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Sundance 2023: New Gay Icons to Conquer the Art House

She ain't heavy, she's my lover: Juneo takes a cut-out of Khan home in Joyland / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

She ain't heavy, she's my lover: Juneo takes a cut-out of Khan home in Joyland / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

LGBTQ issues take center stage in our second dispatch from the Sundance 2023 trenches. Two movies we saw connect with these issues in opposed approaches. If Cassandro wants to inspire and push you forward, Joyland takes a mournful measure of the price we still pay to reach for freedom and acceptance. Both ways carry some degree of truth and complement each other. But guess which one is the better film?

Cassandro

Gabriel García Bernal shines in this fictional take on Saul Armendariz, also known as "Cassandro The Exótico." The flamboyant star of Mexican Lucha Libre was the subject of an excellent 2018 documentary by Marie Losier. It would be very instructive for young filmmakers to compare both movies and see how fiction alters and rearranges real stories to create a dramatically satisfactory and engaging narrative. Cassandro belongs to the tradition of Exotic wrestlers, codified as gay characters in a macho-dominant world. "Exotics never win," tells a haughty promoter to scrappy Cassandro. Unfazed, he challenges the status quo and becomes a pioneering champ for accepting sexual diversity inside and outside the ring. It is not out of some revolutionary impulse. It is just that he cannot help being who he is.

García Bernal hits the mat like a fabulous champ in Cassandro / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

García Bernal hits the mat like a fabulous champ in Cassandro / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Adaptations create artificial versions of reality by design, but the movie stumbles while following dramatic and commercial conventions. A subplot involving Cassandro’s low-down affair with a married fighter (Raúl Castillo) seems truncated by editing decisions. After the action-driven vaudeville of Bullet Train (David Leitch, 2022), music superstar Bad Bunny makes a plight for being considered a serious actor. You can tell he is serious because the credits record him by his real name, Benito Ocasio Martinez. Alas, the role of the right-hand man of a shady promoter is shapeless and goes nowhere. The movie works best when contemplating Cassandro’s tender relationship with his mother (Roberta Colindrez). His triumphal ascent to the status of gay icon feels too easy, but by then, it is hard to resent it.

* "Cassandro" is available to stream on Prime Video.

Joyland

It is easy to see why Sam Sadie’s bracing debut conquered the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, taking the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Queer Palm. It is also particularly galling that the Academy failed to nominate it for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A conservative family in modern Pakistan implodes when the youngest son, Haider (Ali Junejo), falls for Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who works in a burlesque theater. Their relationship adds to the grief of Mumtaz (Rasta Farooq), his wife from an arranged marriage already stifling under the weight of familial obligations.

The movie is exemplary at making occidental audiences understand the power dynamics of working-class families in Pakistan. As the younger brother, Haider must obey every other man in the family. In turn, his wife must follow him. She is at the very end of the command chain. Mumtaz is a formidable woman, aching for love and independence, even if the system disregards her desires. The cast is solid, but Farooq is a revelation and walks away with the picture. 

Sisters-in-law are doing it for themselves, at least for a while: Farooq and Sarwat Gilani in Joyland / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sisters-in-law are doing it for themselves, at least for a while: Farooq and Sarwat Gilani in Joyland / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The tight framing in the Academy ratio traps every character in their circumstances, even as they strive to gain a little freedom. The deft deployment of a flashback gives the resolution a devastating punch. The movie's novelistic approach gives each one their due and avoids the pitfalls of assigning blame and straining towards unearned hope. In a way, this is the opposite of "Cassandro". Instead of comforting us about how much we have advanced in recognizing sexual diversity, it shows how difficult it still is to overcome internalized and externalized homophobia, especially when religion and social mores come into the picture.

* Update": You can rent or buy "Joyland" on all major digital platforms.

Fair Play

What makes a thriller erotic? Is it the physical beauty of the actors? The portrayal of sexual activity in varying degrees of nakedness? Or the power relationship between the characters? What about between the audience and the actors on display? They expose their bodies in the name of art, but it also entices and satisfies prurient interests. All these questions bounced into my head as I watched this solid drama about a couple of financial executives whose romance comes under duress when Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) earns a promotion over Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), effectively becoming his boss. The fact that they must hide their relationship because it goes against company policy adds even more pressure.

Money changes everything: Dynevor looks down on Ehrenreich in Fair Play / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Money changes everything: Dynevor looks down on Ehrenreich in Fair Play / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The feature debut of Chloe Dumont is a solid piece of entertainment, which loses some of its grit as Emily increasingly compromises her professional standing by trying to drag hapless Luke up the corporate ladder. To have an intelligent character doing stupid things is the cornerstone of many dramas, but in this movie, you can blame the patriarchy. The system conditioned Emily to stand by her man, even if it compromises her position. 

Fair Play loses steam as it rambles to its conclusion, but the cast and the direction keep the train moving. You can add it to the list of movies luxuriating in the plastic glamor of high finances at the same that they denounce its mendacities, like Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and Boiler Room (Ben Younger, 2000). and Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011). For a low budget movie, it convincingly conveys the texture of life in Manhattan for the up-and-coming business drones. Dynevor gives a star-making performance, and it is nice to see Ehrenreich belatedly bounce back after the flameout of Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018). Eddie Marsan steals the movie as he should. He is the meanest shark in the tank.  

* Update: "Fair Play" is available to stream on Netflix.

In My Mother's Skin

The spirit of Guillermo del Toro weighs heavily on this brutal exercise in folk horror. World War II raged on, and the Japanese army overtook the Philippines. Young Talia (Felicity Kyle Mapuli) and her baby brother are stranded with their ailing mother in a beautiful mansion in the middle of the jungle. Dad is away on a mission to get safe passage for the family. When things take a turn for the worst, a glowing fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) materializes and offers help. We all know that kind of thing never goes as planned, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Any similarity to the Virgin Mary is not a coincidence: Curtis-Smith exerts some fairy persuasion in In My Mother's Skin / Photo by Epicmedia, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Any similarity to the Virgin Mary is not a coincidence: Curtis-Smith exerts some fairy persuasion in In My Mother's Skin / Photo by Epicmedia, courtesy of Sundance Institute

The stately elegance of director Kenneth Magatan's vision is balanced by his merciless penchant for gore. He goes places where you don't expect him to go. The movie fits appropriately in the Midnight program. The atmosphere is intoxicating, but you wish the narrative were a little more disciplined in its plot development. It might be unkind to compare In My Mother's Skin with Pan's Labyrinth (Del Toro, 2005), but it is openly courting the comparisons. But when it comes to narrative tightness, the movie that earned the Mexican auteur his first Oscar nomination - for Best Screenplay, natch! - remains peerless. In My Mother's Skin has been acquired by Prime Video. It is set for release in January 2024. I think they missed out on a Halloween release. This one has all the makings of a cult classic movie. January is a graveyard for film, and not in a good way!

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