Remembering classic film after death of an unsung queer pioneer


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Nov 15, 2023

Remembering classic film after death of an unsung queer pioneer

Murray Melvin’s queer performance in ‘Taste of Honey’ proved groundbreaking Published on By Last week, with the April 14 passing of English actor, director, and theater archivist Murray Melvin at the

Murray Melvin’s queer performance in ‘Taste of Honey’ proved groundbreaking




Last week, with the April 14 passing of English actor, director, and theater archivist Murray Melvin at the age of 90, the world lost a queer cinema icon.

If you feel bad for wondering, “Who’s that?”, don’t worry. Although the film with which he made his name – “A Taste of Honey,” directed by British New Wave filmmaker Tony Richardson – was an acclaimed and popular award-winner when it was released in 1961, it’s likely only known to the most ardent cinema buffs today, especially among younger generations; and though Melvin remained a familiar fixture of the London theater world and made several significant further film and television appearances, his fame outside the UK was limited – so you’re easily pardoned for not knowing who he was.

Yet while popular memory may have moved on from the era in which “A Taste of Honey” made waves on both sides of the Atlantic, its historical importance – not just as a milestone of queer inclusion on the screen, but as a seminal work in a major art-and-cultural movement – still looms large.

Based on a 1958 play by Shelagh Delaney, it was part of an aesthetic wave in Britain known as “Kitchen Sink Realism” (or alternatively, the “Angry Young Man” movement, though in this case both the writer and the lead character were female), which focused on the gritty lives and hardships of the working class to explore the social ills and inequities of British society. It centers on Jo, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her alcoholic single mother; after a brief romance with an itinerant Black sailor, she discovers she is pregnant, and moves out on her own with Geoffrey, an acquaintance who has been kicked out of his flat for being homosexual. For a time, they build a household together, taking care of each other as they face the uncertain realities of their grim working-class existence.

Delaney’s play had been a success in London – perhaps as much because of the controversy it stirred as despite it – before transferring to America for a Broadway production featuring Angela Lansbury and a very young Billy Dee Williams. Both stagings had been mounted by director Richardson, who by 1961 had established himself as a filmmaker and become a driving force in the rapidly evolving British cinema. He wanted to bring the play to the screen with the same candid and unsentimental attitude that had defined the stage version – and thanks to his status as Britain’s hottest young filmmaker, he was given free reign do it. He collaborated with Delaney on a screenplay adaptation that left the original work intact, complete with all its controversial elements, and underscored its slice-of-life realism by filming it entirely on location (the first British film to do so) in Salford, the rundown industrial district of Manchester where the story takes place.

To further distance his movie from any semblance of show biz artificiality, Richardson relied on the casting of Dora Bryan – whose popularity on British screens in “loose woman” roles through the 1950s made her an ideal choice to play Jo’s neglectful mother – as a bankable “name” and chose to cast mostly unknowns as his leading players. For the central role of Jo, he auditioned thousands of hopefuls before choosing Rita Tushingham – who said in a 2018 interview that her only previous acting experience had been as “the back legs of a horse” at a small playhouse in Liverpool – and settled on a student actor named Paul Danquah to play Jimmy, the other participant in his movie’s “shocking” interracial kiss.

None of these performers had been part of the play’s original cast, but when it came to one crucial role, Richardson turned to the actor who had originated it – Murray Melvin, who had won the part of Geoffrey while still a fledgling member of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where the play had first been staged. Seen today, it’s a remarkable performance, as fully authentic and unapologetically queer as one would expect from any modern actor, yet given in a time and place when to be “out” was to be shunned, stigmatized, and open to criminal prosecution as well. Hailed by a contemporary critic as “a miracle of tact and sincerity”, Melvin’s Geoff was an instant touchstone for countless gay audience members who never saw themselves represented on the screen, and the fact that he was presented in a positive light – without stereotype, cliché, or judgment – must have felt like nothing short of a miracle.

The film’s other performances are equally strong, of course. Tushingham won many accolades, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (although, likely thanks to the film’s refusal to dilute its taboo subject matter, she was snubbed for recognition at the American Academy Awards), and went on to become something of an “It” girl in trans-Atlantic ‘60s cinema; Danquah is engaging and eminently likable as Jimmy, in a performance that is remarkably free of the racist trappings of the era and goes against the generic tropes that might otherwise cause audiences to view him with moral disdain; thanks to the chemistry he enjoys with Tushingham (not to mention the open-hearted treatment with which Richardson bestows upon their relationship), their interaction is never anything other than sweet and genuine, far from the exploitative or predatory nature with which it might have been endowed in other, more sensationalistic films of the day. As Helen, Jo’s boozy mom, Bryan makes a potentially hateful figure into someone we can understand, even if we can’t quite sympathize with her priorities or get behind her life choices.

Still, the performance of Murray Melvin is arguably the movie’s most significant legacy, and stands to this day as a testament to the power of cinema to speak truth to power – or at least, to promote empathy in the face of senseless bigotry. It’s a singular performance, a unique outlier from a time when queer experience was usually represented as deviant and dangerous when it wasn’t being ignored completely.

Like Tushingham, he won top acting honors at Cannes, but being named “Best Actor” was a short-lived triumph; his openly queer persona rendered him un-castable in most mainstream films of the era, and he was denied the stardom he might have enjoyed in a more enlightened time. Nevertheless, he would go on to enjoy a long and respected career, taking on key roles in films by Ken Russell (“The Devils”, “The Boy Friend”) and Stanley Kubrick (“Barry Lyndon”) and making prolific contributions in British theater and television. He would even eventually serve on the board of the Theatre Royal, where he had once painted sets out of a passion for the art itself, and become renowned as an archivist for the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop, which had been his entry into a rich and vibrant career as a stage and cinema artist.

These accomplishments, surely, gave Murray Melvin a sense of fulfillment. For the rest of us, his trailblazing, thrillingly queer presence in one of the most important films of the 1960s is more than enough cause to celebrate him.

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Three activists move past childhood dominated by shame




Even within the larger LGBTQIA+ community, intersex people remain something of a mystery for most of us.

That’s not meant to send anybody on a guilt trip; it’s merely an observation hinting at the power of the stigma that has kept intersex stories buried in the dusty cabinets of medical research halls even as the other segments of the queer population have been given increased representation – and with it, the chance to express their truth – in the public sphere. Guided by unquestioned assumptions about “natural” expressions of gender, the scientific and medical establishment has long shrouded the facts around intersex people, often even from the parents of intersex children, as they made autocratic decisions about medical procedures to “correct” what they perceived as nature’s “mistake.” How can someone share their truth with the world if it’s always been kept a secret from them, too?

As laid out in “Every Body,” “RBG” director Julie Cohen’s documentary profile of three prominently visible intersex individuals (now streaming on Peacock after a theatrical release earlier this summer), the answer to that question is that they can only do it by forging a new truth, based in their own experience and independent from the expectations of others.

The film’s three subjects – actor/screenwriter River Gallo (they/them), political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they), and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) have each moved beyond a childhood dominated by shame and secrecy into a thriving adulthood lived as their authentic selves – something only made possible by a choice to disregard medical advice about keeping the reality of their bodies a secret. Now leaders and advocates in a global movement for greater understanding of the intersex community, they share the narratives of the lives that have gotten them there – both the ones that were forced upon them and their families from their birth, and the ones they have written for themselves.

Woven within these profiles is a historical tale about the vastly influential yet little-remembered Dr. John Money, a sex researcher whose views on gender became central to institutionalizing a 1950s-era sensibility into accepted medical thought around intersex people; more specifically, it relates a stranger-than-fiction case of medical abuse under Money’s care, featuring exclusive archival footage from NBC News archives, and exposing the fallacies behind medical protocols that continue to linger, unchecked, years after being resoundingly debunked.

It’s through this wide-view look at the context in which intersex people have historically been framed by doctors and psychiatrists that the film provokes the most vigorous emotional response from audiences, perhaps; the real life-story of David Reimer, subject of the experiment that would eventually discredit Money’s work, is a heartbreaking one, and the footage of the film’s three subjects watching the harrowing interviews the deeply damaged Reimer gave when his story was made public provides some of the movie’s most viscerally moving moments.

Indeed, Cohen’s original concept for the movie was a straightforward exploration of the Reimer case, but after connecting online with Weigel, and through them, with Gallo and Wall, she changed direction. Struck by their commitment to the cause of greater understanding and better medical care for intersex people, she began filming their activism and their day-to-day lives. As she says in her press notes, “What had started as an archival documentary became a film very much set in the present.”

It’s a shift in approach that focuses the movie on transcendence over trauma. Through the inspirational sagas of its three central figures, “Every Body” resoundingly emphasizes the empowerment that comes with taking control of one’s own narrative, and the freedom and forgiveness that can blossom in a more fully self-actualized life than the one they were encouraged or even coerced to accept in their younger years. Watching Gallo’s tender reminiscences with their mother, or hearing Wall’s empathetic acceptance of his now-deceased parents’ choices for him in the face of what they knew or were told, is a welcome contrast to the often strident dialogue we are growing ever more accustomed to encountering around such matters in the public conversation; at the same time, there’s a deeply satisfying thrill that comes in seeing Weigel stymie a Texas Legislature or shut down a visibly shaken Steven Crowder – the controversial conservative comedian and pundit whose signature schtick spawned all those notorious “Change My Mind” memes – on his own platform by challenging their simplistic conceptions about the biology of gender, reminding us of how formidable we can be when we speak from a truth gained through lived experience.

It’s scenes like these that overcome the dark weight of a less-enlightened past to help the documentary move into the more hopeful light of today’s active struggle for something better. Having claimed, at last, the autonomy over their own body that was denied them as children, these three are ready to stand and fight for a future in which others like them will never have to face what they and countless intersex people throughout history have had to experience. When “Every Body” moves, finally, into the here and now, it drops us into a community made up of individuals who have found each other in spite of the secrecy, whose willingness to share their truth with each other and with their allies has changed the way a generation of intersex individuals learn to think of themselves. It takes us to a rally designed to bring an end to the age of secretive surgeries performed without consent on individuals too young to decide for themselves, channeling the lessons learned and experience gained from the queer and trans rights movements that came before them to work for a cultural shift toward greater acceptance, inclusion, and understanding. It leaves us feeling assured that the oft-horrific mistreatment and forced conformity of past decades might finally be replaced by the kind of compassionate and informed guidance that everyone deserves when it comes to decisions impacting the very core of their identity. Carefully-structured but organically-flowing, and infused with a sense of purpose that avoids the performative grandstanding of culture warfare to find the joy that lies behind the most genuinely persuasive movements for change, Cohen’s documentary makes its statement by leaving us on an “up” note.

Unfortunately, like most such documentaries coming into the world now, as virulent antagonism against all segments of the queer community grows ever more ominous, the optimistic tone that may have seemed appropriate at its inception can’t help but feel a bit out of step. That’s not a flaw in the film, but a gauge of a time that feels a little more precarious than most of us are comfortable with, and when our culture’s long-standing obsession with an “either/or” binary construct of gender – made painfully obvious by the film’s opening montage of elaborate “gender reveal” party stunts – looks more and more like an immovable wedge.

Still, current moods notwithstanding, the fight must go on, and “Every Body” is the kind of movie that can inspire even the most weary warriors to push forward against the tide of closed-minded bigotry that seems so bent on engulfing our nation.

For that reason alone, it comes with our highest recommendation.

‘I wanted to humanize the transgender experience’




It’s probably rare for a film review to begin with a news report about a real-world crime, but “Kokomo City” is a rare film.

On April 18, a transgender woman known as Koko Da Doll was fatally shot in Atlanta. She was the third Black transgender sex worker killed in the city – and the 10th trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence in the US – to that date in 2023.

It was a story that made limited headlines, but comparatively far more (unfortunately) than usually accompany the killings of Black transgender sex workers; that’s because Koko – whose “non-performance” name was Rasheeda Williams – was one of four trans women, from both Atlanta and New York City, profiled in the Sundance-honored documentary “Kokomo City,” which went into limited theatrical release on Aug. 4. and is now available via digital and VOD. The film, which was executive produced by boundary-breaking queer multi-hyphenate talent Lena Waithe (among others), offers a remarkably candid, completely unfiltered, and entirely non-judgmental portrait of its subjects as they share the experiences and observations that have occurred on the job.

In the film, Koko – along with fellow sex workers Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver – provide extensive interviews in which they “get real” about the perspective on life bestowed upon them by their work. Sometimes horrifically shocking, sometimes unflinchingly blunt, their anecdotes paint a portrait of society seen from the bottom up; but it’s a far cry from the hand-wringing and moralizing some might expect to accompany a film about such a subject, instead giving these four fully self-aware individuals a chance to sound off about all the hypocrisies and social stigmas that define and constrain our culture’s view of sex in general, and queer sex in particular, while revealing the intelligence and strong sense of self – and yes, the strong sense of humor, too – necessary to survive as a member of one of the world’s most widely disregarded classes of human being. It’s transgressive in a way that many will find refreshing, even thrilling, but others will find appalling.

As much as we might wish otherwise, most of us are likely to believe that the audience for “Kokomo City” probably won’t include the people who most need to see it. Those who are predisposed to restrictive judgments around sex work and trans people are not likely to add it to their streaming queues – a shame if only for the loss of their own opportunity to recognize and empathize with the humanity of people they would otherwise demonize in their imaginations. That doesn’t matter, however, to the movie’s director – two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith, who made history as the first trans woman cast on a primetime unscripted TV show.

For her feature film directorial debut, Smith aimed to elevate her subject’s voices not just as an expression of queer experience, but of the wider Black experience, as well. Couch-surfing with friends over a three-year period as she collected the material for her movie, she was concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the story these four women had to tell. In its final form, her documentary is a testament to individual truth within a dichotomy that has no space for it; the Black community as a whole, itself ostracized and oppressed within mainstream culture while subject to the strict norms of acceptability built into its own traditions and heritage, has long held a particular stigma against queer sexuality. As Smith offers in her press notes, “So many of our Black children grow up afraid and confused because of traditional values or admissible violence against them, sometimes leading to death. [It’s] a conversation that’s been avoided for many, many years [that] has now taken center stage.”

To hear her four interviewees tell it, those hard-and-fast-beliefs disappear quickly behind closed doors – but even so, in public, the prejudice holds fast. Indeed, Smith offered five other directors the opportunity to helm the project, and all of them balked before she decided to do it herself.

“I went out and bought a camera and a nice lens and filmed it myself.,” she says. “No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.”

Part of that truth, she says, was “to create a film that people outside of the LGBTQ+ community could be drawn to,” but she also wanted to be authentic in her presentation of these women. She was asking them to be real, so she had to be, too.

“At the time of [the film’s] conception,” she says, “there was a lot of transgender content with this narrative I call the ‘red carpet narrative.’ It’s when a fierce PR team puts a trans woman in a fabulous gown and has her speak like a pageant finalist. That’s not our real experience.”

She wanted to present something different. “I wanted to feel something untampered with. Something that looks like my actual experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls down. In this film, I was able to share the private lives of four transgender sex workers who are never represented publicly. I offered the girls freedom. Freedom to talk like us. Look like us. Don’t worry about the politics. Forget about makeup. Don’t worry about calling your glam squad today. Just tell your story. I wanted to humanize the transgender experience.”

Captured in stark-but-stylish black-and-white, “Kokomo City” does exactly that. Putting the spotlight on four women who are anything but the so-called “norm” and who are accustomed to having their voices silenced, or at least ignored, Smith gives us a raw-yet-deeply considered perspective that challenges the audience by taking them out of their comfort zone, yet never ceases to be entertaining.

To be sure, there is an almost a joyous vibe to “Kokomo City,” no doubt largely due to the freeing, cathartic sense of unburdening its subjects must have felt in getting the chance to share their truth with the world.

Sadly, that joy must now be forever tempered by the knowledge that Koko, whose life shines so brightly from the screen, has been lost to us – who, though authorities say there is no evidence her death was motivated by homophobia or transphobia, is nevertheless yet another victim of the deeply embedded hate and violence that haunts our culture and makes movies like this one seem so very, very precious.

At the same time, hearing her voice ring among the others in Smith’s wildly entertaining documentary – which won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Award and has gone on to win acclaim at other festivals including the Berlinale and LA’s OutFest – gives it an even greater sense of urgency, a higher imperative to present both the beauty and vulnerability of trans women, and turns the film into a celebration of her unquenchable light.

It also introduces Smith as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and we are excited to see where she takes us next.

An insightful voice enhanced by artfully cinematic approach to material




Before nonbinary author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 novel “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” was even in print, Amazon wanted to buy the movie rights.

It’s easy to see why. It’s a steamy-but-sweet same-sex romance between a British Royal and the son of the American president that takes place in a world where that president is a woman. Yes, it’s all optimistic fantasy – which is, of course, the whole appeal. Isn’t that what the romance genre is all about?

The book went on to become a bestseller, winning honors at the 11th Annual Goodreads Choice Awards, and Amazon went on to make its screen adaptation, hiring Tony-winning queer playwright Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) not only to co-author the screenplay (with Ted Malaher), but to make his debut as a feature film director. The finished product, which drops on the streaming giant’s platform Aug. 11, validates that choice.

Admittedly, the premise evokes one of those much-maligned Hallmark movies; First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is handsome, charismatic, and popular with the American public; across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) — second in line for the British throne — is equally adulated. Naturally, they can’t stand each other, but after an encounter at a royal wedding that snowballs into an embarrassing incident, they are both under order to enact “damage control” by pretending to be friends. Forced to spend time together, their animosity soon turns to something else, and they are drawn into a deepening romance that might not only threaten the re-election hopes of Alex’s mom (Uma Thurman) but shake the traditions of the British monarchy to their ancient core.

It would be easy enough to dismiss it all as mindless, trope-driven hokum, or to take a perspective from which the whole thing seems like just another iteration of some tried-and-true yet unrealistic “fairy tale,” if not for the insightful voice that is preserved and enhanced by Lopez’s artfully cinematic approach to the material.

Claiming advantage of the change in medium, Lopez achieves a vision of McQuiston’s novel, which captures the essence that has made classics of all the “great” cinematic rom coms. Blending the political idealism and social equity that elevated the screwball classics of the golden age above the melodrama of their predictable plotlines with the elegance and style of the saucier “sex farces” that would come later, he crafts his story by blending the traditional technique-based conceits of old with the form-bending embellishments of the contemporary age; tropes and expectations are turned on their ear by unexpected twists that emphasize modern understanding over social constructs about “normalcy” and the immutability of tradition.

As an aesthetic, Lopez’s collaboration with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (“The Hunger,” “Batman and Robin”) creates a cinematic manifestation of the novel that fully embraces both the heart-on-its-sleeve idealism of the golden age “screwball comedies” — which were always as much about challenging societal norms as they were about escapism — and the stylistically elegant romances of the 1950s, both the overwrought socially relevant melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the racy comedies epitomized by the effervescent Doris Day/Rock Hudson gem, “Pillow Talk,” in a cinematic presentation awash with both the colorful palette and near-surreal visual nuance that marks all the great absurdist comedies of modern cinema history.

For make no mistake, the film adaptation of “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is a gently absurdist comedy in the classic sense. On one level, it makes its points through the sheer ridiculousness of some of its farcical conceits; on another, it drives them home through a plot which dares to suggest that a mere reframing of our expectations is enough to render most of our objections to change antiquated, if not entirely irrelevant. What could be a more relatable way to get that across than a story about two people who realize that being in love is important enough to swim against an overwhelming tide? Even non-queer people can understand what it’s like to be attracted to someone to whom you’re not allowed to be attracted.

These themes, however, though they are there for the taking by anyone who connects the dots to find them, never threaten to overpower the movie’s sentimental tone. Unabashedly idealistic, shamelessly geared to trigger all our warmest, feel-good-iest emotional reactions and reinforce our notions about the inevitable power of love, it plays whole-heartedly into hope and humanism with its insistence on honoring the imperative of inner experience over the imposed demands of an outside world. In today’s atmosphere of scrupulously-managed public persona, such a seemingly-basic but mostly–disregarded outlook on life feels not only refreshing but subversive.

All of this is to drive home the point that while “Red, White, and Royal Blue” might appear to be nothing more than a shallow and simplistic emanation of pop culture, it contains more than enough solid material to make it worthwhile for those who might normally eschew such idealized, borderline-elitist tales of privilege in which a stigma that is unavoidable within most class hierarchies can be overcome thanks to fame, economic advantage, and (yes, let’s admit it) attractiveness. Lopez, bringing his own queer experience to the fore, manages to convey the authentic queer perspective of McQuiston’s book, and that’s what elevates his adaptation of the novel above the level of the typical. None of what we hear, see, or feel is mere “lip service” – it all comes from a genuine perspective in which “why not?” is a valid answer to the question of whether such things are even possible.

From our standpoint, Lopez is the true star of the film, but kudos are definitely deserved by the entire cast, headed by the impossibly beautiful (yet entirely relatable) Perez and Galitzine, whose considerable surface charms are given weight by the emotional truth of their performances and the tangible charge of their onscreen chemistry. Also notable is an awards-worthy supporting turn by Sarah Shahi, as an eyes-on-the-prize deputy chief-of-staff who does her best to manage the political fallout from Alex and Henry’s clandestine affair, and a deliciously ironic appearance by Stephen Fry — second perhaps to only Ian McKellen as Britain’s foremost vocally “out” queer actor — as a tradition-embracing King of England. Thurman, bringing the weight of her “star presence” to the role, makes for a more-than-sympathetic mother (and president) in a performance that plays against tropes to find a human element that transcends concerns of reputation and decorum.

Of course, even if all that praise arises from a genuine appreciation of the film’s artistic prowess, it doesn’t mean that “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is for everyone. If you’re not a fan of rom coms in general, or films that embed idealized hope into their messaging for the presumed sake of reinforcing populist sentiment, it still might not be your cup of tea.

But if you like movies that imagine the world as it could be, rather that the world as it is, it’s a surprisingly welcome treat that may not be as guilty a pleasure as it seems.

New film a ‘truth bomb’ delivered via candy-colored Trojan Horse




When you’re a Barbie, every day is perfect. You get to do whatever you want and be anything you want to be, whether it’s fashion model Barbie or President Barbie, and that’s just the way things naturally are.

When you’re not a Barbie, however, it might look more than a little bit like Barbie privilege.

This is, of course, a perspective flip undertaken by filmmaker Greta Gerwig in her latest film, which brings the doll of its eponymous title into the “real world” to look for answers after she experiences an unexpected existential crisis, in an endeavor to turn it into something deeper than a flashy, over-hyped toy commercial masquerading as a big screen blockbuster. It’s not the only one, but it’s the most obvious, and it has most of the movie’s inexplicably vehement detractors feigning outrage over what they deem as “woke” propaganda.

It’s certainly true that “Barbie” is loaded with the kind of messaging that conservatives deplore. In the screenplay co-authored by Gerwig with partner Noah Baumbach, Barbieland exists through the imagination of all the children who play with her; every Barbie (and Ken) lives there, but the plot focuses on their “stereotypical” iterations (Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling), who are forced to confront the differences between the idealized utopia in which they live and the still-far-from-perfect reality inhabited by their human counterparts. Barbie, crestfallen, just wants to go home – but Ken, after seeing a world where the men seem to be in charge, is inspired with a different notion.

That premise, needless to say, gives Gerwig’s movie plenty of fodder for cultural commentary, and it holds nothing back as it goes after all the usual targets with palpable glee, so it’s no surprise a segment of the population would get their feathers ruffled over it.

What’s less predictable, perhaps, is the level of animosity aimed at the film from quarters one might expect to embrace it. This might be a function of Barbie’s “problematic” image, which has been tarnished by decades of criticism from those who (not wrongly) have called out the iconic doll – and the company that sells it – for promoting an idealized, male-defined image of femininity and undermining its purported message of female empowerment by simultaneously creating an unrealistic body image for women; let’s face it, there are people who just don’t like Barbie, for these reasons and more, and never will.

Since the film clearly addresses these controversies, however, and attempts to move past them toward a more evolved manifestation of the character, one might be tempted to suspect there’s more behind the aversion for the very idea of this movie that compels so many people to belittle it, unprompted, on their social media feeds; and since – despite dismissive declarations of shallowness that have been levied against it, sight unseen, from the moment it was announced – “Barbie” goes much deeper than the predictably divisive political constructs of the so-called “culture wars” in its ambitious effort to be more than we expect it to be, we might be able to look further into those depths for more insightful reasons.

For starters, the path the movie takes to resolve its plot leads through many ideas that, for the more jaded among us, can easily seem like lip service. The idea that empathy, that seeing what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, can fix all the problems of the world is so familiar that it can be reduced to a platitude; it’s a nice sentiment, but only the most romantic of optimists can be convinced of its believability, and perhaps of its sincerity, too. With that in mind, it’s easy to appreciate why so many people might be predisposed to resist its warm-and-cozy appeal.

Then there’s the well-publicized barrage of cinematic references – influences to which Gerwig has given a dizzyingly exhaustive array of shameless nods in her treatment of “Barbie” – that pop up as “Easter Eggs” from the movie’s very first sequence and continue without pause for pretty much its entire runtime. From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Blade Runner,” from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” she lovingly crafts her visuals to evoke connections to myriad classics that have shaped her self-evidently masterful understanding of cinema – but while those might be fun for movie buffs with a penchant for trivia, they don’t do much for the average viewer who has likely never seen anything directed by Jacques Demy, let alone have knowledge about his use of color in crafting the “look” of a film. In fact, knowing that such elements are there could even feel like exclusionary intellectual snobbery.

Still, after experiencing the film firsthand, such reasons feel like excuses to us, rationalizations to justify a dislike that stems from something more personal – and perhaps, more uncomfortable – than the rhetorical stances that often dominate the analysis and judgment of film or any other art form. Though it makes no apologies for its espousal of feminist ideals or any of the other core “liberal” principles it embraces, it nevertheless dares to suggest that the problems of the world can’t be solved by merely upending the status quo. There may be quite a few amusing jokes about “The Patriarchy” involved, but by the time it’s over, “Barbie” posits that tearing it down isn’t really the solution so many of us imagine it to be – and that’s a frightening concept for anyone who is invested in the idea that it is.

There are many standout moments in “Barbie” – and yes, you can take that as an unequivocal recommendation of the film, which to us feels like a disruptive “truth bomb” delivered via a candy-colored Trojan Horse into the heart of contemporary culture and features superb and layered performances, not only from its two oft-maligned leading players but from a host of supporting cast members like Kate McKinnon and America Ferrera (who deserves to be a front-runner in next year’s Oscar race on the strength of one show-stopping monologue alone) as well – but two of these capture its essence. The first is a “Forrest Gump”-ish exchange between Barbie and an elderly woman on a park bench, which consists of only six words; the studio, reportedly, wanted it cut, but Gerwig – who insisted on complete creative control before accepting the job – declined to concede. It’s a transcendent touch, and its power lies beyond words, so we’ll just leave it at that.

The second comes later, when Barbie confides to a mysterious woman (Rhea Perlman) she encounters by seeming chance that “The real world isn’t what I thought it was” – to which she receives the reply, “It never is.”

If “Barbie” can be said to have a moral, that’s probably it – and it’s one that has shaken humanity to its core for centuries.

Is it any wonder that so many human beings, believing themselves to be secure in their unquestioned and pre-programmed personal illusions, don’t want to hear that message?

But what do we know? Taste, like life itself, is a subjective experience, and the only opinion that ever matters – at least for you – is your own.

A stirring look at a signature work by a brilliant queer artist




If the name Taylor Mac is unknown to you, it might conjure images of some hard-edged pop diva, known for a tell-it-like-it-is fierceness and a willingness to dive into their personal life for material – and in truth, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Mac, who conceived, wrote and performed the epic performance event at the center of HBO’s eponymous documentary “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of American Popular Music,” is admittedly hard to classify precisely, though one could use any number of labels – actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer, singer-songwriter – to describe what Mac does. Just as easily, one could invoke his numerous honors and accolades – winner of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony nominee – to get across how well he does what he does. In actuality, none of those clunky, generalized designations convey who Mac is or what Mac creates, which might more aptly be understood as a blend that comes together, as needed, to create something greater – or at least, more provocative – than the sum of its parts.

Challenging, razor sharp in its observations and commentary about American culture, and deliberately confrontational, Mac’s plays and performances are also rife with absurdity, centering themselves in a comedic, deceptively campy vein as they deconstruct the social attitudes that fuel so much of our contemporary “culture wars.” In no case (to date, at least) have Mac’s gifts been distilled so liberally into the fabric of a live performance as in the “24-Decade History” project.

Created in collaboration with musical director Matt Ray over roughly a decade, it was a magnum opus that was performed as intended – as a 24-hour immersive theatrical experience in front of a live audience – only once, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2016. Part performance art, part theatrical extravaganza, part concert, it offered an alternative take on U.S. history, narrated through music that was popular in American culture since its founding in 1776 to 2016. Built on stunning, powerful musical performances and peppered with surprising and revelatory historical interpretation – as well as comedic banter and form-transcendent audience interaction – it wove a narrative compiled from “between the lines” of commonly-held history, exposing things like the casual bigotry at the heart of many of America’s earliest popular songs and the misogyny and homophobia that has continued to permeate its music until the present day; an hour was dedicated to each decade, with Mac decked out in an elaborate new era-specific costume – designed by longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle and incorporating humorous references to American life in each of the 24 decades covered in the show – for each one; each hour, one of 24 onstage musicians would depart the stage, until Mac, alone and unaccompanied except for a ukulele, was left alone to perform original songs for the final hour. It was an electrifying, “you had to be there” event, a true landmark in American theatre which garnered Mac both the afore-mentioned Tony and Pulitzer nods – but unless you were part of the crowd at St. Ann’s Warehouse for that 24 hour marathon performance, you could never “be there” yourself.

Now, thanks to HBO (and Max, where the documentary is currently streaming for subscribers), you can at least come close. As directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who also produced, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of American Popular Music,” offers an opportunity to experience the show in all its subversive, strangely moving glory – or at least, a “Cliff’s Notes” overview of its highlights – with the kind of up-close-and-personal intimacy that even those who were watching it live did not experience. Intercut with interview footage of Mac, as well as collaborators Ray, Dazzle, stage co-director Niegel Smith, and others, it provides insight into the behind-the-scenes technical choices that were geared to enhance and amplify the show’s themes, but still finds plenty of time to document the magnificent musical performances by Mac and fellow musicians, such as singers Erin Hill, Steffanie Christi’an, Heather Christian, Thornetta Davis and Anais Mitchell, among others – not to mention the show’s 24-piece orchestra and a host of shockingly cooperative audience members.

Of course, it cannot be considered a substitute for seeing the entire 24-hour production, which was recreated in six-hour segments (footage from some of these were used in the film alongside the material shot during the original production) for a subsequent national tour after the St. Ann’s performance. Even so, it succeeds better than most performance documentaries in capturing the electric energy of a live performance by someone touched with genius, as Mac surely is, which ultimately serves the film’s true purpose by documenting a queer’s-eye view of history that the heteronormative “mainstream” would prefer to keep buried.

Those who might object to the nuggets of well-researched insight and contemporary interpretation that Mac weaves into the fabric of his performance would likely be among those who find themselves confused by the star’s preferred pronoun – which is “judy” – and not altogether open to the kind of presentation judy uses to get judy’s point across. Nevertheless, the boldness with which Mac infuses judy’s stage persona quickly washes away notions of “inappropriate” or “lewd” to make it clear judy’s intention is simply to howl the truth of judy’s world as loudly as judy ever has, and if some of it makes a few midwestern conservatives clutch their pearls a little tighter, well, that feels like so much the better given Mac’s clearly stated agenda.

That agenda, as laid down by the gifted Mac early on, is to remind us that our history as Americans is in the history of our songs, and that it’s a history shaped by the underdogs and outsiders who saw a vision for a better world beyond the toxic mindsets and social hierarchies that keep many, if not most, human beings from achieving anything close to the true freedom touted by our nation’s forefathers in its gestational years. “I love the idea that a queer body could become the metaphor for America,” Mac tells the camera (and the live audience), and proceeds to remind us that it’s the sense of community, of shared need, that communicates to us through the musical landscape forged by our national chronology.

Of course, the documentary, which delivers a powerful taste of Mac and company’s charismatic and talented performative skills with songs from “Yankee Doodle” and “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Gimme Shelter” and “Born to Run” – is also breathlessly entertaining, and that’s not a bad thing, either. In any case, it’s a stirring and memorable document of a signature work by one of America’s most brilliant queer artists, which makes it essential viewing as far as we’re concerned.

Audible releases spectacular three-hour adaptation of beloved comic




It’s tough being a Wes Anderson fan.

If you are one, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Loving the work of America’s most eccentric filmmaker means accepting the fact that there will always be a significant number of other people who can’t stand it, and that any effort to explain why you like his films to someone who doesn’t has almost as much potential for being divisive as a conversation about politics, though the stakes are admittedly much lower.

It also means putting up with the fact that his quirky directorial aesthetic, which has been parodied for decades now by TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “SNL” and become the inspiration for a massive explosion of AI-aided spoofs all over social media – is now enshrined in popular culture as an easy target for satire, almost certainly familiar to more people as the butt of a joke than as the stylish work of a meticulous auteur. To be fair, though, the jokes are usually funny, and many of those send-ups were made by Anderson fans themselves, paying tribute to the uniquely fey cinematic style they love.

The director’s latest, “Asteroid City,” is bound to provide considerable fodder for both heated debate and high-concept snark; indeed, it is such a “Wes Anderson film” that it sometimes feels like it is making fun of itself – and whether that is a good thing or not may depend on how you feel generally about Wes Anderson films.

Explaining it is complicated, but we’ll try.

The bulk of the movie takes place in a fictional tourist town in the American Southwest – built around the site of an ancient meteorite impact – in 1955; it chronicles an unexpected and mysterious event that occurs there during a convention of junior astronomers, as well as the subsequent impact it has on their lives. Yet the fictional town itself is also fictional, the creation of celebrated mid-century playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), and the story we are seeing is in fact his most famous play; the film simultaneously chronicles that background saga, as told via a vintage TV anthology series, complete with “re-enactments” of crucial episodes that took place during the creation and production of the play itself.

As for the characters, the main focus lands on former war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), whose genius teenage son (Jake Ryan) is being honored at the convention. There’s also a famous movie star (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter (Grace Edwards), a fellow honoree. Others in the mix include Augie’s disapproving father-in-law (Tom Hanks), an Army general serving as host for the event (Jeffrey Wright), the easygoing town mechanic (Matt Dillon), the politely brilliant astronomer in charge of the local observatory (Tilda Swinton), and the shifty manager (Steve Carrell) of the town’s lone motel, where the entire visiting entourage is staying. Outside the action, as it were, we also get to meet the gifted stage director (Adrien Brody) and pioneering method acting teacher (Willem Dafoe) who helped bring the play to life, and the austere but friendly television host (Bryan Cranston) who ostensibly presides over it all. And these are just the most prominent of the film’s two dozen significant characters.

All of that seems like a lot, even for a Wes Anderson movie, which typically features a large ensemble of players in a story that takes unpredictable (and often absurd) turns. Factor in the element of campy homage to the nostalgic science fiction movies of old, complete with UFOs and all the alien conspiracy theories those carry with them, and it becomes apparent that there are a lot of layers here.

Yet those elements are merely a premise, a conceit that establishes the rules of a game that proceeds to get even more “meta” from there. Actors appear in dual roles, both as their character in the central narrative and the fictional-real-life performers that portray them; there’s an inversion of styles that seems to dovetail in on itself, in which a theatrical play is experienced as a contemporary film, the “true” story about said vintage play is set up as vintage TV documentary, and supposed real-life events are presented as scenes from a play – a hall-of-mirrors pattern that suggests the fourth and unseen perspective of a real life audience – which means us – viewing the film itself. Anderson’s movie, as it turns out, is perhaps meant really to be about us, all along.

Even if that interpretation is on target, there’s still plenty of room for the signature Wes Anderson style, in this case taken to new heights of exaggeration; the familiar pastel color palette is now hyper-saturated, evoking hand-tinted vintage postcards or the lurid technicolor of 1950s cinema; that connection is underscored by countless nods to iconic films of the period, including Johansson’s image as both a Hitchcock-inspired icy blonde and an earthy Ava Gardner-esque sex goddess, with a dash of Liz Taylor thrown in for good measure.

Then there’s the inescapable fact of its mid-20th Century setting, which evokes not only the kind of corny “alien panic” sci-fi movies “Asteroid City” affectionately lampoons, but the strong current of worldwide trauma that emerged in the arts and culture of the era. After two world wars and a bomb that introduced the permanent threat of nuclear doomsday to their psyche, humanity was – understandably – preoccupied with finding meaning in a universe that suddenly felt indifferent, and the artists of the day led the search. Since Anderson’s bemusingly post-modern reassembly of these elements is centered on an imagined theatrical masterpiece that emerged from within that zeitgeist, it’s hard not to see a connection being drawn to our own time, when new daily threats force us to endure a similar state of perpetual existential crisis. In any case, Anderson’s familiar blend of precocious whimsy and melancholy nostalgia is tinged with a more profound sadness this time around, even if it is effectively counter balanced by a light heart.

What strikes us at more personal level, though, is the subtle but significant queer core that stems from the creation of the play-within-the-movie by a Tennessee Williams-esque tragic genius – whose presumed queerness is confirmed in a scene too exquisitely orchestrated to spoil. It seems a minor touch, but rather than some token effort at inclusion, it feels like a nod to the unsung influence of queer artists, whose outsider status throughout history has granted them an observer’s eye and played an important role in showing the rest of society the things it might have trouble seeing for itself – as the best artists have always done.

We could say more about this film – the sublime performances, which manage a wealth of emotional range inside the “Andersonian” parameters of the cast’s deadpan delivery; the impossibly kitschy handmade scenery; the self-referential humor that bubbles under so much of what appears on screen – but we won’t. If you’re a fan, you’ll want to pick through the details for yourself.

If you’re not, we know nothing we can say will convince you to see it anyway, and that’s probably for the best.

Despite lacking queer content, new doc is a fun walk down memory lane




“Being Mary Tyler Moore,” a new, 1 hour-59 minute, documentary, directed by James Adolphus, airing on HBO platforms, is a valentine to Moore. It’s impossible to resist its charms, and there’s some saltiness in the midst of its sweetness. Seeing and hearing (if only in brief clips) Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White and other queer icons talk about, hang out with and act with Moore is well worth the watch. As are the moments when Moore forthrightly says what’s she’s thinking. Such as when she takes down David Susskind, a 1960s TV talk show host.

Moore, who died at 80 in 2017, starred in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” two of the greatest TV sitcoms. She received a special Tony for her role in the Broadway play “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her work in “Ordinary People.”

To many women and queers, Moore was a feminist and/or a queer icon.

The documentary opens with Moore’s take-down of Susskind. In a clip from a 1966 interview, Susskind asks Moore blatantly sexist questions. He bemoans the fact that, in his view, married women don’t listen to their husbands. After putting up with his condescension, Moore speaks up. Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminist Mystique” has it right, she tells Susskind. Women, Moore says, should be “a human first, a woman second, and wives and mothers third.”

There isn’t a narrator for “Being Mary Tyler Moore.” This is, at first, disconcerting. But, though the documentary might have benefitted from having a narrator, it doesn’t lack coherence. Through archival footage of televised interviews of Moore (with Rona Barrett and Dinah Shore) and audio, along with a few video clips of colleagues, friends and family talking about and interacting with Moore, we’re given a window into Moore’s life and career.

It’s fun to see clips of Moore singing and dancing with Dick Van Dyke. If you grew up watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the documentary’s clips from the show will bring back fond memories. Those who’ve never watched MTM will come away with an appreciation of why their moms and grandmas loved the series. Watching Moore toss her beret in the air in the clip from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” credits, I recalled what a lifeline Mary Richards was for second wave feminists.

Though a loving portrait, the documentary doesn’t leave out Moore’s struggles with alcoholism or how dysfunctional her family was when she was a child.

Moore married Dr. Robert Levine in 1983. Levine, who was her husband until her death, was a producer of the documentary. Because of this, the documentary has charming home movies of Moore with her dogs and at her bridal shower (where Betty White takes part in roasting the bride to be).

The documentary notes Moore’s superb portrayal in “Ordinary People” of a cold, angry and grieving mother, and of a paralyzed woman in “Whose Life Is It Any Way.”

Going from the sublime to the campy, there’s a clip of Moore with Elvis Presley in the 1969 movie “Change of Habit.”

“Being Mary Tyler Moore” is insightful about the impact of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on women. It’s disappointing that it includes little on the impact the series had on queers. Airing in the decade after Stonewall when TV portrayed LGBTQ+ people as criminals, “sick” or sissies, the series was one of the first on TV to depict being gay in a positive light. The documentary has no clip of the episode “My Brother’s Keeper.”

In that episode, broadcast when being queer was illegal in most states, Phyllis’s brother Ben visits her. Phyllis says, “I’m so relieved,” when she learns Ben won’t marry Rhoda, her nemesis, because he’s gay.

“What is a family?” asks Moore (as Mary Richards) in a clip featured in the documentary, “but people who care about you?” This line has spoken to generations of queers.

Despite my quibble with its queer quotient, this documentary is a keeper. At a time of backlash against women’s reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights, “Being Mary Tyler Moore” is both relevant and entertaining.

Tour-de-force is the timeliest film out there this Pride month




Pride is a celebration, but even in a Pride month filled with tangible triumph on the political front, it’s important to remember that hate and homophobia that seem to be ever-percolating under the surface of society, ready to bubble over as soon as things get hot enough – which is why UK filmmaker Georgia Oakley’s “Blue Jean” might just be timeliest piece of cinema out there this June, despite the fact that it takes place three-and-a-half decades in the past.

Set in the northern UK city of Newcastle in 1988, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government is on the brink of passing “Section 28” (a series of laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”), it takes its title from the name of its lead character, Jean (Rosy McEwen), who works as a gym teacher at a secondary school. Divorced and closeted, her sexuality is known only to her “safe” community of friends – but the new legislation, with its potential impact on her career and livelihood were she to be exposed, causes her increasing anxiety about keeping her queer life secret.

When a new student named Lois (Lucy Halliday) turns up in class – and then later at the gay bar where Jean is hanging out with her lesbian crew, including her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) – things reach a critical breaking point for Jean. Though a connection forms with Lois, who is desperately in need of a mentor to help her through her queer growing pains, she tries to keep her distance – all the while lying to her family and her work friends to avoid socializing with them, terrified of any accidental revelations.

It’s an untenable situation, and things begin to fall apart in her personal life with the defiantly out-and-proud Viv. Finally, an incident between Lois and a classmate named Siobhan (Lydia Page) forces Jean to make a choice: either stand up for the truth and risk exposure or go along with the “official” narrative to preserve her own safety at the expense of a student – and fellow queer person – who trusts her.

Borrowing a page from Britain’s gritty New Wave of the early 1960s, by way of the aloof, observational style of later UK filmmakers like Terence Davies and Andrew Haigh, “Blue Jean” takes aim at the impact of homophobic oppression by focusing on the effect it has upon a single individual. Jean is not a person who still grapples with her sexual identity, but the very real possibility of having her life destroyed for it causes her to act against her own better nature. As presented by Oakley, it’s a character study that illuminates the dilemma created when we are forced to camouflage our authentic selves for the sake of self-preservation; it boils down to a conflict between our survival instinct and our need for self-actualization, fear for our own safety pitted against solidarity with our own community and compassion for others who fall into the crosshairs of bigotry. It’s not pretty – yet at the same time, our empathy cannot help but hold space for Jean, even when her choices are at their most cowardly. After all, when pitted against each other in a fight to merely survive, how many of us can say we wouldn’t act out of the same self-serving motivations?

Does her status as a victim of political and social oppression excuse her for her reluctance to be visible, when others around her – including her own partner and a student half her age – choose a more defiant path? That’s a matter of subjective opinion, and it’s scarcely the point. What matters is that her choices come not from an internal desire to adhere to the status quo but from a not-unfounded fear of having a life she’s worked hard to build for herself be torn down for reasons over which she has no control. In a world that accepted her for who she is, there would be no reason to even consider pretending to be something else. The fault lies not in some weakness of character, but in the closed-minded stigmatization imposed by a culture designed precisely to make her conform to the social “norm”.

Even so, many audiences might find “Blue Jean” a frustrating affair because of its lead character’s reticence to “do the right thing” not just by her community but by her girlfriend, and to stand with those around her who are willing to challenge their oppressors simply by being out. That’s an easy perspective to take in a time and place where acceptance is the prevailing attitude – even if location is a deciding factor in deciding where to spend that summer “gay-cation” while avoiding large swaths of the country and the globe – but Jean’s quandary is undoubtedly much more relatable for those who live outside the urban centers where queer havens are common enough to be taken for granted. Besides, a haven is all well and good, but a paycheck places arguably higher on the hierarchy of needs, and in Jean’s reality, that’s the overriding weak spot that curtails any effort she might wish to make toward living a more authentic – and ethical – life.

Going a long way toward making Oakley’s movie – which is, by the way, her feature film directorial debut – achieve its big-hearted goal of invoking empathy for those still trapped by personal circumstance in a closeted existence, McEwen gives a devastating, savvy, and deeply genuine performance in the central role; her Jean is relatable, sympathetic, and understandable throughout, no matter how much we might wish for her to step up to the plate. It’s a tour-de-force, and a window into a mindset that, while it might not hold quite so much real power in the world of today than it might have done in 1988 Britain, continues to throw obstacles in our path every step of the way. If not for the single-minded purpose that comes through in Oakley’s screenplay and directorial clarity, “Blue Jean” would belong completely to her; as it is, her performance is still a riveting and deeply insightful portrait of someone trying to act as if everything is “fine” while the house around her is being burned to the ground by people who want to legislate her and her kind out of existence. Let’s face it, we can all find some semblance of commonality in that.

As to how it all turns out, we’re obviously not going to spoil any of that – though we will mention that the movie doesn’t end with the same angry-but-hopeless resignation left by so many like-minded films. Beyond that, all we can say is that “Blue Jean” never succumbs to the temptation of judging the past by the standards of the present – and since it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize the similarity between Thatcher’s “Section 28” and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, it also doesn’t take much to see how Oakley’s movie – which won the People’s Choice Award at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for a BAFTA as Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer – strikes a chillingly apropos note in America today.

Troubled nonbinary star Ezra Miller delivers tour-de-force performance




It’s not often that we at the Blade feel compelled to review a “big box” Hollywood franchise movie. That’s not a judgment; it’s just that such movies are made to please their intended audience, not the critics. Fans are going to like what they like, regardless of what we think.

But “The Flash” – the latest entry in the DC Comics movie franchise, officially open in theaters as of June 16 – is something different.

We don’t mean it isn’t a typical franchise film; in fact, much of the movie, a largely standalone film in the DC “Extended Universe,” falls predictably in line with the usual value-reinforcing melodramatic storytelling that drives almost every superhero film ever made. It follows the efforts of its title character – whose real identity is that of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a young forensic scientist working to prove his imprisoned father’s innocence in his mother’s murder – as he uses his superhuman speed to turn back time and attempt to prevent the incident that caused her death in the first place, against the advice of his friend and Justice League mentor Batman (Ben Affleck, reprising the role). Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as planned, and Barry inadvertently thrusts himself into an alternative timeline where his mother’s survival is only one of many significant – and potentially catastrophic – changes. He’s forced to team up with his own younger self (also Miller) – as well as an alt-reality version of Batman (Michael Keaton, also reprising the role) – to set things right, which not only involves finding a way back to his own strand of the multiverse, but helping to prevent an apocalypse he has inadvertently caused in the new one.

As an installment in the larger tapestry being woven-as-they-go by the DCEU, “The Flash” represents a considerable departure, in the sense that it takes a much lighter tone than the edgy darkness that has marked the franchise ever since it was launched with filmmaker Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” Snyder’s dark vision for the characters and storylines was a point of contention with both the studio and fans from the beginning, ultimately leading to the debacle of 2017’s “Justice League” – a notorious box office flop after being retooled by director Joss Whedon following Snyder’s departure from the project due to a family tragedy – and sparking divisive opinions from DC fans over the incongruity between styles. A later “director’s cut” by Snyder (released in 2021), though greeted with a friendlier fan response, nevertheless elicited widely varied opinions about which approach they preferred.

With “The Flash,” however, the franchise has fully embraced the lighter touch. As directed by Andy Muschietti from Christina Hodson’s screenplay, it wastes no time in establishing a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential style, playing Barry’s initial adventure of the film – dealing with the collateral damage from Batman’s over-the-top capture of a would-be bio-terrorist – mostly for giddy laughs. It’s a sequence, which, had he had the technology to make it happen, would have seemed right at home in one of Buster Keaton’s elaborately slapstick silent comedies.

That comedic thread runs throughout, giving the film an almost camp sensibility (not the accidental kind, but the truly delicious, intentional variety) and an overall buoyancy that has more in common with the lightweight superhero movies of the past than with Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy or the “Avengers” films – though it’s worth noting that it occasionally evokes comparison with Taika Waititi’s near-farcical “Thor” movies. Indeed, at times, it feels almost like a winking parody of the genre itself, using the familiar cliches and conventions – as well as the now-obligatory fan “Easter eggs,” here taken to an exponential level by the waggish return of Keaton’s iconic Batman (performed with obvious relish in a standout supporting turn), not to mention quite a few other “surprise” nods to former iterations of the DC film canon – not only to make fun of superhero movies in general, but sometimes even to good-naturedly troll the audience itself.

This, of course, may not sit well with fans who favor a more solemn and serious approach to the material; but “The Flash” still takes itself seriously enough to deliver a story which, though hardly original (again, part of the movie’s deliberate “meta” underpinnings), provides enough drama, action, and reasonably solid character development to satisfy audiences more interested in rooting for their comic book heroes than laughing at them – though it must be mentioned that some of the special effects look oddly rudimentary, especially in comparison with the impressive seamlessness of the film’s many “double Barry” scenes. In addition, it’s clever enough to use its exploration of time travel as a just-subtle-enough analogy for managing – or rather, coming to terms with – the consequences of our actions in the real-life corner of the multiverse we’re seemingly stuck with, and that goes a long way toward making the whole thing feel like much more than juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy.

None of these, however, is why “The Flash” feels noteworthy to the Blade; for many of our readers (the non-superhero fans among them, anyway), its point of interest likely lies in its star –Miller, who is the first out nonbinary person to play the lead role in a major superhero franchise film. Recognized for their intelligence, intensity, and imagination since an early career that included breakout roles in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” they bring those gifts to the table in full force here, playing two versions of the Flash opposite themself with what seems like effortless grace and precision – apt adjectives to describe a performance that also highlights their skill as a physical performer. It’s an engaging, endearing tour-de-force that arguably carries the film on its own strength; and as a bonus, the inclusion of out actress Kiersey Clemons as the Flash’s love interest lends a welcome sense of queerness to the pairing that enhances, rather than undermines, their chemistry together.

Yet Miller’s triumph might be bittersweet; their well-publicized unstable conduct offscreen – about which we won’t go into detail here, save to say that it involves arrests and citations for harassment, assault, and burglary, as well as accusations of even more troubling behavior – has rendered them a liability for the DC franchise, which reportedly considered shelving the film before its star apologized for their actions and agreed to enter treatment for mental health issues. Their continuation in the role for future films – and likely also in their acting career – hinges on the success of that treatment.

Though it’s understandable that many DC fans might object to Miller’s participation in the franchise due to the nature of some of the allegations against them, “The Flash” is ample evidence of both their exceptional talent and their star appeal. Queer representation aside, it would be a true loss for them to be derailed by mental health, and we, like all their other fans, are pulling for Miller.

In the meantime, the best way to show support might just be to go see “The Flash” – which is smart and entertaining enough to be enjoyed even by those who don’t like superhero movies, and possibly loved by those who do.

Cinematic proof that homophobia threatens millions around the world




Pride is a time to celebrate, of course, but it’s also a time to remember the struggle, and the fight that continues around the world for the right of LGBTQ people to live freely as they are. This week, the Blade takes a look at two new international releases that remind us that, for many people, homophobia still threatens millions of queer people around the world.

First up, from Italian filmmaker Pasquale Marrazzo comes “The Neighbor” (titled “Hotel Milano” in Italy and available via Digital/DVD from June 6), a supremely crafted, starkly observational drama about a gay couple – Riki (Michelle Costabile) and Luca (Jacopo Costantini) – whose love story is blindsided by violence.

After a gay-bashing incident leaves Luca on life support in a hospital, his family refuses to let Riki come to see him – though Luca’s sister, Rachelle (Luisa Vernelli) is sympathetic enough to keep him informed about his partner’s status as he fights for his life in a medically induced coma. Between pleading with her to intervene on his behalf to Luca’s deeply religious mother (Lucia Vasini) and fending off efforts of help and comfort from his own emotionally-needy mom (Rossanna Gay), he recalls defining moments of their relationship – as well as long-repressed secrets in his personal history – as he tries to come to terms, on his own, with the possibility of unthinkable loss.

In terms of cinematic weight, Marrazzo delivers in style, masterfully using flashbacks to infuse nuance as it moves the story toward what feels like an inevitable conclusion. With a shrewd eye, he hones in on the ways that shame and judgment based on “forbidden” forms of sexuality spread their poison throughout the intimate lives of everyone they touch.

Needless to say, it’s pretty bleak. Something of a spiritual sister to “Brokeback Mountain,” Marrazzo’s harrowing tale spins a harsh indictment of hate and intolerance by leaning into the familiar trope of queer victimhood – a cliché which, sadly, still rings true despite decades of advancement in the worldwide struggle for acceptance – and asking us to endure, along with its protagonists, an unthinkably harsh worst-case scenario in order to illuminate the impact of the intolerance and hate that lie behind it. It’s a movie which, had Hollywood made it, could be about the triumph of love; but devoid of that special American movie magic, and instead steeped in an Italian neo-realism that goes back to the country’s post WWII years, it offers a refreshingly unsentimental “Romeo and Juliet”-esque tale of a love that’s doomed by a mindset based in hate.

With superlative performances from Costabile and Costantini – who make the troubled Riki and the open-hearted Luca, respectively, feel heartbreakingly authentic both as a couple and as individuals – and a uniformly outstanding cast of players on hand to deliver support, it’s a powerful, gripping piece of cinema that avoids pandering to romanticism in order to drive home its message about the tragedies that might be avoided in a world less obsessed with judging others over our own personal beliefs, whether “deeply held” or not.

It’s also mercilessly grim; while it both begins and ends with tenderness and positivity as its two young lovers blissfully enjoy being together in a park, it gives us an uncompromising and sometimes almost unbearably hopeless perspective on the impact a deeply ingrained, traditionally religious cultural bias can have on even the most private lives of anyone who lives outside that rigid norm. For American audiences – especially those fortunate enough to live within urban “bubbles” where the realities of anti-queer prejudice rarely interfere with our ability to live without fear of stigma or worse – that might feel like a bit of throwback; in Marrazzo’s homeland, however, where a swing toward right-wing extremism (championed by nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni) has found eager support among the country’s hard-coded Catholic population, it might seem more like a defiant plea for compassion and humanity, aimed at opening hearts and minds rather than capitalizing on the self-prophetic doom and gloom of indoctrinated queer self-loathing.

That makes it a highly recommended addition to your Pride month watchlist – but if you’re one of those people who is done with stories that turn our lives into tragedies (and we can’t say we blame you), you might want to give this one a pass despite the important truth it speaks to power.

“Horseplay” (Digital/DVD from June 13), from Argentine director Marco Berger, is hardly a more uplifting film, but it does offer the sex appeal afforded by an impossibly hot cast of young male stars filmed mostly in various stages of undress – an enticement that sounds entirely inappropriate, but gets to the heart of the film’s exploration of (once again) homophobia and its relationship with the distorted idealization of masculinity that drives it.

Set at a luxury villa in the countryside of Argentina, it follows a group of friends who have gathered for a summer holiday getaway, where the mix of drinking, drugs, and youthful testosterone results in predictably crass but relatively harmless hijinks and a few embarrassing photos, mostly driven by mockingly homophobic insinuation and ridicule; it’s all in good fun – just bros being bros, right? – at first, but as the week progresses, underlying insecurities, secrets, jealousies, and other deep-rooted by-products of toxic masculinity begin to bubble closer to the surface, and the pressure under the boys’ high-spirited, boundary-crossing hedonism begins to build toward something far less innocent.

To give away more detail would undo the movie’s carefully layered revelation of detail, which makes for a fascinating study of immature masculinity and the not-so-subtle social coercion that perpetuates a rigid, mostly heterosexual norm. Berger’s point, underscored by the film’s blatantly gay “male gaze” and its characters’ seeming obsession with all things “homo” as a running theme in their various harassments of each other, seems to be that the most virulent homophobia comes in people who are hiding their own queerness from the world – and probably themselves, too. It’s scarcely a new concept, but in a world where anti-LGBTQ bigotry seems to be working overtime to assert its prejudices against anyone who loves differently, it’s a helpful reminder that our enemies are motivated by small-minded fear, whatever ideological rhetoric or religious dogma they may spout at us to justify it.

Unfortunately, though Berger employs a fly-on-the-wall aloofness in his film’s scenario, much of it feels forced, weighted to lead us to a desired conclusion. The casual intimacy of ostensibly straight companions seems a little too intimate, their eagerness to “feign” sexual attraction for each other a little too eager; further undermining the effect, the large number of characters in the ensemble makes it occasionally difficult to keep track of who they are and what relationships they have with each other.

Even so, its insight into hyper-hypermasculinity and its correlation with social condition around sex and gender norms rings true, even if the same cannot always be said of what we see on the screen. And although it may, like “The Neighbor,” be a little too dark for some, it offers up plenty of “eye candy” by way of compensation – so why not enjoy it?

It is Pride month, after all.

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Murray MelvinRita TushinghamSean Saifa WallAlice Roth WeigelRiver GalloKoko Da Doll“Kokomo City”Taylor Zakhar PerezNicholas GalitzineTaylor Mac“Asteroid City,”Rosy McEwenEzra Miller“The Neighbor”“Horseplay”