13 Minutes


A sight you never want to see in your neighborhood.

(2021) Disaster (Quiver) Thora Birch, Paz Vega, Trace Adkins, Anne Heche, Amy Smart, Sofia Vassilieva, Peter Facinelli, Laura Spencer, Will Peltz, Yancey Arias, Gabriel Jarret, Tokala Black Elk, Shaylee Mansfield, Darryl Cox, Davi Santos, Ginger Gilmartin, James Austin Kerr, April Warren, Kyle Jacob Henry, Addison Metcalf, Lena Harmon, Allyson Crisofaro, Erin Herring, Leesa Neidel. Directed by Lindsay Gossling

Tornadoes are a bitch. They strike without any sort of warning and can leave apocalyptic devastation in their wake. Often, they hit small towns that are less able to recover as easily as a big city might.

In the small fictional Oklahoma town of Minninnewah right in the heart of Tornado Alley, things start with a distant rumble and troubling weather reports that bad weather could be in the offing. Veteran farmer Rick (Adkins) scoffs, having been through enough false alarms in his time to be skeptical at the words of warning coming over the TV. His son Luke (Peltz) is late coming in the night before, managing to miss a lightning strike on their barn that left it completely gutted. Dad, needless to say, is less than thrilled. ‘I hope she was worth it,” he tells him. The fact is, though, that there was no girl. Instead, Luke was spending the night with a man – Daniel (Santos), who works for his Dad (and by extension, for him).

Ana (Vega) works as a hotel maid for an insufferable boss who doesn’t like Hispanics much and her undocumented husband Carlos (Arias) less. Ana lets it roll off her back like water off a duck; she has saved enough for a down payment on a house, even though the supercilious real estate agent (Neidel) who deigns to sign the paperwork while in the midst of her salon appointment, then sniffs “It was barely worth the commission” behind her back after she leaves. Maddy (Vassilieva), who is coloring her hair, has problems of her own; she’s pregnant and the baby daddy (Kerr) doesn’t want to get married, and isn’t so keen on an abortion either, which is what Maddy wants – although when she goes in to the clinic, Tammy (Heche) insists on showing her an ultrasound of the fetus and trying to talk her out of aborting the child. Tammy, as it turns out, is married to Rick and is Luke’s mom.

Maddy is the daughter of single mom Jessie (Birch) who works at an auto repair place, putting up with the patronizing, the sexual harassment and the unreliable customers who wait until the last minute to get their emergency vehicles serviced. When Maddy breaks the news of her delicate condition, essie turns out to be ferociously supportive which might bring a tear to the softer viewer. Maddy also babysits Peyton (Mansfield), the daughter of TV weatherman Brad (Facinelli) and his wife (Smart) is the emergency services department head for Minninnewah. They have jobs to do, so when their sitter flakes out, Maddy gets the call.

All of this small-town drama will begin to recede into inconsequentiality when the town is given a mere thirteen minutes warning that they are going to be hit head-on by a massive tornado. Lives will hang in the balance depending on what each individual citizen does next.

I was surprised that I found the individual stories pretty compelling and while the cast is solid, it performs even better than I expected them to. Not to mention that the tornado sequence is authentically terrifying, even more so than the comparable sequence in Twister that had a far bigger budget to work with than this film did. We also see the devastation from the twister; the town is absolutely leveled and it’s hard to believe anyone survived the destruction, let alone the number that eventually did. On that note, I’m not sure how to address that without giving a spoiler away here; let’s just say that the movie is robbed of an emotional catharsis that it might have had. Some might even feel a bit cheated.

Some of the plot threads feel a bit melodramatic, coming out of disaster movie tropes that are a bit dated at this point. I think the movie might have benefited by having maybe one less thread – for example, the weather man and the emergency services director had little to do except look worried and give out advice on what to do if the storm hits directly. Also, I found it a bit disconcerting that people who had acted like complete and utter jerks throughout the movie turned heroic in the aftermath with one person who professed racist views taking care of an injured Hispanic tornado victim. That just seems inconsistent to me.

Still in all, this is surprisingly entertaining and the tornado and its aftermath are absolutely wonderful. I would recommend the movie highly just for those elements alone.

REASONS TO SEE: The tornado sequence is legitimately terrifying. Better than we had any right to expect.
REASON TO AVOID: Maybe one or two stories deteriorate into melodrama.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, adult themes, sensuality and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several extras are former or current first responders who have actually responded to tornado disasters in the area the movie was filmed in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
13 Fanboy

Emergence: Out of the Shadows


Some trains don’t take you where you want to go.

(2021) Documentary (SHER) Alex Sangha, Kayden Bhangu, Jag Nagra, Jaspal Sangha, Avtar Nagra, Harv Nagra, Rajwent Nagra. Directed by Vinay Giridhar

Coming out is no easy task even in the best of circumstances. It means admitting not only to those you care about but also to yourself, that there is something different about you. Doing it within a culture that places family so highly, but also considers homosexuality to be anathema, bringing shame to both family and community. In South Asia, many gay children have been disowned by their parents and the incidence of suicide among gay South Asians is horrifically high.

This Canadian documentary examines the coming out experience of three LGBTA individuals of South Asian ethnicity; Amar (who goes by Alex), Kayden and Jag. All three had very different experiences. Alex was raised mainly by his mother Jaspal, who left her husband when he became alcoholic and abusive. That in itself is unusual in the Sikh community, but Jaspar is an extremely strong woman and she proved to be extremely supportive of her son, making his coming out relatively easy, or at least easier than the others had it.

Jag had to contend with parents who had already seen their other child, Jag’s brother Harv, come out. It made her more hesitant to come out because she was concerned that her parents would be less able to handle it because her brother had already come out and it turned out to be difficult at first, but eventually her parents came around.

That wasn’t the case for Kayden, who already had a contentious relationship with his parents. They still live in India, and after he ran away from home (and eventually returning when he found it too hard to cope), he came out to his parents who responded by beating the living crap out of him and disowning him. He eventually ended up in Canada where he was often suicidal and calls to his mom just to hear her voice frequently ended up with her hanging up on him.

But eventually things got better for Kayden, who discovered a support group for young people like himself, of South Asian heritage who were gay. The organization, SHER, turned out to be a life saver for him as he discovered other in similar situations who gave him the love and support he had been denied by his family. These days he doesn’t think he’ll ever reconcile with his parents, and he remains angry at them, his father in particular – and justifiably so.

The documentary is largely straight interviews, which are conducted pretty professionally. There are occasionally some tears, but for the most part are more matter-of-fact. We see a lot of home pictures of the young children who became the adults we see being interviewed before us. Unfortunately, the music for the soundtrack is often used to make moments sound more dramatic. It’s actually totally unnecessary as those moments tend to speak for themselves. The filmmakers need to trust their audience a little bit more.

It seems such a waste, to deny your own flesh and blood for something they cannot help any more than they can help what toppings they prefer on their pizzas. How do you cope when the one place that you would expect unconditional love from, the one place that should support you no matter what denies your very existence? Organizations like SHER are necessary because of that; perhaps as we continue to become more enlightened vis a vis our LGBTQ brothers and sisters we won’t need them forever. Sadly, it looks like we’ll need them for a while longer, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very compelling stories about coming out.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is frank discussion of adult and sexual themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Sangha is the founder of SHER, an organization dedicated to supporting South Asian gay people in Canada. The group also funded and distributed this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boys in the Band
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mad Women’s Ball

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)


Some kisses are more magical than others.

(2020) Fantasy/LGBTQ Coming of Age Dramedy(Gravitas) Sophie Hawkshaw, Zoe Terakes, Marta Dusseldorp, Rachel House, Julia Billington, Bridie Connell, Madeleine Withington, Randall Hua, Melanie Bowers, Ed Wightman, Chiara Gizzi, Olga Markovic, Patrick James, Orya Golgowsky, Lauren Johnson. Directed by Monica Zanetti

 

In our high school years, it is somewhat expected that we don’t really have a clear picture of who we are quite yet. High school is in many ways an exercise in masochism, because we try as hard as we can to fit in, yet we have not even half a clue why, or whether or not if that is truly who we are. Figuring it out gives us the battle scars that come in useful later on.

Ellie (Hawkshaw) is one of those girls who never gets into trouble, who hits the books, makes her mum and teachers proud (her dad isn’t in the picture) and is a bit on the nerdy side. She’s still a pretty girl, but she’s noticed something about herself – she really isn’t interested in boys. At all. In fact, to the upcoming Formal (which is what we Americans, it is pointed out somewhat gently, call the Senior Prom). One of her classmates makes a big show of asking out his girlfriend on social media, delivering a huge bouquet of flowers. Very charming, and makes my inner 17-year-old a little bit jealous; however Ellie has her heart set on going to the formal with Abbie (Terakes)…a girl.

She presents it exactly this way to her mum (Dusseldorp) whih is her way of coming out – and not the best way in the history of coming out. Her mother’s frozen smile turns into a belated “That’s brilliant,” to which Ellie responds in typical teen fashion “You’re such a bigot mom!” before stomping out. Mama, y’see, didn’t signal her acceptance quickly enough for Ellie. But Ellie’s got larger problems.

You see, her Aunt Tara (Billington) – her mum’s sister – starts popping up. Tara is a free-spirit who identifies herself as a “FAIRY Godmother, get it?” which is the Dad Joke way of signaling that Tara is a lesbian. Tara also happens to be dead, having passed on right around the time Ellie was born. You see, the way it works is that when gay people come out and they have no living gay family members to help guide them through, it falls upon the dead gay family members to do it instead – to take up the burden. Ellie was only aware that her aunt had died in a car accident, and that her dying had really torn up her family, including Tara’s girlfriend Patti (House). Tara herself doesn’t remember the circumstances of her own death.

Tara’s advice to feel out Abbie to make sure she’s receptive to having a lesbian relationship is about 40 years out of date, as are most of her cultural touchstones. Ellie eventually musters up the courage to talk to Abbie – who is one of those cool kids that Ellie has never really been able to talk to – by pretending tp be in detention for littering, which disturbs Abbie because she’s really passionate about environmentalism and Ellie had led the school assembly in following proper recycling techniques earlier that year. Whoops.

In any case, Ellie soon gets fed up with Tara’s well-intentioned advice and essentially tells her to get lost. Then during a school report on women whom they admire, Abbie inadvertently does one on Tara – who had been a leading activist for LGBTQ rights back in the ‘80s before she was deliberately run over by a car during a protest. Nobody had ever bothered to tell Ellie the circumstances of her aunt’s demise, which sorely wounds Ellie and brings back very painful memories for her mum. Eventually Ellie learns what an incredible person her aunt was…and she begins to accept that she is who she is, and Abbie is who she is, and that the only thing that matters is that they make each other happy…but will that be enough to make up for all the mistakes she’s made?

I have to admit that the first part of the movie left me a little flat. The humor is awfully broad and sitcom inspired, and there is a little bit too much overwrought drama and not enough insight. But that changes about halfway through and the movie finds its heart, and suddenly you go from wanting to find another cat video to watch to becoming truly invested in the characters and their issues.

Hawkshaw does a very fine job with her character, making Ellie far from perfect – she wears her heart on her sleeve and sometimes jumps before thinking things through, which is not uncommon among people her character’s age. The chemistry between her and Terakes is sweet and awkward and completely believable. Like most teens, they’re just figuring things out as they go along. That’s pretty much how we all do it.

The character of Tara is the one that caught my attention. She’s introduced as a little bit of a goof and someone not too terribly serious, but then we see her on the last day of her life as an activist, a leader of her community and someone passionate and serious and suddenly you want to know more about her. It isn’t often that you really wish that a character in a movie wasn’t dead, but that’s the case here.

Having grown up straight, I won’t pretend to understand what LGBTQ teens go through. I grew up in a different era where gay slurs were used regularly by all and kids who had different sexual preferences kept those preferences to themselves; coming out of the closet was not the norm then, and although I have since discovered that there are members of my high school class that have since come out, I can only imagine what they went through. I wish there had been movies like this one for them. In all honesty I wish there were movies like this for people like ME too – I might have been a little bit more sensitive and a little less of a jerk back then. And for modern kids it might help those struggling with coming out to see that it IS okay and there IS support out there for them. Even if it is from gay ghosts – you knew that it had to happen sooner or later.

REASONS TO SEE: Really picks up in the last third. An awesome watch for LGBTQ youth.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor can be a bit lame (proof positive that lesbians can crack dad jokes too).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, a bit of profanity and some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Zanetti’s first feature film as a director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic:No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan

I’m gonna make you love me


Brian Belovitch contemplates a life well-lived.

(2019) Documentary (Bernstein DocumentariesBrian Belovitch, Michael Musto, Nelson Sullivan, Andy Anderson, Tabboo, Gabriel Rotello, David Belovitch, Jim Belovitch, Gloria, Jeffrey Belovitch, Todd Belovitch, Sheila. Directed by Karen Bernstein

I’m gonna make you love me, which had its World Premiere a few days ago at DOC NYC (and will be playing there again shortly), covers the fascinating life of Brian Belovitch, a man whose life has taken him to a wildly diverse array of places and lives. He for many years came out as a transitioning woman and lived as an Army wife for several years, hosting Tupperware parties in Germany as Natalia.

Following the dissolution of that marriage, he returned to New York City as club performer Tish in the 80s, one of the most famous club and lounge performers of the time. He went through the rigors of local fame (and in New York that can be truly intoxicating) with the drug addiction that sometimes accompanies celebrity, which in turn led to an HIV-positive diagnosis and deep depression.

Brian came to the conclusion that life as a woman wasn’t really what he wanted and so for the second time in his life, he came out, re-transitioning back as a gay male. These days, he’s married to Jim, pushing 60 and for the first time in his life, truly comfortable in his own skin.

There is plenty of archival footage of Brian’s days as Tish, both performance video as well as home movies. Tish’s friendship with journalist/raconteur/rock star Michael Musto helped expand her notoriety but it seemed that her career was beginning to run out of gas, which was part of what seemed to lead to the depression that Brian suffered from.

We hear from several of Brian’s siblings – he had seven – and there is varying degrees of acceptance among them. I know from first-hand experience it’s not an easy thing always to accept that someone you knew as one gender has become another; it takes time to let go of the person that was and accept the person who is. Some, sadly, are never able to do it; as I said, it’s hard but not impossible unless you are bound and determined not to accept that person’s transition. Although Brian seemed fairly devoted to his mother, their relationship was certainly complicated; she wasn’t very supportive of him and there appeared to be some emotional abuse going on. Brian as a young teen frequently ran away from home.

Brian himself has one of those personalities that just fills a room whenever he’s in it. He is proudly – even defiantly – gay and there is no mistaking his sexuality for a moment. He is a great storyteller, and boy does he have a ton of stories to tell! Bernstein could have just sat him down in a chair, turned the camera on him for an hour and a half and she would have had an entertaining movie.

Where the movie fails is in continuity. People that are important to Brian – like his only friend as a teen, Paul whose mother Gloria he is still close to – fall out of the narrative. Brian alludes to Gloria “losing” him, but that’s not spelled out. Did he pass away? Or did they have a falling out? Something similar also happens with Natalia’s husband David; he just fizzles out of the story. It would have been nice for the filmmakers to spend a few moments just explaining what happened to these people who at one time were important to Brian’s life.

Other than that, the story is a fascinating one. Jim describes his relationship with Brian thusly; “I try to be a rudder for him. Brian is all sail” and that seems like an apt way to characterize him. Brian is larger than life and while Jim is much more laid-back, the affection between the two is without question. There’s more love between these two guys than in a lot of hetero relationships I’ve known. They are poster boys for why gay marriage is a necessary right, one which still remains under threat given the conservative nature of the Supreme Court these days.

But I digress. I wouldn’t say this is essential viewing; it’s basically the story of one guy and while it’s a fascinating story, it isn’t a story that will change your life except maybe to help you realize that it is never too late to change your life completely. Not every life we choose for ourselves is the one we were meant to lead; Brian Belovitch is living proof that the most important thing when it comes to choosing a life is that you choose the one that makes you happy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is a story about a very different journey.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of story lines are left dangling.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult; there is also some profanity, brief nudity and plenty of graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brian works today as a drug abuse counselor; Jim works as a botanist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: XY Chelsea
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The All-Americans

Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

American Folk (September 12)


Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are fine musicians but they’re not above being corny.

(2017) Drama (Good Deed) Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, David Fine, Krisha Fairchild, Bruce Beatty, Elizabeth Dennehy, Miranda LaDawn Hill, Emma Thatcher, Holger Moncada Jr., Julian Gopal, Lawrence Mandley, Noah Craft, Bradford Barnes, Paul White, Shelly West, Maryann Strossner, Andrew Walton (voice), Greg Williams, James Perry, Ricky Aynes, Isabella George Brown. Directed by David Heinz

 

The road movie is an institution as American as, well road trips themselves. Exploring our own country is something we often fail to do in our busy lives but there is something that is truly uplifting about getting in a car and driving down the open road in whatever direction you happen to fancy, particularly when we take the back roads and avoid the Interstates which are, I grant you, soulless and Godless.

Elliott (Purdy) is a folk musician in an L.A. hotel room with maybe the thinnest walls ever – or a neighbor in the adjoining room with the worst temper ever, constantly banging on the wall whenever Elliott softly strums his guitar and sings into the cassette deck, working on a song. He has to get to New York City to begin a gig as a member of a band called the Hairpin Triggers, a gig that he’s not overjoyed about but as his agent intimates, may be his last opportunity to continue to make a living as a musician.

He’s not much of a people person so as the flight takes off he puts on his headphones and zones out. However the bright perky woman sitting next to him, Joni (Rubarth) whips out a splitter and listens in. I’ve never had that happen on a flight before but I suppose in all the annals of transcontinental air travel it must have happened o someone. Anyway, rather than punching her in the face, he strikes up an awkward conversation with her that is cut off when the flight is turned around and forced to land back at LAX. It’s not because of engine trouble or a medical emergency – all flights are being grounded. The date is September 11, 2001.

Elliott desperately has to get to New York and Joni has to return to take care of her ailing mother who is under the auspices of a none-too-reliable sister so Joni invites Elliott back to the house she was staying in with family friend Scottie (Fairchild), an ex-hippie and former touring musician herself. She lends the two a 1972 Chevy Van (and only children who grew up in the 70s will appreciate the Sammy Johns reference) and off they go.

The van has a tendency to overheat so the Interstates are a non-starter. They take back highways instead until the van gives up the ghost in the desert. They are pointed in the direction of Vietnam vet Dale (Fine) who lives out in the sand dunes by himself but can fix just about anything. The two travelers begin to bond over music and a shared love of traditional American folk – the music of Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and John Prine among others.

Along the way they run into other people who grab their attention but particularly a lesbian couple from San Francisco named Bianca (Hill) and Emily (Thatcher) who are on their way to Virginia to meet Bianca’s parents…and to come out to her very stiff-necked father (Beatty). Getting to New York the two begin to realize that it was truly  all about the journey and not the destination – and it would be a journey they’d remember forever.

I went into this movie thinking that it would be about folk music but in many ways it really isn’t. Think of the title for a moment – it’s not about American Folk but about American folks. This is a snapshot of a moment in our history when the country was drawing together and unifying in the face of a dreadful, horrible attack. That the unity that we experienced in those days and weeks following 9-11 has been completely lost makes it doubly tragic only 16 years after the fact.

Purdy and Rubarth make strong leads; Purdy is quiet and introspective, Rubarth outgoing and open-hearted. They are an opposites attract sort of couple but then again this is no rom-com; this is definitely a road movie and while they do bond there’s never a sense that they will remain together once they pull up in New York. Some viewers may end up wishing they had.

There is some great music on the soundtrack, much of it played and sung by Rubarth and Purdy (the two are touring together in support of the movie doing folk dates throughout the country). It is well that the filmmakers actually shot on the road rather than in a single state or soundstage; we get the flavor of the couple’s travels and that adds a lot to the enjoyment of the movie overall.

While the film gets a little flat in the middle, it does keep the interest high throughout. It has a gentle heart and a dulcimer’s soul, and the harmonies that Purdy and Rubarth make while singing echo in the very DNA of the film. I can’t say that there is anything particularly revelatory here – the healing power of music is well-known and road movies are nothing new, but still I found myself enjoying the journey. I think you just might, too.

REASONS TO GO: Purdy and Rubarth are surprisingly strong leads. The music the two make is really very good and the classic folk on the soundtrack works as well.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés scattered here and there. The movie loses some momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sophisticated themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Purdy and Rubarth are veteran singer/songwriters in folk and other American music forms. This is the first onscreen acting role for the both of them. In addition, this is Heinz’ debut as a feature film director after a long and distinguished career in film editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Easy Rider
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb

Stonewall (2015)


Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

(2015) True Life Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, Joey King, Karl Glusman, David Cubitt, Andrea Frankle, Atticus Dean Mitchell, Richard Jutras, Otoja Abit, Rohan Mead, Ben Sullivan, Johnny Falcone, Vladimir Alexis, Kwasi Songui, Alan C. Peterson, Veronika Vernadskaya. Directed by Roland Emmerich

For the LBGT community, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn (a bar that catered to gay men and lesbians in an era when it was illegal to serve liquor to a homosexual) are a watershed moment, an event around which prompted real organization of gay rights activists.

In the late 1960s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was treated with electroshock therapy among other barbaric treatments. Gays were forbidden from working for the government, couldn’t get bank loans and were the targets of vicious beatings – often from the police.

Danny (Irvine), a young gay man from Indiana who has been kicked out of the house by his homophobic father (Cubitt) who also happens to be the high school football coach, has gone to New York City where he has a scholarship to Columbia University – if he can get his high school diploma and get his paperwork sent to the University. Dear old dad has no intention of helping his son, but his cowed mother (Frankle) is sympathetic and his little sister Phoebe (King) absolutely adores him and is very angry at her parents for the way they’ve treated their son.

Danny, having little money and nowhere to go, falls in with a group of gay street kids led by Ramon (Beauchamp), a hustler who turns tricks with middle class men who are firmly closeted, have wives and careers and occasionally beat the snot out of him. Ramon takes him in and fellow street kids Silent Paul (Sullivan), a Beatlephile, Orphan Annie (Jones) and Cong (Alexis) who is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He also attracts the eye of Trevor (Meyers), an activist who works for the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. They believe in peaceful protest and non-violence while most of the street kids know that they will never get the attention of the straight society that way.

Most of them gather at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that is owned by the Mafia and managed by Ed Murphy (Perlman) who disdains the gay clientele but allows them to do pretty much what they want (the Mafia used the bar to blackmail wealthier gay clientele and made more money that way than from liquor but that’s not discussed in the film). Danny is a bit out of his element but soon grows to appreciate the more outgoing of his crew but there is tension between Ramon, who has fallen deeply in love with Danny, and Trevor to whom Danny is more attracted to.

Danny’s heart, however, belongs to Matt (Mitchell), the football player whom Danny was having furtive gay sex with and who threw Danny under the bus when they were discovered, prompting his ejection from school and home. Danny endures beatings from the cops and growing tensions between the now very jealous Ramon and Trevor, who may or may not be using Danny for his own devices, but those tensions are nothing compared to what was going on in the community and they would come to a head on a hot summer night in June 1969 when Detective Seymour Pine (Craven) made an ill-advised raid on the Stonewall.

Few people in the heterosexual community are all that aware of the Riots and their significance and the movie is the perfect opportunity to educate and inform. Unfortunately Emmerich, who is mostly known for his big sci-fi epics like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow decided to make a fictional account, using fictional characters mixed in with a few real ones like Pine and Marsha P. Johnson (Abit). Considering that there are plenty of those who were actual participants and observers who had some compelling stories to tell about the riots, it seems a bit of a waste.

&I had wondered why Emmerich didn’t use actual footage from the riots instead of recreated footage disguised as newsreels until I discovered that no footage exists of the riots and precious few photographs. I guess it’s hard for people of this modern society in which everything is documented to understand that news was covered by newspaper writers and photographers for the most part and to a lesser extent, television cameras and it was editors for newspapers and TV who determined what got covered and back then, a riot of gay people would tend to be given less attention (although it was front page news).

Beauchamp does a great job as Ramon/Ramona who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a heartbreaking moment after a client has badly beaten him where he confesses to Danny that this life is all he can hope for and that he expects that there will never be anything better for him. It’s a compelling performance and Beauchamp has a good shot at some better roles.

There is a lot of sexuality in this movie – a LOT – and the sex scenes are handled pretty much the same way you would see heterosexual sex scenes in a mainstream movie; kudos to Emmerich for treating the two equally. Of course, conservative Christians will likely lose their shit over it much as they did for Brokeback Mountain but that’s assuming that the movie makes any sort of cultural headway, which is not necessarily going to happen.

Considering that this is a movie about such a significant event in the gay community, the filmmakers including writer Jon Robin Baitz, a respected playwright, seem to promote gay stereotypes almost to absurd heights. Yes, there were plenty of drag queens back then and there were those who were lisping, mincing fairies who gave birth to the stereotype, but we get little sense of who these people are other than those stereotypes. Also, using the very uptight, whitebread Danny as more or less your audience surrogate is almost insulting and watching him go from zero to radical in the space of about 30 seconds is downright jarring and outright unbelievable. If you’re going to pander to stereotypes, may as well go all the way with it.

I’m really overrating this movie to a large degree because I think that the story is an important one. There is certainly a great movie to be made about the Riots but this isn’t it. It’s a squandered opportunity but I’m still recommending it because at least you get the sense of how oppressed the gay community was back then and how far they have come since. That much is worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO GO: A story that needs to be told. Some good performances, particularly from Beauchamp. Sex scenes handled with sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: Going fictional was a tactical error. Plays up gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex and sexual content, some drug use, plenty of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The riots took place on June 28, 1969 and lasted several nights instead of just the one indicated by the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Black Mass

Pariah (2011)


Adepero Oduye considers her options.

Adepero Oduye considers her options.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, Kim Wayans, Shamika Cotton, Ray Anthony Thomas, Afton Williamson, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Rob Morgan, Nina Daniels, Jeremie Harris, Chanté Lewis, Olithéa Anglin, Joey Auzenne, Jason Dyer, Loren Hankin, Ozzie Stewart. Directed by Dee Rees

Woman Power

Discovering your own identity as a 17-year-old is difficult enough, but throw in that you’re an African-American lesbian into the mix and the obstacles are mind-boggling. Even in a relatively stable middle-class environment, becoming who you are can take the kind of courage that makes Kayla Jenner pale in comparison.

=Alike (Oduye), whose name is pronounced Ah-LEE-kay but is a misnomer because she’s anything but alike the rest of her circle, lives a dual life. The daughter of Arthur (Parnell), a police detective with a somewhat easygoing nature, and Audrey (Wayans), an extremely religious high-strung sort, she is by day a poet, a straight-A student who has earned a scholarship to a college on the West Coast (the family lives in Brooklyn). By night, she’s a budding lesbian who hangs out in a lesbian club with her openly gay friend Laura (Walker), and dresses in the uniform of a butch – loose baggy clothing, men’s underwear, doo-rag and ball cap. She only switches clothes on the bus ride home to avoid confrontation with her parents. She is also seeking to explore her sexual identity; she’s a virgin who really doesn’t want to be one anymore.

Audrey has a suspicion that her daughter might not be arrow-straight and disapproves of her relationship with Laura. Instead, she insists that she spend time with Bina (Davis), who is a devout church-going young woman. At first Alike hangs out with Bina just to placate her mother but soon begins to develop a crush on the young girl. When that leads to an unexpected physical encounter, the results are devastating.

While Audrey has suspicions, Arthur is more sanguine about his daughter’s sexual identity, although he is in complete denial about it. He believes her to be undergoing a phase and doesn’t imagine the depth of her true nature. While Alike has a better relationship with her father than her mother, she is realizing that she can’t live the life she’s leading for much longer. She needs to be who she is – only she’s not sure who that is quite yet.

Rees, who also wrote the film, based it largely on her own experiences as an African-American lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. She shows incredible promise as a filmmaker; the first ten minutes alone, in which she compactly sets up all the narrative you need to know about Akile’s background and circumstances, shows Rees’ background in short films have served her well. She is a bona fide storyteller.

She does occasionally devolve into cliches (particularly in the relationship between Arthur and Audrey) but for the most part she shows a singular voice. And while she sometimes is a bit leaden with her points about acceptance and homophobia within the African-American community, she can hardly be blamed for it in many respects although those who are less accepting of the LGBT community may find it overbearing in places.

That said, Rees gets a wondrous performance from most of her cast but particularly from Oduye on whose young shoulders most of this film rests. Oduye plays her role with immense dignity but also with incredible vulnerability. Alike is a poet with a sure voice but she is far from sure in her relationships even with those closest to her. Like most 17-year-olds, she is just trying to navigate her way through without the experience to help her avoid the rocks hidden under the water and so she occasionally wrecks her boat. Oduye portrays this without the excessive dramatics that other actresses have utilized in similar roles; to my mind she plays it more like an actual 17-year-old. Sure, there are tears but there’s also laughter and joy. This is a fully realized 17-year-old, complete with insecurities and angst galore but not so that’s all there is to her. She has a more difficult road than most but she handles it with such grace that at the end of the day you’d be proud to have her as your own daughter (or sister as the case may be).

This is a wonderfully authentic work of art that will take the viewer on an emotional ride through the life of a 17-year-old girl trying to discover what sort of woman she will be. It is not always easy and yes there are some moments that will be awkward. Not all of us will be able to relate to Alike but most of us should be able to admire her and if not understand her, at least sympathize with her. Hers is a viewpoint that should be experienced and isn’t that why some of us love movies in the first place?

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances from a mostly unknown cast. Powerful and emotional story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally hits the audience over the head with a lead pipe when a feather would have done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is pervasive sexuality and rough language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was first made as an award-winning short with much of the same cast; the original short included Wendell Pierce from The Wire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Featurettes about the importance of wardrobe to the film and to Alike’s self-identity, and a walk through the streets of Brooklyn; also interviews with the cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $769,562 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue is the Warmest Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

Chely Wright: Wish Me Away


Chely Wright: All-American girl.(2011) Documentary (First Run) Chely Wright, Stan Wright, Rodney Crowell, Russell Carter, Rosie O’Donnell, Christopher Wright, Cherie Combs, Don Cusic, Natalie Morales, Chuck D. Waiter, Jennifer Archer, Welton Gaddy, Howard Bragman, Blair Garner, Meredith Vieira, Tony Brown, Richard Sterban, Charlene Daniels. Directed by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf

I am not a big fan of country music; it’s nothing against those who play it or those who listen to it, it’s just that the music doesn’t connect with me in the same way rap doesn’t connect with me. I’m a rock and roll boy, plain and simple, but I do respect country for many reasons; it’s songwriting in most cases stripped down to the essentials, telling stories and making characters that live and are relatable to a vast audience.

More important in my opinion is the relationship between the musicians and the fans. Now, country music fans are no more rabid than fans of other musical genres when it comes to loving their appointed obsessions, but it is from the other direction that the true magic happens. The performers of no other genre appreciate their fans as much as those in country music overall. Despite the often cutthroat nature of the business end of country music (which is the same as in other genres), the performers tend to reflect traditional American values. It’s what their fans expect.

Given that the majority of country music listeners tend to lean politically to the right (ask the Dixie Chicks about that sometime), it was virtually unthinkable that any artist would come out as gay. There is a very strong fundamentalist Christian element in not only the fan base of country music but also in the music itself, which very much espouses Christian values and patriotic pride. In many ways, country music is the most quintessentially American music there is. In it is the optimism, the pride and the attitude that defines us not only to ourselves but to the world.

Chely Wright fit into that world like a glove at first glance. Hailing from mid-Kansas from a religious family, she was blessed with beauty queen looks. A supremely talented singer and songwriter, she burst onto the Nashville scene like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day and took Music City by storm. In time she had hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She was dating Brad Paisley. You’d think she’d be on top of the world.

But she wasn’t. You see, she was harboring a secret – Chely Wright was a lesbian. Her biggest dream in the whole world, ever since she was a little girl, was to be a country music star and she believed that her sexual orientation might keep her from that dream. She resolved at an early age to keep her identity as a lesbian a secret; she would not pursue any intimate relationships with women and in doing so she’d achieve her dream. And achieve it she did.

But the cost was too high. The weight of her secret was a burden too powerful and too heavy to bear and eventually she found herself in front of a mirror with a gun in her mouth. She knew she couldn’t live this way any longer. She would have to stop living this life and come clean, not just for herself but for the many others like her, living with their own lies.

Chely’s coming out had to be handled very delicately and indeed it was. Publicists and marketing personnel sat down with her and orchestrated the campaign. It would be done, as all things in Chely’s life were, with music and in this case, also with a book. It would be a big deal. But before she could tell her fans, she had to tell her biggest fans first – her family.

Berleffi and Kopf were given extraordinary access into Chely’s world for three years leading up to her announcement and the days following it. They spoke with friends, family and fans, sometimes getting some truly moving material, as from her dad, her incredibly supportive sister and her Aunt Char – devout Christians all but also as non-judgmental a group as you’re likely to find.

But most moving of all is Chely’s own video diary, which she kept without the filmmakers knowledge. In it she revealed her most intimate thoughts and feelings, often so raw that you can’t help but cry along with her. When we use the term “courageous artist,” when referring to a singer/songwriter who reveals her most vulnerable side, it was invented for Chely Wright. Her dilemma of her childhood dream versus her identity is a struggle not many straight people may be able to relate to but I am sure a lot of LGBT readers instantly recognize a good deal of what Wright discusses as things and thoughts they went through.

The documentary isn’t breaking new ground in terms of presentation; it’s mainly interviews and archival footage but the video journal elevates this from merely typical and the presence of Ms. Wright herself makes this something special. Throughout you get a sense of her sincerity and her inner light, which you watch being extinguished and then miraculously relit when she finally does come out. Yes, it did cost her some of her fans but a surprisingly large number of them stayed right with her. It turns out that there is a lot more tolerance in the country music fan base than anyone, including Chely Wright herself, first thought. That’s heartening.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright is an impressive and courageous role model. Her video journal excerpts are particularly riveting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The media management is a bit cynical.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic material and a few mild cuss words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theme song for the film, “Shine a Light,” was written and recorded by Wright specifically for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Home video footage of Chely and her wife relaxing at home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18,618 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (download only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Redemption

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth