(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, December 4, 2020

Reverend's Preview: Everyone Should Go to This Prom


Guys, rent your tux. Ladies, buy your dress. Or vice versa! The Prom is coming to Netflix this month, and everyone is invited!

This inclusive, visually dazzling adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical will debut on the streamer December 11th. Reverend was given a sneak peek of the movie last month as well as an opportunity to confer online with its director and all-star cast, headed by the divine Meryl Streep. I also spoke virtually with the show's three talented writers.

The Prom was inspired by real-life cases of LGBTQ high school students who were forbidden to bring same-sex dates to their senior prom by school officials. It deals seriously with this situation while weaving in a more satirical tale about struggling Broadway performers who are in need of a boost to their public image.

Indiana high schooler Emma Nolan (a terrific performance by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is heartbroken to learn that, despite the support of her principal, the PTA has banned her from attending the prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (stage actress Ariana DeBose, making an impressive film debut). Meanwhile, Dee Dee Allen (three-time Academy Award winner Streep) and Barry Glickman (talk show host and Tony Award winner James Corden) are New York City stage stars with a crisis on their hands: their expensive new Broadway show based on the lives of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt is a major flop that has suddenly flatlined their careers.

When they learn of Emma's predicament via Twitter, Dee Dee and Barry decide that it will provide the perfect cause to help resurrect their public images. They hit the road to Indiana on a Godspell tour bus with Angie (Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman) and Trent (out Tony nominee Andrew Rannells), another pair of cynical actors looking for a professional lift. When their self-absorbed celebrity activism unexpectedly backfires, the foursome finds their own lives upended as they rally to give Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.

The movie was produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, the impresario behind such hit TV series as Glee, Nip/Tuck, Pose and American Horror Story. He saw the Broadway production in January of 2019 and immediately decided he wanted to adapt it for the screen. As Murphy recounted: "There were two things I took away (from the show). First of all, I had a great time... I thought it was funny and stylish and it felt like a relief in the middle of a very dark time in our country. I also loved that when I looked around, there were families there. There were parents with their kids. There were gay people there. There were straight women there who had come in groups. It played for everybody. I just loved that people were laughing and crying. There was a great humanity and spirit to it."

But there was also a more personal aspect to The Prom for Murphy. "The girl who was denied going to the prom because of her sexuality was from Indiana. Which is something that happened to me, and I'm from Indiana," the filmmaker reflected. "I remember walking out of (the show) thinking, 'Wow, I wish there had been something like this for me to see or watch with my parents when I was younger.' But there wasn't. So, I thought, 'Well, then maybe I should make it.' So that's what I did."

He quickly went on to assemble an impressive cast for his adaptation. "I've never done this before, but on the plane ride back to LA I wrote out a list of who I've always wanted to work with, who's on my bucket list," Murphy said. "Number one on everyone's bucket list is Meryl Streep, who I knew a little bit socially but I was always so shy around her. And then James Corden, and Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington, and Keegan-Michael Key." Rannells previously worked with Murphy on the TV series The New Normal as well as Netflix's recent remake of The Boys in the Band, which Murphy produced. Washington plays against type as the antagonistic head of the school's PTA, while Key portrays not only Emma's empathetic principal but Dee Dee's unexpected love interest.

The writers of the stage and now screen musical drew from a true story. In 2010, Constance McMillen was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi. She had plans to bring her girlfriend to their senior prom and wear a tuxedo, and in response, was banned from attending by the school board. McMillen challenged the board's decision. In response, the board decided to entirely cancel that year's senior prom. McMillen and the ACLU sued her school district and a federal court found the Itawamba School District guilty of violating McMillen's First Amendment rights. However, the judge did not force the school district to re-instate the prom. Multiple celebrities including Green Day, Cat Cora and Lance Bass rallied together via social media to show their support for McMillen and agreed to help sponsor a Second-Chance prom, which McMillen and her girlfriend could attend without homophobic backlash.

Matthew Sklar, co-writer and composer of The Prom, shared some background into the production's history. "A producer by the name of Jack Viertel had this crazy idea," Sklar explained. "He was reading the newspaper in 2010 and there were some stories about kids not being able to take their same-sex partners to prom. As a theatre person he felt outrage and thought, 'Maybe we can get a bunch of people to go down and help them.' Then he realized, 'That's a terrible idea but that's a funny idea."

Viertel was working at the time with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and had just seen something that Sklar had written with his Prom collaborators Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. "We started meeting and the outline came pretty quick, but then it took a long time to get on stage," recalled Sklar. It finally opened on Broadway in 2018, where it was met with critical acclaim and was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical that year.

Nicholaw remained involved in the film version as choreographer, and he retained many of the stage production's high-energy dance numbers. Meryl Streep shared that this was her favorite aspect of making The Prom as well as the previous movie musicals she has headlined, Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods. "When you're dancing," Streep said, "the lid comes off the pressure of your life." She is predictably spectacular as the narcissistic Dee Dee, with Corden giving his best musical performance to date as her equally vain partner in crime, Barry. I envision award nominations for both of them.

I asked the writers if their Broadway characters were inspired by or modeled on any real-life performers. "Yes, yes, yes," all three answered in quick succession. "We won't name any names but it was very funny because at one point early on we were like, 'Do we just cast these people?,' said Beguelin. And then we were like, 'Oh God, no, the reason they're so funny is because they're so difficult!" According to Martin, "We actually used their names in early drafts, which nobody will ever see (laughter from all)."

During an ordinary year, one would only be able to watch such a star-studded affair as The Prom in a movie theater for its first few months. Unfortunately, many movie theaters are still closed due to COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic impacted this film just when production was nearly finished.

"The hardest scene to shoot was the big dance number at the end," said producer-director Murphy. "We shot 500 people dancing and then, a week after that, we were shut down for COVID. We had three days left to shoot and they were important scenes. We went into quarantine for two months, but we thought it was important for the movie to come out for the holidays. So, we worked with a group of epidemiologists and we came up with a back-to-shooting production plan. They helped us come up with the protocols to finish The Prom. All of these things were incredibly difficult but joyful, and it was a showbiz tale. It reminded me of old classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, where part of that DNA of those musicals is to roll up your sleeves, figure it out, and put on a show."

The timing and global availability of Murphy's film adaptation on Netflix is actually proving to be most auspicious. At the end of a grueling year featuring a death-dealing virus, a toxic political climate in the US and economies in shambles around the world, The Prom offers both sustenance and escapism. As Nicole Kidman's Fosse-loving Angie sings encouragingly to young Emma in the film, "You've gotta give it some zazz!" The Prom delivers zazz in spades and proves we do indeed need it! Sklar and Beguelin's score also features the timely religious anthem "Love Thy Neighbor," which is energetically performed by Rannells in the middle of a shopping mall.

Another journalist participating in last month's press conference with the film's cast asked, "Can art spark cultural change?" While all agreed it can, Emmy award winner Kerry Washington gave perhaps the most thoughtful answer: "I think so. I was discussing this recently with some of my friends. There's all this talk about how our culture needs healing right now. I think the best way we do that is in the dark and in the theater, whether we're watching a play or a movie. That's where we get in touch with our heart and our humanity."

The screenplay also makes mention more than once of the importance of arts education in public schools. Historically, the arts have usually been the first programs to be cut when there isn't enough money in a school's budget. Without drama programs, in particular, students lose the opportunity to grow in empathy that is naturally gained while walking in another character's/person's shoes.

Clearly, the time is right for a movie like The Prom, and Murphy's sensitive yet frequently hilarious production is pitch perfect. As the director noted: "Everyone knows what the prom is or has their own version of it, but not everyone is allowed to go and to express themselves freely. Through this film, I hope they have that experience of being a part of something and feeling a part of a community. It's something I didn’t have growing up, and it's something we were very conscious of when we were making it. I'm excited that it's going to be released at the same time all over the world. It's almost like everybody's going to the dance together all over the world. A worldwide celebration of an idea and a hope of a different kind of world."

Reverend's Rating: A-

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

Friday, November 6, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Giving Thanks for New LGBTQ Movies

Ah, November has arrived. The month of cooler temperatures, roasted turkeys and pumpkin pies is here! Unfortunately, traditional Thanksgiving gatherings will be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 prevention efforts. But November remains the start of the holiday season as well as the film industry's annual awards season.

Due to pandemic-related delays, awards season will last longer than usual this year. The current submission and screening deadline for most organizations including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is the end of February 2021, with most awards not being presented until March or April. Three new movies of gay, bi and/or queer interest that are also sparking awards buzz are therefore getting a head start by being released this month. They will play theatrically where possible but will also be available for streaming.

Uncle Frank, from Amazon Studios, is a nostalgic and often heartrending look at the life of a closeted gay man in the early 1970's. It will be available on Amazon Prime beginning November 25th. British actor Paul Bettany, best known as the heroic Vision in various Marvel Universe epics, could be an awards contender for his sensitive performance in the title role. Following his upbringing in conservative South Carolina, Frank has fled to New York City and become a revered literature professor. He also has a longtime but secret partner, Walid, who is warmly portrayed by Peter Macdissi.

Things start to get complicated for Frank when his young niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis, who made a splash as Beverly in the It movies), becomes a student on his NYU campus. She soon discovers that her beloved uncle is gay but accepts him. Things get much more complicated when they receive word of the sudden death of Frank's homophobic father, Beth’s grandfather. Frank, a recovering but vulnerable alcoholic, reluctantly returns home for the funeral with Beth in tow. They undertake a road trip to Creekville, SC, which Walid unexpectedly but eventually joins them on.

Once home, Frank learns he was excluded from his late father's will and, to make matters worse, is forced to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from. Many gay men of his generation will be able to relate to this aspect of the script, which was written by Alan Ball. Ball is the out and well-respected creator of TV's Six Feet Under and True Blood, and he won an Oscar for his original screenplay for American Beauty. He also directed Uncle Frank and served as one of its producers.

In addition to providing a great acting showcase for Bettany, the film's excellent supporting cast includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Margo Martindale plus stage and screen veteran Lois Smith, who turns 90 this month. It also features plenty of humor despite its serious subject matter, including the hilarious line: "I'll slap you so hard, your clothes will go out of style!" Uncle Frank should not be missed.

Another new queer release set in the early 1970's is Stardust, a biopic about singer David Bowie's challenging transformation into his androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. It will also be released on November 25th by IFC Films. Johnny Flynn, who also made an impression in Emma earlier this year, is eerily evocative as young Bowie. He nails the late performer's appearance, voice and mannerisms. Knowing how the Academy loves actors who play musical icons (see Renee Zellweger, who won last year for Judy, and Rami Malek's win as Freddie Mercury the previous year, among many others), Flynn could be a contender for Best Actor this year.

Stardust opens with Bowie's arrival in the United States for the first time in 1971. Although Bowie was popular in Europe, he wasn't yet a name here due to his music being, as described by his manager in the film, "too dark, too weird for the Yanks." He is surprised to discover upon his arrival that his manager failed to arrange the proper visa for him. What Bowie thought was going to be a national singing tour turned out to be a series of radio interviews in largely rural areas that proved less than welcoming.

Bowie was known early on for his gender fluidity in terms of how he dressed, and he came out as bisexual to Playboy magazine in 1976. While Stardust doesn't delve into his sexuality much apart from his open marriage at the time to Angie Barnett (played by Jena Malone), he does decry "bourgeois morality" and is shown as being anything but conventional. Costume designer Julia Patkos does a fabulous job in this regard, re-creating Bowie's outfits and the general fashions of the time.

According to the film, several of Bowie's family members suffered from schizophrenia, including his older brother. He is depicted as terrified of being diagnosed as schizophrenic himself. This fear is what ultimately drove him to develop his Ziggy Stardust persona, who Bowie could separate from himself. The move paid off, making Bowie famous both nationally and internationally. It also led to him becoming an impressive actor in movies and theatre.

Stardust provides considerable insight into Bowie, who died much too soon in 2016. His fans, general music fans, bisexual men and queer viewers will find much to appreciate in the film.

Monsoon is a modern-day story that has already been an awards contender. It will be available from Strand Releasing on November 13th. Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's reflective drama was nominated for Best Picture in 2019 at both the Athens International Film Festival and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It has been well received this year at Outfest, NewFest and other LGBTQ film festivals here in the US.

The very hot Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians fame plays Kit, a gay British-Vietnamese man. He returns to Saigon from London for the first time since he was six years old, when his family fled the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam-American war. Sadly, he has come home to lay his late mother's ashes to rest. He re-connects there with Lee, his estranged second cousin, and arranges an online date that turns into something more with Lewis (Parker Sawyers, who previously played a young Barack Obama in Southside With You). Lewis is a sexy clothing designer preparing to open his first shop in Vietnam. As Kit struggles to make sense of himself in a country he's no longer familiar with, hooking up with some other men along the way, his personal journey opens up new possibilities for friendship, love and happiness.

Khaou's perceptive screenplay tackles many issues in a generally subtle way. These include enduring conflicts between the East and West including acceptance (or not) of different sexual orientations, as well as racial and generational differences. John Cummings' striking music score also deserves mention. Monsoon emerges as an intelligent and touching film, well worth watching after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.

Although it doesn't have any LGBTQ content, the amazing Shadow in the Cloud has two other things going for it: gremlins and Chloƫ Grace Moretz. It is also an unquestionably feminist suspense-adventure film. I caught its North American premiere during last month's online AFI Film Festival and I am so glad I did! This New Zealand production directed by Roseanne Liang is one of the most genuinely exciting and entertaining films I've seen in several years.

Gremlins haven't been seen on movie screens since the 1984 classic bearing the mischievous creatures' name. Prior to that, they were primarily known for their memorable appearance in the original Twilight Zone TV series and its 1983 movie adaptation. But prior to that, they were to blame by World War II pilots for any mishaps that occurred with their planes during flight.

Shadow in the Cloud goes back to the source of this aviation legend. Moretz (Kick-Ass, Hugo, Greta) plays Maude Garrett, an alleged military officer with more than a few secrets who is assigned to a flight aboard the aptly-named "Fool's Errand" carrying a top-secret package. As the only female on board, the plane's crew of male chauvinists make her sit alone in one of the gun turrets.

It isn't long before Maude finds herself face to face – literally – with a human-sized, bat-like creature hellbent on tearing the plane apart. Naturally, the men above don't believe her until the gremlin starts picking them off one by one. The action becomes increasingly, deliriously over the top as Maude extricates herself and takes charge. The camera rarely leaves Moretz, and she makes Maude the fiercest movie heroine since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the Alien series! This is not hyperbole.

Written by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), Shadow in the Cloud features solid performances all around as well as terrific special effects and an awesome, retro 80's music score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper that does John Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth proud. I loooove this movie and hope it gets a US release soon!

It's hard to believe that Requiem for a Dream is 20 years old. Darren Aronofsky's horrific yet poetic adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's novel about how addiction sabotages four people's pursuit of their dreams was released last month on an anniversary-edition 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray combo pack for the first time, courtesy of Lionsgate. This hi def transfer makes the film and Matthew Libatique's cinematography that much more vivid.

For me, the heartbreaking highlight of the movie remains Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-nominated performance as Sara Goldfarb, a widowed woman yearning for recognition late in life. This leads her to first develop an addiction to television and then on "upper" diet pills. A young Jared Leto plays her heroin junkie son, with Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans in fine form as his doomed friends. It is not a pretty nor uplifting picture but talent shines throughout both on screen and behind the scenes.

New special features on this home video release include audio commentaries by Aronofsky and Libatique, an interview of Burstyn, deleted scenes and a featurette on the film's memorable music score by Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet (which sounds especially good in this transfer's Dolby Atmos sound mix). While not for the faint of heart, Requiem for a Dream endures as a cautionary classic.

Reverend's Ratings:
Uncle Frank: B
Stardust: B+
Monsoon: A-
Shadow in the Cloud: A
Requiem for a Dream (20th anniversary home video release): B+

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

Monday, October 12, 2020

Reverend's Preview: SDIFF 2020: Virtual But Not Silent


We can add this month's San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) to the ever-growing list of events that have had to largely go the streaming route this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Uniquely though, the fest will still be providing opportunities for film fans to gather together in safe, socially-distanced ways at its first-ever "Virtual Village."

This re-imagined, COVID-appropriate 2020 San Diego International Film Festival will take place October 15th-18th. As the region’s premier film festival and one of the leading stops on the independent film circuit, film lovers can enjoy 114 features, documentaries and short films online in the Virtual Village and on the big screen at the Festival Drive-In Movies at Westfield UTC. Full details as well as the complete movie lineup may be accessed at the SDIFF website.

According to Tonya Mantooth, the fest's CEO/Artistic Director: “The leadership of the San Diego International Film Festival has embraced the challenges to create a new footprint that will not only serve for this year’s festival but also expand our capabilities for the long term. This commitment to re-imagining the festival is vitally important to fulfilling our mission of presenting films that create conversation in an increasingly complex and divided world.”

SDIFF is presented by the non-profit San Diego Film Foundation, which is dedicated to creating empathy through the medium of motion pictures. The foundation leverages these important conversations via partnerships with the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Unified School District, using cinematic storytelling to help educate future leaders on key issues affecting our communities and world. Their newest partnership is with the UC San Diego Extension to create a Social Impact Film Channel on the UCTV platform, which will support the "17 Sustainable Development Goals to Transform Our World" set by the United Nations. The festival will curate films from around the globe to help further understanding of these UN goals as well as inspire conversations and, most importantly, action.

"This year, we are creating space in our Virtual Village for panels around some films that examine important conversations we want to have," Mantooth revealed. "We have programmed some impactful and timely documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. We are thrilled that Leon Clark, General Manager of Channel 10, will moderate a discussion on those documentaries for us, examining history and where we find ourselves as a country today." This sounds especially important in preparation for the upcoming US presidential election. Also to be screened are films that explore the issues of developmental disabilities, homelessness, prejudice, pollution of the world’s rivers, animal and environmental extinction, sustainability, sex trafficking and more.

Other topics to be covered are LGBTQ lives and the military, with one standout documentary incorporating both. Surviving the Silence relates a little-known story that took place years before the US Armed Forces' failed "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, which allowed LGBTQ soldiers to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation under wraps. Colonel Patsy Thompson was forced to expel Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer of the US Army for being a lesbian. However, the way that Thompson – a closeted lesbian herself – presided over the discharge hearing eventually led to Cammermeyer’s re-instatement via federal court and the undoing of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Cammermeyer’s memoir, Serving in Silence, was adapted as a 1995 television movie produced by Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close, but Thompson’s own story remained a secret. In Cindy L. Abel's new documentary, Thompson and her wife, Barbara Brass, candidly share how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices that included hiding their relationship and struggling to protect their love while preserving Patsy's military career. They emerged to become vibrant activists later in life, with Thompson coming out to her family and the public at the age of 80. As she states in the film, she has learned "the freedom that comes with living your truth."

Prior to Surviving the Silence, Abel directed and produced the award-winning Breaking Through, a documentary in which openly-LGBTQ elected officials share their stories of self-doubt and triumph over multiple barriers. Her earlier film reveals a deeply personal, rarely seen side of both politicians and LGBTQ people. She was named “Best Filmmaker” by The Georgia Voice in 2019 and has served as National Co-Chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Vice-Chair of the Atlanta Film Festival, and Vice President of Communications of Women in Film & Television Atlanta.

Speaking about the inspiration behind her new documentary, Abel said "the first thing I fell in love with was (Thompson and Brass's) love story; I was fascinated that here were these women who had been together for 30 years and for much of that time had to pretend that they were not together." Abel sensitively examines each woman's personal background, which includes the fact that Brass is the Jewish daughter of two Holocaust survivors.

The highlight of Surviving the Silence is its climactic reunion of Thompson and Cammermeyer. The pair had not met since the fateful military trial in 1992. Both women admirably express their appreciation for each other 28 years later and continue to fulfill the Army motto of "duty, honor, country." This movie is a must-see.

Another LGBTQ-interest entry in this year's SDIFF is the provocative thriller, Through the Glass Darkly. A year after their daughter disappears, same-sex partners Charlie (Robyn Lively) and Angela (Bethany Anne Lind) continue to grow apart in the small town of Elrod, Georgia. When another girl goes missing, Charlie becomes convinced that the cases are connected and teams up with Amy (Shanola Hampton), a pushy reporter. This unlikely duo draws suspicion and contempt from local law enforcement but will stop at nothing to expose the town’s darkest and most devastating secrets.

Despite the current, necessary restrictions, SDIFF is taking a bold approach to what a film festival can look like in the COVID era. As Fest CEO Mantooth stated, "Film has the power to shift our perspective and allow us to look at topics through someone else’s lens. We look forward to doing a lot of that this year.”

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