Movie Review (DEPARTURE)

On the surface, DEPARTURE (released in 2015) is a summertime coming of age movie. The screenplay also falls into the broad category of film and television productions about repressed English people. It is far more than either of these. I appreciated how emotional and sexual repression in the story are intelligently explored by writer and director Andrew Steggall. In different ways, the three British and one French main characters struggle to be free of emotional pain each has been carrying prior to the start of the story.

DEPARTURE takes place in the South of France, where young teenager and aspiring writer Elliot (sensitively played by Alex Lawther) roams the countryside and village near his family’s summer home, carrying his journal and jotting down words whenever inspiration strikes. These are his final days in this house, which his parents are selling due to their marriage dissolving. Elliot and his mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) slowly, reluctantly begin to pack up and selectively dispose of the contents of the quaint, though somewhat cavernous dwelling. Lingering indoor and outdoor camera shots underscore the pensive, wistful mood throughout the movie.

Elliot’s father Philip (Finbar Lynch) spends the first part of the film being away on business. When we viewers do finally meet him, it soon becomes apparent that he is gay, having married a woman and fathered a child in hopes of avoiding his true orientation.

To get some space from his mother’s depression and their mutually sad, imminent closing of a large chapter in family life, Elliot initiates a friendship with the slightly older Clement (Phenix Brossard). The English boy initially spies the lithe teen swimming in the nearby reservoir. A triangle of sexual tension gradually ensues, with both mother and son longing for the attentions of Clement. The movie’s focus is largely on Elliot, who is coming into his sexuality. He does his best to sublimate libido and other powerful feelings by writing, yet he grows bolder in pursuing affection from Clement whenever possible.

Symbolism arises here and there, such as when Beatrice possibly (not at all for certain) runs over a deer while driving in a stormy night at the beginning of the story. Elliot spends the rest of the movie preoccupied with finding and burying this unseen roadkill. I could not help but think that the phantom deer is representative of Elliot’s parents’ dead marriage and the childhood he longs for both continuance of and closure over. Like the possibly dead deer whose existence is never confirmed, Elliot’s family life, now nonexistent as he had previously experienced it, was based on a false abstraction of love between his parents rather than something actual for them. In a sense, Beatrice kills off her own denial and avoidance of the truth about her sham marriage, though it still takes her a while into the narrative to finally face this reality. Hence, this nighttime incident is also a foreshadowing of what soon comes to a head for Elliot’s family. Her closeted, uptight husband Philip lived and perpetrated a lie in a heterosexual union, with the summer home purchased as both a distracting and distancing way of maintaining some common, primary pursuit (real estate purchases) between he and Beatrice. The remotely located house embodies the isolation and subsequent loneliness Elliot and his parents each feel.

A dead bird the protagonist comes across in the woods symbolizes the actual death of his innocent childhood from within the context of his parents’ illusion of love for each other and the risky transition into adulthood, including sexuality, he now faces. (Consequently, there is no need for Elliot to find the killed deer, but, not surprisingly, he doesn’t figure this out right away.) To at least drive the particular points home regarding adulthood and sexuality, Elliot plucks a few feathers from the small carcass and places them in his hair. He soon spots Clement up ahead as the older boy strips down for a swim. In a brief solitary reverie, Elliot plays with the idea of being seen like a bird showing its plumage to display beauty, physical maturity, and confidence, and also, likely, in hopes of getting attention from a possible mate. However, he soon thinks better of wearing this added decor and removes the feathers for when Clement actually sees him. Actor Alex Lawther’s soulful eyes, thoughtful facial expressions, and deliberating movements powerfully relay so much pent-up adolescent passion.

A prescient, recurring dream image of Elliot floating naked underwater feels haunting to watch. The question is whether he will be drowned by his deep emotions and desire or learn to swim in life like all of us adults with a libido and intermittently intense feeling states must do. His gift of the ability to creatively write about feelings and observations hints at the hope we viewers can hold for him as he navigates a maturing, complex psyche.

As a gay man who was once a teenager, I certainly related to Elliot and the very limited options presented to him for sexual exploration with another male. Clement spends a lot of time trying to fix an old motorcycle to then drive on to Paris, where we eventually learn his ailing mother lies dying in hospital. He has basically been exiled to stay with an aunt in the country due to anger management issues, stemming from the helplessness he feels over his mother’s plight and his father’s lack of patience and understanding. He smokes cigarettes and sometimes wears a leather jacket, effectively portraying the trope of the angry loner male youth, though without seeming like a cliche. His mixed response to Elliot is painful yet believable to watch. On one hand, Clement clearly enjoys the admiration and desire from the younger peer, who welcomes his assistance with packing up the house and keeping Elliot company in the woods. On the other, the older boy’s internalized homophobia is expressed in his name-calling and insults, including of Elliot’s being a poet. Yet, the French boy flirts and displays himself just enough to help maintain some sexual tension between them. I found myself thinking how the protagonist could and will eventually do better with finding worthwhile, reciprocating love interests, his intelligence and sensibilities far more sophisticated than Clement’s. However, the intrigue of discovering sexual desire and pursuit of its fulfillment moves the narrative effectively along even with– and because of– the limitations presented for the English lad and, by extension, his suffering parents. The mother and father relay how repression, denial and avoidance are inevitably ineffective against hiding from the truth in matters of the heart and body.

I was surprised to learn that Alex Lawther was around eighteen years of age when he starred in this film. Casting older actors to play younger is common, of course, because wisdom and good acting ability often come with age. But, Lawther looks and acts so uncannily youthful (yet like an old soul) here that I thought he was surely no more than fifteen.

DEPARTURE is layered in meaning, cinematically beautiful, and superbly acted. The pacing is often a bit slow and ponderous, but not overly so. There were just enough emotionally and sexually charged interactions between the actors to sustain my interest throughout, which was also helped along by the movie’s intriguing visual appeal. The Southern French countryside and village setting come across as other main characters. And Lawther’s often subtle but rich range of facial and body expressions are quite riveting. I enjoyed this gem of a screenplay overall in spite of finding myself painfully empathizing with all four central players’ sexual and emotional frustrations, sadness, and anguish, especially Elliot’s and Beatrice’s respectively. But, I think we fellow human viewers are supposed to feel all this right along with them and glean some knowledge and beauty from out of the suffering wherever we can, like Elliot wisely strives to do.

Mini Movie Review (GODS OF EGYPT)

GODS OF EGYPT (2016) was a fun, campy, and often silly movie I’m glad I saw on TV for free. I especially enjoyed the costumes and some of the sets, both of which were often enhanced by CGI. I liked the main fantasy premise of an ancient time in which Egypt’s gods lived and ruled among humans. Most of the deities looked fabulous to some degree or other, while a few were sloppy and not impressive, namely when in their combined human-animal forms. To be clear, there is no particularly deep character development in this visually splashy, flashy production.

The cast should have been entirely made up of Egyptians and people of other African descent. A few token Blacks and brown-skinned folks in the ensemble, such as handsome Chadwick Boseman, didn’t cut it. The flack this movie got for such poor ethnic/racial optics was well-deserved and why I refused to buy a theater ticket for it. Movie studio brass should know and do better by now than to cast largely white people in non-white, non-Euro/American roles.

Movie Review (WALK ON WATER)

I was impressed with the 2004 Israeli film WALK ON WATER. What a wonderful, humanizing production concerning Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-German cultural and political tensions– factoring in the issues of homophobia and toxic masculinity as well.

Handsome Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi skillfully plays Eyal, a seemingly callous hit man for Mossad, Israel’s official security service. Having just successfully killed a representative of Hamas while in Istanbul, Turkey, Eyal returns home for briefing on his next assignment. At his residence, he finds his wife has killed herself. Ever the hardened stoic, he continues working without engaging in psychotherapy mandated by his superiors, though his immediate boss Menachem (Gideon Shemer) doesn’t press the issue. However, Eyal is reassigned a “less challenging” mission: to track down the whereabouts of a very elderly Nazi war criminal and kill him “before God does.” To do so, he must first befriend the two adult grandchildren of this man via posing as their tour guide. The granddaughter Pia (Caroline Peters) has moved to a kibbutz after distancing herself from her parents in Berlin. Axel (Knut Berger), her gay younger brother, visits his sister with the hopes of convincing her to return to Germany with him and celebrate their wealthy father’s seventieth birthday.

Shortly after making their acquaintance at the kibbutz, Eyal bugs Pia’s room and proceeds to spy on the siblings’ conversations. The story unfolds from there, whereby Eyal grows increasingly conflicted around having to befriend two German, non-Jewish liberals, with one of them being a gay man who soon spends time bonding with Rafik (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid), a gay Palestinian. Already isolated in his suppressed grief, the homophobic, Zionist-leaning Eyal is increasingly pushed out of his comfort zone. Steadily, his cool but tense exterior begins to crack. One night, he abruptly leaves a gay dance club Axel and Pia bring him to as part of their sight-seeing and taking in of local night life. Later, in an outdoor market stall, he bullies Rafik’s merchant father to accept a pittance on Axel’s purchase of a new coat. Both of these incidences occur after Eyal has spent much time touring the countryside with the two siblings, especially with the brother, who he takes for a mud bath by the Dead Sea. This ends with the two men showering naked together. Axel’s and Eyal’s intimate moments of long hours driving in the same car and getting a spa treatment in such a peaceful, remote setting facilitates much conversation about their respective lives and perspectives. They listen to CD’s, discussing what kinds of music they each like, touch upon differences (such as circumcision norms) in their cultures of origin, and wax political, including about the Holocaust. Much later, in Berlin, where Eyal is tasked to complete his mission, the assassin reconnects with Axel. Initially surprised, the young German warmly gives him a partial tour of the historic city before inviting Eyal to his parents’ villa. Hence, the seasoned spy successfully manipulates his way into this long-planned destination.

As Eyal begins to emotionally soften around the edges and grow more morally sophisticated, becoming less vengeance-oriented, we viewers eventually witness a hard edge surfacing from the otherwise gentle and open-minded Axel. Their friendship by calculated design becomes genuine, as does Eyal’s connection with Pia, though this alliance is less focused on in the movie. However, actress Caroline Peters does an excellent job conveying her character’s attraction to Ashkenazi’s Eyal, such as how she begins to look at him. It gradually becomes evident that the protagonist is a complex, even caring person underneath his macho exterior, a persona constantly reinforced by frequent news of suicide terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians and ongoing sanctioned oppression of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

The movie artfully walks a fine line of being a cat and mouse suspense drama while relaying an emotionally and morally compelling story about human relationships and the struggle to become a psychologically healthier, better person in the face of major demographic differences all around and personal life crises, particularly that of loss and grief. Kudos to skillful screenwriter Gal Uchovsky, nimble director Eytan Fox, and the excellent cast, each of whom were either Israeli, German, or Arab. Mostly English was spoken throughout, followed by Hebrew, German, and, briefly (if I remember correctly) some Arabic, respectively. Hearing such different languages spoken, depending on where the setting happened to be and who was speaking to who felt fascinating and a little humbling to me, a monolingual American.

At times, I was quite drawn into the film’s aesthetics, namely when Israel’s countryside appeared, particularly the few scenes along the Dead Sea. What a mystical-looking place. And the variety of diegetic music was interesting and often fun to listen to, from Israeli folk and pop tunes, to Club music, to some old-time (1960s through ’80s) American and European hit songs. I suspect I’ve missed a few other music genres that were represented in the movie. I would love to track down the soundtrack to WALK ON WATER if one was ever released.

This is a refreshingly international screenplay with only overt musical references to the U.S.A. and nothing else blatantly American. (Given the coronavirus pandemic’s ongoing effects, traveling abroad just by watching movies is where it’s at for me for a good while.) I often felt transported to somewhere else in the world and satisfied with the overall narrative, including its resolution. The production’s overall message is ultimately a life-affirming, cautiously hope-filled one. I recommend WALK ON WATER be viewed by anyone who is open to watching something that’s non-American, informally culturally and historically educational, emotionally and morally intriguing, and visually and musically interesting.

Movie Review (CAROL)

The lesbian romance movie CAROL (released in 2015), set mostly in New York City at the end of 1951 into 1952, evokes for me a sense of looking at a swath of dark velvet while running one’s hands over it– pure sensuality. Cate Blanchett’s deep, soft voice add the auditory element to this analogy and pleasantly enveloping viewing experience. The often dimly filtered lighting and careful attention to fashion of the period lend a genuine vintage look and feel to the movie, shot on Super 16 mm film.

Ms. Blanchett as the elegant, wealthy, divorcing Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as the much younger, somewhat mysterious Therese Belivet smolder together on-screen. Cate made me think of a movie star or grande dame fashion maven of bygone days, her well-coiffed image stunning to behold in every frame. It’s no wonder she captivates Therese, herself like an angel “flung out of space,” as Carol describes her. These exceptional women seem to glow with an inner light that brightens upon contact with the other.

The two heroines first meet in a large department store shortly before Christmas, where Therese works as a sales clerk and Carol is gift shopping for her young daughter Rindy. Their mutual love is quickly oppressed by the times in which they find themselves, with Carol’s brash, alcoholic husband going to extreme litigious lengths to get her back or take full custody of their child. There is much pathos during these women’s shared journey of social defiance resulting from being true to who they are, which eventually includes driving together across the West from out of NYC. But, fraught though their circumstances be, Carol and Therese blossom together and separately along the way, ultimately underscoring how love can prevail against stacked odds– and all while looking fabulous, at least most of the time.

Todd Haynes directed and Phyllis Nagy wrote the heart-felt screenplay. The superb acting by Blanchett, Mara, and the rest of the cast certainly add to CAROL’s overall excellence. This is one aesthetically creative romance drama well worth watching. [Poster art copyright by Number 9 Films (CAROL) Limited.]

Mini Movie Review (FIFTY SHADES Trilogy)

Well, I’ve finally seen all three of the FIFTY SHADES movies (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, FIFTY SHADES DARKER, and, just a short while ago, FIFTY SHADES FREED). They’re fun, guilty pleasure froth I’m glad to have viewed for free on TV over almost a three year period.

Supposedly, Henry Cavill was slated to play the leading male role of kinky billionaire Christian Grey. Instead, the comparably light weight and insincere (but cute) Jamie Dornan got the part. Had the far more interesting, mysterious, sultry, and seemingly fiercer Mr. Cavill starred in this trashy trilogy, I’m sure all of the sex scenes between Mr. Grey and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) would have been genuinely steamier than they actually are. Ah, well, I don’t blame dear Henry for passing up being in such junk. I’ll just have to patiently wait for him to show up in some other movie where he’s frequently naked and sexual.

Movie Review (Movie Trilogy: DIVERGENT, INSURGENT, and ALLEGIANT)

I recently watched the DIVERGENT trilogy movies, DIVERGENT (2014), INSURGENT (2015), and ALLEGIANT (2016). Based on the DIVERGENT book trilogy for young adults by Veronica Roth, they’re fun post Apocalypse dystopian action flicks with a good message: authoritarianism is bad and diversity is good, even vital, for humanity. And British actor Theo James as the male lead (named Tobias Eaton, a.k.a. “Four”) is sincere and luscious to behold. He pleasantly adds to the array of neat visuals in these screen dramas.

A central concept in the series is that of factions, which people in a 23rd century, post world war Chicago have to live within. Those who do not test well for any particular faction are rendered “factionless,” societal rejects who exist as the city’s itinerant homeless. Then, there are the “Divergents,” whose temperaments and abilities qualify them for fitting well into more than one faction. They are mentally and emotionally flexible and adaptive, which threatens the social fabric of this future society’s rigidly ordered culture. The five large groupings of people by personality type and aptitude is an interesting way to explore the tensions of conformity and belonging on one hand and individualism, personal liberty, and freedom of self expression on the other. The narrative’s explicit bias here is that the latter three attributes are more important, the other two being most valued by oppressive authoritarian thinkers and leaders.

The movies focus on Beatrice (“Tris”) Prior (Shailene Woodley), a teenaged Divergent, and her romantic involvement with Four (Tobias). Tris initially does her best to fit into her newly chosen faction, Dauntless, which comprises the police and military portion of the population. Their main job is to protect Chicago, ensuring that no outsider comes through its distant surrounding wall. Ms. Woodley, who was about twenty-two to twenty-four years old during actual filming, looks the part and straightforward and compelling in her role. I found the character of Tris to be lacking in depth and complexity. However, she is sufficiently sympathetic and compelling to carry the movie, particularly with the more mature, gritty, and complex character of Four by her side lending his gravitas and sex appeal.

Much of the series is basically a cat-and-mouse suspense drama whereby two young adults navigate the increasingly oppressive faction system with the ultimate intention of dismantling it. The final, comparatively weaker, movie goes even further than this after Tris, Four, and a few of their peers discover beyond Chicago a far more advanced society built upon the ruins of O’Hare International Airport. Without giving too much of the story away, we viewers learn that, from afar, a calculating scientist named David (Jeff Daniels) has been monitoring the population of Chicago, its residents a post war genetic experiment. Tris and Four must outsmart and thwart David and his sinister designs against the only place they’ve ever known as home.

I appreciated the supporting cast, particularly Kate Winslet as villainess Jeanine Matthews, who heads up Erudite, the faction comprising scholars and scientists. With her often dead-pan expressions and sanitized professional look, she ruthlessly maneuvers Erudite to become the governing faction over all of Chicago in place of the Abnegation (selfless and ever-serving others) faction, from which Tris and Four had been born and raised. It was fun to see Ms. Winslet play someone so cold and calculating. I’m sure she appreciated this role after years of often portraying sympathetic leading ladies.

Two other supporting cast members are worth a special mention here. The always lovely and interesting Octavia Spencer plays Johanna Reyes, the faction leader of Amity, who are the ever kind and peace-loving farmers within this mostly urban society. Her scenes are short and limited to the second and third movies, but Ms. Spencer lends her no-nonsense, wise presence to a character that would otherwise be far less memorable in someone else’s hands. Maggie Q as Tori Wu is another particularly gritty female. She is the first to identify Tris as a Divergent and becomes a close ally to the heroine. Tori is beautiful with a tough exterior, developed through painful losses, yet she’s tender just beneath the surface. It was good to see her among so many strong female characters, most of them sympathetic.

Initially, a fourth and final film, ASCENDANT, was planned but scrapped due to a large decrease in box office revenue for ALLEGIANT compared to the first two movies. Producers floated the idea of a television production of this fourth installment. This was rejected by the primary actors, who felt they had not signed up for a lackluster conclusion to such blockbuster projects. Apparently, interest in young adult science fiction movie series had significantly declined by 2016, after a slew of them (such as THE HUNGER GAMES franchise) had been made up to that time. To my relief, ALLEGIANT felt like a tolerable, decent enough conclusion to the story arc even though I saw how it could have gone further. In particular, tensions clearly remained between Chicago with its largely genetically “damaged” people and the more genetically “pure” led society out beyond. I imagine a war or some smaller scale, but equally dramatic, conflict was in the offing to occur within ASCENDANT. But, honestly, I’m fine that this didn’t happen. The villainous David seemed like an annoying, smug bureaucrat rather than an intriguing bad guy I wanted to keep watching. I felt fine with no longer seeing more of him. And since real life is open-ended with a mix of resolutions and ongoing change and challenges, I felt satisfied over where and how the DIVERGENT trilogy ended. We viewers are left to draw our own conclusions if we so feel the need.

Clearly, the DIVERGENT series is largely light fare, where a lot of character development does not occur. The story arc is derivative of other post Apocalypse writings and is simplified for young adult readers and viewers. That said, the screenplays are a little thought provoking in places and generally a lot of fun, particularly the first two films DIVERGENT and INSURGENT.

Movie Review (BLACKBIRD, from 2014)

I recently watched the fun and touching movie BLACKBIRD (2014), starring Julian Walker in the lead role of Randy Rousseau. It’s rare for me to see a gay-focused (or any) movie that is poignant, tender, erotic, fun, and compelling all at once. I appreciated the generally imaginative script, which navigated showing life for a seventeen-year-old who is Black and gay in a small Mississippi town. The center of community for Randy, his family, and his fellow African American friends is a Baptist church. Talk about a different world than mine– which is good to step out of sometimes and learn about others.’ The dialogue and acting seemed a bit stilted and formulaic in places but competent enough overall.

I was intrigued and amused with the clashing of conservative Christian sensibilities and gay sexual expression. This starts with a bang of sorts in the opening scene in which Randy sings in his church choir while amorously engaging the attentions of a hunky fellow student and churchgoer. He often dreams of having sex with this classmate and awakes to find, yet again, the results of a nocturnal emission. Randy’s openly gay best friend Efrem (Gary LeRoi Gray) kindly teases him about this, encouraging him to have sex or at least masturbate. The matter-of-fact way this issue of sexual maturation coupled with repression is dealt with was refreshing to see on screen.

I’m not sure how realistic some scenarios are, such as when Randy and his group of friends, including his fantasy crush Todd Waterson (Torrey Laamar), decide to stage ROMEO AND JULIET in which both leads are men. The character of Juliet is switched to “Julian” and to be played by Todd. Of course, Randy is cast as Romeo. How all of the teenaged characters happily coalesce around doing something so open and daring in a deep South city, within an evangelical Black community no less, was hard for my inner skeptic to set aside. Perhaps, in recent years, more African American adolescent girls have grown turned on by seeing their boyfriends kiss other men? (There were some other such “perhaps” matters to wonder about.) How this group of gutsy, progressive-minded kids existed and found each other in such a culturally conservative setting seemed hard to believe for me, as much as I wanted to believe. The actual in-text dream fantasy material was held within a lot of fantasy subtext by the screenwriter, or so it seemed to me. That said, because I the viewer so wanted to embrace such an intertwine of seemingly very low possibilities actually occurring, I ultimately went with the movie’s little universe and enjoyed myself.

Other aspects of the screenplay seemed quite realistic. Randy’s grief-stricken, religiously obsessed mother Claire (Mo’Nique) is very believable in her role. She makes his life quite difficult while he spends so much of his days trying to be a good, heterosexual Christian. Randy’s singing is transcendent to listen to, and others around him deeply appreciate it, including his love interest, white and economically poor Marshall MacNeil (Kevin Allesee). The two meet while being cast together in a local community college student movie. Marshall’s fawning, insistent pursuit of Randy finally wears down the main character’s repression, shame, and guilt, which felt satisfying to witness.

I grasped more deeply how Black Gospel singing is transcendent for both singer and listener, despite the repressive setting this so often happens within. Randy’s voice is angelic and takes him and others into a briefly blissful state. However, the inner struggle for Randy is his need to allow this singing-induced state to pleasantly merge with his positive sexual ones, which Christian doctrine he’s been forcefully taught forbids. His first love Marshall acts as a credible bridge to this inner rift for Randy, with the former explaining and showing how God naturally accepts him and his desires. It is other human beings, such as the leading character’s mother and her pastor (Terrell Tilford, playing the conflicted Pastor Crandall) who’ve had it wrong this whole time.

BLACKBIRD is very loosely based on a semi-autobiographical (I believe) novel by Larry Dupelchan. I have not read the book, but a synopsis of it states that the story takes place in Southern California, in or near Los Angeles, from what I recall. I wonder if the director and cowriter of the script, Patrik-Ian Polk, who changed the setting of the narrative to a small, Baptist-filled town in Mississippi, intentionally superimposed more liberal social norms from California onto deep South conservative ones here? Why was the location so dramatically changed in the first place? The result for me is a mixture of fantasy and realism where the two don’t always blend well. I’m not sure such a town portrayed in BLACKBIRD actually exists in Mississippi. Since I’ve never been to that part of the country, all I can do is wonder but not actually know. Was this movie supposed to be mostly fantasy? Or was it meant to be hard realism with fantasy as soothing balm? I’m inclined to think likely the former of the two. Were the other screenwriter Rikki Beadle-Blair and director Patrik-Ian Polk trying to express some revisionist, wish fulfilling fantasies of their own? If so, that is fine with me, of course. Artists create for an assortment of reasons, including to heal themselves. Sometimes, the delineation of different sensibilities and cultural norms is clear and integrated in the film. Other times, particularly when Randy is not actually asleep and dreaming, the actual geographical-cultural distinctions are blurry, rendering the movie’s style and vision seeming murky, awkward, and amateur in places. Still, the general storyline and cast of characters largely kept my interest and attention, particularly buoying me along with the adolescents’ emotional and social struggles, fun-loving banter, devotion to, and antics with each other. It is the adults in the movie who are often more problematic and bothersome, which is refreshing to see because they/we adults are so often the originating source of difficulties for teenagers, certainly for queer and Black and Brown ones. For that alone, among other reasons explained above, I appreciated and enjoyed BLACKBIRD.

Movie Review (SATURDAY CHURCH)

A few nights ago, I enjoyed the movie SATURDAY CHURCH (from 2017). This is a sweet, interesting, sometimes uneven story about Ulysses, a gay African American fourteen-year-old living in NYC. He (possibly identifying as she, but this is never clearly indicated) finds his way into the local trans and drag show fashion community. Ulysses’ being gay and cross dressing is disapproved of by his strict, Catholic Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) and over-worked mother Amara (Margot Bingham), the father having died right before the start of the film. Not surprisingly, he’s bullied at school.

I enjoyed the periodic musical numbers as a device to show the main character’s colorful fantasy life. The ensemble cast of drag queens, most of whom work as prostitutes, are beautiful and sassy. They are all of Latinx or African American background. A lot of the supporting extra cast is also African American, in part because much of the story takes place in a largely Black and Brown neighborhood. This chosen family befriends Ulysses and proceeds to show him (her?) the ropes, including how to look fabulous in makeup.

Ulysses has a reluctant brush with prostituting himself for survival. The way this was filmed felt effectively upsetting, adding some believable grittiness to the story.

Veteran trans activist and writer Kate Bornstein has a small supporting role as the founder and mother hen of a weekly community center and soup kitchen for trans people. This social resource is open on Saturdays in a local church, hence the title of the film.

The acting was very good overall, with Luka Kain as Ulysses portraying a believably quiet, soft-spoken, depressed, feminine teenager. He comes more to life when doing voguing fashion moves while walking down the street, trying on high heels, and fantasizing about being the center of ensemble song and dance scenes in his urban environment. The attentions of his adorable love interest Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) also help to perk him up. Raymond is probably fifteen or sixteen, having also been “adopted” by the group of drag queens, possibly just months before Ulysses’ arrival into the fold.

SATURDAY CHURCH felt uneven in genre, shifting between musical to serious, slice-of-life drama. At first, this felt awkward but I either got used to it or the movie grew more graceful with transitions into and out of musical performances, dialogue, and Ulysses quietly navigating his fraught life. I looked up this film on Wikipedia, which describes it as a “musical fantasy drama.” Hybrid genre movies are produced here and there, I realize, but their grace of flow and emotional effectiveness are often hit or miss. Overall, this screenplay and production add up to making more of a hit than not, and are certainly impressive for a first feature by Damon Cardasis, who wrote and directed the project.

I particularly enjoyed the drag ball scene and the footage of drag queens on a runway during the end credits– so much fabulosity! I heartily approved.

I was left wanting a bit more, particularly further development of the relationship between Ulysses and his mother during the last part of the movie. Her sudden remorse and acceptance of him felt like an abrupt transition. Perhaps the budget did not allow for the production to be a little longer, which, if it were, would have lent more fullness and a sense of completion to the story for me.

Movie Review (BROTHER TO BROTHER, from 2004)

BROTHER TO BROTHER (released in 2004), starring Anthony Mackie, who would later go on to be in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS movies, is one of the most heart-felt, emotionally nuanced films I’ve seen in a good while. Mackie’s acting was outstanding. He compellingly plays Perry Williams, an African American gay art student at a university in New York City.

This movie is an homage to the Harlem Renaissance and Richard Bruce Nugent (who apparently went by his middle name) within it. He was a painter and writer who knew Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. His character (played by Roger Robinson as the elder Bruce and Duane Boutte as the younger) befriends Perry. Together, they converse throughout the film about being African American gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance vs. in NYC of the 1980s (when the present day story takes place, I think). Black and white filmed flashbacks of Nugent’s younger days in Harlem help to flesh out the exchange between he and the young Perry, who largely listens.

Perry is lonely after being violently disowned by his parents and unable to find meaningful companionship with another man. He finds deep meaning through learning about the Harlem Renaissance from Bruce and how he is naturally part of an ongoing culture of artists within African American history. Sensitive, vibrant portrayals of human relationships and their direct impact on artistic expression come through repeatedly in this piece of cinema. Along the way, socio-political issues are grappled with, such as the rampant homophobia within much of the African American community(ies) and the objectifying fetishism of black men by white men. These disconnecting dynamics felt painful to watch throughout Perry’s quest for love, meaning, and a sense of belonging. (And I found Perry captivating and lovable.) That is the movie’s intention, which led me a bit closer to better understanding, as a white viewer, what many urban African American gay men face in their daily lives. At least I felt somewhat more informed and genuinely empathetic than I did before watching this film. I bore witness for a little while.

I found my thinking and feelings particularly challenged around Perry’s fraught relationship with Jim, a white, long-haired fellow college student who becomes his lover for a short while. Jim is new to sexual involvement with other men but is clearly taken with Perry, who initiates their physical intimacy after Jim comes to his dorm room one evening. Before the morning arrives, he exhibits a pang of homophobic-informed regret by fleeing from Perry’s bed. He soon works through this discomfort, however. Sometime later, in a post coital moment of deep infatuation and appreciation, Jim compliments the main character’s physical attributes, including his lips and “black ass,” which he explains is the best he’s ever seen (or some such similar wording). The more experienced Perry is offended and leaves abruptly, much to Jim’s puzzlement and dismay. The next scene has the leading man conveying disappointment to his (straight) childhood friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), who commiserates with him about how white men are so insensitive and basically all the same. Initially, I felt sad and unsettled, thinking how Jim had no idea how he was ignorantly fetishizing his lover, which was not his conscious intention. I’m certain his words were well-meaning though not well thought out.

While watching this passionate but doomed relationship play out on screen, I recalled a humbling moment in my mid twenties when I said something fun and complimentary to an African American lover I was seeing at the time. My remarks were met with an awkward, tense chuckle. I quickly figured out my mistake and never spoke to him that way again. I felt too ashamed to apologize directly for my fetishizing words, which I’d taken from a Broadway play. He did not call me out on them, though it was his right to do so. It can seem like such a fine line between racist sexual objectification and true, caring appreciation of a beautiful black or brown man for who he is as a whole, unique, thinking, and feeling person. With the mainstream commodification of body parts, including African American men’s penises, buttocks, lips, and skin, it is understandably hurtful when he is (usually) yet again viewed and spoken to in a skin-deep, culturally programmed way, particularly in such an intimate moment as lying naked in bed with a lover.

Before seeing BROTHER TO BROTHER, I had mainly an intellectual, logical understanding of the importance of using non-racist, non-fetishizing language– both body/facial and spoken– with black and brown people. But, it hit home for me just how visceral an experience it is to be at the other end of such mindless, conditioned objectification, which creates a psychic wall between two or more people trying to love each other. At one end is the identified object while at the other is the dominant objectifier. Suddenly, it’s like each party is alone looking at the other across a chasm, one filling the space between with preconceived notions/prejudices, the other longing to be seen accurately and fully for who they are. It sure can seem and feel that way.

The naively racist Jim had a big lesson to learn. The already hurting Perry had no more emotional energy to spare to patiently wait for the young white man to wise up and love him back properly, unfettered by racist, fetishizing thoughts and words. I felt sad for both of these attractive lonely men. But, life is filled with such saddening misunderstandings and subsequent disconnections, including those tinged with racism, and therein lies a collective tragedy to overcome.

Later in the narrative, Perry finds a healing balm for his wounds of rejection by his parents, straight black peers/brothers, and his kind but clueless white ex-boyfriend. He and Bruce Nugent go to the run-down apartment building in Harlem where the latter used to live and create with his artist and writer friends decades before. There, the two take turns painting each other’s portrait late into the night, to a soundtrack of melodious jazz music. They pour their souls into their efforts, accentuating facial features with precision, care, and passion, sensuality pushing through the curves and vibrant colors. I was mesmerized and moved. Finally, Perry is not at all objectified, but admired and permanently rendered as the beautiful, deep thinking man that he is. He returns the favor to his older mentor, who gets showcased for being such a soulful, passionate man and talented artist after so many years of living in social isolation. I still well up when I think of this scene, having watched it over a day ago now.

I was able to suspend disbelief over the fact that actor Roger Robinson was a good fifteen or so years younger than the actual age of his character, the elderly Bruce Nugent. I looked up Nugent and read that he died in 1987 at eighty years old. An octogenarian could be less likely to get around so readily and confidently New York City the way Robinson in his early 60s could still do. I allowed for artistic license to happen for the purpose here of telling and showing a wonderful, multi-layered story of two men meeting up from very different yet powerfully similar (in racial and sexual identity struggles) eras. Nugent is portrayed as being like a wandering lone specter or ghost from a time long past who– through his eloquent poetry– captures the attention and imagination of a young, contemporary black gay artist brother. This brings Nugent’s work more into the present. For some moments, past and present are united and suspended together during the two men’s meetings, allowing for the vibrant exchange of ideas, including the passing down of inspiration and hope to a younger artist. Ultimately, art, such as poetry and painting, is often timeless, or so the narrative here reminds us viewers.

It should also be emphasized that BROTHER TO BROTHER is about celebrating life in the face of so much adversity. A scene that particularly crystallized this point and had me cheering is when, in flashback, Bruce Nugent and his cohorts, including Hughes and Ms. Neale Hurston, defy social convention while sitting in a local restaurant. They proceed to read aloud from their collective publication FIRE and loudly sing a song with this same title, ignoring the disapproving looks from other customers nearby. Their unbridled joy felt palpable and inspiring. These artists were not only expressing themselves genuinely and happily, pushing against oppressive shackles of convention, but, in so doing, giving permission for their fellow African Americans around them to consider doing the same. Such creative genius as these vibrant, life affirming moments keep occurring in this cinema gem. Put another way, the interweaving of these great authors’ quotes, along with the screen writer’s own thoughtful words spoken by Perry and other characters, give life and meaning to powerful experiences, this movie being an effective, honoring vehicle for so much cultural richness of human expression.

“Through him, I learned the complexity of what was inside me was also outside if I was willing to look deeper,” Perry reflects on his time spent with Nugent. “With words and images, I could convey the truth of my experience, putting it down, and passing it on.” Such encapsulated wisdom addresses much of the human experience, this striving to feel a part of the larger outside of one’s individual self and to capture such truth to then be passed on to others, including after death.

This incredible screenplay had me laughing and crying at different times throughout. I can see why Anthony Mackie became a star after doing such poignant, courageous work. The entire cast was excellent. Bravo to Rodney Evans, who wrote and directed BROTHER TO BROTHER, a labor of love and a cultivated mind.

Mini Movie Review (MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES)

I’ve been watching documentaries lately– three within this past week. The one that stands out for me the most is the fascinating MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES, from 2016. The title is wittily taken from a statement made in the U.S. Senate by the late, ultra conservative Senator Jesse Helms. He pushed to ban the artist’s work from being shown in a museum in DC in 1989, shortly after the famous photographer’s death at aged 42.

Having long enjoyed Robert Mapplethorpe’s skillful, thought-provoking, sensual, and sometimes disturbing photography, the narrative of his life from a Catholic-raised suburban, middle class gay boy to controversial New York City-based avant garde artist of the late 1960s through the ’80s was deeply compelling to me. The visual exploration of gender and race of his human subjects was both playful and venerating. Even this creative master’s photographs of flowers come across as powerfully erotic and beautiful.

For the general public, Mapplethorpe courageously threw open a window into an existing urban gay subculture. By extension, I think this helped force people to acknowledge and grapple with the very real sexuality of queer people in general. And while I wouldn’t have wanted to live his intense life of self destruction and enormous creativity, I very much appreciate the legacy of work and cultural expansion this talented artist left behind.