(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Concerned & Conflicted

The adjectives above might apply to me or they might apply to the subjects of the films I'm reviewing this week, or both. Read on to find out which!

I am personally concerned that the best movie I've seen thus far this truncated cinema year isn't getting the wide theatrical release it would have received if not for the current coronavirus pandemic. True History of the Kelly Gang (IFC Films) is now available to rent or purchase digitally, and I'm happy to report it will be playing exclusively on the big screen in the Los Angeles area for at least the next week at the Mission Tiki 4 Drive-In in Montclair.

Ned Kelly has long been celebrated in his native Australia as a folk hero. Essentially the Down Under version of Robin Hood or Jesse James, he and his devoted band of followers fought to drive the British out and restore the land to its native citizens during the 1870's. Alas, Kelly was ultimately executed for his efforts. A number of previous movies have presumed to tell his story but none have taken such an intimate, sexually-fluid approach as Justin Kurzel's impressive new production.

Adapted from the Booker Prize-winning historical novel by Peter Carey, it stars George MacKay as the title outlaw. If his lead role in last year's Oscar-nominated 1917 didn't make MacKay a star following prior impressive performances in Pride and Captain Fantastic, this movie should... so long as enough people see it. He remains charismatic but is also downright sexy here, with numerous nearly-nude scenes revealing his chiseled physique. There is no shortage of male nudity in True History of the Kelly Gang, with Nicholas Hoult and Charlie Hunnam showing off what God gave them too. There is also no shortage of men wearing women's clothing, as that was a prime tactic Kelly and his men took to throw off their male-establishment pursuers. Finally, Kelly is shown as enjoying a gay-ish relationship with his best friend as they sleep together and caress each other for warmth, maybe more.

The film's great, mostly Aussie cast also includes Essie Davis (The Babadook, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) and Oscar winner Russell Crowe, who sings in one scene much more impressively than he did in Les Misérables. I also admired director Kurzel's gender-bending approach as well as Ari Wegner's vibrant, sepia-toned cinematography and the percussive music score by Jed Kurzel. This is a movie that deserves to be seen in whatever format one can find it.

New on Netflix this week is the provocative, revealing Circus of Books. Directed by Rachel Mason, the documentary focuses on her own parents. Barry and Karen Mason were an unassuming straight married couple with three young children in 1982, when they became the owners of West Hollywood's most popular destination for gay porn until it closed just last year. Can you say "conflicted"?

The film details multiple aspects of WeHo's gay history starting with police raids on local gay bars in 1967 and subsequent protests that pre-dated 1969's Stonewall uprising. Indeed, Circus of Books was originally the New Faces gay bar, which then became Book Circus for a number of years until the Masons bought it and flipped the words around. They soon became the biggest international distributors of gay porn almost despite themselves. It wasn't long before the initially ignorant Barry and Karen found themselves at one of the epicenters of the AIDS pandemic as well as anti-obscenity persecutions under the Reagan administration.

Rachel, the documentarian, takes an admirably objective approach to their "family business" until things become more uniquely personal. It turns out that her brother Josh, one of Barry and Karen's two sons, is gay. When Josh came out to his parents during his college years, he was met with resistance from his mother, a devout Jew. Raised to believe homosexuality was "an abomination," Karen concluded "God must be punishing me for owning this business" when one of her sons turned out to be gay. She later recognized her hypocrisy and both she and Barry became involved in PFLAG.

In addition to the fascinating family history and dynamics uncovered in Circus of Books, it features entertaining new interviews with the likes of former gay porn superstar Jeff Stryker (who still looks great), longtime porn publisher Larry Flynt and current drag star Alaska, who at one point worked at the store. This is one documentary that truly has to be seen to be believed.

JUST ANNOUNCED: Outfest invites all to join a live stream Q&A with Chi Chi LaRue, Buck Angel and director Rachel Mason tonight at 7:00 pm PST as they take you on a journey discovering how LA's queer adult industry came into existence to the players who helped champion sexual, human and LGBTQ rights, as well as the many who were lost before we could recognize their efforts. Join the conversation on @Outfest's Twitter, Facebook Live and YouTube Live.

Concerned characters and conflicted feelings are at the heart of the new gay-themed Israeli film, 15 Years (available on VOD and DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures). That's how long Yoav and Dan have been partners. Despite their relationship being open, which Dan takes more advantage of, they appear happy at the story's start. Things start to change, though, when their longtime friend Alma announces she is pregnant. It gets Dan talking about he and Yoav having a child, which Yoavi declares he is absolutely opposed to due to his negative experience with his own parents. Things quickly go downhill from there for the couple.

15 Years is a mature, perceptive tale. It is sensitively written and directed by Yuval Hadadi, with fine performances by the attractive Oded Leopold and Udi Persi as Yoav and Dan, respectively. It also won the Best Narrative Feature Award at last year's Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. I found some of the characters' motivations a bit murky or confusing as the movie progressed, and the ending is particularly so. Still, its worth checking out during these "shelter in place" days.

Reverend's Ratings:
True History of the Kelly Gang: A-
Circus of Books: B+
15 Years: B

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

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