(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, April 12, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: High Flying, Adored


Three retro characters are currently enjoying new life on the big screen. Disney's Dumbo is making his first appearance since 1941 as a CGI creation in a live-action setting. DC Comics' Shazam (a.k.a. the original, male Captain Marvel) is similarly being seen in cinemas for the first time since 1941, when he headlined in his own serial. And then there is the biblical Mary Magdalene, who is getting her own star vehicle for the first time after basically playing a supporting role for 2,000 years (although there have been a handful of TV movies about her). What connects these seemingly disparate protagonists is their ability to fly, if not physically then spiritually.

Let's start with Mary Magdalene, opening in US theaters this weekend just in time for Palm Sunday. The film is significant for finally setting Christ's female apostle free from more than a millennium of false representation. During his 10th-century reign, Pope Gregory falsely identified Mary of Magdala as a prostitute forgiven by Jesus in Luke's gospel. More recent scholarship has indicated she was likely a wealthy benefactor who supported Jesus' ministry. At any rate, she is mentioned in all the gospels as being devoted to him (though not romantically, despite more modern assertions made in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Da Vinci Code) and as the first witness to Christ's resurrection from the dead.

A luminous Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Mary in this new movie, with big-name support provided by her fellow Academy Award nominees Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the apostle Peter. It begins in the year 33 in Mary's fishing village home, where the young woman is shown as adept at delivering babies, catching fish and cleaning her family's home. In keeping with Jewish tradition, her father is preparing to marry her off. Mary rebels, sensing an inner call to "know God" intimately. She is subjected to an exorcism for her refusal but soon after feels her prayers have been answered when she meets an increasingly renowned, itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus.

Jesus accepts Mary as a member of his band of all-male apostles, which naturally causes controversy among them. As directed by Garth Davis (who previously helmed the Oscar-nominated Lion) and co-written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Mary Magdalene applies a political-feminist approach to its scriptural tale that will be welcomed by many but likely abhorred by the religious right. I found scenes showing Mary baptizing new believers and joining her brethren at the last supper dramatically refreshing as well as more historically accurate than previous depictions of this saint's role in Christ's earthly life. Jesus is also shown as a champion of gender equality, telling a group of skeptical Canaanite women "Your spirit is precious to God, as precious as your husbands'." His apostles are also a more racially-diverse group than usual.

It is beautifully photographed by Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Vice), with lots of wide angle views of its Italian and Australian landscapes, which are subbing for the Holy Land. The entire movie looks, sounds and feels authentic in a way that most prior biblical epics with bigger budgets have not. Although Phoenix is technically too old at 44 to play the 30-ish Jesus, the actor is nevertheless effective, intense and earthy. I liked that he often looks at Mary and his apostles with a quizzical look, like Jesus is trying to figure out what human beings are all about. Ejiofor is similarly strong as a politically-motivated, conniving pre-saint Peter. Mary Magdalene serves as an impressive source of inspiration this Easter season.

Disney's "re-imagining" of its animated classic Dumbo, now in theaters, is directed by none other than Tim Burton. On one hand, this isn't surprising given the filmmaker's longtime affection for outcasts, freaks, and circus trappings. Many of his previous movies have indulged these to greater or lesser extent. On the other hand, Burton hasn't really directed a kids' film before; even his live-action remake of Disney's Alice in Wonderland was more adult-leaning. Dumbo ends up being a somewhat uneasy film, too charmingly simple at times for older viewers while occasionally too dark and scary for young children.

The title pachyderm with unexpectedly oversized ears is born to his mother in a circus and soon learns he can fly thanks to his "deformity," but that's about all that the plots of the 1941 original and this remake have in common. Burton reunites his Batman Returns alumnus Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton as, respectively, the owner of Dumbo's small circus struggling to make ends meet and the greedy owner of a (surprisingly Disneyland-like) amusement park out to exploit Dumbo for all the elephant's "disability" is worth. Meanwhile, two children and their disabled war-vet father (played by Colin Ferrell) commit themselves to protecting Dumbo and reuniting him with his mother.

There are no significant human characters in the original Dumbo, and for good reason. Uncle Walt himself knew that the simple story was best told from the animal's perspective. In the remake, Dumbo is more often than not a bit player in a movie that should be focused squarely on him and his plight. He is adorably rendered by CGI; I especially enjoyed the "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene wherein he bops his head along to the music. That song, the Academy Award nominated "Baby Mine" and snippets of "Casey Jr." and "When I See an Elephant Fly" are the only musical bits carried over from the 1941 movie (which won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture for Disney legends Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace).

Moments where Dumbo almost falls to his death as well as scenes set in the amusement park's "Nightmare Island" are sure to frighten sensitive kids. That being said, a 4- or 5-year old girl who I didn't know was seated next to me at the screening I attended. As soon as the movie ended, she turned to me and asked "I loved that, did you?" Apparently, not even Burton's approach can prevent Dumbo's story from resonating with children and the young at heart.

Shazam!, meanwhile, is DC's latest effort at expanding their cinematic universe and making gobs of money in the process. This lesser-known character is perhaps best-known to those of us who grew up during the 1970's, when he was the subject of a Saturday morning TV series. The comic book plot of a young boy who can become an all-powerful superhero simply by uttering his name obviously has great, wish-fulfilling appeal for kids, then and now.

The single best asset of this new, big-screen adaptation is the immensely enjoyable performance by Zachary Levi in the title role. He is not only physically perfect, partly thanks to an enhanced form-fitting suit, but sports the wide-eyed exuberance of a 14-year old suddenly granted super-human strength, the ability to fly, and more. It isn't long before his new powers are tested by the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, who is frequently cast as comic-book villains), a formerly unappreciated youth who has become imbued with the Seven Deadly Sins and is out to destroy the world.

Shazam! is uneven in tone, with lighter comedic scenes duking it out for dominance over darker, excessively violent scenes. Its also overlong at 130 minutes, especially during a seemingly endless final battle scene. But, as its box-office performance is showing, there is no denying the power this character and movie have when it comes to helping underdogs feel empowered.

Reverend's Ratings:
Mary Magdalene: A-
Dumbo (2019): B-
Shazam!: B

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Disney Dreams & Dreamy Dudes


We may be just a few weeks from Easter, but I was only recently able to watch two of Disney's three big Christmas 2018 movies: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Ralph Breaks the Internet. The wonderful Mary Poppins Returns was the studio's third holiday release. Now, thanks to the (Disney?) magic of home video, everyone can watch all three!

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a visually-sumptuous if rather simple-minded fantasy that references virtually every prior incarnation of E.T.A. Hoffman's classic Yuletide tale. There is a ballet sequence featuring acclaimed dancer Misty Copeland, portions of Tchaikovsky's famous music amidst a film score otherwise composed by James Newton Howard, and even visual echoes of Disney's own Fantasia, with conductor Gustavo Dudamel featured in silhouette at times à la Fantasia's conductor Leopold Stokowski.

This latest film adaptation is an adventure involving young heroine Clara's search for a magical key that will presumably open a mysterious Fabergé-esque egg left to her by her late mother. Her search naturally commences on Christmas Eve and leads her into the distinctive four realms of the title. War is brewing within this colorful world, which is reportedly being provoked by the villainous Mother Ginger.

Helen Mirren does the best she can with the underwritten role of Mother Ginger, while Morgan Freeman has little more than a cameo as the one-eyed inventor Drosselmeyer. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley is a campy hoot as the Sugarplum Fairy and recent Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant is fittingly entertaining as the icicle-festooned regent of the Snow Realm. Relatively unknown leads Mackenzie Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight fare best as, respectively, Clare and her nutcracker prince. Kudos to the casting director, by the way, for incorporating both Fowora-Knight and Freeman into what has historically been a European (i.e. totally Caucasian) story.

Nutcracker is visually over-the-top at times but features some memorable images and moments. It was chiefly directed by Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) but veteran Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Captain America: The First Avenger) provided a month of reshoots to beef up the action sequences and special effects. The result feels schizophrenic at times, as Hallström's more restrained sensibility clashes with Johnston's super-heroic approach. Disney's expensive production didn't do well at the box office as it was competing against the studio's own Ralph Breaks the Internet as well as The Grinch. However, future holiday viewers and generations may yet embrace this diverse, imaginative take on a Christmas classic.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, meanwhile, is a long-awaited sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. John C. Reilly once again voices the titular video game character, with Sarah Silverman also back as Ralph's misfit friend, Vanellope von Schweetz. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that Wreck-It Ralph is one of only three animated films by Disney or Pixar that I've never seen. Thankfully, seeing the original isn't essential to appreciating this clever, funny sequel, which was an Academy Award nominee this year for Best Animated Feature.

It's frequently satirical screenplay involves the search for an essential part to Vanellope's favorite retro video game. Locating it initially on eBay, Ralph and Vanellope venture into the internet only to find things much more complicated than they anticipated. Co-directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, along with their design team, make visual sport of practically every popular website as well as Disney's stable of princesses, Star Wars figures, and other beloved characters. As amusing as these elements are, Ralph Breaks the Internet becomes self-indulgent in this regard and ultimately overlong at 112 minutes. Most viewers won't care. It is a successful sequel that inspires me to finally watch its predecessor!

From Disney's latest we journey to a bevy of new gay-themed releases, including one bonâ fide classic just released on Blu-ray for the first time. Death in Venice is Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti's acclaimed yet provocative adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella. The Criterion Collection just issued a beautifully restored, 4K edition of this 1971 film. The Blu-ray also boasts a number of documentaries including a pair of short, behind-the-scenes exposés directed by Visconti.

Dirk Bogarde gives a gutsy-for-the-time, nuanced performance as Gustav von Aschenbach, a once celebrated composer in the waning years of his career. During a recovery holiday in the title city, Gustav unexpectedly becomes smitten with a pubescent boy named Tadzio (played by the appropriately fetching Bjorn Andresen). Sadly, Gustav also finds himself afflicted by a cholera epidemic that is quietly sweeping Venice. Art, beauty, innocence, love and death ultimately collide in Visconti's elegant reflection on these themes.

The film's depiction of Gustav's obsession with Tadzio – and vice versa to some degree – is disturbing, both by 1970's standards and today's. However, the ultimate sin presented in Death in Venice isn't homosexuality but growing older. As one character wryly remarks, "There is no impurity so impure as old age." Selections from symphonies by Gustav Mahler provide perfect musical accompaniment, while Piero Tosi's Oscar-nominated costumes are similarly sublime. Whether you have never seen it or will be experiencing it again, it's time to take a trip to Venice.

Love, desire and sexy guys in frequent stages of undress occupy TLA Releasing's new releases Woke and He Loves Me. The Woke DVD is actually season one of a French series entitled Les Engagés (The Engaged). The original title is actually more appropriate, especially given how US-specific the current popular use of the term "woke" seems to me to be. At any rate, its plot is chiefly set in and around an LGBTQ outreach center in Lyon, France. A local politician has cut off the center's funding, sparking a political revolt on the part of its staff members led by resident activist Thibaut (dreamy, mustachioed Eric Pucheu). Thibaut's personal life is thrown into turmoil when a Muslim runaway, Hicham (Mehdi Meskar), shows up on his doorstep. The two met years earlier at a campground and Hicham has carried a torch for Thibaut ever since. Woke features a few dated, clichéd scenes regarding gay self-acceptance but is generally an engrossing production.

He Loves Me is a sensual first feature by Greek filmmaker Konstantinos Menelaou. It opens with two attractive, naked guys lying on a beach together. We learn that they are a couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Their current seaside vacation is actually a "make it or break it" attempt to reconcile their differences. The characters, played by Hermes Pittakos and Sanuye Shoteka, are largely silent while thoughtfully-written narration reflects on the couple's experience. Viewers are ultimately informed/reminded that love takes a lifetime of work. The movie feels a bit meandering and long toward its end, and it's only 72 minutes long. But the abundant nudity on display, Kostis Fokas' beautiful sun-dappled cinematography, and Micke Lindebergh's Enya-esque music score weave a seductive, romantic spell.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: B-
Ralph Breaks the Internet: B+
Death in Venice: A-
Woke (Les Engagés): B-
He Loves Me: B

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Reverend's Preview: Somos = All for LGBTQ Movies


The Spanish word somos means “all” in English, so it seems a fitting new title for the San Diego Latino Film Festival’s LGBTQ showcase. Formerly known as Cine Gay, this year’s event will run March 14th-24th at AMC Fashion Valley and Digital Gym CINEMA North Park.

Now in its 26th year, the festival annually screens more than 160 films from Latin America, Spain, the United States, Mexico and other parts of the world in celebration of Latino film, art and culture. Also featured are after parties, filmmaker workshops and guest celebrities from the hottest TV shows and feature films. The Somos showcase is made possible by the San Diego Pride Festival, the Media Arts Center, and Filmout San Diego.

“LGBTQ cinema is transcendent by nature, oftentimes forcing spectators to look beyond their own experiences and inviting them to engage, reconcile and ultimately relate to issues initially outside of their understanding,” according to Moises Esparza, the festival’s curator. “It is our pleasure to continue our annual tradition of bringing the very best of LGBTQ Latino cinema” to San Diego.

Though primarily reflective of Latino/Latina experiences and locations, the themes of the various movies to be shown are universal. Screenings will be hosted by local drag superstar Franceska. Individual tickets and full festival passes can be purchased in advance here. One can also become a member of this non-profit organization and enjoy special perks here.

A fabulous LGBTQ Short Film Showcase will be presented on Sunday, March 17th at 3:30pm. These mini-movies will include: Broken Sunflower Hearts, Estigma, Infinite While It Lasts, Neither From Here, Nor There, Oasis, The Serenade and The night, unsheltered.

Feature films to be screened are:

Eva + Candela (from Colombia)
The professional ambition of two strong, independent women brings them together but it is also what ultimately pulls them apart. We witness their intense love transform amidst stages of infatuation, sensuality, love, comfort and, finally, routine.

Claudia tocada por la luna (Claudia touched by the moon) (Chile)
Having suffered discrimination throughout her life, Claudia, a trans-Chilean midwife, remembers the hardest and most difficult moments she had to face in order to live her identity. This documentary tells the history, struggle, and constant abuses that are part of a society that still excludes those it considers different.

Tinta Bruta (Hard Paint) (Brazil)
Set in Brazil’s southern city of Porto Alegre, the film focuses on a socially-repressed young man who only comes out of his shell during chatroom performances, when he strips and smears neon paints on his lithe body.

José (Guatemala)
The title character is 19 and lives with his mother in Guatemala, one of the world's most dangerous, religious, impoverished, and socially conservative countries. He spends his days on cramped buses and fighting traffic as he runs food to drivers. When he meets Luis, a migrant from the rural Caribbean coast, they pursue an unexpected and forbidden relationship that thrusts José into an unexpectedly passionate and self-reflective period in his life.

Retablo (Peru/Norway/Germany)
Segundo Paucar, a 14 year old boy, wants to become a master story-box maker just like his father to carry on the family legacy. On his way to a community celebration in the Andes, Segundo accidentally observes his father in a situation that shatters his whole world. Trapped in a chauvinistic environment, Segundo will try to deal in silence with all that is happening to him.

Bixa Travesty (Brazil)
The female trans body becomes a political means of expression in both public and private space. The black, transgender singer Linn da Quebrada deconstructs how alpha males conceive of themselves. Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla's documentary portrays a charismatic artist who reflects on gender and has an extraordinary stage presence.

Las herederas (The Heiresses) (Paraguay/Germany/Brazil/Uruguay/Norway/France)
Chela and Chiquita, both descendants of wealthy families, have been together for over 30 years. Recently, their financial situation has worsened, and Chiquita is imprisoned on fraud charges. Chela, forced to face a new reality, begins to provide a local taxi service to a group of elderly, wealthy ladies for money. As she settles into her new life, Chela encounters the much younger Angy, forging a fresh and invigorating new connection. This drama was Paraguay’s submission to this year's Oscars.

Las Chuntá (The Chunta) (Mexico)
Once a year in a small town in Mexico, men transform into women and become the Chuntá. This documentary follows two gender-bending gangs of dancers as they face off in a struggle between queer identity and powerful traditions.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival will be presented from March 14th to the 24th. Click here for more information.

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