Movie Review: Orlando (1993)

Release Date: 12 March 1993
Director: Sally Potter
Production Company: Sony Pictures Classics

Adapted from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is a fantastical period drama directed by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton as a British noble named Orlando.  There are a couple of things you need to know about title character: 1. Orlando is seemingly immortal, living from at least the late 16th-century to the present day, and 2. About 2/3’s through this movie, Orlando goes through a magical physical transformation from a man’s body to a woman’s body.  The film explores ideas of feminism, sexuality, gender, and British history and does so with cinematic flair and fantastic costuming.  Singer Jimmy Somerville sings on the soundtrack and appears in the film, his countertenor voice appropriate to Orlando’s androgyny.

When I saw this movie back in the mid-90s, it was the first time I’d seen Tilda Swinton and I can’t imagine any actor being more perfect for this role. I love the way she looks to the camera and breaks the fourth wall.  I read the book around the same time I first saw the movie, but I can’t remember which came first.  I knew next to nothing about transgenderism at the time, but this story is obviously also a metaphor for the transgender experience.  “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.”

I’m glad I revisited this movie as it feels to have gained new layers of meaning in the 2020s, much as Sally Potter added layers of meaning appropriate to the 1990s to Virginia Woolf’s observations on the 1920s.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia

AuthorNeema Avashia
Title: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place
Publication Info: Morgantown : West Virginia University Press, 2022.

Neema Avashia is a Boston teacher who I know through her activism and her Twitter account.  In this short collection of essay-length memoirs she reflects on growing up in West Virginia and her present day life in India.  Her family emigrated to India as part of a small but significant group of Indian ex-pats who worked in West Virginia’s chemical industry.  Avashia describes the warm memories of white West Virginians and how the Appalachian and Indian cultural traditions became commingled in her childhood.  This is contrasted with how those same white West Virginians who helped her family on arrival support the MAGA ideology that discriminates against immigrants and LGBTQ people.  Nevertheless, Avashia fully embraces her West Virginia identity and heritage and makes the case that even if people like her are only a small portion of West Virginia’s population that they are nevertheless fully West Virginian.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Singapore
AuthorNeon Yang
Title:The Black Tides of Heaven
Narrator: Nancy Wu
Publication Info: ©2017 Neon Yang (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

Akeha and Mokoya are the twin youngest children of the cruel and dictatorial Protector.  In The Protector’s empire, people called Tensors are able to control elemental forces using a magical skill known as slackcraft.The Protector’s control of the Tensors enables her absolute rule.  Children in the Tensorate are raised without gender with physical differences suppressed by slackcraft. When they come of age they can confirm their gender.

The twins are initially raised at a monastery until The Protector learns that Mokoya has developed a gift of prophecy and forces them to return to the empire.  Akeha flees to aid a nascent revolutionary moment while Mokoya tries to avoid having their mother abuse their gift.  All of this builds to a final confrontation with the lingering question, can Akeha and Moyoka defeat their mother without succumbing to her dependence on violence.

This book falls into a genre called silkpunk, fantasy fiction that draws on aspects of Asian antiquity with more modern technological elements.  I can’t say that I quite “get” it but it is a unique and interesting novella.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Happy Together (1997)

Title: Happy Together
Release Date: 30 May 1997
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production | Block 2 Pictures | Seowoo Film Company | Prénom H Co. Ltd.

Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) are an on-again/off-again couple.  They travel to Argentina where they lose all their money and have to take jobs to earn money to return home.  Their tempestuous relationship further erodes until it falls apart and they both hit rock bottom. I found it unsettling how the film depicts the domestic violence between Lai and Ho, so consider that a content warning if you are similarly sensitive.

As is the style of Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together uses brilliant imagery to depict images and moods rather than plot.  The music in the soundtrack is also expertly matched even when used for ironic effect, like the title song (a cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” by Danny Chung appears at the end).  For a movie from the 1990s, it feels very progressive for telling a warts and all story about a same-sex couple.  But for all it’s great artistry and storytelling, I guess I’m the philistine who has to admit I found it a bit slow for my taste.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Badhaai Do (2022)

Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Badhaai Do
Release Date: February 11, 2002
Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Production Company: Junglee Pictures

Shardul (Rajkummar Rao), a gay policeman, and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar), a lesbian PE teacher, decide the only way to get their families to stop pestering them is to enter into a marriage and live together as roommates.  While Sumi has her girlfriend Rimjhim (Chum Darang) move in and Shardul pursues a relationship with Guru (Gulshan Devaiah), their families continue to meddle and begin pestering about babies.  Sumi and Shardul begin to consider adoption.  A whole bunch of hijinks ensue.

I didn’t thinks this movie was bad but I also didn’t think the jokes were particularly funny. That’s likely a cultural divide, though.  I appreciate that the gay and lesbian characters were never made the butt of the jokes for being homosexual.  The movie also has a good message of how taboos against homesexuality in India cause loneliness and real harm.  It also shines a spotlight on the injustice of laws forbidding same sex marriage and LGBTQ people adopting children in India.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe

Author: Janelle Monáe with Alaya Dawn, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas
Title: The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer
Narrator: Janelle Monáe, Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2022)

Musician, actor, and fashion icon Janelle Monáe adds author to her many skills with this collection of stories rooted in the dystopian future world previously explored in her music.  Each story is co-written with another talented Black author.  The stories are set in a near-future authoritarian state called New Dawn where people live under constant surveillance, have their memories harvested, and those who don’t conform – especially LGBTQ people and people of color – are classified as “Dirty Computers.”

These stories include that of Seshet the memory librarian, a high ranking official in New Dawn, who begins to explore life on the “wrong side of town” with a new transgender partner.  A commune of women who’ve found refuge from New Dawn at a place called Pynk Hotel discover a traitor in their midst.  A lesbian couple discover a room in their house outside of time with each responding to it differently.  And a family are able to travel one by one into a future where they find they’ve been liberated giving them hope to make it a reality.

It’s an interesting collection of sci-fi/Afrofuturist stories that very much parallels our real world struggles.  The stories can be didactic in their messaging but honestly sometimes need to be told bluntly.  While this type of fiction is not typically something I would enjoy – and I’ll confess that some elements went over my head – I am glad that I read this book and would recommend it to people who like this genre and fans of Monáe.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Related Posts:

Documentary Movie Review: We Were Here (2011) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter W that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: We Were Here
Release Date: September 2011
Director: David Weissman and Bill Weber
Production Company:  Weismann Projects

We Were There examines the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s through interviews with five members of the community who lived through the plague. The subjects include a counselor to gay men, a nurse, and a florist who ended up providing flowers for many funerals.  They tell heart wrenching stories of the unfathomable numbers of deaths of friends, partners, and family members while at the same time facing stigmatization from a society that discriminates against queer people.  And yet, there’s a lot of hope in these stories too.  LGBTQ people often talk of their community as family, when their blood relatives may have shunned them.  The epidemic brought this family in San Francisco together to care for one another and inspired a generation of activists.  This is a very simple documentary in form but it contains a very powerful message.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: The Queen (1968) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Q that I have previously reviewed include:

TitleThe  Queen
Release Date: June 17, 1968
Director: Frank Simon
Production Company: Grove Press

There was no before.

Set at The 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, this movie documents the preparation and competition for a drag queen competition in New York City.  In this pre-Stonewall era, when homosexuality and transvestism were illegal in New York State, this feels like a very dangerous thing to do.  And yet the mood among the participants feels surprisingly relaxed, apart from the catty in-fighting among some of the contestants.  The only sign of an outside threat is when the contest’s organizer Flawless Sabrina says they need to find a hotel “hip enough” to welcome drag performers.  Of course this scene also show’s Sabrina’s odd lack of organization in not reserving hotel rooms until the contestants had all arrived in New York.

The best parts of the movie are the more candid moments when the participants talk about their families and hometowns (where some of them found acceptance), whether or not they would undergo gender reassignment surgery, and encounters with the draft board.  The obvious comparison for this documentary is Paris is Burning which takes place 20 years later and uptown in Harlem.  There’s a largely unspoken racial dynamic in the mostly white Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest that comes to a head in the films conclusion when one of the Black contestants, Crystal LaBeija (who would later organize the house and ball culture documented in Paris is Burning) protests the crowning of Sabrina’s protege Rachel.

The movie offers a fascinating time capsule view and shows that a lot of familiar aspects of gay and drag culture go back a lot farther than I’d realized.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)

Title: The Favourite
Release Date: 23 November 2018
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Production Company: Scarlet Films | Element Pictures | Arcana | Film4 Productions | Waypoint Entertainment

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), faces deteriorating health and a nation divided over continuing a war with France.  Anne’s advisor and lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) effectively runs the government in her stead. A distant cousin of Sarah’s, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), arrives looking for after her family’s standing has been ruined by her father’s gambling.  Abigail than connives ways to get closer to Queen Anne in hopes of restoring herself to the aristocracy.  Thus begins the contest between Abigail and Sarah to be the Queen’s favourite.

I thought this would be a movie of palace intrigue and madcap antics, which it is, but it does not shy away from showing the toxic outcomes of the characters’ behavior.  The best part of this movie is seeing three of the top women in contemporary film at the top of their game.  Colman is particularly brilliant playing someone with stunted maturity who is suffering the ailments of age.  While Abigail may be the most callous character, Stone’s performance makes her likable and engaging right up to the movie’s denouement.

Rating: ***1/2