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New HBO docs shed light on Roy Cohn, plight of gays in Chechnya

‘Bully’ offers new insight into complicated, closeted 20th century figure

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President Ronald Reagan and Roy Cohn in the Oval Office in 1983. (photo courtesy HBO via White House Reagan Photographic Office Collection)

Pride month is over, but there’s still goodies to be enjoyed such as two somber new documentaries from HBO. One reminds us that despite recent victories in the U.S., there is still much to be protect the lives of LGBT people around the globe. The other revisits the career of Roy Cohn, the controversial closeted gay lawyer who played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in shaping right-wing politics in this country from the 1950s to the present.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” reexamines the well-known highlights of Cohn’s career. In 1951, the 24-year-old Cohn served as a prosecutor for the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; his improper communications with witness David Greenglass (Ethel’s brother) and Judge Irving Kaufman led to a guilty verdict and the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953.

Cohn then served as the chief counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became one of the architects of the “Lavender Scare” which forced suspected communists and homosexuals from federal employment. Following the collapse of the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn entered private practice in New York City.

He became a fixture in high-power legal, political and social circles. His network included the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, reputed Mafia leaders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager of the legendary Studio 54 and other luminaries of New York society. He was one of the architects of the Reagan Revolution and served as a mentor to real estate developer Donald Trump. He died of complications from AIDS in 1986.

HBO’s new movie promises a fresh look at Cohn’s fascinating career. It’s directed by Ivy Meeropol, a documentary filmmaker and granddaughter of the Rosenbergs and it opens with a shot of Cohn’s panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The inscription on the panel gives the film its title.

Meeropol does offer some fresh insights into the Cohn saga. She provides interesting home movie footage of her family, especially her father Michael. She also provides insightful commentaries about Cohn’s unethical behavior during the trial; noted Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz voices the current scholarly consensus that her grandparents were “guilty but framed.” 

But, while Meeropol makes a compelling case for Cohn as “bully,” she doesn’t make a clear case for Cohn as “coward” or “victim” and her family story gets lost in the overall Cohn saga. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” is a well-made documentary, but Cohn’s story is better told in previous documentaries (“The Lavender Scare” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”) and in Tony Kushner’s monumental play “Angels in America.”

Directed by award-winning filmmaker and journalist David France, “Welcome to Chechnya” is a powerful documentary about the heroic activists who are fighting against the systematic persecution of LGBT people in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

David Isteev in the gripping doc ‘Welcome to Chechnya.’ (Photo courtesy HBO)

Since 2016, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, with the implicit support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led a brutal campaign of detention, torture and execution against LGBT people of Chechnya. With extremely limited international support, two groups of Chechen and Russian activists are helping LGBT refugees to flee to safety outside the Russian Federation.

Working with co-writer and editor Tyler H. Walk, France effectively deploys a variety of traditional and innovative guerilla filmmaking techniques to tell this incredible story. He focuses on three valiant freedom fighters: David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network; Olga Baranova, the founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives; and, “Grisha,” a survivor of Chechen torture who is forced to flee with his boyfriend “Bogdan” and other members of his family. He weaves their stories together with the stories of other victims of homophobic violence (including “Anya” who is being threatened by members of her own family and gay Chechen pop star Zelim Bakaev who “disappeared” in 2017 after being detained by special security forces) and horrific footage showing the torture of LGBT Chechens.

In addition to using pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of his subjects, France also uses an innovative “face double” technology when interviewing his subjects. This new procedure means that France and Walk do not need to disguise the voices of their subjects or film them in shadows. It gives the documentary a visceral impact that underscores its timely message.

David France, whose previous work includes “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” has once again crafted an excellent hard-hitting documentary about LGBT people in crisis. In the face of international indifference and silence from the White House, “Welcome to Chechnya” is an urgent call to arms.

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‘Being the Ricardos’ pops with excitement of 1950s TV

Acclaimed film is Sorkin at his best

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Nicole Kidman in 'Being the Ricardos.' (Screen capture via Amazon Prime Video)

If the cold and COVID have brought you down, check out “Being the Ricardos.” The entertaining film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Being the Ricardos” is the TikTok of a week in the McCarthy era that was a season in hell for gay icon Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).

Ball was a gay rights supporter. “Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual,” she told People magazine in 1980.

“I Love Lucy,” the 1950s sitcom starring Ball, was the most-watched show on TV.

From 9 to 9:30 on Monday evenings, Americans watched Lucy and her bandleader husband Ricky (Arnaz) Ricardo and their best friends Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William “Bill” Frawley) Mertz. They laughed at Lucy’s antics – such as when she and Ethel can’t keep up on a chocolate factory assembly line. “I Love Lucy” is streaming now on Hulu, and clips of it are on YouTube. 

“Being the Ricardos” takes place during the filming (from the table read to performing it in front of a studio audience) of an “I Love Lucy” episode.

As work on the episode begins, Arnaz and Ball are distressed to hear a “blind” item on right-wing gossip-monger Walter Winchell’s popular radio show. In the heyday of McCarthyism, Winchell tells America that a “top” comedian has Communism connections.

Ball and Arnaz know that being labeled a Communist could ruin not only your career but that of anyone associated with you.

Ball, who lived from 1911 to 1989, had a rough childhood. After her father died when she was 10, Ball was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was a socialist. Out of respect for her grandfather, in 1936, Ball registered to vote as a Communist.

Previously, the House Un-American Activities Committee had compelled Ball to testify. After she testified, they told her that they had cleared her of suspicions of being a Communist.

Ball and Arnaz are gobsmacked to hear from Winchell that she’s under suspicion again. Other than once checking a box for the Communist Party in the 1930s, Ball hasn’t had anything to do with Communism. “My grandfather cared about the working man,” Ball tells the executives from CBS and Philip Morris (the program’s sponsor).

Much of the suspense of the movie lies in rooting for Ball to be cleared of HUAC’s baseless charges. But Sorkin, taking some liberties, has added on added layers of tension.

In real life, these events didn’t happen at the same time. But, in “Being the Ricardos,” while Ball is dealing with HUAC, she discovers that she’s pregnant with her second child.

The CBS and Philip Morris execs are freaked by this news. It’s the early 1950s, and people on TV (even if they’re as happily married as the Ricardos) sleep in twin beds. What will America do if they see a pregnant woman on TV? What do you mean, you’re 12 weeks pregnant, the suits ask Ball and Arnaz. “It means 12 weeks ago, I fucked my husband,” Ball says.

In yet another twist, Ball is dismayed when “Confidential,” the TMZ of its time, comes out with a story showing Arnaz with a sex worker.

There has been controversy about the casting of Kidman as Ball and Bardem as Arnaz. Because Kidman isn’t a comedian and Bardem is Spanish and Arnaz was Cuban.

Perhaps, because she’s not doing an impersonation, I think Kidman is terrific as Ball (as Ball off-screen and as Ball playing Lucy Ricardo). She won the Golden Globe this week for Best Actress in a Drama for the role.

As a white woman, I don’t feel comfortable weighing in on the controversy surrounding the casting of Bardem. But to me he nails it in his portrayal of Arnaz.

The other actors in the film are also terrific, especially, J. K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and Tony Hale as (showrunner) Jess Oppenheimer.

 “Being the Ricardos” is Sorkin at his best. It pops with screwball banter and the excitement of early 1950s TV. It’s not “Vertigo,” but you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

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‘Potato’ charms with tale of gay Russian immigrant and his mom

Awakening to queerness during collapse of the Soviet Union

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Luminous Pariah and Tyler Bocock in ‘Potato Dreams of America.’ (Photo courtesy Dark Star Pictures)

January can be a difficult month for film buffs. With so many awards contenders clamoring for your time and attention, there is certainly no shortage of titles among them to choose from, so it’s not a question of slim pickings. Sometimes, though, watching one “prestige” movie after another for an entire month can feel a little bit like being a student overloaded with homework; even if you’re studying a subject you like, you still need to take a break and do something just for fun every now and then.

Fortunately, in today’s ever-hungry market for fresh streaming content there are new choices to be had even in the middle of Awards Season, and this month’s pick of the crop is exactly the kind of fun, quirky, off-the-beaten-track queer story to provide the perfect palate cleanser when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the heavier fare queued up on your “watch next” list – though considering that it’s the tale of a gay Russian boy and his mother who flee a life of repression and hardship in their native country by emigrating to America, you might not expect it to be.

Set in the 1980s, “Potato Dreams of America” is an autobiographical offering from writer/director Wes Hurley. The “Potato” of the title is its lead character, a Vladivostok boy obsessed with American movies who is awakening to his queerness during the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother Lena is raising him on her own, and as a prison doctor who is daily witness to the violence and hardship of being an adult male non-conformist in Russian society, she fears for his future safety. She decides to market herself as a mail order bride, and before long she and Potato are on their way to Seattle – where they will have to learn how to navigate life in America, a whole new culture with forms of oppression all its own.

Admittedly, it’s a synopsis that reads pretty bleak – but that’s precisely why “Potato Dreams of America” turns out to be such a delight. Rather than delivering the stark immigrant drama we’ve come to expect from stories such as this one, it turns those expectations upside down by offering twist after twist (along with a wry and consistent sense of humor) that keep it from becoming a predictable tale of woe and turn it instead into something much less dreary.

To begin with, there are the two central characters, a memorable pair of plucky souls who win our attention and our sympathies with their against-the-grain attitudes and refusal to give up on their dreams. They are surrounded by an ensemble largely made up of broadly drawn eccentrics; there’s Grandmother Tamara (Lea DeLaria), a no-nonsense traditionalist who lovingly doles out toxic cultural assumptions with her grandmotherly advice; there’s also John (Dan Lauria), Lena’s rigid and seemingly conservative American husband whose fundamentalist views might just be a smokescreen for a life he has always kept hidden. Characters such as these provide a layer of satire and social commentary but remain grounded enough in the emotional arc of the story to serve as believable characters, thereby investing them with enough humanity to soften the sharpness around their edges. This is even true of Jesus – or rather, the imaginary version of Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) Potato concocts as he struggles to come of age, whose serene aloofness is somehow made completely relatable by the good-natured gay insouciance with which he is played.

Likable characters are a big part of the movie’s charm, but the infectious sensibility that wins our hearts comes straight from the filmmaker himself. In telling the story of his own life – albeit a highly stylized version of it – he gives full rein to the love for cinema, and specifically American cinema, which fueled his own young dreams of America and ultimately led him to a career behind the camera that includes two seasons of the critically acclaimed comedy series “Capitol Hill” (starring Jinkx Monsoon, Ben DeLaCreme, Waxie Moon and Robbie Turner). 

His movie is full of cinematic flourish, indulging in bold strokes to help its narrative unfold. Most striking of these is the choice, midway through the film, to swap out both the leading players for different actors – Potato and Lena in Russia are played, respectively, by Hersh Powers and Sera Barbieri, and in America by Tyler Bocock and Marya Sea Kaminski. From a practical perspective, of course, the abrupt change aids in depicting Potato’s transition into gay life in America simply by introducing a significantly older actor who can appropriately appear in the scenes when things inevitably start to get sexy; but on a deeper level, this calculated recasting invites contemplation on the relationship between our environment and our identity, highlighting the filmmaker’s seeming assertion that changing the world you live in requires you to become a different person – or perhaps, in light of the film’s opening quote (“I’ve always been America in my heart,” from queer trailblazer Quentin Crisp), that becoming the person you are meant to be requires finding a world where it is possible to do so, even if you have to build it yourself.

Still, even if Hurley’s ambitious conceits bring a kind of aspirational magic realism to his film, they never become pretentious, nor do they derail for an instant the movie’s sense of fun. In this, the filmmaker is greatly aided by his talented cast, peppered with familiar faces like DeLaria, Lauria, and Bennett (all of whom do exceptional character work while giving a sly and ironic nod to their own familiar persona), but dominated by the masterful performances from the four actors playing his two leads. Both Barbieri and Kaminski are exceptional as Lena, making her the unorthodox and empowering heroine she deserves to be; as the two incarnations of Potato, both Powers and Bocock bring powerful charisma to the role – but the younger Powers deserves special kudos for a thoroughly mature and self-aware performance worthy of an actor twice his age or older.

“Potato Dreams of America” made a big splash at last year’s SXSW, as well as at Los Angeles’ Outfest, where it won Hurley the festival’s Grand Jury award for Best Screenplay because of its “unique non-traditional portrayal of a gay immigrant’s transition to America and his relationship to his mother.” It’s this quality that makes it a must-watch experience. As Hurley says in his official director’s statement for the film: “Despite the heavy subject matter, the story of my mom and I coming to America is not only very funny but also very inspiring, with an ending that will have to be seen to be believed. I believe this story of unconditional love, human resilience and the power of hope is what the world needs right now.”

After watching his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story and thoroughly enjoying it, we can safely assure you that he’s not wrong.

“Potato Dreams of America” opens for a limited theatrical run on Jan. 14. It releases on VOD platforms Feb. 22.

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Looking ahead to a very queer year at the movies

A boost in trans representation and bi role for Harry Styles

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Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in ‘Am I OK?’ (Photo courtesy Gloria Sanchez Productions)

It’s only the first week of the new year and awards season has barely begun – but before we dive headlong into the process of bestowing honors on the best movies of 2021, it seems like a good time to pause and take a look forward to the movies coming our way in 2022 – specifically those with LGBTQ appeal.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited. After a year with zero trans representation on the big screen, the next one promises several offerings that not only feature trans characters, but put them front-and-center – and that’s not even counting the remake of queer author Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” with trans actress Jamie Clayton as Pinhead. There are also a plethora of same-sex romcoms, a notable increase in diversity among the leading players, and at least one high-profile title that hopes to help Hollywood make its tradition of bi-erasure a thing of the past.

SCREAM 

Horror fans are doubtless already aware of (and eagerly anticipating) the return of the “Scream” franchise to the big screen. Set to debut on Jan. 13, the fifth installment of the wildly popular 1990s slasher film series is a reboot in which a fresh crop of teens find themselves being stalked by a killer in a Ghostface mask. The new generation of potential victims – which includes Kyle Gallner, Mason Gooding, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sonia Ammar, Jack Quaid and Melissa Barrera – are joined by returning veterans Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox, when the emergence of a new killer prompts the return to Woodsboro of original final girl Sidney Prescott (Campbell). The iconic franchise has always had plenty of queer appeal – original screenwriter Kevin Williamson recently revealed in an interview with The Independent that it was inspired by the “gay survival” mindset he developed as an openly gay teen – but the upcoming film ups the ante by introducing an out queer character (played by Brown), and the trailer hints strongly toward a same-sex romance as part of the movie’s plot.

BROS

Possibly the biggest news in LGBTQ movies for 2022 is this hotly anticipated romantic comedy spearheaded by gay comedian and actor Billy Eichner — touted as the first gay romcom from a major Hollywood studio — which arrives in August. Co-written by Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller, there’s not a lot of detail about the plot besides the fact that it revolves around two men attempting a relationship despite their shared fear of commitment, but that’s enough to get us all on board considering that the two men are played by Eichner and hunky Luke Macfarlane. Better still, in a reversal of the usual Hollywood standard, all the roles in the film – even the straight ones – are played by LGBTQ performers, including Harvey Fierstein, Amanda Bearse, Guillermo Diaz, Jim Rash, and Bowen Yang. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a new normal.

FIRE ISLAND

Speaking of Bowen Yang, the out “Saturday Night Live” star also heads to the big screen this year alongside fellow comedian Joel Kim Booster in this modern-day comedy of manners inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice.” Written by Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn, it revolves around two gay besties who head to the titular New York queer retreat for a week of fun and frolic with an eclectic group of friends, setting the stage for a satirical observation of the social behavior and class hierarchies of gay men — not just around economic status, but around such manufactured dividing lines as body type and ethnic heritage. Also starring Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora, Zane Philips, and Nick Adams, there’s no release date slated yet for this one – but with a premise like that, it can’t come soon enough for us.

WHAT IF?

Billy Porter makes his directorial debut this year with this teen romance written by Ximena García Lecuona. A love story about a high school senior who must overcome his shyness in order to win the affections of the girl he’s been crushing on. It sounds like typical fare, but there’s a refreshing twist — his crush is trans. With Porter behind the camera, you know it’s not going to be dialing down any of the inherent queerness of that scenario, and with real-life trans actress Eva Reign as the star, it’s a sure bet that this sweet story of teenage love (based, incidentally, on a real-life Reddit post) is going to be a real ground-breaker. Release date TBA.

AM I OK?

Directed by the wife-and-wife team of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, this promising entry is the story of two best friends, Jane and Lucy, whose lives are thrown into chaos when them gets a promotion that requires a move to London and the other comes out as gay. Billed as “a relatable, poignant, and often humorous look at the transformative power of human vulnerability,” it stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. With its debut slated for the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, it’s likely to be coming our way for wide release later in 2022.

FRAMING AGNES

Also premiering at Sundance is this Chase Joynt-directed historical drama about a pioneering, pseudonymized transgender woman who participated in Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960s. Described as a “rigorous cinematic exercise that blends fiction and nonfiction” and “endeavors to widen the frame through which trans history is viewed,” it features an impressive lineup of trans stars – including Zackary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira – reenacting and bringing new perspective to an important chapter of trans history. Again, we can expect to see this one some months after its January debut at Sundance.

MY FAKE BOYFRIEND

Another romcom, this Gen-Z and Millennial-targeted offering stars actor/musician Keiynan Lionsdale (“Love, Simon”), Dylan Sprouse (“Riverdale”), and Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”) in a story about a young man (Lonsdale) who, under the direction of his unconventional best friend creates a fake boyfriend on social media in order to keep his “awful ex-lover” from trying to come back into his life – only to have the plan backfire when he meets someone he thinks might be the real love of his life. Slated for release sometime around Pride month, this one will likely be popular on the strength of its attractive young stars alone.

MY POLICEMAN

As far as attractive young stars go, you can’t do much better than pop musician-turned-actor Harry Styles, who stars in this UK-set romantic drama from Michael Grandage and Greg Berlanti as a bisexual policeman who loves a man (David Dawson) but marries a woman (Emma Corrin) because same-sex relationships are illegal. Four decades later, his former lover re-enters his life, and his long-held secret might not be the only thing that comes out. Linus Roache, Gina McKee, and Rupert Everett portray the older versions of the three members of this star-crossed romantic triangle. No release date has yet been announced, but with the star power involved in this one we can be sure it will make a big splash when it lands later this year.

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