Church & State


Utah: democracy or theocracy?

(2018) Documentary (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Mark Lawrence, Peggy Tomsic, Steve Urquhart, Jim Magleby, Jennifer Dobner, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Kody Partridge, Laura Wood, Bob Evans, David Knowlton, Kate Call, Kate Kendell, Missy Larsson. Directed by Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox

 

In 2015, same-sex marriage was made legal throughout the United States, ending a fight which had been escalating over the past…well, going back to the Stonewall Riots. It marked a sea change in American attitudes towards its LGBTQ citizens as popular support for the cause grew.

One of the first salvos fired in the battle for marriage equality took place in Utah. Amendment 3, which had been approved by 66% of the predominantly Mormon voters and approved by the Church of Latter-Day Saints itself (albeit only tacitly). Mark Lawrence, a middle-aged gay man who had moved to Utah from San Francisco to care for his ailing father, had always regretted not marching for AIDS when he lived in the Bay Area in the 80s. He felt moved to do something about what he considered a morally objectionable law – and thought that if he sued the State of Utah, he would have a reasonable chance of winning on constitutional law grounds.

But nobody wanted to help him do it. Inexperienced in activism and fundraising, he founded the group Restore Our Humanity for the purpose of fundraising for the lawsuit, and set out to find someone to help set it up. He was met by stony resistance from all of the national organizations he contacted; most felt that in a state as red as Utah there was absolutely no chance they could get the law overturned. At last, he found a small law firm who was willing to take on the case, and a lawyer named Peggy Tomsic who was willing to take it on – which meant not only taking on the State of Utah but by extension, the Church of Latter-Day Saints as well (the film takes the stance that the Mormons largely control the state from a political angle – many of the state legislators are Mormons, so they do have a case).

It would turn out to be one of the first cases to be tried in a federal court on the subject of same-sex marriage and the State of Utah, feeling that they not only had the will of the people behind them but also the full force of the law, were unprepared when the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs; they were so confident in their chances that they did not have a Stay of implementation writ ready to go on, which is common practice in suits like this. Seventeen days would go by with hundreds of same-sex couples receiving marriage licenses before a stay was finally filed.

But the fight was only beginning. There was an appeal to be filed and there would be in-fighting between the legal team, the plaintiffs (which couldn’t be Lawrence since he wasn’t in a relationship at the time) and Lawrence, who eventually dissolved the organization he founded to fight Amendment 3 and said disconsolately afterwards “If I had to do it all again? I probably wouldn’t have.”

The filmmakers tell the story of the lawsuit pretty well. There is a good deal of archival footage, promotional footage from the Church of Latter-Day Saints (they declined all interview requests they received from the filmmakers) and talking head interviews. Some of the footage is chilling, such as the Mormon elder who gives his approval to someone beating up a gay man, or the repeated insistence that they have nothing against gay people and that it’s not personal, but…y’all are perverts and you need to get out of Salt Lake, pretty much.

This is very much an underdog story and it is viscerally pleasing from that point of view. Lawrence is an interesting enough subject but he can be abrasive and the filmmakers shift their focus from him to lawyer Peggy Tomsic who as a lesbian definitely had skin in the game; she had a long-time partner and the two of them were caring for a small boy that they couldn’t legally adopt because of their marital status (or lack thereof) and were well-aware that he could be snatched away from them at any moment. Her story really shows the casual cruelty, the true evil, of the stance that those proponents of the gay marriage ban took. As Tomsic says, as much as they claim it is about the welfare of the children, at the end of the day it is not because keeping kids out of a stable home with two parents benefits nobody.

The story is a fascinating one, but it is a very locally-oriented one and the documentaries that focused on the fight for marital equality on a national level will probably hold more interest. However, for those looking to dive deeper on how that came to happen against what some thought were nearly insurmountable odds, could find this worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Concise storytelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Territory covered on the national level more effectively.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was a Special Jury Award winner at the 2018 American Documentary Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Happy Prince

Queen of Hearts (Dronningen)


That feeling you get when you realize you’ve crossed the line.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTrine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper, Liv Esmǻr Dannemann, Silja Esmǻr Dannemann, Stine Gyldenkerne, Preben Kristensen, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Ella Solgaard, Carla Valentina Philip Røder, Peter Khouri, Mads Knarregorg, Marie Dalsgaard, Elias Budde Christensen, Noel Bouhan Kiertzner, Nessie Beik. Directed by May el-Toukhy

 

Family dynamics are often fragile things. While they are ever-changing as children get older and enter different stations of life, they can be disrupted by all sorts of things – including the presence of an interloper who is suddenly brought fully formed into that dynamic.

Anne (Dyrholm) and Peter (Krepper) are an upper-middle class Danish couple with two young daughters. She is a lawyer who defends victims of sexual abuse; he is a physician. They live in a beautiful modernist home in the suburbs of Copenhagen, surrounded by sun-dappled natural beauty. They have a nice network of friends their age.

Into this is introduced Gustav (Lindh), Peter’s teenage son from a previous relationship. Gustav has a lot of issues; he isn’t particularly fond of Anne because he blames her for breaking up the relationship between Peter and his mother (not entirely true). He isn’t particularly fond of Peter because Peter hasn’t been around much – at his mother’s insistence, although that isn’t a factor to him; if Peter really wanted to be around, he would have, right? Of late Gustav has been acting out and getting into trouble at school and his exasperated mother, no longer able to handle her son, ships him off to Peter to see if he can do better.

At first, it doesn’t seem so. Peter and Gustav often butt heads as fathers and sons will. The house is broken into and Anne discovers that the culprit is Gustav himself; instead of telling his father, she keeps that to herself and lets her stepson know he is treading on thin ice. That seems to work with him; the two begin developing a relationship. It doesn’t hurt that the two girls are enormously fond of Gustav and vice versa.

Anne is also at this time becoming increasingly frustrated with Peter who is, like many doctors, often not present, whether attending to an emergency or at a medical conference. Anne is entering that phase of middle age where she is getting more sexually needy and Peter just isn’t handling it. Against her better judgment, she begins developing a physical desire for Gustav, a desire that is brought to fruition. As she realizes the consequences of her actions, Anne comes to a fateful decision that will have enormous ramifications in her family, her marriage – and her own self-worth.

The subject is somewhat controversial, particularly since there is a gender politics aspect to it. One wonders if viewers would feel the same way if Gustav had been a girl and Peter the one having an affair. In fact, those are the sorts of cases that Anne represents, so you know she knows better. While initially she may have the moral high ground – at one point she confronts the abuser of one of her clients in a parking garage – she certainly may lose it depending on how you feel about these things. Some say that Peter’s neglect drove her to this kind of desperation, but once again, if the sexes were reversed would that argument still hold up?

What-ifs aside, there are some compelling performances here, particularly Dyrholm as Anne. She is one of Denmark’s leading actresses and while she is not well-known in the United States except among cinephiles and overs of Scandinavian films, she deserves to be. All she does is turn in one wonderful performance after another.

Those who are disturbed by nudity should be aware that the nudity here pulls no punches. We see pretty much everything of Gustav and Anne, and their first sex scene is a lot more graphic than American audiences are used to, even more so than the late-night Cinemax flicks of the 80s and 90s that some have compared this to – unfairly, I might add. More than the nudity – which takes a certain amount of courage for a middle-aged actress – there is an emotional honesty to Dyrholm’s performance that is invigorating. We get to see layers of Anne’s personality; she isn’t the paragon of virtue that she believes herself to be and when push comes to shove, she does something that some might consider unforgivable and they wouldn’t be wrong. We understand why she does it but the fallout from her actions are bleak indeed.

Lindh has a less challenging role but he manages to hold his own with Dyrholm here. Krepper has a fairly colorless character to portray but he has a few moments and when he gets them, he makes the most of them. Most of the other aspects of the production – set design, music, cinematography and so forth – are professionally done.

There is a lot to unpack here and I won’t begin to go into all of it. Much of what you get out of this movie will depend on what you bring into it; your moral compass, your own belief system and ideas about sexuality. Your opinion about whether Anne is a villain or not will largely color how you feel about this movie. For my part, this is an excellent drama that gives you an awful lot to think about which is the kind of drama I live for. Very highly recommended.

REASONS TO SEE: Dyrholm is one of the most unsung actresses in Europe. A bleak, devastating picture. The ending ties very nicely to the beginning.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity and sex, some profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Denmark’s official submission for the International Feature Film Award at the 92nd annual Academy Awards in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Irishman

Papi Chulo


The new odd couple.

(2018) Dramedy (Blue Fox/Breaking GlassMatt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Michael Shepperd, Ryan Guzman, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Shaun Buchholz, Tom Beyer, Irene White, Caitlin Kimball, Marisa Szczepan, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Blaine Swen, Martin Morales, Nick Bush, Blaine Mizer, Rosemary Dominguez. Directed by John Butler

 

Loneliness does things to people. It preys on them from the inside, chews up their souls and turns them into people they won’t even recognize when they look themselves in the mirror. To be blunt, loneliness sucks.

Sean (Bomer) is an L.A. weatherman who is still reeling, six months later, after the end of his romantic relationship with ex-husband Carlos. Unable to move on, he has a mini-nervous breakdown on the air, unaccountably sobbing while reading the weather. His boss (McLendon-Covey) wisely tells him to take some time off and get himself right. Sean would rather not; taking time off with nothing to do might force him to face his loneliness and he’s clearly not ready to do this.

The last vestige of Carlos is a tree in a planter on the deck of his hillside mansion with a spectacular view; when he has the plant removed, Sean notices a circle on the deck where the plant had been. Not being handy in the least, he determines that he needs to have his deck repainted. Sean decides to hire someone from a group of migrant workers who hang out at his local hardware store, looking for work. He selects Ernesto (Patiño) and soon the two form a bond, even though Ernesto’s English is shaky and Sean’s Spanish even more so.

Sean finds himself paying Ernesto to hang out with him, going on hikes in Runyon Canyon, being his plus one at a party of his friends and even gets Ernesto to row him on a local lake. Ernesto reports all of this to his incredulous wife Linda (Campbell-Martinez), scarcely able to believe it himself but 20 bucks an hour is 20 bucks an hour, so if the gringo wants to pay him to hang out, Ernesto doesn’t mind. Besides, Ernesto is inherently a kind man who recognizes the pain Sean is in.

You can kind of see where this is going, but oddly enough it manages to get there without completely being predictable. The emphasis here is on Bomer, which is a bit of a shame; I found Ernesto to be a far more captivating character and would have liked a little more of his point of view. Still, Bomer is a strong actor and while Sean occasionally does creepy things, he still remains at least to a certain degree to be relatable.

Butler is a good filmmaker with strong shot composition and manages to insert some truly poignant moments. He also resists the temptation to make Ernesto the wise old Mexican whose folk wisdom will solve all of Sean’s problems; in fact, Ernesto doesn’t really understand a good deal of what Sean is telling him. He just half-smiles, nods and lens an ear, which is what Sean really needs.

Some reviewers have criticized the film for being racist, but to be honest I didn’t see it and I’m Hispanic. As I said, I would have appreciated more of Ernesto’s point of view, but Sean never talks down to Ernesto nor does he treat him as an inferior. The only knock that I might see against Sean is that he really doesn’t show much interest in learning Ernesto’s culture or language and doesn’t seem all that curious about Ernesto’s problems. Something tells me it would have been a much better movie if he had.

REASONS TO SEE: A bit on the oddball side but definitely warm-hearted.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of Sean’s actions are a bit creepy.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity and a bit of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mickey and the Bear

Eco-Terrorist: The Battle for Our Planet


More confessions from an eco-terrorist.

(2019) Documentary (Breaking GlassPeter Jay Brown, Darryl Hannah, Paul Watson, Robert Hunter, Pete Bethum, Peter Hamerstedt. Directed by Peter Jay Brown

 

When one looks around at the planet, there’s no doubt that ecologically speaking, we’re in serious trouble. Global warming, overfishing, fracking, strip mining, rain forests burning, entire species dying off at a terrifying rate. All of that is occurring right now, even as we speak.

Some groups are fighting back. Whales have been under attack by the illegal whaling industry, primarily conducted by Japan. The slaughter is threatening the ocean’s eco-system. When two of the founders of Greenpeace, Paul Watson and Robert Hunter, felt that their organization was not taking effective steps to stop the slaughter, they broke off and founded a new group – the Sea Shepherd Society.

Utilizing old rustbuckets that passed for sea-worthy vessels, the two decided to take a more direct involvement, putting themselves in the line of fire so to speak and deliberately ramming whaling vessels in an effort to delay them in their deadly harvest. Each day the whalers are at sea costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars; with almost no assets to speak of, the Society was virtually lawsuit-proof and they had an enviable record of saving thousands of whales without causing a single injury or fatality.

The group attracted notice and Watson became something of a rock star and the group’s work was depicted on the Animal Planet show Whale Wars. Donations poured in and between that and what the group made from the television show they were suddenly flush with cash. They were able to pay their volunteers, afford better ships and were no longer lawsuit-proof.

Peter Jay Brown, a filmmaker and environmental activist, has been one of the longest tenured members of the group, having started when the group tilted at windmills in ships that didn’t have working toilets. Once again, he has filmed and narrated the activities of the group, concentrating on their history and their tactics.

I can’t help but admire the passion and spunk of those involved in the organization. Certainly, they are fighting the good fight. Sadly, I doubt that this documentary is going to win them a lot of converts; the narration comes off as nearly condescending, a big image problem for those on the left. This film really embodies that. It brushes off the whaling industry as “unnecessary” which makes no logical sense; why would the Japanese spend millions of dollars to send a fleet of ships to harvest whales if there was no good use for them? If it wasn’t lucrative, the Japanese wouldn’t defy world opinion and international maritime law to do what they do.

Like I said, I admire what this group does and even though their tactics can be somewhat manipulative, I suppose all’s fair when it comes to the planet’s survival. I just wish they didn’t find it necessary to treat their viewers like idiots. I also would have preferred a little more objectivity. This comes off a bit too much like propaganda.

I certainly hope that readers will look into the activities of these cheerful eco-pirates and understand that what they’re doing is important and support them on that basis. I also hope that left-leaning filmmakers understand that just because their cause is just doesn’t mean they have to talk down to their audience who likely want to be presented with both sides of the coin, at least in a rudimentary way.

REASONS TO SEE: A depiction of people doing good and necessary work.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is hagiographic almost to the point of being condescending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third in a series of “Eco-Terrorist” films that Brown has made.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mister America

Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots


Club life isn’t necessarily real life.

(2019) Dramedy (Breaking GlassThales Corrėa, Izzy Palazzini, Oscar Mansky, Malakani Severson, Guilherne Zaiden, Nick Ryan Jurewicz, David Joseph Hernandez, Lucas Pagac, Patrick Bohan, Dominic Olivo, Travis Maider, Jacob Ritts, Mark Alfenito, Ryan Hill, Jace Moon, Felix Olmedo, Joshua Barry, Michael J. Gwynn, Matthew Mello, Mark Bowen, Marisa Lopes. Directed by Thales Corrėa

 

Life, love, romance, sex. These are things that we seek and sometimes find us even when we’re not looking for them, yet we go out chasing them particularly when we are single, hanging out in bars, clubs and at parties. A lot can happen in the course of an evening.

Leo (Corrėa) is a Brazilian ex-pat living in Los Angeles who has been maintaining an online relationship with a man in San Francisco. His friends Donnie (Palazzini) and Hunter (Mansky) urge Leo to come up to the City by the Bay to find the object of his affection so that he can at last take the relationship into the real world. The trouble is, he’s not really sure where to find him. No problem, though: everyone in the gay community in the Bay Area knows where the action is – in the Castro district.

The three men couldn’t be more different; Leo is affable, easy-going who isn’t looking for a quick hook-up but rather for something meaningful and long-term. Donnie is all about the moment and if the moment includes sex, so much the better. Hunter is bi-sexual but has found love with a woman who’s a nurse and insists loudly to everyone – particularly Donnie who obviously has the hots for him – that he’s straight now, although his protestations ring hollow.

Over the course of the night the three men will find sex without really trying too hard; finding love is a much more difficult proposition and all the bathroom stall and parking lot encounters in the world aren’t necessarily going to help them find it. Leo gets all sorts of advice about how to snare the man of his dreams – most of it bad – but he doesn’t give up on his dream, even if it seems more out of reach than ever.

In many ways, this is about love in the age of Grinder. Corrėa – who directed this and co-wrote it with Palazzini – has an immense amount of screen presence. Facially, he resembles a cross between Edward Norton and John Cusack and comes across as extremely likable. Part of the film’s dramatic tension stems from Leo’s growth as he realizes that Donnie’s hedonism and general lack of responsibility is not the life he wants to pursue anymore. Leo’s growth during the course of the night is the crux of the movie and Corrėa pulls it off nicely. He has to my mind the potential to become a mainstream star if he chooses to go that route.

Corrėa makes wonderful use of the Castro which as an ex-Bay Area resident I can tell you is one of the more dynamic and beautiful neighborhoods in the City which is chock full of them. There’s also the historic element to it; the Castro is at least as culturally significant to the LGBTQ+ movement as the Stonewall neighborhood; it was where Harvey Milk had his business and eventually represented on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was also one of the first openly gay-friendly neighborhoods in the entire country. Although the historic element isn’t emphasized in the movie which tends to stay in the nightclubs and bars of the district, it’s good to see that it gets its due as an epicenter to American gay life.

Cinematographer Cassie Hunter makes good use of the natural lighting in the outdoor scenes as well as the neon and colored lights of the bars, discos and clubs of the Castro. Russian DJ Same-K provides the pulsating electronic score.

If I have a complaint about the movie, it does move fairly slowly even given its short run time of 80 minutes. It does look at the romantic expectations of not just young gay men, although they are certainly at the forefront here; the themes are indeed universal, as we all sooner or later grow out of the lust-driven encounters of our youth and begin looking for something more. While this isn’t the apex of LGBTQ+ cinema, it does serve as a reminder to me that there are an awful lot of really good movies with gay themes that give us a different point of view that all of us can use to find insight into the same questions we all face as we try to muddle our way through life.

REASONS TO SEE: Corrėa has a ton of screen presence and likability.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat slow moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, nudity and a couple of sex scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in San Francisco’s Castro district.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love or Lust
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Corporate Animals