SANTA CLAUS: THE SERIAL KILLER (BBC IPLAYER)
Q Bites: Santa Claus: The Serial Killer is streaming now on BBC iPlayer
Between 2010 and 2017, eight men went missing from Toronto’s Gay Village, Church and Wellesley. These men vanished without a trace, and no significant searches were ever undertaken despite their disappearances being reported to Police. Selim Esen, Andrew Kinsman, Majeed Kayhan, Dean Lisowick, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Skandaraj Navaratnam and Soroush Mahmudi all frequented Toronto’s famous Gay Village, an area known for its welcoming vibe, diverse bars and cafe’s and gay-themed shops.
Meanwhile, 66-year-old gardener Bruce McArthur was, by all accounts, the happy and friendly guy next door. A part-time shopping mall Santa during the festive season and landscaper the rest of the time, McArthur was well known on the gay scene, frequenting its bars and cafes regularly. Therefore, when McArthur was arrested in 2017 for the murders of all eight missing men, horror rippled through Toronto’s Village. But when Police discovered the remains of the men in plant pots at a house McArthur worked at; this horror turned to anger. How could McArthur have silently killed eight men? And why did the Police not follow up on several concerns relating to his behaviour and connections to the missing men?
Mobeen Azhar’s documentary follows in the footsteps of CBC’s Murder in the Village (2017) and Catching a Serial Killer: Bruce McArthur (2021); as a result, it struggles to offer anything new to the evidence base surrounding McArthur’s crimes. Azhar explores the lacklustre Police response to the disappearances while also asking us to reflect on the racial dimension of McArthur’s crimes. But at its heart, Azhar’s documentary explores the cultural barriers of a closed gay community and the fact that any community holds secrets and vulnerabilities that residents would rather not face.
There are clear parallels between the Stephen Port case here in the UK and the Bruce McArthur case in Toronto. Here while Azhar’s investigation is interesting and informative, it never quite manages to tease out these similarities, resulting in a missed opportunity to explore Police failures and hidden community concerns. The result is a documentary that occasionally feels overly simplistic in its investigative framework.
THE SCHOOLMASTER GAMES (2022)
Q Bites: The Schoolmaster Games is showing at OUTShine Film Festival (Miami)
Sometimes movies get lost in a tangle of conflicting and problematic themes from the outset. Unfortunately, The Schoolmaster Games is one of those movies. Based on the erotic gay novel Magisterlekarna, it’s clear that the director Ylva Forner had ambitions of exploring concepts of power, place, generational divide and sexual freedom. However, these themes are encased in a deeply problematic, overly camp and frivolous atmosphere that plays to every possible LGBTQ+ stereotype. The result is a film that, while beautifully shot, rarely challenges the audience with anything remotely profound or meaningful until the closing thirty minutes.
In a homoerotic fantasy world, St. Sebastian college is home to gay male students only. That also applies to the faculty of teachers who have fought to build this gay utopia free from hate or discrimination. However, beneath the veneer of perfection is a cesspit of turmoil, secrets and lies. Here a schoolmaster engages in BDSM with a student as he struggles to move beyond his own painful memories. Meanwhile, students fall in and out of love while manipulating the faculty and each other. But as the traditional Christmas concert approaches, the cracks in St Sebastian’s apparent utopia begin to show.
Despite this being a fantasy world, one of the first problems of The Schoolmaster Games lies in the very foundation of its story; a gay school where an older gay teacher is engaged in sex and power play with one of their students. This problematic narrative structure plays to long-held and deeply damaging stereotypes of older gay men as sexual predators of the young. If this had found a significant challenge by exploring psychological themes of society’s obsession with youth and beauty, The Schoolmaster Games could have offered something genuinely interesting. However, little effort is made to weave anything meaningful into the narrative until the closing thirty minutes.
Despite its lacklustre and poor opening, there are a few redemptive nuggets to be found. For example, conversations around differing generational experiences of inclusion do, at times, find a voice. While themes of gay shame occasionally burn bright, only to be snuffed out. Are these nuggets enough to save The Schoolmaster Games? Alas, while interesting at times, the answer is no!
BETTER NATE THAN EVER (DISNEY +)
Q Bites: Better Nate Than Ever is streaming now on Disney +.
Sometimes big things come in small packages, and with Better Nate Than Ever, Disney + and 20th Century Studios have given us a small and perfectly formed musical drama for the whole family to enjoy. But Better Nate than Ever is also a colossal step forward in representation and inclusion, equaling the impact of Love Simon in 2018 when it arrived with a 12 certificate. This is an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age musical in all but name, but it doesn’t feel the need to shout from the rooftops because Nate’s burgeoning sexuality is just a part of what makes him fabulous; it’s not a problem to be solved or a hurdle to be jumped.
Nate Foster (Rueby Wood) lives for theatre, but he can’t get a break in middle school productions. However, when his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) informs him of auditions in New York for a new Broadway version of Lilo and Stitch, the potential is something neither can resist. Therefore rucksacks in hand, Libby and Nate fake a sleepover while their parents are away and head to New York – with Nate’s big brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) left in the dark. But when Libby and Nate arrive, the scale of the opportunities ahead of them becomes crystal clear, as does the fact they need a parent or guardian with them to make anything happen. Luckily Nate’s estranged Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow) is also in town and utterly unaware that Nate and Libby’s parents know nothing of their escapade.
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The resulting movie is an utter delight as it celebrates all those kids who feel different, love dance, music and drama or find themselves ostracised in school. Here its discussions on Nate’s developing sexual orientation are beautifully handled throughout, with his need to be free and be himself in all his glitz and glamour sitting centre stage. Better Nate Than Ever is a rare Disney + family gem as it avoids pandering to its audience, keeping itself grounded while also bathing in moments of pure fantasy as we see the world through Nate’s eyes. No matter your age, there is so much to love in the optimism, heart and soul of Better Nate Than Ever. Plus, keep an eye out for Rueby Wood’s name in future productions because this is one kid who truly shines alongside the equally brilliant Brooks, Bassett and Kudrow.
THE INVISIBLE THREAD (NETFLIX)
Q Bites: The Invisible Thread (Il filo invisible) is streaming now on Netflix.
Marco Simon Puccioni’s delightful comedy/drama quietly slipped onto Netflix on March 4th and remains hidden away in the Netflix catalogue like so many European LGBTQ+-themed movies. Part coming-of-age and part family comedy/drama, The Invisible Thread is full of heart while also tackling some important topics, from gay parenting to surrogacy and coming out. But if all this sounds heavy, fear not because Puccioni’s movie is light, fresh and wrapped in Italian charm and humour while maintaining its core messages on diversity and belonging.
Leone (Francesco Gheghi) has just begun working on a new school project about LGBT rights in Europe. But this is no random subject matter pulled from the air for Leone, as his video is based on his own personal experience growing up with two loving dads. However, on the night of their twentieth anniversary, his dads, Paolo and Simone (Filippo Timi and Francesco Scianna), suddenly hit a relationship hurdle neither can accept nor move beyond, leading to their separation. Leone finds himself caught in the middle as he quickly realises that the security he thought would last forever may be changing before his eyes. But matters are made even more complicated for Leone when he falls for a girl at school, only for her closeted brother to fall for him.
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While it may occasionally slip into melodrama, The Invisible Thread is a fresh, enjoyable and light comedy/drama embedded in important discussions on family, sexuality and identity. Puccioni’s movie echoes many of the themes found in the underrated 2008 Swedish gem Patrick 1.5 and The Kids Are Alright (2010). But it’s the central performance of Francesco Gheghi that provides the icing on the cake, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t hear a lot more from this young actor in the years to come.
GIVE OR TAKE (RENT OR BUY)
Q Bites (February 2022): Give or Take is now available to rent or buy.
Martin (Jamie Effros) has just returned to his hometown in Cape Cod following the death of his estranged father. It is immediately apparent that the father and son drifted apart following the death of Martin’s mother, an event that led Martin’s father to finally come out as gay and move in with his life partner Ted (Norbert Leo Butz). For Martin, this sudden announcement only further created division, but now as he grieves his father’s sudden death, Martin finds himself with Ted while he decides whether to sell his father’s home and possessions. But as the tensions rise between Ted and Martin, an opportunity for healing comes into view.
There is much to admire in the narrative journey Paul Riccio and Jamie Effros create as we explore themes of grief, separation and past missed opportunities for reconciliation. Give or Take is beautifully performed and incredibly engaging throughout, with some standout moments of emotion and humour as the ice between Ted and Martin slowly thaws. However, the conflict between Martin and Ted also feels underexplored and, at times, too simplistic in its construct. Here Give or Take often skirts the broader issues of homophobia, acceptance and coming out in later life that could have elevated it to true brilliance. However, while it may lack some substance, Give or Take is an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable Sunday afternoon flick with some cracking performances and moments of inspired humour.
FOUR LIVES (BBC IPLAYER)
Q Bites (January 2022): FOUR LIVES is showing now on BBC iPlayer.
Over sixteen months during 2014 and 2015, Stephen Port murdered four gay/bi young men, Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor. These vibrant, energetic and loving young men were connected by their use of gay dating apps (most notably Grindr) and by the nature of their death and discovery. However, despite the clear links between each murder and ongoing interest in Port, justice and safety were denied by an incompetent, lacklustre and homophobic investigation by Barking and Dagenham Police. Here Police failures almost certainly led to the deaths of three of the young men following the discovery of Port’s first victim, Anthony.
Four Lives methodically unpicks the countless police failures at play while demonstrating the pain family and friends were put through as they were forced to become investigators in their own right. But even more importantly, Four Lives focuses on the lives of Port’s young victims and the fight of their family and friends to uncover the truth about their murders. The result is an emotional, heart-wrenching and urgent drama that places institutional homophobia in our police service under the spotlight for all to see.
EXPLORE HUNDREDS MORE LGBTQ+ MOVIES AND TV SHOWS
I AM SYD STONE (RENT OR BUY)
Q Bites (January 2022): I AM SYD STONE is now available to rent, buy or stream.
Denis Theriault’s 2014 short film of the same name was expanded into a six-part web series called I Am Syd Stone in 2020 and now finds itself pulled together into a feature-length movie. However, as with many web series converted into feature-length films, I Am Syd Stone struggles to maintain its pace and loses the interest of its audience early on in the narrative. Of course, that’s not to say there are not some fascinating themes wrapped up in Theriault’s story of a closeted Hollywood star searching for inner peace and public acceptance. But unfortunately, I Am Syd Stone never rises above the soap-opera-inspired melodrama at its core.
The resulting film offers few deep or meaningful performances and lacks an urgently needed back story. Some may find just enough interest to see the movie through to the end, but others will find themselves tuning out after the first 35 minutes.
READ MORE: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F DONOVAN
BEYTO (RENT OR BUY)
Q Bites (December 2021): BEYTO is now available to rent, buy or stream.
Based on the novel Hochzeitsflug by Yusuf Yesilöz, you would be forgiven for thinking Gitta Gsell’s, Beyto was a classic coming-of-age gay drama in its opening twenty minutes. However, Gsell’s drama soon takes an interesting detour as we explore immigration, cultural homophobia, and arranged marriage. Here, the experiences of young Beyto share the screen with those of his childhood friend and bride, Seher. In a film rooted in the expectations, oppression, and cultural baggage surrounding young men and women attempting to build new lives away from their home country. While it may not always find a clear voice, Beyto offers us a fascinating mix of themes and discussions that help it transcend the simplicity of the average coming-of-age gay movie.
READ MORE: AILEY