Friday, August 11, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: Opening Nights



Health and family issues conspired, sadly, to prevent me from attending an opening night at Los Angeles' storied Ahmanson Theatre since the end of last year.  Thankfully, I was able to break out of this vicious cycle last week in time for the LA premiere of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Not only was this 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Play (in addition to several other Tonys) outstanding in virtually every way, but I was seated next to out actor-screenwriter Peter Paige (the US Queer as Folk, The Fosters) as well as just down from the fabulous, always friendly Wilson Cruz.  Cruz will soon be seen as one of the first two openly gay characters ever to grace a Star Trek TV series, with Broadway's Anthony Rapp playing his partner.


Curious Incident isn't a gay-themed play per se.  Adapted from Mark Haddon's bestselling 2003 novel by Simon Stephens, it follows the adventures of 15-year old Christopher Boone.  This intelligent British teen lives with his widowed father and is apparently on the autism spectrum, though this is never specifically mentioned.  Christopher has very particular likes and dislikes, doesn't relate well to other people and hates to be touched.  He has affection for his pet rat Toby, as well as video games, Sherlock Holmes detective stories and his neighbor's dog.

One night, Christopher discovers the dog next door dead in its yard, a pitchfork protruding from its side.  He sets out to discover who could have committed such a ghastly, seemingly unwarranted act.  The incident proves to be just the tip of the iceberg for Christopher, who ends up uncovering family secrets that lead him to travel alone (well, with Toby) beyond his home town for the first time.


The production is stunningly, engrossingly directed by Marianne Elliott, whose current London revival of Angels in America is drawing similar raves to her Tony Award-winning work on this.  Elliott and her design team do an impressive, at times overwhelming job of staging the action from Christopher's perspective.  It is frequently but necessarily loud, busy and visually irritating.  Audience members can't help but feel what life for someone living with autism or Asperger's must be like.

While the entire, notably diverse cast of the touring production is exceptional, young Adam Langdon was nothing less than amazing as Christopher during the opening night performance (Benjamin Wheelwright alternates in the role during Saturday and Sunday matinees).  It would be a demanding, challenging role for the most experienced actors but Langdon portrays Christopher beautifully, with both sensitivity and profound strength.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at the Ahmanson through September 10th and will then resume its national tour.  It absolutely should not be missed.


Speaking of opening nights, there is a fun, new, gay-interest film with that very title now available on DVD from Wolfe Video.  Opening Night finds a strong roster of both characters and actors occupying Isaac Rentz's backstage musical-comedy.  Topher Grace (where has he been?) headlines as Nick, the flummoxed stage manager of a new Broadway musical entitled One Hit Wonderland.  A celebration of such 1980's and 90's songs as "Rock Me Amadeus," "I Melt With You" and "Living La Vida Loca" ("Come On Eileen" is conspicuously missing) the show stars NSYNC's JC Chasez.  These and other musical numbers are energetically choreographed by Aakomon Jones of Pitch Perfect and Dreamgirls fame, assisted by Amy Allen.

Anne Heche plays the musical's Cher-esque leading lady but a backstage accident sidelines her.  Her understudy, who also happens to be Nick's ex-girlfriend, assumes the role to the initial chagrin of the production's high-strung producer (Rob Riggle).  Meanwhile, gay dancer Malcolm (the always delicious Taye Diggs) is battling a hilariously foul-mouthed Lesli Margherita for the attentions of the show's hot new male dancer.

The movie's plot doesn't amount to much but it serves as a great showcase for the cast as well as its retro song score.  Andre Lascaris's colorful, dynamic cinematography is also of note.  Opening Night is great for a quiet summer night at home, especially for fans of its showcased one-hit wonders.


My personal travails earlier this summer also prohibited me from reviewing two new-ish films that demand attention.  The Ornithologist, by gay, Portuguese writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues, isn't unlike a queer film as directed by David Lynch.  The film's hunky title character, Fernando (played by Paul Hamy), encounters all sorts of unusual people and adventures as he paddles down a river searching for rare birds.  Cute, deaf-mute Jesus (Xelo Cagiao) is memorable as a lonely goatherd who crosses Fernando's path with dramatic results.  There is also plentiful Catholic imagery at play, which naturally caught Reverend's attention along with the men on display.


And then there is South Korean filmmaker's Joon-ho Bong's Okja, now available on Netflix as well as in some US theaters.  Alternately delightful and disturbing, it is at heart an E.T.-like story of a girl and her beloved giant, genetically-engineered pig friend.  Young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) embarks on a journey to the decadent old US of A when Okja is abducted by the evil corporation that created it, headed by Tilda Swinton in dual roles as the company's hilariously insecure CEO and her downright vicious sister.  Mija and Okja also become targets of an animal rights group and a demented TV host à la the late Steve Irwin, portrayed by a surprisingly whacked-out Jake Gyllenhaal.  The remainder of the movie's all-star, multi-national cast includes Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins and The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun.  Okja isn't for kids, despite its cute & cuddly star, but it serves as a potent adult fable.  Have some hankies handy.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (on tour): A
Opening Night: B
The Ornithologist: B+
Okja: A-

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reverend's Preview: Outfest 2017 Promises to be Fabulous


 

Nearly 200 LGBTQ short and feature-length films from around the world will be screened during Outfest 2017. That would be a lot of celluloid if movies were still released in non-digital formats. Running July 6th-16th at various venues in and around Los Angeles, the annual festival will be more fabulous than ever thanks to its roster of local premieres.


Outfest began as a three-day media conference on the campus of UCLA way back in 1982. 35 years later, it is the largest LGBTQ film fest in the world and the largest of the many film festivals that take place in LA each year. 40,000 attendees, filmmakers, community leaders and other bigwigs (in some cases, such as the screening of Suspiciously Large Woman: Bob the Drag Queen Comedy Special on July 10th, people literally wearing big wigs) participate in Outfest’s plentiful screenings, panels and parties.

Caftans might actually be fashionable this year thanks to the July 12th debut of The Fabulous Allan Carr. While his name may be unfamiliar to the under-40 crowd, plenty of us more mature gays recall the flamboyant producer of such big-screen musicals as Grease, Grease 2 and Can’t Stop the Music as well as the original Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles. Award-winning documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz (who previously made Vito, I Am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential) crafted this loving expose of Carr, who also helmed the notorious 1989 Academy Awards ceremony before his untimely death at the age of 62.

“Growing up I was totally obsessed with the movie Grease, which came out when I was nine years old,” Schwarz confessed to me via email. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a visionary producer responsible for making all this magic happen and his name was Allan Carr.”


Schwarz continued: “I was delighted to discover Robert Hofler’s Allan Carr biography Party Animals, and knew right away it had all the elements I look for when choosing a subject. A film adaptation would tie together themes of all my previous documentaries, (which are) stories of visionary mavericks who create larger than life personas to make their dreams a reality; all are stories of outsiders becoming insiders.”

Carr became a multi-millionaire with Grease, which remained the most successful live-action movie musical from 1978 until this year’s Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, he lost much of his fortune not to mention his reputation just two years later when he produced the uber-campy Village People biopic Can’t Stop the Music. “The challenge with The Fabulous Allan Carr was to look beyond the caricature and explore the inner life of a complicated, contradictory man,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz was able to secure the on-camera participation of many of Carr’s friends and collaborators such as Bruce Vilanch, Lorna Luft, Steve Guttenberg, Valerie Perrine, Maxwell Caulfield and more. “So many people wanted to be part of this film because they loved Allan but there were also some who wanted to make sure we saw him as a human being with his own faults and insecurities,” according to Schwarz. “Everyone we spoke to helped present a portrait of a man whose mission in life was to make people happy, but happiness in his own personal life was sometimes elusive.”

I found The Fabulous Allan Carr revelatory in addition to just plain entertaining and can’t recommend it enough. Beyond Outfest, people can follow the film on its website as well as on its Facebook and Twitter pages.


The term fabulous can also be applied to Billy Bloom, the central character of Freak Show. Based on James St. James’ acclaimed novel, Freak Show will serve as this year’s Closing Night Gala screening on July 16th. Making the comedy-drama even more noteworthy is a rare big-screen appearance by newly-anointed Tony Award winner Bette Midler as Billy’s eccentric mother. Laverne Cox and Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine herself, are also featured.

Billy (played by the extraordinary Alex Lawther) unexpectedly finds himself shipped off to live with his conservative father. His new high school, Ulysses S. Grant Academy, doesn’t take well to Billy’s larger-than-life personality and fashion sense. Just when all seems lost, he finds a friend in the school’s super-cute star football player, who is secretly a budding artist. Newly empowered, Billy goes up against Breslin’s bitchy Bible-thumper for the title of Homecoming Queen. Freak Show is a visually dazzling crowd-pleaser thanks to the participation of legendary cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Beaches, The Mirror Has Two Faces and L.A. Confidential, among many other credits).

Speaking of visually dazzling, there are probably no two more gorgeous men to be found on screen during Outfest than out actor Russell Tovey (of Looking and Pride fame) and Arinze Kene (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). They co-star in The Pass, screening July 7th, as fellow pro athletes who end up having a complicated relationship. It is a thoroughly unpredictable, ultimately bittersweet romance, and it doesn’t hurt that both in-shape actors are minimally dressed throughout.


This year’s festival isn’t without a fabulous movie musical! Hello Again is a polysexual song and dance saga adapted from Michael John LaChiusa’s celebrated off-Broadway show. The film will have its LA premiere on July 11th. An all-star cast including Martha Plimpton, Audra McDonald, T.R. Knight, Rumer Willis (especially good) and Cheyenne Jackson play an assortment of intertwined lovers who cross paths over the course of 12 decades. Tom Gustafson, who previously helmed the 2008 Outfest hit musical Were the World Mine, directs.

Opening night on July 6th will feature the LA premiere of Sundance award winner God’s Own Country, a love story between a British sheep farmer and a Romanian migrant worker. Also, openly gay TV producer Bryan Fuller (American Gods, Hannibal and Pushing Daisies) will be presented with the 2017 Outfest Achievement Award.

All in all, Outfest 2017 is going to be fabulous. Visit the Outfest website for the full festival schedule and to purchase tickets.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reverend's Preview: Plenty of Sweet Stuff at FilmOut 2017


 

The Southern California LGBT film festival circuit kicks off in San Diego this month, and it promises to be a tasty experience whether or not one gorges on candy, ice cream or other sweet treats during its 37 screenings. FilmOut, now in its 19th year, will take place June 9th –11th at the historic Observatory North Park Theatre. 


Several world, American, West Coast and California premieres are included, as well as award-winning features from both the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals along with a variety of LGBTQ short films. Many filmmakers and cast members will be in attendance and participate in question & answer sessions with audiences.


This year’s Opening Night film is especially worthy of attention. It will be the San Diego premiere of Del Shores’ long-awaited A Very Sordid Wedding. A cinematic sequel to 2000’s hilarious, gay classic Sordid Lives (there was also a short-lived TV series follow-up in 2008), it reunites original cast members Leslie Jordan, Bonnie Bedelia and Ann Walker while adding Whoopi Goldberg, Caroline Rhea and Alec Mapa, among others. Writer-director Shores and many cast members will be in attendance for the movie’s June 9th screening. They can also be found at the fest’s Opening Night party at the Sunset Temple directly across the street from the theater, which will run from 10:00 pm to midnight.


Jennifer M. Kroot’s fascinating and inspiring documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin will serve as the fest’s Closing Night film as well as the film’s West Coast premiere on Sunday, June 11th. It explores the life and work of its celebrated, title author/activist. The screening will be followed by a Closing Night party at West Coast Tavern (how appropriate) in the upper theatre lobby from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm.

In between Friday and Sunday nights are such attention-grabbers as the Girls Centerpiece film Signature Move, about a Pakistani, Muslim lesbian who falls in love with a bold Mexican woman (West Coast premiere); Josh Howard’s timely documentary The Lavender Scare, detailing the US government’s history of persecuting LGBT citizens (Festival Spotlight); and the poly-sexual tale Even Lovers Get the Blues from Belgium (West Coast premiere and International Spotlight).


After nearly two decades of success, FilmOut San Diego continues to “annually affirm the ongoing integrity and boundless imagination of our community and the artists who tell our stories,” according to a press release. The festival’s Board of Directors believes its work is an integral part of an ongoing effort to build a vibrant, affirming and sustainable LGBT community in San Diego County.

Rage is proud to once again serve as a sponsor of FilmOut, as well as to co-present the 2017 Boys Centerpiece screening, Something Like Summer. A West Coast premiere, this romantic drama with musical moments will screen the evening of Saturday, June 10th. Cast members as well as Carlos Pedraza, one of the film’s producers, will be in attendance. (See interview with Pedraza below.)

My personal favorite of the men’s films selected for this year’s fest that I have previewed is the Irish crowd-pleaser Handsome Devil. It will be screening at FilmOut on Sunday, June 11th prior to its local theatrical release. Reminiscent of early 1990’s gay coming-of- age movies from the UK like Beautiful Thing and Get Real, it is about two roommates at a conservative all-boys school who gradually connect on a deeper level. Acclaimed and super-cute actor Andrew Scott (Spectre, Professor Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock) plays the school’s new English teacher, who has a secret or two of his own.


Something Like Summer is shaping up to be one of the most popular entries on this year's LGBT film festival circuit.  This ambitious romantic-drama traces the 12-year relationship between handsome young Ben and Tim.  Ben (played by Grant Davis) is an aspiring but shy singer when the pair first meets in high school, while Tim (Davi Santos of recent Power Rangers fame) yearns to be a painter.  The film explores their developing talents as well as their tumultuous, on again-off again affair. It even includes seven songs performed powerfully by Davis.

Carlos Pedraza serves as one of the movie's producers.  The Bogota, Colombia-born filmmaker has a number of gay and mainstream credits to his name, including the award-winning 2011 feature Judas Kiss and two popular Star Trek web series.  He recently spoke with me prior to the West Coast premiere of his latest at FilmOut.

How did this project come together?
One of the producers, Tom Ly, created his own production company to acquire the rights to the book, written by Jay Bell.  He came across us (Pedraza and partner J.T. Tepnapa) when Judas Kiss was playing festivals and brought us on board.  We began the process of development and fundraising.  It took five years in all for the film to get made.

The film is beautifully shot by its director, David Berry.  Isn't it unusual for the same person to serve as both director and cinematographer?
It was sort of a decision that was forced upon us but it was a happy accident.  J.T. had been slated to direct but became ill a few days into shooting so David stepped in to take over.  He was already shooting the film so he had been well prepped.  He did a great job in both capacities.

And is Something Like Summer properly termed a musical?
We struggled with that in pre-production.  It has songs but not really full-blown production numbers.  We ultimately embraced it since so many people were referring to it as a musical.  Since it was filmed even, there have been so many other musical films and network TV episodes that it kind of makes sense now.  Glee was still on when we first started developing the film but that was about it.


How did you find such a great young cast?
We did a traditional casting process for the two leads with auditions and postings.  One of our producers knew Davi's agent so there was already a connection there and he was the first we cast.  We cast a wide net for the role of Ben, looking all across America and even Australia and England, as well as for the female lead.  We were so lucky to get Ajiona Alexus (who plays Allison, Ben's best friend), who currently plays the younger Cookie on TV's Empire and is in Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.

There is a sequence in the movie set in Paris, France.  Did you actually shoot in Paris?  It seems like that would have cost a lot.
That was actually shot in Portland, Oregon, with the help of CGI.  I lived in Portland and am very familiar with the city.  One side of the river in Portland was Paris and the other side was Chicago (laughs).  I was familiar with a local French restaurant that we used for the restaurant scene.

Would you say there is a moral or message in the film you would like viewers to take away?
Yeah, there's a couple of things.  I would say at the center the theme is courage.  It's about coming out and not being afraid.  Even though Ben comes out as gay in the 9th grade he has to handle other things in his life with courage, like singing and relationships.  The other message is about finding and defining who you are.  That's a process that friends and other people can help us with but each of us has to decide for ourselves.

What's next for you?
There are three or four things that we're exploring right now.  Two are adaptations, one is a biopic and one is a science fiction project.  We are looking to see how much financial interest we can get from Something Like Summer, which is working out well so far.  The trailer has really taken off and is generating interest everywhere.  It has over 1,000,000 views in the Philippines of all places (laughs)!
For the full fest schedule and to purchase tickets or an all-access VIP pass, visit the FilmOut website.

Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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