In receiving major awards at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Kate Winslet and Sir Anthony Hopkins chose, instead, to honour coronavirus pandemic frontline workers in their acceptance speeches.
Rugby has a certain image tinged with toxic masculinity. One which hasn’t been helped by players such as Israel Falou and his homophobic vitriol disguised as freedom of speech. Steelers: The World’s Frist Gay Rugby Club looks set to bleach that image by dismantling stereotypes and perceptions, and acting as a joyful celebration of the sport.
Directed by former Aussie news reporter, Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, the film follows the trials and tribulations of the titular Kings Cross Steelers, a London based rugby team founded in 1995 at the Central Station gay pub. The team’s aim then, as it is today, was to give gay and bisexual men an inclusive environment in which to play rugby. Over 20 years later, there are now more than 50 LGBTQIA clubs in the world. Not bad at all.
Having experienced a concussion 6 weeks into a season playing for the Steelers, Ashton-Atkinson picks up a camera to film the team’s chances as they enter the Bingham Cup, a competition named after gay rugby player, Mark Bingham, who died on the ill-fated flight, United 93. With the team in Amsterdam, and going up against teams like the Sydney Convicts, the director follows three members of the team, including coach Nic Evans, as they talk candidly about coming out and their relationship with Rugby.
Ashton-Atkinson clearly cares for his subjects as much as he does his sport, perhaps to a fault. As he manages to get them to open up, he’s almost apologetic about how they’ll be viewed once the film is released. And to be fair, for players like Simon Jones, the documentary is just another way of putting yourself out there that has not worked out for him in the past.
However, Ashton-Atkinson really shouldn’t worry. Steelers is a life affirming film that manages to whack a great big smile on your face. The joy and love the players have for each other is infectious, and even if you have no particular interest in the sport, you’ll be hard pushed not to be cheering them on as they charge towards the Bingham Cup final.
Joining a small sub-genre of ersatz time travel flicks about people-from-the-past-who-are-frozen-and-then-wake-up-in-the-present (Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Idiocracy, Captain America: The First Avenger), An American Pickle is a slight delight in what is the perennial bummer of the COVID era. Interestingly, the film – which was made for the US streaming service HBO Max – may not even have made it into cinemas if it wasn’t for coronavirus, so the pandemic might be responsible for a few miniscule positives after all. That said, this is certainly no unheralded masterpiece, but it does offer plenty of laughs and some good vibes, and for that we should be thankful.
Seth Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a destitute Eastern European immigrant who comes to America in search of a better life in the early twentieth century, but ends up in a brining factory beating rats to death with a baseball bat. Just before the factory is set to be condemned, Herschel falls into a vat of brine, and remains there undiscovered until 2020. Awoken from his salty slumber in perfect health, Herschel is, of course, a man out of time, and his views and ideals don’t exactly fit in with what’s now happening in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. His only contact with this not-so-brave-new-world is Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen again), a goofy young app designer with few family ties and no real bonds to his past. To say that their relationship becomes somewhat fraught would be an understatement.
Directed with casual assurance by veteran cinematographer turned debut feature filmmaker Brandon Trost (who has shot many Rogen-connected projects, like The Disaster Artist, The Interview, BadNeighbours and This Is The End, along with many others), An American Pickle is based on a short story by Simon Rich (who also adapts), and its slim origins show through. The narrative lacks complexity, and the absence of any supporting characters with real depth is occasionally off-putting. Seth Rogen, however, is exceptional as both Herschel and Ben, differentiating them with aplomb, and finding their comic beats with his usual blustery charm. Herschel’s man-out-of-time confusion is mined for all it’s worth, while the scientific explanation for his preservation is glossed over hilariously. The fish-out-of-water jokes are certainly very funny, but the most laughs are actually to be had in the film’s bleak Eastern European opening sequence, where Herschel and the love of his life (Aussie legend Sarah Snook, who has not nearly enough screen time but makes it count with a very, very amusing performance) evade marauding Cossacks and live a squalid life of abject misery. It resounds with Mel Brooks-meets-early-Woody-Allen black humour, and while the rest of the film doesn’t quite match the opening, An American Pickle does bring the laughs in a pretty big way.
Even outside of lockdown conditions, watching certain independent features can instil one with a very specific type of jealousy. The kind where, after seeing a single name attached to so many aspects of a single production, you remember how much of a trek it was to get out of the bed that morning and become bewildered at how any one person can have that much energy.
And in the case of filmmaker/actor Matt Fifer, his feature debut has him firing on all cylinders, co-directing alongside Kieran Mulcare, writing the script with co-star Sheldon D. Brown, editing next to Kyle Sims, as well as carrying the bulk of the emotional load onscreen. The only thing better than seeing someone that motivated is seeing all that hard work pay off in such gratifying fashion.
What makes Cicada truly shine, for all the incredibly murky and uncomfortable material it delves into, is its remarkable deftness of touch. When showing Fifer’s Ben and Brown’s Sam’s budding relationship, the tenderness and genuine intimacy between them creates a healthy bedrock for their musings and confrontations with their respective traumas. And whether it’s providing montage material or simply gliding over these lovers in each other’s arms, Eric Schleicher’s camera work taps into the indie ideal of making the everyday look wondrous. The way he plays around with water and reflections, in particular, is captivating.
It all adds to the film’s intentions of realism, reportedly built out of Fifer and Brown’s own experiences, and the resulting depiction of trauma certainly gives that impression. Exploring notions of racial prejudice, the effects of sexual abuse (with the grim spectre of Sandusky looming over the film’s period setting), the apprehension about coming out (which, unfortunately, can still be a difficult task even today), and all the while keeping the strictly LGBT framing from descending into armchair psychology clichés.
That on its own is already an impressive move, but the film’s larger connections to the LGBT umbrella manages to improve on that. The inclusion of the fabulous Jason ‘Freckle’ Greene, who shines with one of the script’s purple-r moments, mingles with the recurring ‘abolition of gender’ imagery to reinforce genderqueer solidarity, and with Ben specifically – he marks one of the more complex depictions of bisexuality in modern cinema.
Fifer’s characterisation plays into mainstream stereotypes (where ‘can have sex with any gender’ gets conflated with ‘will have sex’), and yet through delicate thematic touches that involve, surprisingly enough, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, recontextualise it as simply part of the standard courting practice. With how much flak the Bs still get in the mainstream (and even within the LGBT grouping), that on its own makes this whole endeavour worthwhile.
Cicada is an indie romance that manages to cover a lot of ground, both sexually and psychologically, with a refined hand and playful direction, making for a progressive outing that feels like you really just watched two people learn to live and love happily.
The Mandalorian and the Child return in the era after the collapse of the Galactic Empire. Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers and Giancarlo Esposito star for directors Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rick Famuyiwa, Carl Weathers, Peyton Reed and Robert Rodriguez, under the watchful eye of Showrunner Jon Favreau.