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Refreshing ‘Mitchells vs. the Machines’ an inclusive family treat

Best Animated Feature the queerest category in Oscar race

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‘Mitchells vs. the Machines’ (Image courtesy Sony/Netflix)

If for no other reason, 2021 will be remembered as a landmark year for LGBTQ inclusion at the movies because Best Animated Feature was the queerest category in the Oscar race.

While the year’s nominations have yet to be announced, the Academy Award shortlist for the category includes Disney’s “Encanto” and Pixar’s “Luca,” both of which feature LGBTQ characters in leading roles – at least, they do if you believe the Internet. Fans online have pointed out that Mirabel, the 15-year-old heroine of “Encanto” voiced by bisexual actress Stephanie Beatriz, wears a small rainbow pin in bisexual colors on her dress throughout the movie, with many declaring it as proof that the character is bi herself. Similarly, queer viewers of “Luca” have seen in its tale of two adolescent sea monsters living incognito in an Italian seaside village a coming-of-age story about two boys in love – and though the film’s creators have officially stated it was NOT intended to be a gay romance, the millions who have “shipped” Luca and Alberto (the film’s charming semi-aquatic heroes) refuse to be convinced, and have claimed them as queer characters, nevertheless.

In both cases, a queer reading of the narratives is entirely reasonable, and though the corporate forces behind these films may be cagey about any official position on queer interpretations of their content, it’s highly unlikely the filmmakers were unaware that the conclusion might be drawn. After all, somebody had to sign off on that rainbow pin for Mirabel’s costume.

There’s no ambiguity, however, about the queerness in “Flee,” which uses animation to tell the real-life story of Amin, a gay Afghan refugee who, on the eve of his wedding, opens up to his husband-to-be about his traumatic escape from his homeland. It won unanimous acclaim from critics around the world since its debut at last February’s Sundance Festival, and it’s a viable contender for Oscar gold not just as Best Animated Feature, but Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature as well.

Each of these, as well as the other titles in the likely running for the big prize on Oscar night, are excellent films – all for their own reasons – and would be deserving winners. But if we were to decide a win solely on the basis of “ideal” queer inclusion, the entry that stands far and above the rest of them is “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”

Directed by Disney Channel veteran Mike Rianda (in his feature film debut) and co-written by Rianda and Jeff Rowe, it’s a quirky, smart, and infectiously imaginative tale centered on a soon-to-be film student named Katie Mitchell (voiced by out bi actress Abbi Jacobson) and her family of misfits. There’s her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), whose worry that his daughter’s dreams may lead to disappointment has strained their once-close relationship; her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), an often over-enthusiastic supermom who adores her offbeat family yet envies the Instagram perfection of their seemingly flawless neighbors; and brother Aaron (Rianda, taking on voice actor duties as well), a dinosaur-obsessed nerd whose fear of losing his big sis and confidante to adulthood doesn’t prevent him from being her staunch ally. Rounding out the household is the family dog, a googly-eyed pug named Monchi.

Hoping to shore up bonds with Katie, Dad decides to take the entire Mitchell clan on a cross country road trip to drop her off at college. Mortified and impatient to escape her “weird” family and finally find the tribe where she belongs, she resigns herself to putting up with them one last time before she’s finally out of the nest. However, things are about to get much worse; thanks to an unforeseen glitch, a tech company’s newly unveiled AI system has just gone rogue and launched a “robot apocalypse” targeting the entire human race for capture and expulsion from the planet, and the Mitchells soon find themselves the only thing standing between humankind and its oblivion – but can they get it together long enough to save the world?

Rendered in a style that evokes the fast-paced, acrobatic visuals of “Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (a film produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who teamed with Rianda and Rowe as producers on this one), “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is the kind of free-wheeling romp that parents might easily assume to be just another charming-but-silly piece of juvenile entertainment and leave to their kids to watch on their own. That would be a shame, because included within the madcap gags and rapid-fire action are plenty of moments tailored for the grown-ups, too. Loaded with subtle (and not-so-subtle) digs at our tech-obsessed culture and dotted with sly nods to the shared touchstones of an earlier generation, it’s a film that’s likely to have the adults in the room laughing at least as often – and as loudly – as their children.

As funny as it is (and it is very funny, launching a seemingly effortless stream of jokes throughout and landing every single one of them), it’s also a movie which, like most family films, aims at our hearts. This is where many such projects falter with adults, who for the most part are put off by the syrupy sweetness that often goes hand in hand with the happy ending. “Mitchells” avoids that trap, instead leaning into the strength of its character development to build layered and authentic relationships that require no such manipulative tactics to help them strike an emotional chord. The Mitchells are exaggerated, sure, but they’re also real enough that any viewer who’s ever been a member of a family can recognize themselves somewhere within their dynamic.

That means LGBTQ viewers, too, and in a far more unequivocal way than the coded identification-by-proxy that’s long been the best queer kids could hope for at the movies. It would be a spoiler, perhaps, to be more specific than that, since the “big reveal” is saved for near the end; but there are enough clues throughout the movie (perhaps even some in this article) to make it clear enough that one of our protagonists is a member of the community. Indeed, the surprise comes not from the confirmation but from the fact that the character’s sexuality has absolutely no impact on the plot at all. Here is a family film with a definitively identified queer leading character, but it isn’t about their queerness – instead their queerness is just one color in the palette with which the story is rendered, and that’s why Rianda’s over-the-top apocalyptic sci-fi family comedy is also a stellar example of onscreen LGBTQ representation done right.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to watch “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” or even the biggest one. The pitch-perfect voice cast – which also includes the likes of Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Eric André, John Legend, Chrissy Tiegen, and Olivia Colman (who once again proves worthy of the title “Cast MVP”) – gives uniformly stellar performances, and the clever, convention-bending animation is a colorful treat for the eyes throughout.

It’s a refreshing triumph that may or may not win the Oscar – but it’s almost certain to win your heart.

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A fine ‘Bro’-mance

Eichner, Macfarlane performances essential to movie’s appeal

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that “Bros” is a history-making milestone for LGBTQ representation in the movies — the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, written by an openly gay man (Billy Eichner) who also stars in it – and that it was made with queer talent filling virtually every role, both on camera and off. The “Billy on the Street” writer/comedian/actor, true to his brand, has been loud-and-proud about his efforts to foster authenticity and inclusivity throughout the making of his film, and rightly so.

Still, now that his much-anticipated movie is finally out, we can finally stop talking about all that. After all, even when a movie scores as many points for LGBTQ representation as this one does, what really matters is whether or not it’s actually any good.

When Eichner was tapped to make his film for Universal, many may have assumed it would be a showcase for his signature comedic persona — acerbic but disarmingly funny, more than a touch manic, somehow confrontational, defiant, and self-deprecating all at the same time — that would also poke fun at a heteronormative genre beloved just as often by its queer fans for its camp value as for anything else. This expectation seemed all but confirmed when Eichner announced the casting of actor Luke Macfarlane – known for playing handsome hunks in the very romcoms his movie would presumably be sending up – as his love interest.

As it happens, those assumptions were not entirely wrong. “Bros” is unabashedly autobiographical in tone, presenting Eichner essentially as an alternative version of himself if he had been a queer history scholar and author instead of a poly-hyphenate show biz celebrity; his character, Bobby Lieber, has even got a podcast, allowing him to voice the kind of take-no-prisoners witticisms and shrewdly queer observations about life and culture for which both versions of himself have become famous. 

While at a launch event for a new dating app, Bobby meets Aaron (Macfarlane), who – as one of the crowd of shirtless gay scenesters he’s used to being ignored by, he assumes is shallow, not too bright, and not into him at all. It turns out he’s wrong on all counts, and the two men soon find themselves drawn into a relationship, despite some serious issues around commitment and the fact that they seem to have nothing in common.

All of this is a perfect match for Eichner’s comic sensibilities – he’s built his image on calling out society for the absurdity of its assumptions, the illogic of its priorities, the depth of its shallowness, and “Bros” gives him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, as well as plenty of fodder for his usual zingers and pop-culture references. It’s very much the kind of savagely iconoclastic spoof we would expect from its creator, making fun of social conventions (both gay and straight) and lampooning everything from awards-show stunt fashion to celebrity athletes coming out of the closet to “Dear Evan Hansen” — but it’s not nearly as scattershot as it sometimes feels. There’s a method to Eichner’s madness, and it hinges on reminding us that we are all, from a certain perspective, utterly ridiculous.

If that were all that “Bros” accomplished, it would be enough, but it gives us so much more. Not content to simply settle into familiar territory, he sets his sights on rising to the level of the romance classics he boldly references throughout, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “You’ve Got Mail” to “Manhattan.” With the help of director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, whose sure-handed cinematic sensibility allows the star’s broadly satirical strokes and flights of absurdist fancy to flourish while still remaining grounded, he succeeds.

In large part, this is because Eichner’s screenplay doesn’t fall into the trap of being governed by the same tropes and expectations it makes fun of. Instead, it undermines them to take us further; unlike many romances, this one goes past the feel-good “falling in love” stuff and explores what it’s like for two adult men to build a relationship that works. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that’s not an easy or comfortable process, especially for a generation that came of age under the lingering shadow of widespread homophobia, but “Bros” is willing to go there – and because of that, its seemingly mismatched and dysfunctional lead couple are infinitely more relatable.

That doesn’t mean Eichner and Stoller ever allow their movie to become a “bummer.” Things might get a little messy from time to time, but what relationship doesn’t? By choosing to give “Bros” the kind of maturity that’s able to weather the storm, they’ve built something deeper and more lasting – the kind of movie that’s worthy of setting a few milestones – without sacrificing any of the comedy. And despite the cynical pose that’s always been at the heart of Eichner’s persona, they’re not afraid to let it get a little sappy, too.

As for its two stars, Eichner and Macfarlane’s performances are essential elements in the movie’s winning appeal. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Eichner, who’s been able to show us hints of his wider range before, rises to the occasion for his debut as a leading man; it’s the kind of work with the potential to elevate him into a whole new echelon of talent. A greater revelation is Macfarlane, who dives way below the pretty surface of Aaron to deliver a braver and more vulnerable performance than anyone might have expected. Together, the two actors find an easy and affectionate chemistry that is not only believable but makes it easy for real-life couples to recognize themselves in their relationship. They front a superb cast that includes Monica Raymund, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Guillermo Díaz, Amanda Bearse, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Bowen Yang, and Jai Rodriguez, not to mention a host of queer and queer-friendly celebrity cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Amy Schumer, among several others.

It would be easy to go into detail about the many things that make “Bros” stand out as a piece of “queer cinema” — the way it weaves educational tidbits about LGBTQ history into the story as a tongue-in-cheek primer for straight viewers, or the sex-positive attitude with which it boldly and playfully depicts gay love-making, or its assertion of the differences instead of the similarities between same-sex relationships and straight ones — but it’s better to let viewers discover these things for themselves, along with all the movie’s other pleasures. We don’t want to give any more away, though we will tell you to watch for a scene-stealing turn by Debra Messing, who seems to be having the time of her life.

Other than that, all you need to know is that “Bros” lives up to its hype to become one of the smartest, sexiest, and yes, sweetest comedies of the year so far – the kind of rom-com that’s good enough to recommend even for people who don’t like rom-coms. 

And yes, it sets a lot of LGBTQ milestones, but don’t see it because of that. See it because it’s good.

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Billy Eichner ready to make cinematic history

‘Bros’ could be first gay rom-com to become box office smash

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Billy Eichner, the gay comedian, is usually the one asking the questions. Eichner came to fame with his award-winning, 2011-2017 truTVshow, “Billy On The Street,” where he would accost strangers on the streets of Manhattan, often with an A-list celebrity at his side. Eichner would interrupt someone in the middle of a jog, an errand, or daily commute, to ask a groan-inducing question or play a silly game. Most New Yorkers did not recognize either Eichner or celebrity sidekicks like Chris Evans, Will Ferrell, Mariah Carey, or Sarah Jessica Parker.

The tides have turned. Eichner, in a few short years, has gone from video class clown to a polished (dare I say very good) actor, writer, and all-around mensch – and ascended to celebrity A-list status himself. In 2019, he starred as the voice of Timon in the Disney live action remake of “The Lion King.” He also voices Timon in the upcoming live-action sequel: “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

But that’s not all. Currently, Eichner is writer, producer, and co-star of “Bros,” a  new romantic comedy about two commitment-phobic gay guys in a relationship—Eichner and costar Luke MacFarlane. MacFarlane—who came to fame playing in schmaltzy Hallmark Channel movies— is another gay (and very good looking) actor; indeed, all of Bros’ writers, producers, and all of the lead and supporting actors (including Amanda Bearse) identify as LGBTQ (with the exceptions of director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow.) “Bros” is the first ‘almost’ all gay, lesbian or trans major motion picture.

“My day hasn’t even begun,” says Eichner who has just arrived in San Francisco, and where it’s the ungodly hour of 7:45 a.m. He’s just back from the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Bros” debuted to great acclaim.

“The goal was to make the funniest, laugh-out-loud movie as possible, that just happens to be about a gay couple,” explains Eichner. At 44, he is old enough to remember growing up during a time when gay-themed movies had limited releases and smallish audiences. “I went to see a lot of them,” Eichner recalls. “‘All Over the Guy,’ ‘Jeffrey,’ ‘Trick,’ ‘Edge of Seventeen,’ ‘Go.’ But it felt like it was something I did in private. It felt like it did when I was hiding a magazine [for secrecy at home].”

“Bros” is written for contemporary audiences — straight, gay, and everything in between (my words) —who are unfazed by scenes and situations that would have seemed controversial even 10 years ago. And, given the talent behind the project and the early buzz, “Bros” could be the first gay rom-com to become a mainstream box office smash, particularly with director Nicolas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow on board. 

“‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Neighbors…. Judd and/or Nick are responsible for some of the funniest movies during the past two decades,” Eichner enthuses.

One of the most charming aspects of “Bros” is a pivotal scene filmed in Provincetown, Mass., a community with deep gay roots. “Provincetown is maybe my favorite place on Earth,” says Eichner. “It’s as far out on Cape Cod, Mass., as you can get. Being able to film in Provincetown added so much style to the classical romantic story. The town has a rich, gay history but is beautiful, sexy, and fun. It is so welcoming to everyone that Nick [Stoller, the director], who is straight, and married with three kids, takes his family there every summer. It is also the first place that we began filming.” The production was shut down in between filming for more than a year and a half due to COVID-19.

Is there any romance going on in Eichner’s life? When I asked him for a funny story about a first date, he laughed and said, “I’m still waiting to go on one. But, seriously, I met a guy that worked for a cannabis company. He showed up as high as he could be. And of course he was hungry. I should have just called it a night then. But we went out and all he could do was eat. There wasn’t any conversation. But I don’t know if that is funny, or just weird.”

There’s a musical moment in “Bros” that may surprise some Eichner fans—but shouldn’t; he’s a great singer and studied musical theater in college. His love of music predates his bar mitzvah, which he describes as “Broadway meets pop music…I had a life-sized, airbrushed Madonna standee from her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour. And a standee from [the Broadway musical] ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I even sang ‘Lean On Me.’”

Eichner’s singing talents are displayed in “Bros,” but briefly. “I don’t want people to think ‘Bros’ is a musical, though,” Eichner wants readers to know. And let me add my two cents: “Bros” is not a musical, at all. It is a comedy that is going to go down in history, in a great way. 

“Bros” is in theaters Sept. 30.

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After months of hype, ‘Bros,’ ‘My Policeman’ ready to debut

Fall film season offers big-budget rom-com, a trans Pinhead, and more

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David Dawson, Emma Corrin, and Harry Styles star in ‘My Policeman.’ (Photo courtesy Amazon)

This has been a year with an unprecedented number of big titles featuring LGBTQ characters and stories, and given the amount of regressive backlash our community continues to receive from the socially conservative (i.e. bigoted homophobic) crowd, that’s a comforting thing. As we push closer to the year’s close, there are admittedly fewer stand-out offerings on deck for queer viewers – but the ones that are on their way give us plenty to look forward to, anyway. Our list of titles to look for is below:

BLONDE (Sept. 16)

Marilyn Monroe is a Hollywood icon who always held a special place in the hearts of the LGBTQ community; maybe it has something to do with being exploited for her talent and beauty while still being marginalized in a hetero-masculine world. Whatever the reason, queer film buffs should be keen to see this screen adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ classic bestselling novel, which boldly fictionalizes Monroe’s life and re-imagines it as a parable about the fate of women in a culture that treats their bodies as a commodity. Following Monroe from her volatile childhood, it blurs fact and fiction as it charts her rise to stardom, emphasizing the ever-widening split between her public and private personas that led to her tragic end. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, the film stars Cuban actress Ana de Armas as Marilyn, with Bobby Cannavale, Adrien Brody, Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, and Evan Williams; it premieres in theaters on the 16th, followed by a debut on Netflix – which produced it – on Sept. 28. 

PETER VON KANT (Sept. 21)

Already given a limited theatrical release on Sept. 2, this French romantic drama from writer/director François Ozon was the opening film at February’s Berlin Film Festival and has been eagerly awaited by hardcore film geeks ever since. The reason? It’s a reinterpretation of the play by Rainier Werner Fassbinder, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” which the legendary queer filmmaker himself originally adapted for the screen in 1972 to create a revered classic of European cinema that broke ground for its depiction of same-sex relationships. Now, Ozon has re-imagined the story by swapping the gender of its protagonist – which changes everything yet nothing in this S&M-tinged tale of narcissistic hedonism and obsessive desire. It stars Denis Ménochet in the title role, with an ensemble of players that features Isabelle Adjani, Khalil Gharbia, Stéfan Crépon, and Aminthe Audiard – as well as Hanna Schygulla, the German film legend who also appeared in Fassbinder’s original movie. You might still be able to find a big screen showing somewhere near you, if you’re lucky. Otherwise, don’t worry; you’ll be able to find it streaming VOD from starting on Sept. 22.

THE DREAMLIFE OF GEORGIE STONE (Sept. 22)

We don’t often include short films in our preview lists – an oversight we frequently find ourselves regretting – but this one deserves your attention. Spanning 19 years, it tells the story of Georgie, an Australian transgender teen, and follows her on her journey to adulthood as she helps to change laws, affirms her gender, and finds her voice along the way. Directed by Maya Donna Newell (“Gayby Baby”) as an effort to push back against Australian conservative voices who pointed at children like herself, who grew up with queer and trans parents, as an argument against the country’s movement for marriage equality, it’s the result of a six-year collaborative process (with Georgie and her mom, Rebekah Robertson) that only lasts for 29 minutes – but it’s 29 minutes of inspirational, queer-affirming content you’ll want to experience.

BROS (Sept. 30)

Certainly the buzziest LGBTQ title of the year, the ferociously funny Billy Eichner’s rom-com about two commitment-challenged men and their attempt to have a relationship has already gotten us excited for its debut by way of a teaser trailer full of laugh-out-loud moments. Written by Eichner, who also stars (opposite rom-com veteran Luke Macfarlane), it’s the first time an openly gay man has been able to co-write and star in his own major studio film; not one to be content with that milestone, he went a step further by casting every principal role – even the heterosexual ones – with queer actors. Apart from these notable points, it will be interesting to see how a queer-themed romance will succeed with mainstream audiences; but there are many purely entertaining reasons to look forward to this Nicholas Stoller-directed romp, which also features TS Madison, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Diaz, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Bowen Yang, Benito Skinner, Matthew Wilkas, Jai Rodriguez, Dot-Marie Jones, and a host of other familiar queer faces. It’s worth mentioning that veteran comedy filmmaker Judd Apatow was co-executive producer (alongside Stoller and Eichner), but though his pedigree is appreciated as a part of the joint effort it took to get this history-making Hollywood romance to the screen, it’s bursting with so much talent already that his involvement is only icing on the cake.

HELLRAISER (Hulu, Oct. 7)

Clive Barker’s 1987 classic horror film (based on his 1986 novella, “The Hellbound Heart”) gets a few new twists in this remake by director David Bruckner, which will premiere on Hulu as part of the streaming platform’s “Huluween” celebration. In this re-imagined and updated version, the story follows a drug-addicted young woman who comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, learning too late that its purpose is to summon a group of sadistic supernatural beings called the Cenobites from the hellish dimension they call home. Inherently queer from the start (Barker himself, who serves as one of the executive producers on the new film, has long been openly gay), this iteration doubles down with its casting of trans actress Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”) as its sinister main antagonist – affectionately known as “Pinhead” by fans. She’s joined by a cast that includes Odessa A’zion, Adam Faison, Brandon Flynn, Aoife Hinds, Jason Liles, Yinka Olorunnife, Goran Visnjic, and Hiam Abbass.

Trans actress Jamie Clayton stars as Pinhead in Hulu’s remake of ‘Hellraiser.’ (Photo courtesy Spyglass Media)

MY POLICEMAN (Oct. 21)

Last up (but definitely not least) is this hotly anticipated adaptation of Bethan Roberts novel about forbidden love and changing social conventions, which stars “It-Boy” of the day Harry Styles as Tom, a policeman in 1950s Britain at the center of a romantic triangle in which he splits his conflicted love between teacher Marion (Emma Corrin) and museum curator Patrick (David Dawson). The story spans four decades, fast-forwarding to the 1990s to give the now-older trio (Linus Roache, Gina McKee, and Rupert Everett) a last chance to repair the emotional damage of the past. Directed by Michael Grandage, this visually elegant, heart-stopping portrait of three people caught in the shifting tides of history might be the most “prestigious” title on our list. Whether or not it’s worthy of the hype that accompanies its pop-singer star, whose perceived sexual fluidity (he’s never labeled his sexuality, and continues to avoid doing so even two years into a relationship with actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde) continues to tantalize queer fans, is something we’ll have to wait until Oct. 21 – or Nov. 4, when producer Amazon makes it available for streaming on Prime – to find out.

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