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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dearest: Once Upon a Time

Following their unexpectedly terrific (and terrifically profitable) live action re-dos of Maleficent and Cinderella, it’s hardly a surprise that Disney would turn to their crown jewel of animated princess tales for their next “real world” makeover. And thankfully for all who love the 1991 original, the new Beauty and the Beast lives up to its predecessor, a most happy "happily ever after" after all.

Using the animated version’s basic story as a starting point, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his screenwriters have explored and deepened the mythology of this “tale as old as time”. The hand drawn characters of the animated film are (literally and figuratively) fleshed out more, given detailed back stories and stronger motivations, and they also address some inconsistencies in the original’s narrative (like why no one from the village remembers the castle). They do get a bit carried away, though, particularly in an extended sequence about Belle’s mother that, frankly, nobody has ever wondered that much about.

Although not as strong a singer as one would hope, Emma Watson plays Belle as a scrappy independent young woman, another anti-damsel-in-distress that has become par for the course in these modern retellings. Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens turns out to be an inspired choice for the Beast, who goes from fussy fop to menacing monster to hairy hero to, finally, princely romance novel hunk. As the castle staff-turned-anthropomorphized housewares, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are mostly heard but not seen, but their charming characterizations still shine through. Kevin Kline (as Belle's befuddled father Maurice), Luke Evans (as the vain and far more villainous Gaston) and Josh Gad (as LeFou... you may have heard about him) round out the stellar cast.

All six of the original film's songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are revisited, most notably the Academy Award winning title song; as sung by Thompson, it's every bit as enchanting (and tear-jerking) as when Angela Lansbury first performed it. As he did for the Broadway adaptation, Tim Rice steps in for the late Ashman as lyricist for three new, sadly mostly unnoteworthy tunes, although Stevens shows off some impressive pipes in the Beast solo "Evermore". (I will be going into further detail regarding the new Beauty and the Beast soundtrack in a future Movie Music column.)

From the opening prologue to the spectacular "Be Our Guest" production number to the final transformations, this Beast is a Beauty, a feast for all the senses. With its Gothic set pieces, imaginative costume designs and ubiquitous special effects, I fully expect the remake to follow in the footsteps of its precursor when Oscar time rolls around again, racking up several nominations and perhaps even a win or two.

It has been 26 years since Disney first told the tale of a beautiful girl and a not-so-handsome prince, a magical, musical story that has entertained generations both on stage and screen, and I am happy to say that this newest telling not only adds to but enhances the legacy of Beauty and the Beast.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

MD Top 10: Disney Toons in the Glass Closet


Much has been made about the “coming out” of LeFou, the bumbling sycophant sidekick of the hunky villain Gaston in Disney’s latest live action redo of one of their animated classics, Beauty and the Beast

Redneck states and even whole countries are scrambling to ban or restrict the film, and homophobic internet trolls (who you know haven’t even seen it) have already tried to sabotage its Internet Movie Database score with low ratings (in contrast, its CinemaScore rating, which polls actual theatergoers, is a solid A). Even so, actual film critics are calling it a Beauty (by the way, our Dearest review will be posted shortly) and this box office Beast in the making just set the record for the biggest March opening day ever.

Which all seems like much ado about nothing, or at least much ado about something that was pretty obvious 26 years ago for anyone who viewed the beloved 1991 original through a queer eye: yep, LeFou has always been pretty gay. In fact, since the very first Disney animated feature eight decades ago, there has been gay characters aplenty through the years, one just has to know how to read the (often none too subtle) subtext to see into their glass closets.

For example:

1. The Seven Dwarfs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937):
If that many dudes living in the same house doesn’t raise an eyebrow, what about the fact that the pure as the driven snow Snow has nary a qualm about moving in with them? Yes, they aren’t exactly tidy, but they sure are interested in learning all about girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

2. Willie the Operatic Whale, Make Mine Music (1946):
He’s an “Operatic Whale”. What else is there to say?

3. The Grand Duke, Cinderella (1950):
You know he was just dying to try on those glass pumps.

4. Captain Hook, Peter Pan (1953):
At the start of the long list of effeminate Disney villains (see also: Aladdin’s Jafar, The Lion King’s Scar) is the “Elegant” Captain Hook. With his dainty lace accents and expertly waxed moustache, it is no wonder that this chicken hawk is so obsessed with the ultimate twink (remember he never grows up) Peter Pan.

5. Just About Everyone, The Jungle Book (1967): A bossy queen (Bagheera) and a big lovable bear (Baloo) are the de facto gay dads of Mowgli, who every guy in the jungle “wants”. The “mancub” is seduced by a lisping snake (read: phallic symbol), abducted by an all male band of party animals and hunted by a tiger velvety-voiced by George frikkin’ Sanders, thus proving that The Jungle Book is like the gayest movie ever.

6. Edgar, The Aristocats (1970): Yes, this scheming butler was English so it may be hard to nail down the gay, but how about this: his whole diabolic criminal plan was to steal… cats.

7. Ratigan, The Great Mouse Detective (1986): No, it’s not the tired “Holmes and Watson bromance” meme that will set off your gaydar in this talking animal take on the iconic sleuth. Rather, it is its rodentified version of Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarity, who not only talks like Vincent Price and owns a pet cat named Felicia, but also tries to pass as a mouse when he’s really a self-loathing closeted rat. No wonder he wants to go into politics.

8. Timon and Pumbaa, The Lion King (1994): Two misfit outcasts find each other and shack up in a jungle paradise where they spend their days exchanging witty banter and belting out show tunes (composed by Elton John no less). Also: Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane no less), at the drop of a hat, knows exactly how to dress in drag and do the hula.

9. Wiggins, Pocahontas (1995): As the aide-de-camp to the pompous (and equally queerish) Governor Radcliffe, he’s the original perky P.A., one who doesn’t balk at tending to the boss’s prissy pug and is an expert gift basket maker. Fun fact: out actor David Ogden Stiers performed the voices of both Radcliffe and Wiggins.

10. Pleakley, Lilo & Stitch (2002): It’s not surprising that this one-eyed alien “Earth expert” who takes a liking to sporting wigs and wearing mu’umu’us is voiced by Kevin McDonald, best known for his often-cross-dressed performances on the comedy sketch show The Kids in the Hall.

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