(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Race Relations


Whether white/Caucasian, black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx or other, racial differences remain an enduring source of both tension and celebration in our good ol' U.S. of A. An intriguing assortment of new theatrical, cinematic and home video offerings explore this with considerable success.

Slave Play is currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and definitely the most provocative. Written by the young, black and unabashedly queer playwright Jeremy O. Harris (who, coincidentally, was doing a theatre residency at Yale University earlier this year while I was doing a chaplain residency at the neighboring Yale New Haven Hospital), it is a satiric yet hard-hitting look at three bi-racial couples – straight and gay – seeking to address their relationship issues via "antebellum sexual fantasy therapy." In short, they each re-enact a 19th century master-slave dynamic under the supervision of two researchers. Are you sensing the potential for controversy yet?

Harris' play is presented in three acts but without an intermission. Act one introduces the three couples as they play out their various scenarios. While definitely uncomfortable in the use of racial slurs as well as abusive power, these scenes are also unexpectedly, intentionally funny as the modern characters adapt to their regressive situations. Most interesting is the gay couple because the white partner, who is revealed to believe himself to be black, plays slave to his legitimately-black "master."

Act two details the couples' processing of the experience with the researchers, who realize they are in over their heads as things turn confrontational. The final act focuses on one couple, the black Kaneisha (a standout performance by Joaquina Kalukango) and white Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan, who is nude for most of it), as they directly, painfully address their power/control imbalance.

All the actors are excellent in their physically-revealing and emotionally-challenging roles, which necessitate comic timing in addition to absolute seriousness. Robert O'Hara provides incisive direction as well. I came away from the play wishing Harris had shown how the other two couples end up as he does with Kaneisha and Jim. Nevertheless, Slave Play is disturbing, thought-provoking, amusing, and erotic in equal measure while engaging throughout. That's no easy feat when dealing with our country's dark history of slavery and its enduring legacy.

Newly available on home video from Breaking Glass Pictures is writer-director John Butler's Papi Chulo. This dramedy stars out actor Matt Bomer (the Magic Mike movies and currently Will's fiancée on TV's Will & Grace) as Sean, a gay weatherman on the verge of a mental breakdown after an apparent breakup with his longtime partner. In the process of having the deck of his home re-painted, he hires a middle-aged day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

Sean, desperate for companionship, is soon paying Ernesto to join him on personal day trips. Despite their differences in age and ethnicity plus a language barrier since Ernesto is Spanish-speaking, the two men develop an unexpectedly profound friendship. Ernesto proves to be the catalyst for Sean's eventual effort to put his life back together. Bomer and Patino are great together, and enjoyable support is provided by the fun actress-comedians Wendi McLendon-Covey (The Goldbergs, Reno 911) and D'Arcy Carden (The Good Place's all-knowing Janet).

Papi Chulo proves to be a touching film despite some uneveness in tone and late-hour screenplay histrionics. Butler deserves credit though for respecting Ernesto and Sean as their own men, culturally-speaking. Most amusing are scenes wherein Ernesto speaks truthfully with his supportive wife on the phone about the nature of his and Sean's relationship, often in Sean's presence but in Spanish. The movie shows that truth, respect and friendship can overcome any differences.

While racial differences aren't made an issue in Doctor Sleep, the terrific new sequel to The Shining now playing in theaters, they are present nonetheless. A young black girl with powerful psychic abilities named Abra teams up with the grownup Danny "Doc" Torrance, the prequel's similarly gifted but white child, to take down a nasty group of deathless RVers who literally suck "the shine" from unsuspecting children. Their cunning leader is Rose the Hat, and the climactic battle between her, Danny and Abra is set in the notoriously evil Overlook Hotel.

Mike Flanagan (who previously helmed Gerald's Game and Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House series) does a superb job of both adapting Stephen King's 2013 sequel novel and honoring Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, which King largely disavowed. One of the most significant differences between The Shining novel and film is that the Overlook burned down at the end of the novel while Kubrick left it standing. Fortunately, Kubrick's decision has given Flanagan as well as the film's legion of fans a great cinematic opportunity to return to the long abandoned but still haunted resort. King has reportedly approved of Flanagan's take.

Here's Danny!

I would love to see Doctor Sleep's lead trio of Ewan McGregor (as the long-tormented Danny), Rebecca Ferguson (Rose) and talented newcomer Kyliegh Curran (Abra) receive serious awards consideration. Indeed, Ferguson makes Rose the Hat one of the most memorably vile movie villains in some time, tearing into innocent children with no reservations. Veteran actor Carl Lumbly makes several welcome, spectral appearances as Dick Hallorann (played by the late Scatman Crothers in the 1980 movie), while Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) has a nice turn as Danny's compassionate new friend.

References to Kubrick's film abound, arguably too much at times. Most importantly, though, Doctor Sleep illustrates in a quiet yet powerful way how racial differences don't matter at all when it comes to defeating the forces of evil.

Reverend's Ratings:
Slave Play (on Broadway): B+
Papi Chulo: B
Doctor Sleep: A-

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Room for a Third?


Plenty of people fantasize about threesomes. Perhaps some of us have experienced a sexual or romantic encounter with two other people at the same time. But is it possible for three people – gay men in particular – to have a mutual, long-term relationship with one another? That is the question posed by The Third, a provocative, sexy 6-episode series newly available for streaming on Dekkoo and on DVD from TLA Releasing.

Its plot follows Jason (played by Sean McBride), a 29-year old gay man who unexpectedly stumbles into a “triad” with Carl and David (Corey Page and Ryland Shelton), an older, established Palm Springs couple who are struggling after five years of marriage. Thinking that a third person might spice up their relationship, they agree to move forward with Jason only to encounter a whole new set of complications. What begins as a passionate three-way affair is jeopardized by skepticism, jealousy and secrets. Writing their own rules along the way, Jason, Carl and David try to figure out the true definition of love.

The Third is the brainchild of filmmaker Matthew Lynn. To his and primary director Matt McClelland’s credit, a still-controversial subject is handled with grace and humor as well as appropriate doses of dramatic tension. Lynn has traveled around the world producing feature and short films, documentaries, music videos, and series. He has also created original shows for YouTube star Davey Wavey and served as the cinematographer for Brian Jordan Alvarez from Will & Grace. Lynn was actually the cinematographer on The Third and Palm Springs has never looked so good. The queer artist recently spoke with me about his latest project.

Three's company

“For me, this has been a complete labor of love; as they say: art imitates life, which imitates art,” Lynn said when asked about the show’s genesis. “I used to be a Southern Baptist music minister, which didn’t work out too well. When I was 23, I came out to my parents and they said ‘Leave and don’t come home again.’ Soon after, a gay couple took me in and became my surrogate family. Eventually, we entered into the triad relationship which initially inspired the show.” Fortunately, Lynn’s parents eventually came around and accept him today.

Lynn subsequently was in a second triad relationship. Between his personal experiences and in doing research for The Third, he learned “a lot of people are in triads or throuples.” He also learned some are in four-person “quads.” When asked to estimate the number of such multi-person relationships, Lynn reported “I can’t put an exact number on it but they are a lot more frequent than you think. Especially now with dating apps, people can advertise them more so there is more awareness.”

The Third doesn’t shy from showing the good, bad and even the ugly in such relationships. “Most of the stuff you see in season one is real, especially the jealousy and difficulty with communications, Lynn says. “In a triad, there are really four relationships going on: each individual’s relationship with the others and then the group dynamic. It can be tough to navigate, especially at first.”

The series’ cast is terrific, but finding the right actors proved challenging for Lynn and the production team. “We did a standard casting process in LA,” he replied when I asked about it. “We found Sean McBride (who plays Jason) and Corey Page (who plays Carl) quickly but had a hard time finding David,” who seems more troubled and morally complex than his triad partners. “We finally found Ryland Shelton and he was great.”

In addition to the human cast, the sumptuously photographed desert mecca of Palm Springs seems like an additional character in the show. “When I moved there, I was in my second triad relationship,” Lynn reflected. “The Third is a love letter to the city, which really is the gayest place on earth.”

Some viewers may be drawn to the series by the promise of three-way sex scenes. They are there, and in various configurations, but are non-graphic. Lynn is ultimately exploring something more lasting and profound. “Many people are now in non-traditional relationships, and this show is about bringing light and hope to them and their unique stories,” he said. “All of us are looking for somewhere to belong.”

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

Friday, October 18, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Cinema of the Abused


Print media and TV have been rife for some time now with often shocking, always sad stories of abused children, teenagers and adults of all ages. Currently, movie screens are awash in such tales. Two are intimate accounts of true events, while two others are fictional films that ring with varying degrees of truth.

Acclaimed, openly gay filmmaker François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Double Lover) is back with By the Grace of God, opening in New York this Friday and in Los Angeles on October 25th. This powerful exposé of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in France won the coveted Silver Bear grand jury prize at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Ozon's excellent, tasteful screenplay focuses on three adult men who were victimized as children by Fr. Bernard Preynat of the Diocese of Lyons. During the mid 1980's-early 1990's, the victims were Boy Scouts under Preynat's leadership. After protracted negotiations with church leaders starting in 2014 and a legal battle, Preynat was finally removed from the priesthood just last year. His bishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted earlier this year of covering up Preynat's abuse history and was sentenced to a suspended six month prison sentence.

By the Grace of God is not unlike the Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight in its detailed approach, but Ozon's film is unique in that it is told from the victims' perspectives whereas Spotlight focused on the investigation of Boston Globe reporters. (As a nice tribute, a Spotlight poster can be glimpsed in the background of one shot.) While unrelentingly critical of the Church's poor leadership during the abuse crisis, one of the victims – who is atheist – appropriately declares of his and the others' pursuit of justice: "This is about morality, not faith."

Ozon makes great, unexpectedly dramatic use of conveyed letters and email correspondences. And while the three subjects the filmmaker focuses on are heterosexual, one of them played by Melvil Poupaud (who previously starred in Ozon's Le Refuge) accurately states "sexual orientation is not a criminal perversion," unlike pedophilia. Mention is also made of a gay victim of Preynat's who ended up committing suicide, tragically. The victims' varying reactions to their abuse are interesting and authentic.

I came away from By the Grace of God wondering why a strong response to the history of clerical sexual abuse in France, which is so similar to our experience in the United States in the early 2000's, was delayed by more than a decade? Most likely it is because Catholicism has been entrenched there for centuries longer than here in the US. As the courageous survivors depicted in Ozon's latest work boldly state, "We want to push the Church to evolve." Amen to that!

Men of Hard Skin (now available on home video from TLA Releasing) tells a related but even more intimate and insightful story about the plight of young people abused by clergy. Jose Celestino Campusano's Argentina-set drama introduces viewers to Ariel, a religious teenager who devotedly volunteers at his local Catholic church against his father's wishes. That's because Ariel is in love with the hunky Fr. Omar, with whom he has been having a sexual relationship for some time. Ariel becomes enraged when he discovers Fr. Omar is feeling repentant and backing away from him.

After confronting Fr. Omar about his rejection, the precocious Ariel pursues a new, handsome farmhand working on his father's farm. The bisexual Julio is, unbeknownst to Ariel initially, married to a woman and has a baby girl. Things get ugly and more public after Ariel's dad catches his son and Julio having sex and beats Julio before firing him. Fortunately, Ariel's sister is accepting of his sexuality and wisely advises her brother against doing "anything to please others" and "don't betray yourself."

Writer-director Campusano nails the love-hate feelings that some sexual abuse victims develop toward their abusers, something that hasn't been shown often in movies dealing with the subject. It also accurately depicts how victims can become overly sexualized at an early age and, in turn, objectify others. But the character of Ariel (very effectively played by Wall Javier) becomes admirably aggressive toward and defensive against his abuser. He grows to realize he has been wronged and inspires other victims of Fr. Omar to rebel against the priest. This, coupled with its excellent cinematography of scenic settings, makes Men of Hard Skin a film to watch.

Then there are the two J's currently dominating movie screens: Joker and Judy. Both detail the horrific results of abuse starting at an early age, and both boast awards-worthy performances by their leading man and lady, respectively. Joker, however, is excessive and arguably irresponsible in its seeming endorsement of violence against perpetrators, at least wealthy ones.

Joaquin Phoenix is undeniably powerful as Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden resident of decrepit, pre-Batman Gotham City. Long convinced by his mother that his role in life is to bring happiness to others, Fleck works as a clown for hire by local businesses, hospitals and other organizations. Sadly, Fleck endures near-constant physical and/or emotional abuse from street hoodlums, co-workers, employers and passersby. One day he is pushed too far and ends up shooting three employees of the storied Wayne Enterprises to death after they attack him on a subway train. This unanticipated action and the general kudos it receives from his fellow poor citizens of Gotham, as well as more personal revelations, spark Fleck's evolution as the sinister kingpin (and Batman's arch-nemesis) Joker.

Joker, the movie, is a huge international hit but has received wildly divergent reactions from critics and viewers ever since its premiere at September's Venice Film Festival, where it unexpectedly won the fest's Best Picture trophy. Drawing too obviously at times from the early works of Martin Scorsese, it serves as a retro prequel (set in 1981 to be exact) to Tim Burton's Batman series. In presenting a villain forged from personal abuse, however, it takes a dramatic turn from the origin of Jack Nicholson's Joker. While well-acted and well-made, this is a depressing and morally troubling movie, especially when it comes to its "kill the rich" denouement/encouragement.

The late, great singer-actress Judy Garland endured systematic abuse beginning at the age of two from managers, studio heads, and her own mother. Most significantly, they got her addicted to drugs as a child starlet so she could perform on demand. As an adult, her ongoing addictions to drugs, alcohol and manipulative men ruined her career and led to her early death at the age of 47.

Judy, now playing, is the latest of several dramatizations of Garland's life. This biopic is adapted from, and actually an improvement on, Peter Quilter's more sensationalistic play End of the Rainbow. In particular, the movie shows how MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer abused Garland emotionally and subsequently controlled her. Renee Zellweger is sensational in a good way as the title icon. While Zellweger is subtle more often than not in her channeling of Garland, the musical numbers remind viewers simultaneously of both women's artistry and endearing vulnerability. Hollywood's award season is just getting underway but Zellweger would get my vote for Best Actress if I had to vote now.

Reverend's Ratings:
By the Grace of God: A-
Men of Hard Skin: B+
Joker: C
Judy: B+

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