Friday, July 25, 2014

Reverend’s Report: Last Weekend at Outfest 2014

Outfest, the 10-day Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, began to draw to a close last weekend with, appropriately enough, the LA premiere of Tom Dolby and Tom Williams’ lovely dramedy Last Weekend. Featuring an award-worthy performance by the never-disappointing Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Far from Heaven) that fully utilizes her sensitivity, comedic timing and other distinctive acting gifts, the movie is well worth keeping an eye out for once it hits theaters or home video.

Clarkson heads an excellent cast as Celia, matriarch of the all-male Green family consisting of husband Malcolm (Chris Mulkey), son Roger (Joseph Cross, all grown up since his early turns in such late-90’s films as Wide Awake and Jack Frost) and other, gay son Theo (Zachary Booth, who also played the closeted lawyer in 2012’s acclaimed Keep the Lights On). The boys have come home to the family’s Lake Tahoe cabin for Labor Day weekend at Celia’s behest, with successful TV writer Theo bringing an entourage of friends, his latest flame Luke (pretty Devon Graye) and the star of his current hit show (Glee’s Jayma Mays).

Unbeknownst to their sons initially, Celia and Malcolm are considering selling their longtime manse in an effort to downsize. Unbeknownst to Celia and Malcolm initially, corporate accountant Roger has just lost his job after making a $30 million error. These are the primary conflicts in Dolby’s screenplay, with the developing relationship between Theo and Luke a bit more incidental. Celia’s realization that “it’s hard to let go of things” — whether talking about possessions, people or the past — is belabored at times but is also affecting, thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s emotional palette. The film is also well-supported visually by Paula Huidobro’s beautiful cinematography and aurally by Stephen Barton’s Thomas Newman-esque score. There are also terrific acting turns by Judith Light as the Greens’ grasping neighbor and Mary Kay Place as a lesbian townie.

Dolby, who is gay, introduced the film’s Outfest screening by giving a sweet, heartfelt tribute to Williams. He revealed that the co-directors have been best friends for over 20 years and that Williams has been his “straight ally” since they first met in college. The visibly moved Williams could barely utter a word after Dolby spoke. It served as a nice testimony not only to the growing diversity of LGBT-inclusive movies but of those filmmakers who create them.

Numerous LGBT-interest documentaries debut during Outfest each year, and this year was no exception. Two stood out for me as particularly revelatory in addition to being exceptionally well-made. Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt’s The Circle uses an engrossing combination of vintage footage, modern-day interviews and dramatic re-creations in its exploration of a Europe-based international gay network that thrived prior to the rise of the Nazis. Haupt centers on the romantic saga of two men who met at the time through the Circle and are not only still alive but still together 70 years later. The film was rightly awarded this year’s Outfest Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature as well as the Teddy for Best LGBT Film at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Jim Tushinski’s I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole served as a similar eye-opener. While known to me and many as the pioneering gay porn filmmaker of the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, I had no idea that Poole was first a professional dancer with the renowned Ballets Russes as well as a successful Broadway dancer-choreographer. After an ugly legal clash with composer Richard Rodgers during the original production of Do I Hear a Waltz? essentially ended Poole’s Broadway career (although he made a brief comeback in the late 70’s), he began producing short films for art exhibitions and eventually exploited his eye for glossily explicit men’s stories. Poole’s Boys in the Sand became a surprising crossover smash hit, a gay porn epic that drew gay men, straight men and women alike. Tushinski’s film accomplishes what the best docs do, informing and entertaining in spades.

As such, I Always Said Yes stood in stark contrast with Back on Board: Greg Louganis. This latest exposé of the gay, HIV+ Olympic diver offers little that is new to anyone who has read his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, or seen the Mario Lopez-starring TV movie adapted from, it apart from Louganis’ more recent financial woes. Back on Board isn’t particularly interesting or well made yet it inexplicably won Outfest’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, presumably because the voting audience was stacked with the subject’s numerous local friends.

Rounding out the docs I saw were Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy, a very funny yet disarmingly moving film of the “Gaysian” comedian’s stand up routine detailing his and his husband’s tireless efforts to adopt a child, and Andrea Meyerson’s Letter to Anita, an interesting bio of trailblazing lesbian educator-activist Dr. Ronni Sanlo that is unfortunately marred by the oddly journalistic employment of out actress Meredith Baxter. The numerous shots of Baxter sitting on a stool, bottle of water at her side, reading from Sanlo’s decades-old missive to anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant become laughable. Still, Sanlo’s inspiring life shines through the directorial excess.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Last Weekend: B+
The Circle: A-
I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole: A
Back on Board: Greg Louganis: C
Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy: B
Letter to Anita: B

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reverend's Interview: Having Fun with Alex Newell

21-year old Alex Newell has already conquered the world of TV, thanks to his recurring role as transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Glee. He won the role as a result of competing on The Glee Project in 2011, while he was still in high school. Newell’s initial reward was a two-episode story arc but he is about to begin his fourth season.

The self-proclaimed diva has now set his eyes on the music world. His first single, a cover of "Nobody to Love", just became available and Newell is currently putting the finishing touches on his first album. He will be likely be introducing some of the tracks during his Main Stage performance at the San Diego LGBT Pride Music Festival the afternoon of Sunday, July 20th. I recently had a delightful phone chat with this truly unique and gifted multi-hyphenate.

CC: How’s it going? What are you up to?
AN: Hey! She’s just shopping in New York today, waking up and having fun.

CC: We are very excited to have you back at San Diego Pride! How was your first experience here in 2012?
AN: It was so much fun! I love coming to San Diego and just having fun. The first time I went, I was with my mom and two agents. We had a blast.

CC: What will you be singing? Can you give us a sneak peek?
AN: I have no idea. I never know what I’m going to do until I’m there. When I spoke at San Diego Pride two years ago as a Grand Marshal, I didn’t know what I was going to say until just beforehand. I believe in living in the moment and going with the spirit.

CC: You recently released your first single, congrats! When is the album coming out?
AN: I don’t know yet. We’re still recording everything. It’s a lot of work but going great. I’m really excited about it.

CC: Glee is heading into its last season. Is Unique still a part of it? Do you know what’s going to become of her?
AN: You want to know, we want to know! (Laugh) The actors are waiting to hear. As soon as we know, you’ll know… at least what we’re allowed to talk about.

CC: How has the Glee experience been for you all in all?
AN: It’s been amazing. I was still in high school when I entered the Glee world and everything just took off. It’s been so fast-paced but I’ve loved every minute of it.

CC: I read you attended a Catholic high school. What was that like as a gay teenager?
AN: It was perfectly fine. I’m every bit of a diva so nobody really bothered me. When I came out I was a force of nature, so they didn’t dare get in my way. (Laugh) Plus, they respected me as a singer, which I had been doing since I was a kid, and then I was on The Glee Project. The former principal is so sweet to me still, Sister Cathy. She’s a nun. (Laugh)

CC: This is a more philosophical question, but what does pride mean to you?
AN: Being prideful of who you are; what you did today or this week or month that has made you who you are. And as a community, being proud of how far we have come.

CC: Looking ahead 20 or 30 years, where do you hope to be?
AN: Married with at least three kids, being a stay-at-home daddy. Working only for fun. I’d love to have four albums out, six Tonys, four Grammys and three Oscars, and be happy. Thirty years from now? Wow, I’ll be 50! (Laugh) I’m very family oriented. I love cooking, cleaning and shopping. I’d be happy taking care of my husband and kids.

CC: Who is your ideal man?
AN: Rich. (Laugh) No, someone understanding of my past and my emotions. As an actor, you have to dig into your past and your emotions a lot. Losing my dad, he died when I was 6, was hard. In a way, I’m still getting over it. Whoever I share my life with has to be understanding of that. They have to accept everything I have been through and everything that I am.

CC: Wow, I’m sure you will find someone special. Thanks so much for your time, Alex. We can’t wait to see you at San Diego Pride!
AN: Thank you! It’s going to be a blast!

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reverend’s Review: Babsylon

Barbra Streisand’s multimillion-dollar compound in Malibu, California surely holds many mysteries, despite her photographing much of it for a coffee table book published a few years back. Chief among them is an underground mini mall comprised of shops (or shoppes, in at least one case of signage) in which many of her personal treasures are stored. These include costumes from her numerous stage and film appearances, antiques and an extensive doll collection.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds) became fascinated with this aspect of Babs’ home when he read her book, and it soon served as an unexpected muse. Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar debuted off-Broadway in 2013 and became a word-of-mouth sensation among friends and foes of Streisand alike. It is currently on a US tour featuring original, award-winning star, Michael Urie (see our recent interview with Urie here), and is now playing at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum through August 17th. Urie carries off every role in this one-man, one-act show, including the notoriously controlling diva herself.

The primary character though in this very LA story is Alex More, a struggling actor recently fired from his job at Disneyland. He receives a call inquiring if he would be open to working for a not-yet-identified “lady of the house” in seaside Malibu. After being thoroughly vetted by the estate’s female Chief of Staff (played by Urie) and signing a confidentiality agreement, Alex is hired as the sole employee in Streisand’s basement mini-mall. As she is the shops’ only visitor, he initially spends days alone during which he dusts the “merchandise” and tends to the dolls.

Finally, the day comes when Streisand descends… and proceeds to act like an anonymous shopper. Alex quickly takes on the persona of salesman, only to discover his would-be customer haggling with him over the price of a doll she already owns! This sequence is arguably the funniest in the play, especially once the singer/actress/director/philanthropist presents a self-made discount coupon. Through the bizarre experience, however, Streisand sheds her veneer and a tender friendship gradually develops between her and Alex. Their relationship culminates in Streisand hiring Alex to serve as her coach as she prepares a silver screen comeback as Mama Rose in a remake of Gypsy (a project which was widely reported to be in development prior to the death of director Arthur Laurents in 2011).

Tolins’ fantasia explores economic differences, the perks as well as the cost of fame, and homosexuality, especially the awe with which gay men tend to regard Streisand. Most of the latter is filtered through Alex’s boyfriend, a screenwriter and TCM addict named Barry. To the play’s detriment, though, none of these are dealt with in great depth. What resounded most significantly for me in the text is the timeless notion of utopia, and the sometimes extreme lengths to which Streisand and each of us can go to secure our vision of habitable perfection.

The immensely talented, classically trained and genuinely affable Urie is splendid as each character: Alex, Streisand (whom he eerily yet amusingly evokes with little more than a slight stoop in posture, a deeper voice and an occasional invisible hair flip), Barry and, perhaps best of all, Babs’ husband James Brolin, who goes downstairs on one occasion to fetch frozen yogurt from the mall’s machine. Urie was a bit too enthusiastic when he first entered on opening night and he appeared to forget his place at one point, which I imagine would be fairly easy to do while bouncing from one character to another over the course of 100 minutes, but he quickly recovered. Director Stephen Brackett wisely provides just enough structure to keep Urie from going over the top, which also could be fairly easy for him to do. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design struck me at times as overly minimalistic but it is necessarily versatile.

I’m not sure, since I hadn’t seen Buyer & Cellar previously, but the LA production features a possibly added opening “disclaimer.” The writer and/or producers may have felt it necessary while performing in Streisand’s backyard, especially since her manager has told local press that she plans to finally see the play while it is in LA. This disclaimer seems excessive and unnecessary, even if it is comedically presented. Streisand really has nothing to fear. By the end of opening night, my affection for her — neuroses, warts and all — had only grown thanks to Urie & Co.

Reverend’s Rating: B

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Crazy Train

I remember seeing as a kid The Big Bus, a 1976 spoof of the disaster movies that were all the rage then. Its all-star cast included Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty and the great Ruth Gordon as assorted passengers on the world’s first nuclear-powered luxury bus. Massive enough to accommodate an Olympic-size swimming pool, a bowling alley and much more, the vehicle was naturally targeted by a madman during its maiden voyage.

Taking in the elaborately-designed train at the center of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, now playing in select cities, I couldn’t help but recall that earlier film. Boasting a nightclub, a spa, an aquarium car (with an adjoining sushi bar no less) and numerous living spaces distinguished by stark differences in class among its passengers, the ice-breaking locomotive is also powered by an inexhaustible energy source as it travels endlessly around a frozen planet Earth in the year 2031. If the train should ever stop, the last remnants of humanity on board will die from exposure to the cold.

Unlike The Big Bus, Bong’s sci-fi spectacle/political allegory is deadly serious with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s arch performance as Mason, the wealthy trainmaster’s somewhat androgynous secondhand man/woman. Sporting Austin Powers-esque false teeth, thick eyeglasses and an elaborate wardrobe, Mason manages to be frightening and hilarious at the same time. Playing things much more despairingly are Chris Evans (Captain America himself), Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as the downtrodden inhabitants of the train’s rear. The revolt they launch to force their way to the front, seize the “sacred engine” and upend the system of inequality they have been subjected to for 17 years provides the film’s main storyline, which Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson adapted from a French graphic novel.

The South Korea-born Bong previously made the above-average 2006 creature feature The Host and the excellent, Hitchcockian Mother. He proves himself more than adept here at directing an international cast and crew and primarily in English for the first time. Several Korean actors, including Host alumnae Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song, have featured roles as well. Spencer, who at first glance seems the odd woman out among the cast and not only because she has an Oscar (as does Swinton), gives the film’s most emotionally-affecting performance and also gets to kick some serious butt.

Few of the screenplay’s class-struggle elements are new, and they are driven home in some scenes with a very heavy hand (i.e. drug abuse as an escape from reality, the mystery ingredient in the poor passengers’ protein bars, and cannibalistic references). Bong’s depiction of violence is also given to excess here, with limbs frequently hacked off and blood spraying (albeit stylishly) the interior of train car windows. However, the cast, visual conceptualization, production design (by Ondrej Nekvasil) and art direction (by Stefan Kovacik) of Snowpiercer are so strong that these criticisms end up being fairly minor. Between it, the current Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens this Friday but is already garnering rave reviews, 2014 is shaping up to the best year for serious science fiction movies in some time. All aboard!

With Pride and the LGBT film festival season well under way, a number of new VOD and/or DVD releases are vying for gay men's attentions. Most of these shorts and features were standouts on last year’s fest circuit.

Fun in Boys Shorts (Strand Releasing) offers seven highlights from San Francisco’s Frameline event. While they lean toward the comedic, there are a couple of notable exceptions. Alaska is a Drag is the story of a young, black gay man working on the docks of Anchorage (although the movie was mostly shot at the Port of Long Beach, California). Hounded by his co-workers, a new employee offers unexpected friendship. This could easily be developed into an appealing feature. The young cast members’ performances are exceptional. The other more serious short in the collection, Sabbatical, explores a gay couple’s reunion after taking a three-month break apart. It also benefits from strong acting by its attractive leads.

Among the comedies, P.D.A. and the partially animated Desanimado (Unanimated) both fall a bit flat, but Skallamann is a joyous, well-staged musical celebration of bald men while Spooners is an at times forced but still very funny tale about a gay couple shopping for a new bed who are introduced to an unusually high-tech model. Housebroken, about an insecure gay man taken in by a high-maintenance, seemingly straight couple, rounds the shorts off.

Several recommended, gay-themed feature films now available are Cuba’s muy caliente The Last Match (Canteen Outlaws); In Bloom (TLA Releasing), about two young men falling out of love; Getting Go, The Go Doc Project (Wolfe Video), in which a documentary filmmaker’s obsession with a hot go-go dancer leads to romance; and Alan Brown’s dramatic, appropriately fleet-footed Five Dances (also from Wolfe). If there isn’t an LGBT film fest near you, consider renting, streaming or buying these and hosting your own.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Snowpiercer: B+
Fun in Boys Shorts: B

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

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