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THE NIGHT THE TIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA - My Review Of AND THEN WE DANCED (3 1/2 Stars)
Sometimes it's important to view a film through the lens of its country of origin. What may seem standard for us may feel globally shifting for others. I came to Levan Akin's And Then We Danced with this in mind, knowing full well that the LGBTQ+ communities in Tblisi, Georgia do not enjoy the same rights or even recognition as their more westernized counterparts. The story of a young male dancer navigating his burgeoning gayness in a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture may seem quaint to others, but by immersing myself in his existing circumstances, I walked away mostly charmed and enlightened despite an often formulaic approach.
Akin, a Swedish citizen of Georgian descent, tells the story of Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani, a member of a traditional Georgian dance troupe, who at the outset gets called out by his macho, conversative coach Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) for dancing too softly. Telling everyone that there is no sex in Georgian dancing, his not-so-subtle warning has clearly been aimed at Merab. In fact, one of Merab's contemporaries has been expelled from the troupe for a gay incident. Enter the charming, handsome Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a highly skilled dancer who replaced the ousted member and just in time for an important upcoming tryout. Merab's glances towards Irakli tell us everything we need to know despite Merab having a girlfriend, a fellow dancer named Mary (a sly, subtle performance from Ana Javakishvili). Irakli takes Merab under his wing as they rehearse their auditions together. Of course they fall in love, yet society rears its ugly head by putting countless obstacles in their paths. Still there's no stopping the attractions at play. Between the recent Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and this, they could launch a thousand college theses on same sex gazes.
In a strange way, the film plays like a male Flashdance. Take away the welding helmet and the buckets of water at the strip bar, and you have the story of a working class person who navigates romance on the way to a big, climactic audition scene. They both feel slightly undercooked as well, but at least this film has a society to blame for people not getting to live their authentic lives. It's very easy as a Westerner to yell back at the screen, "Why don't you just kiss him?", but the lives of queer people in so many parts of the world don't allow for it.
Gelbakhiani gives such a beautifully sensitive performance as a man who excels at making Mary think there's something there between them while beelining towards the real truth behind his affections. With very little dialogue about this dichotomy, Gelbakhiani almost entirely conveys his thoughts through his expressive eyes. Valishviki uses his smile and good looks to give a more traditional leading man performance. His makes his journey feel quite touching as he's faced with a decision to either please society or himself. I also really liked the actors who played Merab's parents and grandmother, all of whom were dancers, and feel very protective over Merab and his less dedicated, drug-dealing brother David (a vivid Giorgi Tsereteli), who barely makes an effort at the dance academy.
Through David, the coach, and the menacing owner of the troupe, we experience the ultra-macho side of Georgian life. Dance, to them, feels like a way to glorify the patriarchy, giving permission for men to treat women, as well as anyone who threatens their worldview, terribly. Luckily, the film takes us on a brief interlude into the underground gay world of Tblisi, giving us a shred of hope that there's a life beyond the norms. Akin, however, stays true to the culture he depicts, eschewing fantasy for what seems like a tiny baby step at the very end. Consider it Stonewall, Georgian style.
Cinematographer Lisabi Fridell and Production Designer Tee Baramidze capture the Post-Soviet look of the drab interiors and the amber hues emanating from the street lights. It works well to portray Merab's surroundings as ones he should attempt to escape. This contrasts beautifully to a key sequence in which he and his friends take a trip to a country villa. Everything seems more possible here than in their oppressive urban prison.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard that "coming out" stories just aren't interesting anymore, but without films like And Then We Danced, it's easy to forget how revolutionary it may seem for those who live in much less forgiving cultures. At its Georgian premiere, in fact, anti-gay protesters tried to shut it down. Luckily, they screened it anyhow. I consider that an incredible accomplishment for a film many would say has its shares of cliches. For that, and for the wonderful performances and the authentic design and filmmaking, I'm very happy it has found its place in the world.
SUBTERRALIEN - My Review of UNDERWATER (3 Stars)
Ahh, the new year. A time to make resolutions. A time to hit reset. A time to make a fresh start. A time to delay a film review or two, but I had a bad cold for the entire first month of the year, so yes this is late! It's a time when you can catch up on the films from the prior year which have generated Oscar buzz, and, sadly, it's also a time when movie duds get foisted upon an unsuspecting public. They call January the Studio Dumping Grounds for a reason. That's why a movie like Underwater never had a chance. Shot over three years ago for Twentieth Century Fox, the new Disney regime let it sit on a shelf until that proper slot reserved for their bastard step-children reared its ugly head. Clearly marketed to look like a cheap knockoff of Alien, except under the ocean, the film, strangely enough, rises above, if only slightly, its designated release date.
Director William Eubank, working from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, displays a lot of talent with his ability to keep things moving while achieving an impressively claustrophobic and unnerving sense of tone. Unlike Ridley Scott's classic, unfortunately, the film spends almost no time setting up its characters. Scott's deliciously slow first 40 minutes before that first facehugger attack adds so much to the terror, because we've become invested in the people in the crosshairs.
No such luck here, although one could commend the filmmakers for jumping into their story at lightning speed and sustaining its propulsive energy from beginning to end. We first meet Norah (Kristen Stewart) as she brushes her teeth while wearing sweats and a sports bra. After a couple of lines of ominous voiceover, in which she informs us that sometimes you cannot tell what's real and what's not, we get our inciting incident. No need to wait for it, because immediately, something, perhaps an earthquake, rattles her station near the bottom of the Mariana Trench. As the station begins to flood, Norah barely makes it to safety, along with a small handful of Monster Food, also known as her crew mates. They entail a refreshing mix of solid actors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) and T.J. Miller, who does his best Bill Paxton in Aliens imitation. It should spoil nothing that one by one, we experience many deaths until Final Girl Ripley…er…Norah…ends up racing around an escape pod in her panties.
The thin but mercifully short storyline asks our cast of characters to hike on foot from their ruined station through a murky, almost completely dark pathway to the aforementioned pod. Fortunately, Eubank knows how to mine suspense out of each moment, resulting in a series of gorgeously directed and satisfying set pieces. Things may get confusing when one can barely make out the imagery, but it feels deliberate. Eubanks wants to disorient us, so mission accomplished. The addition of undersea monsters, or perhaps aliens, effectively creeped me out, especially when one of them tries to devour one poor human, scuba helmet and all.
Despite most cast members barely registering, including an incredibly tired and offensive trope involving the first victim, Stewart gives a commanding, dynamic performance. If you're gonna rip off Alien, right down to the strobing lights, the incessantly squawking station computer voice, and Stewart's Ripley-esque way of looking to her side in terror (see poster art), then at least we have a star who knows how to bring nuance and vulnerability to every moment she's onscreen. Frankly, I could watch Stewart trying to override a computer all day long. She commits fully to the heavy breathing and the almost violent determination in a way we haven't seen since Weaver yelled at "Mother" in a futile effort to stop the Nostromo from self-destructing.
By the end, I thought to myself, "I didn't hate this. It did leave a sour taste in my mouth with its somewhat hidden message that single people are doomed, but it's all in service of an ending which may take people by surprise. It's not particularly good, but it's well made and suspenseful. Not the worst January Dumping Ground movie I've seen by a long shot." For that, we can all be grateful that Underwater kicked off 2020 in a "not terrible" fashion. I'd like a lot more "not terrible" in what could be a very trying year.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I'll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Underwater gets a 30 out of 50. There's no denying that queer icon Kristen Stewart oozes a sort of sapphic, sporty girl energy, and this film showcases it perfectly. Although the film lacks specific gay content, it's obvious that young queer kids will look up to Stewart after seeing her throw herself into this role with such sexy physicality.
RUDY CAN'T FAIL - My Review of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (4 1/2 Stars)
Every now and then, a movie energizes me in unexpected ways. When I first saw Animal House, I immediately wanted to start a food fight in the cafeteria. Aliens excited me so much, it remains the only film where I turned around and saw the very next showing. Now, along comes Dolemite Is My Name, from director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) and it makes me wanna drive around the country with a bullhorn shouting at everyone to drop everything and watch this hilarious, engaging heartwarming, fantastic, true story of a film.
Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a down on his luck 1970 Los Angeles entertainer. When we first meet him, he's trying to get some of his musical recordings past a DJ (a funny Snoop Dogg) at the record store where they work. We see in this scene how Rudy handles rejection. He's confident and unflappable, which makes you instantly fall in love with him. "A man slams a door in my face," he says, "So I just find another door." How could you not want to follow a character like this wherever he goes? As his Aunt (a perfect Luenell) hears about his comedy aspirations, she lists out his other talents, which includes singing and…wait for it…shake dancing. Murphy finds the never-say-die energy of this man to make you believe he could do pretty well on the non-existent shake dancing circuit.
At night, he tries to win over an audience with hack jokes, but he soon realizes he lacks a clear voice. Like any good writer, he looks around for inspiration and finds it with a group of homeless men in his neighborhood. One man in particular, Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) spins vulgar tales with such elegance, it sounds like early rap. Rudy turns this into his alter ego, Dolemite, a cane wielding, suave pimp, who electrifies the usually docile crowd at the club.
Soon thereafter, Rudy gets a comedy record deal and takes his act on the road. Although a regional success, Rudy has an epiphany in a movie theater one night and realizes he could reach a larger audience and not have to tour as much if he were to make a film. The rest of the story gloriously shows us the process of making his first movie, Dolemite, and creating a sensation as a blaxploitation star. Rudy's can do spirit may not have made him as big of a name as Ron O'Neal or Pam Grier, but many have mentioned his character as an inspiration in the rap and hip hop world. The man left a fantastic legacy.
Much like Ed Wood, the film serves as a beautifully specific look at fringe filmmakers struggling to get their movies made. Murphy clearly knows Rudy's world and invests his character with unforgettable detail and power. It may play to Murphy's comedic style, but his more serious moments never feel melodramatic. He stays true to Rudy's undying will.
While Murphy delivers a galvanizing performance and deserves every award, he heads an extremely strong cast. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jerry, a playwright Rudy ropes in to write Dolemite. Jerry wants to write important plays and haughtily resists the lowdown quality Rudy requires, and it's a joy to watch Jerry come around to embrace the bad acting, the karate chops, the terrible gun play and the insane slapstick. Tituss Burgess (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson contribute fun performances as Rudy's support staff, with Tituss playing a more subtle type of gay man than his signature Titus Andromedon. It works and with Murphy's past issues with gay material, it's delightful to see him thriving opposite Tituss for such a large chunk of the film. Fun fact: Kodi Smit-McPhee plays real life UCLA Film Student and Dolemite cinematographer, Nick von Sternberg, son of the legendary director, Josef von Sternberg. His entrance into the film, wherein novice filmmakers meet even more novice filmmakers, makes for one of the many gems this movie has in store for viewers. We haven't even talked about the shaking bed scene, the outrageous car chase, or the iconic moment the gang put on their finest to meet with the suits and strut towards camera in slow motion.
Wesley Snipes makes a fantastic return to movies with his scene stealing role as D'Urville Martin, a pretentious, semi-successful actor Rudy hires to direct Dolemite. When the production runs off the rails, D'Urville's reactions could serve as a roadmap to a perfect character arc. Just watching him call "Action" alone has provided me with endless, gleeful replays. Welcome back, Wesley! Forget action films. Comedy needs you!
Everyone, however, needs to move over and acknowledge Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Lady Reed. Rudy meets this defiant, larger than life firecracker on the road and immediately hones in on a life of pain which would make for a great comedienne. Their double act is hysterical, but as she joins the cast of his film, she transforms into a gorgeously generous woman whose gratitude for being put on screen made for the first of many times I outright bawled.
Brewer does an excellent job of keeping this juggernaut moving along at a crisp pace, and he nails the period details. Alexander and Karaszewski's writing gives us characters not only to root for, but to yearn for and wish them happiness. It may not be the deepest film, but it moved me. They walk a fine line between laughing at the cinematic ineptitude on hand and finding true value in how it made the black community feel. Behind the laughter, people felt empowered. People felt strong. People felt they had a film genre of their own. In the final scene of the film, they lay it all out there and damned if I wasn't sobbing. I felt that rare energy I always want from a movie. So of course, I immediately texted a friend with, "Watched Dolemite Is My Name. Holy Christ is it good!"
I have two words for you: Cats.
But that doesn't make sense, you say? Exactly.
Back in college, it seemed like every performing arts major had that Harvey Edwards "Leg Warmers" photo hanging on their wall. You know the one with the well-worn stockings and the tattered, duct-taped ballet slippers in plié? It signified a commitment to T.H.E. T.H.E.A.T.R.E. - a world of over-enunciations, mid-Atlantic accents, treading the boards, finishing lines to the very end of one's finger tips, and playing to the back row!
I'm convinced Cats was made for them, not only to enjoy but to be a part of in order to hone their "craft". I mean this in a loving, celebratory way. Cats may enter the history books as a gasp-inducing, surreal, plot-free nightmare of gargantuan proportions, but this one's for all the theater geeks who lived to strut across the stage and put on a show. It's that Theater 101 Class which decided to very publicly let the rest of the world in to see its students "be a cat" for a couple of hours.
Tom Hooper, who turned Les Miserables, a show I genuinely love, into a fish-eyed, overwrought live singing, dutch-angled disaster, expands his repertoire a little bit here, but not enough to convince me he should continue directing musicals. He keeps things moving along but the script he co-wrote with Lee Hall doesn't do him any favors. I found myself entertained by individual moments, but nothing really adds up to a contained whole
By now, I think everyone knows that Cats doesn't really have much of a story. A bunch of felines introduce themselves in song until an elder cat selects one of them for the honor of dying, going to kitty Heaven, and being reborn to experience the next one of their nine lives. Think of it as American Idol for the meow crowd, replete with its own Simon Cowell-esque villain. Idris Elba plays Macavity, who tries to destroy the competition by turning them into some type of mist and rebirthing them on a barge in the Thames! Yeah, that tracks.
It all plays out like some long lost variety special from the 1970s. Google Shields And Yarnell if you have to, and then imagine them hissing and prancing around a soundstage as the words "Cats" and "Jellicles" bore their way into your brain. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, an abandoned cat who acts as our entree into the Picadilly Circus world of our cast. Rebel Wilson pops in to pulverize a character named Jennyanydots, followed by James Corden doing the same with Bustopher Jones. Some lesser known actors show the big celebs how to do it right such as Laurie Davidson as the magician Mr. Mistoffelees and Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, who looks like a young Stephen Colbert in a cat suit. Jennifer Hudson oozes snot and phlegm as the tragic Grizabella, who oversings "Memory" but still managed to make me cry. Jason Derulo appears long enough to put down some outdated funk into our ears. Dame Judith Dench and Sir Ian McKellen appear as elder statescats and commit fully to their Glenda The Good Witch and Mr. Cellophane roles respectively. Taylor Swift appears long enough to convince us that her fake English accent on her hit "Blank Space" was no fluke. Still, I enjoyed her shimmying and sprinkling glitter down on the crowd from atop a descending moon…and that, my friends, is not a sentence I expected to write when I woke up this morning.
Many have quibbled about being able to see Old Deuteronomy's (Dame Dench) wedding ring, but who cares? Unfinished CGI? Crew members in the background? Inconsistent proportions? Furry bodies with human hands and feet? Cats wearing furs made from other cats? Bring it! You're all literally crying over spilled milk. When nothing makes sense, why should anything?
In a script where nothing builds from one moment to the next, the emotional ricochet of it all doesn't do character development or a plot any favors, but it does produce some standout moments. I enjoyed the Artful Dodger "Consider Yourself" type number by Skimbleshanks, the cat who lives on a train, especially when the cast dances on the tracks across London in an extra wide shot. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who created the stage musical and clearly has never met a melody he didn't repeat over and over, cribs from his Jesus Christ Superstar "Hosanna" song with Mr. Mistoffelees' big number, but damned if I wasn't singing along to it anyhow.
Not everything works, of course. Most of it doesn't. The creepy CGI will haunt my dreams, replacing images of Linda Blair vomiting pea soup with uncanny valley humanoids shaking their furry asses in my face. I found what choreography I could see as being uninspired, although it's hard to tell when it gets chopped to bits. The color palette can best be described as Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland threw up on Tim Burton's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and out of the ooze came a mutant version of Moulin Rouge and Chicago. I even take issue with Old Deuteronomy's choice at the end. There's one cat who literally saves her life, yet somehow she doesn't consider that worthy enough. Besides, who really wants to win a contest where the prize is dying, hanging onto a Phantom Of The Opera chandelier attached to a hot air balloon and ascending to some place called the Heavyside Layer? No thanks, I'll take my chances in hell, Dame Dench!
In conclusion, everyone should see Cats. I shouldn't be the only one. When as the last time you left a movie theater with your jaw on the floor? When was the last time you have no idea what you saw, but consider the three vodka tonics and discussion you had with friends afterwards to be a life highlight? When was the last time you saw a musical with only one truly memorable song? Ok, I know the answer to these questions is The Greatest Showman, but now you have Cats! Long live terrible movie musicals! Long live rubbernecking at accidents! Long live the theater nerds who just wanna show off their can-do spirit and give it the old college try! Long live Harvey Edwards! Long live Cats! Now and forever and probably just for the next two weeks at a theater near you.
Men have been looking at women in films since the very beginnings of mainstream moviemaking, but only in recent decades have we seen the opposite. Of course, queer cinema has very much flipped the script on this notion, making the looks given between the same sexes into a veritable trope of its own. Now with the remarkable, masterful Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the gaze not only illuminates the seen but the seer as well. With such a deceptively simple premise and very spare dialogue, this gorgeously shot film achieves unforgettable levels of complexity and feelings. Take that, queer tropes!
Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy), sets her film in late 18th century France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant ), a painter, receives a commission from La Comtesse (Rain Man's Valeria Golino). She's hired to create a portrait of La Comtesse's daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel ) to entice an Italian suitor. Héloïse has recently found herself kicked out of a convent for mysterious reasons and now lives at home with her mother and their chambermaid Sophie (Luana Bajrami ). Emotionally frail, Héloïse has also lost a sister to an apparent suicide and refuses to sit for a painting. Marianne must study her subject on their daily walks and paint her secretly at night entirely from memory.
Without an incredible filmmaker, this storyline may appear routine, but Sciamma has the visual language skills to create great tension and beauty out of people gazing at each other. An early scene of our two leads walking along an oceanside cliff strikes gold every time Héloïse turns around to notice Marianne studying her. We feel an artist sizing up her subject as much as we feel the sexual attraction beginning to blossom. Sciamma also holds out a stunning surprise later on with regard to those looks. This reveal turns an already beautiful love story into something far more profound.
Sciamma also plays with gender identity quite a bit, with Marianne's first pass at the portrait giving Héloïse a more traditionally masculine countenance. Despite her big, billowy skirts, Marianne also leans into more male traits such as her strong jawline and penchant for smoking pipes. Unshaved armpits may have been the norm at the time, but it also enhances Sciamma's premise even more.
Throughout the film, we experience the artist's painstaking process, basically tearing up each draft until she captures Héloïse's essence. As their love grows, so do Marianne's skills. In the second act, circumstances leave the pair alone with Sophie, who faces an extreme challenge of her own. Free from the strict rules of society, this trio laughs, drinks, plays games and in a great scene, attend an all-female ritual which leads to the image in the title. The title, however, applies to all three of our heroines, who, when given the chance to be themselves, burn with ferocity. It's a distinctly feminist point of view with the added grace of humanism.
A lesser director would have pushed their ideas to the fore more than their characters, but Sciamma clearly understands that the personal is political. We grow to love these women because they refuse to succumb to Hallmark sentiments. Sciamma and her extremely talented cinematographer, Claire Mathon (Stranger By The Lake, another queer classic), favor austerity with occasional bursts of color to establish the film's bleak mood. Much of the movie lives in the gorgeous candle light and stark framing. Characters have been established so well, that when we see our main trio of women walking outside at dusk in exquisite silhouette, we know exactly who is who. Production Designer Thomas Grézaud understands the contained Manor should feel like a prison at times and an oasis at others. The craftsmanship and control of tone reminded me in parts of Michael Haneke's White Ribbon and Jane Campion's The Piano, with a little bit of Bergman's Persona thrown in there for good measure. It's a heady combination, but Sciamma feels ready to play with the other auteurs.
All of this comes together to support its stunning cast. While Golino and Bajrami contribute perfectly realized performances, Merlant and Hanel bring their story to aching life. Merlant has the rare ability to allow us to see clear through her icy exterior, and when she finally cracks a smile, we melt along with her. Hanel, who delivered strong work in BPM (Beats Per Minute), has the tough assignment of making us care for this upper class, somewhat charmless woman. One of the great pleasures of the film comes when Héloïse steps more and more into the world of "the help" to discover who she is and what she truly wants. Art, as always, is the great leveler. Of course, true equality for queer people did not exist in the 1700s, so it would feel disingenuous to assign a happy ending here. What we get instead leads to a final shot of such raw emotion and power, we can't help but think of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire as a magnificent work of art.