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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 4, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 40
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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24th annual Seattle Queer Film Festival preview
An interview with Festival Director Kathleen Mullen

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE QUEER FILM FESTIVAL
Opening & Closing Night
@ SIFF CINEMA EGYPTIAN
Most Screenings & Events
@ NW FILM FORUM & GAY CITY October 10-20


The 24th annual Seattle Queer Film Festival (SQFF) begins in earnest this coming Thursday, October 10, with a gala screening of director Stephen Kijak's Sid & Judy, an in-depth documentary of the late actress, singer and icon Judy Garland and her relationship with her third husband, Sid Luft. The Festival closes October 20 with one of the most celebrated films of 2019, writer-director Céline Sciamma's award-winning drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In-between those two efforts the folks at Three Dollar Bill Cinema are packing an eclectic variety of features, shorts, forums and community outreach efforts, this year's SQFF a smorgasbord of cinematic goodness Pacific Northwest audiences are almost certain to positively respond to.

Festival Director Kathleen Mullen returns for her fourth go-round as the chief programmer for the festival, and once again she has made it her personal mission to generate as diverse and as inclusive an international slate of selections as possible. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mullen for a few minutes to chat about this year's SQFF. Here are some edited excerpts from what she had to say:

Sara Michelle Fetters: I think the most obvious question is, what happened to 'TWIST!'?

Kathleen Mullen: [laughs] To be honest, there were a lot of names [for the festival]. A lot of names. There's 'Three Dollar Bill Cinema presents.' There was 'TWIST! Seattle Queer Film Festival.' There were names before those. 'TWIST!' just felt like something we didn't need. We thought we could make it more streamlined and easier to remember. Three Dollar Bill Cinema presents the Seattle Queer Film Festival. Just rolls of the tongue a little better.

Sara Michelle Fetters: This year's festival, it's an eclectic lineup that spans the globe. It had to have been fun for you and your programmers to work on.

Kathleen Mullen: It was! I feel great about this year's lineup. We just had so many good films to look at. We had over 600 submissions this year, which was a hundred up from last year. Just the sheer diversity of the types of films, and the subjects, it was incredible. We had a number of local films and we lots of documentaries. So yes, it was a lot of fun to put it together.

Sara Michelle Fetters: It's perfect timing for the opening night film, Sid & Judy, especially with the Renée Zellweger drama Judy opening in theatres just last week. This is probably an obvious question with an equally obvious answer, but why all the interest in Judy Garland right now?

Kathleen Mullen: I'm going to answer with why I'm interested so much in Judy Garland. I mean, I was a little kid, and I was a queer kid. I came out when I was 17, and The Wizard of Oz was for me the most amazing young person's journey. All of the magic of Dorothy and her friends, it all really spoke to me as a kid. So I have a personal relationship and love for Judy Garland.

Then there is just this crazy connection. Judy Garland died 50 years ago and Stonewall happened 50 years ago. Some people say there's a link, while others say there's absolutely no link at all. But I think it's perhaps somewhere in-between. I just feel like we want to look back on our history. We want to look back on figures in our history that have meant something to the queer community. That's the thread throughout the whole program this year. What's been happening in the last 50 years of film? I think that's important to think about, and Sid & Judy is a piece of that.

We're doing a documentary, State of Pride, which is all about, what is Pride now? What are we doing? Where are we now in the present day? We also have a shorts program called 'Queer Yesteryear.' It all fits together, so the choice to have Sid & Judy as our opening night film definitely ties into that 50 years of queer cinema.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And then juxtaposing that, you have a selection closing out this year's festival that could be seen as being a vital entry in the future of LGBTQ cinema, Céline Sciamma's award-winning and critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Kathleen Mullen: It is a masterpiece. Céline won best film at our festival in 2011 for Tomboy. I just said to everyone that we had to play it. When I talked to the distributor I was like, 'We need this film. I love it so much. You have to give it to us.' [laughs]

Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at Cannes. It played Telluride and received raves. It's playing all over the world right now and receiving staggering notices. I felt thrilled that we got the film because I really feel that it, for me, represents where queer cinema is going. The fact it's from an out woman filmmaker and that she's still receiving so much acclaim in the mainstream, not just from the LGBTQ community, I think that's incredible.

I really feel that this is where we are at now, that such high-quality work like this gets internationally recognized. We have this forum called 'Queering the Script' and we're doing a whole panel on queer casting and fandom. That's a subject that feels important to talk about right now. Queers are starting to decide what stories they want to have told and who's going to be playing the roles of these queer characters. That's important.

Sara Michelle Fetters: It's interesting to me that this year, you look at something like 'Supergirl,' which had its most critically acclaimed season, or you look at Hustlers, which is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2019, and both of these enterprises have two very high-profile Trans actresses in lead roles [Nicole Maines, Trace Lysette]. But their characters aren't defined by their transness. That is something that's new that I don't think we've seen before.

Kathleen Mullen: Isn't that great? I think that's one of the things that people are looking at, like they happen to be Trans but they're playing more complex roles and characters. That's definitely something we're going to be addressing on that panel. Rain Valdez is going to be on our queer casting panel. She was in 'Transparent' and she started her own web series called Razor Tongue that she stars in. I think people are going to get so much out of these panels this year.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Speaking of Trans representation, we go from one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2019 being your closing night offering to one of the most controversial LGBTQ films of the entire year. I'm talking about Adam, of course. What was the decision process like to screen this one at the festival this year?

Kathleen Mullen: We talked a lot about it. We talked about it a lot. We sent it to a few people on our committee, but also a few people off of our committee, and we did a lot of consultation. I personally like Adam. I think there are lots of complexities to the film. It's by a Trans filmmaker, Rhys Ernst, who's going to be here at the festival, and he's going to do a whole moderated Q&A session with Kai Tillman, a Trans filmmaker from Portland who is on our screening committee. I think we're putting everything into context. I also think that you should show all kinds of queer films, and we felt that this was an important one to put in our lineup.

I respect people who don't like it. I've heard the different arguments. I've read extensively about the different opinions and different viewpoints on the film and I had to think a lot about that and weigh carefully the decision. In the end I decided that it had a place at the festival along with all our 156 other queer films. I do want to support Rhys' work. I think that he's an interesting filmmaker, and I want to support him as a Trans filmmaker even though Adam isn't always popular with everyone.

Sara Michelle Fetters: For you personally, what are some of the things that have you most excited about this year's festival?

Kathleen Mullen: I think for me it's a combination of the films, the parties and the events. But also we have some really great workshops. We're doing 'How to be a Trans Ally,' which is a workshop that we've done a few times now at both Translations and SQFF. But we're also doing 'How to be an Effective Ally' with Anastacia-Reneé to talk about allyship. She's going to be leading a two-hour workshop. We also have a workshop and panel with Sean Dorsey. 'Let's Talk About Trans and Queer Masculinities,' who's a Trans dancer, and he's doing this whole workshop that's being co-presented with Velocity Dance Center. We're also doing a VR presentation with the North Bend Film Festival.

So there are like these levels of engagement. By having films and having discussions and having guests and having workshops and panels, it's all pretty exciting. It expands our educational programming and our free programming, But I can also name the many films that I'm individually excited about, too, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. So there's a lot to get excited about. Definitely.

Sara Michelle Fetters: This is the 24th year of the festival. Do you ever think about that? Does the history of the festival ever play into how you program?

Kathleen Mullen: I honor the 24 years. I've personally been the festival director for four festivals, and I care about the organization. I want to see its longevity. I want the audience and the community to understand that, yes, there's been some transition, but that we're still here and that we honor what's happened over these last 24 years.

Queer people are still making films. They're still creating discussions around all sorts of subjects. Our queer aesthetic and queer world may have changed over the last 24 years, but we're still making art and film. I think I like to look at what has been programmed in the past. For example, we're having a 30th anniversary screening of Tongues Untied, which I think is really an incredible film from Marlon Riggs and it is one that touches on another thread that people will notice throughout the festival, the number of documentaries and films that look at HIV and AIDS, the consequence of the disease and what's been happening today within the broader community.

When I'm programming the festival, I'm definitely honoring what has happened in the past but also trying to find ties to what is happening here in the present. That's why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is closing our festival. Céline Sciamma won best narrative feature in 2011 for Tomboy. Now she's back with an even more impressive drama. Those things are connected, right?

Sara Michelle Fetters: From an audience perspective, what do you hope people get out of this year's festival? What do you hope they're talking about?

Kathleen Mullen: I honestly don't know. What do I hope they're talking about? I want them to really want to come to the festival. I want them to want to see it continue. I want them to continue to support it. I want them to be like, 'Wow! There are so many good films, so many interesting subjects that this film festival can screen and bring to the table.'

Seattle has a so much to offer. We're playing so many local films. Good Kisser by Wendy Jo Carlton. We're showing No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story by Margaret Mullen, which is all about Ian Horvath who started the Cleveland Ballet and was an AIDS activist. So I guess that's another thing I want people to think about, all of these local people making films with this real international perspective on LGBTQ lives.

For me, I love the festival. That's how I answer the question. That's what I want to talk about. I love the festival, and I totally support it, and I will continue to do so for as long as I can.


Gritty Joker an overtly theatrical piece of clownish performance art
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

JOKER
Now playing


There's a lot to admire, maybe even love about what director and co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) has done with his latest dark drama Joker. Not so much a revisionist take on the classic DC Comic supervillain as it is a reasoned, down-to-earth inspection of societal elements that could inadvertently create an all-too-human monster, the movie attempts to be a gritty look at wealth inequity, the shrinking middle class and the marginalization of mental health resources, especially in large urban multicultural metropolises. But even though his aspirations are high, and while technical elements for one of the director's productions have never been better, I just didn't find Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver's (The Finest Hours) script to be complex or intelligent enough to get the job done. I don't think it works, and for all the film's many strengths I didn't feel there were enough of them to make sitting through all 121 minutes of it worthwhile.

Gotham is in a state of unrest. There's a garbage strike, the populace is angry and giant 'super rats' wander around the back alleys and sewers. Billionaire businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is pondering a run for mayor on a platform of cleaning up the city and putting an end to corruption. While his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a former employee of Wayne Enterprises, claims the political neophyte is a 'good man,' frequently writing him personal letters and waiting patiently for a response, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't so sure. A low rent clown with aspirations of becoming a standup comic, he's given up on believing politicians can fix society's ills or that the wealthy elite care anything at all for the working poor that make up the majority of Gotham's populace.

There's not a lot more as far as plot is concerned. What Phillips and Silver have constructed is an observational character study of a sad, lonely man who is growing increasingly angry thanks to the lack of understanding, opportunity, kindness and love he feels he deserves. There is something of an examination of mental illness and the lack of governmental care, and there are additional elements regarding the lingering scars of emotional and psychological abuse on the parts of parents towards their children. Some of this is highly effective, most notably scenes where Arthur learns about the dissolution of Gotham's social services safety net and the canceling of his psychiatric treatment and access to medication. Other aspects most decidedly are not, including revelations regarding Penny and her connection to Thomas Wayne.

What does all this mean as far as Arthur's evolution into the villain Joker is concerned? It's a step-by-step process, one rooted in 1970s, early '80s New York cinema, most notably (and most obviously) the films of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. But while Phillips goes out of his way to channel the visual aesthetics of works like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Taxi Driver, After Hours and The King of Comedy, his ends up being only a surface level dissection of these types of characters and this sort of milieu. He doesn't dig into what makes Arthur tick or find a way to scrutinize the roots of the societal and cultural ills that are helping to transform him into a cold-blooded killer. It's all half-baked platitudes and patriarchal stereotypes, some of which feel so tone-deaf they border on being insulting.

But not always so. There are layers of truth that are admittedly affecting, and I appreciate that Phillips and Silver do make a valiant attempt to analyze the state of mental health treatment and care in the United States at this moment in time. Make no mistake, even if the movie exists in an unstated early 1980s major city Americana, it's the here and now that the filmmakers are most interested in dissecting. What happens to Arthur is an injustice, at least early on, mainly because he is reaching out for help, going to counseling and taking his prescribed medication. When that goes away without any warning, with no chance to make other arrangements, that is a heinous thing that the wannabe comedian has every right to be angry about. It also just happens to be one of the only key plot elements that is studied with any sort of evenhanded introspective specificity.

Other than that, though, I'm not sold on the various plot mechanics Phillips and Silver have engineered for their dark antihero to become a brutal clown prince of crime. While I do not have an issue with the level of violence (it's honestly nowhere near as indulgent or as repugnant as it easily could have been), the context in which it is often utilized is far too glib to resonate. Arthur's masculine insecurities are tinkered and toyed with in ways that are more superficial than they are substantive. The girl he likes plants him squarely in the proverbial friendzone. He becomes the butt of the joke to a citywide Gotham audience when a disastrous video of his first attempt at standup is broadcast on a late night talk show host's popular television program. He has to pay for a broken storefront sign out of his own pocket after he's beaten up and left in an alley in a fetal position by a bunch of kids. It's a lot of boo-hoo-hoo and oh-woe-is-me and precious little else, all of it content to revel in immature platitudes with no intention whatsoever to try and go above and beyond any of them.

I can't say I was taken with Phoenix's full-throttle, overtly theatrical performance. While he certainly gives all of himself, I just didn't buy anything it was he was doing. Look at that weight loss! Look at the strange ways he contorts his body! Look at how many cigarettes he smokes! Look how his aggressive outbursts come out of places of austere stillness! Look! Look! Look! LOOK! Phillips gives him so much freedom it's almost as if Phoenix is just making up everything he's doing as he goes along without any directorial instruction or control. This isn't so much a creation of a fully-formed three-dimensional character as it is an energetically flamboyant piece of performance art, hardly a positive as far as I was concerned.

The supporting cast is fine if underutilized, especially Robert De Niro as Arthur's comedy idol talk show host Murray Franklin, the Academy Award-winning actor basically taking the Jerry Lewis role from The King of Comedy and making as much out of it as the script allows him to. But Conroy is left out to dry in a rather thankless role, while the magnetic Zazie Beetz is wasted as Arthur's neighbor, single mother and object of affection Sophie Dumond. Granted, that she ends up being a male fantasy is somewhat the point, her involvement in the story a key ingredient in Arthur's growing psychosis. But Phillips can't seem to find a way to do anything interesting or intellectually stimulating with that idea, the actress left to fend for herself as she tries to figure out how her character fits inside all of this psychological chaos.

Still, the moments that do work are spellbinding. A sequence where Arthur in full Joker glory descends a massive staircase leading to his apartment building is glorious, while a scene a few beats before that at the gates to Wayne Manor is humorous, chilling and heartbreaking all at once. Phillips is also aided in his pursuit to set a suitably ominous and discombobulating tone by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir's (Mary Magdalene) stupendous, Oscar-worthy score, while Lawrence Sher's (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) stunning cinematography gives the film a grungy, lived-in quality that's nothing less than perfect.

As great as all of this is, none of these attributes makes me want to rethink any of what I have written. I didn't like the movie, and I can't be more definitive than that. As strong as many individual pieces and elements might be, none of them come together in a satisfying way. While I do think Phillips has something to say and that it does make some modicum of sense for him to utilize DC Comic's most famous villain to help him state it, I find that I do not think he makes these statements with memorable, thought-provoking clarity. Joker wasn't for me, and even if I were to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and have a sudden desire to see the world burn that still doesn't mean I see my opinion changing anytime soon.


Animalistically risqué Death of Dick Long a potently mordant kick to the head
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG
Now playing


After a night of partying that included alcohol, drugs and bad decisions (all of which only got more excessive as the evening progressed), Alabama bandmates Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland) find themselves in the wee hour of the morning dropping off the bruised, battered and bloodied body of the third member of their group, Dick Long, in the parking lot of the local hospital. They do not want anyone to know what happened, especially their friend's wife, Jane (Jess Weixler), fairly certain no one will understand what it was they'd gotten up to, believing if the truth were ever to get out neither of them could show their faces in public ever again.

Problem is that the emergency room doctors aren't able to do anything for Dick, the young man dying on the operating table. It's foul play of some sort, that Dr. Richter (Roy Wood Jr.) is certain of, but what type of foul play, or whether it was even murder or was instead some sort of bizarre accident, those questions he cannot answer. He'll leave figuring that out to Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) and her overeager new deputy Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), the duo determined to figure out the dead man's identity so they can speak with his friends and family in order to get some idea of what he might have been up to before being unceremoniously dumped at the hospital.

As weird as elements of that synopsis of The Death of Dick Long might sound, that's nothing compared to what motion picture director Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) and writer Billy Chew have actually concocted. Inspired by an event here in my neck of the woods of Washington state, what happened to Dick and why Zeke and Earl are so reticent to talk about it is something best learned from watching the movie and not spoken about by me here. Suffice it to say, things get weird, but do so in a visceral, highly personal way that makes it easy to understand why all involved in this tragedy are so keen to keep it secret. But that creepy, uncomfortable lunacy is also what makes the film so peculiarly genuine, the effect all of this ends up having on Zeke's relationship with his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) shockingly potent in ways I honestly never saw coming.

I know that's vague, but I'm not sure how else to approach this one. Scheinert and Chew's story has several twists and turns, and while many of them are revealed to the audience quite early on, the repercussions they have for all who end up getting involved with this story are appallingly cozy and aberrantly unanticipated. By revolving things around Zeke and Lydia's marriage, by so seamlessly weaving the pair's precocious daughter Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham) into how the mystery behind Dick's inexplicable demise is solved, the filmmakers ground things in a believably hardscrabble working class humanity that only grows in resonance as things spiral out of control. As outlandish as it all gets, this marriage, this couple, this pair of parents trying to figure out what is best for them, their children and their family, that is the heart and soul of the movie, and because of that the underlying perversity that started this chain of events in motion in the first place isn't as abhorrently disgusting as it by all accounts should be.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, Scheinert was one half of a directorial duo (Daniel Kwan being the other) that managed to make a movie about a shipwrecked Paul Dano utilizing Daniel Radcliffe's overly-flatulent corpse as a motorized vehicle to get back to civilization moderately wonderful. The fact he's able to take the nastier components of Chew's script and ground them in something authentic, something emotionally genuine, none of that should strike me as being outside the realm of possibility. But that he does it with such ease, with such heart, that I cannot say I expected. More importantly, Scheinert's trust in his cast to not overplay their collective hand and to treat the material seriously, not as camp, and yet still find a way to maintain the mordant black humor of the piece is equally laudable, his balancing of all these various elements nothing less than exceptional.

Not that I can say all of these multifarious puzzle pieces fit together as nicely as they are likely intended to. The subplot involving Earl is clunky and not nearly as well developed as I felt it needed to be for the climactic bits involving him to have any sort of impact. There are also moments where the ghoulish humor threatens to overwhelm things to the point the inherent drama lurking not-so-subtly underneath the surface starts to dissipate slightly, almost as if Scheinert is so excited about unleashing his next unbelievably insane gag that he almost forgets about the very human tale of a man in existential crisis and the family on the verge of tragic collapse he's been working so hard to tell with such evenhanded authority.

That it all comes together as nicely as it does is a byproduct of that thankfully never happening. The director does manage to maintain focus, and in large part thanks to the exquisite central performance from Abbott Jr. and masterful supporting turns from Cochrane, Baker and especially Newcomb, his motion picture remains a hypnotically shattering gem throughout its breezily paced 100 or so minutes. Scheinert's latest isn't going to be for everyone, those easily offended by the slightest sexually-charged indecency likely to walk out halfway through. As for those willing to take the plunge into the animalistically risqué unknown, The Death of Dick Long gallops to the finish line with commanding tenacity, its final moments hitting me like a swift kick to the head from a startled horse I'd made the unfortunate mistake to frighten from behind.






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Portland Erotic Ball returns for Halloween 2019
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NW Orchid Show & Sale Oct. 5 & 6
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Fashion Week at The Bellevue Collection
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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24th annual Seattle Queer Film Festival preview
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Gritty Joker an overtly theatrical piece of clownish performance art
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Animalistically risqué Death of Dick Long a potently mordant kick to the head
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