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.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: Handsome Devils, Then & Now



I was just starting to come out 30 years ago.  Therefore, my similarly-inclined friends (including Movie Dearest editor, Kirby Holt) and I were pretty desperate at the time for big-screen depictions of gay life. Fortunately, the mid-1980's were a time of transition to more positive representations of gay men via such productions as Prick Up Your Ears, Parting Glances, Kiss of the Spider Woman and My Beautiful Laundrette.  Most positive of all, though, was 1987's lavish Maurice by the lauded filmmaking team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who were also longtime life partners.  A beautifully restored digital print of the gay romance is opening theatrically in Los Angeles this Friday.



Maurice (pronounced "Morris") was adapted from E.M. Forster's semi-autobiographical novel, which he allowed to be published only after his death in 1970 at the age of 91.  It was the second of three highly-acclaimed Merchant-Ivory productions based on Forster's works, the others being A Room with a View and Howard's End (David Lean's 1984 epic A Passage to India was also based on a Forster book).  While Maurice only received one Academy Award nomination (for costumes) unlike the multiple nods these other adaptations received, it may actually be the best remembered and most influential of them all. This is certainly the case among gay men over 40, once you figure in the film's initial release on home video.




As the story begins, its title character (played by towheaded hunk James Wilby) is a young student at England's Cambridge University during the first decade of the 20th century.  There he befriends the darkly handsome Clive (one of Hugh Grant's early performances) but it isn't long before the pair, influenced by their studies of classic Greek culture, realize they are in love with one another.  Alas, same-sex relations were criminalized then, a fact which hits uncomfortably close to home for Maurice and Clive when one of their classmates is sentenced to prison for "crimes against nature."  Clive ends their relationship and ends up marrying a woman while Maurice, after attempting to go straight with the help of an American hypnotist (a hilarious Ben Kingsley), runs away with Clive's rugged gameskeeper (played by the dreamy Rupert Graves).


The film's exceptional supporting cast is a virtual who's who of 1980's British acting royalty including gay actors Denholm Elliott and Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw and, in a cameo, Helena Bonham Carter.  In typical Merchant-Ivory style, Maurice is leisurely paced and somewhat overlong but it proves ripe for discovery by younger LGBTQ viewers, who are actually more accustomed to longer running times and frank depictions of homosexuality than I was back in 1987.  Maurice lives on!


Also opening in LA this weekend is the Irish crowd-pleaser Handsome Devil, written and directed by John Butler.  Additionally, it will be screening at San Diego's FilmOut on Sunday, June 11th and is my personal favorite of the men’s films selected for the fest that I was able to preview.

Reminiscent of 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.

Between these two releases and Wonder Woman (finally), let's all have a big gay weekend at the movies!

Reverend's Ratings:
Maurice: A-
Handsome Devil: B+

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dearest Review: Beasts of the Northern Isles


 

A giant tree man and a menagerie of magical critters make up the latest, literary-inspired British invasion. 


A Monster Calls:
With his mother (Felicity Jones) terminally ill, young Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is visited by the wooden behemoth of the title (voiced and mo-capped by Liam Neeson), who tells him three stories and expects a fourth from Connor himself. The monster’s morality tales, cleverly brought to life via stylized animation, are not-so-subtle life lessons for the boy to help him deal with his stern gran (Sigourney Weaver… yep, Sigourney Weaver is now playing grandmothers), the requisite school bully and, ultimately, the fate of his beloved mum.

Even with its unique fantasy elements A Monster Calls still feels overly-familiar and there is a befuddling disconnect along the way that leaves the film cold and distancing, this despite an emotion-stirring final act that makes one wish the rest of the film lived up to. (6/10)

Tree's Company

... Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
As if eight Harry Potter movies weren’t enough, Warner Brothers is back to milk even more out their magical cash cow with this spin-off franchise, the first to be written directly for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself. Set long before Harry, the title refers to a Hogwarts textbook written by “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who has traveled to New York City with a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase brimming with all manner of, well, fantastic beasts (that’s where you find them!). Naturally, some of the creatures escape and wreak havoc on the Big Apple, which catches the attention of the local wizard’s council, who are none too thrilled by the risk of being exposed to the world of “No-Majs” (the American version of “Muggles”, i.e.: non-magical people).

One would think that after, what, five zillion hours of the original series they would want to try something a little different, a little fresh for these original adventures. No such luck. Director David Yates, who helmed half of the Potter films, returns with the same muddy, turgid style that turned the latter Potters into such a chore to sit through. Redmayne doesn’t help much with his uninspired performance that consists mostly of one blank, mirthless expression through most of the film; the character is supposed to be odd, but it should be in a whimsical, Dr. Dolittle way, not in a creepy, Dr. Oz kind of way.

Fantastic Bore

Bloated with computer-generated effects (a practical effect here and there would have been nice), Fantastic Beasts is un-shockingly left open-ended to make way for the already announced four sequels, the only ray of hope of which is the addition of a young and (fingers crossed) openly gay Dumbledore, to be played by Jude Law. (4/10)

This Monster and these Beasts are only the latest examples of an increasing, frustrating trend plaguing today’s fantasy films. Modern filmmakers have every technological tool at their disposal to bring these fantastic tales to the screen, but they are forgetting the most important thing: a sense of wonder, the surprise of something wholly created by the imagination brought to living, breathing life right before your eyes.

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Dearest Review: The Dead Zone


 

If you, like me, have long-since grown tired of all the never-ending shenanigans on The Walking Dead but still hold out hope for a decent zombie flick, then thank god for Netflix, for they are now streaming an awesome import that seems to have been tailor made for the phrase “roller coaster ride”.

A monster hit in its native South Korea, Train to Busan places you on its titular transport just as some kind of viral outbreak takes over the country, turning the recently dead into herky-jerky reanimated corpses with a helluva hankering for fresh flesh. Populated with your typical disaster movie cast of characters, director Yeon Sang-ho still has you rooting for the good guys to make it even as he continually places them into increasingly perilous (yet creatively fresh) action set pieces.


While Train to Busan may be the best zombie apocalypse movie you’ve seen in a long time, less successful is the intriguingly premised yet ultimately disappointing The Girl with All the Gifts. This recent Blu-ray/DVD release takes place in a world gutted by a mysterious fungal infection that (what do you know) turns its victims into carnivorous cannibals.

Humanity’s last hope lays in Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a precocious young girl who, although super smart and cute as a button, also craves human flesh. Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close (yes, that Glenn Close) play the adults protecting her once their post-apocalyptic military base is overrun by a horde of “hungries” (yes, seriously, that is what they call them). Alas, the film slowly devolves as the lapses in logic pile up, eventually bottoming out into complete silliness by the time a gang of feral “lost children” right out of 60’s-era Star Trek show up.

Bottom line: take the Train (rated 8/10) but return the Gifts (6/10).

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reverend's Preview: Awards Give Voice to Our Community


Artwork by David Kawena

 

Many of us, myself included, prefer singing in the shower to singing on stage in front of hundreds of people. Fortunately, the 270 active members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) have no such fear, especially when it comes to using music to support voice-less and even bullied LGBTQ youth.


GMCLA's 6th annual Voice Awards gala will be held on May 20th at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles. Featuring a silent auction along with incredible musical performances, the event benefits the chorus's youth outreach initiatives including the Alive Music Project and the "it gets better" Tour. Attendees include a diverse audience of over 700 guests ranging from corporate, entertainment industry and business executives to celebrity friends and noted philanthropists. The gala has raised $1.5 million since 2012 and hopes to add significantly more this year.


Founded in 1979, GMCLA has grown to be one of the largest all-male choral organizations in the United States. It has also become one of the largest LGBT advocacy organizations in the world, boasting a diverse and inter-generational membership. Now under the leadership of new executive director Jonathan Weedman, GMCLA "has a deep history of service within the LGBT community, singing at countless memorials, making and commissioning music that helps the community to mourn, to celebrate, to dream, and to prepare for victory" over social and political forces that still oppose LGBT equality. The chorus's members donate over 60,000 volunteer hours annually to make GMCLA’s mission of musical excellence and community partnership a reality.

The annual Voice Awards honor those who, according to their press release, "advance our world, refute silence, lend a voice to the oppressed, exhibit leadership and give hope to those living under the weight of silence." 2017 Community Leader Voice Award will be presented to Gwen Baba, who has a long history of involvement with both the Human Rights Campaign and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, while the Visionary Voice Award will go to the Logo TV channel.

Renowned composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz will be the recipient of the 2017 Vanguard Voice Award. Schwartz has written the scores for such popular stage hits as Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. He won Academy Awards for the animated films Pocahontas and The Prince of Egypt, and received additional nominations for Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.


"I'm very proud to be receiving the GMCLA Vanguard Voice Award," Schwartz told this writer via email. "I had a wonderful experience with the chorus when they performed my choral piece Testimony, which is based on interviews for the "it gets better" project, and it meant a lot to me when they brought performances of that piece into schools around the country. It's not easy for writers to have a social impact, but organizations such as the GMCLA help make that possible."

Indeed, GMCLA operates two innovative community projects that offer education and outreach to over 50,000 middle and high school youth in our public school system. The Alive Music Project is a music education and outreach program focused on LA-area middle and high schools. It will be expanding this year to incarcerated youth throughout Los Angeles. The "it gets better" Tour, meanwhile, educates youth and reduces incidences of bullying and violence across the US where over 85% of LGBT students are physically or verbally abused each year. In addition, GMCLA supports the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, an organization with the mission "to fiercely empower trans and gender-expansive people to love their voices and perform with courage and strength."

Support of the Voice Awards helps GMCLA fund its general operations and continue offering these very important programs.

To purchase Voice Awards tickets or sponsorships or for additional information, visit the GMCLA website.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: Sex Gods


 

It's the lusty month of May, as Guinevere declares via song in Camelot.  Judging by the graphic sexual content in a new crop of streaming and home video offerings, she wasn't kidding. That at least one of them deals rather profoundly with the current state of religion in America piqued Reverend's interest all the more.


American Gods, the current Starz series adapted from Neil Gaiman's fantastical novel, features more theology, mythology, violence and diverse sexual proclivities than any one show should be able to handle. While the first four episodes I watched were uneven in tone and quality, their high points exceed anything I've seen on TV recently with the exception of The Man in the High Castle.  These include a gay sex scene — between a mortal and a jinn or genie, no less — so lengthy and apparently revolutionary that GLAAD held a special advance screening of the episode (#3) in Los Angeles last week. Other divine characters featured include Bilquis, a poly-amorous goddess of love who uniquely ingests her partners via her vagina, as well as Media, a new deity played by Gillian Anderson who offers numerous enticements including sex while taking on the appearance of Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, Judy Garland and other classic screen divas.

"You ain't never had a friend like me"
Omid Abtahi, Mousa Kraish in American Gods

The show's central character is Shadow Moon (the very hot, smoldering Ricky Whittle).  No sooner is Shadow released from prison for his role in a casino robbery gone wrong than he is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (the great British actor Ian McShane).  The ex-con is primarily employed as Wednesday's driver and bodyguard but finds himself drawn into a war between old and new gods. We learn that Mr. Wednesday is also known as Wotang or Odin, the Norse god most recently played in the Thor movies by Anthony Hopkins.  By the end of episode 4 this divine conflict hadn't yet kicked into full gear but the series is well worth watching, despite sex (complete with male erections) and violence that may startle other religious viewers, if for no other other reason than seeing old pro Cloris Leachman and musical powerhouse Kristen Chenoweth play other classic deities.  I'm completely devoted to Gods.


There is more far from mindless sex on display in two new gay-themed releases.  Utopians (Breaking Glass Pictures) is probably the most sexually explicit movie made in China to date.  That it primarily deals with homosexual relations is even more astounding.  Writer-director/provocateur Scud weaves a philosophy-infused story in which a young Hong Kong student struggling with his budding homosexuality is gradually seduced by his openly gay professor.  Some aspects of their relationship may seem dated and/or unethical by western standards, but we must be mindful that openly gay relationships remain frowned upon in China.


Paris 05:59 Theo & Hugo, now available from Wolfe Video, is an explicit yet very romantic love story told in real time between the two title characters. They make an instant connection in a Paris sex club but their fledgling relationship is quickly tested by the specter of HIV.  Co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau won multiple awards for their significant achievement.  The actors in both Utopians and Theo & Hugo also deserve kudos for their fearlessness.


Then there is Fifty Shades Darker (Universal).  This sequel to 2015's hit, hetero S&M fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey is even glossier and disappointingly more tame.  A change of directors is primarily to blame, with veteran James Foley (At Close Range, Fear) taking over from the more adventurous (and notably female) Sam Taylor-Johnson.  Not that the original was a very good movie but it proves to be better than the latest.  Controlling billionaire Christian Grey (returning Jamie Dornan, yum) returns after having been spurned by his latest disciple, Anastasia Steele (still Dakota Johnson, ugh), at the conclusion of episode 1.  He is humbled and contrite as the new film opens.  She agrees to take him back on her terms which quickly become more like his terms, Ben Wa balls and all.  In a nod to the 1980's kink semi-classic 9 1/2 Weeks, Foley casts Kim Basinger in a sadly minimal role as Christian's original master.  Before it all ends, there is a masquerade ball, a new boss for Anastasia who turns out to be a vengeful rapist, a helicopter crash (?) and a wedding engagement for Anastasia and Christian complete with fireworks.  There are sex scenes, especially in the unrated extended edition available, but they are fairly succint and Dornan, oddly, keeps his pants on for most of them.  Alas, there is one more sequel coming (no pun intended), next year's Fifty Shades Freed.  Then hopefully we will be freed from such exploitative, bondage-light silliness.


While not as sexually graphic as these predecessors, three other gay-interest home video releases this month aren't completely without worthwhile elements.  Taekwondo from TLA Releasing is the latest exercise in teasing homoeroticism by expert Marco Berger (Hawaii, Plan B), this time with co-director Martin Farina.  Unlike Berger's previous works, however, there is actual full-frontal nudity and a gay character in this one.  The plot is minimal — a bunch of gorgeous Argentinian friends gather for a boys-only vacation — but host Fernando clearly has the hots for gay newcomer German.  Berger draws out the tease a bit too long but the payoff is worth the wait.


A Little Lust, also available from TLA, is one of the few gay-themed films from Italy to date.  As such, its a bit dated and retro, especially since it was reportedly made in 2009 under the title Neither Juliet Nor Romeo.  Still, better late than never.


And the semi-autobiographical domestic drama Counting for Thunder (Wolfe Video) suffers from over-involvement by its writer/producer/director/leading man Phillip Irwin Cooper.  It is well-written but the film could have benefited from more objectivity.  It has a great supporting cast though including Mariette Hartley, John Heard (so sexy in 1982's Cat People) and Alison Elliott.

Reverend's Ratings:
American Gods (Episodes 1-4): B+
Utopians: B
Paris 05:59 Theo & Hugo: A-
Fifty Shades Darker: C-
Taekwondo: C+
A Little Lust: B-
Counting for Thunder: C

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dearest Review: Desperate Housewife


About two-thirds into the 1994 comedy Serial Mom there is a scene where happy homemaker Beverly Sutphin, suspected of being a serial murderer/crank phone caller, is followed by a string of Baltimore police cars in a low speed chase as she and her family drive to church. Cut to roughly two months after the movie opened to piddling box office returns and we have the world tuning in to live television coverage of basically the same scenario, except the Sutphin family car has been replaced with a now-infamous white Bronco.


In the 23 years since cult movie director John Waters unleashed the film he considers his best onto the world it has become even more prescient... and popular (Mother's Day TV airings have become an annual tradition in some markets). With its main satirical target being America's obsession with turning bad people who do bad things into pop culture icons, Serial Mom kind of sort of predicted our current state, a climate where a smarmy ex-reality TV star and self-confessed sexual predator can be elected to the highest office in the country.

"Yes, Mr. President, I said pussy willow."

Featuring a comedic tour de force performance by Kathleen Turner in the title role, Serial Mom cheerfully lampoons not just "true crime" sensationalism but suburban life (a recurring theme in Waters work; see also Polyester); with its Bernard Herrmann-esque score and frequent bird references, it's like Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates. The cinematic homages don't end there, with onscreen clips from such grindhouse classics as Herschel Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast and William Castle's Strait-Jacket. (In a genius casting move, Waters recently played Castle in an episode of the FX TV series Feud: Bette and Joan.) And it wouldn't be a John Waters movie without cameos by such fringe celebrities as Patricia Hearst, Traci Lords and even Chesty Morgan.

The new collector's edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory (available tomorrow) includes two feature-length audio commentaries by Waters (he is joined by his leading lady in one) plus approximately 80 minutes of additional bonus features, most of them new. Of particular interest is a filmed conversation between Waters, Turner and co-star Mink Stole, a Waters regular who memorably played Beverly's crank call victim Dottie Hinkle in Serial Mom; after listening to them reminisce here one can't help but wish they would each do more work (it's been 13 years since Waters' last movie, for example). At one point in the conversation Waters mentions that he has spoken to several people who actually believed Serial Mom was based on a real case, which just goes to show that when it comes to America's fixation on "true crime" stories, the "truth" is all relative.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reverend's Preview: Back to the Beach

 

It may not be summer just yet but it isn’t too early to head to the beach. At least that’s true when it comes to the 18th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. The event will run April 20th-27th at multiple venues in and around its coastal host city. 


Celebrated as one of the leading lifestyle film festivals in the United States, the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) seeks to bring to Orange County the best of classic and contemporary filmmaking from around the world. Committed to enlightening the public with a first-class international film program, a forum for cultural understanding and enriching educational opportunities, the NBFF focuses on showcasing a diverse collection of studio and independent films from around the globe.
This typically includes a number of productions with LGBTQ appeal, and 2017 is no exception. Thousands of straight as well as LGBTQ attendees annually make NBFF a smash success. LGBTQ filmmakers participate as well.

Here are some of this year’s notable offerings, both short films and feature-length, of interest to our community:


Alzheimer’s: A Love Story is a potent yet hopeful documentary short that follows longtime gay couple Greg and Michael as they struggle with the title disease, which threatens to destroy the memory of their 40-year relationship.

My Mom and The Girl features a great, diverse cast including Harmony Santana, Valerie Harper and Liz Torres headlines this tale about a dinner with friends that takes a dark turn, leading a retired jazz singer and her caregiver to a proverbial crossroads on the streets of East Los Angeles. There, they encounter The Girl and the three very disparate — and desperate — women pull each other back into the light.

Writer-director Jerell Rosales’ sweet Please Hold details the aftermath when a condom breaks during a random hookup with a stranger. Fearing he may be infected with HIV, young Danny finds an unexpected new friend while awaiting his test results. Shown as part of the fest’s “Around The World In Shorty Gays” program.

Another short films program, ‘Til Short Do Us Part,” will include Thanks for Dancing. In this Norwegian production, a lifelong relationship is coming to an end as we examine two elderly men, both former athletes, during the last winter they are living together.

The North American premiere of The Dam, an Australian film about two lifelong mates (that’s Aussie-speak for “friends”) who revisit the monolithic dam that defined their young lives. An admission from one of the men cracks open a reservoir of silence, loss and regret, and feelings that were impounded long ago cannot be contained any longer.


Although gay marriage was legalized there several years ago, Mexico ranks second in the world in the rate of murders committed against the LGBT population. The documentary Pink Spring in Mexico (Primavera Rosa en México) spotlights the activists who have risked their lives to denounce these hate crimes, but impunity continues to surround the perpetrators.

Pretty M John, in which a 10-year old boy, Danilo, helps his mother run a guesthouse in the Philippines. When Mimi John (a transgender boxer from Manila) arrives, Danilo seizes the opportunity to connect with her as he finds out more about his own gender identity.

The Lavender Scare is an eerily prescient feature documentary. With the United States gripped in the panic of the Cold War during the 1950’s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deems homosexuals to be security risks and orders the immediate firing of any government employee discovered to be gay or lesbian. This triggered a vicious witch hunt that ruined tens of thousands of lives but thrust an unlikely hero into the forefront of what would become the modern LGBT rights movement.

A couple living in Baja California makes preparations for their grand wedding in No Dress Code Required. There's only one problem: they are both men and their union is considered illegal. Cristina Herrera Borquez’s acclaimed film won the John Schlesinger Award at January’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Tickets for this year’s festival offerings may be purchased by visiting the NBFF website or calling 949-253-2880.

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Dearest... 2016: The Leftovers


Every year, many must-see films end up with Oscar nominations. And then there’s the rest, the movies I had no intention of watching but, thanks to the Academy, I now “have” to watch. And the nominees were… 


Deepwater Horizon:
Producer/star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have cornered the market on inspirational “based on a true story” dude movies (see also: Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day) where they can aim for a certain air of prestige while still blowing lots of shit up. Here they take on the infamous 2010 BP oil rig explosion, a real world catastrophe co-opted into a 1970s-ish disaster movie, complete with an all-star cast playing such stock characters as "scruffy veteran" (Kurt Russell), "devoted wife on telephone" (Kate Hudson) and "moustache-twirling corporate villain" (John Malkovich, in full finely-cured ham mode). The result is astonishingly awful in its lack of subtlety, originality or suspense. (3/10)

Marky Mark Meets Jane the Virgin

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi:
Like Wahl-/Berg, Michael Bay is also (in)famous for his overly-macho flicks (see also: anything with the word “Transformers” in the title). His latest is at least grounded in reality, inspired by the 2012 terror attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Libya. The bulk of the overly-long 13 hour 144 minute running time becomes repetitive: terrorists attack, lull in the action, repeat. What enlivens it considerably is the elite team of ripped, hunky hired guns (including The Office’s Jim and Orange is the New Black’s Pornstache) on display, often-shirtless and always sweaty. The testosterone practically drips off the screen, along with an expected heaping helping of Rambo-esque patriotism. (5/10)

Worst drive-thru ever.

Trolls:
If the thought of sitting through a Day-Glo hued feature-length commercial for those frizzy-haired dollar store dolls you see in claw machines and on pencil erasers everywhere truly horrifies you, take heart: it’s not that bad. Sure, the characters literally fart glitter and crap cupcakes, but kids love that kind of stuff and it blessedly zips along at a quick pace. Pitting the perky Princess Poppy (voiced by, naturally, Anna Kendrick) against a race of troll-eaters (that totally don’t look anything like the Boxtrolls), this musical adventure of course has the typical “embrace individuality” moral all animated flicks are required by law to have these days. (6/10)

"I never felt like this before..."

Passengers:
On a 120-year trek to a distant space colony, Chris Pratt is rudely awakened 90 years too early to a ghost ship, with only a Michael Sheen bartender robot to keep him company. After a year of growing a Matt Damon Martian beard he breaks down and wakes up his own sleeping beauty (Jennifer Lawrence). He fully knows he’s dooming her to an isolated life, but hey, at least he’ll get laid. This Sci-Fi Lite doesn’t quite know what to do with the moral questions it raises, and it devolves into an increasingly illogical series of protracted close calls during its second half. (6/10)

At least there's this.

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: War Makes Beasts of Us All


 

Rage-filled monsters are currently rampaging across movie screens, and making a lot of money in the process.  A live-action version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast?  Check.  Logan, Hugh Jackman's reportedly final appearance as X-Men mutant Wolverine?  Check.  And the towering granddaddy of them all, King Kong, is appearing for the first time since 2005.


Kong: Skull Island is an unusual prequel/reboot in that it delivers a serious, consistent anti-war message while showcasing impressive special-effects mayhem.  Set in 1973, the titular home of the giant primate is discovered thanks to first-time satellite surveys of our planet.  Shrouded for centuries by its own permanent storm system (upgraded from the giant fog bank seen in earlier Kong films) the mysterious land mass beckons a research team headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman).  He and his associates are convinced Skull Island could be a haven for MUTOs, those Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms introduced in 2014's Godzilla remake.  (Yes, Kong: Skull Island is the second chapter in a planned, connected series of "monsterverse" epics.)

With the US pulling out of Vietnam, Randa is granted the support of a squadron led by a still combat-hungry colonel played by Samuel L. Jackson.  No sooner do their helicopters make it through the violent atmosphere then they begin showering the island with depth charges.  An unhappy Kong quickly appears and makes mincemeat of the battalion.  The scattered survivors, who also include a war photographer (Oscar winner Brie Larson) and a hunky jungle scout (Tom Hiddleston), have to find their way to one another and their mutual rescue point while evading Kong as well as some nasty reptilian critters out for blood.  They also cross paths with John C. Reilly as the film's most interesting human character, a World War II fighter pilot marooned on the island 30 years earlier.

All eventually learn, even Jackson's gung ho military leader, that violence and weaponry only lead to more violence.  Kong is protective of the human natives on Skull Island, and he takes on the vicious "skull crawlers" when they go after the new arrivals.  Larson's pacifist makes a personal connection with the big ape that endears him to her without going as all out romantic as Kong did previously with Fay Wray, Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes an impressive leap to the big budget league following his low-budget 2013 feature debut The Kings of Summer.  He strikes a fine balance between monster battles and more human moments, even as the film's Apocalypse Now allusions prove excessive. Perhaps needless to say, Kong: Skull Island is a vast improvement on producer Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong (1976) and its even worse 1986 sequel King Kong Lives.  And be sure to stay through the film's end credits for a sneak peek at future movie mayhem to feature Kong, Godzilla and other kaiju classics.


Gay director François Ozon's Frantz, now playing in southern California and NYC, also explores the damaging effects of war.  Set in Germany in 1919, it initially explores a family's grief following the combat-related death of the title character in France during World War I.  Frantz's fiancée Anna and his mother and father are generally coping well until a young Frenchman, Adrien, arrives to town and begins leaving flowers on Frantz's gravesite. Soon after, he shows up on the family's doorstep and introduces himself as their late loved one's longtime friend from Paris, although, oddly, Frantz never mentioned Adrien to his family.

While Adrien proves to have a darker agenda related to his wartime experience, he doesn't prove to be a monster.  Things get complicated as Anna falls in love with him and must eventually choose between Adrien and a local man eager to take Frantz's place.  Being an Ozon film, the intriguing story plays out in unpredictable ways and includes a few homoerotic moments.  This is also Ozon's first true period piece and its a visual stunner in this regard.  Cinematographer Pascal Marti shoots most of the film in black and white but several flashback scenes "bleed" into full color.

Frantz is frequently reminiscent of a 1940's post-war melodrama, and its actually a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 Broken Lullaby.  Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would not be out of place in the role of Anna but modern-day actress Paula Beer makes the unfortunate (though not tragic) character her own.  Pierre Niney, recently seen in the title role of Yves Saint Laurent, volleys appropriately between tortured and desirable as Adrien.  Watch for a brief shot of him in see-through underwear following a swim.  Anton von Lucke is great in several scenes of remembrance as the sadly short-lived Frantz.  They all make this film an ultimately hopeful, anti-war morality tale.


Virtually all gay men can attest to the internal war we find ourselves in as we struggle to accept our sexual orientation while coming of age.  One is lucky indeed to make it out alive.  Three films newly available on VOD/DVD serve as vivid illustrations of this rite of passage.  Bromance (TLA Releasing), by Argentinian writer-director Lucas Santa Ana, is the weakest of these offerings but serves as a semi-autobiographical time capsule.  Set in pre-cell phone 1996, three best friends take a trip to a secluded, beach-side campground.  One of them, Daniel, brings along his video camera to record their memorable moments.  These end up including Daniel's coming out to his crush, Santiago, and Santiago's conflicted reaction.  The arrival of a nubile young woman doesn't help matters.  Whereas Bromance ends up affirming Daniel's conviction and bravery, it does so at what struck me as an uncomfortably excessive cost having been there myself.


Departure (Wolfe Video) and Being 17 (Strand) are both, in addition to being French-made, more contemporary yet still envelope-pushing gay coming-of-age dramas.  In the first, Alex Lawther (who played young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) gives a remarkable performance as Elliot, a teenager who embraces his sexuality while helping his mother (the always great Juliette Stevenson) close up their longtime summer home.  Elliot is quickly drawn to a local motorcycle aficionado (a dreamy Phenix Brossard) and finds his attentions returned to a point.  Andrew Steggall, who previously helmed the award-winning gay short The Red Bike, makes a strong feature directorial debut.  Note: one may never look at carrots in quite the same way after watching Departure.


Being 17 is the latest masterpiece by longtime LGBT-interest filmmaker Andre Techine (Wild Reeds).  He receives an insightful assist here from co-screenwriter Celine Sciamma, the developing auteur behind such recent faves as Tomboy, Girlhood and Oscar nominee My Life as a Zucchini.  High school students Damien and Thomas are both gay but don't get along at school.  We eventually learn that Thomas' mother is seriously ill and he is taking his anger out inappropriately on Damien.  The boys are forced to get along better (and how) once Damien's mother invites Thomas to stay with them while his mother recuperates.  All ends happily once they've made it through their numerous trials and tribulations.  A must see.

Reverend's Ratings:
Kong: Skull Island- B+
Frantz- A-
Bromance- C
Departure- B+
Being 17- A-

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


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