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Knight at the Movies: Henry Gamble's Birthday Party; 4th Man Out
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Everybody in the pool

At the beginning of writer-director Stephen Cone's latest feature, Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, it's the night before the adorable, blonde Henry ( winningly portrayed by adorable, blonde, out actor Cole Doman ) turns 17 and late at night in his bedroom, he and his best friend Gabe ( Joe Keery ) are having a sleepover. Lying next to each other in bed, the conversation turns to sex and, very quickly, Henry and Gabe are masturbating under the covers. It's immediately apparent that Henry has a thing for the oblivious Gabe ( who has turned himself on talking about his desires for a girl ).

This scenario will be familiar to scores of gay men and women ( and, no doubt, their straight and straightish counterparts as well ) and the mixture of intimacy, youthful bravado and closeted emotional and sexual yearning set the stage for the events to come. Like one of the leading characters in Cone's critically acclaimed 2011 feature The Wise Kids, young Henry is also faced with coming to terms with being gay and a religious conservative.

Henry is not the only one trying to navigate the tricky line between secular pleasures and religious conservatism. As his birthday party commences the day after the sleepover with Gabe, pretty much everyone in attendance is struggling with this uneasy intersection, especially his parents, an Evangelical pastor and his wife, whose marital discord we sense is reaching the breaking point.

Henry's birthday is being celebrated with a seemingly innocent pool party to which both friends and parents have been invited. All afternoon and evening long as the bathing suit-clad teens and young adults frolic in the pool, we act as voyeurs along with their parents who sit on the sidelines, sizing them up—and each other. There are a lot of other troubled folks on hand and as the party progresses ( and a bottle of illicit wine gets drunk ), secrets are revealed and lives are irrevocably changed.

Although a tad melodramatic with one subplot too many thrown into the mix, Cone's nuanced script and his sure touch with his actors ( who include a bunch from the Chicago theatrical community ) is always a pleasure to bask in, as are many of the naturalistic performances. It plays exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

4th Man Out

Nice, sweet Adam Hutcherson ( out actor Evan Todd ) is a garage mechanic who spends most of his down time hanging out with his hunky longtime best friend Chris ( Parker Young, of Subpurgatory ) and their other two pals Ortu ( Jon Gabrus, of MTV's Guy Code ) and Nick ( Chord Overstreet of Glee ). Together, this inseparable foursome engage in typical straight male bonding: watching sports on TV, drinking beer, playing poker, chasing chicks and making the random gay jokes—that is, until Adam announces on his 24th birthday that he's gay.

And that's where director Andrew Nackman's wry little film, aptly titled 4th Man Out, offers a canny twist on the typical "dude comedy." Instead of the expected derision, Adam's bros, though baffled by their friends announcement, do their best to be supportive—they sign him up at a Grindr-type hook up site and even accompany him to a gay bar. In typical straight-guy fashion, they also worry about becoming the object of Adam's affection. The awkwardness prevails until they are shamed into realizing how stereotypical their behavior has been by a pretty young lass that Chris is hot for. All seems good until one night mixed signals between Adam and one of his buddies threatens to change things up for good.

This is broad, familiar territory and some of the supporting characters ( like a super-religious neighbor who's always stopping by with muffins ) stretch the credibility to the breaking point. Yet, the camaraderie between the pals and the enthusiasm of the bright, energetic cast and lickety-split pacing certainly help—as does a genuine tenderness—unheard of in previous dude comedies. This movie was the opening-night selection for Reeling, Chicago's LGBTQ film festival ( for which I acted as co-programmer ) and is now available digitally. Former Chicagoan Kate Flannery ( The Office ) co-stars as Adam's overbearing but well-intentioned mother.

The gay man's national holiday

Will Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett take home a gold statuette for Carol? Will Eddie Redmayne grab his second Best Actor Award playing transgender in The Danish Girl or Alice Vikander her first for Supporting Actress as a supportive wife? Will Sam Smith get the Best Song Oscar for "Writing's on the Wall," his theme song for Spectre, the latest James Bond action blockbuster?

Who will wear the best gown and the tackiest; make the stupidest remarks at the podium and the funniest? Will the In Memoriam salute be truly moving or grossly gratuitous? What celebrity will have the worst facelift? Whose speech will inspire, delight or fall flat on its Botox? How long will this longest of awards show go? How will Chris Rock handle the controversy over the lack of non-white nominees this year?

All this and more will be answered when the 88th Academy Awards are presented Sunday, Feb. 28, on ABC. If you're not hosting your own viewing party ( my husband and I will be doing the honors for at least the 10th time ), there are dozens of screening parties around town to choose from ( with the Center on Halsted's and the Gene Siskel Film Center's as two of my faves ). Love 'em or hate 'em, there's still nothing quite like the Oscars.

Upcoming movie calendar

Highlights from films opening in Chicago, Feb. 26-March 4 ( with some descriptions coming from studio press materials ):

—Eddie the Eagle ( Feb. 26 )—With help from a rebellious and charismatic coach ( Hugh Jackman ), British ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards ( Taron Egerton ) trains for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta in this inspirational sports drama.

—Gods of Egypt ( Feb. 26 )—The survival of mankind hangs in the balance when Set ( Gerard Butler ), the merciless god of darkness, usurps Egypt's throne and plunges the prosperous empire into chaos and conflict. Hoping to save the world and rescue his true love, a defiant mortal named Bek ( Brenton Thwaites ) forms an unlikely alliance with the powerful god Horus ( Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ).

—RECOMMENDED: Henry Gamble's Birthday Party ( Feb. 26 )—See details above.

—The Witch ( Feb. 26 )—A 17th-century Puritan family in New England becomes convinced that their teenage daughter is in the service of Satan when their young son disappears. A raft of British character actors with familiar faces ( but not names ) co-star in this horror thriller.

—Desierto ( March 4 )—When their truck suddenly breaks down, a migrant named Moises ( Gael Garcia Bernal ) leads 13 others on a trek through the harsh terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border and find themselves in a fight for their lives against a psychotic sniper ( Jeffrey Dean Morgan ) and his vicious hunting dog.

—London Has Fallen ( March 4 )—Secret Service agent Mike Banning ( Gerard Butler ) springs into action to save captive U.S. President Benjamin Asher ( Aaron Eckhart ) from the terrorists who attacked London. It's a sequel to Olympus Has Fallen.

—Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ( March 4 )—While working as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, Kim Barker ( Tina Fey ) develops a crazy relationship with a fellow journalist from Scotland ( The Hobbit's Martin Freeman ). Based on Barker's bestselling memoir. Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton and Alfred Molina co-star.

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