In Review!: “Closet Monster”

Rarely are teen narratives are met with the ingenuity and inventiveness of Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster – even rarer within specifically queer ones. Even solid recent examples (like this weekend’s The Edge of Seventeen) tend to be straightforward affairs, more often than not becoming bland in presentation. That lack in imagination bleeds over into character development, narrative point of view, and conflict resolution in ways that undermine the value of their own subject. Thankfully this is not the case with the ambitious Closet Monster.

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Dunn’s take is a coming out narrative you’ve certainly seen before with a few inclusions that make the film spark with personality and uniqueness. Oscar (Connor Jessup) lives with his father (Aaron Abrams) under the umbrella of toxic masculinity as he prepares for college and hides out as a loner. While the familiar story beats of divorce and virginity pop up, the real sparkle comes from side diversions like Oscar’s horror makeup dreams and his spirit animal / imaginary friend relationship with his hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Oscar’s trauma isn’t limited to standard bullying tropes and a macho father, but the fatal gaybashing he witnessed in youth manifests in both his self-worth and sexual anxiety. This isn’t starting to sound so familiar, is it?

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot!: “Death Becomes Her”

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After all these years, Death Becomes Her is still a delightful romp – a broad blend of old Hollywood diva mudslinging, morbid farce, and goddess worship. As much as the film satirizes gratuitous ageism thrust upon women and its impact on the ego, the film adores its actresses. Isabella Rossellini reigns supreme, but Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are audience catnip even at their most vicious. With this much talent, wit, and glamour in the frame, its no surprise that director Robert Zemeckis and director of photography Dean Cundey frame them like the queens they are.

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No wonder gays and drag queens have kept the film alive with all this operatic idolatry – though where are the drag queens impersonating Rossellini’s sexual septuagenarian Lisle von Rhuman? Perhaps I just missed that one by a decade.

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There is also a classic monster movie element to the actresses visual representation in the film. Mad and Hel are frequently scene lurking around a corner, behind a bush, stalking into the foreground to frighten Bruce Willis’s Ernest. Their eyes are lit like Dracula, their sexuality as threatening as it is enticing. What is Lisle if not a vampire empress, pulling you in precisely because she’s a bit spooky?

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In Review!: “Joy”

David O. Russell continues his study on group dynamics within the down-and-out and hard on their luck with Jennifer Lawrence showcase Joy. The director’s muse is finally center stage after being romantic lead in Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook and dipping into a character role (and her best performance) in American Hustle, and the film is also Russell’s first with a singular protagonist – though without sacrificing his fascination with ensembles just left of center. As the film becomes more interested in its heroine’s emergence and success rather the familiar world she inhabits, it finds its footing, but looses some of its teeth.

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Less ambitious than Hustle or the existential I Heart Huckabees and more accessible than even the lighthearted Playbook, here you have both the most enervated of Russell’s freestyle rhythms and his most unfocused. Somehow, the sum of its parts works, and not just because of Lawrence working in peak form. Each of the film’s three acts feel divided by massive tonal shifts as plot devices get discarded, as if Russell is unsure of an angle to approach his subject and her family or is stuck after keeping too many balls in there. Again, somehow Joy feels messily complete.

Beginning in medias res with whole swaths of family history alluded to without specifics, Lawrence’s Joy (based mostly on Joy Mangano, though her full name goes without mention) becomes an entrepreneur almost by accident after a life unfulfilled to the confidence of her grandmother matriarch’s (Diane Ladd, given shockingly little to do considering) assertion of her become a strong, successful woman. Naturally, the family dynamic is where Russell excels, creating a believably unified yet fractured system of extended family and generational differences. The textured range of daughters, mothers, step-relatives, and friends rings vividly true – with Russell clearly invigorated to make a film so about women.

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