Review: ‘Holly Slept Over,’ starring Nathalie Emmanuel, Josh Lawson, Britt Lower, Erinn Hayes and Ron Livingston

March 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nathalie Emmanuel in "Holly Slept Over" (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Nathalie Emmanuel in “Holly Slept Over” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

“Holly Slept Over”

Directed by Joshua Friedlander

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sex comedy “Holly Slept Over” focuses on two middle-class white American married couples and the biracial British free-spirited woman who had an affair with one of the women when they were in college.

Culture Clash: The men are bored with their sex lives and think of ways to spice things up in their marriages, while complaining that their wives are too uptight to agree to their ideas.

Culture Audience: “Holly Slept Over” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a formulaic comedy about a threesome.

Britt Lower and Josh Lawson in “Holly Slept Over” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

The concept of two women and a man in a sexual threesome has been done so many times in movies and TV shows that the comedy film “Holly Slept Over” brings nothing new or clever to this idea. In fact, for most of this approximately 90-minute movie (written and directed by Joshua Friedlander), a hoped-for threesome is pretty much what the men in the movie obsess over, as soon as one of guys finds out that his wife had a sexual relationship in college with a woman who wants to see the wife again. It’s a flimsy basis for a story when the characters are as two-dimensional as the ones in this movie.

“Holly Slept Over” is the very definition of a “sex comedy,” because sex is the primary focus of all the main characters. The film’s opening scene is of friends/neighbors Noel (played by Josh Lawson) and Pete (played by Ron Livingston) barbecuing in a backyard and complaining about their sex lives. Pete warns Noel, who’s been trying to start a family with his wife, that having kids will kill a couple’s sex life. Pete tells Noel that he knows this from experience, because he and his own wife rarely have sex, ever since they’ve been raising children.

Pete confesses to Noel that because he’s had no satisfying release for his sex drive, he’s resorted to ejaculating on his wife’s breasts when she’s asleep. Pete also says that he’s been able to clean off the “evidence” without her knowing what happened. “Maybe I’m a monster,” Pete says unapologetically. “I defiled my wife. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in months.” Meanwhile, Noel’s biggest complaint about sex with his own wife is that it’s too boring.

As this conversation is taking place, Noel’s wife Audra (played by Britt Lower) and Pete’s wife Marnie (played by Erinn Hayes) are in the kitchen having their own candid talk. Audra hasn’t been able to get pregnant with Noel, and she reveals that she’s worried that she might not be able to conceive a child, ever since she miscarried an unplanned pregnancy when she was a junior in high school.

Audra also tells Marnie that she’s gotten an unexpected message from her former college roommate Holly, who contacted her out of the blue after they stopped speaking to each other 12 years ago. Holly wants to see Audra again, but Audra tells Marnie that she’s not interested. Audra says that when she and Holly were in college, their friendship ended because Holly was “too wild and free-spirited for me,” because Holly drank too much, did too many drugs, and slept around.

It isn’t long before the truth comes out about the real reason why Audra is uncomfortable with reconnecting with Holly. Audra tells Noel that she and Holly used to be lovers, but Audra describes it as an experimental fling. She insists that she hasn’t been with another woman since Holly, and she asks Noel to keep this a secret between the two of them. Noel is surprised by Audra’s revelation, because he always thought that Audra was sexually conservative.

“Holly Slept Over” uses a predictable trope that’s often seen in stories about two couples. One couple is “nice” (usually boring) and the other couple is “no filter” (usually quarrelling). It’s obvious within the first 10 minutes of the film which type of couple is which. Noel and Audra are both lawyers: He’s a tax attorney, and she’s a criminal-defense attorney. It’s not mentioned what Pete and Marnie do for a living, probably because viewers won’t care.

Another thing that’s obvious in this movie is that both couples have no privacy boundaries, because they blab sexual secrets about their spouses to someone who’s part of the other couple. It should come as no surprise then that Noel tells Pete about Audra’s affair with Holly. Pete then tells Marnie, who then tells Audra that she knows about Holly too.

It’s very easy to see that this movie was written and directed by a man, because the conversations between the two women don’t ring true and sound like they’re from a perspective of someone projecting male fantasies. For example, when Marnie and Audra talk about the affair with Holly that is no longer a secret, Marnie tells Audra that she’s impressed that Audra knows how to “dig clam.”

It’s the kind of talk that sounds like what you’d hear at a frat party instead of an authentic conversation between two adult female friends. That’s not to say that women don’t describe sex in raunchy terms. But when women talk about sex, they aren’t very likely to compare their private parts to sea creatures.

Despite the fact that three of the five main characters are women, a great deal of the movie is focused on what the husbands want and need, and the women’s wants and needs are secondary to the men’s. We know this because most of the complaining in the movie comes from the men feeling deprived by their “uptight” wives who aren’t giving them the kind of sex that they want. It didn’t occur to the filmmakers to show much of the women’s perspectives, since the women’s purpose in the movie is to react to what the men want.

For example, the filmmakers seem to want viewers to assume it’s all Marnie’s fault for losing interest in having sex with her husband Pete. However, it’s obvious within the first 10 minutes of the movie that he’s a selfish jerk in other aspects of life—he’s resentful of parental responsibilities because they take time away from when he wants to have sex—which probably has a lot to do with why his wife is turned off by him. Anyone who somewhat brags about sexually violating his wife’s body without her knowledge when she’s asleep (in other words, she didn’t consent) has some seriously unhealthy sexual issues. It tells you what you need to know about what a lousy husband he is.

Because Pete says he has such an unfulfilling sex life, he tries to live vicariously through Noel, whose marriage is happy in comparison to Pete’s marriage. Pete is the one who plants the idea in Noel’s head that Noel should have a threesome with Holly and Audra. Pete essentially berates Noel into thinking that he’ll be a boring wimp if he doesn’t try to have this threesome. After checking out Holly on Instagram and seeing how attractive she is, Noel confesses that the threesome is all he can think about, but he’s doubtful that Audra will agree to it. The two men then start scheming up ways to try to convince Audra to have a threesome with Holly and Noel.

By the time that Holly shows up about 30 minutes into the movie, it’s very easy to see where this story is going to go. Instead of staying at a hotel, Holly has sort of invited herself over to Noel and Audra’s place when she said she wanted to visit. And they didn’t say no. Never mind that Audra has been “estranged” from Holly for years and there’s no guarantee that their reunion will go well. Audra and Noel have let Holly stay over at their place anyway.

And when Holly arrives at their house, with her suitcase in hand, it’s around 8 a.m.—hours before Audra and Noel were expecting her. (How rude.) Holly tells a surprised Noel when he answers the door that she was so eager to get there, that she drove all night. Then, Holly asks to take a shower and a nap at their place, since she’s already there. Audra, who’s nervously taking a bath when Holly arrives, is a little put off by Holly showing up so early. But Audra and Noel clearly want Holly to be in their home, which sets the tone for the rest of her time there.

Holly’s “nap” turns into her sleeping for 11 hours. (An obvious sign that she’s hasn’t given up her partying ways.) Based on Audra’s annoyed reaction at not being able to hang out with Holly, because Holly’s been in a deep sleep, there’s more to Audra’s feelings for Holly than she’s willing to immediately reveal. When Holly wakes up, she and Audra make somewhat awkward apologies to each other for how their college relationship ended.

Audra and Holly ask each other questions about how their lives have been since college. To no one’s surprise, Holly is still single, sexually fluid, and she’s started her own marijuana edibles business called Holly’s Good & Baked. And guess what? She’s brought a gift basket of samples for all three of them to share.

At some point, Noel blurts out that he knows about Audra and Holly’s past sexual relationship. Audra seems to be horrified and embarrassed that Noel has even mentioned it. Holly then says that she’s done with having flings and only wants to have sex in “meaningful relationships.” The disappointed look on Noel’s face is all that manipulative Holly needs to start turning on the charm and flattery, because she now knows that she and Noel both have the same ulterior motive. Any adult can see what’s going to happen next in the movie.

To its credit, “Holly Slept Over” does not clutter the story with a lot of unnecessary characters. (The cast and film set are so small that this story could easily be a play.) And the movie telegraphs its intentions from nearly the beginning, so at least it’s up front that the potential threesome is the hook for this film. The problem is that the sparseness of the movie is to the detriment of character development.

The movie gives no indication of what any of these characters’ personal interests are besides sex. Pete complains about how being a parent has ruined his sex life, but the movie doesn’t show how he and Marnie are as parents. About 80% of what Noel and Audra talk about are topics related to their own sex life and how Holly is affecting them sexually. Even the marijuana edibles in the movie are only in the story to loosen up inhibitions for what is obviously going to happen.

The actors do the best that they can with the mediocre script that they’ve been given. As nerdy and insecure Noel, Lawson is the only actor in the cast who brings a playful sense of humor to the awkwardness and jealousy that can arise from a couple bringing a third person into their sex life. Some of his facial expressions are sure to make some viewers laugh at loud.

Livingston’s Pete character is the token crude blowhard that seems to be a required character in every sex comedy. Hayes plays Marnie as someone who can be sassy or shrewish, depending on her mood. (And it’s certainly not easy to be married to someone like Pete.)

Emmanuel portrays Holly as a lot more likable than her actions. Holly tends to do a lot selfish and irresponsible things. She’s also good at quickly figuring out what people want and using that to her advantage.

However, Holly is still a stereotypical “unicorn” (swingers’ terminology for a woman who’s open to dating couples) in movies like this—she’s pretty, available, and mostly invited into the couple’s sex life to fulfill their fantasies, but not get in the way of the couple’s relationship. She’s not there for any deeper meaning. And quite frankly, she’s a lot more disposable than she thinks she is—which is kind of like how someone could describe this movie.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released “Holly Slept Over” on digital and Redbox on March 3, 2020.

Review: ‘Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street,’ starring Mark Patton

March 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Patton in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” (Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema)

“Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street”

Directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen

Culture Representation: In this documentary which has mostly white Americans and some Latino representation, actor Mark Patton (who’s best known for starring in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge”) tries to make sense of the circumstances that led to him quit acting in the 1980s, including the homophobia that he says ruined his career.

Culture Clash: Patton places a lot of blame for his career downfall on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” screenwriter David Chaskin, who gave interviews saying that Patton made the movie too gay.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to horror fans, audiences who care about LGBTQ issues, and people interested in “whatever happened to” stories.

David Chaskin and Mark Patton in “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” (Photo courtesy of Virgil Films)

Faded actor Mark Patton says that the 1985 horror flick “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was the best thing that ever happened to his career and also the worst thing. He never starred in another major motion picture again after this sequel got mixed-to-negative reviews. And in the documentary “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street,” he tries to make sense of what went wrong.

Patton is one of the producers of the documentary, which was capably directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen. Because Patton is a producer of the documentary, it explains why the film is mostly a sympathetic portrayal of him. It’s a compelling story, even though Patton (who still calls himself a “movie star”) at times seems to have an exaggerated sense of importance about his impact on the movie industry. He certainly isn’t the only actor who’s become a “has-been.”

Narrated by Cecil Baldwin (who sounds like he could be narrating a true-crime documentary), the movie starts off with Baldwin’s voiceover saying that “the world wasn’t ready for a male scream queen” when “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was released in 1985, when Patton was in his 20s. Although Patton’s Jesse Walsh character in the movie wasn’t explicitly gay, he had effeminate mannerisms, and the movie had some homoerotic undertones, which are explained in this documentary.

The basic premise of “Freddy’s Revenge” was that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” villain Freddy Krueger—the slasher serial killer with full-body burn scars, a striped sweater and gloves with knife blades as fingernails—had invaded the body of Jesse Walsh, a nerdy and sensitive high-school student. Jesse has been having nightmares about Freddy after moving into the same house where Freddy terrorized the main female character in the first “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. Jesse finds out later that his body has been possessed by Freddy—which is a departure from the first “Nightmare” movie, where Freddy only appeared when the main character was asleep.

In one of his dreams, Jesse goes to a gay bar and orders a drink. He’s seen at the bar by his gym teacher, who later punishes him for underage drinking. Freddy then kills the gym teacher in a homoerotic shower moment that includes the naked teacher getting slapped with a towel on his rear end. And the very concept of Freddy entering and leaving Jesse’s body has also been pointed to as homoerotic. Although Jesse shows a romantic interest in his friend Kim Myers (played by Lisa Webber), many people who’ve seen the movie think that Jesse is gay and in the closet.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” director Jack Sholder, who’s interviewed in the documentary, swears that he didn’t see any gay overtones when he was making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.” Sholder says that he cast Patton in the starring role because Patton looked like he had the vulnerability needed for the Jesse Walsh character. The movie’s screenwriter David Chaskin is more evasive when he’s asked about any homoerotic content in the movie. Chaskin says that although he didn’t intend for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” to be a gay horror movie, he understands why people think it is.

Patton was a closeted gay man during his brief acting career in the late 1970s to mid-1980s. After “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was released to profitable box office but mixed-to-negative reviews, there were minor rumblings in the media about the gay overtones in the movie. Patton says the chatter was enough for his agent to get scared and demand that Mark only audition for roles where he played an obviously heterosexual character.

But except for two roles in television in 1986, Patton didn’t work as an actor again for decades. (He resumed his acting career with a small role in the 2016 independent horror film “Family Possessions.”) As far as a lot of people where concerned, he had disappeared. What really happened?

Patton places a lot of misdirected anger on Chaskin, whom he accuses of getting him “blacklisted” from the industry by “outing” Patton in interviews, where Chaskin would claim that he never wrote the Jesse Walsh character as gay and that Patton just played the character as gay. In the documentary, Chaskin gives his perspective: “‘Nightmare 2′ was a possession movie. I like the concept of an innocent person being invaded.”

But the more Patton tells his life story, the more it becomes obvious that Chaskin is just a scapegoat for what really led Patton to suddenly “disappear” from showbiz. Patton’s on-again, off-again live-in boyfriend—actor Timothy Patrick Murphy, best known for his early 1980s role as Mickey Trotter in “Dallas”—had AIDS, and so did many of their friends.  Murphy was “in the closet” about being gay, at a time when almost no working Hollywood actors were openly gay.

In the documentary, Patton candidly talks about finding out around the same time that he was filming “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” that he was also HIV-positive. Because his lover and many of his friends were HIV-positive or dying of AIDS, and because he didn’t know if or when he was going to die too, Patton says in the documentary that he had a “nervous breakdown,” and he decided to quit acting. After admitting all of that, why does he have so much hatred for Chaskin?

As Patton tells it, Chaskin deliberately and cruelly fueled the homophobia that Patton believes led to him becoming an industry pariah. Patton says that the AIDS crisis was just one of the reasons why he quit acting, but he believes that Chaskin and homophobia in Hollywood were the main reasons. It was also during a time when Rock Hudson revealed he had AIDS, and there was a “gay panic” in Hollywood to not hire actors who were rumored to be gay. (This was during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when many people mistakenly thought that only gay men could get the disease.)

Even though homophobic ideas about AIDS certainly affected how Hollywood did business, Patton comes across as too paranoid and illogical when he says that Chaskin was out to get him. Chaskin never had that much power to get Patton blacklisted from Hollywood. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was Chaskin’s first movie screenplay, and his Hollywood career never really thrived after that. Chaskin has written only three feature-length movies since then (all little-seen independent films), the last one being 2000’s “Love Hurts.”

Furthermore, an untold number of gay actors were in the closet back then who had rumors swirling that they were really gay, but they still kept working. Patton’s boyfriend Murphy was one of them. Murphy’s last movie was released in 1988, the year that he died from AIDS at the age of 29. The reality is that Patton just gave up because of all the personal problems in his life. If he has anyone to blame other than himself, it’s probably his agent at the time, who obviously didn’t have enough confidence that Patton could find work because of the gay rumors.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Patton had a better agent at the time. But in hindsight, from the way that Patton describes his epic meltdown, he probably would’ve quit acting anyway, even if he had been getting steady work. He says he left Los Angeles, moved to Mexico, cut ties with showbiz, and spent years in a deep state of depression. He says that by the time he left the entertainment business, he had found out that he had “HIV, cancer and tuberculosis” and he was “bedbound for a year.” With all of these health problems that would affect his ability to work, exactly how is that David Chaskin’s fault?

And when Patton describes how he got into acting in the first place, it’s easy to see why he couldn’t handle the first major rough patch that came along. He never really struggled to get his big break. It all happened very quickly for him.

He describes his childhood in suburban Missouri, where he grew up in a Christian household, as living in an area where people looked just like him (white and wholesome-looking). However, his parents’ marriage was troubled (they divorced when he was 14), and his mother spent time in and out of psychiatric institutions.

In the documentary, Patton says he knew he was gay from an early age, but he went to great lengths to keep it a secret. He caught the acting bug when he would perform at talent shows in school. When he made the decision to move to New York City after high school, Patton says it was the first time in his life he felt he could be openly gay among his friends. (Although Patton’s IMDb page lists his birth year as 1964, more likely he was born in 1959 or 1960, because in the documentary, he says he moved to New York in 1977, after he graduated from high school.)

And how Patton broke into showbiz is the stuff that people dream about but rarely happens. Within days of getting his first agent, he was working as an actor, and he says it’s because he had the right “look.” (In other words, a pleasant-looking boy next door.) Getting work in commercials led to his first big break: a supporting role in the Broadway play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” starring Cher, Sandy Dennis and Karen Black. In 1982, Robert Altman directed the play and the movie, which had the same stars as the Broadway show.

That kind of luck—co-starring in your first movie with that level of talent at such a young age—almost never happens to most actors. Therefore, it’s easy to see why Patton took for granted that things would continue to go that easily for him. In the documentary, he’s somewhat arrogant in describing how lucky he was to have such smooth sailing in his first few years as an actor. His attitude comes across as, “Of course I got work right away. I was cute and I had a great personality.” He doesn’t fully acknowledge that the opportunities that he got at the beginning of his acting career is not how it happens for most people when they first become actors, even for those who reach the A-list.

Because he never really paid his dues before getting high-profile roles, Patton comes across as a little too entitled in thinking that the ride should’ve kept going that way for him because he thinks he deserved it. Even the biggest entertainers have had career flops and pitfalls. The ones who survive the bad times (such as Patton’s idol Cher) are the ones who don’t give up, like Patton did.

Early in the documentary, Patton quotes something that Cher told him: “In show business, you always have to do what’s best for you.” Patton should also have learned more than a few other things from Cher about how to get through career slumps. (He’s old enough to remember how Cher became a laughingstock of showbiz in the early 1990s when she did infomercials for Lori Davis hair-care products.)

Patton says he decided to return to the entertainment business shortly after he was tracked down in Mexico by the filmmakers of the 2010 documentary “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy,” which was a comprehensive history of all the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies up to that point. It was through that movie that Patton realized how the “Nightmare” fandom was still large enough that he could start making money by doing personal appearances, such as going to fan conventions that specialize in fantasy entertainment.

A considerable amount of the documentary shows Patton doing just that, as he’s seen interacting with fans, doing Q&As at “Nightmare” events, and traveling with his assistant Bill Nugent from personal appearance to personal appearance. The documentary also features commentary from “Nightmare” fans, some more famous than others. (Podcast host John Fozzie Nelson and drag queens Peaches Christ and Knate Higgins are among those who say glowing remarks about Patton.) Most of them either comment on the “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” movie, Patton’s identity as a gay man and/or how he and the movie helped them accept their own sexuality.

To his credit, Patton seems very grateful for fan appreciation, now that he knows how fickle fame can be. He has this to say about interacting with fans: “They don’t want to know about your problems. They want to see a movie star.” And he offers this response to people who think that doing the convention circuit is degrading: “If it seems whorish to do this, then be a good whore, because you’re taking their money.”

When he’s not traveling, Patton runs a gift shop in Mexico, where he lives with a man who’s described in the movie as his husband Hector Morales, who didn’t know when they first met about Mark’s past as a Hollywood actor. Because Patton is now a passionate AIDS activist and because he seems to have found true love with Hector, it’s safe to say that Patton is in a much better place in his life right now.

One of the best parts of the documentary is when it shows the 30th anniversary reunion of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” which took place at Shock Pop Comic Con in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The reunion included director Sholder, along with cast members Robert Englund (who plays Freddy Kreuger), Patton, Myers, Clu Gulager, Marshall Bell and Robert Rusler.

Although his co-stars have good things to say about him, Sholder is the only one shown on camera giving Patton a much-needed reality check that he needs to let go of all this hatred toward Chaskin. (Chaskin was originally announced to attend the 30th anniversary reunion, but he ended up not going, for reasons that weren’t made clear in the documentary.)

And so, it’s inevitable that near the end of the film, Patton and Chaskin agree to sit down together and hash out their differences, after not speaking to each other for decades. It’s a necessary part of this documentary, since all of Patton’s whining about Chaskin gets very irritating after a while. Ultimately, “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” is a cautionary tale about bitterness, and it’s a wake-up call for any actors who think they’re owed a long and successful career in showbiz just because they starred in a couple of movies.

Virgil Films released “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” in Los Angeles on February 27, 2020, and on VOD on March 3, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Saint Frances,’ starring Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams

February 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Saint Frances” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the comedy/drama “Saint Frances” has a cast of predominantly white (with some African American and Latino) characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old single woman who says she doesn’t really like kids ends up being a nanny to a precocious and often-bratty 6-year-old girl.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to independent movie fans with open-minded viewpoints on parenting issues, since abortion and lesbian mothers are major parts of the story.

Ramona Edith Williams and Kelly O’Sullivan in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The dramedy film “Saint Frances” avoids a lot of maudlin clichés that are found in stories about nannies and instead tells a very funny and sometimes emotionally raw story about how a nanny and a child she cares for make an impact on each other’s lives. The nanny is 34-year-old Bridget (played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote the “Saint Frances” screenplay), an underachiever in Chicago who’s kind of drifting through life with no specific plans.

She’s quit her job as a restaurant server to become a temporary nanny to a precocious 6-year-old named Frances, nicknamed Franny (played by a very adorable Ramona Edith Williams), in the summer before Franny begins kindergarten. Franny’s parents are a lesbian couple in their 40s—no-nonsense attorney Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and sensitive homemaker Maya (played by Charin Alvarez), who’s recently given birth to their second child, a son named Wally.

Bridget is the kind of person who privately says she doesn’t really like kids and isn’t sure if or when she wants to be a mother. She also hates her job as a server, so that’s why she jumps at the chance to try something new by being a nanny. At first, she and Franny don’t really get along too well, since Franny can be hyperactive and bratty, while Bridget can be impatient and unprepared.

And Bridget wasn’t exactly the first choice to be the nanny. During her interview with Annie and Maya, when she was asked if she has any siblings, Bridget replied that she has a younger brother, but they don’t have much in common with each other because, “He’s married, has a house, and is very responsible.” But the nanny who was originally hired was let go due to incompatibility, so Annie and Maya hired Bridget out of desperation, since she was available to start the job immediately.

Meanwhile, shortly before she started her nanny job, Bridget began dating a 26-year-old server named Jace (played by Max Lipchitz), whom she met at a house party and hooked up with that same night. Bridget wants to keep things casual between them and even tells Jace that even though they have sex with each other, they’re not in a relationship. The morning after their first sexual encounter was awkward and comical, because they both found out that Bridget had started her menstruation period during the encounter, and the full effects could be seen in the light of day. Bridget and Jace were both able to laugh about it though.

Bridget’s menstruation and other biological feminine bleeding are mentioned and seen several times in this film. All of that blood is usually played for laughs in the movie, but according to “Saint Frances” screenwriter O’Sullivan, the reason why Bridget’s blood gets so much attention in the story is to realisitically show women’s gynecological functions that usually aren’t seen or discussed in movies.

In an open letter, O’Sullivan explained why she chose to have her Bridget character bleed so much in the film: “‘Saint Frances’ endeavors to normalize and destigmatize those parts of womanhood that we’re encouraged not to talk about. I wanted not only to talk about these subjects, but to show them onscreen unapologetically, realistically. This movie could be called ‘There Will Be Blood 2,’ and a sense of humor is a vital intention of the film.”

For the first time in her life, Bridget is responsible for taking care of a child. She admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing a lot of the time. And it’s perhaps because of that honesty that Franny starts to warm up to Bridget and vice versa. Franny is a curious child who asks a lot of questions, which have the effect of Bridget examining her own life and beliefs.

That doesn’t mean that things go smoothly in their relationship. While spending time at a park, Franny gets a few unintentional bumps and bruises when Bridget lets Franny out of her sight for a few moments And when Bridget and Franny are at a library, and Bridget temporarily leaves Franny alone at a table to use the restroom, Bridget comes back to find out that Franny has emptied all of the contents of Bridget’s purse on the table (including her tampons) and yells out for everyone to hear: “Are you on your period?”

While she’s adjusting to her new job, Bridget also finds out that she’s pregnant. The pregnancy is unplanned, Jace is the father, and Bridget immediately decides to have an abortion. Jace is supportive and accompanies her to the abortion appointment. The movie makes a point of showing the medical and psychological effects of abortion, since Bridget’s post-abortion bleeding is shown for the rest of the movie. And although she has no regrets about having the abortion, Bridget doesn’t really discuss her feelings about it with anyone, even though Jace asks her to, and that supression of emotions eventually starts to take a toll on Bridget without her knowing it, until it all spills out in a pivotal scene in the film.

Meanwhile, Maya is going through her own personal issues, since she’s suffering from post-partum depression, but she isn’t getting therapy for it and is too ashamed to talk about it with Annie. Bridget sees the signs that Maya is depressed, but isn’t sure what to do about it. It doesn’t help that infant son Wally cries whenever Maya is holding him, but stops crying when Bridget holds him, which makes Maya feel like an inadequate mother.

“Saint Frances” also touches on issues of religion, specifically Catholicism. Bridget says she’s a lapsed Catholic, while Maya is a very religious Catholic. Maya is so religious that she’s been praying as a way to heal from her post-partum depression. Annie is not Catholic, but there’s a scene where Annie and Maya get Wally baptized by a priest in a church, and they have a baptism party afterward.

Bridget, who describes herself as “an agnostic feminist,” thinks “it’s immoral to have children” when the world’s resources are being depleted to dangerous levels. When Bridget’s parents come to visit her, she confides in her mother Carol (played by Mary Beth Fisher) that she has this pessimistic belief about human reproduction. Carol responds by telling Bridget that when she had children, she heard the doomsday warnings too, but “I gambled on our survival.” It’s a powerful moment that demonstrates how two people can disagree about an issue as important as parenthood and still respect each other’s opinions.

Another important scene in the movie is when Maya and Bridget confront issues of public breastfeeding and homophobia. When they’re in a park with Franny, a mother who sees Maya breastfeeding goes over and tells Maya to stop because she doesn’t want her children to see it. The offended mother also tells Maya that she’s probably exposing her breasts to attract the men in the park, and gets a shock when Bridget tells the woman that Maya is a lesbian. The scene, if written another way, could have turned into a cringeworthy, hysterical screaming match. Instead, it turns into a teachable moment for Franny on how to respectfully deal with conflicts and not sink to hateful levels.

There’s also a scene in the movie where Bridget faces some hard truths about her life, when it comes to her tendency to avoid committing to serious romantic relationships and career goals. Her feelings for Jace (who wants to be closer to her than she’s willing to let him) have to be put in honest perspective when she meets Franny’s guitar teacher Isaac (played by Jim True-Frost) and is immediately attracted to him. Bridget is so attracted to Isaac that she impulsively buys a guitar and asks him for “private lessons.”

And when Bridget is over at Annie and Maya’s house, she has an awkward and surprise reunion with a former Northwestern University classmate Cheryl DuBuys (played by Rebekah Ward), who is a successful businesswoman, self-help author (one of her books is called “Resting Rich Face”) and the mother of a boy who’s visiting for a playdate with Franny. A smug and condescending Cheryl tells Maya that Bridget (who dropped out of Northwestern after a year) was someone that her classmates thought would be “the next Sylvia Plath.” Cheryl then asks Bridget to run an errand for her, and Bridget gets a small level of revenge on Cheryl for humiliating her. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what the revenge is.)

At the heart of the film though is the relationship between Bridget and Franny. “Saint Frances” is the film debut of Williams, who gives an entirely believable and impressive performance as Franny. The child has an emotional intelligence that is wise beyond her years without being annoying. And as Bridget, O’Sullivan’s performance has real depth in showing someone who can be immature and complicated but still a good person underneath her “hot mess” surface.

It also helps that O’Sullivan did not ruin the “Saint Frances” screenplay with over-the-top slapstick moments, which are predictable tropes in many comedic movies that have a child as one of the main characters. And under the very adept direction of Alex Thompson (who makes his feature-film debut with “Saint Frances”), the movie achieves the right balance of comedy and drama while maintaining realism and a consistent pace.

As for the “saint” word used in the movie’s title, it’s not because Frances is an ideal child. Perhaps it refers to the “miracle” that Franny achieves by changing Bridget from being someone who didn’t like to be around kids to someone who begins to understand that kids should be respected as individuals and not lumped into one stereotypical category. And sometimes, a child can see truths in ways that adults try to deny.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Saint Frances” in New York City on February 28, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks.

Review: ‘Kill the Monsters,’ starring Ryan Lonergan, Jack Ball and Garrett McKechnie

February 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ryan Lonergan, Jack Ball and Garrett McKechnie in "Kill the Monsters"
Ryan Lonergan, Jack Ball and Garrett McKechnie in “Kill the Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

“Kill the Monsters”

Directed by Ryan Lonergan

Culture Representation: Taking place during a road trip that starts in New York City and ends up in Los Angeles, the satirical drama “Kill the Monsters” has a predominantly white LGBTQ cast of characters doing a modern re-enactment of key points in U.S. history.

Culture Clash: The three main characters represent the United States, while other characters portray various entities that have had conflicts with the U.S.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to audiences who are looking for unique LGBTQ stories and people who are U.S. history buffs.

Jack Ball in “Kill the Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

What do you get when you cross a gay threesome with U.S. history lessons? You get the audacious and all-over-the-place satirical drama “Kill the Monsters,” which is made for people who won’t be offended by the idea that three men who have hot’n’heavy gay sex with each other are a metaphor for the United States. It’s a unique concept that works best if viewers really know U.S. history. Otherwise, too much of the story (which is subtitled “An American Allegory”) will be confusing.

Filmed entirely in black and white, “Kill the Monsters” is divided into nine chapters that represent pivotal moments in U.S. history. At the center of the story are three characters who are in a ménage à trois relationship: Patrick (played by Ryan Lonergan) is the sensible and bossy alpha male; Sutton (played by Garrett McKechnie) is the hedonistic partier; and Frankie (played by Jack Ball) is their younger idealistic partner. In order to fully understand this movie, it helps to know from the beginning that Patrick, Sutton and Frankie represent the United States. If not, then only a keen knowledge of U.S. history will help you understand what’s going on during the course of the movie.

“Kill the Monsters” is the feature-film directorial debut of Lonergan, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay. His Patrick character also has the snappiest dialogue in the movie, which has a lot of people talking as if they’re amped up on caffeine or a drug that’s a lot stronger. There are also quick edits and jump cuts that can be somewhat distracting. Clocking in at just 77 minutes, “Kill the Monsters” is a movie that doesn’t gives much time for people to digest a scene before moving on to the next scene. In contrast to the modernist short-attention-span editing techniques, the film’s pomp-and-circumstance classical score (with music by Jean Sibelius Music and performed by Iceland Symphony Orchestra) is the kind of music that sounds like it would be in a history documentary.

The movie’s production notes don’t really say which aspects of the United States that Patrick, Sutton and Frankie are supposed to represent, but at the beginning of the film, there’s a hypothetical quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.” The quote is shown after an intro scene in New York City’s Central Park, with Patrick and Sutton walking toward Frankie, who’s lying down on a blanket.

One could easily make a case for this theory: The three central characters are symbols for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” one of the best-known phrases from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Patrick represents life, because he’s the engine that drives a lot of what happens in the three-way relationship. Sutton represents liberty because he’s a free-spirited libertine with decadent ways; and Frankie represents the pursuit of happiness, since he has a youthful restlessness that make the other two partners think he might get bored with them and move on to something else that will make him happy. Or maybe that’s overthinking it all, and Lonergan just wanted an excuse to do a movie with full-frontal male nudity and showing three men having sex with each other in several scenes.

In the beginning of the film (the first chapter, titled “1776”), Patrick, Sutton and Frankie are living together in New York City. Frankie is working for an older British woman, who’s difficult and overbearing, so he ends up quitting. This is obviously a representation of the United States declaring its independence from the United Kingdom. Throughout the story, Frankie is battling a mysterious ailment (he’s seen at a doctor’s office), which represents the various social ills that the U.S. has faced throughout the country’s history.

Frankie wants to move west to California because he thinks that will improve his health. Patrick doesn’t really want to move, but Sutton is fine with the idea. So the three men leave New York City and decide they’ll move west by going on a road trip. Frankie also says that the doctor has increased his medications. This happens in the movie’s second chapter, titled “1803,” which represents when the U.S. expanded its territory with the Louisiana Purchase.

The third chapter, titled “1861,” signals the start of the U.S. civil war. And there’s a civil war brewing in this polyamorous relationship. Sutton is abusing cocaine and marijuana. Patrick doesn’t like it and argues with him about his drug use. Patrick gets even more upset when Sutton tells him that he wants Frankie to do drugs with him.

The other chapters cover 1865, the year the Civil War ended; the Compromise of 1877; the beginning of reparations/restitutions in 1900; America’s first full year in World War II in 1942; the end of World War II in 1945; the 9/11 attacks in 2001; and President Donald Trump’s first year in office in 2017.

All of the other characters in the movie that have alliances or conflicts with the United States are played by women. A character named Edith (played by Zuhairah McGill) is a mutual cousin (by marriage) of Patrick and Sutton, and she represents corporate business.

After the trio has moved to California, they live in an apartment with neighbors that include lesbian couple: One of the women is an older German who dominates her much-younger submissive partner, who’s Jewish.

Another lesbian couple in the building are Iranians, and they’re irritated by their Iraqi neighbors whom they think are making too much noise. So the Iranian neighbors ask the trio that represents the U.S. for money to help them to soundproof their apartment from the noise the Iraqis are making.

And there’s the character of Cathy (played by Ellen Etten), who’s described as “a crazy lady from television” that the trio debates over whether or not to put in charge of their business affairs. The character of Cathy is obviously a symbol for Trump.

“Kill the Monsters” is definitely not a film for everyone. The movie’s high concept works well in some areas, but falls very flat in other areas. It would be interesting if this concept is ever made into a play, because the target audience for this concept is really the type of people of a certain education level who like to go to plays. The movie’s explicit sex scenes just seem to be a gimmick to get people to notice the film. “Kill the Monsters” really isn’t about the sexuality of the characters. The movie is essentially a political statement on where America has been and where the filmmakers think the nation is going.

Breaking Glass Pictures released “Kill the Monsters” on DVD and VOD on February 18, 2020.

Review: ‘The Thing About Harry,’ starring Jake Borelli and Niko Terho

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Niko Terho and Jake Borelli in “The Thing About Harry” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Freeform)

“The Thing About Harry”

Directed by Peter Paige

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Chicago with a predominantly white cast, the romantic comedy “The Thing About Harry” is about two young middle-class men (one who’s openly gay, and the other who’s openly pansexual) who were enemies in high school but start to fall in love with each other, even as they date other people.

Culture Clash: Because one of the men is a commitment-phobic playboy who dates men and women, it causes conflicts over whether or not he’s a suitable partner for the other guy, who wants a long-term, monogamous relationship.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of romantic comedies who are open-minded enough to seeing diverse sexualities portrayed on screen.

Jake Borelli and Niko Terho in “The Thing About Harry” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Freeform)

The romantic comedy “The Thing About Harry,” Freeform’s first Valentine’s Day-themed original movie, puts a queer spin on a story that is very much inspired by the 1989 classic Meg Ryan/Billy Crystal movie “When Harry Met Sally.” In “The Thing About Harry,” two male friends who are obviously sexually attracted to each other try to keep their relationship platonic because one of the pals thinks that falling in love with a good friend is a recipe for disaster. This made-for-TV movie isn’t going to win any Emmys, but it’s a hilarious and sometimes emotionally touching ride that should please fans of romantic comedies.

“The Thing About Harry,” which takes place in Chicago over an approximate five-year period, begins with smart but neurotic Sam Biselli (played by Jake Borelli) an openly gay college student cuddling in bed with his straight female best friend Anatsasia “Stasia” Hooper (played by Britt Barron), a purple-haired sassy free spirit who’s a major commitment-phobe when it comes to dating. While cuddling with Stasia, Sam gets a call from two friends he knew in high school—a straight couple named Chris and Kelly, who ask Sam to attend their engagement party in their mutual hometown of Liberty, Missouri.

Sam says yes, and he plans to road trip to the party in his car. Chris and Kelly then ask Sam to do them a big favor: Give a ride to their friend and former high-school classmate Harry Turpin (played by Niko Tero), who doesn’t have a car. Sam and Harry attend the same college, but they’re not exactly friends. Sam has been openly gay since high school, and popular athlete Harry used to bully him mercilessly because of Sam’s sexuality and because Sam was the type of nerdy kid in school who was a know-it-all teacher’s pet. Sam had the unflattering nickname “Suck-up Sammy” in high school, and Harry was one of the classmates who taunted him with that name.

As far as Sam is concerned, Harry is one of the last people he wants to be stuck with on a road trip, but Sam is such a nice guy that he can’t say no to Chris and Kelly, and he reluctantly agrees to give Sam a ride to the party. Stasia, who has been Sam’s best friend since they met on their first day of college, doesn’t mince words when she tells Sam what she thinks about his decision to spend time with Harry: “You, my friend, are a medical marvel. It’s a wonder you can stand with a spine like that.”

Sam is the type of person who’s a romantic at heart. He believes in monogamy and that a partner should be mindful of things such as a three-month anniversary. It’s one of the reasons why he’s no longer with his ex-boyfriend Malcolm, who cheated on him and definitely was not the type of person who would remember anniversaries. Sam and Malcolm started off as close friends, but as a result of the breakup, Sam has sworn off ever dating someone who’s starts off as a close friend.

When Sam arrives at the arranged meeting place on campus to pick up Harry for the road trip, Harry is almost a half-hour late. Their meeting is somewhat awkward because Sam is very mistrustful of Harry and extremely annoyed at Harry’s tardiness. Harry offers a flippant apology and rambles on that he’s been preoccupied with some of the people he’s been dating, and he’s broken up with his most recent girlfriend. Sam doesn’t seem too surprised, since Harry was a playboy in high school too.

Sam asks Harry if he remembers how much of a hard time he gave Sam in high school. Harry, like a lot of school bullies who’ve grown up, doesn’t remember being as harsh on Sam as Sam remembers it. But Sam reminds him how much Harry’s behavior was mean-spirited and hurtful. Harry is a little taken aback, but then Harry mentions that he has an ex-boyfriend, which leads to Harry telling Sam that he’s pansexual—someone who’s attracted to people of all sexualities and genders.

This time, it’s Sam’s turn to be surprised, since he thought that from the way Harry acted in high school, Harry must be heterosexual. Sam is so shocked that he nearly runs into a truck on the other side of the road. They have a minor car accident when the car swerves into an embankment and has to be towed away for repairs.

While they’re waiting for Sam’s car to fixed, Sam and Harry share a motel room, where Harry confesses to Sam that the reason why he bullied Sam was because he was envious that Sam was open about his sexuality. Harry hadn’t come out with his true sexuality back then, and he said that if he acted nice toward Sam in high school, people would think he was queer “by association.”

After Harry’s confession, the two men open up to each other a little more by talking about their favorite things and their life goals. Sam is surprised to learn that despite Harry’s playboy ways and “macho jock” image, he has a sweet and sensitive side: Harry tells Sam that his favorite movie is “Up” and that his biggest life goal is to become a father. By contrast, Sam says he’s not sure if he wants to bring kids into this world. Later, Harry gives a sincere apology to Sam for being a bully to him in high school.

With Sam’s car back in commission, they continue on the road trip, but Harry ends up ditching him in the middle of the trip to meet up with his most recent ex-girlfriend because they’ve decided to get back together. The engagement party isn’t shown in the movie, but another party is shown that’s a turning point in Sam and Harry’s relationship.

Back in Chicago, not long after the engagement party, Sam and Stasia go to a singles-only Valentine’s Day party. And, of course, Harry happens to be there too. At the party, Harry is wearing an outfit that looks like he just came from a 1992 Kris Kross video: overalls with one of the arm straps unbuttoned. Despite this fashion faux pas, Harry is still the best-looking guy at the party and there’s still a spark of mutual attraction between Sam and Harry.

But talk about bad timing: Harry tells Sam that he’s decided to try being celibate for a while. Sam doesn’t think Harry’s celibacy vow will last, but it makes him feel more comfortable with becoming friends with Harry. Stasia meets Harry for the first time at this party, and although she’s initially suspicious of him, she eventually accepts him when she sees that Sam has forgiven Harry and that they’ve decided to be friends.

The rest of the movie is a “will they or won’t they” guessing game on whether or not Sam and Harry will ever reveal their true feelings for each other while they date other people. “Queer Eye” co-star Karamo Brown has a memorable cameo as a pretentious art dealer named Paul, who dates Sam. In a genuinely funny scene where Sam and Paul join a group of friends at a local bar’s trivia night, Paul shows his true petty nature and Harry surprises everyone with how much trivia he knows. The message is clear: Harry’s not such a dumb jock after all.

Sam and Harry each have platonic male roommates who offer their advice and observations. Sam’s roommate is a middle-aged gay man named Casey (played by former “Queer as Folk” co-star Peter Paige, who directed this movie), who’s like a caring older brother to Sam. Harry’s roommate is a straight guy close to his age named Zack (played by Japhet Balaban), who frequently joins Harry, Sam and Stasia for their friend get-togethers.

Before and after he graduates from college, Sam shows an interest in progressive liberal politics, and he starts his career as a community organizer for a mayoral candidate. Meanwhile, Harry (who’s a marketing major) flounders around after college in low-paying entry-level jobs, such as a sales associate at a clothing store or selling phones at a kiosk.

One of the reasons why Sam is attracted to Harry is that he’s not just another pretty face. Harry is a lot smarter than people assume that he is (although he’s still not as smart as Sam), and he’s a fun and loyal friend. Harry also gets involved with issues that Sam cares deeply about, such as LGBTQ rights. When Sam and Harry go to a party after a Pride parade, something happens at the party that changes the course of their relationship.

“The Thing About Harry,” which was written by director Paige and Joshua Senter, has some unpredictable twists as well as some formulaic aspects to the story. The movie’s biggest appeal is in how realistically the characters are written and portrayed. The whip-smart dialogue of Sam, Stasia and Casey will remind viewers of people they know who can give sassy and sensible romance advice all day to friends, but their own love lives are kind of a mess. And because Harry is a very handsome and commitment-phobic playboy, he has that realistic mix of being charming and frustrating, which are common traits for people who know they have their pick of partners who are competing to fall in love with them.

If Sam and Harry are secretly in love with each other, what’s holding them back? Sam doesn’t want to get his heart broken by Harry, who doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to monogamy and long-term relationships. Harry doesn’t want to fall short of Sam’s high expectations when it comes to romance, and he probably feels that Sam deserves to have a partner who’s on a similar intellectual level.

Despite their differences, Sam and Harry are easy to root for in his love story. The whole point of this movie is to show that when it comes to love, there’s no explaining a lot of attractions. Instead of seeing if a potential love partner fits a list of requirements, many times it’s just best to just go with what feels right if it doesn’t hurt anyone and it makes you happy.

Freeform will premiere “The Thing About Harry” at 8 p.m. ET/PT on February 15, 2020.

Review: ‘A Simple Wedding,’ starring Tara Grammy, Christopher O’Shea, Rita Wilson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Maz Jobrani and Houshang Touzie

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christopher O’Shea and Tara Grammy in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“A Simple Wedding”

Directed by Sara Zandieh 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and California’s Orange County, the romantic comedy “A Simple Wedding” features a cast of middle-class characters who are primarily of Iranian descent or white, with some representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Clash: A straight woman and a bisexual man fall in love with each other, despite coming from two different backgrounds: She has a conservative Iranian family and he has a non-traditional white American family.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of “opposites attract” romantic comedies or movies about contrasting families.

James Eckhouse, Peter Mackenzie, Rita Wilson, Christopher O’Shea, Tara Grammy, Houshang Touzie and Shohreh Aghdashloo in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

When a romantic comedy has the word “wedding” in the title, there’s a certain kind of audience it has in mind. And then there’s everyone else who’ll be repelled or will have no interest in watching what is sure to be a bunch of sappy clichés. But if you’re the type of person who hates stories that revolve around weddings because so many of these stories recycle the same tropes, then consider “A Simple Wedding,” which is a sharp and witty romantic comedy for people who usually hate romantic comedies. Even if it’s far from a groundbreaking film, “A Simple Wedding” is entertaining from beginning to end because of its unique take on cultures we normally don’t see in American films.

Directed by Sara Zandieh (who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephanie Wu), “A Simple Wedding” is about not only a couple who are opposites of each other but their family backgrounds are also very different. Nousha Housseini (played by Tara Grammy) is a Los Angeles housing attorney who’s smart, sarcastically funny, and going through a family ritual that she dreads: Her Iranian immigrant parents—mother Ziba (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) and father Reza (Houshang Touzie), who live in nearby Orange County—have been setting up meetings with Nousha and eligible bachelors of Iranian descent, with the expectation that Nousha will enter into an arranged marriage.

Nousha, who’s in her early 30s, isn’t too keen on getting married to anyone because she doesn’t think she’s ready yet. And if she does get married, she wants it to be for love, not because it was arranged for her by other people. In the film’s opening scene, Nousha deliberately sabotages a meeting with her parents, her fiancé and his parents. It’s not shown or mentioned in the movie how long Nousha has been dating her fiancé. (Keep in mind that in certain cultures, it’s not unusual for people in arranged marriages to get engaged after knowing each other for a few days.)

While visiting at the other couple’s house with the would-be husband in attendance, Nousha offers a birthday cake to the wife and sings “Happy Birthday” in the seductive way that Marilyn Monroe famously sang the song to President John F. Kennedy. The mother doesn’t know what to make of this unexpected delivery and is very uncomfortable with the way Nousha is singing the song to her. It’s so unnerving that she cuts the meeting short and says that maybe Nousha isn’t the right match for her son. “Are you breaking up with me?,” Nousha says as she tries to hide her smile.

Mission accomplished. Her parents are disappointed that Nousha’s been eliminated as a prospective wife for this well-to-do and educated suitor, but Nousha is happy that her plan has worked perfectly to get out of being married off to him. As she argues with her parents later, she says that she thinks marriage is an outdated institution and she doesn’t want to be stifled by it. Meanwhile, her outspoken mother whines, “I can’t sleep until you get married!”

Nousha’s circle of friends includes a lesbian couple named Lynne (played by Rebecca Henderson) and Tessa (played Aleque Reid), who are mothers of a pre-school-age girl. When Nousha tells Tessa and Lynne about the breakup, they tell her that she was just in the relationship for the sex with the guy and to please her parents’ expectation that she would marry him. “Oh my God!” Nousha exclaims. “I was doing him for my mom!”

Lynne is one of Nousha’s co-workers, and she’s already spread the word that Nousha has broken up with her latest boyfriend and that she’s available to start dating someone new. Nousha figures out that her love life has become gossip fodder at her job, because after Nousha has told Lynne about the breakup, people in the office keep asking Nousha how she’s feeling, with a sympathetic tone in their voices. And one creepy male co-worker who’s been trying to hook up with Anousha reminds her in a hilarious way how he’s available if she’s interested. (She makes it clear that she’s not interested.)

Meanwhile, Lynne has been asking people at her job to join her in a public protest against sexism and misogyny. Nousha considers herself to be a progressive liberal, so she participates in the protest, which Lynne has named “Pussies Against Patriarchy.” The turnout isn’t very large (less than 20 people), but they are joined by an all-male group of feminists who call themselves The Minstrels.

One of the Minstrels is a lanky, boyishly good-looking artist/DJ named Alex Talbot (played by Christopher O’Shea), who locks eyes with Nousha during the protest. They start flirting with each other, and Nousha gives him her business card. He doesn’t wait long to call her and ask her out on a date.

Over dinner at a hipster-looking dive café, Alex and Nousha talk about their childhood crushes that they would be embarrassed to tell most people. For Nousha, it was David Hasselhoff. For Alex, it was Celine Dion. (And he confesses that Celine is still a major turn-on for him.)

Nousha immediately assumes that Alex must be gay, but he tells her that he’s sexually attracted to men and women—and that he’s attracted to Nousha. She then reveals that she can do a pretty good Celine Dion impersonation because her mother is a big fan, and Anousha learned how to impersonate Celine Dion when she was a child so “my mother would like me better.” After much pleading from Alex, Nousha reluctantly does her Celine Dion impersonation for him while sitting at the café table. That pretty much seals the deal, so it’s no surprise that when they go back to Alex’s place, they become lovers.

During their whirlwind romance, Alex and Nousha spend as much time as they can with each other, but Nousha is very hesitant at first to introduce him to her parents. Alex is the type of free-spirited, avant-garde artist who hangs up on his wall a drawing that he did of Saddam Hussein kissing Andy Warhol. She also has some concerns about Alex’s financial stability—as a struggling artist, his low income is unpredictable—and the fact that she makes a lot more money than he does.

Although Nousha and Alex are both politically liberal, they have different personalities. Nousha is ambitious, high-strung and practical, while Alex is more of a laid-back, “go with the flow” dreamer. Because they spend so much time together and because Nousha doesn’t care for Alex’s dumpy loft in a low-income area, it’s only a matter of time before they move in together to a place that’s more suited to Nousha’s comfort level. But Nousha still doesn’t tell her parents about Alex, because she thinks he won’t fit in with her family.

It’s not just because Alex isn’t Muslim or because her family also disapproves of couples living together before they get married. It’s also because Alex has a very unconventional family, whom he affectionately calls “crazy.” His parents divorced when he was 16, and his father Bill (played by Peter Mackenzie) ended up marrying another man. Meanwhile, Alex’s mother, Maggie Baker (played by Rita Wilson), is still bitter about the divorce and has given up on finding love again. She has a lot animosity toward Bill’s husband Steven (played by James Eckhouse), whom she blames for breaking up her marriage.

During a Facetime chat that Nousha has with her mother, Ziba sees a shirtless Alex in the background, so Nousha finally tells her mother about her relationship with Alex. When the inevitable time comes to meet Nousha’s family—which includes her maternal grandmother (played by Jaleh Modjallal)—Nousha warns Alex that her family will pressure them into getting married. Needless to say, Nousha and Alex do in fact get engaged. And her family— following the tradition of the bride’s family hosting the wedding—wants to goes all-out for the occasion. However, Nousha insists that the wedding should be a small event in her parents’ backyard.

During the wedding plans, Nousha’s Uncle Saman (played by Maz Jobrani), who is her father’s brother, comes to visit the family. Saman is a war veteran who has never been married and doesn’t have kids. (People who first meet him assume that he’s gay, but he’s not.) Saman gets pulled into the rehearsals for the wedding march because Alex’s mother Maggie needs a partner for the procession. Bill and Steven are paired together, and Nousha’s parents are also coupled up, so it would look awkward for Maggie to not have someone to walk with too. Because of underlying tensions and because of the big cultural differences in the two families, there are several arguments and moments of discomfort that are played for laughs in the movie.

Fortunately, “A Simple Wedding” has a well-cast group of actors who handle their performances with believability, charm and great comedic timing. These actors know that the right pauses and facial expressions can turn a scene from something that would land with a thud to a scene that will make people burst out laughing. A lot of the dialogue also looks improvised.

As the story’s protagonist, Nousha is not a typical heroine of a wedding movie. She’s bossy, she’s impatient, and she’s frequently cynical about the concept of “happily ever after.” And even though she’s an attorney, she’s not that straight-laced, since she likes to get high on various substances—and not all of them are legal. Alex is very sweet and eager-to-please (perhaps too eager, since he decides to give himself the nickname Mohammed), but he still maintains a strong sense of identity and feels comfortable with who he is.

The movie has some slapstick moments that look a bit awkward, but the real humor is in the snappy remarks and reactions of the story’s characters. “A Simple Wedding” is worth seeking out for people looking for an enjoyable romantic comedy that has a slightly raunchy sense of humor but still has a sentimental soft spot inside.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “A Simple Wedding” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

Review: ‘And Then We Danced,’ starring Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili

February 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

And Then We Danced
Bachi Valishvili and Levan Gelbakhiani in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Lisabi Fridell/Music Box Films)

“And Then We Danced”

Directed by Levan Akin

Georgian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the modern-day Eastern European republic of Georgia, the coming-of-age drama “And Then We Danced” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle and lower classes of a country which places significant cultural importance on traditional Georgian dance.

Culture Clash: Two young male dancers who fall in love with each other face the pressures and obstacles of a society that condemns homosexuality.

Culture Audience: “And Then We Danced” will appeal primarily to people who like European arthouse cinema, as well as to viewers who want to see LGBTQ stories told realistically on screen.

Bachi Valishvili, Levan Gelbakhiani and Ana Javakishvili in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Anka Gujabidze/Music Box Films)

You might have heard that the dramatic film “And Then We Danced” sparked protests and some violence when it opened to sold-out screenings in the Eastern European republic of Georgia in November 2019. What was the reason for this outrage? Does the movie show excessive violence? Does it have any hate-filled political messages? No. The controversy was because the movie is about two men who fall in love with each other after they meet in their training to become professionals in the world of traditional Georgian dance—a profession that preaches that there’s no place for homosexuality and male dancers should very masculine.

“And Then We Danced” writer/director Levan Akin, who was born in Sweden and is of Georgian descent, says he was inspired to make the film in 2013, when he witnessed the large mob attacks on people who tried to organized the first Pride parade in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the country’s largest city. It’s in Tbilisi where most of the story takes place in “And Then We Danced.”

The cultural significance of traditional Georgian dance in Georgia and how it’s tied so closely to national pride is very similar to how Americans feel about line dancing for country music, which originated in the United States. Although a person’s sexuality is not a measure of talent in dancing, nevertheless, it’s still taboo for people in many styles of dancing to be openly non-heterosexual, depending on where the laws and customs in their society. Traditional Georgian dance is so important to the nation’s culture, kids in Georgia are taught traditional Georgian dance from an early age. As the character who plays the National Georgian Ensemble’s dance director says in the movie: “Georgian dance isn’t about achieving perfection. It’s the soul of the nation.”

However, it’s made clear in the beginning of the film that there are certain inflexible expectations on how people can express themselves in traditional Georgian dance: Male dancers have to be extra macho. Female dancers must appear to be innocent and “virginal.” Dance moves that are considered sexual are strictly forbidden. These rules are evident in the opening scene, which shows a stern, middle-age male dance instructor Aleko (playedby Kakha Gogidze) barking orders to a group of dancers practicing in a rehearsal space: “There is no sex in Georgia dance,” he bellows. “This isn’t the lambada.”

An eager young student named Merab Lominadze (played by Levan Gelbakhiani) is dancing as if it’s his life passion. And it is. He has dreams of becoming a professional dancer in the National Georgian Ensemble, even though it’s a highly competitive career with a limited span for dancers in their prime. His regular dance partner is a young woman around the same age named Miriam “Mary” Kipiani (played by Ana Javakishvili), and they have obvious dance chemistry together. Merab and Mary have been paired with each other since she was 10, and they’ve developed a long-term close friendship outside of dancing.

In the film’s first scene, a handsome new dancer interrupts the rehearsal and says he’s been sent as a replacement dancer. His name is Irakli (played by Bachi Valishvili), and he’s got a Marlon Bando-ish swagger and attitude about him that has the rest of the class intrigued. It’s clear from Merab’s reaction to Irakli that he’s infatuated at first sight.

It’s hinted throughout the story that Mary might have an unrequited crush on Merab, but he only has eyes for Irakli. Mary tries to ignore all the signs that her longtime friend isn’t heterosexual, but there are indications that she’s somewhat jealous of Merab’s subtle interest in Irakli. As Irakli gets acquainted with the rest of the dancers, Mary tries to put off Merab from getting to know Irakli better, by saying that Irakli is “weird.” But Merab is having none of that shady talk from Mary, and he watches Irakli from a distance until circumstances bring them into each other’s social circle.

Merab lives with three other people in a cramped apartment: his troubled single mother Teona (played Tamar Bukhnikashvili), who works as a housekeeper; his no-nonsense maternal grandmother Nona (played by Marika Gogichaishvili); and his older brother David (played by Giorgi Tsereteli), who’s a hard-partying rebel. David and Merab share a room together, and they’re both in the same dance class. But David is on the verge of being kicked out of the class for missing too many rehearsals. To help out with their financially strapped household income, Merab works part-time as a restaurant waiter. He hands over a lot, if not all, of his wages to his mother, who appears to have an addiction problem because she’s disheveled and often seen in some kind of intoxicated stupor.

Because gay or queer people have to keep their sexuality hidden in the world of Georgian dance, this pressure to stay in the closet is shown in two of the dance-studio scenes that are juxtaposed next to each other. In one scene that takes place in the women’s dressing room, Mary talks about a former male dance student named Zaza, whose parents sent him to a monastery to “cure” him of his homosexuality so that he could be “normal.” In the other scene, which takes place in the men’s dressing room, some of the male dancers talk about visiting a brothel, and they ask Irakli if he wants to join them on their next visit. He says no, because he says he has a girlfriend back in his hometown of Berami.

Early one morning Merab is practicing at the dance studio when the only other person there is Irakli. As they practice some dance moves together, Irakli tells Merab that his dancing technique is wrong because it could lead to a leg injury. Irakli then shows Merab the correct way to execute the dance move, and it’s the first time that the two men touch each other. You can almost see the sparks of electricity between them.

They get to talking, and Irakli asks Merab if one of the female dancers in the class has a boyfriend because he’s thinking of asking her out on a date. A visibly disappointed Merab tells Irakli that the girl likes to be taken to expensive restaurants. Irakli says that he won’t pursue her because he wouldn’t be able to afford to date her. He then opens up to Merab by telling him that he has use his money to help his ailing father, who has cancer.

Merab also has some family problems. His parents, who split up years ago, used to be well-respected dancers in Georgia’s national dance ensemble, but somewhere along the way, they gave up their successful dance careers and fell into a life of financial hardship that’s brought a certain shame to the family. For example, Merba’s mother doesn’t want people to know that a local food merchant donates leftover, throwaway food to them, and she has Merab pick up the food on his way home.

Merab’s father Ioseb (played by Aleko Begalishvili) now works at Tbilisi Eliava Bazaar, a crowded flea-market-style collective of merchants. It’s implied that he was a deadbeat dad who failed to provide enough child support payments, and there’s some lingering tension in the family because they’ve fallen on hard times. Ioseb discourages Merab from following his dreams of being a professional dancer. As he tells his son: “There’s no future in Georgian dance. Being a dancer is a dog’s life.” Despite what his father says, Merab remains undeterred.

Irakli and Merab continue to meet up for early-morning rehearsals before the other dancers arrive. Word gets back to the dance instructor Aleko about this hard-working duo, so he tests Irakli and Merab’s dance chemistry together in a male duet. Not surprisingly, Merab and Irakli are terrific dance partners, which intensifies their growing attraction to one another. Although Irakli has made it clear that he’s attracted to women, Merab is starting to develop romantic feelings for him. Could Irakli be attracted to men too, and will Merab have a chance with him? And what about Irakli’s girlfriend in his hometown?

As fate would have it, David comes home one night with a new drinking buddy: Irakli. They both stumble into the apartment very drunk, and David lets Irakli sleep on the floor. Merab can’t believe his luck that Irakli is spending the night in his bedroom (although in a very non-sexual way), and he stares lovingly at Irakli when Irakli’s asleep. Complicating their potential love affair is the fact that Merab and Irakli are among the school’s dancers who’ve been selected to audition for the National Georgian Ensemble, since there’s a job opening for a male dancer.

Merab and Irakli’s bond becomes closer when Irakli, who lives in Tbilisi with his grandmother (played by Tamari Skhirtladze), invites Merab over to introduce Merab to her and to spend some time alone with him in Irakli’s room. They talk some more, but Merab still isn’t quite sure if Irakli wants to be more than friends, and Merab is afraid to make the first move.

In the meantime, Irakli has joined the circle of dancer friends that include Mary, David, Merab and Sopo (played by Anano Makharadze), who’s dating David.  The clique goes on a getaway trip to the family lake house of one of the dancers, and they do a lot of partying. It’s during this fateful trip that the sparks between Merab and Irakli turn into something much more, and they have their first sexual encounter with each other, which then leads to a secret love affair.

Merab seems to be more comfortable coming to terms with his same-sex attraction, but Irakli is not. Merab likes to show affection to Irakli when people aren’t looking, but Irakli is the one more likely to feel paranoid about getting caught, so he pulls away first if Merab tries to kiss him or hold his hand in public. They both don’t feel entirely safe about coming out, but Merab takes steps to express his true sexuality by befriending an openly gay club kid who hangs out with prostitutes who are drag queens or transgender women. As Merab explores more of the gay nightlife scene, he becomes increasingly despondent over the reality that he can’t go public about his love for Irakli, who’s definitely not the type to go to a gay nightclub.

As for the gay love scenes in “And Then We Danced” that caused so much controversy in Georgia, they’re not very explicit. There’s kissing but no full-frontal nudity. The sex acts are implied through movements instead of showing everything on camera, just like the sex scenes were done in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Rocketman.” However, since Georgia is one of the Eastern European countries that has anti-LGBTQ laws, people who object to “And Then We Danced” have taken particular offense because the men having the love affair in the movie are those representing the nation’s cultural institution of Georgian dance.

Regardless of how people feel about LGBTQ rights, it can’t be denied that “And Then We Danced” is a superbly made film that’s elevated largely by Gelbakhiani (who makes his film debut in the movie) and his believably expressive performance as someone falling in love for the first time and coming to terms with his sexuality. Gelbakhiani and Valishvili (who both have several years of experience in Georgian dance) have natural chemistry together. But since the movie is told mainly from Merab’s perspective, the audience’s emotional journey is largely through him—from the spring in his steps and joy in his face when he’s in the throes of this new love affair to the anxiety and fear that threaten to plunge him into a depression when his lover doesn’t return his messages and seems to be avoiding him.

The movie’s cinematography (by Lisabi Fridell) has moments of sublime authenticity, from sweeping camera angles during big, dramatic moments to tight camera shots to capture the intensity of the dance rehearsals. Even though the movie takes place in Georgia, because writer/director Akin is Swedish, “And Then We Danced” was Sweden’s 2019 selection for the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. Although the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, and even though the story takes place in a specific part of the world, the concept of falling in love for the first time and facing any fears because of it, is a universal theme that will strike a chord with mature, open-minded people of any sexual orientation.

Music Box Films will release “And Then We Danced” in select U.S. cinemas on February 7, 2020. The movie was originally released parts of Europe (including Georgia and Sweden) in 2019.

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Beanpole,’ starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina

January 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Beanpole”

Directed by Kantemir Balagov 

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place shortly after World War II in Leningrad, Russia, the female-centric “Beanpole” has an all-white cast of characters representing people from various social classes, ranging from working-class to middle-class to upper-class.

Culture Clash: Two female war veterans who are best friends have difficulties adjusting to life after the war, as they encounter obstacles due to their socioeconomic status, and the two friends have conflicts with each other over motherhood issues.

Culture Audience: “Beanpole” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema from Europe.

Vasilisa Perelygina and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The opening scene of the dramatic film “Beanpole” doesn’t leave any doubt that the movie’s title character has something very wrong with her. In the beginning of the film, Russian nurse Iya Tsvylyova (who’s nicknamed “Beanpole” because she’s very tall and thin) is seen in a hospital laundry room in a trance-like state, and she’s making noises that sound like she wants to speak but she can’t. Is she mute? Is she in shock over something? Is she mentally challenged?

It turns out that she’s none of the above, but the movie keeps you guessing over when she’ll go in and out of these trances. Iya (played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) can talk just fine when she’s not in a trance, so there’s nothing wrong with her vocal cords. Based on her co-workers’ reactions, they’re aware of Iya having these unexplained episodes of detachment, and the only thing they can do when she’s in a trance is wait for her to snap out of it.

The story takes place just after World War II, and Iya works as a nurse in a Leningrad hospital for wounded veterans. Her life revolves around her job and caring for Pashka (played by Timofey Glazkov), a boy who is about 4 or 5 years old. At first, the movie leads you to believe that Pashka is Iya’s son, since the child is living with her and she treats him exactly like how a loving mother would treat a child. But something terrible happens to Pashka, resulting in his death, and we find out that Iya is not the boy’s biological mother.

Pashka’s real mother is Masha (played by Vasilisa Perelygina), a military veteran and Iya’s best friend, who has returned from the war, not knowing that her son has died. Masha has not seen her son since he was a baby or a toddler, so when Masha visits Iya at home to retrieve Pashka, Masha is eager to find out how much her son has changed. The look of fear and dread on Iya’s face tells Masha that something awful has happened, and she correctly guesses that Pashka is dead. When Masha asks how Paskha died, Iya lies to Masha by saying that Paskha died in his sleep, because Iya knows that telling Masha the truth would be too devastating. Masha doesn’t go into hysterics and seems to internalize her grief.

Meanwhile, it’s eventually revealed that Iya is also a military veteran. She and Misha served in the war as anti-aircraft gunners, but Iya was discharged from the military, due to getting a concussion that presumably has caused her to go into these trances. It’s also likely that Iya has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), since it’s implied that she developed this condition during the war.

Despite the tragedy of losing her son Pashka while the child was in Iya’s care, Masha decides to remain a close friend to Iya, and she moves in with her, since Masha has no family and has no other place to go. (It’s mentioned that Pashka’s father died in the war.)

The two women are opposites. Iya is shy, awkward and seems to be sexually inexperienced. Masha is outgoing, feisty and very open about the fact that she’s had several lovers. And their attitudes greatly differ when it comes to having children, which affects what happens later on in the story.

“Beanpole” shows that one of the harsh realities of post-World War II life in Russia was that the country was plagued with food shortages, and women often prostituted themselves by having sex with men in exchange for food. That’s what happens when Masha and Iya are walking down a street one night, and they’re spotted by two young men driving by in a car, and the men offer them the food that they have in the car.

Masha knows what the men are after, but Iya seems to be completely unaware of what’s expected of her and Masha after they eat the food that the men have offered to them. One of the men takes Iya outside, while Masha stays in the car and has quickie sex with the other man in the back seat of the car. Masha and the guy have barely finished when he’s dragged out of the car by Iya, who punches him in the face.

It turns out that Iya has also assaulted the other guy, who has witnessed Iya’s rage toward his friend. It isn’t revealed how much sexual activity took place between Iya and the other guy, but he says with a strange smirk that his arm might be broken and that the two women were livelier than he thought they would be. While Iya and Masha run away, Iya scolds Masha for not telling her what the men’s intentions were, but Masha laughs because she thinks the entire incident is hilarious. It’s a sign that there’s something mentally “off” about Masha too.

Soon after that incident, Masha interviews for a job at the hospital. She flirts with the middle-aged supervisor Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (played by Andrey Bykov), who’s interviewing her, and she’s intrigued by him because she knows that the doctor is sexually attracted to Iya. When Masha sees a photo of two young children on his desk, she asks him if those are his children. He tells her yes, but the children have died. When he asks her if she has any children, she tells him she doesn’t, and lies by saying that she hasn’t become a mother yet. Masha ends up getting a job as an attendant at the hospital.

Not long after she starts working at the hospital, Masha gets a nosebleed and mysteriously collapses. She’s diagnosed with exhaustion and finds out, to her horror, that her reproductive organs were removed without her knowledge during an operation that she had in the war. But in yet another sign of Masha’s mental instability, she reacts to the news in a bizarre way: She says she could be pregnant at that moment and it would be a miracle.

Eventually, reality sinks in, and Masha is devastated over knowing that she can never conceive a child again. She tells Iya that not being a mother makes her feel empty, so she asks Iya to get pregnant and give the child to Masha to raise as her own. Iya is shocked by the proposal and is terrified at the thought of having sex with a sperm donor, but Masha puts a guilt trip on Iya about Pashka’s death, by saying to Iya, “You owe me.”

Later at the hospital, Masha runs into someone unexpected: the guy she had sex with in the car. By a strange twist of fate, he works at the hospital as an orderly. His name is Alexander, nicknamed Sasha (played by Igor Shirokov), and he’s clearly infatuated with Masha. Sasha pursues her romantically and starts spending more time at Iya and Masha’s place, much to Iya’s dismay. Later on in the movie, Masha finds out why Iya is so jealous of Sasha. Iya isn’t the only one with a secret. Sasha has also been secretive about a part of his life, and when he shows that side of his life to Masha, it permanently changes his relationship with her.

Does Iya agree to get pregnant? And if so, who will impregnate her? Does she give birth and then give the baby to Masha? Those are questions that are answered in the movie, but that information won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that the emotional heart of the story is in Iya’s decision and what happens afterward. (The ending might not be what you think it is.)

“Beanpole” is the type of movie that will sneak up on you with a few surprises, while telling a story that is specific yet universal. While most people will never know what it’s like to be a Russian female World War II veteran, almost everyone can relate to having the type of friendship where uncommon favors and sacrifices are made because of the friendship. People who have parenthood issues, especially when it comes to infertility or losing a child to death, can also be emotionally impacted by this story.

“Beanpole” director Kantemir Balagov, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aleksandr Terekhov, unfolds the story by revealing details in a scattered way that eventually comes together to make sense, much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. For example, some of the characters are introduced and we get to know their personalities, but their names aren’t revealed until much later in the story. “Beanpole” is the first film for actresses Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who have made impressive debuts by convincingly portraying the ups, downs and nuances of a friendship that’s deeply affected by love and the emotional wounds of war.

The movie also realistically shows that these female war veterans, who work in a hospital taking care of male war veterans, don’t really have anyone looking after their own emotional needs as veterans. Iya and Masha don’t discuss any of their war stories in the movie, as if they just want to put the war behind them. The bond between combat comrades who’ve gone through a war together is an underlying reason why their friendship is so strong and was able to withstand the tragedy of Pashka’s death.

“Beanpole” had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Balagov won the award for Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category. The movie then made the rounds at other prestigious festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest), and was chosen as Russia’s official 2019 entry for the Academy Awards category Best International Feature Film. Ultimately, “Beanpole” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but the movie has revealed promising new talent in Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who will likely have a bright future in Russian cinema.

Kino Lorber will release “Beanpole” in New York City on January 29, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to other cities, beginning February 12, 2020. “Beanpole” was originally released in Russia in 2019.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Maurice Hines in “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” (Photo by John Carluccio)

“Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back”

Directed by John Carluccio

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

In the opening scene of “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back,” Tony-nominated entertainer Maurice Hines Jr. (who is in his 70s) is shown tap dancing with the kind of talent that most people never have in their lifetimes. That opening scene in this fascinating and comprehensive biographical film is a nod to Hines’ dancing roots, because he got his start in showbiz as a tap dancer at the tender age of 5. Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Hines’ dancing partner was his younger brother Gregory. The two brothers also performed with their musician/singer father, Maurice Hines Sr., as part of the trio Hines, Hines and Dad.

But just like a lot of siblings, Maurice and Gregory (who died of cancer in 2003) often didn’t see eye to eye, and the documentary shows that the brothers’ relationship is the source of Maurice’s biggest lifelong emotional joy and pain. Their on-again, off-again feuding is discussed, but thankfully not exploited in the movie, which shows that Maurice has led a full and interesting life that includes being openly gay from as early as he can remember.

As Maurice’s friend Debbie Allen says in the film: “Maurice is one of the most energetic, alive people I’ve ever known.” And the movie has a spectacular range of archival footage, from his early years as a performer to his stints on Broadway or on tour for such productions as “Eubie!,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Uptown… It’s Hot!” There’s also new footage of Maurice dancing up a storm with dancer brothers Leo and John Manzari, who are his protégés and frequent collaborators. Viewers also get to see how much he loves to mentor young dancers, as he’s shown as a guest instructor at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, as well as at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

One of the surprising revelations in the movie is that Maurice’s family always accepted him as gay. Living his life so openly as a gay man was rare for his Silent Generation, just as it was rare for out LGBTQ people to be completely welcomed by their families, when homophobia was enforced by society at large. In the documentary, Hines remembers his mother telling him that she always knew he was gay before he told her, and he’d tell his father about the guys he was dating when his father asked about his love life. His straight brother Gregory, who used to go to gay bars with Maurice, had no hangups about dancing with gay men at the clubs.

And Maurice isn’t shy about discussing his favorite type of men: “I like football players the best,” he says. “If they’ve got big calves, we’re going to talk.” He also mentions that he used to date a lot of football players (but he doesn’t name names), and here’s how he described the relationships: “They just fell in love with me.”

The documentary also shows him playfully flirting with a young, stocky black cameraman from the film crew, after Maurice realizes that the cameraman overheard his microphoned comment about how he thinks the guy is sexy. “I’m 75, baby,” he laughed while sizing up the cameraman. “I say exactly what I need.”

Among the other people interviewed in the movie are Gregory’s children Daria and Zach; Gregory’s first ex-wife, Patricia Panella, who’s remained a close friend of Maurice’s; the Manzari Brothers; Ballet Tap USA founder Mercedes Ellinston; and Maurice’s friends Chita Rivera and Mel Johnson Jr., whose decades-long friendship with Maurice began when they when they were in the original 1978 Broadway cast of “Eubie.” Maurice also acknowledges some of his biggest influences, including his mentor Henry LeTang and VOP dance creator Frank Hatchett.

The documentary also covers how Maurice was affected when Gregory split off from him in 1972 to establish a separate career. Gregory still performed in musical theater, but he went on to become a star of films and TV shows, while Maurice stayed primarily in theater, where he sometimes replaced Gregory in touring productions of Broadway shows that previously starred Gregory. Maurice made his film debut in director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 drama “The Cotton Club,” in which he and Gregory played estranged, tap-dancing brothers who eventually reconcile. (The movie was also the last time that the two brothers danced together in public.)

The brothers’ relationship in “The Cotton Club” was very much a case of art imitating life. Although there was a period of about 10 years when Gregory and Maurice didn’t speak to each other (even when they lived just a few blocks from each other), they eventually reunited by the late 1990s, and remained close until Gregory’s untimely death in 2003. Maurice says in the movie (and his family and friends confirm) that he will never tell anyone why he and Gregory stopped talking to each other during their long estrangement. One of the most touching parts of the documentary is when Maurice accompanies Coppola to a 2017 Telluride Film Festival restoration/revival screening of “The Cotton Club,” and Maurice gets emotional during a post-screening Q&A when talking about Gregory.

Maurice also shows his tender side when it comes to his daughter, Cheryl Davis, whom he adopted with Silas Davis, who was Maurice’s partner from 1979 to 1996. (It’s another example of how Maurice was ahead of his time, because he adopted when gay adoptions weren’t allowed in most states.) Cheryl is in the movie, and Silas is briefly heard in in the film, in a voiceover interview discussing how they raised her.

“Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” director John Carluccio, who is also the film’s editor and cinematographer, weaves together a fascinating story by not only respectfully telling Maurice’s life story but also not forgetting to present an overall historical context of the groundbreaking things that Maurice did as an openly gay black man in the entertainment industry. Many of his accomplishments were during a time when being an openly gay black man put him at high risk of being fired, assaulted, or worse.

The movie is also an unflinching look at how Maurice is dealing with aging. He shows some reclusive tendencies as a senior citizen who lives alone, and he openly discusses how much it bothers him to know that he’s losing his short-term memory. But no matter what age Maurice is, his charisma and zest for life are firmly intact, and it’s a joy to watch him in this movie. Simply put, “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” isn’t just a documentary about an underrated artist who at times was overshadowed by his more famous younger brother. The movie also shows how Maurice is a person of substance in his own right, and it’s an inspirational look at how someone can live life with passion and authenticity, while uplifting other people.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Brian Belovitch in “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”

Directed by Karen Bernstein

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 7, 2019.

Brian Belovitch is the embodiment of “gender fluid.” He lived as a male in his childhood and teen years, transitioned into a transgender woman in his 20s, and then decided to go back to living as a gay man when he was in his 30s. Why did he want to be a woman in the first place? Belovitch explains in this documentary: “I loved the idea of being something other than myself. Let’s forget about Brian, and become some other creation.” How did that work out for him? “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” tells that fascinating story in a way that is entertaining and informative without being exploitative.

Karen Bernstein, who directed “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” is a close friend of Belovitch, and that kinship shows in how the film was made, as he’s allowed to share his life story with dignity and respect. The movie’s main flaw (which is a minor one that doesn’t take away from the movie’s overall message of self-acceptance) is the editing, which jumps back and forth in the story timeline. This zig-zag narrative might be off-putting to people who like biographical stories told in chronological order.

So, who is Brian Belovitch? Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1963, Belovitch was raised primarily in Providence, Rhode Island, in a family of two daughters and five sons. (Some of his siblings are interviewed in the movie.) His father was a Russian Jew, his mother was Portuguese, and he grew up in a culture of homophobia, which was very common in families of that era. As a child, Belovitch was shamed and bullied by his family members and other people for being effeminate, and his father often physically abused him. When strangers mistook him for a girl, his mother would get very angry and offended. In the documentary, Belovitch looks back on this traumatic period in his life and says, “By today’s standards, I would be considered a trans kid.”

A turning point in his life was his teenage relationship with his first boyfriend, Paul Bricker (Belovitch calls him a “soul mate”), whom he met at a gay bar in Providence. Unlike his unhappy home life where his parents had trouble accepting his sexuality, Belovitch found complete acceptance in his relationship with Bricker, whose mother, Gloria, treated Belovitch like a family member. Gloria, who is interviewed in the documentary, says of Belovitch: “He was worth putting in my time and love.”

While living in the Lola Apartments (what Belovitch calls a “trans ghetto”) in Providence, he began dressing as a woman. He says, “I was addicted to the reaction and attention I got from folks.” Throughout his younger life, as a man and as a woman, Belovitch says he would often be a sex worker, out of desperation to help pay the bills. He says in the documentary that his biggest decisions were “made for love,” but “most of my decisions were made for survival.”

At 18 years old, he moved to New York City and tried to live as a gay man for about nine months. His relationship with Paul Bricker ended, and then Belovitch decided to commit to being a transgender woman, and changed his name to Natalie Belo. Belovitch says there was another reason why he wanted to live as a woman, besides preferring the attention that he got as a female: He didn’t want to be a gay, and he didn’t want to be a man, because being a man reminded him of the homophobic men from his childhood. Even though Belovitch tells his life story with amusing wit, there’s a lot of deep-seated trauma that’s brought up in this documentary (including childhood sexual abuse), so people who are easily triggered by similar issues should be warned that this is not always an easy film to watch.

While living as a Natalie Belo, Belovitch said he spent “thousands” on his physical transformation, including electrolysis, breast augmentation, butt implants (he still has silicone-related health issues) and female hormones. As Natalie, she met her first husband, David (a bartender at the time), in 1979, and they married in 1980. David joined the Army, and the couple moved to Germany, where David was stationed. While in Germany, Natalie became a “Tupperware lady,” but being an Army wife didn’t suit her, and she was still going through some confusion about her gender identity. She and David broke up after they moved back to New York City.

Natalie’s life then took an exciting but dark turn, as she reinvented herself as aspiring actress/singer Natalia “Tish” Gervais (this became her legal name for a while), and she plunged into the downtown Manhattan nightlife scene of the ’80s. She found a small level of fame as a cabaret singer/celebutante, including as a member of the “It’s My Party” revue. Her close friends included other nightlife scenesters, such as entertainment journalist Michael Musto (who’s interviewed in the documentary) and drag queen Nelson Sullivan. However, Tish became an alcoholic and drug addict, and spent years as a slave to her addictions. She got sober in 1986, after a rock-bottom incident when she stole money from the box office of a theater owned by her friend Edith O’Hara, who gave Tish an ultimatum to go to rehab and stay off of drugs.

It was around this time that Belovitch decided to go back to living as a man. He’s now an addiction counselor who’s happily married to second husband Jim (a botanist), who’s also interviewed in the movie, which has a scene of them attending a Pride parade in Providence. (This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s shown in the beginning of the film.) To understand Belovitch’s difficult journey to self-acceptance, he says it partly comes from his “fear of being average,” but he admits: “Having lived the life that I’ve lived is hardly boring dinner conversation.” As for coming to terms with what his true identity is, he sums it up this way: “All I ever wanted to be was comfortable.”