The Toronto International Film Festival rolls on so here’s a little something on two of the stand-out gay movies.
Have you ever watched that SyFy show Face Off where makeup artists compete against each other? It’s probably DVR’ed at the home of Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) the title character in CLOSET MONSTER, a terrific feature debut from Canadian short filmmaker Stephen Dunn.
Oscar is a semi-closeted teenager who wants to become a great makeup artist for horror and fantasy movies. This gives the title a smart poppy charge and double meaning. His obsession with horror makeup traces back to childhood in the film’s first few scenes where we see him playing vampire games with and hearing scary bedtime stories from his attentive loving father (Aaron Abrams). Then one day, just off the school grounds the little boy witnesses the horrific gay-bashing of a teenager with a metal rod. He tells no one about the incident though he later watches it on the news with his father and asks, confused, why anyone would do that to someone? “Because he’s gay,” the father says bluntly and without empathy, essentially blaming the victim. (There goes the first scene’s impression that he’s a perfect father). The event and its aftermath have clearly scarred Connor emotionally when the film really begins in the summer before he plans to study makeup in college. He’s virginal, lonely and he’s grown more and more distant from his parents.
In lesser hands the creepy opening scenes and the makeup artist portion of the film would feel like gimmicky. But when is a gimmick not a gimmick? When form and function / style and substance are one! Closet Monster has a steady handle on its more gothic qualities. Most of the film is grounded in every day struggles, like first sexual encounters, unrequited crushes, and fights with parents that are relatable to any gay teen. But the director totally understands how stylized elements like monster makeup, hallucinated bloody weapons, and a talking hamster named “Buffy” (hilariously voiced by Isabella Rossellini) can tie in to and burst forth from character arcs, agitated emotions, and story beats. The movie is wholly itself, in other words, even as it cites other pop culture touchstones (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
In the movies, as in life, finding yourself is crucial. This movie knows what it is and beautifully illustrates Connor’s struggles towards becoming his full self.
Here’s hoping smart distributors pick it up. It’s the best English language teen LGBT film in recent years (though it has worthy competitors in other languages like Brazil’s The Way He Looks or Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) and deserves a chance to find its audience.
And now on to WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED from Gillian Armstrong. It’s a documentary on an Old Hollywood legend, costume designer Orry-Kelly.
Australian humor is so… specific. There was a time when it was very popular in the early to mid 90s (Muriel’s Wedding and the like) but now people seem to scratch their heads over it when it comes around. This loving documentary tribute to Orry-Kelly keeps telling jokes but it’s tough to latch on to their wavelength. Unless, perhaps, you’re from Down Under? It uses an offputting device wherein an actor (Darren Gilshenan) pretending to be Orry-Kelly narrates his own life from a stylized set and out in nature. These filmed segments are occassionally interrupted by a more traditional documentary of talking head interviews and archival footage.
The form of this documentary doesn’t really work — I kept longing to know what the actual Orry-Kelly looked like in his youth especially given the circles he travelled in. But if you’re after good Hollywood dish it’s here by the cocktail glass-ful. Much of the tastiest stuff is targeted at Cary Grant, who the film alleges was Orry-Kelly’s boyfriend before they both broke big in Hollywood and Grant moved on to Randolph Scott… before his series of persona-management marriages to women. Grant allegedly stopped the publication of Orry-Kelly’s memoirs fearing their tell-all nature.
Bette Davis, who loved Orry-Kelly, also looms large over the proceedings including anecdotes about the difficulty of costuming her droopy but large breasts given her refusal to wear underwire support which she feared would give her cancer! (That’s the cancer that famous chain-smoker was worried about?)
This is a must-see for Old Hollywood fanatics or costume design nuts (two groups to which I belong) but it’s more of a messy uneven bitch-fest than a good documentary. And those interested in maintaining the “Cary Grant was a heterosexual!” denials will hate it.
TIFF is approaching its final weekend so a lot of movies have already come and gone and my eyes are growing weary. We’ve already talked about Demolition and in addition to the two LGBT films we’ve just reviewed, I caught a third trans interest film from Sweden called Girls Lost, and two explicit sex movies from France. They love their la petite mort, don’t you know?
Two journalist dramas have been sparking a lot of Oscar buzz and they’re super fun to compare: Truth stars Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather and details the 60 Minutes expose on President Bush’s military service that derailed their careers; In Spotlight Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo lead a crackerjack ensemble as the Boston Globe team that exposed systemic coverup of child abuse in the Catholic Church. This one is obviously heading for a Best Picture nomination given the feverish ‘ínstant classic!’ reviews.
But my favorite of the fest is the mesmerizing Room (starring Brie Larson), which is based on the best seller by Emma Donoghue about a woman and her son who have been held captive in a shed for years. It’s a total knockout. It opens on October 16th. Bring tissues.
Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the lack of wifi, blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.