Friday, November 6, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Giving Thanks for New LGBTQ Movies

Ah, November has arrived. The month of cooler temperatures, roasted turkeys and pumpkin pies is here! Unfortunately, traditional Thanksgiving gatherings will be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 prevention efforts. But November remains the start of the holiday season as well as the film industry's annual awards season.

Due to pandemic-related delays, awards season will last longer than usual this year. The current submission and screening deadline for most organizations including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is the end of February 2021, with most awards not being presented until March or April. Three new movies of gay, bi and/or queer interest that are also sparking awards buzz are therefore getting a head start by being released this month. They will play theatrically where possible but will also be available for streaming.

Uncle Frank, from Amazon Studios, is a nostalgic and often heartrending look at the life of a closeted gay man in the early 1970's. It will be available on Amazon Prime beginning November 25th. British actor Paul Bettany, best known as the heroic Vision in various Marvel Universe epics, could be an awards contender for his sensitive performance in the title role. Following his upbringing in conservative South Carolina, Frank has fled to New York City and become a revered literature professor. He also has a longtime but secret partner, Walid, who is warmly portrayed by Peter Macdissi.

Things start to get complicated for Frank when his young niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis, who made a splash as Beverly in the It movies), becomes a student on his NYU campus. She soon discovers that her beloved uncle is gay but accepts him. Things get much more complicated when they receive word of the sudden death of Frank's homophobic father, Beth’s grandfather. Frank, a recovering but vulnerable alcoholic, reluctantly returns home for the funeral with Beth in tow. They undertake a road trip to Creekville, SC, which Walid unexpectedly but eventually joins them on.

Once home, Frank learns he was excluded from his late father's will and, to make matters worse, is forced to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from. Many gay men of his generation will be able to relate to this aspect of the script, which was written by Alan Ball. Ball is the out and well-respected creator of TV's Six Feet Under and True Blood, and he won an Oscar for his original screenplay for American Beauty. He also directed Uncle Frank and served as one of its producers.

In addition to providing a great acting showcase for Bettany, the film's excellent supporting cast includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Margo Martindale plus stage and screen veteran Lois Smith, who turns 90 this month. It also features plenty of humor despite its serious subject matter, including the hilarious line: "I'll slap you so hard, your clothes will go out of style!" Uncle Frank should not be missed.

Another new queer release set in the early 1970's is Stardust, a biopic about singer David Bowie's challenging transformation into his androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. It will also be released on November 25th by IFC Films. Johnny Flynn, who also made an impression in Emma earlier this year, is eerily evocative as young Bowie. He nails the late performer's appearance, voice and mannerisms. Knowing how the Academy loves actors who play musical icons (see Renee Zellweger, who won last year for Judy, and Rami Malek's win as Freddie Mercury the previous year, among many others), Flynn could be a contender for Best Actor this year.

Stardust opens with Bowie's arrival in the United States for the first time in 1971. Although Bowie was popular in Europe, he wasn't yet a name here due to his music being, as described by his manager in the film, "too dark, too weird for the Yanks." He is surprised to discover upon his arrival that his manager failed to arrange the proper visa for him. What Bowie thought was going to be a national singing tour turned out to be a series of radio interviews in largely rural areas that proved less than welcoming.

Bowie was known early on for his gender fluidity in terms of how he dressed, and he came out as bisexual to Playboy magazine in 1976. While Stardust doesn't delve into his sexuality much apart from his open marriage at the time to Angie Barnett (played by Jena Malone), he does decry "bourgeois morality" and is shown as being anything but conventional. Costume designer Julia Patkos does a fabulous job in this regard, re-creating Bowie's outfits and the general fashions of the time.

According to the film, several of Bowie's family members suffered from schizophrenia, including his older brother. He is depicted as terrified of being diagnosed as schizophrenic himself. This fear is what ultimately drove him to develop his Ziggy Stardust persona, who Bowie could separate from himself. The move paid off, making Bowie famous both nationally and internationally. It also led to him becoming an impressive actor in movies and theatre.

Stardust provides considerable insight into Bowie, who died much too soon in 2016. His fans, general music fans, bisexual men and queer viewers will find much to appreciate in the film.

Monsoon is a modern-day story that has already been an awards contender. It will be available from Strand Releasing on November 13th. Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's reflective drama was nominated for Best Picture in 2019 at both the Athens International Film Festival and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It has been well received this year at Outfest, NewFest and other LGBTQ film festivals here in the US.

The very hot Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians fame plays Kit, a gay British-Vietnamese man. He returns to Saigon from London for the first time since he was six years old, when his family fled the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam-American war. Sadly, he has come home to lay his late mother's ashes to rest. He re-connects there with Lee, his estranged second cousin, and arranges an online date that turns into something more with Lewis (Parker Sawyers, who previously played a young Barack Obama in Southside With You). Lewis is a sexy clothing designer preparing to open his first shop in Vietnam. As Kit struggles to make sense of himself in a country he's no longer familiar with, hooking up with some other men along the way, his personal journey opens up new possibilities for friendship, love and happiness.

Khaou's perceptive screenplay tackles many issues in a generally subtle way. These include enduring conflicts between the East and West including acceptance (or not) of different sexual orientations, as well as racial and generational differences. John Cummings' striking music score also deserves mention. Monsoon emerges as an intelligent and touching film, well worth watching after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.

Although it doesn't have any LGBTQ content, the amazing Shadow in the Cloud has two other things going for it: gremlins and Chloƫ Grace Moretz. It is also an unquestionably feminist suspense-adventure film. I caught its North American premiere during last month's online AFI Film Festival and I am so glad I did! This New Zealand production directed by Roseanne Liang is one of the most genuinely exciting and entertaining films I've seen in several years.

Gremlins haven't been seen on movie screens since the 1984 classic bearing the mischievous creatures' name. Prior to that, they were primarily known for their memorable appearance in the original Twilight Zone TV series and its 1983 movie adaptation. But prior to that, they were to blame by World War II pilots for any mishaps that occurred with their planes during flight.

Shadow in the Cloud goes back to the source of this aviation legend. Moretz (Kick-Ass, Hugo, Greta) plays Maude Garrett, an alleged military officer with more than a few secrets who is assigned to a flight aboard the aptly-named "Fool's Errand" carrying a top-secret package. As the only female on board, the plane's crew of male chauvinists make her sit alone in one of the gun turrets.

It isn't long before Maude finds herself face to face – literally – with a human-sized, bat-like creature hellbent on tearing the plane apart. Naturally, the men above don't believe her until the gremlin starts picking them off one by one. The action becomes increasingly, deliriously over the top as Maude extricates herself and takes charge. The camera rarely leaves Moretz, and she makes Maude the fiercest movie heroine since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the Alien series! This is not hyperbole.

Written by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), Shadow in the Cloud features solid performances all around as well as terrific special effects and an awesome, retro 80's music score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper that does John Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth proud. I loooove this movie and hope it gets a US release soon!

It's hard to believe that Requiem for a Dream is 20 years old. Darren Aronofsky's horrific yet poetic adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's novel about how addiction sabotages four people's pursuit of their dreams was released last month on an anniversary-edition 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray combo pack for the first time, courtesy of Lionsgate. This hi def transfer makes the film and Matthew Libatique's cinematography that much more vivid.

For me, the heartbreaking highlight of the movie remains Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-nominated performance as Sara Goldfarb, a widowed woman yearning for recognition late in life. This leads her to first develop an addiction to television and then on "upper" diet pills. A young Jared Leto plays her heroin junkie son, with Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans in fine form as his doomed friends. It is not a pretty nor uplifting picture but talent shines throughout both on screen and behind the scenes.

New special features on this home video release include audio commentaries by Aronofsky and Libatique, an interview of Burstyn, deleted scenes and a featurette on the film's memorable music score by Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet (which sounds especially good in this transfer's Dolby Atmos sound mix). While not for the faint of heart, Requiem for a Dream endures as a cautionary classic.

Reverend's Ratings:
Uncle Frank: B
Stardust: B+
Monsoon: A-
Shadow in the Cloud: A
Requiem for a Dream (20th anniversary home video release): B+

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