she kept of her conversations with everyone from Courtney Love to Dennis Cooper. Feuerzeig edited Alpert’s archives along with old press footage, amateur recordings and new interviews, creating a beautiful, seamless monument to fame, fiction, psychopathology and fraud. Author is an instructive history lesson, but it is also entertaining in a way that I never was able to find Leroy’s writing: it is funny and moving and, most importantly, true.

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

This show is as absolutely bonkers as it is fabulous

Originally published inLGBT Weekly

Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

In the pantheon of TV series not about gay men that gay men tend to be obsessed with, Absolutely Fabulous is bigger than Designing Women and on a par with The Golden Girls. Almost obscenely popular in the U.K. (with ratings comparable to Cheers at its high point), Ab Fab has more of a cult status in the United States, mostly because of gay men. Ribald, high-camp, and very British, the show is focused on the drunken, drugged and generally debauched antics of PR agent Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and fashion editor Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Despite her success, Edina has no self-confidence and relies heavily on her false bravado, theoretical knowledge of fashionable trends, Patsy’s friendship, her deceptively ding-a-ling assistant (Jane Horrocks) and her deeply disapproving daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Patsy relies on drugs, liquor, her slowly fading beauty, and a list of sexual conquests so long it would make the promiscuous gay man blush – or cheer. The show is as absolutely bonkers as it is fabulous; several of its 41 episodes that aired from 1992 to 2012 are among the greatest half-hours of farce TV has seen.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the feature film that picks up some time after the 2012 episodes, is not as good as any of those classic episodes like “Fashion,” “France,” and “Poor.” No one should expect that it would be. It is, however, an utterly entertaining, often very funny 90 minutes that will help you forget for a time the hideous, violent world of mass murder, global warming and Donald Trump. Well, murder may be a bit hard to forget about, since that’s key to the plot. Still, it’s not a gruesome murder and maybe not a murder at all.

The film opens with Edina discovering that she’s broke and her memoir, her hope for riches, is utterly uninteresting to book publishers. Her only PR clients are (as they have been for years) the ’60s pop singer Lulu, Emma Bunting (better known as Baby Spice), and a boutique vodka. She’s a has-been and dejected and her credit cards are “broken.” Meanwhile, Patsy, who works as an editor for a fashion magazine but relies on Edina to pay for everything, is planning a celebrity-studded party and discovers that the supermodel Kate Moss has fired her flack. Edina hatches a plan, involving her precocious 13-year-old granddaughter Lola, to sign Kate at the party. As things do in the world of Ab Fab, disaster strikes: Kate Moss falls off a balcony into the River Thames, disappears in the dark water, and Edina is blamed for pushing her.

As the world mourns in a perfect parody of celebrity death culture, Edina and Patsy hatch another disastrous plan and then abscond to the South of France in search of a rich husband for Patsy. Throughout the various antics, there are the trademark Ab Fab motifs of gauzy fantasy sequences, inebriated pseudo-philosophical dialogues, mincing queens, parades of hilariously hideous dresses, pratfalls, double-takes and jokes about Edina’s weight, Patsy’s insatiability and Saffron’s dumpiness.

Given 90 minutes, Jennifer Saunders wasn’t forced to be as taut with her screenplay as she had with the series episodes. While the scenes themselves are snappy, the plot meanders. Still, I laughed and loved seeing Saunders and Lumley, comedy geniuses of the highest order, return to these iconic roles. I had fun.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Directed by Mandie Fletcher

Written by Jennifer Saunders

Starring Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha

Rated R

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