Category - Movie Reviews

Shedding Light on James Franco’s Forgotten 2016 Musical Art Film “Let Me Get What I Want”

It’s been two years since James Franco’s band Daddy released a 51-minute art film music video to accompany all ten tracks off their debut album, “Let Me Get What I Want.” Unbeknownst to many, the story behind this musical project is ambitiously complicated, and collectively heartbreaking.

It all began with the formation of Daddy: Franco and his friend from college, composer Tim O’Keefe, wanted to start a cover band of the Smiths. Eventually, the two wrote poems based on songs by the Smiths and handed them off to Franco’s mother, Betsy Franco, teacher at Palo Alto High School (James Franco’s alma mater). Betsy gave the poems to her students and they collectively shot short films based on each of the ten poems they were given. Then, James and O’Keefe developed their poems into songs (former member of The Smiths, Andy Rourke, went on to play bass on a couple of the tracks) and weaved together the students’ video works into a ten-chapter film.

The band’s debut album, “Let Me Get What I Want,” was accompanied by this film of the same name, with each song getting its own music video. Sewn all together, it plays like an arthouse acid trip, with a flurry of slow motion, glitchy, neon imagery unfolding while Franco sings woefully of high school sullenness.

“I thought the way the Smiths’ songs had this great irony and earnestness at the same time was exactly how high school felt,” said Franco of the band’s inspiration. “Everything was kind of big and important, and yet so stupid at the same time. So exciting, yet also so boring.”

Collectively, the non-linear film tells the story of Tom, a gay teenager smitten with his best friend Sterling and ultimately jealous of his relationship with his girlfriend Erica. While abstract in nature due to the film’s dreamy visual effects, the sorrowful narrative pokes through songs like “On the Sidelines” where Tom observes the young couple in love, longing to be the one Sterling kisses instead.

Tom’s role as a sad onlooker plays out like a ghost floating through a room. His angst and homoerotic desires fill the screen with flashes of bright lights and impasto artwork of classmates’ school portraits as painted by Franco himself. Franco has also been the subject of gay rumors and accusations of queerbaiting for art’s sake, and this film doesn’t steer away from feeding into the gossip.

Typical high school themes surface, and we see Tom fall in love for the first time and attend prom and graduation. Plot-wise, it’s yet another brooding, high school melodrama full of underage drinking, lost virginities, car crashes, bullying, and heartbreak that we can all relate to in some dose.

While the film does pass off as student work in its amateurish quality, the usage of symbols and motifs have profound emotional impact on the audience. “Boys his age have bodies like knives, I was holding one by the blade,” Franco croons in “Lime Green Dress,” whereas in the video for “You Are Mine” we see Tom longingly watch Sterling’s wet, shirtless body at swim practice while Franco sings “I have so many plans for you, I am the center of all.”

We later see Tom underwater at a desk, writing love letters to Sterling, promising that this love was different. Tom was drowning in his own unspoken desires for Sterling and as evident in “Graduation Day,” he never did or ever will know.

Even though the Palo Alto students shot and directed the film, Franco worked closely with filmmaker Irene Su and video artist Beth Wexle to develop the moody narrative of teenage life at Palo Alto High. With motion graphics by Su and Wexle as well as illustrations by Franco, the fluid take on pop art provides visual stimuli too flashy not to notice.

Art films may not be universally understood or lauded by critics, but Daddy’s “Let Me Get What I Want” is a fascinating view on high school life behind the gaze of a hopeless romantic who wants nothing more than reciprocated romance. And maybe in that regard, we’re all a little like Tom, searching for the satisfaction of affection from somebody just to reassure our own self-worth.

Watch the full length feature below.

Pride Month Classics Series #6: “Tangerine”

Less than 24 hours after her release from prison, black transgender sex worker Sin-Dee is looking for her pimp boyfriend Chester after discovering he cheated on her while she was imprisoned. Now she’s ripping up anything in her way on Christmas Eve in an attempt to hunt him down. One other thing, the entire film was shot on an iPhone.

2015’s biggest independent hit “Tangerine” was directed by Sean Baker and shot on three iPhone 5s smartphones as well as a clip-on lens and a mobile $8 video editor app. Baker’s take on a buddy comedy is a tad unexpected and very high-paced, equipped with an intense dubstep soundtrack.

Dazed & Confused called “Tangerine” the “the most important film of 2015” and notes the perfect timing of the film’s release, after the big screen’s “The Danish Girl” chronicled one of the first gender reassignment surgeries, Laverne Cox got her own wax figure at Madame Tussaud, and Caitlyn Jenner won Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” award.

2015 was a huge year for the telling of positive transgender stories in mainstream media. Gone are the days of crude caricatures of transgender individuals as nothing more than crossdressing “she-males” existing on screen just for a cheap laugh. For example, 1994’s “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” with Jim Carrey saw extreme transphobia on screen for the sake of so-called “comedy” when Carrey vomits twice after realizing the individual he had kissed was transgender. He is so grossed out that he brushes his teeth with an entire tube of toothpaste and strips naked, burning his clothes in a trash can, crying in the shower. Such an extreme reaction to someone’s gender identity is not only tasteless, but offensive and further perpetuates negative mindsets and attitudes towards trans people.

Typical over-the-top “gross-outs” are nothing but harmful exposure for the trans community, let alone completely unnecessary. The refusal to accept an individual who doesn’t identify with their assigned birth gender is rudimentary prejudice and discrimination. There is nothing gross or vile about being transgender, there is nothing shocking about identifying differently than how society may see you. To classify people based on the genitals they possess is entirely inappropriate and insensitive. Gender is a spectrum and not everything is black and white, or in this case, male and female. There is a gray area indefinitely.

“Tangerine” is more than just a movie shot on an iPhone starring trans women. In fact, the least shocking part of the entire plot is the fact that both leading ladies are transgender. This is simply a tale of friendship, and doesn’t hinge solely on its characters’ transgender identities. It’s just a movie, not a trans movie. Sure, it has trans characters, but that doesn’t classify it as a one-dimensional genre. It’s just a movie, and a damn good one at that.

Rather, its kick lies in the frenzy of an angry black woman in search of answers and the truth. After spending 28 days in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) meets up with her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at their favorite donut shop to catch up on what she’s missed. Alexandra lets it slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend with sleeping with a cisgender white woman and she goes on a rampage to find him and get her revenge.

Along the journey, there’s a police altercation, a brothel visit, an oral sex scene during a car wash, a musical performance at a dull bar, a curious Armenian cab driver, a crystal-meth indulgence, and a beautifully touching moment in a laundromat with some wigs.

Not only is “Tangerine” a staple for modern queer cinema, it’s also a laugh riot. And for once, the audience is laughing with us and not at us. The unfiltered banter between Alexandra and Sin-Dee is reminiscent of any two best gay friends cutting up and kiki’ing casually at brunch or the gay bar. It’s funny because it’s relatable, it’s funny because all gay people have crazy girlfriends like Sin-Dee.

The trans-led “Tangerine” breaks barriers for positive portrayals of transgender actresses and characters on screen, and makes for such a clever indie classic. I don’t know the last time the big screen saw a pimp witch hunt, but “Tangerine” surely gives the Salem witch trials a run for their money.

Watch the trailer below and watch the film here on Netflix now.

Secrets from the Set of “The Shining”

“The Shining” that we all know and love is 1980 Stanley Kubrick film based on a Stephen King novel of the same name. The world remembers the movie mostly for its intense, door-busting scene with Jack Nicholson’s face screaming “Here’s Johnny!” while wielding an axe – and funnily enough, the prop department struggled to build a door strong enough for him to break. Being that he was once a volunteer firefighter, Nicholson had no difficulty destroying 60 prop doors over the span of three days.

Or maybe, audiences remember the film’s symmetrical shots of the creepy Grady twins in the hallway, or the frightening visual of Nicholson freezing to death, or the hotel elevator overflowing with a river of blood. But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this horror classic.

The backstory for the fruition of the nearly 40 year-old Kubrick classic begins with a large stack of scary stories. Kubrick ordered his assistants to buy piles and piles of horror novels for him to read in his office to hopefully develop into films. Kubrick would sit at his desk and flip through the first few pages of each and throw them against the wall if he disliked them. When his secretary noticed an unusual quietness, she walked inside his office to find Kubrick deeply engaged in the reading of Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining.

Somehow word made itself back to King and he formulated a script for how he envisioned his novel to play out on the big screen. Kubrick, the stubborn perfectionist he became to be, refused to read the screenplay he had developed and had minimal contact with the author. Kubrick would call King in the middle of the night not for advice on how to adapt his vision, but rather, to ask him “Do you believe in god?”

King felt his vision was being rejected and became increasingly disinterested in Kubrick’s rendition of his book. To his defense, The Shining was a vaguely autobiographical story of how alcoholism can ruin one’s life. The novel came after King’s own stint with a crippling alcohol reliance and addiction, so it can be understood why he grew infuriated by how his personal story was misconstrued and portrayed by Kubrick. Now, paranormal elements and murder aside, it’s easy to see how King could be offended that his personal writings were appropriated for a gory blockbuster hit.

Yet, King wasn’t the only one shafted by Kubrick’s directorial decision making. While Kubrick got along swimmingly with leading (crazy) man Jack Nicholson, his relationship with leading lady Shelley Duvall was a tattered, terrible one. In an alternative take on method acting, Kubrick seemed to be “method directing” Duvall into playing a terribly distressed, scared wife by isolating her from the rest of the cast and crew and by constantly insulting her performance. Kubrick was brutal on Duvall in an attempt to bring out her best acting chops, but the notoriously mean behavior made filming hellish.

“From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great. Stanley [Kubrick] pushed me and prodded me further than I’ve ever been pushed before. It’s the most difficult role I’ve ever had to play,” said Duvall who suffered from nervous exhaustion during excruciatingly long filming days. The environment’s stressful circumstances caused Duvall to lose her hair and cry to the point of dehydration.

After one incident on set when Duvall fainted from exhaustion in the hallway following the filming of one scene, Kubrick turned to her and said, “I don’t sympathize with you Shelley, it doesn’t help you.”

Kubrick’s wicked mind games even landed him in the Guinness Book of Records for most retakes of one scene with dialogue. The scene in question was Duvall swinging her baseball bat at Nicholson on the staircase, and reportedly had to be shot 127 times to satisfy Kubrick. Although, Kubrick’s neuroses should come as no shock, as he made Tom Cruise walk through one door frame 95 times consecutively for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Can we credit Kubrick for instilling character development in Duvall through his methodical directing, or can we blame the horrifying sights she had to see on set for making her acting believable?

Kubrick was similarly hard on the 70 year-old cook in the film, played by actor Scatman Crothers. For one simple shot of a slow zoom-in to Crothers face, Kubrick demanded 60 takes, causing him to break down in tears. Kubrick justified his obsessive retakes process to Rolling Stone magazine in 1987, “It happens when actors are unprepared. So you shoot it and shoot it and hope you can get something out in pieces.” Kubrick also got Nicholson into character by strictly feeding him only cheese sandwiches for two weeks – which he hates.

“The Shining” filmed chronologically for 250 days with a small crew of ten people or less at both a soundstage constructed in England (based on Yosemite National Park’s hotel Ahwahnee Lodge) as well as exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. A linear filming schedule like Kubrick conducted meant every set and actor had to be ready to roll at the drop of a hat because he was filming in the order that the filming audience would see it. He also took liberties of the source material by swapping the integral Room 217 for the nonexistent Room 237 in order to appease Timberline Lodge’s management over concerns of how it could hurt business.

Amongst other ingenious tricks up Kubrick’s sleeves was how he managed to make the snow in the final hedge maze scene out of Styrofoam and 900 tons of salt, as well as how he kept young actor Danny Lloyd (Danny) in the dark about how “The Shining” was a horror film, not a family drama. Lloyd was six years-old at the time of filming, and “The Shining” marks his first and last soiree into acting.

Once Kubrick’s vision for “The Shining” was completed, it was released as a 146-minute masterpiece. However, this version is not the version we know and love, as tacked onto the tail end is an alternative ending set in a hospital where Wendy and Danny are recuperating. Wendy is subsequently told that the police was unable to find her husband’s body on the hotel’s property, further perpetuating the theory that Nicholson’s character was a ghost the whole time. Kubrick scrapped this two minute scene a week after its release in order to make the movie ending more ambiguous and it has yet to surface publicly.

“The Shining” has withstood the test of time as a gripping descent into madness, through the stellar acting of Nicholson and the stunning visual cues executed under Kubrick’s keen eye. As it nears its 40th anniversary in 2020, one can only hope even more secrets are uncovered about this cinematic staple.

Watch Kubrick’s 17 year-old daughter Vivian’s exclusive behind the scenes footage below.

“Ocean’s 8” Performs a Swimmingly Good Heist

Director Gary Ross’ all-female spinoff to the “Ocean’s” franchise is a gem, and not a cubic zirconium one. Instead, “Ocean 8” is a diamond-encrusted entrée dripping with talent. But the star power presented should come as no surprise.

The eight leading ladies of the film – Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter and Awkwafina – have a cumulative total of six Golden Globes, two Emmys, five British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, four Oscars, 10 Screen Actors Guild Awards and nine Grammy’s.

“Ocean 8” begins with convict Debbie Ocean (Bullock) and her release from jail after a five month stint for money fraud. Ocean, a slight kleptomaniac but total scammer, had meticulously planned her next heist behind bars and enlists in some friends to help seal the deal. Together, all eight women set their sights on a $150 million Cartier necklace that actress Daphne Kluger (Hathaway) will be sporting whilst on the annual Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and hatch an elaborate scheme to split the multi-million dollar profits.

The convincingly stellar performances of Bullock and Blanchett are only further excelled by the great actresses by their side. Rihanna, for one, plays a clever computer hacker and stoner named Nine Ball and despite contributing nothing new to the “nerdy hacker” trope, she wears the crown beautifully. “American Horror Story” star Paulson also is a stand-out, playing a suburban mom who steals and resells electronics on the side.

The chemistry between Bullock and Blanchett is to be noted, pulling off criminally-charged friends like a real Bonnie & Clyde duo. When the heart-racing jewel heist goes down, Bullock and Blanchett both guide the film through its climax smoothly and brilliantly.

“A ‘him’ gets noticed and a ‘her’ gets ignored, and for once we want to be ignored,” remarks Bullock at the initial meeting to plan the heist. These women have their sights set high on such a monumental theft and have huge expectations despite their combined history of petty crime. Can these eight women steal $150 million when their past experiences have only been small offenses like shoplifting? Can a street magician like Constance (Awkwafina) really go from stealing passerby’s watches to stealing a diamond necklace with a special magnetized clasp in the back?

Whereas typical action films have a bad guy who is out to harm the protagonist, instead, “Ocean’s 8” has just one villain: failure. If the plan goes belly-up, not only will eight women be in hot water but Ocean will be back in jail and this time, she might never leave. While critics are quick to state that the film puts heavy emphasis on dramatics like visuals or celebrity cameos, it’s simply not true. The film is fresh and exciting, and just because its superheroes are a bit corrupt and don’t wear spandex costumes doesn’t mean they’re not worth the time. A female protagonist doesn’t have to be like Wonder Women or scantily clad to capture your attention and make a splash on screen.

The premise of the movie takes its inspiration from 1960’s “Ocean’s 11,” a Rat Pack classic starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, centered around a string of casino robberies in Las Vegas. This film eventually led to a reboot series directed by Steven Soderbergh including huge Hollywood actors like George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Julia Robert. Three films were released from 2001-2007 featuring this ensemble cast. Director Soderbergh cancelled any ideas of a sequel after actor Bernie Mac passed away, but Gary Ross caught wind of a concept to reboot the franchise with an all-female cast and jumped on board to direct.

“Ocean’s 8” is not only to be celebrated for its diverse cast of talented women, it’s also a damn good film. All in all the film feels very modern and smooth, not relying on gimmicks or cheesy, half-assed female empowerment monologues to drive the message home. It doesn’t rely on cheap tricks or sex appeal to draw viewers in. It’s a smart action flick, and Hollywood hasn’t been producing too many of those lately.

It’s a damn good film because it so effortlessly captures the feel of a huge blockbuster hit while subsequently being a huge blockbuster hit. As of June 25, the movie has scored a cool $172 million and has no plan of doggy-paddling soon. If you’re planning on seeing a star-studded film this summer, bet on this one because it’ll have you sitting on the edge of your seat biting your lip until the very end.

“Ocean’s 8” is in theaters now and you can view the trailer below.

Pride Month Classics Series #5: “Howl”

Following the trend of docu-dramas based on real life events, 2010’s James Franco-starring “Howl” is a visual-heavy take on famed gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic of the same name. Aside from its hallucinogenic-inspired animations and illustrations, the beauty of “Howl” shines through its intimate detailing of its characters in their most private moments.

Franco plays a young Ginsberg in the 1940s/50s in the beginning of his writing career and subsequent legal issues surrounding the publication of “Howl.” Ginsberg was a leader for the underground writers of the San Francisco Renaissance, releasing poetry regarding taboo subjects never before discussed in mainstream media like homosexuality and drug usage. Alongside William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet movement made a dent in public consciousness through their raw energy and high spirits.

The basis of the film starts with Ginsberg’s 3000-word epic “Howl,” a poem published in 1956 by independent book store City Lights Books for their Pocket Poets series. Ginsberg had met the owner of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in 1955 at a live performance of “Howl” and Ferlinghetti was so blown away by the piece that he offered to publish it.

“Howl” is a long, rambling poem that depicted the nightmarish, twisted love story of young gay artists in the squalor of city life. The blunt, sexual references and romantic lines of the poem painted a portrait of a starving artist, looking to make his big dreams come true. The poem begins with the line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn.”

Keep in mind this was the fifties, the same decade marked by housewives, hoop skirts, and Marilyn Monroe. Nobody dared to speak about sex in a public setting, let alone gay sex like Ginsberg was alluding to. His poem collection contained many sexual references and homoerotic themes, as well as rampant hallucinogenic drug use. Sure enough, the police soon caught wind of the raucously daring book and seized 500 copies of it and arrested publisher Ferlinghetti and bookstore owner Shig Murao for distributing obscene materials.

Murao was released, but Ferlinghetti was threatened with a $500 fine (almost $4500 in today’s currency) and six months of jail time if found guilty. The prosecution believed Ginsberg’s “Howl” would pollute the minds of the youth with its “sexual overtones and filthy depictions of society and homosexuality.”

Ultimately, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty of the aforementioned acts. His 1957 case, “The People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti” made national headlines and went on to become a landmark case for the freedom of the First Amendment as well as artistic expression of queer sexuality.

Residing Judge Horn remarked, “Evil to him who evil thinks,” in regard to the questioning of source material “Howl” as to being an obscene threat to society.

The modern “Howl” film finds Ginsberg (Franco) in the eye of the storm, faced with this heavy legal battle surrounding his own poetry pieces. Shot in two weeks on location in New York City, the film blends experimental elements of vivid animation with live action, conventional movie technique. We see Ginsberg writing “Howl and Other Poems” for the Pocket Poet series and witness him fight for his rights in the court room through Franco’s spot-on on-screen depiction of him.

It’s crucial for us during pride month to remember such a bold pioneer like Allen Ginsberg to create such an honest, courageous body of work that was so ruthlessly picked apart by the media and legal system. It was queer heroes like Ginsberg that gave us the right to create and write in blatant terms about our own experiences under the microscope of queer culture. Without “Howl” and without Franco’s modern retelling of the story, parts of our own gay history would be lost forever, and the future generations would never be able to understand the struggles our forefathers had to endure to guarantee our freedom of expression. Without champions like Ginsberg, our art would be censored by the law and never live to tell to see the light of day in popular culture.

Pride Month Classics Series #4: “Brokeback Mountain”

What begins as a simple summer fling for two 19-year old sheepherders in the wild west became one of the most heart-wrenching, forbidden love tragedies since Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo & Juliet.”

“Brokeback Mountain” sets its sights on secret desires when same sex attraction blossoms between two cowboys, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, alone on a Wyoming ranch in the 1960s. The film is based on a short story of the same name by Annie Proulx and went on to become the fourth highest grossing gay film of all time.

This 2005 Neo-Western was directed by Ang Lee, who’s most known for 2012’s shipwreck drama “Life of Pi” and 2000’s martial-arts flick “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Whereas his filmography typically falls into the action or drama genre, Lee dove head-first into the romance genre with “Brokeback” only to flip it on its head and show a love story on screen unlike anything else in mainstream media. Lee made the movie theater a safe space to portray a gay relationship without any irony, humor, or cheap theatrics.

“I think the American West really attracts me because it’s romantic,” Lee said of the film’s inspiration. “The desert, the empty space, the drama.”

“Brokeback” became a gay crossover hit and huge box office success because it left expectations and antiquated ideas of typical queerness at the door. For once, the gay characters on screen existed in a space without being the butt of the joke. For once, the gay characters didn’t exist as a punch line or walking stereotype. For once, the gay characters were just that: characters, characters that were just like us.

These characters had feelings, multidimensional development, ambitions, dreams. They had intense passion for each other, evident by the few and far between kissing scenes between Gyllenhaal and Ledger that almost broke Gylenhaal’s nose.

By starring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Gyllenhaal and Ledger as the leading men struggling with a secret love too taboo to pursue, Lee normalized gay relationships and redefined masculinity in the modern age. Even though it was just acting, it proved that gay people were just like everybody else.

These cigarette-smoking, harmonica-playing, whiskey-drinking dudes were far from the flamboyant portrayals of gay people in popular media like the sweet transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or the sassy, brainless purse puppy Jack MacFarland from “Will & Grace.” Ang Lee succeeds in directing a film so impactful that it infiltrates a genre laden with blue jeans, lasso ropes, and gun-wielding macho men – and sheep herding has never been sadder.

In their final scene together, Gyllenhaal’s character Jack Twist turns his back and overlooks the western mountains and admits, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

Ledger’s character Ennis Del Mar retorts, “Why don’t you Jack?” Silence follows, and the viewing audience can feel the sinking of their heart into their stomachs as the two realize their relationship was destined to die.

The devastating collapse of Twist and Del Mar’s relationship in these final moments comes in the last half hour of the film, after seeing the two struggle with their forceful feelings for two decades; two decades of secret escapades, rented motel rooms, and infidelity.

The secret love affair was crippled by Del Mar’s inability to come to terms with his own emotions and admit his true love for Twist, despite Twist seemingly dropping everything to be with him. This conflicted love story isn’t unlike any other classic tale we know and love, rather, it mirrors the precedents set by films like “Romeo & Juliet” and “Titanic” by depicting the pain of a lost love.

20 years after they first met and made passionate love to each other in a tent, both men have been married and raised children but feel the empty void without each other in their lives. 20 years after they first met, they are still struggling with idea of honesty. Years and years have passed, but they haven’t evolved or moved past their hardships and accepted their love for each other. It’s almost like they’re 19 again and too young to commit to anything, instead burdened and overwhelmed by the vast opportunities the world has to offer them. 

“The film is [Del Mar’s] tragedy; it becomes painfully obvious that he left his soul on Brokeback Mountain. It’s a tough act to witness and one that Heath Ledger handles superbly, delivering an increasingly sad, mumbling and desperate performance that smacks of loneliness and alienation. And all because the boy loves the boy but barely knows what such love means, let alone possesses the tools with which to act on it,” says Dave Calhoun of Time Out London.

In a world where in 72 countries it is illegal to be in a same sex relationship  and in 8 countries you can be executed for being gay, we need more movies like “Brokeback Mountain” in mainstream media. Now more than ever, queer visibility is crucial to achieve acceptance and establish equality. The struggle depicted in the film can be translated to any race, gender, or religion; when it’s boiled down, it’s a simple story of forbidden love, and such a story exists in every nook and cranny of the world.

It’s movie milestones like “Brokeback Mountain” that put a dent into the public consciousness, that normalize the concept of same sex relations, and that is essential in order to advance as a society. We need “Brokeback Mountain” because forbidden love shouldn’t be forbidden at all, it should be taken out of the dark and thrown into the public spotlight and treasured for what it is: love.

Pride Month Classics Series #3: “Party Monster”

What do Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green, Marilyn Manson, Dylan McDermott, Chloë Sevigny, Wilmer Valderrama, Natasha Lyonne and John Stamos all have in common? They all starred in 2003’s decadent, drug-fueled gay crime drama biopic, “Party Monster,” that is filled to the brim with glitter, gays, and the gore of manslaughter. Stick with me, because this story’s a doozy.

To explain the premise of “Party Monster” and its surrounding elements is much like explaining the principles of rocket science to your 87 year-old grandmother: it’s kind of complicated. For those far removed from the gay community, the real life incidents that led to the development of the film may sound utterly wild and completely unbelievable but trust me: it’s all true.

First, let’s start by setting the scene: New York City in the late eighties. After Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, the NYC party scene was hit with a harsh blow that dampened the mood. Warhol was not only a pioneer of the pop art movement, but also at the forefront of every exclusive, cool party and club. Whereas the 1970s had Studio 54 as the premier club destination for wild times, the 1980s had Warhol. And then came the 1990s and Michael Alig.

Alig hailed from South Bend, Indiana and moved to New York City with nothing but a dream in 1984. Fast forward three years, and Alig was at the top of the world, throwing outrageous, over-the-top themed parties at clubs like The Limelight and even spontaneous pop-up parties at McDonalds and subway stations. These parties were hotly-anticipated spectacles, with guest self-expressively dressing head to toe in extreme fashions and heavy-handed makeup, bopping and smoking animal tranquilizers, cocaine and ecstasy on the dance floor. They called themselves the “club kids” and Alig was the self-appointed ringmaster of all the twisted debauchery.

Some guests wore chicken costumes, some wore functioning furnaces with fire spitting out the top, and some wore nothing but jockstraps. In club land, gender was fluid and everything was fun and games. Everyone was just there for the party, dressing up and making out and looking like glamorous freaks all whilst doing so. Alig alongside friend James St. James ruled the underground club circuit with their wild antics and extreme addiction to fashion and drugs. They even wiggled their way into the mainstream and appeared on the Joan Rivers Show in 1993.

“The club kids seemed to be right at the right spot and I felt like I won the lottery because I was able to put all of those things together. It was the perfect storm of a subculture and I don’t think it can happen anymore. It’s not possible for a subculture to grow and have that impact anymore,” Alig told The Collar Tones zine in 2016.

In 1996, it all came crashing down amidst a drug-fueled, financial altercation that led to Alig and roommate Robert “Freeze Riggs” killing dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez. After the murder, Alig and Riggs dismembered him and threw the limbs into a box into the river. Nine months later, they were both arrested and sent to prison. Alig was released in 2014 and arrested again in 2017 for trespassing and possession of crystal meth.

“Party Monster” highlights Alig’s rise and fall as the leader of this strangely stylish, queer movement. Based upon James St. James’ 1999 memoir Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland as well as the 1998 documentary “Party Monster: The Shockumentary,” the film was directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who are known for their production of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Conveniently enough, drag race RuPaul was a key figure of the 80s club kid scene.

While the circumstances surrounding it are maliciously criminal, the retelling of the crazy club kid scene makes “Party Monster” a gay classic. To be clear, it’s not Melendez’s death that makes this film a staple for the gay community, it’s the culture depicted within it that makes it impactful. Melendez’s death was utterly tragic and the result of debilitating drug addiction and Alig and Riggs must be held responsible for their despicable actions.

In light of the later tragedy, the early days of the club kids as shown on screen are an exhilarating storm of opulence and do-it-yourself glam under the disco ball. Bailey and Barbato painstakingly recreated fashions and looks from the original club kids – under James St. James’ guise – with utmost accuracy and impact. For an onlooker, these attention-seeking 20-somethings wearing sheer dresses, foot-tall platform boots, huge bedazzled head pieces and neon face paint may be extremely confusing or disturbing, but for Alig and his friends, it was a way of life.

“We were making fun of the idea of celebrity and fame. It’s a ridiculous notion, that some people are better and more deserving than others, but at the same time you have to admit it’s very alluring,” Alig said to The Collar Tones. “We were mocking this notion that in America we are so affluent and decadent that we don’t have to grow up if we don’t want to. I never wanted to be a big boy. I mean, who wants to grow up?”

The cult classic “Party Monster” is not only nothing without its extensive costuming budget, but also its star-studded lineup: Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig (“Home Alone”), Seth Green as James St. James (“It,” “Robot Chicken”), rockstar Marilyn Manson as Christina Superstar, Dylan McDermott as club owner Peter Gatien (“American Horror Story”), Chloë Sevigny as Gitsie (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “American Psycho,” “Zodiac”), Wilmer Valderrama as DJ Keoki (“That 70’s Show”), Natasha Lyonne as Brooke (“Orange is the New Black”) and John Stamos as a talk show host (“Full House”). The talent alone involved in this film is lightyears ahead of any other gay movie in recent memory.

The legacy of this film lies not within its gruesome subject matter, but its pinpoint historical accuracy and lavishly insane atmosphere. By chronicling this fanatically outrageous party scene and its decline into murder, Bailey and Barbato set their sights on the stars and succeed with flying colors.

Gay people of today need to recognize the contributions and achievements of the gay people of yesteryear in order to know how to push forward in society and achieve equal rights even further, and “Party Monster” is a great place to start such a colorful journey.

Pride Month Classics Series #2: “Boys Don’t Cry”

“Boys Don’t Cry” hits hard, and the reason why is heart-breaking: it’s all true.

The film is based upon the life of Brandon Teena, a rowdy transgender man (played by Hillary Swank) who’s always brawling boys and kissing girls up until his tragic murder in 1993 by a group of his friends who had discovered he was born female. Not only does “Boys Don’t Cry” depict a reality all-too-true for queer individuals, it was also released in the wake of gay teen Matthew Shepherd’s death in 1998 after he was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming.

The harsh realities of gay hate crimes were finally making their way into public consciousness in the late 90s and a biopic like “Boys Don’t Cry” was the perfect vehicle to get people to care. For a movie to portray the dangerous situations that LGBTQIA+ people face every day progressed the conversation off-screen into a political one. Swank’s performance as Teena introduced the topic, and Teena’s real-life story brought the issue home to viewers. By bringing realism and truth to the big screen, it got mainstream media empathizing and talking about an issue all too familiar to queer and especially transgender-identifying individuals.

18 gay people were murdered in vicious hate crimes from 1990 to 1999 and Brandon Teena was one of them. He had just moved to Nebraska in 1993 to start his life anew under male pronouns and far removed of his sexually abusive, misunderstood childhood. His mother, Teena Brandon, refused to call him by male pronouns and believed he was just confused. She sent him to the Lancaster County Crisis Center in 1992 because she believed he was “suffering from a severe sexual identity crisis.” The rejection stemming from a queer youth’s parental figures is known to cause severe harm on the youth’s psyche, and can leave them with lifelong mental health issues, studies say.

When in Nebraska, Teena fell in love with Lana Tisdel and became good friends with John Lotter and Marvin Nissen, two convicts and mutual friends of Tisdel’s. After an arrest in December and detainment in jail, Teena confessed to Tisdel that he was born a female. Unfortunately, this is where the story takes a turn for the worse.

Teena was gang raped by Nissen and Lotter after they discovered his birth gender on Christmas Eve in 1993. Teena went to the police, but they refused to do anything of the matter even after a rape kit was utilized. The fact that Teena was transgender made law enforcement very uncomfortable and thus the sheriff made no arrest because of a supposed “lack of evidence.”

Nissen and Lotter discovered that Teena had went to the police and broke into his home on New Year’s Eve. The two shot DeVine Lambert, Teena’s roommate, in cold blood in front of her child as well as Teena. Nissen proceeded to stab Teena in the chest to ensure the fatality of his wounds. The two ran off but eventually were charged with murder and received life sentences for their crimes.

“Boys Don’t Cry” was a groundbreaking gay milestone in the film industry and was released the same year as other hits like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project.” The film grossed $11.5 million on its measly $2 million budget and carried a message much larger than the big screen could hold. While modest compared to its gay counterparts – like 2005’s $83 million grossing “Brokeback Mountain” – “Boys Don’t Cry” touches on the topic of transgender identities with utmost respect and strength.

Hilary Swank took the role to heart and approached the role with method acting preparation; she lived as a man for a month, binding her chest with bandages, stuffing her underwear, and hitting on girls at bars much like Teena so frequently did. Swank’s dedicated commitment to the role landed her an Academy Award and Golden Globe win in 20000 for Best Actress, beating out Hollywood heavyweights like Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. Not bad for an actress paid only $3000 for her role on screen.

Far beyond the typical tropes of transgenderism, the film dives into the complexity of masculinity and aspects of “passing” as a man in society. For once, the trans person on screen isn’t a joke or a simple gag carried out for the amusement of the audience. Rather, the trans person on screen is brave and confident within their own gender identity, enough so to visibly live as it. And for once, this trans person is a real person and not just a Hollywood role mustered up to profit upon.

The importance of “Boys Don’t Cry” should be obvious by now; it came at a time when trans people needed a voice and an ally to protect them from hatred. The film not only made Teena a household name through his tragic death, but also made way for protective legislation like 2009’s Matthew Shepard Act passed by President Obama that granted additional defenses for gay victims.

Even today, trans people are still ruthlessly attacked and murdered for possessing a gender identity different than societal standards. 25 transgender individuals were murdered in 2017 in the United States alone and is seemingly on the rise, despite Teena’s shocking death 25 years ago.

We need more films like “Boys Don’t Cry” today to remind the world that being transgender is not a mental illness, it’s a normal gender identity possessed by normal people just like us. We need publicly-out figures like actress Laverne Cox and activist Janet Mock to let people know that being transgender is nothing to cry about.

Pride Month Classics Series #1: “Paris is Burning”

Contrary to popular belief, Madonna did not invent voguing with her 1990 smash hit “Vogue.” No, the origin of the dance style goes back decades before the queen of pop was even making music.

Voguing, the dance, has it origins in black Harlem in the 1860s when the Hamilton Lodge posed itself as a secret safe space for gay people to congregate and dance. These balls were illegal and extremely taboo, as sodomy laws made same-sex relations in the United States illegal until the seventies. To be out and proud in the 1800s was completely unheard of, so these ballroom celebrations had to be covert and kept a secret. When the Committee of Fourteen infiltrated the scene in 1916, they reported on their experiences as one filled with “phenomenal male perverts in expensive frocks and wigs looking like women” and insisted such debauchery should be halted and met with legal action.

To vogue is to create different angled shapes with your body and its limbs, replicating sharp, rapidly-evolving model poses you would see in fashion magazines like Vogue or Elle. Queer people flung to this flamboyant movement because of how expressive and extreme the craft itself can be. Voguing in public spaces like drag balls became a popular sport that challenged the stereotypical dynamics of gender and race, creating a new breed of underground entertainment. Ballroom culture developed to be a gathering of LGBTQIA+ individuals and their allies under one roof with a full range of freedom of expression. Through dancing, fashion, and drag, balls became a competitive sport much like a football game – or more so, cheerleading meet – and contestants were vying for prizes and sashes in different titles.

Even Talking Heads lead singer, David Byrne, was amazed by the playfully combative dancing he had seen after attending a ball in 1989. “I saw things I never saw before,” Byrne said.

And that’s where lesbian filmmaker Jennie Livingston and her 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” comes in. Livingston recorded ball culture in New York City from the mid-to-late 1980s and interviewed many of the key members in the predominantly black and Latino scene. By keeping her documentary subjects close, she treats them as human beings and more than just a movie actor.

After New York City’s Stonewall Riots of the 60s, the ballroom scene had undergone a drastic change of liberation. No longer were participants posing as simple, pretty showgirls, now more complex categories were thrown into the mix. The categories and titles these queens were fighting for became more realistic and everyday, like school girl or business executive or even rich socialite. The newfound inclusivity in the 70s allowed many more participants to jump on board and truly express their feelings without restraint or need to conform to societal demands. Stereotypes were being subverted on the runway and the dancefloor was burning.

The language and slang of the scene might be complex to heterosexual non-participators, but that’s just the learning curve. A lot of said slang is described in Livingston’s “Paris is Burning” by the dancers and participators themselves. For example, “shade” is an art form based on backhanded compliments and poking fun at others while “reading” is to exaggerate one’s flaws in a witty fashion. A lot of the terminology has made its way into public consciousness in recent years through popular culture media like the television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and even the drama-fueled ferriswheel of the “Real Housewives” franchise. Heck, even the phrase “yas queen” has people thinking “Broad City” or Lady Gaga coined this ball term.

The beauty of this documentary begins with its innate ability to capture a precious moment in time amidst the AIDs epidemic, a precious moment in time in queer culture that had such a tremendous impact on the way gay people interact and are seen in the public eye. While underground balls are still a common occurrence, they are few and far in between, and even those popular scenes are a shell of their former when it comes to the legacy of yesteryear’s founders.

Under Livingston’s eye, the camera lens shines brightly on the gay people she interviews and interacts with on screen. There’s Dorian Corey, the wise drag mother who takes viewers on a journey of slang defining; Pepper LaBeija, the beautiful young trans Venus Xtravaganza; Willi Ninja, the famous founder of The House of Ninja and greatest vogue dancer of all time; and smart mouth Freddie Pendavis just to name a few.

The film also boasts an impressive soundtrack for such a low-budget, limited release, including a wide selection of R&B/Soul signature and late eighties house music from the Eurythmics, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Loose Joints, and Cheryl Lynn.

The film has grossed over $3.75 million worldwide, a success from its $500,000 budget.

It’s a time capsule of sorts. Maybe that’s why the Library of Congress included it in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

“You’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name. If you shoot an arrow and it goes high… hooray for you,” says drag queen Dorian Corey in the film.

28 years after its release, this documentary remains not only a staple of queer cinema, but also as important as ever. The film’s positive portrayal of people of color and the transgender community is a level of acceptance not found in today’s media, let alone political climate. Unapologetic yet glamorous, confrontational yet spirited, “Paris is Burning” finds its subjects eternally preserved on film within the boisterous ballroom scene it depicts.

It seems even decades after its debut, Paris is still burning strong in the hearts and souls of gay people everywhere.

For a more in-depth guide of terminology and cast information, visit this article by OUT Magazine.

Here’s Why the TV Reboot of “Heathers” Failed

The hotly anticipated TV series rework of Daniel Waters’ 1988 classic, “Heathers,” has officially been dropped by Viacom as of June 1. This new revelation comes as no surprise to the general viewing public, as the series faced controversy when it planned to premiere in March but was delayed in the aftermath of the recent school shootings at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, FL and Santa Fe High in Santa Fe, TX.

While Paramount Network, the company underneath Viacom’s watch, initially was set to air on network TV Land on March 7 but delayed the release officially on February 28 in light of the recent school shooting.

“’Heathers’ is a satirical comedy that takes creative risks in dealing with many of society’s most challenging subjects ranging from personal identity to race and socio-economic status to gun violence. While we stand firmly behind the show, in light of recent tragic events in Florida and out of respect for the victims, […] we feel the right thing to do is delay the premiere until later this year,” Paramount said in a statement to the press.

Before the February delay in release, the pilot episode of the show was posted online to Paramount Network’s website to spark public interest but was pulled within a week. Paramount deleted the web page containing the trailer and the episode is no longer available for streaming anywhere online.

Following the Santa Fe shooting, the series was delayed yet again, and aimed for a July release. But alas, the series was ultimately pulled entirely on Monday, June 4 by Paramount. Production of the first season concluded in fall of 2017 and the second season was already written and waiting for the green light to begin production. Viacom and Paramount found the subject matter depicted in the show to contrast their media messages of anti-gun violence and school safety.

“This is a high school show, we’re blowing up the school, there are guns, it’s a satire. It’s hitting on so many hot topics,” said Paramount president of production Keith Cox.

But.. maybe it’s best that the series will never see the light of day.

The cast of HEATHERS from l to r lead “Heather” Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) and Heather McNamara (Jasmine Matthews).

It was clear in the now-extinct first episode (which the writer of this article viewed on some pirate site) that the high budget and neon, flashy production value couldn’t save the show. It seems that producers spent too much money on a large quantity of elaborately-designed, chic sets but not enough to hire writers to create a halfway-decent script.

In this new age, “pitch black comedy” “Heathers,” minorities now run the school, starkly contrasting the all-white, all-straight cast of the original film. This time around, a plus sized, body positive Heather Chandler is the most popular kid in school who is looking to be the “new face of suicide,” alongside the other two backup Heathers: one a black lesbian with a bob, and the other genderqueer. Such diversity has no precedent in popular teen film, which is why it comes as a shock that something so right came out so wrong.

The first moments of the first episode of the show witnesses the suicide of JD’s mom, played by Shannen Doherty, who shoots herself in the face after setting her house ablaze. And then it only goes downhill from there.

Unfortunately, despite the diverse casting and promises of a politically correct masterpiece, all attempts at good television fall flat. The characters within this new “Heathers” universe are too unlikable to watch, too vain and self-centered for audiences to empathize with. Instead, these teenage students are flat, tech-obsessed stereotypes having sex in cars and only concerned about how they look in their Instagram selfies. While the sentiment was present, it fails to elicit any genuinely realistic depictions of high school life, lacking substance and any personality behind Emoji-ridden text messages and trendy Forever 21 outfits.

Plot wise, the scenes move overwhelmingly fast and don’t even let the viewers stop to breathe and glance around at the interior design of the set pieces. Its inability to stay grounded and keep the audience invested or focused leads the show to a lack of laughs and abundance of ridiculous references. Like a treadmill moving too fast, it’s hard for the viewer to keep up with the overcooked, try-hard Nazi jokes and wildly wacky wardrobe. Newsflash: it’s 2018 and nobody says “hermaphrodite” or uses a shake weight anymore.

Westerburg High, where viewers initially fell in love with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater’s acting as Veronica and JD, is now diluted with pretension and overdone visual stimuli. The high school we see has metal detectors at its front doors and a Khloe Kardashian quote on the marquee outside.

While some subversion of the original plot is a tad bit entertaining to watch, it entirely misses the point. Rather than dying from sipping on drain cleaner offered to her by Veronica, the new Heather Chandler now chokes to death on a mouthful of suicide pills corn nuts – because of course a plus-sized girl would die that way. But the best part: she doesn’t actually die, and instead comes back to life vomiting out the nuts and pledging vengeance on Veronica.

In another twist, rather than seeing Heather Chandler’s righthand woman Heather Duke rise to power after Chandler’s untimely “suicide,” we instead see Veronica’s former nerdy Asian friend Betty Finn as the new popular girl in Westerburg.

To put it bluntly, it’s a lot to take in. Not only does the 42-minut pilot seem rushed and thrown together, it somehow even drags on in even its quickest scenes. The 42 minutes actually feels like you’re watching an hour-long episode, but that hour long episode is playing at double speed. It’s very easy for a viewer to lose their footing watching this horserace.

The only potential the series had was its nice wardrobe styling and representation of minorities in a positive light, the latter of which was completely absent from the Daniel Waters’ classic.

Maybe it’s best that school was cancelled at Westerburg High when Viacom pulled the plug on “Heathers.” Maybe with our newfound time and break from classes, we can watch some quality television instead.