Sunday, August 15, 2021

Coco (2007 - 2021)

It’s Tuesday as I sit at the desk in my home office and begin writing this; it’s a gray and gloomy morning here in Michigan.

Fitting weather for a heartbreaking morning after.

On Monday, August 9th, our sweet boy, Coco—with Brian and I at his side—crossed the Rainbow Bridge. It feels infinitely more comforting to write that instead of “he died” or “he passed away” but we’re all adults in the room and well-versed on the deceptive reality of such feel-good words. Yet we cling to them when there is little left to cling to, don’t we? It somehow lessens the gravity; too bad it doesn’t lessen the ache.

Coco was a special dog—a Miniature Schnauzer who personified love with his gentle spirit. He was handsome in the stateliest of ways with a dog show prance for miles. He shared a birthday with my own Dad—December 30th—although my father has a few years on him. He was a lover—no dog could cuddle like Coco, whether it be on a lap or beside you in bed. He oozed affection and goodwill and could instinctively gauge moods and give you just what you needed at just the right moment. Along with that German pedigree of his came stubbornness (sometimes it became a battle of wills over pooping), and no dog could throw shade as effectively or comically as our Coco. 

I met Coco in October of 2011, shortly after Brian and I met in New York City. It was our third or fourth date and Brian brought Coco—then about four months shy of his 4th birthday—over to my weekend apartment in Hell’s Kitchen one Saturday evening. I had mentioned to Brian how my own childhood dog had been a Miniature Schnauzer, given to me by my father for my 8th birthday. When I met Coco, it was love at first sight. To this day, I joke with Brian about who I fell in love with first—him or his dog. That would have been 10 years ago next month. As Brian and I grew closer, our little family of three solidified.

Coco had an amazing life of adventure—from growing up in the heart of Manhattan to our long road trips to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even when Brian and I settled into the suburbs on Long Island, there were weekend getaways into the city for Broadway shows, with Coco always happy to be safely ensconced in a NYC hotel room with late-night and early morning walks around city blocks bustling with city dwellers and tourists alike. Coco frequently came with me to work at the nursing home, always happy to go office to office visiting my staff, presiding over morning meeting sitting on my lap at the head of the conference room table, and those midday strolls around the perimeter of the facility. Coco loved riding in the car, and I was happiest when he rode shotgun in my truck even if it was just to the Starbucks drive-thru to get coffee. 

Coco had the tenderest of dispositions, instinctively knowing when to play gentler with a puppy (like his buddy Missy at The Hamptons Center) and when he could assert himself with a larger dog. There is still a YouTube video out there of our Coco hilariously terrorizing Brian’s brother’s late 100-pound-plus English Mastiff, Dante. There wasn’t another dog or person who Coco didn’t get along with. He was always a mellow, go-with-the-flow kind of dog. Even with our frequent moves (seven in the space of just under ten years), Coco always proved to be adaptable and resilient. As long as he had us—and a favorite “baby” or two—he was good to go and happy. And as long as we had him, our lives felt full and complete.

He became a big brother in December of 2019, when Cooper—also a Miniature Schnauzer—joined our family. My only regret is that we waited so long to get another dog and playmate for Coco. Although they only had about a year and a half together, they bonded quickly. In testament to Coco’s generous and loving spirit, he (again) quickly adapted to sharing his dads with the family’s new addition, never once showing signs of resentment or jealousy. Even as the years advanced on our Coco, he did his very best to keep up with mini-Cooper’s endless energy. They’d tussle together on the floor and be happy to go on long walks together, but sleeping arrangements were where we always let Coco maintain the upper hand—he got to sleep between us in the bed, while Coop snuggled amongst his blankets and “frog baby” in his crate. It was our one way to remind Coco that he came first and had at least one privilege his upstart little brother did not. It was an arrangement he seemed satisfied with, even until his last night with us.

About two weeks ago, we noticed that Coco was drinking exponentially more than usual and urinating a lot. We took him to the veterinary clinic we’d carefully researched and selected when we moved back to Michigan last December, and he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. He had been eating voraciously up to that point, but after one sprinkle of the probiotics the vet had prescribed and one dose of the heavy-duty antibiotic she’d ordered, he all but stopped eating. On the Saturday before his passing, I called the vet to report that now Coco hadn’t been eating for 2 or 3 days despite my ever-patient Brian even trying to hand-feed him. Although the vet had office hours that day, we were brusquely told that they wouldn’t be able to fit him in and to try an emergency veterinary hospital. Panicked, I began calling other local vets. The second call I made was answered by a lovely young woman named Sarah at the Somerset Veterinary Hospital in Troy. Even though Sarah didn’t know us from a hole in the wall, she made us an appointment for that same morning, and we brought Coco in. There we met Dr. Whitney Reinhold, who was just lovely—gentle, empathetic, and possessing excellent clinical skills. Concerned with Coco’s dehydrated state (despite his continuing to drink plenty of water), she ran some diagnostic tests.

The news was delivered with compassionate candor—based on his symptoms and lab values, Coco was either suffering from Leptospirosis (possibly treatable) or bone marrow cancer (not treatable). We were left with an agonizing decision: Hospitalize him or bring him home over the weekend. Somerset Veterinary was not open on Sundays, so if we left him with Dr. Reinhold and her staff, he’d be essentially alone, save for a few overnight checks by the vet. If something went wrong and he took a turn for the worse, there was the possibility that he’d die alone. There was also the option of an emergency veterinary hospital; upside was immediate treatment, downside was that (again) he could take a turn and we wouldn’t be with him. The third option was that we take him home with us for the weekend and monitor him closely; Dr. Reinhold suggested that we offer him anything he would eat—baby food, peanut butter, rice and chicken. Coco—around year 5 or 6—developed a ridiculously intolerant gastrointestinal problem that limited him to one Science Diet variety of food that was particularly vile to my human sensibilities in every way possible, from texture to smell. Although Coco was weak and his breathing a little congested (likely due to an enlarged liver pressing against his little diaphragm), we opted for option #3. Dr. Reinhold gave him some subcutaneous fluids, a gentler antibiotic, and medication for his liver. We would nurse him all weekend and pray that he’d pull through until Monday, when we could return him to Somerset Vet for additional treatment. By then, we hoped his Leptospirosis test results would be back and we would be in a better position to determine a course of action. In an act of such compassion and empathy, Dr. Reinhold gave us her personal cell number in case we ran into any problems over the weekend or Coco took a turn for the worse. 

That weekend, we dedicated ourselves to our little buddy. Brian, in particular, was so attentive to his needs, from helping him stand outside and spreading his back legs so he could urinate to sitting on the floor with him every two hours with any combination of peanut butter and baby food on his finger trying to coax Coco to eat. He administered his medication, without fail, like clockwork. My heart broke watching them together, because Brian raised him from a puppy and their bond was an unbreakable one. At night, in bed between us, we took shifts cuddling him, turning him over every two hours or so to prevent any kind of skin breakdown. With his poor nutritional intake, he was in a much-weakened state by now. Although we forced ourselves to stay hopeful, there was a looming reality hanging over us like a dark cloud those two long days and nights, and we took every opportunity to stroke his head and tell him everything that we needed to say. He was able to make eye contact with us and we spent hours just sitting with him, staring into those soulful eyes of his, trying to figure out what he wanted. He didn’t appear to be in any pain, which buoyed our spirits somewhat. By Sunday night, he stopped urinating and his breathing slowed. We were positive he was going to pass away during the night, and we tried to take some comfort from the fact that he would be with us, at home, in the familiar comfort of his own bed.

But our Coco, once again, defied the odds and proved to be an intrepid little fighter. He made it through that night and even seemed ever-so-slightly more responsive in the morning. We took that as a sign that he wanted more time with us. We called Dr. Reinhold first thing on Monday morning, and she had us bring him in. She would start IV fluids and IV antibiotics while we waited for the test results, run some more diagnostics, and see how he was in a few hours’ time. But she was guarded and benevolently honest: Coco’s prognosis was poor.  

I’m not going to lie—that morning was the longest few hours of my adult life. Brian opted to go to work to busy his mind; I ran into the nursing home for an hour to tend to a few of my usual early morning tasks and came home. Around 1:00 PM, the phone rang. It was Dr. Reinhold explaining that Coco had taken a turn and advising that Brian and I should come as soon as possible. Instinctively, I grabbed one of Coco’s favorite toys—a silly-looking orange dinosaur that he’d had for years. Jumping into my truck, I called Brian and told him. Thankfully, Somerset Veterinary is only a few blocks from the house, so I was there within minutes. Running into the vet’s office, my heart was lodged in my throat. I was ushered immediately into the back where our beloved Coco was lying in his doggy bed, the soft blanket we had left with him covering him. He was breathing heavily—too heavily, I knew—and had a plastic cup-like apparatus over his snout delivering oxygen. His eyes were wide open, and he seemed markedly more responsive than how I’d left him earlier. Dr. Reinhold explained to me that he’d been doing ok for a while that morning, that he had perked up with the IV fluids. But when they’d gone to turn him over—changing his position as we had to avoid skin breakdown—he’d gone into respiratory distress. She’d run more tests and his kidney and liver function were both poor. 

There is that moment that all responsible pet parents know well—that agonizing reality and crushing weight of the decision to do the kind and loving thing for your furry loved one. While I waited for Brian to arrive, I sat with Coco and cried and cried while again and again telling him how very much I loved him, how sorry I was that I couldn’t make him better. My hand never left him, as I stroked and caressed his fragile little body and repeatedly kissed the top of his head and nose. I consciously tried to commit the feel of him, the smell of him to memory. My thoughts went to all those times when I’d failed him—when my patience fell short or when I raised a voice to him in frustration. I apologized to him, telling him how utterly and completely perfect he was and that those moments of harshness were my failing and not his. I begged him to forgive me and, in that moment, saw nothing but unconditional love in his expressive, tired eyes. There was my proof, my confirmation of what I’ve long known—that dogs are superior to us humans in every way that counts. Their capacity to love, without qualification, is limitless and sets them apart from every other living creature on this earth.

Brian arrived and Dr. Reinhold explained to him what she’d told me a short time ago with nothing but patience and compassion. Without needing to discuss it, we both agreed to end Coco’s discomfort before it turned into suffering. We spent another 20 minutes or so talking to him, stroking his salt-and-pepper coat and frail little body underneath, kissing him, and making sure that when he left us, he did so knowing how very much he was loved. When we were ready, Dr. Reinhold explained the process to us—it’s one we’ve both been through before. We positioned ourselves directly in front of our beloved little buddy, and made sure that he could see us, that our loving faces would be the last thing he saw as the lights dimmed and he went to his eternal rest.

As he left us, I simultaneously prayed to whatever force in the universe gives us the gift of these beautiful creatures and cursed it for not giving us more time together. Our grief was unbearable in those first moments when Coco left us, and Brian and I held each other—and Coco—and just sobbed and sobbed. Dr. Reinhold and her staff—truly angels who walk amongst us on this earth—gave us as much time as we needed with Coco afterward. I think we stayed with him for another half an hour before finally pulling ourselves away. Leaving that sweet creature’s empty shell there broke our hearts all over again, but we knew that Dr. Reinhold and her staff would handle his remains with the utmost care. He would be privately cremated—Brian made sure that his silly little orange dinosaur baby went with him—and he would come home to us the following day.

As I stepped outside the vet’s office, it started to rain. It was as if the universe was crying with me for the loss of this magnificent, selfless, beautiful-in-every-way dog named Coco, loved boundlessly by his two dads, a slew of family and friends, and his little brother, Cooper. I sat in my truck and my heart burst open even more than I thought possible. I just sat there, hunched over the steering wheel, and sobbed until I was empty. In those first heartrending moments following Coco’s passing, I wanted to truly die, to go with him and walk him over that famed Rainbow Bridge. If there is one thing I hope and pray, is that all dogs truly do go to some kind of heaven and, especially, that we’re somehow reunited in spirit and form at the end of our own lives. I want to believe that. I need to believe that.

The week following Coco’s passing has been filled with heartbreak—those first days and nights were nearly unbearable. 

Coco’s collar and leash hanging on the hook by the back door…

His empty doggy bed that still carries his scent…

That empty spot between us in the bed where Coco slept every night for so many uninterrupted years…

We received word from Dr. Reinhold yesterday: Coco’s Leptospirosis test finally came back from the lab and was negative. That’s good news in the sense that we don’t’ have to test or worry about Cooper contracting the disease. That also means that our beloved Coco succumbed to likely bone marrow cancer and that there was nothing that we could have done to save him, which takes some of the guilt off me for not opting to admit him to the emergency animal hospital over the weekend. Our choice gave us—and him—more quality time together to express our love and prepare for his final journey. It’s bittersweet news, but in the midst of this numbing heartache, it’s good to take whatever modicum of comfort you’re afforded. 

I finish writing this on Sunday, almost a week after Coco has left us. If you’ve read this far, I thank you for taking the time to read this tribute to him. I wanted to commit the events of Coco’s last days and life to writing so that there is a lasting homage to this extraordinary dog, who was loved more than these words can convey—try as I might. I hope his journey over the Rainbow Bridge has ended with all the promises contained within that beautiful poem. The grief this week has been unbearable at times, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. I asked him in our final moments together to send us a sign that he’s ok, that’s he still with us, watching over us. While I’m waiting for that sign, I’m replaying countless Coco memories in my head, taking comfort in the many heartfelt messages of sympathy left for us on social media, and just taking it one day at a time with lots of deep breaths to quell the panic attacks when I’m overwhelmed by the sense of loss. Coco’s final resting place—a beautiful, personalized wooden urn—arrives tomorrow. Brian and I will transfer his ashes after work and likely shed even more tears for our sweet boy. 

I am grateful that Brian and I have each other to hold one another up through this. Grateful, too, for little Cooper who now inherits the benefits as the singular recipient of our focus and doting. He’s our reminder that life continues, that there are always more dogs to love and care for. We’ll continue to love and care for him with the same dedication and passion that we cared for Coco—and the countless pets between us that we’ve loved and cared for over the years. In time, we will undoubtedly open our hearts and home to another dog, a little brother or sister to keep Cooper company. We’ll repeat this cycle of love and accept that this gift comes with the eventual—and inevitable—loss. 

That is the cycle of life.

Rest in eternal peace, beloved Coco. Thank you for sharing part of our lives with us and for making us better human beings through the example of your steadfast loyalty and unconditional love. We will forever try to be the people you always thought we were. Our love for you transcends the meaning any mere words could ascribe. Miss you and love you dearly, little buddy. 

Coco Liaguno-Charles

December 30, 2007 – August 9, 2021

Monday, January 4, 2021

2020: The Year in Music

Thanks to the global pandemic that rocked everyone’s world this year, the first year of the new decade saw an unprecedented demand for at-home entertainment and solo leisure time pursuits. The written word probably fared the best, with people stuck at home and picking up a book for the first time in years. Movies and television were a catch-22; although the demand was there and people were willing to pay, there was limited new content because either production had been shut down or movie studios opted to delay or postpone theatrical releases versus release to VOD for fear of losing too much money. 

Music fell somewhere in between. With artists creating new music remotely pre-pandemic, production capability wasn’t an issue. What stopped some artists from releasing new product was the inability to promote new music with live shows. In today’s business model, it’s the touring that brings in the bigger bucks—not releasing $1.29 singles on iTunes. Although streaming was up (despite listeners spending far less time in the car or at the gym), the streaming of new releases wasn’t, with data showing that folks opted to stream older catalog titles, like musical comfort food. Artists grappled with the timing of new releases—from competing with the coronavirus for media time to promote their music to the fact that people were just overall distracted. Less people traveling to and from work lessened the importance of radio play, while the closure of schools severed that all-too-important word of mouth publicity pipeline among the under 18 set. So, like movies, the amount of new music put out in 2020 was markedly less than previous years. 

Still, there were some spectacularly good releases in 2020. If there was a theme in music during this pandemic-afflicted year, it was escapism. Artists created hopeful albums, filled with songs that were uplifting and uptempo. Lots of tunes to dance to—even if the dancing was relegated to living rooms. My own annual Top 10 list held true to past trends and personal patterns of predilection: Lots of Brits, heavily female artist skewed, and at least one new discovery. This year’s list sees the reappearance of artists you’ve seen grace my year-end favorites before, with two notable exceptions: Miley Cyrus and Love Fame Tragedy. Cyrus released a phenomenal collection with Plastic Hearts, an eclectic blend of pop-punk-country-glam-rock and homage to 80s-era New Wave that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Cyrus pays tribute to female rock icons with covers of Blondie’s Heart of Glass and The Cranberries’ Zombie, while bringing in rock royalty like Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks for duets and clever mashups. Cyrus made me a fan with this album.

Love Fame Tragedy is a collaborative solo project created by Matthew Murphy, the Wombats’ lead singer and lyricist. The album—Wherever I Go, I Want to Leave—is a glorious indie pop-rock masterpiece filled with Murphy’s wry, high-end songwriting on 17 tracks covering a range of musical styles from electro rock to ambient house, indie synth-pop, neo-funk, and even R&B.

Topping my list this year is one of my “newer” favorite artists—Jessie Ware. Once described by Rolling Stone as “the missing link between Adele and Sade,” Ware has made consistently good albums since her 2012 debut, Devotion. Her fourth—this year’s What’s Your Pleasure?—is a pure pop-dance tour de force, finding Ware more comfortable than even in her own musical skin. The album is ripe with every variation of dance music—from disco to hi-NRG and house and back again to disco-funk. It’s frothy and flirty and frivolous fun and just the kind of record we needed this year to remind us to dance like nobody’s watching. It easily lands at a firm #1 on my year-end list.

Speaking of, without further chitchat, here’s what you came for: 

#10 – HOTSPOT / Pet Shop Boys

#9 – CHROMATICA / Lady Gaga

#8 – DISCO / Kylie Minogue

#7 – LOVE GOES / Sam Smith

#6 – PLASTIC HEARTS / Miley Cyrus

#5 – INFINITE THINGS / Paloma Faith


#3 – WHEREVER I GO, I WANT TO LEAVE / Love Fame Tragedy 


#1 – WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? / Jessie Ware

Honorable Mentions: No formal ranking, but worthy of a listen or two. 

  • I HAVE MY STANDARDS / Martha Davis
  • THE NEON / Erasure
  • FOLKLORE / Taylor Swift
  • RAZZMATAZZ / I Don’t Know How But They Found Me (aka iDKHOW)
  • HATE FOR SALE / Pretenders
  • FUN CITY / Bright Light Bright Light
  • SPELL MY NAME / Toni Braxton
  • DREAMLAND / Glass Animals
  • AFTER HOURS / The Weeknd
  • CHIP CHROME & THE MONOTONES / The Neighbourhood
  • THE RARITIES / Mariah Carey

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Review: ‘Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street’

I finally had the opportunity to catch Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, the documentary that explores the infamous homoerotism of the first sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Co-directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, this heartfelt documentary examines this aspect of the oft-maligned ’85 sequel in a unique way—by focusing on the human toll the film’s reputation took on its leading man.

Mark Patton was just 25 when he was cast as the lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, quite the professional coup after leaving home in the Midwest at 17 to pursue his dreams of a career as an actor. Patton’s all-American good looks led to immediate bookings in national commercials, with his big break coming shortly thereafter when he landed a plum supporting role in the Broadway play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, directed by Robert Altman and starring Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, and a pre-Misery Kathy Bates—a role he repeated in the subsequent film version. By the time he landed the role of Jesse Walsh in the Elm Street sequel, Patton—who was gay and closeted, as the times dictated—had moved out to Hollywood where he met and began a relationship with Dallas actor Timothy Patrick Murphy.

Despite its commercial success, Freddy’s Revenge was widely derided and eventually became known in the early days of Internet film analysis as "the gayest horror movie ever made." Although time—and evolving social mores—have been kind to the film and elevated it to the status of a cult classic and even revered because of its not-so-subtle-after-all gay subtext, Patton’s career became collateral damage. The actor was wrecked by the negative response to the film and comments about his performance. Following an episode of Hotel and a CBS Schoolbreak Special, in which he co-starred—ironically—with A Nightmare on Elm Street final girl Heather Langenkamp, his acting career came to an unceremonious end. His personal life was no better—Murphy would die, tragically, of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 29 and Patton’s own HIV-positive diagnosis would eventually follow, complicated when he came down with tuberculosis. He left Hollywood in due course upon his recovery, retreating down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he entered into decades of self-imposed exile—albeit with some newfound personal happiness in the form of a husband and an art store, where he sells works of his own creation, including a line of painted handbags he designed.

In 2010, Daniel Farrands, director of the exhaustive Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, tracked Patton down and entreated him to speak openly about his experiences and his legacy as part of the iconic film franchise. It was during his participation in Never Sleep Again that Patton came to realize just how dramatically the critical and cultural tide had begun to turn in favor of Freddy’s Revenge, with the film now hailed for the very thing that had caused him so much past anguish. Patton found himself applauded across the horror convention circuit, and that led to his desire to get his life story out into the world by developing a film (then) called There Is No Jesse. Unbeknownst to him, he would soon cross paths on social media with two aspiring filmmakers with a shared love for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2—and four years later, the trio gifts fans with Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.

Chimienti and Jensen have crafted a polished and engaging documentary, utilizing interviews, archival footage, and a “day-in-the-life-of” approach as they follow Patton from one convention to another. Although the documentary threatens at times to burst at its seams with all that the filmmakers earnestly include here, it’s Patton—the film’s center—who grounds the proceedings with his candid, sometimes achingly bittersweet recollections of his journey. Watching Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I found myself raging at times over the homophobic inner-workings of the Hollywood machine during the AIDS plague, cheering for Patton’s self-discovery and journey to reclaim his legacy at others. It’s hard not to find yourself in a puddle of tears watching how Patton is revered by the Elm Street fans and to feel the palpable sense of empowerment as he takes to the stage to rightfully affirm his place as horror’s original “final boy” while embracing the “scream queen” title that was once weaponized against him. 

The central conflict of the documentary is framed between Freddy’s Revenge screenwriter David Chaskin and Patton, with the latter holding firm to the claim that Chaskin disingenuously skirted responsibility for the film’s overtly gay subtext. Chaskin long-maintained that it was Patton’s performance that was responsible for the film’s gay overtones that unsettled audiences upon its release, even going on record with the proud admission that his screenplay was meant to be homophobic versus homoerotic. In this 2007 interview with Bloody Good Horror, Chaskin says:

“Yes, there was certainly some intentional subtext but it was intended to play homophobic rather than homoerotic. I thought about the demographics for these types of films (young, heterosexual males) and tried to imagine what kinds of things would truly frighten them, to the core. And scary dreams that make them, even momentarily, question their own sexuality seemed like a slam dunk to me.

If you really wanted to have fun, one might argue that the entire movie is a metaphor—Jesse is, in the end, finally able to control the monster inside him (his latent homosexuality) with the love of a good woman. Maybe they should show this film at one of those evangelical deprogramming sessions where they try to ‘fix’ gay people into regular Americans.

That said, there were certain choices that were made (e.g., casting) that, I think, pushed the subtext to a higher level and stripped away whatever subtlety there may have been. To this day, Jack Sholder says he read no such subtext into the script. It must have been by osmosis. At any rate, he should have seen it coming—when we opened in New York, we got a rave review in The Advocate.”

It’s here—with the resolution of this central conflict—that my one and only criticism with this otherwise pitch-perfect documentary comes into play: Chimienti and Jensen should have skipped it. It falls flat and lacks the requisite catharsis necessary to resolve the focal tension the film devotes much of its 99-minute running time to exploring. What should play as a pivotal moment in Patton’s liberation from this emotional shackle that he’s carried with him for more than three decades comes across as anticlimactic, with Chaskin’s “apology” being anything but. It’s a jarring moment of insincerity in what’s been nothing but a pervasive sense of sincerity throughout the rest of the film. Even Patton looks nonplussed. It’s an awkward scene that fails to give the audience the payoff it’s expecting—and the moment of unequivocal apology that Patton deserved.   

Yes, Chaskin is an asshole for intentionally injecting homophobia into his script, but I found Freddy’s Revenge director Jack Sholder far more culpable for his part in dodging accountability—and almost insultingly so. The film—as in, the one Sholder directed—includes a sequence in a gay bar (that was shot in an actual gay bar!), frequent male nudity, crotch shots, and glistening male chests, a bare-assed towel-whipping of a naked restrained man in the shower, a scene in which Freddy Krueger caresses Jesse's face before suggestively sticking a clawed finger in his mouth (which actor Robert Englund even admits was meant to be homoerotic), Patton in tighy-whities, Patton in a jockstrap, and Patton's butt-bumping solo dance to “Touch Me (All Night Long)” by Wish featuring Fonda Rae. That Sholder can claim no knowledge, no awareness of the gay subtext in his own movie is maddening to watch—especially in a later scene in which he basically tells Patton that it’s time to “get over it.” I was left shouting “WTF?!” at my television and wanting to throw the remote at Sholder’s clearly dishonest attempt to remove himself from any semblance of answerability by claiming naiveté. 

Chimienti and Jensen wisely employ a diversity of voices to fill their documentary’s requisite talking head roles, from the film’s cast and crew, to fans, to film scholars. UC Colorado Film Studies professor Andrew Scahill provides some of the film’s best academic moments, providing salient points in support of reclaiming A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 as a progressive film about sexual identity. Drag performer Peaches Christ also speaks persuasively about the connection between horror and the queer experience. The reunion scenes between Patton and his NOES2 cast members have a trepidatious energy running throughout—no one (besides maybe character actor Marshall Bell) seems completely at ease. Still, it’s great to see Kim Myers, Clu Gulager, Robert Rusler, JoAnn Willette, Englund, and Bell all together again.

The filmmakers take on a lot—from online bullying and the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis on the gay community to final girl film theory and queer cinema. Despite its ambitions that—in less capable hands—could have derailed the train, Chimienti and Jensen somehow manage to keep this hefty cinematic locomotive on the tracks, ultimately crafting an intensely personal, often painful, and surprisingly moving exploration of the life of a young gay man who reached for his Hollywood star during the Reagan era only to watch it fall from the sky as quickly as it began to rise against the backdrop of AIDS and the homophobia of the period. While Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street may have started out as a passion project for two gay horror fanboys and a lost celebrity they connected with online, it establishes itself as an instantly significant contribution to the oeuvre of film and the canon of LGBTQ studies. That Chimienti and Jensen are able to, in effect, teach an important lesson in queer history to a predominantly heterosexual audience by following Patton’s journey from closeted Missourian teenager and aspiring actor to self-described “Greta Garbo of horror” to his creative rebirth is nothing short of remarkable—especially for two first-time documentarians. As Patton says near the end of the film:

“My generation is gone. I have no friends my age. I want people to know their history. I want them to at least hear from somebody that the way the world is now…it wasn’t this way five minutes ago.”

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is a heartrending requiem to missed potential and man’s ability to rewrite his narrative—tracing a proud scream queen’s journey from promise and unlimited potential through the darkness of crippling pathos and out into the light of hard-won personal peace. It’s about the promise of a second act no matter how long the first one runs over. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

‘Underwater’ Keeps Its Head Above the Déjà Vu

Movie audiences have been long conditioned toward preconception and expectation based on a film’s release date. It’s become generally accepted that films released just before Memorial Day and July 4th are expected to be the big-budget summer blockbusters—those box office juggernauts whose special effects budgets are eclipsed only by their marketing costs. The more serious, arty films are released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the expectation of garnering awards nominations. Then there is January—that post-holiday cinematic graveyard when studios unceremoniously dump films for which they have little to no expectations into theaters where they sink or swim. Deep-sea actioner Underwater neither sinks nor swims—it dogpaddles.

As far back as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), there’s been a fascination with what lurks beneath the depths. Like deep space, the deep sea holds an element of the unknown and limitless possibility for all manner of imagined terrors, and filmmakers have been mining these creative waters since the early years of the Cold War era. I can trace my love of these underwater-set creature features all the way back to my childhood and one film, in particular—1966’s Destination Inner Space, in which a group of scientists aboard an undersea laboratory do battle with an extraterrestrial amphibian monster.

There have been no shortage of terror-under-the-seas flicks since—from 1973’s The Neptune Factor to 1998’s Sphere and 2005’s The Cave. 1989 seemed to be a particularly robust year for underwater monster mayhem with Leviathan, The Abyss, Deepstar Six, Lords of the Deep, and The Rift (aka Endless Descent) all released to varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the underwater terror made its way to the surface in films like Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Deep Rising (1998), and The Rig (2010). Other times, amplifications of familiar sea creatures—sharks, killer whales, piranha, octopus, even crabs—skimmed the surface to wreak havoc on fictional seaside communities.  

Underwater is the latest entry in this dubious tradition of sub-genre, a stylized big-budget film whose price tag (estimated at $80 million) can’t hide its B-movie pedigree. Sharing more plot-wise with Deepstar Six and Leviathan, Underwater takes place seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface on the bottom of the Mariana Trench at an underwater mining operation owned by one of those nefarious-sounding, faceless corporate entities called Kepler. The audience is barely introduced to aquatic engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) before all hell (literally) breaks loose and much of the undersea complex is damaged or destroyed by (cue the ominous Marco Beltrami/Brandon Roberts score)…something. The deep-sea action is relentless, with Norah making her way through the ruined, leaking complex toward the central command of the drill and picking up a few survivors along the way—including Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (comedian T.J. Miller), Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), research tech Emily (Jessica Henwick), and computer engineer Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). Ragtag team of survivors assembled, it’s on to full-tilt aquatic misadventure—the requisite blocked escape routes, imploding bulkheads, risky underwater excursions across the sea floor, and the Lovecraftian sea monsters picking off the survivors one by one.

Sure it’s derivative, another submerged riff on Alien that wears its Lovecraftian influences rather conspicuously. But Underwater is also lean and very mean, pushing the accelerator to the floor from its opening moments and never taking its foot off the gas. The aggressive pacing contributes to a breathlessness to the whole affair that helps the film rise above its unoriginality. Director William Eubank hones in on the sensory elements of his setting, using tight spaces, limited oxygen reserves, and the disorientation of the ocean bottom’s zero visibility to heighten the claustrophobic tension.  What the film lacks in narrative depth, it compensates for with its respectable visual aesthetic—courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who also stylishly lensed Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), The Ring (2002), and A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Kristen Stewart, who’s spent quite a few years trying to painstakingly shake the trio of Twilight movies that have long dogged her career, ably carries the film. She commands and holds our attention, no easy feat when the character is very clearly—and unimaginatively—drawn as an Ellen Ripley surrogate. (If the close-cropped hair and bomber jacket weren’t enough, the writers even find a way to have the character unnecessarily running around in a sports bra and panties by film’s end.) To her credit, Stewart goes all in with her performance, rising above the sub-par material to fashion a respectable science-fiction/horror heroine. With little from the script itself to aid in her character’s development, Stewart instead shows us who Norah is through a series of conflicting emotions as the situation on the ocean floor worsens. She’s simultaneously terrified and panic-stricken, pragmatic and resilient—an everyday nobody who transforms into a durable, kick-ass heroine.

Underwater knows what it is and never pretends to be anything but. It’s a pure B-movie creature feature throwback to 1989—slick schlock that understands the rules and never tries to break or bend them (for better or worse).

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Xavier Dolan’s ‘Death and Life’ Matters

Watched an interesting film last evening called THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN, a determined arthouse muddle that suffers for its ambition but is nonetheless a compelling watch that I'd recommend.

The film boasts an impressive cast: Kit Harrington (fresh off GAME OF THRONES), Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Natalie Portman, Thandie Newton, Michael Gambon, Jared Keeso, Chris Zylka, Amara Karan, Ben Schnetzer, and an astonishingly good Jacob Tremblay (of ROOM fame). Jessica Chastain was also in the cast, but her part was excised from the final cut of the film in an effort by director Xavier Dolan to address issues with pacing and the film's running time.

In 2006, the title character (Harington) is a popular TV and movie star and the object of an 11-year-old aspiring thespian named Rupert's (Tremblay) devout fan worship. Rupert, an American expat living in England with his drifting, neurotic mother (Portman), is a precocious outsider struggling to fit in and subject to the cruel bullying by classmates that carries a strong undercurrent of homophobia. One source of comfort in his isolation is an unlikely (and clandestine) pen-pal correspondence he strikes up with Donovan and the string of handwritten letters they exchange over the five years before Donovan’s shocking tabloid-ready death.

The film totters back and forth between 2006 and 2017, as adult Rupert (Schnetzer)—also now an actor—publishes a book around the now-infamous correspondence and Rupert's interpretation of Donovan's tragically short life in the context of his writings. Using an interview with a reluctant journalist (Newton) in Prague, Dolan provides a serviceable—if somewhat anemic—framing device to recount the parallels and interconnected pasts of Donovan and the pre-adolescent Rupert.

Thematically, the film tackles quite a bit—the price of celebrity, familial resentment, the eternal struggle of self-acceptance at odds with the need for the acceptance of others, queer isolation, the impact that movies have in shaping our identities. It's a lot of philosophical meat to chew on, and this is where Dolan loses his storytelling grasp a bit. He seems determined to cram it all in and, unfortunately, some of the weightier themes get glossed over in his ambition. You’re left with the impression that Dolan’s film—despite its Chastain-erasing edit—would have benefitted from more time in the editing room. There’s also a nagging ambiguity about the epistolary relationship between Donovan and Rupert, with the impression of scandal hinted at but never delved into in any meaningful way. What was it about Rupert’s initial fan letter that caused an in-demand celebrity like Donovan to reply—and what was it in their subsequent letters that kept the correspondence going for years? These are questions that go frustratingly unanswered.

Visually, the film is a treat. Cinematographer André Turpin's sumptuous, burnished color palette and stylish camerawork lend a dreamy quality to the film. Likewise, the acting ensemble—particularly some of the supporting players here like Bates, Karan, and Gambon—grounds the film even when it threatens to go airborne with some of its loftier concepts. Sarandon, in particular, is excellent as Donovan’s alcoholic mother, even when her scenes splashing booze around threaten to descend into pure camp.

Despite its miscalculations, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN can be appreciated for Dolan’s confidence as a filmmaker. Although the cluttered fragmentation undermines the pace of the film at times, it also lends a surrealism that pulls you in. It’s a thought-provoking film that—despite how much it packs into its 123-minute running time—still feels unfinished. The film limps into the U.S. marketplace weakly in select theaters and VOD—arriving more than a year after its ill-received premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival—where I hope it finds some appreciation for the beautiful disaster it is.