Review: ‘The Nowhere Inn,’ starring St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn”

Directed by Bill Benz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama mockumentary “The Nowhere Inn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Experimental pop singer St. Vincent has conflicts with her best friend Carrie Brownstein, who has been hired to direct a documentary about St. Vincent. 

Culture Audience: “The Nowhere Inn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars St. Vincent and Brownstein, as well as to people who enjoy unusual mockumentaries.

St. Vincent in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn” rambles, falters, and sometimes gets too meta for its own good. But it’s got enough quirky satire of celebrity documentaries to bring some laughs. You don’t have to be a fan of stars St. Vincent or Carrie Brownstein to enjoy “The Nowhere Inn,” but it might help during the parts of the movie where the pace tends to drag. Mostly, “The Nowhere Inn” is commendable for its attempt to be an original mockumentary, even if some of the comedy doesn’t serve the story very well.

In “The Nowhere Inn,” experimental pop singer St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) and Brownstein (a former star of the 2011-2018 comedy series “Portlandia”) portray versions of themselves and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay. Many parts of the movie look semi-improvised. “The Nowhere Inn” is the feature-film directorial debut of Bill Benz, a former editor, director and co-producer of “Portlandia.” People who are familiar with “Portlandia” should expect a similar tone to “The Nowhere Inn,” which brings an absurdist and deadpan spin to realistic situations.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a mockumentary within a mockumentary. On one level, it’s about the character of Carrie being convinced by her best friend St. Vincent to direct a tour documentary about St. Vincent. Footage from the documentary takes up most of the movie. But on another level, parts of the movie includes hindsight commentary from Carrie and St. Vincent about the documentary, whose production went through a lot of turmoil when the two pals became at odds with each other.

Interspersed with the off-stage footage is a lot of concert footage of St. Vincent. And so, the vast majority of the music in the movie is St. Vincent’s music. St. Vincent songs that are featured in “The Nowhere Inn” are “Year of the Tiger,” “Smoking Section,” “Pills,” “New York,” “Savior,” “Palm Desert,” “Los Ageless” and “Hang on Me.”

Because the experimental/alternative musical style of St. Vincent is so intertwined with the movie, “The Nowhere Inn” is not going to appeal to large masses of people, especially people who prefer more conventional films. However, people who know about the stereotypes of authorized celebrity tour documentaries will find parts of the movie amusing in how “The Nowhere Inn” makes a mockery of these clichés.

The movie opens with St. Vincent as a passenger in the back of limo, where an unnamed middle-aged driver (played by Ezra Buzzington) tells her that he knows that she’s famous for something, but he isn’t shy about telling her that he’s not sure what her claim to fame is: “I drive a lot of famous people,” he says. “I’ve never heard you before.”

While he’s driving, the limo driver calls his son, who’s an aspiring musician in a band, and talks to his son on speaker phone. He asks his son if he’s heard of St. Vincent. The son says no, but he mentions that he’s in a band and wonders out loud if St. Vincent could possibly help him in his music career. During this awkward conversation, she is gracious and humble and doesn’t expect to be treated like a star.

The limo driver then asks St. Vincent to sing one of her songs, to see if his son will recognize the song. St. Vincent sings “New York,” and when she gets to the part of the song where the line is “you’re the only motherfucker in the city,” the driver’s son sounds offended and asks, “Whoa! Did she just say ‘MF’?” The driver then abruptly ends the call and tells St. Vincent, “Don’t worry. We’ll find out who you are.”

The driver doesn’t really get a chance though because the limo stops shortly afterward. When St. Vincent gets out of the limo to see what’s going on, she finds that the driver’s door is open and he’s nowhere in sight. What happened to the driver and where did he go? Don’t expect any answers because it’s an example of some of the random weirdness in the movie.

St. Vincent is then seen on screen talking about the unfinished documentary that she made with Carrie as the director. St. Vincent comments, “All I can say is that things went terribly wrong.” The majority of “The Nowhere Inn” shows flashbacks to the making of the untitled documentary. Viewers are supposed to get a sense that what they are seeing is previously unreleased footage.

At first, filming of the documentary goes very well, as Carrie is given almost complete creative control. Carrie’s only request for St. Vincent is “Just be yourself” because the documentary is supposed to be a “fly on the wall experience.” St. Vincent’s shows are well-attended and she has plenty of adoring fans.

In the “hindsight” footage, St. Vincent says, “It was supposed to be a music documentary … I guess I wanted people to know who I am. I don’t want it to be a random fantasy. I wanted it to be intimate and revealing.”

But how intimate and how revealing? And more importantly to Carrie: How truthful? Over time, St. Vincent’s ego takes over, and she wants to turn the documentary into a series of staged scenes that fabricate aspects of her life. How much of a dictator does St. Vincent become during the making of the documentary? At one point in the movie, she tells Carrie: “From now on, I need more say in how other people are going to act.”

When did St. Vincent go from being a down-to-earth singer to a bossy diva? The turning point comes when a print journalist named Holly (played by Rya Kihlstedt) interviews St. Vincent while the documentary cameras are rolling. During the interview, Holly becomes distracted because her live-in girlfriend has broken up with Holly by text during the interview.

Holly is so distraught that she drags St. Vincent into this breakup mess by asking St. Vincent to call her now-ex-girlfriend and leave a voice mail to try convince the ex that Holly is not only a good person but the best thing that ever happened to the ex. It puts St. Vincent in a very awkward position, but she obliges, in order to be polite.

After manipulating St. Vincent to get involved in her personal life, Holly then cuts the interview short, as if she’s done using St. Vincent for the day. Before this annoying journalist leaves, Holly complains to St. Vincent that Holly wasn’t given a “plus one” (to get an extra ticket) when Holly was put on the guest list for the St. Vincent concert happening later that evening.

Holly says that her cousin Sarah is a fan of St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that she’d like Sarah to be her “plus one.” St. Vincent tries not to act offended by the disrespectful way that Holly has been acting, but this entire uncomfortable interaction was caught on the documentary’s cameras. Later, when St. Vincent sees Holly and Sarah (played by Cass Buggé) at a concert after-party, the shift in St. Vincent’s attitude becomes very clear.

St. Vincent suddenly wants to do a documentary that will make her look more interesting. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, St. Vincent introduces Carrie to her lover Dakota Johnson (playing a version of herself), while St. Vincent and Dakota are clad in lingerie and lounging on a bed together. (St. Vincent is openly queer in real life.) And the next thing you know, St. Vincent wants Carrie to film a sex video of Dakota and St. Vincent, right then and there.

An embarrassed Carrie tries to stall and suggests that they get an intimacy coordinator before filming the scene. However, St. Vincent says it’s not necessary because she and Dakota won’t be faking it. There’s no actual sex or nudity in “The Nowhere Inn,” because the movie wants what isn’t shown in this sex scene to be more amusing than what could be shown.

Another hilarious scene in the movie is when Carrie decides to go over to some St. Vincent fans who are standing in line outside the concert venue and randomly invites a young adult fan to go back with her to St. Vincent’s dressing room. The fan, whose name is Kim (played by Gabriela Flores), is overwhelmed by this surprise and bursts into tears when she sees St. Vincent in person. Kim predictably fawns over St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that her music saved Kim’s life.

Kim tells St. Vincent that Kim’s boyfriend from high school gave St. Vincent’s 2011 album “Strange Mercy” to Kim as a birthday present. The boyfriend tragically died in a car accident two nights before their graduation. Kim says that St. Vincent’s music has helped Kim through tough times when she was feeling depressed and didn’t want to live anymore.

This sad story makes St. Vincent cry too. And she cries so much about how much the story affected her that Kim ends up comforting St. Vincent in the dressing room. It’s an amusing parody of how narcissistic celebrities can somehow make a fan’s personal tragedy all about the celebrity.

During the course of the documentary, St. Vincent becomes obsessed with wanting to appear humble and relatable in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes, she becomes a egomaniacal tyrant and almost starts acting like the documentary’s director. St. Vincent goes as far as fabricating a backstory for herself. She pretends that she grew up on a Texas ranch with a big family, and she hires actors to play these roles.

As Carrie says early on in the movie, St. Vincent is really an only child whose father is in prison. This is a plot hole in “The Nowhere Inn,” because in this Internet age, it would be hard for a celebrity such as St. Vincent to hide her family background and get away with hiring a cast of actors to portray her family in what’s supposed to be documentary. That’s why “The Nowhere Inn” takes a misstep toward the end of the movie when St. Vincent goes through an entire charade of trying to look like a Texas cowgirl from a large family.

Not surprisingly, Carrie is increasingly put off by St. Vincent trying to make a phony documentary. Carrie finds herself sidelined as a director and not being consulted on important decisions. Carrie quits the documentary at least once, which isn’t spoiler information, since St. Vincent says in the beginning of the movie that the documentary hasn’t been completed.

During all of this friendship turmoil, Carrie is also dealing with the fact that her unnamed father (played by Michael Bofshever) is dying of cancer. He’s very proud that she’s directing this documentary, and she feels obligated to finish the film so that he won’t be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, St. Vincent seems oblivious and insensitive to Carrie’s stress over her father’s health condition.

“The Nowhere Inn” includes some footage of the people in St. Vincent’s entourage, including her band members: eccentric Japanese bass player Toko (played by Toko Yasuda); “nice guy” Australian guitarist Neil (played by Chris Aquilino); and party-loving American drummer Robert (played by Drew Connick). St. Vincent’s easygoing tour manager Brian (played by Kash Abdulmalik) also gets some screen time.

However, these supporting characters don’t add much the story. “The Nowhere Inn” is really about how Carrie and St. Vincent’s once-solid friendship becomes turbulent because of disagreements over the documentary. In the production notes for “The Nowhere Inn,” it’s mentioned that Brownstein and Clark were both influenced by two movies about jaded pop stars: directors Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s 1970 drama “Performance” (starring Mick Jagger) and director Peter Watkins’ 1967 mockumentary “Privilege,” starring Paul Jones.

Taking cues from both of those movies, “The Nowhere Inn” has some psychedelic-looking surrealistic sequences that aren’t quite hallucinations, but they’re nevertheless part of the line blurring of reality and fiction that this mockumentary intends to spoof. “The Nowhere Inn” is at its most potent in its satire when it pokes fun at the image-obsessed trap that many celebrities fall into when they achieve a certain level of fame.

What’s less effective are the aforementioned fake Texas family scenes and the movie’s tendency to over-rely on making Carrie look like a forlorn doormat who’s shocked by what goes on during St. Vincent’s concert tour. By making Carrie so naïve in this movie, it just leads viewers to wonder how well Carrie really knows her “best friend” St. Vincent. And the subplot about Carrie’s father having cancer is a clumsy fit for this story.

Brownstein has her own real-life experiences as a music artist (she’s a singer/guitarist in the rock band Sleater-Kinney), but that background is completely erased in the movie. It would’ve been more interesting if the Carrie character had been written as someone who has experience being in a semi-famous band and is therefore better-equipped to handle St. Vincent’s egotistical shenanigans during the tour. Their arguments would’ve been more entertaining to watch.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a flawed but unique film that is going to interest some people and turn off other people. People who know what showbiz is like behind the scenes will find at least something to laugh at in “The Nowhere Inn,” even if those laughs might be occasional for some viewers. The movie is not meant to have a joke in every scene. “The Nowhere Inn” won’t be considered a classic mockumentary, but it’s worth a watch if viewers are willing to go on a sometimes bizarre but very original ride in an alternate reality created by Brownstein and St. Vincent.

IFC Films released “The Nowhere Inn” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Titane,’ starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon

September 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

Titane” 

Directed by Julia Ducournau

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the horror film “Titane” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After getting into a car accident as a child and undergoing a mysterious surgical operation, a woman becomes a serial killer who has a sexual obsession with automobiles.

Culture Audience: “Titane” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching offbeat, artsy horror movies.

Vincent Lindon in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

Disturbing, compelling and occasionally comedic, the deliberately perplexing “Titane” wraps an unorthodox love story in the cloak of a grisly horror movie. “Titane” leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it’s never boring. The emotionally damaged performances by “Titane” co-stars Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon make the film worth watching for people who are open to unconventional horror movies. Everyone else will probably be turned off by “Titane” because it has a plethora of content that’s intended to make people nauseous or queasy.

“Titane” is the second feature film from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, who clearly wants to be in the same league as well-known film provocateurs who are celebrated for making artsy movies that revel in the gruesome. Her feature-film debut was 2017’s “Raw,” a horror movie about young female cannibals who not only crave human flesh but are sexually aroused by this craving. “Titane” also interwines death and sex with an unusual obsession: the female protagonist, who is a serial killer, gets sexually aroused by automobiles.

Viewer expectations might be high for “Titane,” since the movie won the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or, the festival’s highest prize. Ducournau is only the second female director to win this award since the festival launched in 1946. Jane Campion was the first female director to win the Palme d’Or, for her 1993 film “The Piano,” which went on to win three Oscars (including Best Original Screenplay for Campion) out of its eight Oscar nominations.

“The Piano” is the type of movie that is traditional Oscar bait. “Titane” is too much of an avant-garde film to get the type of Academy Award accolades that “The Piano” received. For all of its artsy characteristics, “Titane” is essentially a horror movie, so it’ll probably be too much of a turnoff to film snobs who hate horror movies. Even people who like horror movies might feel a little alienated by how baffling and frustrating “Titane” can be in making characters too mysterious for viewers to feel some kind of emotional connection.

“Titane” opens with a 7-year-old girl named Alexia (played by Adèle Guigue), who’s seated in the back of a car that’s being driven by her unnamed father (played by Bertrand Bonello) while cruising on a highway. Alexia is making a loud humming sound that’s similar to the sound of a revving engine. The noise is irritating to her father, who turns up the volume on the car radio. Alexia just hums louder in response.

Alexia’s father tell Alexia to stop making this noise, but she ignores him. As she gets up while the car is in motion, he reaches behind him to scold her for not wearing a seat belt. He loses control of the car, which crashes on a highway divider.

The next scene shows Alexia in a medical exam room, after she’s had a mysterious surgical operation, which is not shown in the movie. What is shown is that she now has something metallic implanted in her skull. The implant scar on the right side of the head is prominently featured in the movie as constant reminder.

Alexia is also wearing a metal plate headset, whose purpose remains a mystery, but when she wears the headset it’s nearly impossible to move her head. The doctor in the exam room tells Alexia’s father: “Watch for any neurological signs. Motor function, coordination, diction.”

When Alexia and her father leave the hospital, she’s no longer wearing the metal plate headset. As they go outside, Alexia sees her father’s car, which is the same car that was in the accident. And she does something strange: She runs up to the car and hugs it.

The movie then fast-forwards to when Alexia is 32 years old (played by Agathe Rousselle) and working as an exotic dancer. She’s not a stripper, but she’s hired to do things like dancing sexually at parties while she wears revealing clothing. It’s at one of these parties (which takes place inside a warehouse) that viewers first see the adult Alexia, who is tall, lanky and bristling with a “don’t mess with me” energy. She’s slightly androgynous and wears her hair up in a disheveled bun that’s held by a long black hair pin that’s about the size of a chopstick.

Alexia is one of several female dancers at this party, which has cars set up as props so that the dancers can gyrate on the hoods and roofs of the cars. A security guy is shown pulling a rowdy male partygoer off a dancer in the partygoer’s attempt to grope the dancer. The security guy gruffly reminds the partygoer that the party has a “look but don’t touch” policy for how party guests can interact with the dancers.

Alexia is apparently well-known among the many of the male partygoers, who gather around as she does a sensual dance on the hood of a car. After her dance, several of her admirers surround her and ask for her autograph. Alexia is accommodating but she seems emotionally detached from getting this attention.

After the party, Alexia and the other dancers are taking a group shower in the warehouse. A pretty young woman standing next to Alexia introduces herself as Justine (Garance Marillier), who seems to want to start a friendly conversation with Alexia. However, Alexia is standoffish and doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone.

An awkward moment comes when Alexia leans down and her hair accidentally gets caught in Justine’s nipple ring. After some uncomfortable moments when Alexia gently tries to untangle her hair from the ring, she loses patience and just yanks her hair out, which obviously causes some pain to Justine, who expresses irritation with Alexia for being so insensitive. Alexia just walks away.

Alexia clearly wants to be left alone. However, one of her male admirers has followed Alexia to her car, which is the only car that’s left in the dark parking lot. As she’s about to start the engine, he stops her and asks for her autograph, and she reluctantly obliges. This stalker, who is a total stranger to Alexia, then tells Alexia that he thinks he’s in love with her.

He asks Alexia to kiss him, and she gives him two friendly kisses on the cheek. But then, things get ugly when he forces her to kiss him on the mouth. At first she resists, but then she starts kissing him back, as she reaches for that long black hair pin. You can guess what happens next, because Alexia has a secret: She’s a serial killer.

Here’s a pattern that a lot of people won’t like about “Titane”: The movie tends to abruptly jump to a scene that will make viewers think that parts of the story are missing. After showing Justine and Alexia meeting for the first time under awkward circumstances, the next time Alexia and Justine are seen together is when they’re on a date, and they’re making out with each other like lovers. It’s an explicit scene with partial nudity. The movie never shows or tells what happened to cause Justine and Alexia to go on a date after Alexia made such a bad first impression on Justine.

The same thing happens again, when a scene abruptly shifts to Alexia in an amorous lip lock with Justine at someone else’s house. What are they doing there? How has their relationship progressed to this point? It turns out that this house is supposed to be the site of a sex party. There’s no orgy scene in the movie, but things get out of control very quickly when it comes to Alexia’s murderous impulses.

Alexia has been leading a double life where she lives at home with her parents, who don’t really ask about or meddle into whatever Alexia does in her own free time. Alexia’s father seems a little suspicious of Alexia’s secretive activities when she’s not in the house, but Alexia’s mother (played by Céline Carrère) is blissfully unaware. Alexia’s parents don’t get much screen time in the movie (less than 10 minutes), and they don’t say much (less than two minutes of dialogue), but it’s eventually revealed that Alexia has some disturbing control over them.

Through a series of circumstances that won’t be revealed in this review, Alexia disguises herself as a man for the majority of the story. She impulsively comes up with this idea while she made a hasty trip to an airport, where she goes in the bathroom to cut her hair and use medical bandages to bind her breasts. She also deliberately breaks her nose on the bathroom sink to change the appearance of her nose. Alexia’s trip to the airport was so last-minute that she only brought her backpack with her and no other luggage.

Observant viewers might ask, “Where did she find the time to get the medical bandages?” It’s a minor plot hole in the movie that could be explained by speculating that Alexia bought the bandages at the airport, although most airports don’t sell wrap-around bandages of the size that Alexia uses. Viewers of “Titane” will have to get used to scenes that have sudden shifts, with things taking place that have no previous context. For example, viewers never find out what Alexia’s life was like in the years between her car accident at 7 years old and her life at 32 years old.

Alexia’s disguise as a man involves her stealing the identity of someone named Adrien Legrand. When she’s disguised as Adrien, Alexia pretends to be mute. This identity theft ends up fooling a family member of Adrien. The victim of this scam is named Vincent (played by Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged firefighter captain. Vincent is divorced, he lives alone, and he’s another lost and damaged soul.

Vincent abuses steroids and is haunted by a personal tragedy from his past. Disguised as Adrien, Alexia ends up living with Vincent. Their relationship is very rocky at first, with Alexia/Adrien being very hostile to Vincent from the beginning, but they end up getting to know each other better. “Titane” has scenes that are meant to show homoerotic and incestuous undertones of Vincent’s intimate touching of “Adrien,” with Victor being confused by his possible sexual attraction to a man whom he thinks is a close relative.

Alexia’s murderous rampage, sexual fascination with automobiles, and theft of someone else’s identity aren’t her only secrets. She has another big secret which results in scenes that will make viewers squirm the most. This secret is why people can describe “Titane” as being a “body horror” movie. Ducournau has an interesting directing style of blending scenes that are hypnotic and dreamlike with scenes that are stark and jolting in their realism.

At the fire station, Vincent has a young protégé named Rayane (played by Laïs Salameh), who has the nickname Conscience. Shortly after “Adrien” starts living with Vincent, “Adrien” is given a job at the same firefighter station where Vincent is the captain. “Adrien” then goes through training as a firefighter and paramedic, but “Adrien” encounters some obstacles that have to do with Rayane.

Rayane becomes jealous and insecure that “Adrien” might replace him as Vincent’s favorite employee. Rayane notices that “Adrien” looks androgynous, and he has doubts about the identity of “Adrien,” so he targets “Adrien” for some bullying. Rayane also wonders if “Adrien” could be Vincent’s secret gay lover, but when Rayane mentions this speculation to co-workers, Rayane’s thoughts are immediately ridiculed.

In addition to the horror aspects of the film, “Titane” brings up a lot of incisive observations of gender roles in society, particularly what it means to be “masculine” and to be taken seriously as a man. These issues obviously come up with Alexia in disguise as Adrien, as she adjusts to working in an all-male environment. And viewers can see the obvious differences between how she is treated in life as a woman compared to how she is treated when she’s living her life as a man.

But gender issues are very much evident with Vincent, who abuses steroids (which he injects in his rear end, to hide the needle marks and bruises) because he confesses to someone that he’s afraid of looking old and weak. The drug abuse is also a manifestation of his emotional pain. Vincent is very much caught up in projecting a “macho” image to most people, so he hides his emotional pain behind this image. Over time, Alexia (as Adrien) and Vincent begin to understand that they have a lot more in common than they thought, because of their neuroses and emotional issues.

Because most of “Titane” is about the relationship between Alexia/”Adrien” and Vincent, there’s a great deal of the movie where Rousselle does not speak and has to use her facial expressions and body language to convey her character’s emotions. It’s a fascinating performance. Even in Alexia’s life under her true identity, Alexia wasn’t much of a talker.

Lindon is equally absorbing as an emotionally wounded man who has to pretend to the world that he’s strong and stable. There’s a well-acted scene soon after he meets “Adrien” where Vincent begins crying because he sees that “Adrien” can’t or won’t talk. It’s in this moment that Vincent, who is lonely and starving for human affection, begins to understand that the person who will be living with him probably won’t be talking to him at all.

It’s why “Titane” is more than a gory horror movie. Despite some flaws of abrupt shifts in the plot and not providing enough backstory for the protagonist, “Titane” is really a story about human connections and how people deal with their inner pain. With “Titane,” Ducournau has delivered a memorable film that can not only show humanity at its cruelest, but also how compassion can be found amongst the cruelty. “Titane” is also a movie where people’s reactions to it say more about the viewers than about the characters in the movie.

Neon will release “Titane” in select U.S. cinemas on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Terrorizers,’ starring Austin Lin, Moon Lee, JC Lin, Annie Chen, Ding Ning, Yao Ai Ning and Tang Chih Wei

September 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Yao Ai Ning and Austin Lin in “Terrorizers” (Photo courtesy of Changhe Films)

“Terrorizers”

Directed by Wi Ding Ho

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Taipei City, Taiwan, the drama “Terrorizers” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Four people in their 20s are involved in a dangerous love quadrangle.

Culture Audience: “Terrorizers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling thrillers about emotionally damaged people and love complications.

Annie Chen in “Terrorizers” (Photo courtesy of Changhe Films)

Becoming obsessed with an unrequited love has been the topic of many stories, but the dramatic thriller “Terrorizers” (written and directed by Wi Ding Ho) takes the unusual step of presenting the fallout of this obsession from the perspectives of four people who are involved in a love quadrangle. The four people—who are all in their 20s and live in the Taiwan capital of Taipei City—are affected in one way or another by this obsession, which has become violent when one of the people in this love quadrangle goes on a public rampage and uses a samurai sword to attack.

The four people who are at the center of this complex relationship drama are:

  • Ming Liang (played by Austin Lin), a troubled loner who comes from a wealthy family and who is addicted to video games.
  • Yu Fang (played by Moon Lee), a shy café worker/aspiring actress who has abandonment issues stemming from her parents’ divorce, including an absentee mother and a politician father who neglects Yu Fang.
  • Xiao Zhang (played by JC Lin), a romantic aspiring chef/restaurateur who currently works as a low-paid cook in a fast-food restaurant.
  • Monica (played by Annie Chen), an ambitious aspiring actress whose past job as a pornographic “cam girl” continues to haunt her.

It’s revealed in the movie’s trailer and early on in the movie that Ming Liang is the one who goes on the samurai sword rampage. He dresses up as a hooded ninja and then instigates the vicious attack at a shopping mall. Most of “Terrorizers” shows what led up to this violent crime. “Terrorizers” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It would be giving away too much information to say who ends up getting romantically involved in this story. However, it’s enough to say that this quadrangle includes bisexuality/queerness and at least one person who’s dating two people at the same time. Some of the scenes in the movie are repeated, but shown from the angle of a different person in the quadrangle. Each person in the quadrangle has a unique personality and psychology, which explain many of their decisions and reactions in this story.

A revealing scene with Ming Liang and his disappointed father shows that Ming Liang has a long history of anti-social rebellion. Whenever Ming Liang got in trouble in school, his father bought his way out of that trouble. Ming Liang’s parents are divorced, and it’s mentioned that Ming Liang’s mother is an alcoholic whom he hasn’t seen in years. Ming Liang is unemployed and spends much of his time alone playing video games or riding his bicycle through the city. He also has a nasty habit of being a voyeur/Peeping Tom.

Yu Fang and Monica are in a theater group together. Yu Fang is more talented than Monica, but Monica gets more auditions because she’s better-looking and more assertive than Yu Fang. Monica has used her good looks to her advantage, and she’s become accustomed to having men pay for her expenses. She often gets sexually propositioned by men who expect her to do something sexual with them in order for them to do her a favor. Monica is more than willing to consent and go along with it if she thinks what she’ll get in return is worthwhile.

However, there’s a down side to Monica relying too much on her physical appearance to have men financially support her or do other favors for her. For example, Monica recently had a nasty breakup with a live-in boyfriend named David (played by Shang Ho Huang), a photographer whose specialty is taking nude photos of women and filming women for amateur porn videos. Monica found out that David was cheating on her, so she broke up with him.

David was paying all of Monica’s living expenses. But now that they’ve broken up, she has to move out of the apartment that they shared (the apartment is in his name) and find a new place to live. The problem is that Monica is broke and doesn’t have a place where she can go. Monica apparently doesn’t have any close friends or family members who can help her.

Monica has another problem: Not that long ago, David convinced Monica to make a sex video with him when she was working as a “cam girl” under the alias Missy. The video was uploaded and sold as part of the Monica’s cam girl work. And apparently, a lot of people in the entertainment industry have seen this video, because whenever she goes on auditions, the people interviewing her (who all happen to be men) mention her Missy sex video.

Monica usually doesn’t deny that she made the video, but she seems very embarrassed every time someone mentions it to her. She always tries to change the subject when her past pornography is brought up in a conversation. And she makes it clear to anyone who talks about the video that she’s no longer doing any porn or any “cam girl” work. She wants to be taken seriously as an actress.

In contrast to Monica getting a lot of attention from men, Yu Fang feels neglected by men, specifically her father Guo (played by Tang Chih Wei), who has put his politician career above being an attentive parent. Near the beginning of the movie, Yu Fang is trying not to get depressed because she feels she’s being “abandoned” by a loved one again. She’s been living with Guo, but he’s decided to move back to his hometown of Yilan City, because he thinks it will help his current political campaign.

Guo has also gotten married to his much-younger second wife Mandy (played by Celia Chang), who is Guo’s administrative assistant and who is currently pregnant with their first child together. Guo and Mandy’s wedding is shown in the movie. The house where Yu Fang lived with her father has been sold, and time is running out for Yu Fang to get a new place to live. Yu Fang wants to stay in Taipei City because she loves being in her theater group, which is where all of her friends are.

Yu Fang has been delaying finding a new place as long as possible, but her father offers to help pay her expenses. Guo asks Yu Fang if she would consider a roommate when she finds a new place to live. And he knows someone who might be an ideal roommate because he’s the son of someone who is one of Guo’s richest donors. The name of this son is Ming Liang. Yu Fang doesn’t really like the idea because she doesn’t know Ming Liang very well.

Meanwhile, Xiao Zhang is a friendly person who’s had a secret crush on Yu Fang. He recently quit his job as a cook on a ship because life at sea got too lonely for him, and he’s ready to settle down and start a family. The fast-food restaurant where he works is owned by a couple named Mr. Yang (played by Liao Chin Liang) and Mrs. Yang (played by Huang Jie Fei), whose rebellious, cosplaying 16-year-old daughter Kiki (played by Yao Ai Ning) also works in the restaurant.

Xiao Zhang lives with his Uncle Wong (played by Yong Yi Jyun), who owns his own barber shop. Xiao Zhang and Uncle Wong live in an apartment that is directly across from another building’s apartment, where a middle-aged alcoholic masseuse named Lady Hsia (played by Ding Ning) lives and works out of her home. Lady Hsia is not Ming Liang’s mother, in case anyone thinks that’s a plot twist in the movie. However, one of the people in this relationship quadrangle ends up getting to know Lady Hsia and turns to her for emotional support.

There are parts of “Terrorizers” that resemble a soap opera, but in the best possible ways. The twist and turns to the story are intriguing, with some plot developments being less predictable than others. The only part in the movie that seems too over-the-top in its melodrama is a scene that takes place with Ming Liang and someone at a train station. But the scene could be justified as a way of showing how much Ming Liang’s mental health is deteriorating.

“Terrorizers” writer/director Wi Ding Ho knows how to adeptly bring suspense to the story, which is intended to show how one person’s actions can have ripple effects not just on those closest to that person but also to complete strangers. All of the actors give credible performances, although viewers might have different opinions on which of the four storylines is the most gripping. “Terrorizers” is ultimately a very memorable film about how people choose different ways to seek out love, cope with emotional trauma, and deal with rejection.

Review: ‘To Kill the Beast,’ starring Tamara Rocca, Ana Brun, Julieth Micolta and João Miguel

September 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Julieth Micolta and Tamara Rocca in “To Kill the Beast” (Photo courtesy of The Party Film Sales)

“To KIll the Beast”

Directed by Agustina San Martín

Spanish and Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Argentina, the dramatic film “To Kill the Beast” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl travels from Buenos Aires to a small town near the Argentina/Brazil border, where the townspeople are living in fear of a mysterious and dangerous beast. 

Culture Audience: “To Kill the Beast” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Gothic atmospheric movies that are more about creating moods and having symbolic storytelling rather than a straightforward plot.

Tamara Rocca in “To Kill the Beast” (Photo courtesy of The Party Film Sales)

Before watching “To Kill the Beast,” it helps to know that the movie puts a lot more emphasis on symbolism than on literal meanings. The story features a small Argentinian community that is in fear of a treacherous beast. But over time, viewers will see that this beast represents certain prejudices that oppress people in society. “To Kill the Beast” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s a mystery at the center of the story, but it’s not about where this destructive creature came from or if it will be caught. Therefore, don’t expect “To Kill the Beast” to literally be centered on the townspeople going on a hunt to find the beast, although there is a search party that is shown in the movie. Viewers who are interested in abstract cinema can appreciate the “slow burn” atmospheric storytelling of “To Kill the Beast,” which is about the female protagonist’s journey of discovering her sexuality and other aspects of her identity.

“To Kill the Beast” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Agustina San Martín, who went on location in northern Argentina (near the Brazilian border) to film the movie. The story’s main character is 17-year-old Emilia Otero (played by Tamara Rocca), who has traveled from the capital city of Buenos Aires to a small, fairly remote, unnamed town. Emilia will be staying with her Aunt Inés (played by Ana Brun), who runs a small hostel out of her home. Emilia’s parents are not seen or mentioned in the movie.

Throughout the movie, Emilia repeatedly calls her older brother Mateo, because she expects that he will evenutally meet up with her at their aunt’s place. However, every time she calls Mateo at his home phone number, he isn’t there and she keeps getting his voice mail, where she leaves messages asking him to call her back. Viewers will have to assume that Mateo doesn’t have a mobile phone, because almost every time Emilia calls Mateo, the camera shows his empty house where Emilia’s calls go unanswered on a landline phone.

There are obvious signs that Mateo hasn’t been at his home in several days. On a table is a bowl of fruit that has gone rotten, with insects starting to gather around the fruit. Delivered mail is discarded outside the front door, indicating that no one has been there to pick up the mail. A German Shepherd in the house looks lonely and confused. The dog eventually is able to get through an unlocked door, possibly to look for food and whoever owns the dog.

Emilia isn’t very comfortable staying in this small town because she’s used to the hustle and bustle of a big city. It’s unclear how long Emilia plans to stay, but it’s long enough where she wants to find a job in the area. However, Inés tells her some bad news: She doesn’t have work for Emilia at the hostel. Emilia begs Inés to find some work for her to do: “I’ll do anything you ask,” Emilia pleads.

Inés eventually relents and says that in exchange for the free room and board, Emilia can do odd jobs (mostly cleaning) for the hostel. Inés also instructs Emilia on two rules that she insists cannot be broken: (1) Emilia cannot speak to a guest unless Emilia is spoken to by the guest first and (2) Emilia cannot knock on a guest’s room door to disturb a guest. As soon as Inés tells Emilia these rules, you just know that they’re going to be broken.

Emilia likes to go out to nightclubs and is active on social media. And so, she’s extremely disappointed when her aunt tells her that in this house, there’s no cell phone reception, the radio works poorly, and the television might get just one channel. Emilia also finds out that the town has been gripped with fear of a mysterious beast that roams at night. Women and girls are especially warned that they shouldn’t be outside alone during the nighttime.

There’s a search party of some local townspeople (mostly men and a few women) who have flashlights and guns when looking for the beast in the nearby woods. Inés is so frightened, she doesn’t even want to be near people who are in the search party, out of fear that they might get a spell put on them by the beast. Inés orders Emilia: “If you see anyone getting close to the jungle, don’t let them in.”

Not long after arriving in town, Emilia sees a man standing outside a storage area. His name is Lautero (played by João Miguel), and Emilia asks him if he’s seen Mateo. “Are you from the news?” Lautero asks suspiciously. Just then, a young missionary wearing a priest’s collar approaches. but Lautero wants to avoid him and quickly goes into the warehouse. When Emilia asks the clergyman if he’s seen Mateo, he just stares at her and says nothing before walking away.

Emilia eventually meets some people who are close to her age. One of the young women tells her, “They say a beast appeared in town, a week ago already. that he’s been wandering around that land. Some say it is the spirit of an evil man. Everyone’s talking about it, that it turns into different animals.”

Emilia asks, “And what does it do to you?” The woman replies, “The worst. I think you should be careful.” Meanwhile, the leader of the search party bellows things such as: “I don’t want to see any women by themselves!” and “Our daughters are in danger!” Eventually, Emilia becomes paranoid too. At one point, Emilia confesses that she’s “afraid of everything and everyone.”

“To Kill the Beast” has a few flashbacks to Emilia’s life in Buenos Aires. There’s a flashback scene of her hanging out at a nightclub with her unnamed boyfriend (played by Frederico De Elias Bevacqua), but she’s also exchanging lusty glances with a woman at the nightclub. Her boyfriend knows that Emilia is leaving Buenos Aires to live with her aunt, and the flashback scene is on one of the last nights that she spends in Buenos Aires before she leaves.

And what about Emilia’s brother Mateo? It’s hinted that he’s gotten mixed up in something sinister, possibly illegal. Whenever Emilia asks the people in town who know Mateo if they’ve seen him, they usually react with discomfort. There are clues that Mateo has a bad reputation, but what he did or where he is remains a mystery. However, at one point in the story, when Emilia calls Mateo, she gets someone named Jesus (voiced by Ariel Lorenzo) on the phone instead.

While this town has become increasingly panic-stricken over the beast, a new guest arrives at the hostel. Her name is Julieth (played by Julieth Micotta), and she’s in her early-to-mid 20s. Julieth is confident and not intimidated by the stories of the beast. Emilia becomes fascinated with Julieth. She secretly spies on Julieth any chance that she gets.

It doesn’t take long for Julieth to notice that Emilia seems to be infatuated with her. And the feeling becomes mutual. When Emilia is with her nightlife peers, she’s openly queer (there’s a scene of her dancing suggestively with another woman), but she’s still “in the closet” to her religious and conservative aunt and other people.

There are also signs that the town uses the fear of the beast as a way to restrict the freedoms of the town’s female residents. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the beast is really a manifestation of fear that can lead to oppression. The biggest clue is the comment about how the beast can take many forms.

People should not expect an action-packed thriller in “To Kill the Beast” because it’s more of an introspective story about how living in this repressed and apprehensive town affects Emilia. In Buenos Aires, she was free to openly be who she is. In this small town, she has to confront her fear of being shamed, ridiculed or shunned if she chooses to not hide her true identity. And because she’s frequently cut off from cell phone and Internet service, Emilia can’t get the social media validation that she’s used to getting on a regular basis.

All of the cast members of “To Kill the Beast” are convincing in their roles, with Rocca carrying the movie’s tone with a realistic portrayal of someone who is both rebellious and terrified of society’s pressures. With this movie, San Martín meticulously presents a teenager who has to confront her fear of not just rejection from the outside world but also fear of accepting herself. Although this story is centered on a young person in Argentina, it effectively speaks to universal and timeless truths of humanity.

Review: ‘We Need to Do Something,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Vinessa Shaw, Pat Healy, Lisette Alexis and John James Cronin

September 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

John James Cronin, Pat Healy, Sierra McCormick and Vinessa Shaw in “We Need to Do Something” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“We Need to Do Something”

Directed by Sean King O’Grady

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “We Need to Do Something” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A family of four people are trapped inside their bathroom during a storm and find out that they could be the victims of somethng sinister and supernatural. 

Culture Audience: “We Need to Do Something” will appeal primarily to people who like watching any nonsensical, horribly made horror flick, no matter how bad it is.

Sierra McCormick and Lisette Alexis in “We Need to Do Something” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

There are an untold number of talented aspiring filmmakers who have great screenplays and need a big break to get their first feature film made. And that’s why it’s almost offensive that garbage like “We Need to Do Something” gets spewed into the world. The title of this movie should be “We Need to Do Something About Warning People to Avoid This Toxic Trash Posing as a Horror Film.”

There are numerous horrifically bad horror movies that get made in any given year, usually by the same type of no-talent filmmakers who like to copy each other and try to outdo each other with disgusting or misogynistic content. “We Need to Do Something” can be considered among the worst of the worst because it’s truly time-wasting garbage with an almost non-existent plot, idiotic dialogue, horrendous acting, and worst of all for a horror movie: It’s not even scary.

Directed by Sean King O’Grady, “We Need to Do Something” is based on Max Booth III’s novella of the same title. Booth also wrote the “We Need to Do Something” screenplay. You can tell this was based on a short story because 90% of this movie is badly conceived filler that goes nowhere but is instead stretched out into a feature-length run time. However, the filmmakers did such a horrible job with this story, it’s doubtful that it would’ve been better as a short film.

The entire plot of “We Need to Do Something” is about a family of four trapped in their house’s bathroom during and after a storm. Something large and heavy is blocking the door, which leads to the front yard, so that the door can barely open. There’s a window in this bathroom, which these morons don’t try to break to escape when the storm ends.

Bizarre things start to happen. And then, the family’s teenage daughter, who has been dabbling in witchcraft in a same-sex romance with a classmate, becomes convinced that these spell experimentations have something do with the family being trapped. The father gets increasingly drunk until he becomes more dangerous than whatever is trapping the family in the bathroom. Oh, and there’s a rattlesnake that shows up twice.

The first thing that viewers might notice is how weird it is that a house is designed to have a bathroom open into the front yard, when most houses’ bathrooms are located further inside a house. But the terrible production design ideas are the least of this crappy movie’s problems. This entire cesspool of filmmaking is an absolutely dull chore to watch.

If you want to torture yourself and watch until the end, you’ll see repetition of these scenarios to irritating levels: There’s no food in the bathroom, but somehow patriarch Robert (played by Pat Healy) has enough liquor and other alcohol to guzzle so that he gets drunk and yells abusively at other members of his family. Robert’s wife Diane (played by Vinessa Shaw) does her best to try to calm everyone down, and she tries to stop Robert from doing some heinous things as he becomes increasingly unhinged,

Robert and Diane’s daughter Melissa (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, spends most of the movie sulking, getting angry at her parents, and thinking about her girlfriend Amy (played by Lisette Alexis), who is only seen in flashbacks. Robert and Diane’s son Bobby (played by John James Cronin), who’s about 11 or 12 years old, spends most of the movie being terrified, which is only exacerbated when his abusive father unleashes a lot of rage on Bobby.

In the beginning of the movie, Diane is telling everyone that the gusty winds heard outside are just a regular thunderstorm. She insists it’s not a tornado. It’s not fully explained why they’re all huddled in the bathroom, but it’s mentioned at some point that the house’s roof has come off, so they’re afraid to go in the rest of the house. In other words, it’s not a regular thunderstorm, so how dumb does that make Diane? The foolishness continues.

Meanwhile, if you and your family are experiencing an emergency, such as your house’s roof coming off in a storm, the first thing that you would probably do is get help to rescue you and your family. But no, that’s not what happens in “We Need to Do Something.” Melissa is using her phone to text messages to an unidentified person (probably Amy) who’s not answering her messages. One of Melissa’s messages says: “Please talk to me. I’m scared.”

These idiots aren’t thinking about calling 911 for help. In fact, Diane asks in the middle of this crisis if they want to play a board game called Goths and Vandals. Who thinks like this when they’re stuck in a bathroom with their house roof blown off? Only moronic people in a horrendously bad horror movie.

The phone that’s working perfectly somehow ends up in Robert’s hands. When he tries to open the door to the front yard, he accidentally drops the phone outside. There goes their only method of communication to the outside world. The phone could possibly get blown away by the heavy gusts of wind outside.

Melissa is enraged that her phone is now lost. She tries to poke her hand out the door to find it, but it’s of no use. Her parents also tell her to shut the door since the wind gusts are too strong. Melissa sulks some more because her phone is lost, and now they have no way to call for help. You should’ve thought of that while you were texting a friend who wasn’t answering your messages.

“We Need to Do Something” has several flashbacks to Melissa’s relationship with Amy. Both teenagers dress like they’ve spent too much time at Hot Topic, because they wear clothes and makeup that look like shopping mall versions of being a Goth or steampunk. Melissa has pink hair and pink makeup spread around her eyes like a raccoon. Amy sticks to basic black.

These flashback scenes in the movie just seem like an excuse for the filmmakers to show teenage girls making out with each other, sometimes with blood on their faces after they’ve done a witch ritual. Amy and Melissa have told each other “I love you,” just so people watching the movie know that wannabe teenage witches need love too. Melissa and Amy are apparently secretive about their romance and will go to extreme lengths to not let other people at their school find out.

And so what do they do? They start kissing each other on some bleachers at school when they think no one else is around. Because apparently, they think the best way to keep their romance a secret at school is to make out with each other in a public place at school. Of course, someone does see Melissa and Amy kissing at school. It’s a fellow schoolmate named Joe (played by Logan Kearney), whom Amy describes as a creep who’s been stalking her.

But this is the problem for Melissa and Amy: Joe had his phone out and filmed the two girls kissing each other. Melissa and Amy are paranoid that Joe will do something with that video footage that will ‘”out” them, ruin their reputations, and make them outcasts. And so, Melissa and Amy decide to cast a spell on Joe to get revenge on him.

While this family of four is trapped, they hear voices of people or creatures outside but the door can’t open wide enough to see who or what is making these sounds. At one point, it sounds like a dog is outside the door. When Melissa tries to pet it and says, “Good boy,” whatever is outside suddenly has a sinister-sounding human voice that responds, “I’m a good boy.”

Believe it or not, rock star Ozzy Osbourne is that voice, according the film credits. Someone must’ve called in a big favor. Osbourne, who famously bit off the head of a real bat during a 1982 concert, is namechecked in this movie when the snake appears. Robert is able to push the snake out the door, but he wonders out loud if they should’ve killed the snake for food.

Robert thinks that the way he could’ve handled the snake would be to “bite the head off, like Ozzy.” Diane replies, “Wasn’t that a bat?” Robert says, “Snakes are just bats that can’t fly!” Apparently, Robert wasn’t paying attention in school when they taught the difference between reptiles and mammals.

The atrociousness of this story devolves into scenes involving tounges getting ripped out of mouths, as well as talk of cannibalism when the trapped people haven’t been able to eat anything for days. It all leads to a vile ending that serves no purpose except to show that the filmmakers of “We Need to Do Something” will sink to the lowest depths of stupidity to make a horror movie.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “We Need to Do Something” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Ma Belle, My Beauty,’ starring Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard and Sivan Noam Shimon

September 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty”

Directed by Marion Hill

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in an unnamed city in the south of France, the dramatic film “Ma Belle, My Beauty” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An interracial musician couple (she’s African American, he’s a white Frenchman) try to navigate the changing dynamics in their marriage when a woman from their past polyamorous relationship shows up for a visit at the spouses’ home in France.

Culture Audience: “Ma Belle, My Beauty” will appeal mainly to people who like watching talkative romantic dramas about adult relationships that don’t fall into the typical romantic movie characteristics of heterosexual monogamy.

Sivan Noam Shimon, Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper and Lucien Guignard in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” asks this intriguing question: “What happens when a husband and a wife, who are trying monogamy for the first time in their relationship, are visited by a woman who used to be in a polyamorous relationship with the spouses but dumped them?” Is three a crowd for the people who used to be in this polyamorous three-way relationship? “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t give easy answers on monogamy or polyamory, but viewers will be taken on an engaging and sometimes uneven ride where love partners have to decide if they’re going to be truthful about their boundaries and desires.

Written, directed and edited by Marion Hill, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the Audience Award: Next prize. “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t tell a conventional love story that’s usually found in mainstream movies. Therefore, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially for viewers who prefer more formulaic fare. At the very least, this movie has some gorgeous cinematography of the south of France, where the movie takes place.

The story of the couple, whose marriage is tested by the arrival of their former polyamorous partner, takes a few twists and turns—some more predictable than others. For the most part, the movie has a natural flow in how it reveals the personalities and quirks of the main characters, who are all in their 30s. The person who’s the most complex is the woman who was at the center of this former polyamorous trio.

Bertie (played by Idella Johnson) is an American singer who’s in the same band as her French husband Fred Carnot (played by Lucien Guignard), a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar and trumpet. Bertie and Fred write songs together and tour with their band, which performs jazzy pop music. Bertie and Fred have been married for less than two years, and they moved to France around the same time that they became spouses.

Before they got married, Bertie and Fred lived in New Orleans, where they had a three-way relationship with a free-spirited American lesbian named Lane (played by Hannah Pepper), until Lane “ghosted” them and never explained why she cut herself off from Bertie and Fred. After Lane was no longer in their lives, Bertie and Fred got married to each other and moved to the south of France. Bertie doesn’t put a label on her sexuality, while Fred identifies as heterosexual.

The story comes out in bits and pieces of conversation, but the way this three-way relationship is described is that Bertie and Lane fell in love with each other around the same time that Bertie and Fred fell in love with each other. Instead of choosing one partner over the other, Bertie convinced both Fred and Lane to be in a simultaneous relationship with her. Fred and Lane were never sexually intimate, and they agreed to this arrangement because Fred and Lane genuinely liked each other as friends.

Things were going well in this three-way relationship, until Lane abruptly stopped communicating with Bertie and Fred, and Lane ignored Bertie and Fred’s attempts to contact her. Fred and Bertie haven’t seen or spoken to Lane in about two years. During the course of the movie, viewers see that this breakup deeply hurt and confused Bertie more than how it affected Fred. Bertie isn’t sure if she wants to forgive Lane or not, while Fred has already forgiven Lane.

Bertie’s breakup blues have apparently been affecting her relationship with Fred, who secretly contacts Lane and invites Lane to visit and stay with him and Bertie at their home in France. When Fred picks up Lane at the train station, she says to Fred with some trepidation about Bertie: “What if she doesn’t want to see me?” Fred answers, “She loves surprises.” Lane says, “She hates surprises.” Fred replies, “She’ll be fine.”

However, when Bertie sees Lane again for this surprise visit, Lane’s prediction turns out to be true: Bertie hates this surprise. And when Bertie finds out that Fred was the one who invited Lane to stay in their home without Bertie’s consent, Bertie gets angry at him, and it causes more tension in their marriage. Bertie doesn’t want to be rude, so she agrees to let Lane stay in their home, since Bertie knows this living arrangement will be temporary.

Apparently, Lane isn’t just flaky when it comes to her love relationships. She also doesn’t have a steady job or a career in anything. It’s mentioned a few times in the movie that Lane doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life (she’s tried many careers that didn’t work out), and her finances are too unstable for her to afford staying at a hotel. Lane says that her latest career endeavor is she’s thinking about doing massage therapy training in Barcelona.

Bertie is the type of person who doesn’t want Lane to know how much Lane’s breakup hurt her. However, the two women have unresolved feelings for each other. Eventually, Bertie asks Lane why Lane “ghosted” Bertie and Fred. But even before this heart-to-heart talk happens, there were problems in Bertie and Fred’s marriage. Bertie is becoming emotionally distant from Fred, and it’s affected their sex life.

That’s not the only tension in the household. There’s a lot of sexual tension between Bertie and Lane, who tries to kiss Bertie one day when Fred is out of the house and Bertie is playing the piano. Bertie rebuff’s Lane’s advances, but Lane doesn’t give up so easily.

The fractures in Bertie and Fred’s marriage deepen when Bertie announces that she doesn’t want to do a concert tour that has already been booked. Fred can’t understand why Bertie is being so difficult, but observant viewers can easily see that it has to do with Bertie’s lingering feelings for Lane. Meanwhile, in a slightly hilarious moment, Bertie and Fred’s housekeeper Marianne (played by Sarah Taupneau-Wilhelm) says that she’s a singer and offers to substitute for Bertie on the tour. Her offer is politely declined.

After Bertie rejected Lane’s sexual advances, Lane doesn’t waste time in finding a sex partner in France. At a house party thrown by one of Fred and Bertie’s friends, Lane makes eye contact with Noa (played by Sivan Noam Shimon), who is an athletic-looking Israeli army veteran. The two women flirt with each other and go for a drive in a borrowed two-seat red convertible that’s owned by one of people at the party.

Noa says that she has a girlfriend, who doesn’t mind if Noa sleeps with men, whom Noa calls “dildos with a pulse.” It’s implied that Noa’s girlfriend would have a problem with Noa sleeping with other women though. However, Noa and Lane aren’t going to let that get in the way of their immediate attraction to each other.

During Lane and Noa’s first private conversation together, Lane tells Noa about her history with Bertie and Fred. Lane admits that the three-way relationship could be challenging at times. Lane also says something that explains a lot of people’s actions before and during this story takes place. She mentions that in the three-way relationship, Bertie was the one who called the shots.

These issues of control and jealousy come out in different ways in this story. Lane and Noa predictably end up having sex soon after they meet. And the first time that Lane and Noa hook up with each other, it’s in the guest bedroom where Lane is staying at Bertie and Fred’s house. Bertie and Fred can hear Lane and Noa’s loud sexual activities. Bertie tries to not let it show that it bothers her, even though it’s obvious that it does.

Noa spends the night, and the next morning things are a little awkward at breakfast, even though Bertie tries to play it cool. Noa isn’t a one-night stand though. Lane and Noa continue to hang out together and sometimes go on double dates with Bertie and Fred. One day, when all four of them are at a swimming hole, Bertie and Lane have some alone time where Lane puts some sunscreen on Bertie. And then, Bertie makes this confession: “I miss having sex with women.”

Although the characters in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” are very open about their sexualities, the movie has a lot of nuanced dialogue. Fred and Bertie consider themselves to be a hipster couple with open-minded views of various sexualities, and they can candidly talk about sex. However, in their own marriage, they hit some roadblocks because they’re failing to communicate about emotional intimacy.

It’s open to interpretation if Lane is just using Noa to make Bertie jealous. Why did Lane agree to this visit? Does she want to rekindle a romance with Bertie? And is that a good idea when free-spirited Lane obviously resents Bertie’s need for control? As for Fred, he just wants Bertie to be happy, and he knows that Bertie was happy when Lane was in their lives. Fred tells Lane that he misses Lane being in their lives too.

There are no “heroes” or “villains” in “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” It’s a story of flawed people trying to find love and happiness in the best way that they can while staying true to themselves. Johnson’s portrayal of Bertie is what makes this movie worth watching (she’s also a very good singer) because Bertie isn’t so transparent about her emotions in the way that Fred and Lane are. Johnson is very skilled at using eye contact and body language to convey Bertie’s true feelings. The movie’s emotional tone is also enhanced by Mahmoud Chouki’s jazzy musical score.

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” makes some mention of Bertie being the only black person in the social circles that she now has in France. There are hints that she sometime wonders if she made the right decison to leave her family and friends behind in America to start a new life in France, where Fred already knows a lot of people. It’s this feeling of isolation that further fuels Bertie’s angst.

Pepper’s portrayal of impetuous Lane is that of someone who’s capable of real love but seems ambivalent about her own ability to commit to a long-term relationship. Lane shows signs of underlying insecurities that she’s not as accomplished in her life as her peers. As a coping mechanism, Lane just jumps around from job to job and relationship to relationship. As for Fred, he’s the least complicated character in this trio. And that might be a good thing for Guignard, because his acting skills just aren’t on the same convincing level as his co-stars.

Viewers will get the impression that Bertie is not used to being rejected, so she’s trying to heal her bruised ego without wanting to admit how wounded she really is. Bertie doesn’t want Lane to hurt her again, but Lane’s arrival reminds Bertie of all the good times they had together. Lane is unapologetic about wanting to have her sexual needs met, which is why she hooks up so quickly with Noa. But is Lane capable of making the kind of commitment that Bertie would want if their romance is rekindled?

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is often visually stylish, but a little rough around the edges when it comes to the acting and story arc. That’s not to say that the movie needed a neat and tidy ending. However, there are some parts of the movie that tend to wander and drag out the question of “Will Bertie and Lane get back together or not?” It’s not quite a soap opera, but “Ma Belle, My Beauty” has enough messy relationship drama that viewers instinctively know that things won’t easily be resolved in the few weeks that this story takes place.

Good Deed Entertainment released “Ma Belle, My Beauty” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Swan Song’ (2021), starring Udo Kier

September 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (2021)

Directed by Todd Stephens

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sandusky, Ohio, the comedy/drama film “Swan Song” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay and retired hair stylist, who has financial problems and health issues, reluctantly agrees to do the funeral hair of a deceased estranged female client (it was her dying wish), and he encounters various obstacles when he decides to walk several miles to the funeral home. 

Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are Udo Kier fans and anyone interested in tragicomedies that have themes of aging, LGBTQ people, and reconciling with the past.

Jennifer Coolidge and Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (written and directed by Todd Stephens) skillfully mixes tragedy and comedy and serves it up in the delightfully sassy performance of Udo Kier. In the movie, he memorably portrays a retired hair stylist who is full of verve and defiance, despite possibly being near the end of his own life. Kier’s Pat Pitsenbarger character in the movie has serious health problems, he’s broke, and he’s all alone in the world. Pat (who was born in 1943) can be cranky and difficult, but it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by him in some way because he’s just so honest and unapologetic about who he is.

Pat (just like Kier in real life) is a German immigrant living in the United States. Pat currently lives in a nursing home in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s not stated in the movie how long Pat has been in America, but it’s at least been since the 1970s or 1980s, since he shares several memories of being part of the gay nightclub scene in America back then. Pat is still haunted by the death of his longtime love David James, a florist/landscaper who passed away of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 52. (Eric Eisenbrey portrays David in the movie’s flashbacks.)

Pat is living in a nursing home because even though he and David shared a house together, the house was in David’s name. And when David died, Pat found out that David did not have a will, and Pat had no legal right to the house as David’s domestic partner. Instead, all of David’s possessions went to David’s next of kin: a nephew who sold the house and everything in it. (The laws have since changed in several U.S. states to give rights to same-sex domestic partners when someone in the relationship is ill or deceased.)

It was around the time of David’s death that Pat’s career began to fall apart. He owned a beauty salon in Sandusky that was very successful, because the salon’s clients included all the high-society ladies in the Sandusky area. However, an employee of his named Dee Dee Dale (played by Jennifer Coolidge) betrayed Pat by opening up her own beauty salon across the street, and she lured away many of his top clients. Pat’s salon eventually went out of business, and he is still extremely bitter about it.

All of this background information isn’t revealed right away in the movie, but it explains why Pat is a curmudgeonly loner at the nursing home. His nursing home expenses are paid for by his government benefits. The only person at the nursing home whom he seem to enjoy being around is a mute, wheelchair-using resident named Gertie (played by Annie Kitral), whose long hair he loves to style on a regular basis. Pat recently had a stroke, but that doesn’t stop him from smoking cigarettes. His favorite cigarette brand is More, which is a throwback to when the brand was popular in the 1970s.

One day, Pat gets a visit from an attorney named Mr. Shanrock (played by Tom Bloom), who represents someone from Pat’s past: an actress named Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), who was around Pat’s age and who used to be Pat’s client. However, Pat and Rita stopped speaking to each other years ago when Rita became Dee Dee’s client. Mr. Shanrock has arrived at the nursing home to tell Pat that Rita has died and she had a specific request in her will: Rita wanted Pat to be the one to do her hair and makeup for her funeral.

Rita wasn’t a superstar actress, but she was well-known enough to be considered one of Sandusky’s most famous residents. The local media outlets have reported her death as big news. And so, this funeral will be a fairly high-profile event. Pat is very surprised to hear that Rita’s dying wish was for him to do her funeral hair and makeup.

Mr. Shanrock shows Pat an obituary photo of Rita in her heyday that’s in the local newspaper and asks, “Perhaps you can recreate the same hairstyle?” Pat deadpans, “Split ends and all?” Pat immediately says no to the request, even after Mr. Shanrock offers a fee of $25,000.

Mr. Shanrock then tries to appeal to any sentimentality that Pat might have, by saying: “Let bygones be bygones, Patrick. It’s not healthy to hold a grudge. You would deny a great woman her dying wish?” Pat is unmoved and says flatly, “Bury her with bad hair.”

After Mr. Shanrock leaves in disappointment, Pat takes out a hat box that is filled with his personal mementos. He looks through photos of David and other items from Pat’s past. This trip down memory lane seems to have softened his attitude toward his falling out with Rita, because he changes his mind and decides that he’s going to do Rita’s funeral hair and makeup after all.

The problem is that Pat (who doesn’t have a car) is so broke, he can’t even afford to take a taxi or rideshare to the funeral home. He’s too proud to ask anyone he knows for a free ride. And he doesn’t have the money to get the specific high-end beauty salon products that he wants. So, what’s a financially strapped but determined retired hair stylist to do in these circumstances? If you’re Pat Pitsenbarger, you decide to walk to the funeral home by yourself—even though it’s several miles away and it’s very hot outside.

Before he leaves for the funeral home, a nursing home assistant named Shaundell (played by Roshon Thomas) confiscates his box of cigarettes and scolds Pat by saying: “Sometimes, I think you want to have another stroke.” However, Pat has another box of More cigarettes secretly stashed away. He puts several loose cigarettes in the fanny pack that he wears during the trip. Pat is seen frequently puffing on his smokes throughout the movie.

The rest of “Swan Song” chronicles Pat’s journey to the funeral home, including some of the people he meets along the way. He tries to pull off some hilarious schemes in an attempt to get some cash to buy beauty products or to get a free ride from a stranger. At one point, Pat stands at the side of a road and holds up a sign that says “Free Beauty Tips.”

During his journey, which is mostly on foot, Pat has flashbacks of happier times. And sometimes, he has fantasies about being the star of a drag queen show. Fans of campy 1970s fashion will have a feast for their eyes, since Pat is seen in various flamboyant outfits, including one where he’s wearing a chandelier on his head.

One of the people whom Pat meets is Rita’s nephew Dustin (played by Michael Urie), who gives Pat a very different perspective of what Rita thought of Pat during their estrangement. Pat also sees Mr. Shanrock again, and there’s some haggling over his how Pat is going to be paid for his services. And, of course, Pat inevitably sees Dee Dee again when it seems like her salon is the only one in town to have the products that Pat wants.

“Swan Song” doesn’t have over-the-top slapstick comedy. The movie is grounded in realism and has a bittersweet poignancy as viewers see Pat experiencing some of the joys and pains of his life. He was someone who made a living making his clients feel good about themselves. It’s a joy that he gave and which he comes to realize has been missing from his life for too long. There’s a standout scene toward the end of the movie where Pat is on the receiving end of this joy.

Thanks to writer/director Stephens’ witty screenplay and well-paced direction, “Swan Song” is as emotionally authentic as it is entertaining. However, Kier’s droll and touching performance makes this movie a fascinating jaunt for movie fans who adore unique and compelling protagonists. “Swan Song” is also a love letter to the LGBTQ community and loved ones left behind in the AIDS crisis. “Swan Song” isn’t just about what Pat discovers on his journey. Viewers will find out that this protagonist might appear to have a hardened heart, but underneath he has a very tender and loving soul.

Magnolia Pictures released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Port Authority’ (2021), starring Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom and McCaul Lombardi

August 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Leyna Bloom and Fionn Whitehead in “Port Authority” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Films)

“Port Authority” (2021)

Directed by Danielle Lessovitz

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Port Authority” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a 20-year-old man with a troubled past moves from Pittsburgh to New York City to start a new life, he becomes homeless and unexpectedly falls in love with a transgender woman who is involved in the city’s queer ballroom scene. 

Culture Audience: “Port Authority” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in stories about relationships between straight people and LGBTQ people, as well as what homeless life could be like for young men in New York City.

Fionn Whitehead and McCaul Lombardi in “Port Authority” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Films)

In most movies about heterosexual men who fall in love with transgender women, the man in the relationship usually want to keep the woman’s transgender identity a secret, out of fear that he will be shunned by his peers and/or society. “Port Authority” is no exception, but the man in this story has a big secret of his own that he wants to keep from his lover: He’s homeless. “Port Authority” is a well-acted and occasionally haphazard look at one young couple’s journey into the intersections of sexuality, race relations and social-class tensions, as they strive to be authentic, even if they don’t always tell the truth about themselves.

Written and directed by Danielle Lessovitz, “Port Authority” is told from the perspective of a 20-year-old troubled drifter named Paul (played by Fionn Whitehead), who has moved to New York City from Pittsburgh. As seen in different parts of the story, and by Paul’s own admission, he has an anger management problem and he’s an occasional masochist. Except for when he loses his temper, Paul is generally quiet and introverted. He might have had a lot of experience with life’s hardships, but it soon becomes apparent later in the story that he doesn’t have much experience when it comes to love and romance.

In the movie’s opening scene, Paul has arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Mahattan and is frustrated to find out that his estranged sister Sara, whom he thought was going to pick up him at the bus terminal, is nowhere to be found. Paul doesn’t have her phone number and doesn’t know where she lives, because this meeting was arranged by someone named Mary. It’s an example of how Paul is not skilled at planning and communication.

While waiting outside and trying to figure out what to do, Paul notices a small group of openly queer young people who are around his age and are gathered nearby. They are African American and Latino cisgender gay men and transgender women. Everyone in the group seems to be friends, and they are comfortable enough with each other that they can tease each other without anyone getting offended. Paul will see this group of friends again later on in the story.

After giving up hope that he will have a place to stay for the night, Paul decides to sleep on a subway. He’s woken up by two middle-aged men, who steal his baseball cap and phone. Little do the robbers know that Paul is a fighter. He gets into a brawl with the two men, but he’s outnumbered, and they start beating him up.

A passenger nearby comes to Paul’s rescue, joins in on the fight, and manages to chase the men away. One of the thieves tosses away Paul’s phone (whose screen is now broken) in the subway car before leaving. The guy who came to Paul’s rescue introduces himself. His name is Lee (played by McCaul Lombardi), and he can sense that Paul is new to the area.

Paul admits that he just arrived from Pittsburgh and doesn’t have a place to stay because his sister, who was supposed to pick him up at the bus terminal, never showed up and he doesn’t know how to find her. Lee warns Paul to be careful where to sleep because he could be robbed again. Lee also mentions that some attackers don’t want to steal but want to sexually assault. Lee talks about an incident where it almost happened to him, but he was able to fight off his attacker.

Lee asks Paul if he’s gay because he notices that Paul is wearing an earring. Paul says no. During this conversation, Lee uses a homophobic slur for a gay man. It will be one of many times in the story that Lee shows that he’s homophobic and that he likes to assert his heterosexuality. Outside on the street, Lee uses some liquor to clean off some of Paul’s bloody wounds from the fight. Paul’s face is covered with blood, and Lee jokes that it looks like a menstruating woman sat on Paul’s face.

As Paul and Lee talk some more, Lee seems to feel sympathy for Paul, so he tells Paul that he’s homeless too and living in a men’s shelter. Lee invites Paul to stay at this shelter, which is in the Gramercy Park area. With nowhere else to go, Paul eagerly accepts the invitation. Several of the young men in the shelter work for a debt collection company that has these guys traveling in a mover’s truck and repossessing people’s home items, such as furniture and TVs.

Why is Paul homeless? Where is his family? It’s revealed later in the story that his father abandoned him and Paul’s mother when Paul was a child. Paul’s mother was unable to take care of him (it’s never stated why), so he was put in foster care until he turned 18. While he was in foster care, Paul rarely saw his mother, who never kept her promise that she would get him out of foster care so he could live with her again.

Because Paul never says that his mother is dead, it’s implied that she’s still alive but he’s no longer in contact with her. Since becoming an adult, Paul bounced from place to place, without finding any real sense of family. He was kicked out of wherever he was living in Pittsburgh, but the movie doesn’t go into the details about why he was told to leave. He’s also on probation for a crime or crimes that the movie does not reveal.

Based on what Paul says, Mary (the person who told Paul that he could live with Sara) seems to be either a mutual friend or relative. Paul has left a message for Mary to call him back. And when she does, Mary gives him Sara’s address. When Paul goes to Sara’s address unannounced (she lives in a comfortably-sized middle-class apartment with a husband or boyfriend), she’s very surprised to see Paul. Sara (played by Louisa Krause) also has guests over and refuses to let Paul inside her home.

Instead, Paul and Sara have a tension-filled, brief conversation in the apartment hallway. Paul tells Sara, “Mary said I could live here.” Sarah looks at him in disbelief and says, “Is this a game? I told Mary no.” As a compromise for not letting Paul stay with her, Sara offers to give Paul a one-time cash gift (a few hundred dollars) to help him. It’s implied that Sara and Paul didn’t grow up together, so they don’t know each other well.

At the men’s shelter, Paul notices that one of the residents is one of the gay men he saw at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. His name is Tekay, pronounced “T.K.” (played by Devon Carpenter), and Paul sees him practicing some voguing dance moves in a stairwell. One night, without Tekay knowing, Paul follows him to a rehearsal space where several people from the queer ballroom scene are having a Kiki, which is a ballroom term for a social gathering where people can hang out and rehearse. In the queer ballroom scene, contestants are judged on how they move and what they wear.

The people rehearsing are from a ballroom competition group (also know as a “house”) called the House of McQueen. All of the people in the House of McQueen (including Tekay) call each other siblings and treat each other like a loving and supportive family. And they have also informally taken the last name McQueen, in honor of the name of their ballroom house. The leader of each house is called a “house mother” or “house father.”

Paul immediately stands out at this Kiki because he’s the only white person there. One of the McQueen brothers in the room asks Paul suspiciously who he’s with or who invited him there. It’s right then and there that Paul and a pretty McQueen sister named Wye (pronounced “why”) see each other across the room. Wye (played by Leyna Bloom) was among of the queer group of friends whom Paul saw at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but she was talking with her friends and never noticed Paul. This time, Paul and Wye lock eyes in the way that people in movies do when you know they’re going to fall in love.

As Paul is being interrogated on what he’s doing there, he manages to mumble that a friend invited him. But this McQueen brother wants to know which friend. Paul doesn’t have an answer, so he’s told to leave. As an embarrassed Paul walks out into the street, free-spirited and emotionally intelligent Wye approaches him and makes an apology for her “brother” being so rude.

Paul offers Wye a cigarette, but she declines and says she’s trying to quit smoking. As proof, Wye shows Paul the nicotine patch that she’s wearing. Paul doesn’t waste time in asking Wye out on a date, and they head to a pizza place that’s nearby.

During their conversation at the pizza place, Wye tells Paul her name and asks him why his face is injured. Paul tells her that he got into a fight. He adds, “I have this anger thing. Sometimes I do stuff. It gets me in trouble.”

Wye opens up a little about herself too. She tells Paul that she used to be in the U.S. Navy. He’s a little surprised and responds by telling her that she could be a model. Wye is coy and says that she’s “single and unavailable.” The date ends as soon as they finish their pizza, but they exchange phone numbers.

But by the end of this date, Paul and Wye have left certain things unsaid. Paul doesn’t tell Wye that he’s homeless and living in a shelter because he’s ashamed of being homeless. Instead, Paul lies and tells Wye that he’s living with his sister. Wye doesn’t tell Paul that she’s a transgender woman because she assumes that he knows because of where they met.

Paul might be street-smart in some ways, but at this point in the story, he’s completely ignorant about the queer ballroom scene. Later in the movie, Paul tells another lie to Wye and her friends about what he does for work. He tells them that he helps people “move stuff,” but he doesn’t say that what he moves are repossessed items because he works for a debt collector.

It’s not spoiler information to reveal that Paul eventually finds out that Wye is transgender. How he finds out won’t be revealed in this review, but is revealed in the movie’s trailer. It’s enough to say that Paul finds out that Wye is a trans woman after he’s already fallen for Wye but they haven’t had sex yet.

And he’s not happy to hear about her transgender identity because, as he tells her, “I’m not gay!” Wye says she’s not looking to be with a gay man either. There are hints throughout the story that although Paul isn’t a virgin, he’s never really had a meaningful romance, because he doesn’t mention any ex-girlfriends. It’s very likely that Paul’s relationship with Wye could be the first time that he’s really fallen in love.

During his romance with Wye, Paul becomes fascinated by the ballroom scene. The McQueen family members at first eye him with some skepticism and caution. They think Paul might be a “chaser” (a straight man who fetishizes trans women), but eventually they see that Paul and Wye genuinely care for each other and respect each other. Some viewers might think that Paul is accepted by the McQueen family a little too quickly, but it’s clear he got this quick approval only because of his relationship with Wye.

Wye lives with several of the McQueen family members in the same apartment. The house leader is Mother McQueen (played by Christopher Quarles), who is the oldest member of the group and who acts like a surrogate parent to everyone. The other McQueen family members in the apartment are Max McQueen (played by Max Kpoyour), Azza McQueen (played by Azza Melton), Taliek McQueen (played by Taliek Jeqon) and Eddie McQueen (played by Eddie Plaza).

It’s a very different group from the macho and rough guys who are at the men’s shelter. Lee is the unofficial leader of the shelter residents who work as debt collectors. Another guy in this group is a tall, beefy blonde named Nix (played by William Dufault), who is very homophobic like Lee is. Nix also has a quick temper and is ready to pick a fight with anyone who’s openly queer or whom he thinks might be queer. Nix is the first one at the shelter to see signs that Paul and Tekay have been hanging out together.

While Paul spends time with Wye during ballroom rehearsals and in the McQueen family’s apartment, he also learns the hierarchy of the ballroom categories: The most difficult challenges are for the most experienced or most talented members of the house. For example, the face challenge is easier than the runway challenge. Wye tries to convince Mother McQueen that she’s ready to graduate from the face challenge to the runway challenge.

The House of McQueen is competing in a ballroom competition where the grand prize is $1,000. They need the money because the house members who share the same apartment are close to being evicted for non-payment of rent. (When Wye first takes Paul to the apartment, she quickly hides the eviction notice that’s on the front door.) And considering that Paul works for a debt collector, it’s very easy to speculate what might happen.

The romance between Wye and Paul is very sweet and doesn’t move too quickly. Their interracial relationship is not a problem for either of them or Wye’s queer community of friends. In fact, when Paul asks if it would be possible for him to participate in a ballroom competition, a lighthearted joke is made that he could present “white boy realness” in his challenge. In all seriousness, Wye explains that in the ballroom scene, couples are not allowed to be in the same ballroom house.

Paul and Wye eventually open up to each other about their respective troubled backgrounds. Wye says that she was bullied at school for being different. And when she was 16, she was kicked out of her home after borrowing her stepmother’s pink leather jacket to wear it at school. Of course, being rejected by her family wasn’t really about the leather jacket. It seems too painful for Wye to say the real reason out loud.

Meanwhile, Paul’s secret of being homeless becomes harder for him to keep from Wye when she eventually wants to see where Paul lives. Tekay knows Paul’s secret because Tekay is living at the shelter too, and he doesn’t want his McQueen family to know. Paul and Tekay have an unspoken agreement to keep their homeless secret from the McQueen family.

“Port Authority” is not the type of movie that keeps the same pace throughout the story. There are ebbs and flows, just like there would be in real life. However, there’s some melodrama in the last third of the movie that could make or break the romance between Wye and Paul. How it’s resolved is kind of rushed into the story in a way that could happen in real life, but it still seems a little too contrived.

The movie’s greatest strength is in the believable acting by the principal cast members. Whitehead’s Paul has an interesting mix of being vulnerable and emotionally damaged but also an unpredictable and violent loose cannon. Bloom’s Wye realistically portrays someone who is trying to figure out how to articulate her feelings about being a trans woman to people who are not part of the LGBTQ community. Lombardi’s Lee accurately depicts the type of toxic masculinity among homophobic men who think they’re “good guys” because they’re loyal to other men who identify as straight, without much regard for how their hateful bigotry can hurt other people.

“Port Authority” was filmed on location in New York City and has real people from the city’s queer ballroom scene, which add to the authenticity of the movie. Yes, it’s a scripted movie with actors. But there are certain ways that people in the ballroom scene talk and move that just can’t be faked. These ballroom culture scenes are among the best in the film.

The movie also shows that although Paul is the only straight person and the only white person who’s hanging out with the House of McQueen, he’s eventually accepted into this social group because he treats them respect. The homophobic thugs at the men’s shelter offer no such courtesy to queer people because they don’t care about getting to know anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of “acceptable sexuality.” Paul is walking a tightrope with his secrets and lies because he’s literally caught between these two worlds.

Paul might have anger management problems, but he doesn’t get violent or abusive with women. The movie shows that underneath his somewhat unstable emotional state, he has a gentleman’s sensibility in how women should be treated. There’s a scene where Lee invites Paul to a party, where Lee encourages one of the young women at the party to hook up with Paul as soon as she meets him. Paul abruptly leaves the party not because he’s not sexually attracted to women but because he’s uncomfortable with how this woman is being objectified by Lee.

“Port Authority” writer/director Lessovitz has crafted a story that might resonate more with viewers who understand the LGBTQ community rather than people who don’t care to understand the LGBTQ community. That’s because “Port Authority” tends to wander and lose a little bit of focus midway through the film. The capable performances by the actors should sustain most people’s interest.

However, certain viewers who aren’t curious to see what will happen to Paul and Wye might get bored and might not finish watching the movie. People who watch the movie until the end might not get the ending they expect. However, “Port Authority” is a solid addition to the small number of mainstream indie films about straight men who fall in love with transgender women. The movie’s story takes place over a few months, so it’s more of a snapshot portrait than a sweeping epic.

Momentum Pictures released “Port Authority” in select U.S. cinemas on May 28, 2021 and on digital and VOD on June 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Joe Bell,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

August 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

“Joe Bell”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities in 2013, the dramatic film “Joe Bell” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his teenage son comes out as gay, a man goes on a cross-country mission to educate people about tolerance and to lecture against bullying, but he encounters some obstacles and emotional difficulties along the way.

Culture Audience: “Joe Bell” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in real-life stories that are told in a very hokey movie version.

Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller and Connie Britton in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

Emotionally manipulative and relentlessly cloying, “Joe Bell” has a few pivotal scenes in a corn field, which is symbolic of how densely corny this movie is. “Joe Bell” is based on a true story, but the movie throws in an unnecessary supernatural/psychological twist element that smacks of desperation to make this dramatic film look like some kind of M. Night Shyamalan shocker movie with a “surprise” reveal. “Joe Bell” is a sad example of how a movie with an important message can be sullied by filmmakers who think they have to resort to gimmicks to tell the story.

Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry wrote the abysmal screenplay for “Joe Bell.” And it’s the first movie they’ve written together since they won an adapted screenplay Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Unfortunately, “Joe Bell” is nowhere near being an Oscar-caliber film. The movie is so dreadful, it’s more like a low-rent, direct-to-video release that looks like something the filmmakers kind of want to forget they made because the movie turned out worse than they expected.

It didn’t have to be this way. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Joe Bell” has a very talented cast of people who are capable of doing better work. All of the “Joe Bell” actors are perfectly adequate in their roles. However, even the actors can’t save this ill-conceived mess that turns what should have been a unique inspirational story into a tedious “cranky dad on a road trip” movie—but with a twist that’s tasteless and insensitive to the real people who are portrayed in this movie.

Mark Wahlberg portrays the titular, hot-tempered character Joe Bell, who is ostensibly on a road trip for his gay teenage son and to teach people about acceptance of the LGBTQ community and other people who are often the targets of hate. But somehow—based on how the movie depicts what happened in real life—Joe Bell makes the trip all about Joe Bell. During this road trip, which takes place in 2013, Joe plans to walk across the United States within two years, with the goal to talk to as many people as possible about tolerance and the dangers of bullying.

Because Joe refuses to use any transportation vehicles for this trip, he carries his possessions in a backpack and a push cart. Joe is accompanied by his 15-year-old gay son Jadin Bell (played by Reid Miller), who is a vibrant and likable kid. Jadin is the inspiration for this road trip because of his experiences of being bullied at school. There are several flashbacks showing what happened before this trip.

In these flashbacks, viewers see that Joe and his loyal/long-suffering wife Lola Bell (played by Connie Britton) have a working-class life in La Grande, Oregon. (The movie never shows what they do for a living, but in real life, Joe worked at a plywood mill before he quit to go on the road trip.) Joe and Lola have another son named Joseph Bell (played by Maxwell Jenkins), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. Joseph is Joe’s favored child because, unlike Jadin, Joseph likes to play sports and is not as “effeminate” as Jadin.

Lola already knows that Jadin is gay and is being bullied at school. However, she’s fairly passive and waits to do something only after Jadin musters up the courage to tell Joe. Joe’s brusque reaction to Jadin coming out is to say that he still loves and accepts Jadin but that Jadin doesn’t need to “advertise” to anyone outside of the family that Jadin is gay. As for the bullying, Joe tells Jadin that he needs to fight back with violence, which is advice that Jadin refuses to take.

Jadin later overhears Joe talking to Joe’s friend Jimmy Crowder (played by David H. Stevens) about Jadin being gay. Jimmy comments to Joe about Jadin’s sexuality by saying that Jadin will probably “grow out of it,” because Jimmy says that some teenagers think it’s trendy to try to be gay. Jadin looks hurt and mortified when he sees that his father seems to agree.

Jadin is the only male cheerleader on his school’s cheerleading squad, which also includes Jadin’s best friend Marcie (played by Morgan Lily), who knows that Jadin is gay and loves and accepts Jadin for who he is. One day, after Jadin came out as gay, Marcie and Jadin are practicing some cheerleading routines on the Bell family’s front lawn. Joe angrily orders Jadin to go in the backyard to practice.

Joe says it’s because he doesn’t want the neighbors to think that Jadin is showing off, but Jadin and Marcie really know it’s because Joe doesn’t want the neighbors to see Jadin being “effeminate.” It’s a humiliating moment for Jadin, who resists Joe’s orders at first, but then is resigned to do what Joe tells him because he doesn’t want Joe to yell at him anymore. Viewers of this movie will see plenty of Joe’s temper tantrums.

The flashbacks also include the school bullying that Jadin experienced and what has almost become a movie cliché about a bullied gay teenage boy in high school: Jadin has a secret crush on someone who is part of the same homophobic clique of male students who are doing the bullying. The group is led by a stereotypical alpha-male jock named Boyd (played by Blaine Maye), who picks on Jadin any chance that he gets. Jadin has a crush on the more laid-back Chance (played by Igby Rigney), who exchanges furtive glances of attraction with Jadin in the school cafeteria.

Chance and Jadin end up at the same costume party at someone’s house. (Jadin is dressed as the Brian Slade glam rock character from the 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.”) Jadin and Chance eye each other some more at the party. And it should come as no surprise what happens next when Chance asks Jadin if he wants to go somewhere private to have a smoke. Jadin and Chance kiss each other for the first time, but that’s as far as it goes.

But do you think closeted Chance, who hangs out with and enables homophobic bullies, would suddenly go public and admit that he’s sexually attracted to Jadin? Of course not. It leads to an entirely predictable scenario where Jadin gets a vicious beating on the school’s campus, while Chance betrays Jadin and does nothing to stop it.

This assault is the last straw for Jadin and his parents, who have a meeting with the school principal to see what can be done to discipline these attackers. The meeting goes as badly as you think it would, considering that the bullies are star athletes at the school. It makes Jadin and his family feel like they can’t count on the school to protect him.

But Jadin is about to find out that his parents are part of the problem too. One evening, during a school football game that Joe and Lola are attending, some homophobic students in the stands start throwing things at Jadin and taunt him while he’s on the field with the other cheerleaders. Joe and Lola watch in horror, but do nothing. Instead, Joe and Lola look embarrassed and quickly leave the football game. Jadin helplessly sees what is essentially Lola and Joe acting ashamed that Jadin is their child. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

All of this is necessary background information to explain why Joe is trying to make amends on this cross-country road trip. Much of it is because of he feels guilty about not being as supportive of Jadin as he should have been in the past. If you don’t know what happened in real life, you might still notice that something is “off-kilter” about this road trip. Observant viewers will easily figure it out when they see the interactions that Jadin and Joe have when they’re in places with other people.

The “reveal” comes about halfway through the movie. And it’s meant to pack an emotional wallop, but it just comes across as tacky and manipulative. The rest of the movie is a mishmash of Joe going to various places to give trite lectures about tolerance. In one scene, he ends up talking to people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

In another scene, Joe goes outside his comfort zone and visits a gay bar, where he meets with a gay man who wants to talk to Joe about Joe’s anti-bullying mission. At the bar, Joe ends up making the acquaintance of a drag queen (played by Jason Cozmo) who’s dressed like Dolly Parton. The drag queen flirts with Joe and takes a photo with him. The movie tries to make it a comedic moment because before going to the bar, Joe told Jadin that if he saw any drag queens there, he hoped one them would be as dressed at Dolly Parton, so he could at least look at some big breasts.

It’s as if Joe and this movie want to give unnecessary reminders that he’s straight. Based on how this movie depicts him, Joe is the type of macho guy who would want to wear a T-shirt that says, “Red-Blooded American Heterosexual Man—And Don’t You Forget It!” Therefore, the movie wants to make him look more noble for this road trip, just because he’s a straight guy who’s making personal sacrificies doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people. There’s a very self-congratulatory way that Joe is presented in this movie that’s very off-putting.

There are multiple scenes where Joe has to decide how to confront very homophobic people, even though he knows he probably won’t change their minds with a 30-second scolding. And there’s a poorly written scene in the beginning of the movie, when Joe is giving a lecture at a high school in Twin Falls, Idaho. His entire speech is extremely generic and literally less than two minutes.

One of the reasons why this movie is so ineffective is that Joe spends more time complaining about how hard it is for him on this road trip instead of Joe having a real impact on the bigoted people whose minds need to be changed the most. For the most part, the movie shows that he’s “preaching to the choir.” On the rare occasion that Joe confronts hardcore bigots, the most he does is give them his business card and/or utter something quickly that they either scoff at or ignore.

At one point, Lola and Joseph join him for a visit during this road trip. And it’s where the movie gets little bit off of its high horse to show the harsh realities of how this messianic road trip has taken a toll on Lola and Joe’s marriage. She’s very unhappy that he has almost drained their bank accounts to finance this trip.

Joe’s cross-country trip has gotten national media attention, so he gets some donations from the public. However, it’s still a trip funded mainly by Joe and Lola’s savings—and fueled by Joe’s self-righteous ego. One of the things that annoys Lola is how Joe seems to love the attention of being somewhat of a celebrity for going on this trip. Strangers come up to Joe to praise him and ask to take photos with him.

It doesn’t mean that Joe doesn’t experience self-doubt or despair. Joe has a brief moment in the movie where he thinks about quitting and going back home. But you know he won’t really quit, because it seems like Joe’s intentions aren’t just about showing support for Jadin.

It’s also about feeling guilty and trying to avoid going back to his hometown, where he would have to face some very difficult truths. The movie becomes less about Jadin’s painful experiences and more about what kind of comfort level Joe is feeling at any particular moment. Therefore, it all comes back to Joe and his ego.

Gary Sinise has a small supporting role as Sheriff Westin, a cop in Colorado who meets Joe when Joe is at a very low point on the trip because Joe is running out of money. The Sheriff Westin character seems to have been created for this movie to have yet another stranger be a sounding board for Joe’s self-pity. When the sheriff makes a discovery toward the end of the film, his reaction is so ridiculous and unrealistic, it would make any cop cringe.

“Joe Bell” was originally titled “Good Joe Bell.” It’s easy to see why the title was changed, because the character of Joe Bell in the movie—just like the movie itself—is very hard to like. And there isn’t anything “good” about a movie that shoves aside the meaning of this real-life inspirational journey, just so it can be a showcase for a guy who’s on an ego trip to make himself feel better.

Roadside Attractions released “Joe Bell” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Ailey,’ starring Alvin Ailey

July 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Ailey”

Directed by Jamila Wignot

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the biographical documentary “Ailey” features a group of white and African American people (and one Asian person) discussing the life and career of pioneering dance troupe founder/choreographer Alvin Ailey, who became one of the first African Americans to launch a world-renowned dance troupe and dance school.

Culture Clash: Ailey, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58, struggled with the idea of going public about his HIV diagnosis, and he experienced problems throughout his life, due to racism, homophobia and his issues with mental illness.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Alvin Ailey fans, “Ailey” will appeal primarily to people who interested in the art of fusion dance and stories about entrepreneurial artists who succeeded despite obstacles being put in their way.

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo by Jack Mitchell)

The documentary “Ailey” is a very traditionally made biography of a very non-traditional artist. Although the movie can be at times be slow-paced and dry, it’s greatly boosted by having modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey as a very fascinating subject. Ardent fans of Ailey will get further insight into his inner thoughts, thanks to the documentary’s previously unreleased audio recordings that he made as a personal journal. The movie also does a very good job at putting into context how Ailey’s influence can be seen in many of today’s dancers and choreographers.

Directed by Jamila Wignot, “Ailey” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. New York City was Ailey’s last hometown, where he found fame as one of the first prominent dancers/choreographers to blend jazz, ballet, theater and Afro-centric culture. His work broke racial barriers in an industry where U.S.-based touring dance troupes were almost exclusively owned and staffed by white people.

Born in the rural town of Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey says in audio recordings that his earliest memories were “being glued to my mother’s hips … while she worked in the fields.” Ailey’s father abandoned the family when Ailey was a baby, so Ailey was raised by his single mother Lula, who was a domestic worker. She supported him in his dream to become a professional dancer.

Ailey’s childhood experiences were shaped by growing up poor in the racially segregated South. In the documentary, he mentions through audio recordings that some of his fondest childhood memories were being at house parties with dancing people and going to the Dew Drop Inn, a famous hotel chain that welcomed people who weren’t allowed in “whites only” hotels and other racially segregated places. Another formative experience in his childhood was being saved from drowning by his good friend Chauncey Green.

By 1942, Ailey and his mother were living in Los Angeles, where she hoped to find better job opportunities in a less racially segregated state. It was in Los Angeles that Ailey first discovered his love of dance and theater, when he became involved in school productions. A life-changing moment happened for him happened at age 15, in 1946, when he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. It sparked a passion to make dance his career. And that passion never went away, despite all the ups and downs that he encountered.

In the documentary, Ailey has this to say about watching the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for the first time: “I was taken into another realm … And the male dancers were just superb. The jumps, the agility, the sensuality of what they did blew me away … Dance had started to pull at me.”

But his interest in becoming a dancer was considered somewhat dangerous at the time, because ballet dancing was something that boys could be and still are viciously bullied over as something that’s considered “too effeminate.” Carmen de Lavallade, a longtime friend of Ailey’s, comments in the documentary on what she remembers of a young Ailey before he found fame: “He was beautiful! He didn’t dare let anyone know he wanted to be a dancer, because he would be teased or humiliated.”

But at this pivotal moment in Ailey’s life, it just so happened that Lester Horton opened the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles in 1946. Don Martin, a longtime dancer and Ailey friend, says in the documentary that their mutual love of dance prompted Ailey to join Horton’s dance school, where Ailey thrived. Horton became an early mentor to Ailey.

The documentary doesn’t go into great detail over Ailey’s experiences as a student at the University of California at Los Angeles or when he briefly lived in San Francisco, where he worked with then-unknown poet Maya Angelou in a nightclub act called Al and Rita. Instead, the “Ailey” documentary skips right to the 1954, when Ailey moved to New York City to pursue being a professional dancer. In 1958, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which also has an affiliated school.

George Faison, an AAADT dancer/choreographer from 1966 to 1970, comments: “Alvin entertained thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance” in a prominent dance troupe. Ailey shares his thoughts in his personal audio recordings: “It was a universe I could escape into, so that it would allow me to do anything I wanted to do.”

Ailey’s breakthrough work was 1960’s “Revelations,” which was a then-unprecedented modern ballet about uniquely African American experiences steeped in church traditions. The piece was revolutionary not just because it had a majority-black group of dancers and touched on sensitive racial issues but also because it used blues, jazz and gospel instead of traditional classical music. “Revelations” remains Ailey’s most famous performance work.

Mary Barnett, an AAADT rehearsal director from 1975 to 1979, remembers the impact that “Revelations” had on her: “I was moved to tears seeing ‘Revelations’ … I was studying ballet, I was studying dance. This was more of a re-enactment of life.”

Judith Jamsion—an AAADT dancer from 1964 to 1988 and AAADT artistic director from 1989 to 2011—has this to say about what “Revelations” means to her: “What took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence in the dance.” Jamison is often credited with being the person who was perhaps the most instrumental in keeping AAADT alive after Ailey’s death.

A turning point for “Revelations” was when the production went on a U.S.-government sponsored tour of Southeast Asia. It’s one thing to be a privately funded dance troupe. But getting the U.S. government’s seal of approval, especially for a tour that could be viewed as a cultural ambassador for American dance, gave AAADT an extra layer of prestige.

However, “Ailey” does not gloss over the some of the racism that Ailey encountered, including tokenism and cultural appropriation. Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, has this to say about what it’s like to be an African American in an industry that is dominated by white people: “Oftentimes, black creators are used. Everybody used him [Ailey] as, ‘See, this is the progress we’re making. And see, we’re not racist, we have Alvin Ailey.'”

AAADT movement choreographer Rennie Harris (who created 2019’s “Lazarus” for AAADT) comments on Ailey’s mindset in wanting an African American social consciousness to be intrinsic to his work: “You came here to be entertained, but I have to tell my truth.” Harris adds that this way of thinkng influences his own work: “I’m still feeling the same way, as anyone would feel if you’re feeling unwanted by the [dominant] culture.”

Throughout the documentary, Harris and AAADT artistic director Robert Battle can be seen in rehearsals with AAADT dancers to show how Ailey’s legacy currently lives on with other generations of dancers. This back and forth between telling Ailey’s life story and showing present-day AAADT dancers could have been distracting, but it works well for the most part because of the seamless film editing by Annukka Lilja and Cory Jordan Wayne. The documentary has expected archival footage of Ailey interviews and past AAADT performances of Ailey’s work, such as 1969’s “Maskela Language,” 1970’s “The River”; 1971’s “Cry” and “Mary Lou’s Mass”; 1972’s “Love Songs” and 1975’s “Night Creature.”

The “Ailey” documentary includes analysis of some of Ailey’s biggest influences. It’s mentioned that “Cry” was a tribute to hard-working and supportive black women, such as his mother Lula. “Maskela Language” was inspired by the death of Ailey’s early mentor Hampton. Santa Allen, who was an AAADT dancer from 1973 to 1983, comments: “Choreography really was his catharsis.” As for his genre-defying work, Ailey says in archival footage, “I don’t like pinning myself down.”

The documentary has some commentary, but not a lot, on Ailey’s love life. He was openly gay to his close friends, family members and many of colleagues, but he avoided talking about his love life to the media. Ailey was apparently so secretive about his love life that the only serious boyfriend who’s mentioned in the documentary is a man named Abdullah (no last name mentioned), whom Ailey met in Paris and brought to New York City to live with him.

According to what’s said in the documentary, Abdullah left Ailey by climbing out of the apartment’s fire escape. The movie doesn’t mention why they broke up, but Ailey seems to have channeled his heartbreak into his work. Another aspect of Ailey’s personal life that he didn’t easily share with others was his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Only people in his inner circle knew about these struggles, according to what some people in the documentary say.

AAADT stage manager Bill Hammond says that by the 1970s, Ailey was a full-blown workaholic. “I think he took on too much,” Hammond comments. Other people interviewed in the “Ailey” documentary include “Lazarus” composer Darrin Ross; Linda Kent, an AAADT dancer from 1968 to 1974; Hope Clark, an AAADT dancer from 1965 to 1966; and Masazumi Chaya, an AAADT dancer from 1972 to 1966 and AAADT associate director from 1991 to 2019.

Ailey’s determination to keep his personal life as private as possible also extended to when he found out that he was HIV-positive. Several people in “Ailey” claimed that even when it was obvious that he was looking very unhealthy, he denied having AIDS to many of his closest friends, out of fear of being shunned. It was not uncommon for many people with AIDS to try to hide that they had the disease, especially back in the 1980s, when it was mistakenly labeled as a “gay disease,” and the U.S. government was slow to respond to this public health crisis.

Because dance requires a certain athleticism, having a physically degenerative disease such as AIDS was not something that Ailey wanted to be part of his legacy. According to Jones, many gay men at the time wanted to edit themselves out of the AIDS narrative. “He was part of the editing,” Jones says of Ailey.

And that shame caused Ailey to isolate himself from many of his loved ones. “He was alone,” adds Jones of Ailey not sharing much of his suffering with several people he knew. (On a side note, Jones is the subject of his own documentary: “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” which was released in the U.S. a week before the “Ailey” documentary.)

But toward the end of Ailey’s life, it was impossible for him to continue to hide the truth, even though he refused to go public with having AIDS. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is when Jamison describes being with Ailey on his death bed at the moment that he died: “He breathed in, and he never breathed out. We [the people he left behind] are his breath out.”

“Ailey” is an example of documentary that’s a touching reminder that how someone lives is more important than how someone dies. The storytelling style of this documentary doesn’t really break any new ground. However, people who have an appreciation for highly creative artists will find “Ailey” a worthy portrait of someone whose life might have been cut short, but he has an influential legacy that will continue for generations.

Neon released “Ailey” in New York City on July 23, 2021, and in Los Angeles on July 30, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021.