A striking lived-in central performance by Mark Wahlberg as an anti-bullying crusader lifts Reinaldo Marcus Green’s frank biographical tale of Joe Bell (B-) above its sentimental R-rated afterschool special conceits. Structurally wobbly and a touch treacly, the film about a father’s road to redemption after not doing all he could to save his gay son from abuse at the hands of his high school classmates is often quite moving and revealing. Connie Britton is wonderful as well as the family matriarch, and Reid Miller gives a sensitive portrayal of the troubled teen: fragile, flamboyant and fiery. Green tinges the threadbare story with moments of realism, poignancy and heartbreaking self-reflection; it is best in its most small and intimate moments as opposed to its large gestures. The film is superb in depicting little-seen insights into the father-son bond and showcasing what it means to be strong in your own skin, and Wahlberg nails the central role. Even when the film sometimes stumbles in storytelling, it is a well-meaning summons to travel the world with head held high. It imparts lessons the world still needs to hear.
This is one of those movies in which you really need flashbacks to when the characters may have been much more interesting. Playing loving partners of twenty years in Harry Macqueen’s slog of a road trip through the British countryside, Supernova (C), Colin Firth’s pianist must come to grips with revelations from Stanley Tucci as his lover, an author battling onset dementia. Firth gives the better performance and is often quietly moving. Tucci is adequate but not particularly revelatory in an underwritten role. The sad descent is sensitively handled, and the two actors acquit themselves admirably with tender material. Alas sequences on the road have the allure of one of those calming apps that helps you sleep, and none of the stops – including a mundane family reunion and a charmless rental house – hold much appeal or allure. Aside from the fact that it’s two rather well-known actors who aren’t gay playing gay, there’s really not much to see here that hasn’t been covered in other melodramas. Cosmic metaphors and the theme that even two people living in the tight quarters of a camper van can hold secrets from one another don’t really enliven the proceedings much either. I may have liked the epilogue sequence more than I should have. This movie gets points for tackling a Big Issue from an alternative perspective but ultimately feels lost somewhere between treacly and perfunctory.
Uplifting GBLTQIA+ love stories free of melodramatic or tragic tropes aren’t always easy to find; sometimes you have to go to western South America for a really good one. Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo’s Los Fuertes (aka The Strong Ones) (B+) is a thoughtful and engrossing romantic drama about love that emerges between just the right people at almost exactly the right moment. Samuel González plays a student buying time in Southern Chile before graduate studies in Canada who meets a mysterious fisherman (with a most uncommon side hustle of historical battle reenactments in local fortresses) played by Antonio Altamirano. This is a film of wisely observed episodes in which there’s not a huge sweeping plot, just a swoon-worthy coastal courtship and the onslaught of potential longing and loss. Both ruggedly handsome actors are excellent in portraying men letting down their guards. They commit fully to authenticity on screen. Hidalgo wisely foregoes heavy-handed symbolism or amped-up high stakes and simply captures this love in bloom in sequences of joy, yearning and consequence. The gorgeous scenery and surroundings lend a lived-in quality to the proceedings equally interpreted as epic or fleeting, and the reality of the relationship that plays out is worth exploring.
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Cue the catchy overtures, swirling footlights and confetti cannons because the unhinged and hilarious musical movie event of the year is hoofing its way into the streaming services of Middle America. Down-on-their-luck Broadway stars shake up a small Indiana town as they rally behind a teen who wants to attend the high school dance with her girlfriend in director Ryan Murphy’s joyous musical TheProm (A-). Luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is the friend of Dorothy at the film’s center whose big-hearted journey down the mellow brick road to the year’s big party involves larger-than-life troubadours who imbue the townsfolk with star quality, bravery, tolerance and a beguiling Bob Fosse tinged talent called “zazz.” Casting for the ensemble is simply inspired, including delicious diva Meryl Streep, foppish godmother James Corden, oblivious blowhard Andrew Rannells and spunky day-drinking chorus girl Nicole Kidman. Murphy deftly balances a tender central tale with acerbic showbiz insider antics for a film entertaining, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal doses. If anything this celebrity goodie bag may be overstuffed with too much, but it’s hard to resist a singing and dancing variety show packed with ample doses of genuine homespun love. The themes of acceptance and reconciliation are a well timed clarion call to the better angels of our national consciousness, and it’s all gift wrapped in glitter for the age of Twitter. The glorious music, clever lyrics and fabulous choreography come together with precision especially in the youthquake euphoria of tunes such as “You Happened,” “Time to Dance,” and “Unruly Heart.” Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal gets a lovely grace note in an ode to theatre called “We Look to You,” earning the first of many tear-jerking vignettes. For musical lovers, this Prom is a punch bowl of sweet and tart ingredients sure to rouse, stupefy and please.
Behind the anti-gay military policy resulting in the dismissal of lesbian army hero Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (famously portrayed by Glenn Close in the 1995 movie Serving in Silence), a clandestine couple — a veritable female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a real-life saga – provides the fascinating side story that propels its way to center stage in a pivotal moment in history. Documentarian Cindy L. Abel’s sophomore feature film Surviving the Silence (B+) unearths the narrative of Colonel Patsy Thompson, a woman from the rural south who becomes a beloved nurse in the military, harbors a closeted love in the form of life partner Barbara Brass and finds herself presiding over the board in the critical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” case against Cammermeyer. As the film’s central subject, Thompson is a plucky protagonist who comes out late in life but consistently summons the fortitude to live with dignity amidst the various challenges confronting her. The high profile of the tense tribunal forces her to confront her own story in a journey to live out loud. Abel and her documentary team weave together this uncanny tale using archival footage, home movies and images, interviews and even animation to bring the powerful stories of these trailblazing women to the forefront. The film does a splendid job taking viewers inside the inspiring love story of Thompson and Brass, from their furtive first date to their use of secret codes to communicate during a stint at the Pentagon, which makes the film’s denouement all the more poignant. Denise Gentilini provides stirring music, especially her end-credits song. The film showcases accidental activists simply trying to live their truths. It’s a timely testament to women in love rising to the occasion of destiny.N
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
This is the movie for the “no labels” generation. Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones (B+) eschews many typical coming of age conventions to chronicle a few weeks in the life of a teenage protagonist (Josh Wiggins, a thoughtful performer and dead ringer for a young Matt Damon) caught between a variety of impulses in the aftermath of a frisky birthday party. Marquee stars Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan are outstanding in supporting roles as the hero’s estranged parents in this contemplative Canadian production with lots of questions and few answers tied in easy bows. Darren Mann as the stoic swim team captain, Taylor Hickson as his distant sister and Niamh Wilson as a lovely female friend who may or may not be transgender are among the compelling characters whose story arcs don’t always travel in obvious directions. A brisk story and surprisingly tender dialogue give this drama additional distinction. It’s a sleeper film worth discovering buoyed by relatable characters and an optimistic outlook.
This film goes from shock and awe to aw, shucks way too abruptly. Memoir adapter and director Joel Edgerton continues in his horror milieu with Boy Erased (C+), exposing life in a gay conversion therapy center as a form of interior and institutional terror. It’s a bit of a low-key rainbow hued Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted and is extraordinarily effective until it isn’t. In the pro column is the protagonist, a preacher’s son magnificently played by Lucas Hedges, whose heartache and aim to please is palpable. He’s one of the great actors of his generation, and he sells a sometimes hackneyed narrative with dignity and verve. In the con camp are all adult characters: the ex-gay Grand Poobah himself played with little nuance by Edgerton and the conflicted parents played by Nicole Kidman (generally effective if a little treacly) and Russell Crowe (a career worst performance with stone cold lack of subtly). Told awkwardly with occasional flashbacks, there is genuine suspense in some surprisingly bleak moments; other times, the detached hero hovers emotionally above his melancholy surroundings, robbing sequences of conflict. There’s a through line of cautionary importance to this exposé of all-too-common reprogramming procedures. But the final act offers too tidy a resolution. More like goodwill erased.