A Fantastic Woman [Una mujer fantástica]

(Chile 2017)

“The thing is, Orlando started feeling sick. And he died.”

— Marina

“When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

— Sonia

Whichever meaning of the word fantastic is employed, A Fantastic Woman is a fitting title for Sebastián Lelio’s latest film; some might consdier the protagonist a fantasy (i.e., not real) or think her head is in the clouds, but she’s definitely marked by her extreme individuality. She also proves to be quite amazing.

Things are good for transgender singing waitress Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega): she just moved in with her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). He took her to dinner for her birthday (and surprised her with plane tickets). They have a dog, Diabla (Diabla).

Everything changes when Orlando has an aneurysm and dies in the hospital. Marina is forced to deal with Orlando’s son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra); his ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim); the police, who keep insisting that she had something to do with the wound on Orlando’s head (he hit it against the wall when he fell down the stairs on their way out to the hospital); and mourning her profound loss — something no one but Orlando’s brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), will give her the space to do.

A mysterious key and a need to say goodbye to Orlando’s body are the impetus of the story. Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay is not what makes A Fantastic Woman compelling; Vega’s sorrowful and quietly defiant performance does. Faced with a string of indignities over the course of two days, Miranda handles herself smartly with toughness and grace, giving in when she needs to but always pushing back — or at least ahead.

Benjamín Echazarreta’s sharp cinematography places Marina dead center in every frame, bathing her in color and shadow. The look is fluid, underscoring a water motif that runs throughout the story. Lelio’s dream sequences and hallucinations add a hazy, otherworld quality. This is eloquent.

With Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Cantillana, Alejandro Goic, Antonia Zegers, Sergio Hernández, Roberto Farías, Cristián Chaparro, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora, José Raffo, Pablo Cerda, Moises Angulo, Veronica Garcia-Huidobro        

Production: Fabula, Komplizen Film

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

104 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/afantasticwoman/

https://youtu.be/PJHex4ZitgA

They

(USA / Qatar 2017)

“You’ll never be a girl. You’re not a boy. So you’re probably nothing.”

— J

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature film They delicately tells the story of J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), a quiet suburban Chicago teen transitioning from male to female. Along with therapy sessions and physician consultations for “puberty blocking” drugs and “bone density” test results, J is processing the social and psychological implications of their change. We know it’s happening, but we see it in action when J puts on a dress and goes outside, or when he explains to others how to make an introduction to a stranger and which pronoun to use (“they,” hence the title).

The process is awkward, particularly when older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), brings her fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), home to meet the family. With mom (Norma Moruzzi) away caring for an aunt who has early onset dimentia, J is left to deal alone. Meeting Araz’s Iranian family in the suburbs seems to be a reckoning for J.

If nothing else, They is visually arresting, artfully shot with georgeous pans and closeups of buildings, walls, plants, and flowers. Ghazvinizadeh plays with reflections on glass and uses a muted color pallet that nicely underscores J’s fluid state of mind. It sets just the right tone: hazy and dreamy.

That said, both the narrative and the character development in They fall short. I’m not sure Lauren and Azaz are necessary, and I certainly don’t have more than a passing sense of who they are or why they’re here. The dinner at Araz’s family is dropped in clumsily, throwing off the trajectory of the story. The focus gradually and inexplicably shifts away from J, which I found strange.

Watching They feels voyeuristic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it feels like an obstacle — a transparent partition — keeps me from getting too close to the characters. That’s a shame because this is a film that demands an amount of intimacy that simply isn’t accommodated. On top of that, the actors’ naturalistic performances meander quite a bit, which made me zone out at times.

Overall, They could have been a much more powerful statement. Still, it’s a decent effort even with its shortcomings and a few dull parts.

With Diana Torres, Evan Gray, Drew Sheil, Leyla Mofleh, Mohammad Aghebati, Alma Sinai, Arian Naghshineh, Ava Naghshineh, Aerik Jahangiri, Farid Kossari, Kaveh Ehsani, Robert Garofalo, Eric Fehrenbacher, Vicki Sheil

Production: Mass Ornament Films

Distribution: N/A

Screening introduced by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and followed by a live Q and A with Ghazvinizadeh, Rhys Fehrenbacher, and Rob Garofalo

80 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.massornament.com/they

Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu]

(Japan 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] is an intriguing film for a few reasons. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave, writer and director Toshio Matsumoto comes up with something simultaneously ordinary yet avant-garde, very much a product of its time yet years ahead. It’s extraordinarily cool.

Structured as a movie within a movie, Funeral Parade of Roses follows Tokyo “gay boy” Eddie (Pîtâ a.k.a. Peter) through his many exploits as a young transvestite immersed in the underground club scene. He might even be a hooker. Meanwhile, he’s carrying on a secret affair with Jimi (Yoshimi Jô), the boyfriend of club elder statesperson and fellow gay boy Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda is onto them. Oh, the drama it creates!

While all this is going on, a camera crew records Eddie as though this were The Real World or Truth or Dare.

As Eddie ponders who he is — and looks to alcohol, group sex, drugs, and lots of attention from others for answers — Matsumoto explores “queer identity” through him. He intersperses interviews, flashbacks, episodes with Eddie’s mother (Emiko Azuma), and even a musical diversion or two to offer clues. A crazy subplot develops, and it references Oedipus in a tacky and sad but clever way.

Clumsy in its exploration of “gay life” and downright disturbing at points, Funeral Parade of Roses is nonetheless fun to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has an otherworldly feel. When it’s not nihilistic, it’s kitschy and entertaining — almost in a nascent John Waters way, just not quite as rough. The clothes are mod. The music is heavy on classical. The ending, sudden and bloody, is really messed up.

I’m not sure what exactly Matsumoto is saying here — a lot is open to interpretation — or that I agree with him. Either way, I enjoyed the journey.

With Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toyosaburo Uchiyama, Don Madrid, Koichi Nakamura, Chieko Kobayashi, Shōtarō Akiyama, Kiyoshi Awazu, Flamenco Umeji, Saako Oota, Tarô Manji, Mikio Shibayama, Wataru Hikonagi, Fuchisumi Gomi, Yô Satô, Keiichi Takenaga, Hôsei Komatsu

Production: Art Theatre Guild, Matsumoto Production Company

Distribution: Art Theatre Guild, Image Forum (Japan), Cinelicious Pics (USA)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

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/

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

(Australia 1994)

The “road movie” is a subgenre that I think of as an American convention. They tend to involve younger people on a quest for something, perhaps a race (The Cannonball Run), a chase (Convoy), a new life (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a vacation (National Lampoon’s Vacation), a mission (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), or or just getting laid (Losin’ It). They don’t usually involve gay men or drag performers or Australians for that matter, which makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rather compelling for its subversiveness if nothing else.

True, the world had seen a road movie with gay characters before (My Own Private Idaho, which predates this one by three years, comes to mind) and Australians (Roadgames, Backroads). However, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is different. It’s every bit as fierce as Mad Max, but it’s fabulously fun—as though a team of drag queens tossed a bunch of glitter and disco (and CeCe Peniston) into the mix.

Anthony “Tick” Belrose a.k.a. Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) is a drag performer in Sydney who accepts an offer to perform at a casino resort operated by his estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), in remote Alice Springs—in the middle of the continent. He gets his buds Bernadette Bassinger (Terence Stamp), a recently widowed transgender woman, and Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), an obnoxious younger queen whose drag name is Felicia Jollygoodfellow, to join him.

They hit the road in a huge silver tour bus that they christen “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and embark on a journey through the desert. A clan of Aboriginals is very welcoming, allowing the three to perform for them. Not everyone is nice, though, which they soon discover when some outbackass bumpkins spraypaint “AIDS Fuckers Go Home” across the side of the bus.

The three contend with the bus breaking down, a homophobic gang, what appears to be an inescapable bar brawl, and secrets—quite a few secrets. Some of the stuff that happens is predictable, but writer and director Stephan Elliott manages to keep the whole thing fresh because he infuses some great conflict and character development into the narrative. Bernadette’s subplot, a soul searching midlife “where do I go from here” kind of existential crisis, is probably the most interesting part of the movie. The acting—Weaving and Pearce (who looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg) for sure, but especially Stamp—is moving for something that appears to be heading toward frivolous and campy territory. It doesn’t quite stop there. What the characters all end up with is something maybe none of us saw coming: acceptance.

What makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so great, still, is that it’s full of surprises.

With Rebel Russell, John Casey, June Marie Bennett, Murray Davies, Frank Cornelius, Bob Boyce, Leighton Picken, Maria Kmet, Joseph Kmet, Alan Dargin, Bill Hunter, Julia Cortez, Daniel Kellie, Hannah Corbett, Trevor Barrie, Ken Radley, Mark Holmes

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Specific Films

Distribution: Gramercy Pictures, Roadshow Films

104 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B-

Paris Is Burning

(USA 1991)

“Opulence. O, P, U, L, E, N, C, E, opulence. You own everything. Everything is yours!”

—Junior LaBeija

Before The Crying Game and Transamerica, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, and Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki,” there was Paris Is Burning. I first saw it at a screening on my college campus, I think, when it was fairly new—I remember a double feature with Madonna’s Truth or Dare, so it had to be summer or fall 1991. I’ve since seen it countless times. It’s one of the films I quote most. I love it, even as it turns 25 years old. It is, in two words, fucking fabulous!

Shot in 1987 with a short check in three years later, Paris Is Burning is ostensibly a documentary about the Harlem nightlife ball culture (pronounced “boo-wall” by most here). The film takes its name from one said ball, a rather clandestine affair held in a shabby party hall somewhere near Lexington/125. A world unto itself, ball culture was loaded with costumes, wild dancing, attitude, hierarchy, and tons of rules. There was blood, sweat, tears, and fighting—but there was also community and (for some) glory. As one subject, Willie Ninja, informs us, the balls may have been long and drawn out, but they were never boring. Amen! This is clear.

Much to her credit, director Jennie Livingston goes—excuse how this sounds—beyond the balls, getting into the daily challenges not only gay men and drag queens faced, but also actual bona fide transgender women. This was probably the first exposure I had to that. I mean, being gay in the Reagan Era was bad enough: if you weren’t destined to live a long and lonely life in the closet, you were going to get AIDS. Either way, the only thing straight about you was your road to hell. Transgender was…something else altogether. America was not ready for it when Paris is Burning came out, which makes it all the more remarkable.

Paris Is Burning is a big middle finger to all that thinking. While not everyone subscribed to that view, Paris Is Burning was the first film to show a lifestyle like this in a positive light. It was effective; it showed how fun and liberating it could be to walk a ball, fake tits or not. Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side. Damned fun! No wonder Madonna co-opted vogueing and snagged two Xtravaganzas for her tour.

Although there are undertones of sadness throughout, every person in this film is a hero. They were courageous simply living their lives how they did, when they did. The key was a mix of self confidence and major guts. Dorian Corey gave me a crash course on reading and shade. Pepper LaBeija showed me that living the good life takes more than money. Venus Xtravaganza showed me that life is a negotiation. Whatever category you choose, you better work it!

Sadly, the era and the players of Paris Is Burning are long gone, but their spirit doesn’t just live on—it thrives. Paris Is Burning and its subjects are legendary.

Side note: everything has its dark side. This is a perfect example: http://dangerousminds.net/comments/dorian_corey_the_drag_queen_had_a_mummy_in_her_closet

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Paris Is Burning “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

71 minutes
Rated R

(Home via iTunes) A

http://www.jennielivingston.com/paris-is-burning

The Danish Girl

(USA/UK 2015)

On paper, The Danish Girl has everything going for it: a sensationalist plot with real-life characters, weighty and timely subject matter, pretty scenery, nifty period clothes, a love story, and a nice dose of tragedy. Visually, it’s a beautiful film: cinematographer Danny Cohen gives it the soft, muted look of an impressionist painting; the interiors are as alluring as the exterior shots. The setting—the early 20th Century art scene in Copenhagen and Paris—evokes a sense of glamor and romance. The acting is okay for the most part, but Alicia Vikander is outstanding. Still, the sum here is no greater than its parts.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel based on the life of Dutch artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander), The Danish Girl is a good story even if it isn’t historically accurate. One day, Gottlieb asks Wegener to stand in for her model so she can finish a painting; she gives him a pair of panty hose, and he is immediately cozy in them. Thus begins Wegener’s road to becoming “Lili,” as christened by the couple’s friend, Ulla (Amber Heard). Lili becomes Gottlieb’s muse, showing up in her paintings. They sell. Lili accompanies Gottlieb to a ball as Wegener’s “cousin,” and everyone is fooled. Wasn’t that easy, isn’t she pretty in pink?

The Danish Girl is fictionalized, and as a result liberties are taken for time constraints, continuity, and drama. I get that. Nonetheless, this film doesn’t come off as genuine because it oversimplifies and sanitizes the issues it seems to want to bring to light and then gives them superficial treatment. Lili’s transition is too quick, and her adjustment—touched on but not explored—is seamless for today let alone 1926. Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili is silly: he bats his eyelashes and caresses his frocks with all the campy drama Johnny Depp mustered up wearing an angora sweater in Ed Wood. Lili looks like Molly Ringwald, right down to her stylish scarves—the real Lili looked like Oscar Wilde in a dress. Wegener and Gottlieb were more complicated and had a more complex and unconventional relationship. The truth here is so condensed and whitewashed that this might as well be a fairy tale.

The Danish Girl might make you cry, but it’s just not convincing even within the confines of a two-hour film. Too bad, because it could’ve been much more.

(ArcLight) C-

http://www.focusfeatures.com/the_danish_girl

Tangerine

(USA 2015)

A day in the life of two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) of West Hollywood. Sin-Dee just got out of jail and is trying to tack down her fiancé/pimp, Chester (James Ransone), who failed to pick her up. Fellow trans hooker Alexandra lets out of the bag that Chester has been shacking up with a real girl (Mickey O’Hagen) while Sin-Dee was in the slammer. Sin-Dee shifts her plan and sets out to kidnap her. Did I mention it’s Christmas Eve? Thrown into all this is Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who is married and has a thing for Alexandra. Where is all this going?

Tangerine gets off to a shaky start, but director Sean Baker lets his characters develop into full-fledged people as the film rolls on and ultimately proves to be a beautiful story. With a pervading sense of loneliness, it makes a point about survival and needing to rely on others to do it. No man (or woman) is an island.

(Music Box) B

http://www.magpictures.com/tangerine/

Footnote: I tracked down Donut Time, the donut shop where much of the action in Tangerine takes place. It’s located at 6785 Santa Monica Blvd. at the corner of Highland. I used the ATM and bought a cruller. It was awesome.

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