Olympia (2018)


A true American original.

(2018) Biographical Documentary (AbramoramaOlympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, Rocco Sisto, Armistead Maupin, Alan Poul, Edward Asner, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Dukakis, Austin Pendleton, Laura Linney, Norman Jewison, Lainie Kazan, Diane Ladd, Christina Zorich, Apollo Dukakis, Thomas Kean, Peter Zorich, Lynn Cohen, Stefan Zorich, Alexandra Dukakis, Bonnie Low Kramen . Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

 

Many casual filmgoers of a certain age group will know Olympia Dukakis only for her Oscar-winning role as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck. Some will remember her for her role as transgender Anna Madrigal in the groundbreaking Tales from the City PBS miniseries back in 1993. Theatergoers in the Northeast and in particular New Jersey may even be aware that she founded her own theater group – the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, NJ back in 1973 – because she was tired of being passed over for roles because of her ethnicity.

This documentary takes a fairly comprehensive look at her career and personal life and the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that Dukakis embodies the truism “what you see is what you get.” The feistiness, brashness, outspokenness of her film roles are very much part of who Dukakis is offscreen. She is salty, outspoken about her opinions, sometimes crudely expressed (“When you get to a certain age you realize how much you take a good hard prick for granted” she confesses).

Amidst the celebrity testimonials from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney and Diane Ladd (which are strangely devoid of any personal connection to Dukakis; they could have easily been talking about any other actress), we hear some candid, occasionally vulnerable confessions about her sexuality, her drug abuse, suicidal feelings, her failings as a mother, her sometimes rocky relationship with her own mother. Dukakis is forthcoming but sometimes you get the sense if she wonders she shared too much.

We see Dukakis hard at work, not only practicing her craft but teaching it as well. We also meet her husband Louis Zorich, a fellow actor (who sadly passed away in 2018, shortly before the film first started screening on the festival circuit) who was her better half for a half century. Before that, she says glibly, “I was the queen of one-night stands.”

The movie isn’t edited well, unfortunately. Some sequences seem to be too brief to make an impression, while we see others that extend for a long time without really being very informative at all. We see Dukakis in a grocery store getting recognized by fans but this smacks of being staged, even though I get the sense that Dukakis herself is above such shenanigans.

Dukakis is without doubt an American original. She is entertaining both on and off-screen, and spending time with her is an absolute joy. I just wish the director had given the movie a smoother flow and spent more time letting Dukakis tell her own story, rather than listening to empty testimonials or take part in scenes that don’t add anything to her story. I almost would have preferred a two-hour one-on-one interview with Dukakis and an expert interviewer. That would have been just as entertaining if not more so.

REASONS TO SEE: Dukakis is an American treasure. he
REASONS TO AVOID: Some odd decisions in the editing bay.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some smoking, a few drug and sexual references as well
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis is her cousin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Battle Angel: Alita

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Girl (2018)


Showers aren’t always the great equalizer.

(2018) Drama (NetflixVictor Polster, Arieh Wolthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Kateljine Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Megali Elali, Alice de Borqueville, Alain Honorez, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens, Marie-Louise Wilderijckx, Virginia Hendricksen, Daniel Nicodéme, Els Olaerts, Hélène Theunissen, Alexia Depicker, Steve Driesen, Ingrid Heiderscheidt. Directed by Lukas Dhont

 

Girl is a movie that had the best of intentions, but ends up pissing off a lot of people it was meant to honor. This first feature from Flemish director Dhont is about a young ballerina named Lara (Polster) who has just been provisionally accepted into a prestigious ballet school in Antwerp, necessitating a move there for her father (Wolthalter) and little brother (Bodart). But if undergoing the rigorous, demanding and often punishing training necessary to become a ballerina wasn’t enough, Lara is also transitioning from being a young boy into becoming the gender she knows herself to be.

Her father is incredibly supportive and her classmates seem to be (although there is a scene where they demand that she show her genitalia, which humiliates her) and she has the benefit of a really good counselor (Dhaenens) who repeatedly tells her not to put everything in life off until after she gets her surgery. “You also have to live now,” he wisely tells her.

But Lara, like most adolescents, doesn’t have a ton of patience. She wants to be rid of the male body that she was born with, checking for signs of growing breasts that are not yet apparent, and anxiously wondering if the hormones are working, although her doctors assure her that they are – it just takes time, time that Lara isn’t particularly willing to give. As the pressures mount and her need to be the woman that everyone says she already is, she commits an act of graphic self-harm that moved Netflix to take the unusual step of placing a warning title at the beginning of the film.

The movie has come under heavy criticism from the trans and LGBTQ community, first of all for casting a cis-gender male in the role of Lara, although that complaint isn’t as realistic as you might think; finding a trans actress of the right age who can handle the grueling dancing and training sequences is nearly impossible and it proved to be so for Dhont, who eventually found Polster while casting the background dancers.

And a lucky casting that was indeed. Polster has the grace and dancing chops to pull off the role, but also the facial expressions; Lara isn’t much of a talker and like many adolescents, isn’t able to articulate what’s bothering her. Polster does a good job of using non-verbal acting to convey Lara’s anguish.

The second issue that the LGBTQ community has brought up bears more scrutiny and it is the movie’s almost pornographic obsession with Lara’s crotch. Shot after shot after shot is centered there and we see enough of Polster’s genitalia to last a lifetime. Trans advocates rightly complain that the movie reduces Lara down to her genitalia, and like all people, trans people are much more than the equipment they have. Lara’s clear self-loathing for her body also sends a message to young transgenders that might not necessarily be the one that Dhont meant to send. Gender dysphoria is something that deserves to be explored seriously and Dhont attempts to do that, but at the end of the day, is unsuccessful in that regard.

=I do like that the approach that Dhont takes is almost documentary-like. There isn’t here that you might consider melodramatic beyond the usual melodrama generated by teens. There is a lot here that gives outsiders an idea of what trans folks in the process of transition have to go through and it is nice to see that it is presented in a supportive manner; that isn’t always the case in real life.

At the end of the day I give the film high marks for good intentions, but demerits for not executing them as well as they might have been. This could easily have been an extremely important film, even an essential one, instead of merely being very good.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely handled seriously in the movies. Takes a documentary-like approach.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long and accentuates the most conspicuous aspects of gender dysphoria.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, sexuality, some nudity, adult issues and a shocking scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspired by the story of Nora Monsecour, a Belgian trans ballerina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl, Interrupted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Last Color


Being a woman in India is walking the tightrope between tradition and equality.

(2019) Drama (Saffron PenNeena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui, Budrani Chhetri, Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. Directed by Vikas Khanna

 

India has an amazing culture with much to admire about it. One of the things that is an exception is in the way that women are treated, particularly widows and orphans. In many ways, Indian society is downright repressive to those who have few advocates.

Noor Saxena is one such advocate. A lawyer, she has wrangled a decision from India’s highest court that grants rights to widows that they have not had for centuries. In Indian tradition, widows only wear white. They live lives devoid of color – they are forbidden from taking part in the Holi festival that celebrates the oncoming of spring. You may know it as the one where people throw colored powders at one another in a frenzy of joyful fun. Widows don’t get to take part in that.

Chhoti (Siddiqui) is a street rat living in the slums of Benares, a Hindu holy city along the Ganges. She makes money by doing a tightrope act and selling flowers in the streets. She hopes one day to earn enough to go to school and rise above her station. She befriends 70-year-old Noor (Gupta), a widow living in an ashram for widows who live lives of colorless and passionless reflection. As with most widows, her life is expected to be over when her husband dies; her body is just walking around until she can join him.

Chhoti also hangs out with Chintu (R. Khanna), a fellow orphan who aids her in her high wire act. The two dodge police officers trying to make enough to survive. They are aided by transgender woman Anarkali (Chhetri) who supports herself as a sex worker, mainly catering to brutal men like Raja (Sheikh), an ill-tempered cop who sees himself as king of his little part of the world. He is doubly frustrated because his wife not only hasn’t given him a son (only daughters) but she refuses to bathe in a sacred pool which would guarantee the birth of a strapping young son. He passes through the world as kind of a rage junkie, always looking for a reason to cause pain.

Still, Chhoti never fails to stand up for herself and with Noor guiding her and pushing her to be better than her lot, she falls under the vengeful gaze of Raja, particularly after she witnesses the evil cop doing something particularly heinous, something that could get him thrown in jail. Will Noor defy tradition and stand with her friend?

The movie looks at cultural attitudes towards women in general and the more marginalized women – transgenders, widows and “untouchables” in particular – and the traditions that keep them down. First-time director Vikas Khanna has a wonderful eye for color; the movie is gorgeous to look at even in its occasional brutality and squalor.

Gupta also gives Noor a ton of dignity and gravitas, perhaps more than the movie deserves. It sometimes seems to move at a very deliberate pace which can be maddening; hammering us over the head with how widows and orphans are treated might get the point across but it also at times feels like we’re being talked down to. When you’re trying to deliver a message with your movie, that’s a pitfall you want to avoid.

Still, there is a lot here that is worth checking out. The movie had a brief Los Angeles run and may yet make some appearances elsewhere; there may even be a VOD slot in its future although nothing official has been announced as of yet. Either way, this is worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful use of color throughout the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Rather slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, particularly of the domestic sort; also, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanna is best-known as a James Beard award-winning chef. The film is based on a novel that he wrote decrying the state of women’s rights in his home country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Klaus

Family in Transition (Mishpakha BiTrans)


Morning bathroom time can be crowded in the Tzuk household.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Amit/Imit Tzuk, Galit Tzuk, Agam Tzuk, Mimi Tzuk, Yuval Tzuk, Yarden Tzuk, Peleg Tzuk. Directed by Ofir Trainin

 

Even as gay and lesbian rights begun to begrudgingly be acknowledged, transsexuals continue to be seriously discriminated against. In a quasi-theocracy such as Israel, many citizens have a hard time dealing with it even today.

Amit Tzuk and his wife Galit have been together since they were 15. They live in the Northern Israel coastal town of Nahariya near the Jordanian border. It’s a fairly conservative town with a population of about 60,000. They are happy here, they have family here and if they both have their way they will spend the rest of their lives here, raising their four children.

Amit, like most Israeli men, is a veteran of the armed forces (the army in his case) and ran his household in the traditional manner, with the husband being the boss and the wife being submissive to his needs. However, he drops a bombshell when he announces to Galit that he is really a woman trapped in a man’s body and he intends to get gender reassignment surgery.

Galit is extraordinarily supportive through the hormonal treatments, complaining a bit that “as a man, she never cried but now she cries all the time” (welcome to the world of husbands, dear heart). She is his rock during the hormone treatments; she is equally his rock when he has the surgery in Thailand and during the extended and painful recovery process. The children, to their credit, show equal support even though they are bullied at school. The family must endure homophobic slurs hurled at them by passing cyclists from time to time.

The decision of Amit to transition to Imit is difficult on the entire family. A sister of Amit, married to an Orthodox Jew, refuses to speak to the couple or even acknowledge them. Other friends of the family also adopt the same policy. And shortly after the couple return from Thailand, the ramifications of the surgery begin to affect Galit as well.

Trainin elects to adopt a fly on the wall style for the documentary that ends up feeling like a home movie. That’s a compliment, as it gives the story an intimacy that a series of talking heads would not. The story is told sequentially and while it’s hard not to wonder how much the family played to the camera – that’s just human nature – it’s hard not to feel that the emotions you’re seeing aren’t genuine.

There is a radical tonal shift in the final third of the film that I don’t want to get too much in detail to simply not to spoil the film. Suffice to say that it is an emotionally powerful shift, one that enhances the film and contributes a great deal to the overall genuineness of the movie.

Although I have to say that the music that the couple listens to is cringeworthy to this ex-music critic (I’m very much a music snob I’m afraid) as being bland 80s style pop. Not my cup off tea, but that’s just me. Please don’t send Mossad to my home to teach me a lesson in manners.

The thing that I thought was more egregious is that while the documentary is only 70 minutes long which I appreciated, it felt like there were some things skipped particularly in the evolution of the couple’s relationship after the surgery. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting the whole story which is a bit frustrating.

The film looks at daily life in Israel in a place other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem which is a pleasure. We also get an insight into Israeli views into LGBTQ rights which are evolving but still controversial, just as they are here. I might have liked the filmmakers to be a little less brief and maybe allow the Tzuk family to express their feelings a little more but it’s possible that the family was unwilling to do that. Still this is a fascinating documentary indeed.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a home movie in the positive sense of the word. There are twists of emotional intensity that are surprising and heartrending.
REASONS TO STAY: At times it feels like there are some elements missing from the story.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers spent two years with the Tzuk family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transparent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Border

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)


Daniela Vega delivers an intense performance in A Fantastic Woman.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Catellana, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Roberto Farias, Christian Chaparro, Diana Cassis, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

It is hard enough to mourn the loss of a loved one. When we lose someone close to us, we want to be surrounded by others grieving that person. We need the comfort of the company of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to reach out and comfort us in our time of need.

Marina Vidal (Vega) finds herself in that situation. She has just moved into her boyfriend’s house. Orlando Ortillo (Reyes) owns a textile mill in Santiago. He left his wife Sonia (Kuppenheim) to be with Marina who is a waitress and a part-time lounge singer who specializes in salsa and other Latin dance music. After Orlando takes Marina out for a night on the town, he wakes up in the middle of the night complaining of a headache and feeling ill. Concerned, she means to take him to the hospital but he falls down a flight of stairs on the way to the car. The doctors determine he has suffered an aneurysm but he dies on the operating table.

But that’s just the beginning of the pain. Suspicious of the bruises and wounds on his body, the police question Marina about the incident. Eventually they assign a sex crimes detective (Noguera) to investigate, forcing Marina to submit to a humiliating interview and medical exam. Worse yet is Orlando’s family.

Sophia’s initial civility is quickly stripped away as she becomes a vicious, vengeful harpy who forbids Marina from attending the funeral and services for Orlando. Worse yet is her son Bruno (Saavedra) who sneers at and degrades Marina and wants her out of the apartment so he can move in. Marina doesn’t have any legal standing, but to make matters worse, she’s a transgender. In Latin America, that is no easy thing to live with. Through all the humiliations both petty and major, Marina tries to keep her calm, cool demeanor and if she plays things close to the vest, who can blame her?

Finally enough is enough – all she wants to do is mourn her dead lover so she can move on. She sees him, a kindly ghost haunting her wherever she goes. The more she is discriminated against however, the more her blood boils. The time is coming when she will stand up for herself against those who persecute her. What form will that take though?

This is a movie that tackles what is a controversial subject even here in the States – transgenders. Although our legislators seem to take a great interest in which bathrooms they use, there is little interest in dealing with the treatment they receive and the way they are perceived. They are often confused with cross-dressers and are often the targets of violence. It is especially more brutal in Latin America where the culture of machismo flourishes. That Lelio would even take on the subject is to be seriously commended.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the performance of Vega. At times she seems pensive, like all her thoughts are turned inward. She seems brittle and fragile and even a little bit intellectual. Then she is hot and passionate, her anger manifesting in a propensity for punching inanimate objects. Her frustration and grief are mostly kept to herself, even when her tormentors take her beloved dog Diabla from her. It’s only when she gets tired of being treated as a non-person that she finally shows her defiance and yes, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There are elements of fantasy here – sightings of the ghost of Orlando, strange winds that force Marina to bend nearly parallel to the ground, a trip to a disco in which individuals dancing turns into a choreographed chorus line with Marina in an amazing glittery outfit. Is this all in Marina’s imagination or are they hallucinations? Lelio doesn’t explain, leaving it up to the audience to decide which.

The disco scene actually went on for way too long unfortunately – because I liked what Lelio was trying to do. However the strobe lights became so intrusive, so overwhelming that my vertigo was triggered. Anyone who has epilepsy should be well-advised to take a bathroom break once the disco scene begins. I do like the color palate that Lelio uses; every scene is full of bright greens, reds and blues that suffuse the film in a kind of neon glow.

Da Queen and I checked this out the night before it would win the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Given the subject matter, this isn’t a movie that is going to pull in crowds of people at the box office; I suspect that we as a nation are still too intolerant for that to happen although one lives in hope that we will grow up eventually and realize that love is love, no matter what the genders are of the two people involved. This is a movie that is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring and while it makes its case for the drum it is beating, it doesn’t necessarily hit you in the face with bromides and broadsides. Strictly put, this is a film that is deceptively quiet and small-budgeted but it nonetheless packs an emotional wallop and gives voice to those who rarely get to use theirs. Definitely one to see when you get the chance.

REASONS TO GO: The film confronts dead-on the issues faced by transgenders not only in Latin America but globally. Vega gives an intense performance that should make her an instant international star.
REASONS TO STAY: The disco scene with the strobe light went on way too long and actually provoked a vertigo attack in this viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some violence, plenty of profanity and lots of adult thematic material
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vega was the first transgender to present at the Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laurence Anyways
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Mom and Dad

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Woman on Fire


God bless all first responders.

(2016) Documentary (Animal) Brooke Guinan, George Guinan V, Susan Guinan, Jim Baker, Bill Deblasio, George Guinan IV, Sarinya Srisakul, Charlotte Guinan, Joe Baker, Maureen Baker, Charles Radcliffe, Darren Melcchiore. Directed by Julie Sokolow

It is a different world we live in today than those my age lived in when I was growing up. Things are less settled, less certain. You can’t even count on biology to necessarily get things right.

Brooke Guinan is a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York City. She is a rarity in that she is a woman in that very male profession; in New York City there are just 44 women out of roughly 10,000 total firefighters, that’s just 0.4% for those keeping track. But she is also unique; she is openly transgender transitioning from male to female. She is the first and only (to date) transgender working as a firefighter in New York.

She was born George Guinan VI to conservative parents and at a young age presented to Susan Guinan (his mother) a letter explaining calmly that he was pretty sure he was gay. He was 11 years old at the time. Susan and George V (his dad) were devastated but over time, they accepted their son for who he was. When 9/11 occurred, Georgie was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He got a lot of ribbing from the fairly traditional culture of the men of the FDNY but Georgie was pretty sure that he could take it. There was just one problem.

Georgie had it wrong. He wasn’t gay. He was a woman living in a man’s body. Making the decision to transition wasn’t an easy one and when he informed his parents that he would be known as Brooke from now on, her parents once again were devastated. As Susan put it, “First I had to bury Georgie before I could accept Brooke.” Her dad wasn’t sure what to think.

And it wasn’t any easier at work. The ribbing got to be something else from the men. Even the women of the department weren’t accepting Brooke; it took six months for them to agree to allow Brooke to join their support group, mainly at the urging of the group’s president Sarinya Srisakul who had emigrated from Southeast Asia as a young woman and accepted Brooke not just as a woman but also as a friend.

As Brooke became more visible in the department, she was dubbed “New York’s Bravest” and she did a lot of publicity for the department, becoming the face of acceptance for the department and indeed the city. She became grand marshal at gay pride parades and appeared on talk shows and lectures.

Her boyfriend Jim, an Air Force veteran, accepts Brooke but he’s not sure how to break the news to his parents that he’s dating a transgender woman. Jim also seems to be hesitating to marry Brooke; he’s a bit commitment-phobic. When the two decide to buy a house together and invite Jim’s parents, it’s time for things to come out into the open.

Sokolow, who also directed the 2015 Florida Film Festival favorite Aspie Seeks Love, is a director who likes to focus on people who are part of groups that are marginalized by society. To me, that’s an admirable way to choose documentary subjects and Sokolow, a former indie rocker, shows a little more confidence on this her second feature. While she isn’t as innovative with telling her story as she was in Aspie Seeks Love (which was organized by holidays), there is definite improvement when it comes to telling the story.

It helps that Sokolow has a subject who is charismatic, eloquent and important. At a time when the Christian right seems intent on showing just how intolerant they can be to the transgender community, trying to limit which bathrooms they can use because they’re concerned that transgender men will rape straight women (cases of that actually happening: zero) whereas transgender men have been beaten up in men’s bathrooms which often lead them to hold it until they get home. Yes, Virginia, the transgender community should be allowed to use public bathrooms too – and the ones that belong to the sex they identify with. Brooke puts a human face on transgender women, much as the justifiably lauded Amazon series Transparent does. The only difference is that this isn’t fictional.

The quibble I have here is that we rarely see Brooke doing her job; mostly she is seen hanging out at the fire station and doing promotional appearances. We concentrate more on her personal life and her relationship with her family and I agree that this is an important aspect of her life. However, if you’re going to use her standing with the FDNY you should at least give a sense of her as a firefighter. This is clearly a large part of her identity and I don’t think Sokolow was successful in portraying this aspect of her. It does Brooke a disservice because viewers may get the impression that she’s more of a publicity stunt than a real firefighter. That is certainly not the case.

Still, this is a fascinating story and we get to see Brooke’s relationship with her dad, which is simply inspiring. It is good to see how far the two have traveled. I don’t doubt that her dad is Brooke’s hero and he’ll be your hero too. When Jim’s parents do arrive at their son’s new house, they treat Brooke with such affection that it makes one think that perhaps most people are more accepting of transgenders than we think.

This isn’t a big leap forward for Sokolow as a filmmaker but it is definitely a forward motion for her. There is some improvement and that’s always encouraging; the subject matter is certainly worthy of a documentary. I’m not sure if Brooke Guinan is New York’s Bravest but a case can definitely be made for that. You won’t forget her once you’ve seen this film and if that doesn’t spell success for a documentary, I don’t know what does.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives a human face to the transgender community.
REASONS TO STAY: We never really see Brooke at work as a firefighter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guinan is a third-generation firefighter; her father was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and her grandfather retired a captain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Somewhere Beautiful

Honeyglue


You meet the happiest people in bars.

You meet the happiest people in bars.

(2016) Drama (Zombot) Adriana Mather, Zach Villa, Christopher Heyerdahl, Jessica Turk, Booboo Stewart, Amanda Plummer, Fernanda Romero, Ezequiel Stremiz, Faran Tahir, Clayton Rohner, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Kristin Minter, Josh Woodle, Fernando Martinez, Jeremy Shelton, Rajan Velu, Pamela Francesca, Cristen Barnes, Cody Provolt, Stephen Farbman, Chelsea Mark. Directed by James Bird

Woman Power

Love doesn’t choose very well. It just chooses. Who we fall in love with may not necessarily be the best person for us but the heart doesn’t care. It loves who it chooses.

Morgan (Mather) is a young woman from a middle class, conservative background who has gotten some bad news. Her metastatic brain tumor has gone past the point of no return and she has just three months to live. This doesn’t sit well with her parents, her stolid dad Dennis (Heyerdahl), her mom Janet (Turk) and her brother Bailey (Stewart).

Jordan (Villa) is a troubled young man from the wrong side of the tracks. His somewhat fluid sexual identity makes him a target for abuse, something he’s not really a stranger to. When he meets Morgan in a club, she is making videos with an old Super-8 camera to try and document what’s left in her life. The two find each other talking, and eventually these polar opposites find common ground.

As Jordan and Morgan fall in love he is made aware of her situation. She invites him over to meet her amazingly tolerant parents and her kid brother who seems to accept Jordan out of hand even though he teases the sensitive artist mercilessly. For Jordan’s part, he is inspired by Morgan to write a children’s story about a Dragonfly boy and a bee princess who fall in love. Soon, life imitates art.

But it isn’t easy for two such different people to co-exist and with the specter of Morgan’s imminent demise and her desire to die somewhere other than a hospital looming over their heads, Jordan is going to have to do a lot more than just break the rules for her. He’s going to have to write some new ones.

The dying teen story tends to be one of the most poignant in all of the world’s tales (although I’m guessing Morgan/Mather is more in her mid to late 20s) and to the filmmakers credit, they don’t exploit it as much as they might. The film concentrates heavily on mortality itself, and the question of quality of life versus quantity of years. With Morgan’s clock ticking down, it seems a ripe opportunity to get her thoughts on the subject.

And we kinda do, but they are expressed so poorly in platitudes that sound profound but comes off as pretentious and smug. The movie tries really hard to be different than the norm, too hard in fact and we end up feeling talked down to rather than engaged in conversation. It’s a shame, because the cast actually manages to put together some fine performances, particularly by Mather, Heyerdahl and Villa, but they are let down because they are given such preposterous dialogue. On the beach, Jordan purrs “You are my realistic fantasy” while Morgan coos “You are my fantastic reality” and the rest of us throw up a little inside our mouths. Real people don’t talk like that. At least, real people you’d want to actually talk to.

I like the idea of making Jordan transgender, but they don’t really do anything with it. It comes off as almost an affectation, like Jordan just happens to like wearing skirts to be different rather than an integral part of who he is. That does actual transgenders a disservice. I thought that giving both Jordan and Morgan (and for that matter, Bailey) unisex names was a bit too cutesy. There’s a feeling that Bird, who also wrote the film, was writing about stereotypes rather than people. While the chemistry between Mather and Villa seemed genuine, the relationship did not.

I was annoyed in a lot of ways by Honeyglue because there really is a good movie to be made here and this is a squandered opportunity to say the least. The performances and subject matter make the movie marginally worth seeing, but the writing and overall tone just lost me. I don’t know if Bird knows any cancer patients or transgenders and maybe he does but if he does, they didn’t make it into the script. The characters didn’t feel real; in fact, none of the characters here did, and that’s a big problem. The movie is gradually expanding to locations around the country and will likely be on VOD at some point, but this is one only for the curious. Serious film lovers will likely find this as frustrating as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Tackles an important subject head-on. Some decent performances in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is occasionally pretentious and overwrought. Tries too hard to be daring and different.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation, based on the children’s book that Jordan is writing, was done by Kevin Weber.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 17/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang