Tag Archives: LGBTQ films

Something Personal to Say

Chasing Chasing Amy

by Hope Madden

Nearly 30 years ago, Kevin Smith did what he does best. He made a film so simple, so personal, so deeply human, so profoundly myopic, so densely problematic, so deeply heterosexual-white-dude that it was hard not to simultaneously hate and love it. In fact, of all Smith’s movies, his 1997 straight-boy-falls-for-lesbian romcom Chasing Amy fits that (rather lengthy) bill best.

Hell, just being the indie darling of 1997 – pinnacle Weinstein era – creates additional problems, let alone the way Smith’s script funhouse mirrors his offscreen relationship with the star (Joey Lauren Adams, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her vivid performance).

Whew, that’s a lot to unpack, and it’s not even the primary focus of Chasing Chasing Amy. For documentarian Sav Rodgers, stumbling across Smith’s film in his parents’ stash of Ben Affleck flicks as a kid saved his life. Literally. During his toughest times, Rodgers would watch the film every day. He’d never seen queer people in a film before. And he wanted to believe that one day he would find the kind of love Holden (Affleck) expressed for Alyssa (Adams).

And yet.

For many (most?) in the LGBTQ community, Chasing Amy is nothing if not problematic. So, what begins as Sav’s odyssey through the film’s New Jersey landmarks turns into an investigation into the movie’s queer depictions, then becomes an enduring friendship with Smith himself before turning into a remarkable examination of the seedy state of independent film in 1997. And that alone would be more than worth the price of admission.

Indeed, Rodgers gets better, more insightful talking head interviews for this doc than I’ve seen in any documentary in the last several years. Guinevere Turner (who wrote 1997’s Go Fish and partly inspired the character of Alyssa), in particular, is a treasure.

But even as Rodgers’s film metamorphosizes, so does its filmmaker. Because Rodgers is himself a large part of his film – the film’s impact on his own life did inspire the documentary – the director cannot help but document his own journey. And not his journey as a filmmaker, but as a trans man.

Rodgers possesses sharp storytelling instincts and a cinematic presence so sincere and authentic it could break your heart. You come away from this film hoping genuinely for his happiness and waiting eagerly for his next film.

Killer Queen

Death Drop Gorgeous

by Rachel Willis

Don’t let the low-budget look of Death Drop Gorgeous deter you from watching this film because if you do, you’ll miss out on a hilarious, campy slasher film.

Recently dumped, Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) has returned to Providence and begged back his old job as a bartender at The Aut Haus. Rooming with best friend, Brian (Christopher Dalpe), Dwayne comes back to work just as a serial killer begins hunting the queens and patrons of The Aut Haus. Using the dating app, Poundr, the killer lures his victims to their doom.

Populated by drag queens and serious shade, this movie sends up some of the best of 80’s camp horror. Writers, directors and stars Dalpe, Michael J. Ahern and Brandon Perras manage a lot with a low budget. By doing double and triple duty with their cast and crew, they mine every bit of talent they can from what they have available.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its distractions. The camerawork and lighting are occasionally poor. However, there are also times when it perfectly sets the tone. Some of the actors, most of whom have no previous acting experience, are better than others. Michael McAdam is perfectly cast as gloriously named Gloria Hole, a queen who no longer commands the respect she used to. McAdam plays perfectly against younger, hotter queen Janet Fitness (Matthew Pidge). Their nasty back and forth offers some of the film’s stand-out moments.

A few scenes toward the beginning of the film are a bit longer than necessary. But the pace picks up in the second act as more and more people are dispatched in gruesome ways. You’ll probably never look at a meat grinder the same again.

Social commentary is delivered via catty banter and barroom brawls. The culture surrounding Dwayne and Brian is quick to deride certain qualities. One man goes so far as to say Brian is “too fem” and that he doesn’t date “blacks” in reference to Dwayne. Gloria Hole is shamed simply for aging. This is deeper content than one might expect from a campy slasher flick, but it works.

The writers and the actors camp it up for all its worth, and it makes Death Drop Gorgeous a cut above many films benefiting from a bigger budget.

Tin Soldiers


by Samantha Harden

“Moffie” is a derogatory term used in South Africa meaning an “effeminate homosexual man.” Moffie is also the name of the South African-British biographical war film.

The film was written and directed by Oliver Hermanus. With help from his co-writer Jack Sidey, the two created a love story that encapsulates struggles, racism and homophobia. You feel stressed right from the beginning.

The year is 1981, South Africa’s white minority government is entangled in conflicts at its borders with communist-led Angola. All white men between the ages of 17 and 60 must complete two years of mandatory military service.

Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) was drafted into South Africa’s military, but he knows he is different from the other men serving. Another recruit develops an intimate relationship with Van der Swart and they realize that they are both in danger. 

This is just an incredible performance by Brummer. You could feel his emotions, the worry and the sadness and most of all, fear. Throughout the movie you rarely saw even the slightest smile. 

The first scene begins with suspenseful music that feels as though it belongs in a horror movie. Of course for young Nick, it is a horror movie.

But once Nick meets Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) and begins to fit in (at least a little), the music changes to classical opera. Later the music makes another change, and then another, and another. Braam du Toit’s score continues to change throughout the film to match Nick’s moods, an excellent detail.

Moffie not only has an aesthetically pleasing score but it is an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order, on nearly every level. 

The movie is so bright and beautiful even if the story is heartbreaking. In a flashback we see young Nick at the public pool with his parents. The camera follows him underwater and for a moment, Nick is happy and carefree. 

We see Nick again underwater, but this time he isn’t a carefree young child anymore. Now Nick is a soldier in the South African military and he just lost a friend. The world has been cruel to Nicholas Van der Swart, Moffie captured that cruelty. 

Portrait of a Lady of Science


by Hope Madden

Writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite is a beautiful, insightful, lonesome film about European women falling in love in a time when patriarchal society only allowed that to happen because they weren’t paying attention. It boasts beautiful cinematography and two utterly stellar performances.

And it suffers by comparison to Celine Sciamma’s similarly summarized 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing—it absolutely is. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan—simply two of the most talented humans ever to grace a film screen—play, respectively, British paleontologist Mary Anning and the married woman she falls for, Charlotte Murchison.

Anning is, in fact, among the most influential scientists in British history. Being a woman in Victorian England, her work was accepted while she herself was not. There’s an interesting tale to tell right there, but Lee chose that repressive cultural landscape as more of a backdrop, like the forbidding English Channel coast town of Lyme where Anning did her fossil hunting.

There’s no historical evidence that Anning was gay. There’s also no historical evidence that she was not, and filmmakers have told Emily Dickinson’s story dozens of times, only once actually addressing her sexual preference. If it’s OK for them to fictionalize, why not Lee?

The telling gives Winslet opportunity—partly thanks to excellent support from Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones and Alec Secareanu—to present a woman so ill-used by and out-of-step with the world around her that she sees a miscarriage of justice in every exchange. Winslet is sharp and brooding, superior and insecure. It’s another quietly outstanding performance.

Aglow and lilting, Ronan is all warmth, offering a swoon-worthy counterpoint to Winslet’s chill. But there is something rushed about her attraction, and the deep, risky longing never feels authentic.

The affection, however, feels painfully true, and that’s at the core of a story about limited possibilities. Lee’s no Tarantino, but keep an eye out for bare feet and (less Tarantino-esque) insects. There is something slightly melancholy in these images of freedom and vulnerability that suit the effort.

Lee doesn’t try to answer every question he raises or resolve every conflict he presents. Instead, he brings us into a story of outsiders trying to define their own realities, however limited they may have to be.

Secret Garden

The Garden Left Behind

by Hope Madden

Newcomer Charlie Guevara charms in Flavio Alves’s drama The Garden Left Behind with a bittersweet performance as Tina, an undocumented Mexican trans woman getting by in NYC. Her performance is simultaneously optimistic, wearied, frightened and strong.

Wisely, filmmaker Alves focuses his tale unblinkingly on Tina—her day to day, her loving if prickly relationship with her grandmother (Miriam Cruz), her warm and supportive community of friends, her struggle with an insecure boyfriend, her tentative steps toward transition. In a real way, every movement in the film is about transition, about claiming something that belongs to Tina, whether it’s her voice or her financial independence, her emotional health or her political power.

The rawness of Guevara’s turn sometimes makes way for self-consciousness that brings certain scenes to an awkward halt. Still, Guevara and Cruz share a lovely, lived-in chemistry. It’s their relationship that both buoys the film and makes the it ache all the more.

The story around the periphery crystallizes the ways in which the lives of trans people—especially trans women of color—differ from your garden variety New Yorkers’. Alves’s hand is not heavy; the fact that so many of Tina’s interactions could be taken as potentially menacing speaks volumes without an overt narrative. It’s actually in this B-story that the filmmaker may make the most salient and heartbreaking points.

If the film feels authentic, that’s unsurprising. Alves not only cast trans actors for each trans role, but he also employed a staff of transgender filmmakers in creative and crew roles. This after several years of research within the NYC transgender community to develop the insightful and poignant storyline.

It’s no surprise The Garden Left Behind became the 2019 SXSW audience award winner. The film breaks through as not only an admirable artistic vision produced with integrity, but a beautiful human tale of perseverance and love.  

Speaking Softly

Lingua Franca

by Hope Madden

Lingua franca is literally a language used between two people who don’t share a native tongue. But what goes unsaid in Lingua Franca carries far more weight than anything we’re actually told.

Writer/director/producer/star Isabel Sandoval has mastered cinematic understatement. Her approach, as filmmaker and performer, is never showy. Her third and most confident feature is a slice of life drama that meditates quietly on need, agency, love and capital in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Olga (a perceptive Lynn Cohen) sometimes forgets where she is. She gets a little agitated and a little weary.

Olivia (Sandoval) calms her, keeps her safe, keeps her well, but has worries of her own.

Alex (Aemon Farren) just needs to catch a break, so he’s staying with his grandmother and helping out Olivia when he can. But we can’t all help each other, even when we mean to.

Sandoval’s film says so much with so few words, it’s remarkable. By way of Olga’s apartment we enter an entirely lived-in world, one that is likely to be utterly unfamiliar and yet feels as authentic as any you’ve seen. The ordinariness of extraordinary circumstances, unusual measures and extreme tensions emerges by way of Olivia’s resigned, world-wearied gaze.

There is a cultural currency to the story, one in which Olivia’s position as a transgender woman of color is actually less dangerous than her situation as an illegal immigrant in the age of ICE. That anxiety plays as a backdrop to a desperate romance between Olga’s two needy houseguests.

As Olivia’s sketchy love interest, Farren offers a nuanced and authentic turn. Alex is a man of squandered potential, dim prospects, and a fleeting if recurring notion that he can be something of value.

There’s a lonesome transience to the story, a feeling of impermanence that’s frightening, sad and just slightly freeing. Lingua Franca tells a lovely, sad story that’s very much worth hearing.

The Boy With the Thorn in His Side


by Seth Troyer

Benjamin is one of the most uniquely brilliant indie films I’ve come across in some time. It’s a film that could have easily been yet another Woody Allen clone, yet another romp where a director shares his thoughts on love, nervous breakdowns, and how cool and complex he is just before the film cuts to credits. Benjamin is something much more.

While the core of the film seems born from director Simon Amstell’s autobiography, what really makes it stand out is the duet Amstell has with his star. Colin Morgan’s lightning fast delivery and realistic portrayal of Benjamin, a young gay man who endlessly gets in his own way, makes the film more than just a mouth piece for a director, but a unique character study.

Benjamin is a filmmaker who recently failed to live up to the promise of his debut movie. In the aftermath, he falls in love with a beautiful French musician named Noah, but their relationship is constantly threatened by Benjamin’s increasingly erratic mental state.

In less capable hands such a plot would make for a rather unoriginal film, but here, the events that unfold feel realistically random and unpredictable. Plot points begin, end abruptly, and then pick back up all over again in surprising ways that create a true to life experience. Even the minor characters are fleshed out yet mysterious, creating unique human beings rather than lazy stereotypes.

The film’s fast paced, dark humor is never contrived or pretentious. Amstell’s incredible ear for dialogue coupled with Morgan’s gift for delivery feels like a comedic team at the top of its game.

Though far more lovable, Morgan’s portrayal of an erratic, untrustworthy protagonist calls to mind David Thewlis’s darkly genius incarnation of Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked. Indeed, Benjamin seems to have much in common with Leigh’s everyday dramas in the attempt to flesh out believable characters rather than convey easy moral judgements.

It is an aching portrayal of a person who seems either on the brink of transformation or immolation. Benjamin is a cry for the mind to just shut up for once, and let the heart take the wheel for a change.

A Time to Act Up

HomoSayWhat: Who’s Pushing Hate?

by Matt Weiner

For a documentary with the subtitle “Who’s Pushing Hate?,” you would think that HomoSayWhat, Craig Bettendorf’s brief survey of homophobia in America from the mid-20th century up to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, would be a long list of people to choose from.

Bettendorf’s sprint through half a century of history is a helpful primer on major events in the gay rights movement. And while the film is heavy on narration and light on interviews that might contextualize the history—the longest interview segment is a casual chat with Bettendorf’s colleagues—they make the most of contemporary news footage and interviews to produce plenty of jaw-dropping moments.

Far too often, though, the film serves as just that: a whirlwind introduction to the top hits and the reminder that “this sure was bad, but things are getting better.” And to be fair, Bettendorf and his crew couldn’t have known that Pride Month this year would coincide with some of the largest protests against injustice in this country’s history.

But it’s hard to reckon with the film’s contention that progress is a clockwork inevitability even within the relatively rapid success of the gay rights movement. So while gay marriage gets its due, the Stonewall Riots that birthed modern Pride events are conspicuously absent. As is the very current and not at all settled fight for transgender equality. (Trans activists are almost entirely absent from the film’s history, which could be a decision to let them tell their own story. But it’s a puzzling omission for a movie that paints history in such broad strokes. And finds the time for an entire cable news monologue from Keith Olbermann.)

The most generous way to think of the film’s version of events is like a high school textbook: the chronology opens up windows to so many deeper stories you can look up if you’re interested. But given how profound and moving the subject is, the documentary’s point of view seems to go out of its way to avoid sounding too radical. And that leads to some very weird territory, like spending more time on C. Everett Koop than Larry Kramer.

As superficial as the historical treatment is, Bettendorf’s earnestness goes a long way to keeping the narration sprightly. But the choices are so idiosyncratic and linger on so much near history that it’s hard to figure out exactly who the audience for this retelling even is. For a film that sets out to dig into the history of homophobia and how it shaped American society, there’s an awful lot of time on the 2000s-era culture war with very little interrogation of what mission accomplished looks like today.

In a way it’s quaint to look back on a time when hatred felt like it had to keep a veneer of civility and logic when arguing among the political class. Those days are gone though, and those backslapping opponents have been replaced with a new group that doesn’t have much use for masks. It’s ironic that there are plenty of events and figures to look back on who raised hell to see justice done, wielding righteous certainty along with bricks, rocks, and whatever it took. That might offer some comfort at this moment. But you won’t learn about it here.

New Coat of Paint

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

by Hope Madden

Celine Sciamma follows up the vitally of-the-moment indie Girlhood with this breathy, painterly period romance only to clarify that she is a filmmaker with no identifiable bounds. In the 1790s on a forbidding island in Brittany, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), but since Heloise is not marrying voluntarily, she will not sit for a painter. So, a ruse is developed: Marianne pretends to be simply a companion as she steals glances then sketches from memory into the night.

What develops along with the startlingly beautiful intimacy between the women is a thoughtful rumination on memory and on art, on the melancholic but no less romantic notion that the memory, though lonesome, is permanent and perfect.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tenderly romantic film of self-discovery that asks a lot of questions.

What would life be like with no men at all, the film seems to ask. Unseen, nameless men (because we see very few) may rule the world, and the existence of one casts a pall over the events of the film. But, at least until Mother (Valeria Golino) returns with news of the wedding, this is a community of women.

On the island, women gather at a bonfire, passing time, singing and seeking each other’s guidance. In the austere mansion, Heloise, Marianne and servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) look after one another. In a more intimate chamber, two women become friends and then lovers and then, likely, the most important relationship the other will ever have.

Offering a master class in visual storytelling, Sciamma relies far less on words than images, ending conversations or omitting them entirely, able instead to deliver meaning with a glance, a gesture, a flame or an ocean wave.

And with art. What Sciamma is able to convey about love, struggle, empowerment and art by virtue of the changing canvas on which Marianna must commit Heloise’s portrait is truly extraordinary.

Sciamam’s film has a painterly quality, frame after frame worthy of museum wall space. And yet, Portrait lacks artifice. Thomas Grezaud’s set design, Dorothee Guiraud’s costumes and, in particular, Claire Mathon’s cinematography blend together to create a costume drama worthy of the historical and art period in question.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is breathtakingly gorgeous. But, like Heloise’s portrait in the film, that’s not enough to make it a masterpiece. It’s the authenticity to the intimacy—perhaps partly born of the fact that Haenel and Sciamma are a real life couple—that’s inescapable, and it drives the piece.

Like Marianna’s final portrait, Sciamma’s film offers truth, and it’s astonishing.

Devil in Disguise

El Angel

by Hope Madden

Everyone loves a good bad guy. Why is that?

That’s a question that drives Luis Orgeta’s El Angel, a fantastically stylish period piece and provocative bit of storytelling that mythologizes Argentina’s most notorious serial killer.

Lorenzo Ferro is Carlito, mischievous imp and beautiful youth. In his acting debut, Ferro mesmerizes—appropriately enough. The sleepy charisma of the performance, paired with Ortega’s beguiling direction, seduces you.

Ortega saturates every frame with color, pattern and song, creating a sensual atmosphere that mirrors the storytelling. Meanwhile, Ferro captures a fearlessness that comes from the singular desire to experience each moment as it happens with no regard for what comes after, an alluring quality for both the audience and the other players in Carlito’s world.

While the newcomer is the clear center of gravity in this film, each supporting turn is stronger than the last. Together the actors populate this charmingly unseemly world with dimensional, intriguing misfits.

Chino Darín has the beefiest role as Carlito’s best friend, partner in crime and the object of his longing. That’s a theme—longing—Ortega plays with to unsettling results. There is a sexuality to everything Carlito does, and the relationship between the two friends remains tantalizingly unarticulated.

The release the audience gets instead is in the violence of the crimes.

The way Ortega emphasizes small, curious moments and deemphasizes the brutality without looking away from it is a true feat. The film—and, indeed, the life of Carlos Robledo Puch, the murderer in question—holds a great deal of violence. Truth is, the film may not contain enough.

Ortega’s interest involves the seductive quality of the bad guy. To get at this, though, he whitewashes Puch’s crimes. Besides being a murderer and a bit of an eccentric, Puch was a rapist and kidnapper who once shot at a sleeping infant. The omissions change the film from one that explores and mirrors the seductive quality of the villain to one that manipulates true life to fit a tidier vision.

Still, the sheer off-kilter spectacle that finds its focus in small, weird moments is too great to dismiss. Like the character it creates, El Angel’s allure is too strong to resist.