Sunday, June 19, 2022

Reverend's Reviews: Gay Pride... and a Little Prejudice

Happy Pride, my dear online congregants! I've been amusing myself these past couple of weeks thinking about what early-19th century novelist Jane Austen might think of Fire Island (now streaming on Hulu), the new and very gay adaptation of her classic Pride and Prejudice. I expect she would be shocked by its few but fairly graphic sex scenes, titillated by the excessive number of fit men clad in tiny swimwear, but ultimately touched by its resolution of conflicted love stories. One story even features an unapologetically gay version of her famed, conceited Mr. Darcy.

Unfortunately, what Austen may find revolutionary by her esteemed standards seems quite cliché today. Director Andrew Ahn (who previously helmed the acclaimed Spa Night and Driveways) and screenwriter-star Joel Kim Booster (The Other Two) definitely get points for their more diverse approach and casting, but the film's situations and dialogue will be painfully obvious even to those somehow unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice. Actually, Fire Island ends up having even more in common with the exploitative (though straight) "let's get laid" movie comedies of the early 1980's.

Booster heads the cast as Noah, a hot young New Yorker who reunites with his bestest friends for their annual trek to the title, offshore gay mecca. Among them is Noah's longtime BESTest friend Howie (played by out SNL standout Bowen Yang), who remains painfully insecure as a gay Asian man despite living in gay- and Asian-friendly San Francisco. During the course of one week, they enter into tentative relationships with, respectively, aloof lawyer Will (a.k.a. Mr. Darcy, well-played by delectable stage and screen vet Conrad Ricamora) and seemingly shallow pediatrician Charlie (cute James Scully). Thankfully, Margaret Cho is also on hand as the friends' entertaining hostess/voice of reason.

The cast of Fire Island is uniformly attractive and funny, even if Torian Miller is somewhat wasted as the lone/token Black friend in the group. I was hoping for more from this heavily promoted Pride month offering but others – depending on one's experience or perspective – could well find it revolutionary.

Another "gaysian" talent making a splash on streaming this month is Alex Liu, the 36-year old director and star of A Sexplanation (Herra Productions). This revealing first-person documentary follows Liu as he explores the numerous influences, both positive and negative, that have shaped his sexuality. In the process, he interviews his parents and grandmother plus friends, sex educators and researchers, politicians, Porn Hub executives and even a Roman Catholic priest!

Unsurprisingly, Liu concludes that American society is sexually repressed. Superficiality masks shame, which in turn creates or reinforces more shame. As one of his friends puts it, "Sex is shameful and what we should be most focused on." Liu shares that his shame over his homosexuality led him to consider suicide when he was younger. Along with this is a cultural fear of "the P word," pleasure, especially in regard to masturbation. One of the film's funny highlights is when Liu asks his parents about their masturbatory habits.

A Sexplanation is impressively personal and comprehensive, with Liu an engaging, likable host. As director, he also works in some good, fun visuals to illustrate various points. Nothing he learns struck me as particularly revolutionary, but the film reiterates a long-standing but still-important call for good, comprehensive sex education within families, schools, churches or religious groups and the media. Here, here!

Speaking of retro depictions of sex and related shame, gay filmmaker Terence Davies is back with his new biopic Benediction (Roadside Attractions). The celebrated writer-director of such modern classics as The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives here relates the life story of British poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was also a decorated soldier on the Western Front during World War I.

Sassoon was attracted to men and had multiple gay affairs after the war. However, social conventions of the time being what they were, he married a woman and fathered a son. The film admirably depicts Sassoon as being open with his wife about his affairs with men before they got married. He continued to write poems, novels and an autobiography. Sassoon died in 1967 at the age of 80.

Typical of Davies' films, Benediction is elegantly directed in addition to being beautifully scored (largely with pre-existing music) and shot (by Nicola Daley). Its exceptional cast headed by Jack Lowden as Sassoon also boasts British stalwarts Peter Capaldi, Julian Sands, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels and newly-minted Tony Award winner Simon Russell Beale. There are plentiful scenes featuring catty, early-20th century gays carrying on. Definitely recommended.

Reverend was also recently able to catch two new gay-themed movies from Italy. Mascarpone (Uncork'd/Dark Star Pictures) was the opening night selection at Connecticut's just-concluded Out on Film CT festival and is now available for streaming. It successfully combines several desirable ingredients: sexy guys, Roman landmarks and food! The latter are delicious-looking pastries baked by lead character Antonio, who enrolls in pastry school after his husband unexpectedly leaves him for another man. Antonio gradually creates a new life for himself with the help of a drug-dealing prostitute he ends up rooming with, plus a gym buddy turned first employer and then lover. A sometimes hard-hitting but ultimately hopeful dramedy.

Blessed Boys, also known by its Italian title La Santa Piccola, made its US premiere just last week during New York's Tribeca Film Festival and then screened during Out on Film CT. Set in Naples, it opens with a young girl, Annaluce, miraculously bringing a dead bird back to life. Soon dubbed "The Saint" by her priest and church members, she later confirms her abilities by resurrecting her seemingly dead mother.

All this religious attention presents challenges to Annaluce's brother, Lino, and his best friend Mariu. Their very physical, homoerotic-leaning friendship masks Mariu's secret longings for Lino as well as Lino's need to prostitute himself to local women to pay his family's rent. Things between the men take a dramatic turn when Mariu ends up participating with Lino and one of his clients. There is enough sex, Catholicism, and attractive men in Blessed Boys to please pretty much everyone!

Reverend's Ratings:
Fire Island: C+
A Sexplanation: B
Benediction: B+
Mascarpone: B
Blessed Boys (a.k.a. La Santa Piccola): B-

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

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