Saturday, September 14, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Putting Some Gay in 'It'

Novelist Stephen King has long trafficked successfully in making seemingly innocent or mundane things vessels of horror. Cars, antique stores, St. Bernards, cell phones, nurses and grand hotels are just a few examples. His most enduring, however, has proven to be a dancing clown who has haunted readers, TV viewers and moviegoers since 1986.

Pennywise, the clown in question, is back on the big screen now in It Chapter 2, the inevitable but appropriate sequel to 2017's blockbuster adaptation of King's novel It. 27 years after being temporarily defeated by seven juvenile inhabitants of Derry, Maine who were able to overcome their fear of him, Pennywise returns not only as part of his ongoing cycle of rejuvenation but for revenge.

King has incorporated gay characters into several of his novels but It may be the most significant in this regard. The new film opens with a horrific gay bashing taken from the book's mid-point that serves here as the catalyst for Pennywise's return. Out filmmaker-actor Xavier Dolan (last seen in Boy Erased) appears as Adrian Mellon. After enjoying a fun night at Derry's fair and talking about their impending move to New York City, Adrian and his boyfriend are accosted by a gang of homophobic townies. They don't go down without a fight but Adrian is thrown off a bridge and ends up in the evil clown's waiting arms/mouth. Some fellow gay press members have condemned this scene as "traumatizing," which I find an overreaction and misplaced. I personally found scenes of Pennywise biting the heads off of unsuspecting, defenseless children much more disturbing.

Besides, Adrian and his partner are vindicated by the end of It Chapter 2. The movie goes a surprising step further than the book in terms of inclusion and actually expands a gay character and storyline only hinted at in King's text. (Spoiler alert) Richie, the wise-cracking kid played in both movies by Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, turns out not only to be gay as an adult (played by Bill Hader), but is in love with his fellow "loser" Eddie (James Ransone). This revelation and relationship really serves as the heart and soul of Chapter 2, with Hader's performance especially resonant out of an all-star ensemble that includes James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and the returning Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. Richie and Eddie together lead the climactic battle that leads to Pennywise's final (?) defeat. This is significant, as is a touching coda shot of Richie carving his and Eddie's initials into a wooden bridge.

Pennywise gay-baits Richie both as a kid and an adult. This was in the novel but King did not confirm Richie's sexuality. The author has reportedly endorsed screenwriter Gary Dauberman's decision to define Richie as gay. King has also spoken recently about how a gay-bashing in his own Maine town inspired the gay-bashing scene in the book and new film.

Perhaps due to the sequel's A-list cast members, Pennywise takes more of a backseat. His two standout scenes are when he tricks a little disfigured girl under the bleachers during a football game, similarly to how he seduced little Georgy into the sewer in the first film, and when he first appears to the grownup Richie by floating in on red balloons while a cheer-leading squad seemingly dances to his arrival. Pennywise/Skarsgård also entertainingly mimics Richie's earlier, bad impression of his dancing. In addition, Skarsgård makes a brief appearance without makeup to Beverly (Chastain), who learns about Pennywise's background during a visit to her former apartment.

At nearly three hours, It Chapter 2 is overlong. While it could be considered justifiable in terms of exposition, wherein we also learn how the evil "Deadlights" that power Pennywise first came to Derry, there are individual scenes that could have been tightened up by director Andy Muschietti and his editor, Jason Ballantine. Prime candidates for tightening or cutting altogether are the numerous slow, conversational scenes set in the hotel where the grownups are staying. Otherwise, this is a satisfying sequel that unexpectedly, courageously illustrates how gay-bashing remains one of the greatest horrors of all.

Homophobia also serves as the primary subject of Groupers, a new indie film that will be released theatrically in the US this fall. Marking the feature debut of writer-director Anderson Cowan, it centers around two all-American high school jocks, Brad and Dylan (Peter Mayer-Klepchick and Cameron Duckett). While out for a night on the town, they are approached by the beautiful and seductive Meg (the very good Nicole Dambro) at a local bar. The guys are subsequently kidnapped, drugged and awaken tied up face-to-face in the empty swimming pool of an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere.

Absurdity and insanity ensue as we learn that Orin (Jesse Pudles), Meg’s overly flamboyant brother dubbed "Fancy Pants," has been the target of Brad and Dylan’s homophobic bullying. Meg is actually a grad student who plans to perform a somewhat sadistic experiment on the pair as part of her thesis, which poses the classic question “Is homosexuality a choice?” The men's "members" are connected in what is amusingly dubbed a "Chinese dick trap." To escape it, they have to achieve simultaneous erections. Brad, who may be secretly gay himself, concludes that their situation is worse than anything he and Dylan did to Orin, making it "a hate hate crime crime."

Groupers is a welcome psycho-sexual comedy, though I wish it would have provided more frequent and abundant laughs beyond the set up. It is also overlong at nearly two hours. On the plus side, the guys are cute and the talented cast of unknowns is fully committed. I also want to note the following statement from the film's distributor: “This is an important film”, stated Global Digital Releasing President Joe Dain. “Homophobia has always been an issue in our society but with the current administration and the potential roll backs of LGBTQ protections in this country, (Groupers) is not only timely but Anderson effectively tackles the subject matter in a dark, humorous, yet thought-provoking and entertaining way that we believe will resonate with audiences.”

Viewers can soon decide for themselves. The film is set to open in Los Angeles on Friday, September 27th at the Laemmle Music Hall theater and will expand into additional markets on October 1st. Additionally, the distributor plans to submit it to this year's GLAAD Media and Spirit Awards for consideration.

Reverend's Ratings:
It Chapter 2: B
Groupers: C

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

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