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DOC NYC: Family in Transition

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Transgender people do not exist in a vacuum. Not only does the transition mean a painful rebirth for the individual but its also a harbinger of big change for the people in their lives. And when there is a spouse and children to contend to, how will this major life shift affect them?

The Israeli documentary Family in Transition tells the story of the Tsuk family living in a conservative Jewish community in the coastal city of Nahariya. Amit and his wife Galit have been married 20 years and known each other for 27. They’re incredibly close bond deepens when Amit reveals to Galit that he is a woman and wants to transition. Galit and their four children are supportive of Amit as he transitions. We follow their journey from Amit’s birthday party, to daughter Agam’s Bat Mitzvah to Galit and Amit’s ceremony as they renew their vows and remarry as women. It’s a two year process from Amit’s revelation, to the hormone treatment, to the gender reassignment surgery in Thailand and to the wedding vows. This is a portrait of a beautiful marriage and a close knit family supporting their own through a difficult time.

But the Tsuk family’s story doesn’t end here. Something shifts for Galit when she feels taken for granted and can’t find the emotional balance in her marriage with Amit that she craves. You can only give so much of yourself before you’re going to need to take something back. This is where life for the Amit and Galit takes a sharp and unexpected turn. Their journey begs the question, who do you want to be?

Family in Transition was directed by Ofir Trainin and premiered at this year’s DOC NYC. This fascinating documentary is not afraid to tackle some harsh truths about gender dynamics within the family sphere. The sudden shift in the Tsuk’s journey was surprising and revelatory. Going into it in more detail would spoil the film for those unfamiliar with the story. Trainin had this to say about the film in the official director’s statement:

“The main goal of Family in Transition is to expose a unique family that can teach us all how to accept the difference in one another. The Tsuk family breaks social conventions and helps change what we though we knew about gender, partiy, parenthood and transgender issues… By embracing the different, I hope we can work towards creating a world where transgender people can live a normal life and be accepted by their community.”

Family in Transition will open in Los Angeles on November 16th and in New York on November 23rd.

I encourage you to read transgender film critic Danielle Solzman’s excellent review of this film.

 

 

Lez Bomb

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When is the best time to come out to your family? As Lauren (Jenna Laurenzo) is about to find out, Thanksgiving is NOT one of those times.

Lauren has been dating Hailey (Caitlin Mehner) and when things get serious she decides its time for her family to meet her girlfriend. The problem is Lauren’s family doesn’t know she’s gay. When Lauren arrives ahead of Hailey at her family’s home for Thanksgiving, she surprised by her roommate Austin (Brandon Micheal Hall). He’s been invited to celebrate the holiday with the family and Lauren’s mom Rose (Deirdre O’Connell) and dad George (Kevin Pollak) are convinced Lauren and Austin are a couple. Austin, who doesn’t quite mind the confusion, gives a few half-hearted attempts to rectify the situation but caves when confronted by an irate George. When Lauren tries to tell her parents the truth things start to spiral out of control. And that’s when the rest of the members of this wacky yet lovable family arrive.

And what a motley crew of characters they are. Lauren’s loser brother John (Davram Stiefler) has the hots for Hailey and won’t be persuaded to leave her alone. Lauren’s Grandpa (Bruce Dern) is the first to find out that Lauren and Hailey are a couple and Grandma Josephine (Cloris Leachman) is convinced Hailey is Lauren’s side dish and Austin is her main course. Aunt Maggie (Elaine Hendrix)  just wants everyone to appreciate her artichoke dip, cancer survivor uncle Ken (Rob Moran) is just happy to be there and their overly-hormonal daughter Jessica (Jordyn DiNatale) is hot for Austin. And pothead uncle Mike (Steve Guttenberg) sets the basement on fire and the whole family is uprooted to Rose’s motel for Thanksgiving dinner. And all the while poor Hailey is stuck in an awkward limbo of staying hopeful but losing faith that Lauren will make her big announcement. In the chaos, Lauren must come to terms with her sexuality and face some harsh truths about herself.

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Lez Bomb is written and directed by filmmaker Jenna Laurenzo who also stars as Lauren. This is her feature film debut and her first film, a short called Girl Night Stand, went viral. This multi-generational comedy is quirky, off-beat and all around charming. There are plenty of side-splitting moments and the humor is perfectly paced. The story itself would be ridiculous if it wasn’t grounded in some very real emotions. This film has a lot of heart. I loved the tender, somber moments in the film. For example, when its revealed Grandpa promised to pray with the rosary daily if his son Ken survived cancer was particularly touching. I also appreciated the scene when Lauren talks to her mom Rose about how she struggles with her sexuality and the inconvenient truth that it’s just easier to live a lie than to come out. In an interview with Gravitas Ventures, Laurenzo said,

“The mother-daughter story for me is the heart of the movie… Telling my mom that I was gay was one of the most challenging things because she knows me the best, and while I was afraid of disappointing her, I was equally afraid she’d be upset with herself, for missing it. But it was really me, who was not ready to be honest with myself… We often assume it’s the external pressures that make coming out difficult, and while that is also a factor, sometimes it’s the inner struggle that needs to be reconciled. That theme extends beyond sexuality.”

The film’s resolution happens a little too quickly and cleanly. I felt like there needed a few more minutes of drama before it wrapped up. Otherwise this was an incredibly enjoyable movie. Highly recommended!

Lez Bomb releases in theaters tomorrow November 9th and on VOD.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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“Fortune favors the bold.”

Bohemian Rhapsody was the first song I ever tried to memorize. As a deeply misunderstood and lonely preteen, there was something about this six minute rock opera and other songs by Queen that spoke to my soul. What I didn’t know then was that Freddie Mercury was a champion for misfits like me. He had a self-assured persona, always holding his head up high and never apologizing for being himself. We won’t know the extent of his inner world but his outward confidence gave us license to be ourselves. If you’re a true misfit, you know the pain of being misunderstood and the intense loneliness that comes with being different from everybody else. But when you find another misfit who gets you… it makes all the difference in the world (source).

Freddie Mercury’s story needed to be told.

Bohemian Rhapsody stars Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. We follow Freddie’s journey from his humble beginnings as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to his meteoric rise as the lead singer of Queen culminating with their historic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Along with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazello), these four totally different personalities, each with their own brand of talent, come together to shake up the world of rock ‘n roll. On the road to success they must work with a team of record executives who either don’t believe in them, Ray Foster (Mike Myers), who see an opportunity to manipulate, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), or who stick with them, John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and Jim Beach (Tom Hollander). However the film’s focus remains solely on the biggest star, Freddie Mercury and how he navigates his music career, his relationships with his disapproving father, his supportive mother and sister, his first true love Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), coming to terms, or not, with his sexuality and his eventual AIDS diagnosis.

Many have criticized Bohemian Rhapsody for softening some harsh truths about Freddie Mercury. Because this is a biopic and not a documentary, some changes were made for entertainment value. However because the story deals with a real life figures, filmmakers risk painting these characters in a harsher-than-necessary light in order to serve the movie’s plot. For example, Paul Prenter, based off the real life manager of Queen/Freddie Mercury, is the clear villain in the movie but his involvement with Mercury was conflated for the story’s benefit. Prenter died of AIDS related complications in 1991, the same year and circumstances that led to Mercury’s death, and can’t defend himself. Biopics have always bent the truth to some extent but should the filmmakers continue to do so? This is an evergreen debate that will always plague biopics.

If we can’t have the absolute truth, what will audiences get out of Bohemian Rhapsody? As close to the essence of Freddie Mercury without having Mercury himself in the picture. And that’s what Rami Malek’s outstanding performance gives us. Malek painstakingly acquired every single mannerism and made it his own. He got every move and every look spot on. Where Malek shines is in the musical performances and he channels Mercury’s unique and flamboyant on stage persona. Malek even perfects Mercury’s voice as it got more gravely as the AIDS began to take a toll on his body.

The film struggles to gain ground but it hits its stride about half way through. There were too many scenes at the beginning that were just plain cheesy or pretentious. The second half had a lot more depth, diving into Mercury’s inner world and struggles and I felt more connected to the story then. I loved the little touches especially the Queen inspired rendition of the 20th Century Fox theme. Peppered through the movie were some humorous moments and some pop culture references. The most notable one is Mike Myers, whose Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World re-introduced the song to a whole new generation, makes the following remark, much to the delight of anyone who will get the reference:

We need a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. Bohemian Rhapsody is not that song.

Malek’s prosthetic teeth took some getting used to. They went for realism (Mercury had an overbite and four extra incisors) but it seemed more artificial. I was worried that there was too much to put me off until the film sent me on an emotional roller coaster I was not expecting. I spent the last 30 minutes of the film just sobbing. I was quite moved by Mercury’s story and was angered by how AIDS took him from us too soon. As a self-declared misfit, I found some truths about myself that I wasn’t quite ready to process.

Bohemian Rhapsody has its problems but Malek delivers an engaging performance that channels the true essence of Freddie Mercury. This one is sure to please fans. Rock on.

 

First Man

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We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is  a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.

Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.

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First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.

 

 

 

First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience.  It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.

London Fields

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Nicola Six, S-I-X

Nicola Six (Amber Heard) always knew exactly when she was going to die: on the day of her thirtieth birthday. The man who was going to kill her would be waiting for her in a parked car. But she didn’t know how or why she would meet her untimely demise. And she definitely didn’t know who. Then one day she enters an underground club and meets three men, one of whom would be her killer.

First there was Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), a champion darts player with a penchant for gambling. He’s a shady character, always looking for some new delight to tickle his fancy. Keith is constantly plagued with outstanding debts, including a big one to rival darts player and flamboyant gangster Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp). Then there’s Guy Clinch (Theo James), a straight-laced business man in a loveless marriage that produced a psychotic child. Guy sees an escape with the beautiful and seemingly vulnerable Nicola. Finally there’s Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton), the narrator of the story. He’s an author struggling with writer’s block. In Nicola he finds his next novel. As he follows her while she tries to make sense of her premonition, he works her story into his. Truth blends with fiction and we don’t know if some of what we’re seeing is scenes in Nicola’s life or figments of Samson’s imagination.

And what about Nicola? We learn bits here and there about her life story. Ever since she was a young child she had premonitions. She predicted her parents’ death in a plane crash and countless other tragic events. Knowing her life would be cut short, Nicola lived for the moment. Using her looks and sex appeal, she would draw men into her snare. When she meets Samson Young she finds a kindred spirit, another soul on the brink of death. Will Samson help Nicola discover herself or will he just be another participant in her demise?

London Fields was directed by Michael Cullen and ever since it’s attempted release three years ago it’s been plagued with problems. An international premiere was intended for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival but when director Cullen filed suit against the producers for making significant edits to the final film, TIFF pulled it at the last minute. And to add to the drama, the producers sued star Amber Heard for refusing to attend the planned TIFF premiere. Furthermore, Heard accused then husband Johnny Depp, who appears in an uncredited role in the film, of spousal abuse. The producers settled the lawsuit against Heard earlier this year clearing the path for what in turn would be the release of Cullen’s final edit of the film. However, the director will be going to court with the producers in early 2019. London Fields was released in the UK earlier this month and had a limited release in the U.S. on October 26th.

The film’s story, based on the high praised novel by Martin Amis, is an interesting concept but poorly executed. I loved the idea of a meta story, something happening in real life that is in turn being adapted into a novel. But London Fields turned out to be a convoluted mess. The reviews leading up to U.S. release were not promising. I didn’t have high expectations but was hoping for at least an enjoyable mystery with a sexy femme fatale. Unfortunately the film overall was kind of a slog to get through. I was particularly interested in Amber Heard’s Nicola Six and was hoping for at least an interesting and complex female protagonist. In one of the scenes with Billy Bob Thornton’s Samson and Heard’s Nicola, he discusses writing her character in his book and is worried that he will be accused of creating a one-dimensional object of male fantasy. And that’s pretty much what Nicola is in this movie. We learn about her past, we see how she interacts with the three men, we see her struggle with being understood yet we don’t really learn much about her. Heard delivers a decent performance as Nicola Six. She’s sexy as all get out but can’t surpass a highly flawed storyline. If there is a stand-out performance in this film it’s Heard’s boob glue/tape that holds her wardrobe in place, defying all laws of gravity.

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I don’t know if it was the theater or the film itself but the audio quality of London Fields was very poor. It was somewhat muted and I could barely understand half of what Jim Sturgess was saying. Guy’s psychotic child was played a short adult which I thought was an odd choice. Cara Delevingne has a small role as Keith’s long-suffering wife and mother to his child. It was a role beneath her capabilities in my opinion. I also wished the film explored the apocalyptic state of London towards the end of the story. We see fires and explosions all over the city, symbolic of Nicola and Samson’s impending demise. But they’re never explained. A lost opportunity to add some richness to the story.

If London Fields has anything going for it it’s Amber Heard’s sexy performance but that’s about it.

 

Thank you to Satiated Productions for the opportunity to see London Fields.

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