Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.

Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.  Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island.  The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.

The story is fairly predictable.  Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination.  The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland.  What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization.  The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: This is How It Always Is
Publication Info: New York : Flatiron Books, [2017] 

Rosie (a doctor) and Penn (a novelist) are a loving couple who have five children, all boys.  At the age of 5, their youngest child Claude expresses a preference for wearing dresses and eventually takes the name Poppy.  The narrative explores how even parents with the best intentions struggle with raising a transgender child.  The central conflict is whether Poppy’s transgender identity should be publicly known or kept secret. The family tries both with some bad outcomes to either approach and ultimately no “right way” is found.  The book can be overly didactic at times, but I did enjoy a lot of Frankel’s writing flourishes

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Author: Lana Harper
Title: Payback’s a Witch
Narrator: Jeremy Carlisle Parker
Publication Info: Berkley (2021)

There’s a lot going on in Payback’s a Witch: it’s a story about confronting one’s past, a comedy about a witchcraft competition and a revenge plot, and a sapphic romance!  Whew!  The story is set in the magical town of Thistle Grove, Illinois, home to four witching families and a brisk Halloween industry.  The novel is narrated by Emmy Harlow, a member of the least prominent of the four families, who has abandoned her magical powers and fled to  Chicago for better opportunities.

The novel begins with Emmy returning to Thistle Grove after a long absence to serve as the judge of a competition among the scions of the other three families to determine the next leader of the community.  Control of the town is typically held by the prosperous Blackmoore family, whose scion Gareth broke Emmy’s heart in their teen years.  Emmy’s best friend Linden Thorn and the alluring Talia Avramov, who’ve also been jilted by Gareth, team up for a revenge plot against the Blackmoores.  Emmy and Talia also begin stirring up a romance.

With hints of Harry Potter and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Payback’s a Witch is nonetheless an original concoction and wholly fun mix of comedy, romance and adventure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)

TitleBut I’m a Cheerleader
Release Date: July 7, 2000
Director: Jamie Babbit
Production Company: Ignite Entertainment | The Kushner-Locke Company

High school cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is stunned when her parents and friend consider her behavior to be “abnormal” and stage an intervention. Megan is sent to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp to be “cured” of her homosexuality.  In the draconian setting of True Directions among other teenagers being trained to be heterosexual, Megan instead finds acceptance and even romance with her fellow campers, especially Graham (Clea Duvall).

Conversion therapy seems like an uncomfortable topic to make a comedy about, especially since in the 20 years since this movie was made the cruelty and trauma of this practice is more widely known.  This film is undoubtedly a satire, and a blunt one with the bright pink and blue colors of True Directions emphasizing strict traditional gender roles as well as heterosexuality.  But the movie is also very sweet, with the romance of Megan and Graham played very well.  Some of the supporting characters are broad gay stereotypes, especially the boys, but Lyonne and Duvall are excellent in the lead roles.  The humor is hit and miss but overall this is a pretty good film.

Rating: ***

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Author: Casey McQuiston
Title: One Last Stop
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021)

After a troubled childhood with an obsessive mother, August finds it difficult to connect with people.  Things begin to change when she moves to Brooklyn to attend college and is pushed out of her comfort zone by her eccentric housemates, Myla, Niko and Wes.  She also finds herself enraptured by a beautiful punk woman she meets on the Q train, Jane.  However, finding love and happiness is challenged by three strange things about Jane: 1. she can’t seem to leave the train, 2. she can’t remember her past, and 3. she hasn’t aged at all from a picture taken of her in 1976.

This book is great fun as it uses a unique time slip story mixed with a queer romance and a story of New York’s gentrification.  It’s particular interesting to read the contrasts of Jane’s experiences in the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements of the 1970s compared to the more accepting contemporary times.  There are a lot of subplots in this novel that get things a bit confused, and perhaps there’s just a bit too much “deep conversation,” but all is forgiven because I love the characters.  McQuiston does a great job of bringing to life a community of fun, creative, and really horny young adults in the city.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Supernova (2020)

Title: Supernova
Release Date: 22 September 2020
Director: Harry Macqueen
Production Company: British Film Institute | BBC Films | Quiddity Films | The Bureau

A long-time couple, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) make a trip to England’s Lakes District in a camper van. Tusker has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and this is a final chance to visit with family, while Sam, a concert pianist, also performs a recital. It’s a deeply moving movie about love, loss, and letting go when dealing with end-of-life issues. Some terrific acting, beautiful scenery, and some humorous moments help alleviate the deep feels this movie prompts.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Title: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Release Date: September 18, 2019
Director: Céline Sciamma
Production Company: Lilies Films | Arte | Hold Up Films

In 18th-century France, a young artist named Marriane (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote island in Brittany.  Her commission is to paint a portrait of the aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent as a betrothal gift to a nobleman in Milan. The problem is that Héloïse does not want to pose for the portrait so Marriane must pretend to be her companion and observe her features when she can.

Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and resents having to take her place marrying the nobleman and losing her relative autonomy in a convent.  Marriane has a great amount of independence and outspokenness for a woman of her time and the two begin to bond.  They also spend time with a third major character, the unflappable house maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and the film as a great number of scenes of women just enjoying one another’s company, something we don’t see too much of in film.

Not to get to spoilery, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marriane and Héloïse’s relationship grows into a romantic one.  They make the best of the time they have and there is also much yearning for more. The acting performances of the three leads are magnificent and the film is gorgeous.

One stand out scene occurs on a beach by a bonfire (the scene that gives the film it’s title) where a group of Breton women we’ve never seen before (and never see again) begin singing and performing as if they were in The Revels.  It’s such a stunning moment in a movie that is largely very quiet with very few characters on screen.

Rating:  ****

Documentary Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDecoding Desire, Dear Mr. WattersonDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Director: David France
Production Company: Public Square Films

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City entertainer and activist, who, among other things, participated in the Stonewall Uprising, was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), modeled for Andy Warhol, and participated in ACT-UP.  Through her life she is identified as a drag queen, transvestite, or transgender person and even her family use female and male pronouns interchangeably.  Her charm and easygoing nature made her a beloved figure in New York’s LGBTQ community and earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”  Shortly after the Pride festival in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River.

The police declared her death a suicide and quickly closed the case, but many in the LGBTQ did not believe Marsha was suicidal and suspected she was murdered. As the movie documents, transgender people are murdered at an inordinate rate, even to this day,  with the police failing to investigate the crimes and when someone is actually charged with the offense they receive light sentences. The main focus of this movie is activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project carrying out her own investigation of this cold case 25 years after Marsha’s death.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson is a story that parallels the Gay Liberation movement in New York.  Key figures who feature prominently in the movie are Randy Wicker and Sylvia Rivera. Wicker is a gay activist and writer who was Johnson’s housemate for many years. His opposition to a Pride street festival run by the Mafia has contribute to a theory that Martha was killed by the mob. Rivera co-founded STAR with Johnson in 1970 to provide support for homeless drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. She was outspoken against the gay rights movement being dominated by white, cisgender men who left out transgender people and people of color in order to assimilate with mainstream society.  In the documentary we learn she left New York City after speaking out at a 1973 rally, but returned after Marsha Johnson’s death.  In archival footage, Sylvia Rivera is interviewed while living in a homeless encampment on the Hudson River in the 1990s and suffering from alcoholism.  She is able to go cold turkey with the help of friends, and returns to activism, receiving global recognition for being in the vanguard of LGBTQ equality.

I like that I learned a lot about important activists like Cruz, Rivera, and Wicker and others in this movie. It is a bit disappointing that there isn’t as much about Marsha P. Johnson in the movie.  But then, I guess that reflects reality. Johnson was taken from this world at a young age and is not here to tell her story.  This is a movie that like many a good documentary will make you a little bit smarter, but also a little bit sadder.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: The Celluloid Closet (1996) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat,  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Ceasefire Massacre, The Central Park Five, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword.

TitleThe Celluloid Closet
Release Date: February 15, 1996
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Production Company: Channel Four Films | HBO Pictures

This documentary traces the history of homosexuality as it is depicted in Hollywood films.  As early as the silent film era, stock characters of sissy men appeared in films for comic effect, although there were some positive representations of gay and lesbian people.  The institution of the Production Code included censoring “sexual deviancy” that put the kibosh on any acknowledgement of homosexuality.

Filmmakers instead used coded characters to slip gay and lesbian ideas past the censors. Movies of this period include Ben-Hur (1959), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rebecca (1940), Red River (1948), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rope (1948), Some Like it Hot (1959), and Young Man With a Horn (1950). I never knew that Gore Vidal worked on the script for Ben-Hur and wrote in a gay subtext, which makes the fact that I watched the movie at my Catholic elementary school hilarious.

By the 1960s, homosexuality was once again acknowledged in film but gay and lesbian characters were often tragic figures who inevitably died by the end of the movie, usually by their own hand. Stereotypically homosexual characters were also villains in many movies.  Advise and Consent (1962), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Fox (1967), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Vanishing Point (1971), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) are all discussed as examples of this problematic approach to homosexuality in film.

The Boys in the Band (1970) is recognized as the first mainstream film to depict gay characters in a positive light.  It was directed by William Friedkin whose later film Cruising (1980) was protested by gay rights activists for perpetuating the stigma of gay men as villains.  Cabaret (1972) and Making Love (1982) are also highlighted for positive depictions of gay characters.  Nevertheless, homosexuality continues to be coded in Hollywood films, derogatory terms like “faggot” are used indiscriminately in movies, and big name actors avoid being cast in roles as homosexual characters.  Philadelphia (1993) is recognized as an advancement for featuring likable star actor Tom Hanks in the role of a gay man with AIDS, although it’s noted that his character still dies at the end.

A frustrating aspect of this movie is that none of the interviewees are ever identified onscreen, nor are the titles of the movies from a good portion of the clips that are shown. I do know that Lily Tomlin narrates the movie and people interviewed include Tony Curtis (commenting on his roles in Some Like it Hot and Spartacus), Arthur Laurents, Armistead Maupin (who also wrote the script for the narration), Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Gore Vidal, Shirley MacLaine, Barry Sandler, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.

Hollywood has continued to make progress on gay and lesbian representation since this documentary was released 24 years ago, but remains frustratingly slow in depicting LGBT people in the full range of human experience.  Consider recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney films which include scenes with extremely minor gay and lesbian characters, never the leads, but the studios expect to be celebrated for their progress. One thing that comes through in this film is that gay and lesbian viewers had to watch the coded depictions in movies and translate them to their own experience.  Harvey Fierstein makes a good point that it’s time for straight audiences to do some translation.

Rating: ***1/2


Movie Review: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Release Date: August 10, 1994
Director: Stephan Elliott
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Specific Films

Mitzi (who also goes by Anthony and “Tick”) is a performer in drag queen cabaret in Sydney portrayed by Hugo Weaving.  He gets a call from his wife, from whom he’s been separated for several years but never officially divorced, asking for a favor to bring his performance to her casino resort in Alice Springs. Mitzi invites Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a older transgender woman who was a legendary drag performer, to join him as she grieves the death of her partner.  They are joined by a third drag performer, Felicia (a.k.a Adam), a young, narcissistic, and acerbic gay man.  Felicia uses his parents’ wealth to acquire a bus for their journey across the Australian Outback which he christens Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The basic plot is the clash of three different personalities in a bus together on a several days journey, made even longer because the bus keeps breaking down. Along the way they meet rural Australians, some who are welcoming, some who are hostile, and on one occasion brutally violent. They pick up an auto mechanic, Bob (Bill Hunter), who keeps the bus running and forms a romance with Bernadette. Arriving in Alice Springs, it’s revealed that Mitzi also has an 8-year-old son, Benjamin (Mark Holmes) he hasn’t seen since Benjamin was a baby.  But Benjamin’s very cool mom, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), a queer woman herself, has raised Benjamin to be accepting of his father.

After performing for two weeks, Bernadette decides to stay in Alice Springs with Bob (who has found work at the casino) and Benjamin travels to Sydney to get spend time getting to know his dad better.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

My senior year of college, my friend John acquired the soundtrack to this movie which included several disco era hits, including the epically bad and unintentionally hilarious “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene. John’s room was a popular hangout in our dormitory so a lot of people heard the soundtrack and were deeply curious about the movie that went with it.  When the movie finally came to our local art house movie theatre it was a group outing.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered all the basic plot details and some of the dialogue, including Bernadette’s response to Felicia’s desire to climb King’s Canyon in a drag outfit: “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.”  I also remember the dance numbers and costumes are excellent.  And most beautiful of all is Felicia on the roof of the bus, singing an aria, as shiny fabric trails behind the bus.

What Did I Forget?:

I remembered the details of Mitzi’s storyline well, but not as much of Bernadette’s. Perhaps because I’m older, her story (and Stamp’s performance) feel more poignant.  I completely forgot about Bob and their romance, which on this rewatch I found the sweetest part of the movie.

When I watched this movie in the 1990s, I didn’t know who any of the actors were.  Terance Stamp was already an established “tough guy” actor for decades at the time, although I suppose there would be no way I’d remember him as General Zod in the Superman movies.  Weaving would go on to play parts in The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Captain America franchises, among other things. And Guy Pearce would also find fame in L.A Confidential, Memento, The King’s Speech, and Iron Man 3.  Watching this movie knowing the actors from their other parts rather than assuming they’re Australian “unknowns” makes for a different viewing experience.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This was one of the first major movies to offer a sympathetic portrayal of gay and transgender people (and coincidentally gave a boost to Australian cinema in foreign markets).  It’s strikes a perfect balance among road movie with striking humor, romance, a sensitive story of family, and great dance performances and costuming.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Even 25 years ago, the big problem with this movie is the character of Cynthia (Julia Cortez), a Filipina woman married to Bob (presumably through some sort of mail-order arrangement to gain Australian citizenship) who is also an exotic dancer. There is a possibility of comparing Cynthia to the Priscilla crew as different type of outsider in the Australian desert, but her character is portrayed in the most virulently stereotypical fashion in the few moments she’s on screen.

All three lead characters are portrayed by straight, cisgender actors.  I think in the 1990s it was possible to defend this as an act of solidarity to have cishet actors offer a sympathetic portrayal.  But if this movie was made today it would be rightly called out for denying parts to LGBTQ actors.

The movie also features the use of the term “tranny” and deadnaming Bernadette as jokes. I was ignorant of this in the 1990s, but today I know these are horribly hurtful things to say.  Granted, most of this is done by Felicia, a character who admits to being deliberately obnoxious to get a rise out of people. I don’t think the movie so much defends doing this as it is showing that some gay men, even drag queens, are prejudiced against transgender people.  Either way it’s an unsettling part of the movie.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, definitely!

Rating: ****

WARNING: This trailer actually makes the movie look bad.

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with A:

  1. Airplane! (1980)
  2. Aliens (1986)
  3. Amelie (2001)
  4. Anne of Green Gables (1985)
  5. Apollo 13 (1995)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with A? What do you guess will be my movie for B?  Let me know in the comments!