Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre]

(France / Italy 1961)

When young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) bursts into a confessional and tells the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” it’s pretty clear that director Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t going easy on us. For awhile, it’s not clear where he’s going at all with Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre], a moody work that percolates with repressed sexuality while it dives into religion, philosophy, and politics.

The story, based on Béatrix Beck’s novel and set in a tiny town somewhere in the French Alps during the Italian occupation right before the Nazis took over, centers on Barny as her relationship with Fr. Morin develops and intensifies. She reveals that she’s a communist militant, possibly a lesbian, and Jewish by injection (i.e., her dead husband was a Jew). She tries to provoke him with her jabs at the Catholic Church, but Fr. Morin’s responses are measured and considered. She’s seduced.

It looks like something sexual is going to happen between them: he’s young and handsome, and she’s been without a man for so long that she’s lusting after a female coworker (Nicole Mirel). Once the two are alone behind the closed door of Fr. Morin’s office in a church tower, it happens: they engage in…discourse, discussing the tenets of Catholicism.

Léon Morin, Priest is low on action and heavy on dialogue, and as a result it often feels lethargic. All of the “important” discussions — the ones that advance the plot, anyway — occur in one room, which does nothing to accelerate the pace. The discussions involve dry topics like theology and philosophy and religious dogma.

However, Melville keeps it interesting with what’s going on in the background: he’s brutally frank about the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism, the lackadaisical Italian soldiers, and the callous efficiency of the Nazis. Riva and Belmondo smoulder, though the former’s performance is far more compelling. Amid the hasty baptisms of children and the desperate hiding of neighbors is the curiously amusing subplot about Fr. Morin having all the women of the village spellbound. It’s a light touch in an otherwise heavy film.

With Irène Tunc, Gisèle Grimm, Marco Behar, Monique Bertho, Marc Heyraud, Nina Grégoire, Monique Hennessy, Edith Loria, Micheline Schererre, Renée Liques, Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand

Production: Georges de Beauregard, Concordia Compagnia Cinematografica, Carlo Ponti

Distribution: Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Cineriz (Italy), Eurooppalainen Filmi (Finland), Rialto Pictures (USA)

130 minutes (restored version)
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Dunkirk

(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://www.dunkirkmovie.com

The Birdcage

(USA 1996)

“It’s aspirin with the ‘A’ and the ‘S’ scraped off.”

— Agador

Mark Caro’s latest presentation in his “Is It Still Funny?” series, The Birdcage, is director Mike Nichols’s 1996 Americanized remake of Jean Poiret’s classic 1979 French farce La Cage aux Folles. I’m not sure it was intentional, but this presentation coincides with National Drag Day, something I didn’t know existed.

I left the theater with three impressions: one, things have changed quite a bit in two decades; two, The Birdcage is still funny even if it is silly and dated; and three, Robin Williams could do anything well.

Armand Goldman (Williams) owns and operates a drag nightclub, the Birdcage, in South Beach. His flamboyant husband, Albert (Nathan Lane), is the club’s star attraction. Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman), announces his engagement to Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of right wing Republican senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman). The kids want to — and should — introduce their parents to each other, but the problem is Barbara’s father, who no doubt will not approve.

Val has a solution: Armand can fake being straight — and married to his biological mother, Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski), who didn’t have much to do with him growing up but maybe will do him this one solid. And the Keeleys will be no worse not knowing the truth.

Albert, who’s a gay giveaway, can’t be part of it. He can’t even be around. This puts Armand — and the entire household — in a tricky situation. Albert is delicate at the moment, and this will hurt him. Little does anyone know how important he’ll prove to be in pulling off the ruse.

It’s easy to dismiss The Birdcage as fluff. The whole thing — plot, setting, characters, that dinner — is really, really silly. The humor relies heavily on stereotypes — histrionic Albert, house “boy” Agador (Hank Azaria), and conservative Kevin are the most obvious examples. Madonna dancers Luis Camacho and Kevin Stea have bit parts as…dancers, big shock. There’s a lot of camp and physical humor here, which doesn’t make for sophisticated comedy.

Nonetheless, the actors bring it, particularly Lane, who imbues his role with unexpected tenderness. Elaine May updates and punches up the screenplay with political jabs and cultural witticisms. At the center of the insanity is Williams, who despite a few glimmers of his wacky old self (“You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!”), plays the Straight Man — that might sound contradictory considering his character here, but I’m not referring to his orientation. And he does it well. The result is a guilty pleasure.

With Dianne Wiest, Tom McGowan, Grant Heslov, James Lally, Luca Tommassini, André Fuentes, Tony Gonzalez, Dante Lamar Henderson, Scott Kaske, Tim Kelleher, Ann Cusack, Stanley DeSantis, J. Roy Helland, Anthony Giaimo, Lee Delano, David Sage, Michael Kinsley, Tony Snow, Dorothy Constantine

Production: United Artists Pictures

Distribution: United Artists (USA), United International Pictures (UIP), Filmes Lusomundo (Portugal)

117 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

http://www.mgm.com/#/our-titles/187/The-Birdcage/

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

(USA 2017)

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.

Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.

From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.

With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka

Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films

Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix

Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde

105 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Saturday Church

(USA 2017)

Ulysses (Luka Kain) is a quiet, delicate teen who lives in Queens and is just starting to figure out his sexual identity — it involves wearing panty hose under his jeans. When his father dies, he becomes the “man of the house.” Unfortunately, his mother (Margot Bingham), who works all the time, is already on edge because she caught him wearing her clothes. Ulysses shares a bedroom with his younger brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher), who knows that he’s still rummaging through mom’s closet on the sly and gives him shit for it. School is no respite because Ulysses’s classmates are jerks.

Enter stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help at home while mom is away at work. She takes charge, usurping Ulysses and his mother as the master of the domain. She’s not about to have a dress-wearing freak around, so she pushes Ulysses toward the one cure she knows: the Lord.

Ulysses escapes to the Christopher Street Pier, where he meets a gang of “drag queens”: Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), and Heaven (Alexia Garcia). They take him to “Saturday Church,” a space in Greenwich Village where one night a week trans mother hen Joan (Kate Bornstein) offers a meal, a shower, clothes, perhaps a spot to vogue, and companionship to homeless LGBTQ kids. This is where Ulysses finds his groove.

Too bad mean Aunt Rose is waiting for him to come home.

Damon Cardasis’s first feature length film is a winning mix of Moonlight (https://moviebloke.com/2016/11/19/moonlight/ ), La La Land (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/13/la-la-land/ ), and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/ ) with just the right splash of Paris is Burning (https://moviebloke.com/2016/08/26/paris-is-burning/ ). Saturday Church has some shortcomings, but the film oozes so much charm and warmth that I found it easy to forgive its flaws. Some of the songs and dance numbers are better than others — the song in the locker room and the other with Ulysses singing to his new boyfriend (Marquis Rodriguez) as they walk to the train stand out, especially when flower petals start falling. It’s really cool.

The acting is really good all around, but Kain is particularly awesome. He gives palpable tenderness and vulnerability to his character. The so called “drag queens” are not just fierce but downright touching. The way they save Ulysses is sweet. They make you long for a friend who has your back like they do. The story here totally sold me. I look forward to what’s next from Cardasis.

With Stephen Conrad Moore, Peter Y. Kim, Evander Duck Jr.

Production: Spring Pictures, Round Films

Distribution: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Damen Cardasis

82 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

http://www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/saturday-church/

Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me

(USA 2017)

“He was way ahead of his time. Just the way we do now with selfies and Snapchat and Facebook — he would have put the little Instagram kids to shame!”

— Amber Valletta

 

“Kevyn’s biggest motivation to succeed was his abandonment issues. He had this thought that, if I work with you and you become my friend, and I make you pretty, then you won’t abandon me. I absolutely think he was looking for a mother figure in the people that he worked with.”

— Eric Sakas

Superstar makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin lived an enviable life. He was successful doing what he loved — his work was on runways, in music videos, on award shows, and on magazine covers, at one point nine consecutive issues of Vogue. He wrote books and started a line of cosmetics.

On top of that, he hung out with models, legends, and his own idols: Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Paulina Porizkova, Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Cher, and Jennifer Lopez to name a few. Some of them were actual friends (I can only imagine Liza leaving voicemail for me).

Judging from the fact that they all let Aucoin record him with them backstage — on videotape, and not always made up — they must have felt something for him. An affinity? Safety? A debt? Whatever it was, it endeared him. Even in his home videos, he made them look good.

So it’s odd and downright tragic that someone who brought so much beauty to the world, never felt beautiful himself. Perhaps it had to do with his birth mother, Nelda Mae Williams, giving him up for adoption, or all the bullying he got as a teenager. He didn’t like his physical features, which were exaggerated by a condition that went undiagnosed for most of his life: acromegaly, a tumour on the pituitary gland that keeps the brain secreting growth hormones. It’s a painful condition that causes headaches and joint pain, and it got Aucoin addicted to prescription drugs.

A trove of home videos found after his death in 2002 forms the basis for Lori Kaye’s documentary, Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me. He recorded everything — the aforementioned videos with celebrities, with family members and boyfriends, and even when he was alone. Kaye interviews different people from Aucoin’s life to tell his story, and the interviews range from funny (Andie MacDowell) to sad (ex boyfriend Eric Sakas discusses Aucoin’s downward spiral) to eyeroll-inducing (Williams claims Aucoin would not have been gay had she raised him).

His adoptive parents, Isidore and Thelma Aucoin, accepted him and even dropped out of their church because of its stance on homosexuality. He moved to New York City, and the rest is history.

The celebrity interviews are fun, and some are gushy. Some of the interviewees even cry. They all provide insight into the kind of guy Aucoin was. What Kaye has that makes her documentary special, though, is Aucoin’s tapes, and she incorporates footage from them into the project in a way that lets him tell his own story. It’s an often amusing one with a sad undertone. It also serves, as Cindy Crawford points out, as a time capsule — a really good one. I confess, a few scenes gave me chills.

With Andie MacDowell, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Valletta, Isidore Aucoin, Nelda Mae Williams, Jed Root, Eric Sakas, Tina Turner, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson

Production: Putti Media

Distribution: Logo Documentary Films (USA), Dogwoof (International)

World Premiere

Screening introduced by director Lori Kaye

90 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.kevynaucoindocumentary.com

God’s Own Country

(UK 2017)

Francis Lee’s first feature God’s Own Country isn’t something I’d expect to open a film festival, but already it’s opened two: the 71st Edinburgh International Film Festival and the 35th Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. I caught it at the latter.

God’s Own Country is a slow burner about a romance between a frustrated young farmer and a migrant Romanian worker. It doesn’t start out like a typical love story, it doesn’t develop like one, and it certainly doesn’t end like one. Kudos to Lee for that. In the end, it succeeds on multiple levels.

Set in rural Yorkshire, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is the isolated 20-something son of a middle-aged sheep farmer (Ian Hart) whose days are numbered. While his father is dying, Johnny plugs away caring for calves and sheep, obviously resenting every minute of it. Something is amiss, something that has nothing to do with the farm.

Why are you so weird, boy? Johnny are you queer, boy? Turns out, yes: we learn this early on in the film at a cattle market, where Johnny picks up a trick (John McCrea) and fucks him in the back of a trailer. This small scene tells us all we need to know about where Johnny is with his sexuality through his terse response at the end of this tryst: his trick invites him for a pint, which Johnny coldly, emphatically, and violently declines.

Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a hot Romanian farmhand who shows up just in time for “lambing,” or birthing lambs. He’s not a talker, but his eyes and his hands say everything. Johnny is intrigued. So are we in the audience.

Deliberately paced, God’s Own Country is a big statement composed of small, seemingly inconsequential moments. Each one is anything but. Like a horror movie, a few scenes literally make me call out to Johnny to ask him, “What are you doing?” Comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain are inevitable, but this is not the same story. First of all, there’s no “I can’t quit you” moment. Second, I like to think the ending is much happier even if it leaves a lot to the imagination. I can’t wait to see what Lee does next.

With Gemma Jones, Harry Lister Smith, Melanie Kilburn, Liam Thomas , Patsy Ferran, Sarah White, Alexander Suvandjiev, Stefan Dermendjiev

Production: Inflammable Films, Magic Bear Productions, Shudder Films

Distribution: Picturehouse Entertainment (UK), Orion Pictures (USA), Samuel Goldwyn Films (USA)

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with director Francis Lee and actor Alec Secareanu

104 minutes
Not rated

(Orpheum Theatre) B+

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival 

http://www.godsowncountryfilm.com

An Autumn Afternoon [Sanma no aji] [The Taste of Mackerel Pike]

(Japan 1962)

“We are alone in life. Always alone.”

— Sakuma

If one film perfectly captures what solitude, melancholia, and acceptance of things for what they are feels like, it has to be Yasujirō Ozu’s gorgeous and quietly contemplative An Autumn Afternoon [秋刀魚の味]. Framing death and loneliness in such metaphors as war, alcohol, marriage, aging, and the global impact of postwar America, this one packs a punch that hits like a feather but still leaves a mark.

Shūhei Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) is a middle aged man who emits an air of defeat, as if life has disappointed him. A widower with three adult kids, only one of them, elder son Kōichi (Keiji Sada), is married — and he and his wife (Mariko Okada) have some messed up priorities, especially when it comes to money. No one seems interested in daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). Who knows what the deal is with younger son Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami)? Hirayama bides his time between home, work, and dining with former classmates Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), Horie (Ryūji Kita), Sugai (Tsūzai Sugawara), and Watanabe (Masao Oda) at Sugai’s restaurant. They mostly drink sake, reminisce, and make fun of each other. Horie’s new wife, who’s much younger than he, provides ample material for discussion.

A former professor, Sakuma (Eijirō Tōno), comes to dinner one night. He has way too much to drink. Hirayama and Kawai drive him home, where they meet his spinster daughter Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura). They learn he’s not doing well, operating a jank noodle joint in a low rent neighborhood to make ends meet. This gets Hirayama thinking about his own family and his obligations there.

An Autumn Afternoon is a film you see to experience its mood — not to be entertained. The narrative is engaging and plotted nicely, but it’s only half the story. Ozu uses composition to convey his points as much he uses words and characters. Long shots. Hallways, stairs, and windows. Army green and brown hues, a very ’60s sitcom look. Colors, solids, patterns, and textures. All of this is just as important as the narrative. More important, actually.

Roger Ebert offered the best description of Ozu I’ve seen to date: “He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-an-autumn-afternoon-1962). Amen. This is the essence of An Autumn Afternoon, and it’s beautiful.

With Teruo Yoshida, Noriko Maki, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kishida, Michiyo Kan, Daisuke Katō, Shinobu Asaji

Production: Shochiku

Distribution: Shochiku, Shochiku Films of America (USA), Criterion Collection (USA), Janus Films (USA)

113 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

https://www.criterion.com/films/784-an-autumn-afternoon

Maurice

(UK 1987)

“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

— Lasker-Jones

I’m not usually a fan of period pieces, especially those set in Victorian or Edwardian England. Somehow, they tend to be stuffy, grandiloquent affairs that warrant a great big yawn — and they turn me off. James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, however, is an exception.

I caught a 30th anniversary screening, and something crucial struck me: Ivory and cowriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s screenplay is downright daring even for the time when Maurice came out (no pun intended). A sort of forbidden romance that one character sees as the love of his life while the other tosses it aside as the folly of youth, I was moved by the frank depiction of gay love as a tender yet treacherous battlefield, no different than any other love — measured by intensity, law, or social construct. For this, Maurice stands way ahead of its time, even today.

Maurice Hall (James Wilby) is essentially Oscar Wilde at Cambridge circa 1910. He makes a move on social climbing classmate Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), who surprisingly welcomes his advances. They can only go so far, though: Clive doesn’t want to jeopradize his social standing, so the two maintain a platonic relationship. This is the key to Maurice, and the thing that makes it monumental: this is a film that attacks appearances.

Time goes by, shit happens, and Maurice ends up with Clive’s gutter cleaner, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who looks like a plebeian Paul Young). This upsets Clive and sends Maurice to therapy. In the end, Maurice makes a choice that so many of us gays have: to be gay, or not to be.

Maurice operates on a strange platitude, one that isn’t clear at first. Maurice is vulnerable, almost stupid. Clive is chilly, reserved, and completely repressed. Both skirt around their issue. I found myself rooting for and actually admiring Maurice, who stays true to himself — class, law, and sexuality be damned. That last look on Clive’s face in the final scene is devastating…for him.

With Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Phoebe Nicholls, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Godfrey, Mark Tandy, Kitty Aldridge, Helena Michell, Catherine Rabett, Peter Eyre, Helena Bonham Carter

Production: Merchant Ivory Productions, Film Four International

Distribution: Cinecom Pictures (USA), Enterprise Pictures Limited (UK), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Cohen Media Group (USA)

140 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.merchantivory.com/film/maurice