Review: ‘God Save the Queens’ (2022), starring Alaska Thunderfuck, Laganja Estranja, Kelly Mantle, Jordan Michael Green, Peter Facinelli, Michelle Visage and Joaquim De Almeida

June 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alaska Thunderfuck in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” (2022)

Directed by Jordan Danger

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Los Angeles County, the comedy/drama film “God Save the Queens” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class, and who are connected in some way to drag queen culture.

Culture Clash: Four drag queens find themselves at the same group retreat, where they share their stories about their personal struggles and career problems. 

Culture Audience: “God Save the Queens” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture and stories about people who aren’t afraid to be themselves in a world that doesn’t always accept them.

Peter Facinelli and Kelly Mantle in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” has the right blend of spicy and sweet comedy mixed with sentimental drama in this unique story about four drag queens in group therapy at a retreat. Some of the acting is uneven, but this independent film has a scrappy spirit that’s irresistible. There’s plenty of divalicious dialogue and engaging characters that should please fans of entertainment where drag queens are celebrated and not exploited. “God Save the Queens” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Jordan Danger, “God Save the Queens” is her feature-film directorial debut, after she has spent years in the entertainment business as an actress. One of the best things about the movie is that the characters (main and supporting) are written with distinct personalities. “God Save the Queens” (which is set in California’s Los Angeles County) is not the type of movie where viewers will have a hard time remembering the characters or telling the characters apart. Almost all of the drag queens in the movie are played by real-life drag queens.

Most scripted feature films about drag queens tend to make the end goal a big performance or contest that takes place near the end of the story. “God Save the Queens” features snippets of performances, but the movie’s main focus is on what the four main drag queen characters reveal about themselves when they end up together in group therapy sessions during a retreat in California’s Topanga Canyon. The movie also doesn’t play into the drag queen movie/TV stereotype of a bunch of drag queens going on a road trip together and getting various reactions when they show up in places that aren’t used to seeing drag queens.

As an example of how musical performances are not the main focus of the movie, “God Save the Queens” shows the drag queen performers on stage in montage sequences without the movie’s soundtrack playing the music that the queens are supposed to be performing. It could be because the movie’s budget didn’t allow for well-known songs to be licensed for the film, but it feels like the right choice to have a lack of karaoke-type scenes, since the story is about more about how these drag queens deal with life off stage rather than showcasing what they do on stage. The only viewers who might be disappointed in this filmmaker choice are people who might be expecting “God Save the Queens” to be like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The movie does a good job of introducing the main characters before they find themselves baring their souls in this retreat. All of them have their individual quirks that make them relatable to viewers. The four drag queens at the center of the story are:

  • GiGi (played by Jordan Michael Green), whose real name is Klein Carter, is a drag queen singer who is trying to make a name in the entertainment industry. Klein lives in a shabby, working-class house with his adoptive single mother Eloise (played by Ellen Gerstein), who is loving and completely supportive of who Klein is. Klein, who is a combination of confident and vulnerable, has a tendency to give pep talks to himself out loud when he looks in a mirror or window. One of his biggest celebrity idols is a Los Angeles-based charismatic female pop star named Harlowe (played by Kimberley Crossman), who is an immigrant from New Zealand.
  • Marmalade (played by Kelly Mantle), whose real name is Lewis, is a drag queen stand-up comedian and the oldest of the four queens. (Marmalade is in her 40s, while the other three queens are in their 30s.) While Klein worries about being a “never-was,” Lewis worries about being a “has-been.” In his cluttered home, where he lives alone, Lewis (who started doing drag at age 19) keeps mementos of when he won drag queen contests when he was in his 20s. Lewis is very feisty and doesn’t hesitate to cut people down with blistering comments if they do or say things that annoy him. Lewis shows a softer side to himself when he talks to his beloved pet parakeet LoToya.
  • Stevie Dix (played by Alaska Thunderfuck), whose real name is never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who is very sassy and who places a high value on honesty and loyalty. That’s why Stevie is still very hurt over how his longtime friendship ended with someone who was his best friend and partner in a musical duo act called Dix Royale. Stevie is trying to launch a career as a solo act, but is finding it harder than he expected.
  • Rita (played by Laganja Estranja), whose real name is also never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who was Stevie’s best friend and partner in Dix Royale. The two pals had a falling out over a man named Carlos. Rita confided in Stevie about having a crush on Carlos, but Rita believes that Stevie seduced Carlos (played by Francis Gonzalez), who makes a brief appearance later in the movie. Rita, who is extremely vain, likes to think she’s always the most beautiful drag queen in any room, but Rita is not so self-centered that she doesn’t have room in her heart to give and receive love.

An early scene in the movie shows that Klein is struggling to find work. He goes to interview for a home care job where he would be taking care of an elderly man. The man’s wife Esther (played by Judith Scarpone), who interviews Klein for the job, shows her prejudice when she rudely rejects Klein and tells him to immediately leave after she sees that he’s wearing nail polish. As revenge, Klein steals a small gold elephant figurine on his way out the door, and then he gives the figurine to Eloise as a gift.

Later, it’s shown that Klein’s financial woes lead him to take an offer he can’t refuse from a friend named Olive (played by Thomas Ochoa), who’s also a drag queen. Olive offers to give Klein some money and to do the marketing for an upcoming live performance by Klein’s drag persona GiGi. Things don’t go exactly as planned.

Meanwhile, Lewis/Marmalade works at a drag queen club called the Starlight Lounge, which is owned and managed by a straight guy named Simon (played by Peter Facinelli), who thinks Marmalade is the best performer at the club. Simon privately gives this compliment to Marmalade in a scene that takes place in the club’s dressing room. Other drag queens who work at the Starlight Lounge include Layla (played by Ingenue), Penny Pinch (played by Vicky Vox) and Augusta Wind (played by Jp Moraga), with Layla as Lewis/Marmalade’s closest friend.

Lewis/Marmalade also has a big admirer: a neighbor in his early 20s named Tyler (played by Denny McAuliffe), who introduces himself to Lewis one day when Lewis is about to get a car ride with Layla to go to the Starlight Lounge. Tyler, who calls himself a “drag enthusiast,” tells Lewis that he saw a torn drag outfit in Lewis’ garbage, so Tyler eagerly offers to mend the outfit and to do Tyler’s makeup. Lewis, who isn’t sure if Tyler is a stalker type, is rather standoffish and impolite in telling Tyler that he doesn’t need any help, and demanding that Tyler should only call him Lewis (not Marmalade) when Lewis is not in drag.

Stevie and Rita are now solo acts at the Plastic Pancake Palace, which is a more downscale and smaller venue, compared to the Starlight Lounge. The manager of the Plastic Pancake Palace is a butch lesbian named Charlie (played by Julie Goldman), who thinks that Stevie and Rita are better as a duo than as solo acts. Another person who feels the same way is Dix Royale’s biggest fan: a loyal customer named Nolan (played by Zack Gottsagen), who happens to have Down syndrome.

Nolan and Charlie aren’t the only ones who think that Dix Royale should get back together. Two slick executive producers of a drag queen TV talent contest called “Talent’s a Drag” show up at the Plastic Pancake Palace. Their names are Hugo (played by Joaquim de Almeida) and his son Hugo Jr. (played by Lourenço de Almeida), who tell Stevie and Rita that they want Stevie and Rita to be on the show, on the condition that Stevie and Rita perform on the show as Dix Royale.

The other condition is that Stevie and Rita need to go to therapy together at a retreat before they can be on the show. Stevie and Rita are barely on speaking terms and don’t like the idea of working together again. But the opportunity to be on this show is too good to pass up, so Rita and Stevie reluctantly agree to these conditions. Charlie warns Stevie and Rita that Hugo has a reputation for sexually harassing drag queens on the show. This reputation is something that is brought up later in the story.

It’s unclear how Klein and Lewis ended up on the retreat, but all four of the men are in the same group therapy sessions together. They talk about their lives and recent pivotal moments during multiple sessions. At first, the therapy sessions are led by a hippie couple named Guy (played by Jonathan Goldstein) and Gail (played by Rachelle Carson-Begley), who talk in a lot of New Age-type babble that isn’t very helpful.

One day, someone else (played by Luenell) is there as a substitute for Guy and Gail. (This session leader’s mystery identity is revealed at the end of the movie.) Once this sarcastic individual leads the group sessions, the four men start to open up more and have some breakthroughs. A recurring joke in these sessions is that every time Lewis starts to tell his story, he can’t finish it because the session then ends for the day.

“God Save the Queens” has some biting commentary about drag queen reality TV shows and contests that are operated by people who care mostly about causing conflicts between the drag queens and don’t really care about the drag queens as people. “God Save the Queens” director Danger has a satirical cameo as a “Talent’s a Drag” producer named Scheana, who embodies this type of showbiz callousness that’s disguised with fake smiles and pretending to be friendly with people who are exploited on reality shows.

And speaking of drag queen reality shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge/senior producer Michelle Visage has a memorable supporting role in “God Save the Queens” as a haughty talent scout named Liv, who shows up at the Starlight Lounge. Liv’s presence leads to what is probably the movie’s highlight that involves a big moment for Lewis/Marmalade. It’s one of the reasons why Mantle gives a scene-stealing performance throughout this movie.

Many movies about the LGBTQ community, even the comedies, have homophobic violence or other hate crimes as part of the story. People who are a little tired of seeing that narrative in LGBTQ movies will be delighted to know that there’s no violence in “God Save the Queens,” although the movie does responsibly show how homophobia is hurtful. Klein (who is African American) also talks about and experiences some racism.

“God Save the Queens” should also be commended from not trying to put an unrealisitc and glossy spin on the lives of drag queens, especially those who are considered on the margins of society and the ones who might never be seen on a mainstream show like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The movie depicts the financial realities of struggling entertainers, who often have to live with parents or in small dwellings. (For example, Rita lives in a small trailer.) It’s particularly true in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles County, where the cost of living is much higher than in other places in the United States.

“God Save the Queens” has moments where the movie’s acting, dialogue and pacing don’t flow as smoothly as they could. However, the movie has immensely charismatic cast members who make even the questionable parts of the movie watchable. You can tell that many of the cast members have lived the experiences depicted in the movie, which make their performances much more authentic than if they had been played by well-known Hollywood actors.

Estranja (whose real name is Jay Jackson) and Thunderfuck (whose real name is Justin Andrew Honard) are utterly believable as bickering queens Rita and Stevie. They have to deal with issues of jealousy and rivalry not only as friends but also as entertainment duo partners who are now working together again. The ups and downs of Stevie and Rita’s relationship will tug at viewers’ emotions, especially when it’s revealed that Rita and Stevie have been each other’s only family, because their biological families have rejected Rita and Stevie for being gay.

Green’s performance as Klein/GiGi is perfectly fine, but sometimes comes across as forced and hammy, as if he’s is playing a stereotype. Still, Klein seems to be self-aware that he’s kind of an oddball who talks out loud to himself, when he’s shown in a scene looking in his bedroom mirror and saying out loud, “And for fuck’s sake, stop with the monologues! Who are you? Carrie Bradshaw?” (Fans of “Sex and the City” will understand that joke.)

“God Save the Queens” is a cheeky title whose meaning is made clear by the end of the movie. The story happens to be about drag queens, but it speaks to larger issues that anyone can relate to about finding one’s identify, self-acceptance and a support system in good times and bad times. As pure entertainment, “God Save the Queens” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and some meaningful drama that should make this movie something that a lot of viewers will want to watch again.

Review: ‘Catch the Bullet,’ starring Jay Pickett, Peter Facinelli and Tom Skerritt

January 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jay Pickett and Peter Facinelli in “Catch the Bullet” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Catch the Bullet”

Directed by Michael Feifer

Culture Representation: Taking place in Buffalo, Wyoming, in the late 1800s, the Western action film “Catch the Bullet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans) representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A U.S. marshal goes on the hunt for criminals who kidnapped his 12-year-old son, killed another boy, and left the marshal’s father seriously wounded during a home invasion.

Culture Audience: “Catch the Bullet” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching horribly made Western movies.

Gattlin Griffith and Mason McNulty in “Catch the Bullet” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

A horrendous dud on every level, “Catch the Bullet” is a completely useless movie, unless anyone needs an example of a Western action flick that does everything wrong. The story seems like it was thought up by a child with no concept of making a good, original story. The dialogue is completely cringeworthy. The technical aspects of the film (cinematography, film editing, sound, production design, etc.) are all amateurish.

“Catch the Bullet” is supposed to take place in Buffalo, Wyoming, sometime in the late 1880s, but there are some glaring mistakes throughout the film that are inauthentic to the time period. For example, the main house in the movie has features (such as modern electrical plugs) that didn’t exist in houses back then. It’s just one of many examples of the sloppy filmmaking in “Catch the Bullet,” which was directed by Michael Feifer and written by Jerry Robbins.

The main reason why anyone might be suckered into watching this time-wasting junk is because somehow the filmmakers got some fairly well-known actors to star in the movie. That name recognition can just barely be considered the only asset the movie has, although it’s not saying much because the acting in “Catch the Bullet” is beyond embarrassing for everyone involved. “Catch the Bullet” also has the dubious distinction of being the last movie of actor Jay Pickett (whose credits included the daytime TV soap operas “Port Charles” and “Days of Our Lives”), who died of a heart attack in July 2021, at the age of 60.

In “Catch the Bullet,” Britt McMasters (played by Pickett) is a U.S. marshal who frequently has to be away from home for weeks or months at a time. Britt is a widower with a 12-year-old son named Chad (played by Mason McNulty), who has a lot of resentment over his father’s frequent absences from home. Britt and Chad live in a ranch house with Britt’s widower father Dex (played by Tom Skerritt), who has a better relationship with Chad than Britt has with Chad.

In an early scene in the movie, Chad is playing “cops and robbers” outside his house with his 10-year-old friend Albert Hanson (played by Ryder Kozisek), who lives nearby. Given the choice between playing the role of famous bank robber Jesse James and his father Marshal McMasters, Chad doesn’t hesitate when he says he does not want the role of his father. Britt is currently away from home because of his job, and Chad hasn’t seen Britt in three months.

While the boys are playing outside, a thug named Jed (played by Gattlin Griffith) rides up to the house with four of his cronies. Jed says he’s looking for Marshall McMasters. When he finds out that the marshal isn’t home, Jed shoots Dex and Albert and then kidnaps Chad. Albert is immediately killed. Dex survives but he’s severely wounded and barely conscious. It turns out that Jed is an escaped prisoner who was convicted of robbing a bank and is out for revenge on Britt, who arrested Jed and helped send him to prison.

Three days later, Britt comes come and is horrified to find out what happened. Dex can describe the basic facts but the crime, but he can’t give a good-enough description of the culprits because his memory is hazy. Two law enforcement officers are on the scene to investigate: Sheriff Wilkins (played by Peter Facinelli) and Deputy Clay Tucker (played by Calder Griffith), who is about 20 years younger and a lot less experienced than Sheriff Wilkins.

Britt immediately wants to look for Chad. Sheriff Wilkins says he can’t go with him because of other pressing commitments, so he assigns Deputy Tucker to go with Britt. Deputy Tucker doesn’t have enough tracking experience, so an experienced tracker named Chaska (played by Cody Jones) is enlisted to help this small search-and-rescue team.

Chaska is biracial: His father was a Native American warrior from the Pawnee tribe; his mother was a white missionary. Chaska’s racial identity isn’t a problem for anyone except for Deputy Tucker, who’s very racist. “I ain’t riding with no Injun,” he says of Chaska.

Deputy Tucker tells anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t think Chaska can be trusted, just because Chaska isn’t white. Britt tells Deputy Tucker that Chaska is the most qualified of the three of them to do the tracking and that there’s no way that Chaska will be dismissed from this mission. Expect to see a lot of pouting and brattiness from Deputy Tucker, who’s not as competent as he thinks he is.

Jed’s four accomplices in this crime spree are so generic, viewers won’t be able to remember anything to distinguish their personalities. Cass Gibbs (played by Kevin McNiven) is the crony who was Jed’s accomplice in the bank robbery that sent Jed to prison. The other members of this gang are Silas (played by Rick Moffatt), Blade (played by Ardeshir Radpour) and Willie (played by Tucson Vernon Walker), whose fates are easy to predict in this cliché-ridden Western.

Jed and his gang aren’t the only people who might be threats to Britt and his small posse. They have to go through Sioux Indian territory, and it’s very likely that members of this Sioux tribe will attack anyone who’s caught trespassing in Sioux territory. It’s just an excuse to litter the movie with more ineptly filmed battle scenes.

There’s a scene where Britt is able to turn around and shoot an opponent on a quick draw before the opponent could shoot Britt in the back. Deputy Tucker marvels at this move and says to Britt: “Your back was to him. How’d you know he was going to draw?” Britt replies, “A glint in his eyes said he knew better than me.” This is the type of idiotic nonsense in “Catch the Bullet.”

“Catch the Bullet” plods along and does almost every stereotype that you would expect in this type of unimaginative Western. Following an over-used Western formula isn’t the problem. The problem is that the movie is so ineptly filmed and filled with such atrocious dialogue and subpar acting, all of it just lowers the quality of this already low-quality film. By the time the very predictable ending happens, the only thing that might surprise viewers is that they had the patience to watch this dreck until the very end.

Lionsgate released “Catch the Bullet” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 10, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 14, 2021.

Review: ‘The Vanished’ (2020), starring Thomas Jane, Anne Heche, Jason Patric and Peter Facinelli

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anne Heche, Thomas Jane and Jason Patric in “The Vanished” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“The Vanished

Directed by Peter Facinelli

Culture Representation: Taking place in a rural part of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the dramatic thriller “The Vanished” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American/biracial person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife report their 10-year-old daughter missing during a camping trip, and they begin to suspect certain people around them are responsible for their daughter’s disappearance.

Culture Audience: “The Vanished” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching movies about mysteries with plot elements that defy logic.

Aleksei Archer, Kristophe Wente, Anne Heche and Thomas Jane in “The Vanished” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“The Vanished” is an appropriate title for this dramatic film if it’s used to describe all the common sense that disappears once the plot twist at the end of the movie is revealed. In order to believe the plot twist (which won’t be revealed in this review), you’d have to believe that a huge step was missed in a scene involving the investigation of a missing 10-year-old girl. That investigation is at the heart of this shambling and often-ludicrous movie, which was written and directed by Peter Facinelli.

Formerly titled “Hour of Lead” (which is an even worse title than the generic title “The Vanished”), the movie begins with a happy family trio in their RV camper as they head to a campsite in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Not much is detailed about married couple Paul (played by Thomas Jane) and Wendy (played by Anne Heche), such as what they do for a living or where they live, but they seem to have a loving, tight-knit family that includes their 10-year-old daughter Taylor (played by Kk Heim), who likes do sing-alongs with her parents. Also on the trip is the family’s dog: a pug named Lucky.

For whatever reason, the family has decided to take this trip to a remote camping site during the Thanksgiving holiday. (The movie’s story takes place over six days.) When they arrive at the check-in area, they are greeted by the gruff manager Tom (played by John Hickman), who tells them the campsite rules and mentions that the camping area is practically deserted because it’s a slow time of year.

The campsite also has a live-in groundskeeper named Justin Knowles (played by Alex Hayden), who’s in his early 20s, and he doesn’t appear to be very friendly either. When Wendy first sees Justin on the campsite, she gives him a polite wave, but he just frowns at her uncomfortably before going somewhere else. Justin acts nervous and awkward every time Wendy and Paul encounter him. It’s later revealed that Justin is a meth addict with a history of drug-related arrests.

The camping area isn’t that deserted because not long after settling in at the assigned parking spot, Paul meets one of the people whose camper is parked fairly close to his family’s camper. Her name is Miranda (played by Aleksei Archer), who’s in her 30s and physically attractive. Miranda is first seen by Tom while she’s relaxing in a bikini in a portable pool near her camper.

Paul ogles her while she gets out of the pool, they introduce themselves to each other, and they make small talk. Wendy isn’t around to see Paul’s wandering eyes, because at that moment, she’s in the campground’s convenience store (where Tom is the manager) to buy some food and supplies. During Paul and Miranda’s conversation, there’s some underlying attraction/sexual tension between them, which inevitably becomes a problem later in the story. Miranda mentions that she’s on this camping trip with her husband Eric (played by Kristophe Wente), whom Paul and Wendy eventually meet.

When Wendy comes back from the store, she and Paul are shocked to find out that Taylor has gone missing. Taylor was supposed to be in the camper while Wendy was at the store, but apparently Taylor disappeared without a trace while Paul was outside talking to Miranda. The local police are soon on the scene when they are called to look for the missing child.

A no-nonsense local cop named Sheriff Baker (played by Jason Patric) is heading the investigation, with assistance from his loyal second-in-command named Deputy Rakes (played by Facinelli). A fairly large search party begins looking for Taylor in the vast wooded area of the campsite. Meanwhile, a frantic Wendy and Paul are told that they cannot join the search party. Sheriff Baker tells the spouses that they should stay near their camper and wait to hear any news from the police.

After 24 hours have passed and Taylor still hasn’t been found, Wendy and Paul go to the police station to officially file a missing persons report. At the station, they express their irritation and discomfort over being questioned as if they might be responsible for Taylor’s disappearance. However, Sheriff Baker tells Paul and Wendy that it’s standard procedure to investigate the parents when a child goes missing.

Paul and Wendy find out at the police station that an escaped prisoner is suspected of being in the area. While waiting in their camper at night, Wendy becomes increasingly agitated and resentful that she and Paul can’t join in the search party. Against Paul’s better judgment, she convinces him to go with her to do their own search, away from the police’s team.

During their secret search, Paul and Wendy find a man sleeping while he’s camping by himself in the woods. This mystery man has a gun, so Wendy assumes it’s the escaped prisoner and that he must know something about Taylor’s disappearance. And let’s just say that Wendy takes the gun, becomes a little too trigger-happy, and that leads to more problems for the couple.

It’s not really a spoiler to mention this plot development, because a lot of what happens in the movie is revealed in the trailer for “The Vanished.” It’s enough to say that Wendy becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that everyone could be a suspect in Taylor’s disappearance. Paul eventually gets caught up in Wendy’s distrusting mindset. And some reckless actions happen as a result of this paranoia.

Wendy and Paul decide to take the investigation into their own hands—and more complications ensue. Their increasingly illogical actions are explained in the movie as probably cased by sleep deprivation, but even that reason wears thin when Paul and Wendy start doing things that would severely hurt their chances of finding Taylor and just get themselves in more trouble. Heche is more convincing than Jane as a parent who is panic-stricken to find a missing child, but her performance eventually starts to become one-note as the rest of the story unfolds.

Overall, there’s nothing inherently bad about the acting in “The Vanished.” The directing is also adequate, but nothing special. It’s the movie’s clumsily structured screenplay that ruined the potential of “The Vanished” being a good thriller. The plot twist seems like an idea that was thought of first, and then the story was built around that idea in ways that were ill-conceived and then written in a sloppy manner.

It’s as if writer/director Facinelli made the assumption that viewers wouldn’t notice certain glaring omissions from the story that were deliberately left out in order for the plot twist to look like it should compatible with the rest of the movie. The plot twist is meant to elevate the story, but it just ends up sinking the movie, which was already drowning in a swamp of implausibility.

Saban Films released “The Vanished” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 21, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment will release “The Vanished” on DVD on October 20, 2020.

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