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FIRE ISLAND (2022)
From the chatter I’d been hearing online I expected this to be a euphoric romp of a rom-com centered on Asian men that manages to not lose its loft while also discussing some thorny issues around race, class, and physical appearance in the queer community. Which it is. However, I was not prepared for it to be a Pride and Prejudice adaptation and homage, which adds a whole other luscious layer of fun.
Fire Island starts off with our faithful narrator Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the movie) quoting and then dismissing “the queen” Jane Austen’s opening lines from Pride and Prejudice as some “heteronormative nonesense” as he boots last night’s hookup out of his apartment and rushes to catch the ferry to Fire Island. Every year Noah and his beloved friends Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), Max (Torian Miller), and Howie (Bowen Yang) make a pilgrimage of sorts to the island for drugs, parties, sex, friendship, dinners, sunsets, and maybe even some reading (Alice Munro, in Noah’s case). They stay with their friend Erin (Margaret Cho) who bought a house there after winning a huge settlement from a “major Italian chain restaurant.” The friends definitely not the among the upper echelons of the island’s society in terms of race, class, or physical appearance—a fact that will be made abundantly clear to them everywhere they go by fitter, whiter, richer men—but they have a bond like family, and enough party to last them a lifetime. Of course, the prejudice still matters.
Howie, Noah’s bespectacled, San Francisco living, start-up working bestie, desperately wants the rom-com experience, which (you’ll be shocked to learn) is exactly the opposite of what Noah, who happily proclaims that they’re “literally swimming in dick,” desires. So, loyal (and probably misguided) friend friend that he his, Noah decides that he will not have sex with a single guy until he gets Howie laid. You see the Jane Austen parallel already, right? I’m kidding. That part is coming. Toward the Jane Austen end though, Noah’s phone gets dumped in a pool and is out of commission for the week, thus practically throwing him back into the Regency Era in terms of communication. The friends also find out that, due to financial circumstances, this might be their last summer on the island as a family unit. (There’s no mention of how marriage might solve this dilemma, but financial woes? Very Jane Austen.) Also, did I mention that Keegan and Luke are very much a twittering kind of frippish pair? (Keegan is particularly wonderful and layered.) While Max is bookish and somewhat moralizing (though still a sexual guy), worrying that outside sex could result in Lyme disease from ticks? I mean, these are fantastic characters all on their own, but they are also very much delightful adaptations of the Bennett sisters.
At the annual tea party, the likes of which none of the Bennetts could even dream, they meet Charlie (James Scully), a doctor, and his friends Cooper (Nick Adams) and Will (Conrad Ricamora) who are very much from the snootier and wealthier part of the island. (For the record, the scream that Erin lets out when she learns that Charlie is a doctor made me snort and Margeret Cho deserves an award for it. Also deserving an award? Cooper’s—limited—costuming.) Howie and Charlie have an instant attraction and are clearly in for a whole will-they-won’t-they storyline that’s complicated by questions of race and class and Cooper being an ass. But let’s talk about Will, who has a Genetically Blessed face and smoldering, incredibly serious gaze that, were this a period piece, would have you reaching for your smelling salts. He’s only on Fire Island because Charlie asked him to be there and, of course, seriously doubts Howie’s intentions are true. If you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice, all this will sound familiar. Oh, and when he and Noah first meet there is an attraction, but then they absolutely and completely do not hit it off at all! Oh, and there just so happens to be another man on the island named Dex (Zane Phillips) who is most attractive and very willing to sleep with Noah, but has some kind of past with Mr. Darcy. Oh, my senses and sensibilities! I’m so sorry. Clearly, I meant Will.
But listen! If Jane Austen adaptations are not your thing, fear not, because this movie is filled with humor, romance, intimacy, friendship, sunsets, and a plot that’s just predictable enough to feel like a gentle hug. My favorite part? I mean, probably Conrad Ricamora’s smoldering looks, but I’m also predictable like that.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
Moonshot should be fined for not letting Lana Condor act to her full potential and for taking longer than 90 minutes to tell its incredibly simple story, but that aside it’s a mostly passable sci-fi rom-com.
It’s the year 2049 and Walt Cole Sprouse) is a not-so-bright college senior working as an assistant barista to a sassy, sarcastic, retro-looking robot named Gary, and dreaming about finally getting into the Kovi Mars Program (he’s applied a whopping 37 times), where he’s convinced he’ll finally figure out where he belongs. One night he meets a girl who he kind of likes, but it turns out she’s leaving the next day for Mars. Of course, he’s convinced she’s the girl of his dreams, and this only increases his need to just get to Mars. On the same night he meets Sophie (Lana Condor), a super-smart, wealthy college student writing a thesis on reusing garbage, whose long-term boyfriend is away on Mars. Walt accidentally breaks a special communication orb they have, thus sparking the necessary hate to fuel the flames of eventual romantic passion.
The two meet back up by coincidence when Sophie finds out her boyfriend won’t be returning to Earth as planned at the end of a year, but instead staying on Mars indefinitely. Anyway, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda, Sophie’s super afraid of flying, Walt pushes her to overcome it. Because she’s ultra rich Sophie buys an almost million dollar ticket to join her boyfriend on Mars and Walt decides to stow away in an escape pod because he heard a cat got away with it. Obviously, they end up together in the ship, trying to pull off all kinds of shenanigans in order to keep Walt from getting caught, but none of them feel particularly high stakes in terms of romance or escapades. There are a few sweet moments between Walt and Sophie, but also a lot of long winded chats about finding yourself and not being able to run away from yourself. There are some jabs about earth dying, humans loving garbage, and billionaires not paying taxes, but nothing really is done with them. The robots and special effects are all sort of done with a clunky retro feel, which I kind of liked. I don’t know why since it certainly didn’t add to the realism. But it gave it a kind of stylized look that worked for me with the feel of the movie. Sadly, the characters just aren’t that interesting or vibrant or villainous or anything. They’re all kind of like a bowl of instant oatmeal—you know what you want it to taste like, but it falls short every time.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
LANGUAGE LESSONS (2021)
Holy wow. This film. This film! I was wholly unprepared for how deeply emotional and marvelously intimate Language Lessons would be. And mostly I want to send you into it wholly unprepared as well, because I think that’s how this kind of vulnerability, humor, and tenderness is best experienced.
The basic premise is that Adam’s (Mark Duplass) husband Will (Desean Terry) surprises him with 100 weekly online Spanish lessons (that’s alotta lessons!) because Adam has always talked about wanting to refresh his skills. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is his somewhat confused, skeptical, and reserved teacher, who is willing to roll with Adam’s initially very rigid morning schedule. Cariño and Adam live on different sides of the world and they appear to live extremely different lives, but as the movie progresses—via video chats and video messages in Spanish and English—shared emotional experiences, empathy, and kindness draw them into an unconventional and unexpected relationship. There is something beautiful and brave and deeply vulnerable about Adam’s insistence on expressing his very complex and often difficult emotions in Spanish. It’s as if words have failed him in his primary language and the forced simplicity of a language in which he’s not fluent centers and clarifies his thoughts.
That’s all I’ll tell you, except to say that I gasped more than once. Laughed out loud several times. And I absolutely broke down sobbing during the last scene, but in a this is so emotionally rich and layered and I care so much for these people kind of way, which is the best way.
And let me give you this final disclosure, which is that I don’t usually go in for movies that mainly consist of two people talking to each other. Yes, I know it’s a thing and often considered High Art, but more often than not it feels like two people who haven’t done the reading, but are deeply in love with the sound of their own voices vying for who can frame the most esoteric argument. This movie is NOT that. This movie is about real, concrete conversations about daily life, about when to use ser or estar, about pasts and presents, about birthday songs, about boundaries. This is a movie that uses language to express vulnerability and connection and emotional barriers and loss and friendship. And about friendship in unexpected circumstances. I’ve said too much. Go watch.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
BAKERY IN BROOKLYN (2016)
Hoo boy. There’s is a LOT to unpack here. But first, let’s tackle the basics. Is this movie any good? Nope. It doesn’t even meet the basic standards for a middle-of-the-road comfort-watch rom-com because it feels like about five separate movies stuck together with curdled Creme Patissiere, Aquanet, gas station aftershave, and very moldy ideas. Plus, it employs several racist clichés. And it often feels like you’re watching a high school play (no offense to high school plays, which are delightful). Good times!
There are two cousins Vivien Aimee Teegarden) and Chloe (Krysta Rodriguez) whose parents died in the same car accident when they were children, leaving them to be raised by their Aunt Isabelle (Linda Lavin) who owns a small bakery in Brooklyn. Vivien has always dreamed of traveling to Europe, but every time she gets close to going, some responsibility pops up and she bails. Chloe works behind the scenes for a Genetically Blessed television chef, Fernando (Aitor Luna, who we’ll discuss in a moment), even though she’s far more knowledgeable and capable than he is. They argue a lot. It’s supposed to be charming? It’s not. It feels stilted and a stand in for actual chemistry, which they lack. When Aunt Isabelle drops dead from eating chocolate cake (no, I’m not joking) during her brother Dave’s retirement party, she leaves the bakery and her crushing debt (how touching) to her darling nieces. Now, at Isabelle’s funeral—which it appears that people migrate to directly from the retirement party, which isn’t how any of that works—Vivien meets a tall chiseled stranger who just happens to work for the Big Bad Bank that holds Isabelle’s debt. He’s so smitten with Vivien that he agrees to give them three months to save the bakery. (That’s more or less what happens.) Of course, Vivien scuttles her trip to Europe and Chloe quits her job at the cooking show, so they can pull up their boot straps and save the place. But, whoopsie toots, Vivien and Chloe, who used to go together like chocolate and peanut butter, cannot work together because they have Different Ideas about how the bakery should be run. It’s a whole mess that leads to them throwing baked goods at each other and wrestling on the floor while covered in frosting, and then dividing the bakery down the middle using duct tape. (I almost bailed during this scene, which is the first scene.) Meanwhile, Fernando shows up at the bakery super upset that Chloe quit and the two, of course, go from arguing to making out. This part makes so very little sense that it’s nearly beyond explaining, but I’m going to treat it like it does make sense so I can make the following points: A) they start sucking face and stripping down in the middle of the bakery while it’s open and in front of everyone, which is strange and most surely a really big health code violation and B) Chloe keeps smearing different foods on his bare chest, which, have you SEEN Aitor Luna? The man does not need one topping, let alone multiple! Why are you wasting time and energy, Chloe? This leads me to one of my bigger questions, Why are Aitor Luna and Blanca Suárez (she’s coming up soon), who are well known actors in Spain, even in this shambles of a movie? My best guess is that it’s because the movie was written by two men who live in Madrid (one is originally from Chile) and maybe they saw this as a way to break into English language movies?
Anyway, because two romantic storylines aren’t enough, Ian (Griffin Newman), the schlubby bakery assistant who does things like gets his foot stuck in a bread basket for HOURS, develops a crush on Daniella (Blanca Suarez) a Chilean designer who shows up out of fucking nowhere and whose role is so unclear that I kept forgetting she wasn’t supposed to be some kind of mythical ghost or spirit or something. After she helps to free his foot from the bread basket ( I’m not making any of this up), he follows her INTO THE house that I guess she’s redecorating for a very sketchy older couple. (You will absolutely feel like you started streaming a whole other movie by accident, but you, sadly, did not.) Nothing about this storyline is good. Not the sketchy couple. Not Ian following her. And certainly not Daniella telling him that “a man has to conquer a woman to be with her. We actually use the word conquistador.” Holy fucking nope! To the movie’s credit, Ian later tells Daniella that the only examples of conquistadores he could find were really awful men. Pro tip: That’s because all the conquistadores were all really awful men. Don’t emulate them. Anyway, this story is all about how if a guy is nice enough a woman will definitely develop romantic feelings for him, which is not how the world works nor why you should do nice things for people. It’s also why men should not always be in charge of writing rom-coms. There are also storylines with a magical homemade drug (and another Spanish actor putting on a Russian accent); some subterfuge with murder (and attempted murder) most foul; and the Big Bad Bank Manager, but we don’t have time to go into all those now. Just know that I’m pretty sure that same prop duct tape they used to divide the bakery when Chloe and Vivien were fighting was also used to splice together these ideas. It’s like they took every half-baked (ha! Bakery pun.) movie idea they’d ever had, cut them into pieces, and then taped them together in a random order.
We do have time to talk about Nathan (Anthony Chisholm), the blind Black man who owns a shoeshine stand where he can “reveal your closely guarded secrets just by stroking your shoes.” This is the sum total of his role in the movie. Creepy and racist! And we also have time to talk about the part when Isabelle’s white lawyer is informing Vivien and Chloe about her will while he’s shirtless and receiving a massage from an Asian woman who never utters a word. He, on the other hand, utters far too many moans and suggestive yeses during the scene. Ew. And we do just have time to squeeze in mention of the two Black women that appear on the arm of the Terrible Bank Manager on a Sunday morning, suggesting they spent the night with him doing extracurricular activities. They, again, do not speak, just stand while he spouts lines like a boiling teapot whistles before striding off with them. Oh, and I can’t leave out the way Chloe cuts off Daniella several times to tell her how much she loves her accent. Yes, folks, let’s reduce people to tropes, jokes, and exotified folk! Such fun!
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
SAVING FACE (2004)
If you’ve watched The Half of It then it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Alice Wu’s earlier movie Saving Face is also full of intimate storytelling, humor, and familiar themes used in new ways. The movie can feel a bit slow moving in parts, but it’s fully worth it.
Wil Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a talented and driven surgical resident who is also living a wee bit of a lie. Even though she’s a lesbian, once a week she goes home to Flushing to dutifully dance with the Chinese-American guys that her mother, Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen), pretends not to set her up with. Does her mother know that Wil’s only into women? Probably, but they’re certainly not going to talk about it. Wil and her mother are part of a close knit immigrant community that appears to be led in part by Wil’s traditional grandfather (Jin Wang), who makes speeches about the worthiness of suffering. At the dances women gossip about the horrors of living without a husband right in front of Hwei-Lan who still lives with her parents and who raised Wil alone after her husband died. Then, just as socially awkward Wil, who practically lives at the hospital, meets a nice Chinese girl named Vivian (Lynn Chen), her mother is suddenly and unceremoniously kicked out of Flushing when she gets pregnant out of wedlock at forty-eight. She won’t reveal the identity of the father and so goes to live out her exile with Wil in her small apartment, which Hwei-Lan immediately redcorates, fills with the smells of traditional foods and the sounds of Chinese soap operas.
Wil and Vivian’s evolving relationship and the tension between Wil’s romantic life and her traditional family’s expectations is interesting and engrossing to watch, but it’s Hwei-Lan’s gentle blossoming and coming-of-age story that entirely and beautifully steals the show.