Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: A Gay New Film Year


 

While we're all concerned about the rise of der f├╝hrer Trump, we mustn't allow him to obscure the fact that we are living in a darn good time for LGBTQ film and filmmakers.  Moonlight is up for multiple Oscars including Best Picture and several award winners from last year's festival circuit are newly available on home video.  If that wasn't enough, last month's Sundance Film Festival introduced a whole new crop of LGBTQ-themed movies that will be distributed later this year.


Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is now in theatrical release and couldn't be better timed.  An Oscar nominee for Best Feature Documentary, it draws from gay and African-American writer James Baldwin's notes for a book he wasn't able to finish before his death in 1987.  The film also incorporates considerable TV footage of and commentary by Baldwin himself as it explores race relations in the US then and now.

Whereas Baldwin's book was primarily concerned with the assassinations of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, Peck expands this into an examination of civil rights today.  Samuel L. Jackson gives appropriately strong voice to Baldwin's incisive words. The doc's bottom line is a galvanizing one: the ongoing "racial problem" in America has more to do with how short we have fallen as a nation in upholding our foundational values. Race is merely an excuse. As Baldwin states in the film, "The story of the Negro in America is the story of America... this is not the Land of the Free."

Baldwin was by his own admission, however, an optimist.  The dream shared by him and the martyrs he was writing about can yet be achieved.  In fact, we must achieve it.  I Am Not Your Negro is undeniably challenging but ultimately inspiring and should not be missed.


Ethnic differences are also a factor in the gay romantic-drama Akron, though more subtle.  It is now available on DVD and VOD from Wolfe Video.  Benny and Christopher are openly gay students attending college in the title Ohio city. They meet cute one day while playing football and begin dating soon after.  Unfortunately, they discover that a tragic event from their early childhood has put their parents at odds.  Benny's Latino family has a more difficult time accepting Christopher as a result.

Matthew Frias and Edmund Donovan are sweet, not to mention attractive, as the beleaguered young lovers, and Broadway actress Andrea Burns (In the Heights) gives a solid performance as Benny's mother.  Brian O'Donnell, the film's gay writer/director/producer, was born and raised in Akron and subsequently captures its Midwest melting pot vibe well (Sasha King serves as co-director).  While the script's family dynamics get soapy at times, it is refreshing to see how otherwise well-adjusted the gay characters are.  Teens and young adults especially should check Akron out.  Also new from Wolfe and worth checking out is the German drama Jonathan, about a straight young man who learns his terminally-ill father is gay.


Out fashion designer Tom Ford made a splash with his filmmaking debut, 2009's A Single Man.  He has returned with Nocturnal Animals, a decided change of pace that is newly available for digital download and on Blu-ray/DVD combo courtesy of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.  Based on Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan, the stylish yet noir-esque film is also decidedly darker than its predecessor.

Amy Adams stars as Susan, an art gallery buyer in an unhappy second marriage.  She one day receives out of the blue the pre-published proof of a novel written by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).  She is initially flattered that the book is dedicated to her but becomes increasingly horrified by its vengeance-tinged plot about a man whose wife and daughter are murdered by a gang of hoodlums headed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who last month won a Golden Globe for his creepy turn here.  Michael Shannon is currently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Nocturnal Animals as a dying detective trying to hunt down the killers.

As a thriller, Ford's latest is unsettling yet satisfying.  It is less successful as a portrait of a failed marriage and many viewers will find the finale downright polarizing.  Thankfully, the film is not without humor courtesy of Shannon's and Taylor-Johnson's unhinged performances.  There is mention of Susan's brother being gay but otherwise no LGBT content.  Ford continues to stretch and grow, however, as a gay filmmaker.


Sadly, it is more difficult to say the same of Alain Guiraudie.  The French writer-director garnered international acclaim for his sexually-explicit, 2013 gay suspense-drama Stranger by the Lake. Guiraudie's new film, Staying Vertical, is still sexually-explicit but also pretty darn bad.  This confused story about a sexually confused man manages to be more repellent than engrossing.  More adventurous and/or non-discriminating moviegoers will be tempted to take it in during its current theatrical release in select US cities.  Just don't say I didn't warn you.  You'll be better off with the award-winning documentary Kiki, kind of an update of 1991's Paris is Burning about NYC's current ball culture, or the real-time gay romance Paris 05:59: Theo & Hugo.  Both are also now in US theatrical release.

Looking ahead, we've got LGBTQ Sundance darlings Call Me By My Name, Beach Rats and God's Own Country on the horizon.  Not even Trump can stop 2017 from being a great gay year at the cinema!

Reverend's Ratings:
I Am Not Your Negro: A
Akron: B
Jonathan: B+
Nocturnal Animals: B-
Staying Vertical: D

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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