Culture Club

What to Watch: Ex-gays, Matt Damon as a daddy and a gay pop heartthrob

Pray Away

Whatever your entertainment needs, we got your back (and hopefully your mind) with Queerty’s weekly “Culture Club” column with some of the highlights of new releases, streaming shows, classics worth revisiting, and what to drink while you watch.

The Must: Pray Away

We first caught this new documentary on the festival circuit last year, where it left us moved and pensive. Apparently, it did the same for Ryan Murphy and Netflix who have since picked it up for release. Pray Away tells the story of a group of “ex-gays” who made headlines in the 1980s and 90s for claiming to cure homosexuality. That includes the juggernaut Exodus International, the most prominent of all “ex-gay” ministries. Director Kristine Stolakis conducts interviews with a number of high-profile figures of the movement, who reveal and expound upon their own feelings of shame and confusion…and how a cabal of wealthy, straight men further abused and used them as political pawns.

Pray Away is a hard movie to watch both because of its subject matter, and because Stolakis treats her characters with such nonjudgmental empathy. She treats these former leaders—all of whom cop to terrible actions—as victims too, people of devout faith who wanted a better life, a better world, for everyone. Of course, regret doesn’t absolve anyone of terrible deeds, and Stolakis knows that the central questions of Pray Away do not have easy answers. Do these people have blood on their hands? Can they ever deserve forgiveness? More than a year after first viewing the film, we still wrestle with these questions.

One thing we do know for sure: Pray Away is one of the best films of the year, and a must for all queer people to see.

Streams on Netflix August 3.

The Step Out: Stillwater

Matt Damon (plus dad bod) headlines this new crime drama from Tom McCarthy, the Oscar-winning writer of Spotlight and Up. Stillwater follows Bill Baker, a blue-collar oil rigger recovering from years of addiction. His lesbian daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) rots away in a French prison for murdering her girlfriend (a premise that seems borrowed in part from the real-life case of Amanda Knox). Allison maintains her innocence, and when a lead arises as to the whereabouts of the real killer, Bill joins forces with a bohemian actress/single mom Virginie (Camille Cottin) to clear Allison’s name.

Stillwater has a few twists up its sleeve, and features terrific work by Damon, Cottin, and Breslin. At times, the film tries to do a bit too much, dwelling on Bill’s newfound complicated relationship with Virginie and her daughter Maya (the scene-stealing Lilou Siauvaud). That leads to a meandering third act, in which one key character vanishes without a clear explanation. Those gripes aside, the movie does harbor effective thrills and complex, interesting characters that showcase the gifts of its cast. The film also raises questions about how perceptions of immigrants, women, and queer people can drive a public narrative in an unjust direction.

Much like Joe Bell last week, Stillwater will likely have detractors who attack it for a “straight savior” complex. That’s not the case here: Stillwater doesn’t sideline its queer lead, keeping Allison central to the plot. Bill’s “heroics” also raise questions of their own. In that same vein, desire for redemption motivates Bill rather than guilt—he’s not trying to atone for past mistakes, so much as prove he’s a changed man. Well-made if overlong, ambitious and featuring great characters, we recommend Stillwater for its cast and provocative themes.

In theatres July 30.

The Goofy: Small Town News

Queer filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato produce and direct this new HBO series about an indie television station launching programming on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Small Town News follows station owner Vernon Van Winkle as he fulfills his lifelong ambition of launching his own network, KVMP, in the small town of Pahrump, Nevada, population 36,000. Needless to say, news stories range from the modest to the bizarre: KVMP covers everything from dog adoptions to brothels for sale. The station also attracts its own merry crew, including a journalism professor moonlighting as a co-anchor to a gay editor afraid of becoming the victim of a local hate crime. As 2020 lurches onward, Van Winkle becomes more and more conspiratorial, much to the ire of his fellow station employees—often with hilarious results.

It’s clear that Bailey & Barbato—themselves curators of an indie network with World of Wonder Presents Plus—feel a certain kinship with Van Winkle and the staff at KVMP. That does not, however, preclude them from raising questions about journalistic integrity, especially as Van Winkle espouses nutbag theories about COVID, masks, Democrats, and stolen elections. In the digital age where anyone can build a platform—even a news agency—nobody has addressed the issue of who should curate and report the news. At times, Van Winkle even seems proud to push the stories as he would like to see, regardless of accuracy or dubious sources. With its larger-than-life cast, Small Town News offers no shortage of big laughs. Its darker questions about integrity and news accuracy give it added depth, and a lingering sense of dread. Rarely is foreboding this much fun.

Streams on HBO August 2.

The Read: I Am Not Starfire

Comic book fans won’t want to miss I Am Not Starfire, the new graphic novel from Eisner Award-winning author Mariko Tamaki (Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass). The story follows Mandy, the queer daughter of the superhero Starfire, who, unfortunately, has not inherited any of her mother’s powers or good looks. A school project pairs Mandy with the attractive Claire, and sparks begin to fly. Unfortunately, Starfire goes missing, and Mandy must choose between safety and a chance to save her mom. I Am Not Starfire deals with themes of self-loathing, parental domination, teen awkwardness and general insecurity that many a queer reader will relate to. We recommend it as a fun, queer coming-of-age tale; one that asks deeper questions about how a world of superpowers affects those of us that have none.

In bookstores now.

The Retro: Transformers 35th Anniversary Edition

Speaking of geekdom, Shout! Factory outdoes itself yet again with this 4K restoration of the 1980s animated cult film, based on the popular toy line. Readers of a certain age will, no doubt, recall the surreal, sci-fi weirdness of Transformers: The Movie…not to mention the trauma at seeing their beloved characters killed of in extraordinary fashion. This new Blu-Ray and Ultra HD treatment of the film also offers extensive documentaries that provide a bit of context to the film’s oddness and enduring legacy. Cast members Susan Blu and Gregg Berger recall the film’s recording sessions, including anecdotes about stars Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy and Eric Idle, while composers Stan Bush and Vince Dicola gush over the movie’s distinctive synthesized soundtrack. Things begin to make more sense when director Neslon Shin reveals that the mandates of parent company Hasbro, the unique music and distinctive style forced him to approach the movie as a surrealist art film…which sounds about right. The new set also features a steelbook case, deleted scenes, storyboards and more, making this new edition an absolute must for Transformers fans and hardcore cinephiles. Given the number of gay boys we know that obsess over 80s nostalgia and mayyyybe still play with their Transformers toys from time to time, we look forward to seeing this new edition on more than a few Blu-Ray shelves.

Available from Shout! Factory August 3.

The Jam: Nicolas McCoppin’s “Loverboy”

Queer-crooning heartthrob Nicolas McCoppin returns this week with his latest album, the dance-pop compilation Loverboy (The Heartthrob Edition). The original edition of Loverboy enchanted us last year with its mix of electronica, synthpop and blatant homoeroticism. McCoppin dropped his lead single from the album “Heaven” last month, where it promptly cracked the Top 40 charts here in the US. For our taste though, we gravitate to the track “City of Love,” a tender, bouncy ballad about a young gay kid finding first love in the big city. The release cements McCoppin’s place as a queer pop star on the rise, and one whose upbeat stylings compliment deeper, more personal lyrics.

Streams on YouTube.

The Sip: Optimus Prime

via Shutterstock

In honor of Transformers: The Movie turning 35 (lord help us), we offer up this week’s cocktail: fruity and strong libation devoted to the Autobot leader Optimus Prime. Prime’s death in the film might have scarred many a kid (us included) but his subsequent resurrection and continuing stardom deserve a proper salute.

  • 1/2 oz raspberry vodka
  • 1/2 oz watermelon schnapps
  • 1/2 oz peach schnapps
  • 1 splash grenadine syrup
  • 4 oz lemon lime soda
  • 1 oz sweet and sour mix
  • 1/4 oz Blue Curacao liqueur

Add ingredients in this specific order to a highball glass with ice: pucker, watermelon schnapps, peach schnapps and grenadine. Pour in soda, sweet & sour mix, and curacao. Enjoy the layers and sip.