Ian Thomas Malone

MovieReviews Archive



April 2020



Circus of Books is a Loving Tribute to a LA Institution

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The mountains of progress that have been made in the fight for LGBTQ equality in recent years can make it easy to forget just how hard it was for gay people to connect just a few years ago. Before the age of Grindr and Tinder, places like Circus of Books served as meeting places for gay people to meet each other in relative safety. The Internet drastically reshaped the American economy, particularly the porn industry, leaving plenty of mom and pop establishments struggling to make ends meet.

The documentary Circus of Books follows the final days of the beloved establishment, as well as the couple who ran it. Karen and Barry Mason hardly look like the kind of people who would become major distributors of hardcore gay porn, but the two created a successful business out of an industry that was almost completely decimated by the Reagan administration. Directed by their daughter Rachel, the film presents an intimate look at how Circus of Books operated in its heyday.

Mason does a deep dive into her parents’ life work, from the early days acquiring the store, to their role as producers of gay porn starring icons like Jeff Stryker, all the way to the last days of the business. Interviews from former staff as well as Hustler founder Larry Flynt help give context into the world of gay porn distribution and the Mason’s important role in the supply chain.

As a documentary, Circus of Books mostly splits its attention between the bookstore and the Mason’s complicated home life, particularly toward Karen’s handling of the coming out of their son, Josh. Rachel thoroughly explores the seemingly contradictory mindset of her mother’s reluctance to accept her own son’s homosexuality while running an establishment that caters to the gay community. The whole sequence is a little uncomfortable to watch, like seeing a family air out its dirty laundry, but the resolution serves as a good reminder that allies are as complex and diverse as the broader LGBTQ community itself.

There is a point where Karen expresses to her daughter that maybe the documentary should have been about some of the actual gay pioneers during a visit to USC’s archives, a sentiment that’s perhaps included in the film with an inflated sense of confidence. Rachel Mason crafts an interesting and well-paced narrative, albeit one that often struggles to shake the aura of a vanity project. The sense that the Mason family is only participating because their daughter is the director remains particularly present in the third act.

Circus of Books was an important LGBTQ cultural spot in Los Angeles. Mason lovingly pays tribute to her parents’ business while giving her audience plenty of reasons to care about this piece of gay history. The modern age doesn’t have the same need for physical media, but stores like Circus of Books served a broader purpose in giving a marginalized community a place for connection. It will be missed not necessarily for its back room or “Vaseline alley,” but for the sense of belonging that its presence helped foster.



December 2019



Christmas Under the Stars Wastes Its Runtime on Bizarre Subplots

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, MovieReviews

Part of the beauty of Hallmark Christmas movies is their ability to commit to truly absurd premises. The idea of a man recently laid off from his job in high finance being rescued from his aimless midday wandering to work in a Christmas tree lot seems rather preposterous, but Christmas Under the Stars turns that concept into an entire film. As a narrative it almost works.

Nick (Jesse Metcalfe) has a dream life, on the verge of making junior partner at his investment banking firm. That is, until he’s used as the scapegoat for an error made with their biggest client. Fired just before Christmas, Nick avoids his successful father and mopes around. Thankfully, Clem (Clarke Peters) is able to quickly, almost miraculously, identify the root of Nick’s sadness and offers him a job helping out at the Christmas tree lot that he’s run for the past thirty years.

Julie (Autumn Reeser) is a passionate middle school science teacher, saddened by the loss of her father, who naturally loved Christmas more than anything. When Julie isn’t looking out for tardy honors students, she’s taking care of her son Matt (Anthony Bolognese). Her lifelong friendship with Clem, who knew her grandfather from the air force, puts her in Nick’s orbit, allowing two downtrodden souls the chance to warm each other up for the holidays.

The film deserves credit for not putting romance at the heart of the narrative. Nick and Julie don’t spend all that much time courting each other, a breath of fresh air for a genre that often works on unrealistic time tables. Trouble is, Christmas Under the Stars chooses some pretty bizarre plot points including parental medical debt and the future of a seasonal vacant lot to drive its narrative.

Clem’s love of Christmas is the fodder that fuels plenty of holiday films, but Christmas Under the Stars channels that passion in ways that are hard to relate to. A big evil real estate company wants to repurpose the lot, which presumably remains vacant for 11 months out of the year. It’s never explained what Clem does for work when he’s not selling Christmas trees. Plenty of people have fond memories of chopping down their own trees at farms, but this film asks us to invest emotional weight in the future of a concrete lot in the middle of a city.

Similarly casting capitalism as its nemesis, the film presents Julie as saddled with medical debt from her father’s death. This creates romantic problems when she learns that the firm who bought her debt obligations, currently pressing her for repayment, was once Nick’s top client. This whole dynamic is weirdly complex and totally unnecessary for a film with way too many subplots.

There are other minor quibbles with the script and production values that are somewhat to be expected. At one point, Julie states that her parents met at Clem’s lot, which makes a big deal out of its thirtieth anniversary. Trouble is, that would put Julie at about age 29, while raising an adoptive teenager. Similarly unrealistic is Julie’s immaculate full makeup, perfect in every scene, even when she’s taking her child to buy a Christmas tree.

Christmas Under the Stars has some charm. The acting is quite entertaining, with Peters, Reeser, and Metcalfe making the most of a mediocre script. The film would have been much better off centering itself on a few narratives rather than completely spread out over too many subplots. There’s a good story here about the power of the holidays to put life in perspective. Unfortunately it’s mostly buried under a load of convolution.