Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: January 2020

Wednesday

29

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Spaceship Earth

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The relative value of the individual versus the collective is a well-explored school of philosophy. Hegel and Marx built their careers emphasizing the potential unleashed when the proletariat synchronizes with the nation-state. John Allen understood the power of organized labor, harnessing a group of hippies in a series of jaw-dropping creations.

Spaceship Earth documents the transformation of Allen’s commune from its humble origins farming, all the way to biosphere engineers on their self-appointed task to save humanity. What the group lacks in academic credibility, it makes up for in interpretative theatre.

About half of the film focuses on the group’s most impressive project. Biosphere 2 was a unique product of the 90s, with space-age optimism rampant in the air. By locking up eight people in an enclosed biosphere for two years, an environment meant to emulate the various regions of the Earth, Allen and his buddies aimed to provide a road map for humanity after Earth.

Spaceship Earth demonstrates the power of a group of hippies working collectively with the help of a wealthy billionaire friend. A preposterous yet very entertaining story. Allen’s boat-building, world traveling antics are very amusing, but less impressive once the film exposes Ed Bass as the bank behind the curtains. 

The film doesn’t really go out of its way to attack the credibility of Biosphere 2, but some key trends emerge that expose the project as a farce. Constantly billed as a “research” experiment, none of the members of John Allen’s merry band have anything to say about revelatory findings from the project. Their lack of controls for Biosphere 2 ruined any value for academic purposes, but the group doesn’t really contest this.

Biosphere 2 was the professional wrestling version of science, a tantalizing farce for the media to gobble up. The self-described biospherians seems to look back fondly on their time locked up in a CO2-riddled terrarium. The documentary itself is a blast, including cameo footage from Rue McClanahan and a young Steve Bankom.

As a film, it doesn’t really try to dig all that deep into the biosphere’s artificial terrain. Allen himself explains this quite well. Life is theatre. The documentary concerns itself with the theatrics of the group’s schemes. Maybe there doesn’t need to be anything else.

The only area of struggle for director Matt Wolf lies in the narrative within the biosphere. Spaceship Earth takes a broader approach to the history of Allen’s group, squeezing all of that plus Biosphere 2 in a two-hour runtime. This dynamic forces two different climaxes for the narrative, one for the biosphere and another for the documentary itself. Wolf bites off a little more than he can chew in the third act, causing a bit of indigestion with his abrupt landing.

Spaceship Earth is absolutely fascinating. There’s little to learn from the antics of a wealthy commune, but they’re so much fun to watch. What’s missing in substance is certainly made up by theatre. For Allen, life is too short to worry about things like facts or research. Perhaps there are worse legacies to leave.

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Wednesday

29

January 2020

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Sundance Review: High Tide

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Personal space is a vital component to a happy life. Having work done on one’s home naturally leads to an Encroachment on that sense of privacy. High Tide is a film that explores the struggles of agency when people feel they can take advantage of you.

Laura (Gloria Carrá) is having an outdoor BBQ built at her home, a beautiful secluded modern house that’s also close to the beach. She sleeps with the lead contractor Weisman (Jorge Sesán), a man she feels some attraction toward despite the sense of superiority she admits in their power balance. Weisman isn’t much of a catch, but Laura likes to be in charge of her own decisions.

The situation is exacerbated once Weisman disappears, leaving his employees to finish the job. His subordinates have little respect for Laura, using her home at will and making a mess of the grounds. Her efforts to control the dynamic fall on deaf, drunken ears.

High Tide is an intimate kind of film. Director Verónica Chen shows off her skills as a filmmaker by the way she constantly reinvents Laura’s relationship to her surroundings, namely the house where the vast majority of the narrative takes place. Very little changes in the setting, but Chen makes sure it never feels stale.

Carrá has a way of communicating Laura’s angst with subtle gestures. She doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, instead conveying the plot progression largely through emotion. She’s incredibly relatable as a lead, capturing the essence of one’s loss of privacy. Anyone who has ever had their space invaded can naturally identify with the dilemma Laura faces for most of the film.

As a setting, Laura’s house proves a strong place to situate the narrative, but the film struggles a bit in the few scenes set elsewhere. So much of the story is tied up with Laura’s sense of authority that less-focused efforts to develop her as a character fall a bit flat. You get the sense that the film did need to stretch its legs a bit from a single location, but it doesn’t really know what to do with that time.

The film also sputters a little bit down the stretch, leaving an ending that’s quite thought-provoking, but a little out of left field. Chen is great at crafting scenes that a general audience would find relatable, building a foundation that keeps you thinking long after the credits roll. Laura isn’t an easy character to dissect, which makes her all the more compelling as a protagonist.

At times, High Tide is a frustrating film, but it’s a finely crafted narrative well-worth a watch. Laura is an inspiring character in a weird sort of way. Women are often pushed around by men without a care in the world. Chen’s triumph is through her ability to unpack everyday sexism and the lasting ramifications that occur when our personal space gets violated.

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Wednesday

29

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Feels Good Man

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The tragedy of Pepe the Frog is one of the saddest stories to come out of meme culture. Cartoonist Matt Furie created the laid-back amphibian as part of his Boy’s Club comic back in 2005. The character’s signature phrase, “feels good man” caught on in the early days of social media, with many quoting Pepe on the Myspace or Tumblr pages.

On the road to Internet stardom, Pepe found himself particularly popular on the imageboard site 4chan. The anonymous nature of 4chan has made the site popular among the alt-right, neo-nazis, and other group who would otherwise be reticent to share their identities. Pepe gradually become their standard bearer, a symbol of hate stripped from his fun-loving creator. The documentary Feels Good Man captures the strange tale of Pepe’s crazy life.

Internet culture is hard to understand and even more difficult to explain. Director Arthur Jones meticulously breaks down how 4chan works and how Pepe found himself riding the first wave of memes. He’s a cute, sad figure with a weird universal appeal. He’s like a cartoon Rorschach test, able to be whatever the individual needs him to be. Sadly, that made poor Pepe an easy target to be co-opted.

Matt Furie is a very likable person. He’s soft-spoken and laid back, the kind of college stoner who never totally grew up. The film includes a number of scenes in Furie’s home with his partner and daughter, painting a stark contrast between Pepe’s gentle creator and the hateful groups that have hijacked his image.

The film includes a fair number of superb animated sequences that transition the film between its subjects. Furie appears sporadically throughout the narrative, reflecting the bizarre cultural divorce between the creator and his work. Jones depicts Furie’s legal battles with far-right figures. After a while you just want to give him a hug, a man full of obvious despair.

Jones interviews a few 4chan users to explain how the site managed to turn Pepe into a hate symbol. The scenes are often hard to watch, but it’s an important lens to shine on a toxic subculture. Thankfully, Jones does so responsibly.

Feels Good Man also takes a look at the statistical impact of memes across the world. Studies place Pepe among the most recognizable of memes in the world, a commodity so valuable that “rare Pepes” sell for thousands of dollars at auctions. It needs to be seen to be believed. Jones captures the phenomenon quite well.

There’s a strange line drawn between Pepe and the election of Donald Trump, the frog used as a rallying cry for incels. Feels Good Man uses a lot of levity in its approach to this dark, twisted reality we’re supposedly living in. Pepe became an Internet martyr, but the film goes out of its way to assure its audience that there’s hope for a better tomorrow.

Feels Good Man is a touching documentary about a tragic American icon and his grieving creator. Pepe deserved better from this world, but in Jones, he finds a valuable orator. The film is a shining example of how to cover the Internet age in all its peculiarities. 

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Tuesday

28

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Uncle Frank

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Gay movies are often pretty sad. Gay history is often pretty depressing stuff, full of people who were persecuted for the crime of loving another individual. American culture has largely moved past the darkest era, though LGBTQ equality is far from complete, leaving a complicated legacy for filmmakers to approach. 

As a period piece set in the 70s, Uncle Frank is a film that takes place long before gay people had anything resembling human rights. To make matters worse for its title character, growing up in rural South Carolina set the clock back even further. Even to this day, LGBTQ people are forced to consider whether coming out will destroy any chance at prosperity.

The film splits its time between dual protagonists. Frank (Paul Bettany) is a professor at NYU, living a happy, fairly normal life with his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). Much of the narrative is told through the perspective of Frank’s niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), a freshman at the university who Frank rescued from a small-town fate she was hardly destined for. To Beth, Frank is just about the only relative who understands her. 

Writer and director Alan Ball has been immersed in gay storytelling for decades, possessing a keen ability to break subtle new ground in the genre. Six Feet Under portrayed its gay characters with dignity and grace long before most TV shows felt comfortable in their terrain. With Uncle Frank, Ball plays quite a bit of revisionist history, but the approach works pretty well.

Gay people deserve happy stories. Uncle Frank isn’t a narrative concerned with misery, though there’s plenty of it to go around. Bettany plays Frank with a chip on his shoulder, a kind man hardened by the cruel world around him. Macdissi is a force of nature as Wally, an utterly ridiculous character for the 1970s. Wally comes from Saudia Arabia, though he possesses a progressive sense of goodwill straight out of the 2010s. Wally’s charm is infectious, well worth the required suspension of disbelief.

The film occasionally stumbles through its narrative, a second act that circles the runway a bit too long while waiting for its ending. The source of Frank’s demons is a bit predictable. Ball is also often unsure what to do with Beth for large chunks of the second half.

Margo Martindale basically saves the film with a touching performance as Frank’s mother. Uncle Frank functions mostly as a period piece that ignores the history it doesn’t want to touch, a heartwarming narrative for gay people who want to move on from the past. The film succeeds most when it reminds its audience of the ways that people can surprise you even when you think you’ve got them figured out.

By no means a perfect journey, Uncle Frank is a powerful tear-jerker. LGBTQ people are too often forced to live our lives in fear of losing a basic sense of acceptance. Ball’s film unabashedly celebrates the joys of being out. It’s a little far-fetched, but a narrative fitting for a group of people who don’t get to see the pleasure of being gay reflected on screen very much. 

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Tuesday

28

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Kajillionaire

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Plenty of films feature villains whose entire villainy is based on the lack of love they received from their parents. If love is all, what are we without it? Kajillionaire doesn’t seek to vilify its characters while exploring what happens when families operate without an ounce of affection.

Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) are two con artists who grift their way through life with their twenty-six-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). They live in squalor in a dilapidated office space adjacent to a chemical plant. Every afternoon the plant drips mountains of foam into their living space, requiring the three to schedule their day of schemes around cleaning up the mess. It’s a sad life to say the least.

An airplane encounter with a young woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) changes their group dynamic quite a bit. Theresa and Robert bond with the eager thrillseeker, much to Old Dolio’s dismay. The affection they give Melanie stands in stark contrast to the transactional nature of their relationship.

Part of the beauty of Kajillionaire lies in the shamelessness of its leads. They’re not completely soulless, but the kind of awful people who manage to lie, rob, and steal on a daily basis without ever feeling remorse for their actions. The grift is their whole life, always in search of a con that’ll keep their landlord off their back for a few more weeks.

Writer and director Miranda July slowly unpacks the broader themes about love and affection. The narrative moves at a casual pace, not in any rush to get to its destination. July never lets the heavy stuff get in the way of the fun.

The acting is superb. Winger, Jenkins, and Wood are a very believable, highly dysfunctional family. Rodriguez’s Melanie is a little more preposterous, but she gives the character enough depth that she doesn’t end up feeling like a plot device. None of the characters are particularly likable. You root for them to the extent that one wants a class-clown to get away with pulling a prank on the teacher.

Kajillionaire is largely a film about human nature. Can people ever change? That kind of metaphysical question doesn’t lend itself to an easy answer, but July doesn’t try to force contrived findings upon the audience. It’s more a character study piece, perhaps one that didn’t publish its findings just yet.

The plot of the film has a pretty narrow scope, oddly reflective of the characters’ own lives. They don’t have goals or ambitions behind living to the next day. Growth for Old Dolio carries a steep learning curve, a simple hug opening up far too many doors. 

Kajillionaire is a peculiar journey full of laughter that isn’t always quite sure if it’s heading in the right direction. It’s an uncomfortably sweet narrative. With a great script and excellent lead performances, the film is one that will certainly keep you thinking after the credits roll.

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Wendy

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The story of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a timeless narrative, a tempting tale for ambitious directors to try to tackle. Benh Zeitlin made a big first impression with his delightful Beasts of the Southern Wild, an ambitious indie that packed an emotional punch. With Wendy, Zeitlin aims for the stars, often forgetting what direction to fly in.

Wendy (Devin France) is an imaginative young girl who enjoys playing by the train tracks next to her mother’s diner with her two older brothers (Gage Naquin and Gavin Naquin). One night, the three find themselves whisked away to Neverland by a very young Peter (Ahmad Cage). This Neverland is a peculiar place, more like purgatory than paradise.

Zeitlin is quite skilled at turning each scene into an individual artistic moment. Wendy is an absolutely beautiful film. Largely filmed in the Caribbean, the cinematography provides visual overload time and time again.

The film doesn’t really use a conventional narrative. It’s a meditative work, mostly concerned with the soul-sucking nature of aging. The characters behave in fantastical fashions, but the film is a quieter take on Pan.

The young cast is quite talented, working with a script that often sounds like it was written by a college freshman obsessed with their first philosophy class. The script is a one-trick pony, uninterested in anything resembling normal human interaction. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the plot knew how to do anything other than meander along at a glacier-slow pace.

For a while, the film is pretty fun. Zeitlin throws the kids into some pretty outlandish scenarios. It feels good to be in Neverland, until the place starts looking like a post-apocalyptic dump in a clunky transition.

The first half works far better than the second. Wendy is a beautiful yet completely empty experience. Pleasing to the eyes with nothing for the soul. It’s a sad shame of a movie, one with so much obvious potential that can’t find a way to connect to the audience.

Zeitlin doesn’t really have an answer for what to do with Peter, wasting the character by putting him in a position that struggles to justify his presence at all. It may be titled Wendy, but Peter often feels weirdly irrelevant. Cage brings a lot of intrigue to the role, but the film rarely channels his energy.

Wendy is also way too long for its own good. With a runtime of close to two hours, the film runs out of steam long before its end. Zeitlin clearly has some points to make about the nature of aging, framing young and old in a weird black-and-white manner. He struggles to convey them in a way that would translate to an audience already bored by his antics.

There are other smaller issues with the pacing and the uncomfortable ways Zeitlin tries to move the plot forward. Some of it is just plain gross. The cinematography and the narrative exist on two separate planes, banging into each other like waves on the beaches of Neverland.

Wendy has so much potential as a film. It’s so beautiful and well acted, made by a director with a keen sense for detail. Almost all the pieces line up, but there’s a gaping hole in the middle that brings the whole thing crashing down. Most disappointing. 

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Sundance Review: Herself

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Herself is a film constantly wrestling with the concept of hope. No one wants to be defined by the single worst event in their lives, but reality has a way of forcing that dreadful nightmare down one’s throat. Money, children, and housing all complicate the idea of starting over, the stink of the past clinging like a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe.

The film follows an Irish mother Sandra (Clare Dunne) in the wake of a horrific beating from her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), who breaks her hand and gives her a black eye for trying to escape his clutches with their two young daughters. Sandra and the girls are placed in government housing, but Gary retains visitation rights. Even from afar, the monster retains a degree of power over Sandra’s life. 

Seeking a more stable living arrangement, Sandra seeks to build a small home. While the government cares little for Sandra’s efforts to move off their assistance, her employer Peggy (Harriet Walter) steps in to graciously offer unused land in her backyard. Lost in the world of construction, she enlists the help of Aidi (Conleth Hill), a cranky old contractor, to help build her dream home.

The cast is pretty top-to-bottom solid, providing many feel good moments throughout the film. Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara shine as Sandra’s very young daughters, working with mature material. There are a bunch of minor characters who don’t receive much development, but the ensemble works well in the group moments. 

Dunne carries the bulk of the narrative’s emotional weight. As the title suggests, Herself is a film about a woman striving for independence in a world that’s been anything but kind. Sandra is well-written, strong-willed but not stubborn. She asks for help when she needs it.

The film is a damning indictment of Ireland’s judicial system, one that allows Gary too much agency for an abusive creep. Anderson does a great job with Gary, giving a hate-inducing performance that gets under your skin. 

Director Phyllida Lloyd manages the story well, frequently playing with the emotional tempo. Herself is a safe story that hits all the right notes. It rules over the strings with heavy hands, enjoyable yet predictable.

For this kind of material, that’s not really a bad thing. Sandra is a strong, inspiring character. Herself isn’t the most memorable film in the world, but one that works far more often than it doesn’t. 

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Maxima

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It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of underdog narratives, which trace as far back as storytelling itself. There’s an inherent reliability in the plight of “David vs. Goliath” situations, people up against unthinkable odds. Documentaries like Maxima walk the same path, except with very real stakes at hand. As uplifting as it is to see people standing up for themselves, it is often quite difficult to see the hardships that are endured in the process. verify with the air conditioner service in vadodara

Máxima Acuña is a simple farmer with a big piece of land in the Peruvian Andes. On the surface, the terrain she calls home doesn’t seem like all that much. She’s able to grow some crops and raise some animals, but it’s a difficult life in a region rife with poverty. She needs her land to survive.

Máxima’s property, close to a lake, is under siege from the American-owned Newmont Mining Operation. The Peruvian Andes are home to plenty of gold that Newmont wants, spending billions of dollars to uproot the region in search of its precious commodity. Illegally occupying Máxima’s land, Newmont has been harassing her since 2011, a case that still hasn’t seen justice.

As a documentary, Maxima is quite effective at explaining the stakes at hand. The film includes some expert commentary on the nature of foreign mining operations to exploit land. Their corrupt practices are fully laid out, demonstrating the seeming sense of hopelessness that many feel against such powerful leviathans.

Newmont destroys Máxima’s crops and kills her animals. The local government doesn’t seem to care. The courts generally support Máxima’s position, but she’s forced to seek justice in the American legal system because of the shortcomings of the Peruvian government.

The documentary serves as a powerful indictment of the flaws in the legal system. Despite the many occasions that Newmont is shown to be in the wrong, they persist, both on Máxima’s land and in appeals courts. Máxima has the help of lawyers eager to fight on her behalf, but American nonprofits can’t stop a mining conglomerate from ripping up crops on her land in Peru.

The film also exposes the smaller-scale problems with the justice system. Court dates are frequently pushed back and rulings can take months, if not years. For people like Máxima, who have to walk seven hours to the nearest courthouse, these delays have real-time ramifications, time wasted and spirits crushed.

Máxima is a compelling lead figure who has inspired many to protest the injustice she’s faced. She’s not out to change the world, only to stop a company that wants to pillage her home. Maxima is a powerful story of resiliency, a finely crafted documentary that thoroughly explains the stakes at hand from both a political and a human perspective.

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Shoot to Marry

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What’s the best way to find true love? Entire industries are dedicated to pursuing that elusive answer. Director Steve Markle took an unusual approach to the question, filming the documentary Shoot to Marry as an effort to move past a failed proposal.

The film has a fairly simple plot. Markle reaches out to women he finds interesting and flies to their city to interview them. The interviews tend not to focus much on the women, often to their annoyance, but rather Markle’s own musings. It’s a fairly silly premise, but one that he commits to quite well.

Markle has a gift for comedy. Shoot to Marry aims for laughs more than enlightenment, a hilarious narrative that never takes itself too seriously. Markle is very self-deprecating, completely owning the film’s bizarre premise. The story of his break-up is told in vivid detail, a tragic event that obviously made a big impact on his life.

There are some that may find the nature of Markle’s deception off-putting on the surface, though it’s hard to say there’s ever a point where he paints his subjects in a negative light that takes advantage of them. The documentary does grapple with this subject, delivering a satisfying outcome. He’s a weird, lonely man with a seemingly good heart able to craft a narrative out of his quirks. It’s quite an impressive feat.

Markle also knows when less is more. The film’s seventy-seven-minute runtime is an asset, not letting the narrative overstay his welcome. Though he’s not forthcoming with why he’s interviewing women, he does present full portraits of those who agreed to be in the film, essentially delivering the outcome he initially promised them.

Though the film does at times struggle with what exactly it’s about, Markle does manage to introduce some food for thought to his audience. Shoot to Marry is a unique film. You may not learn a whole lot watching a grown man fly around North America to film women with the off chance that one might be attracted to him, but it’s a worthwhile experience. Few documentaries manage as many laughs as Markle achieved.

 

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Queen of the Capital

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Years ago, the idea that drag culture would someday enter the mainstream seemed fairly absurd, much like most of the tremendous progress that the LGBTQ community has made. For some, drag is a fun way to spend an evening. Others have built their entire communities around drag, finding family when their biological ones have turned them away. The documentary Queen of the Capital showcases the way that drag has served as the pillar of a gay community in Washington, D.C.

Daniel Hays works for the Department of Labor, a stable government job that provides a decent life. That’s not his true calling. Hays’ drag persona Muffy Blake Stephyns has a thick Southern accent and hair that stretches to the heavens.

Queen of the Capital largely centers around Muffy’s quest to be elected “Empress IV” of the Imperial Court of Washington, a nonprofit made up of drag kings and queens largely centered around charity work. Campaigning for the Court is no easy task, as those elected are expected to serve as fundraising powerhouse for the group for their one-year term. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of pageantry involved as the film depicts.

Muffy is a compelling protagonist for the documentary. Daniel shares a lot about his personal life, from his time as a drag performer to the health issues and depression he’s faced along the way. For Daniel, drag is the center of his whole world.

The film also spends time explaining the history of the Court and various figures who helped cement its status in D.C. This aspect of the documentary is particularly compelling, a strong reminder of how far gay rights and acceptance has come in this country. It really wasn’t all that long ago when men could be arrested for wearing women’s underwear.

Queen of the Capital is an intimate kind of documentary. Muffy is not a household name by any means. The scope of the film drives home the familial bonds of drag communities. You don’t need to know who Muffy is to feel warm inside at the loving nature of the Court that cares for its own.

The appeal of the documentary largely rests of how you feel about drag as a whole. Fans of drag will find much to enjoy in the narrative’s way of bringing out the humanity of the artform. Skeptics will likely not find much to sway their minds. The Court isn’t a very big charity, either in its membership or its fundraising power. Despite this, Queen of the Capital manages to present a compelling narrative through the caring lens it shines on the nature of drag to bring people together.

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