Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: The Devil Made Them Do It

After a neck-in-neck battle for box office dominance this past weekend with Takers, its fellow new release, The Last Exorcism came in 2nd place but still grossed more than anticipated. As usual, young people hoping for big scares were the driving force behind the thriller's success but I, as an ordained minister, was more intrigued by what The Last Exorcism had to say — and show — about religion and faith ... although I love an intelligent horror movie too. My interest was largely, if not completely, satisfied.

The Reverend Cotton Marcus (played with impressive fervor by the photogenic Patrick Fabian) is a Protestant preacher renowned for his exorcist abilities. But, as Marcus confesses to a documentary camera crew in the film's opening minutes, he doesn't believe in demons or manifestations of supernatural evil. Rather, he has concluded that those claiming to be possessed are in need of psychiatric help, to which many of the fundamentalist Christians who call upon his services are opposed. Marcus has also witnessed the damage sometimes wrought by ministers in the process of casting out the Devil and his minions, including the death of a boy not much older than Marcus's own son.

It turns out that the good Reverend has hired the filmmakers to document what he intends to be his final "exorcism" in an effort to show the world once and for all that demonic possession is a hoax. Marcus responds to the invitation of a farmer in rural Louisiana who believes his teenage daughter, Nell (the superb Ashley Bell), is under the influence of an evil spirit. Armed with an encyclopedia of demonology, special effects-laden props, a Satanic sound mix and self-righteous swagger, the preacher and his companions gradually find themselves in over their heads.

The Last Exorcism is at its best when it poses as many practical as theological explanations behind Nell's presumed possession. Is the girl being victimized by her questionably-sane brother (Caleb Landry Jones)? Has she been raped and impregnated by her father (an excellent performance by Louis Herthum)? Or, is the ordinarily angelic-looking Nell simply a screwed-up teen, dramatically grieving the death of her mother two years before?

The movie loses some credibility whenever its characters fall victim to illogical behavior, as too many spook-fest protagonists have before. Instead of calling Child Protective Services and the police once they suspect Nell is the victim of sexual abuse or in the wake of her apparently slashing her brother across the face with a knife, Rev. Marcus and Company lock the girl in her room and wait for all concerned to simply sleep things off. Not even Nell's vicious, caught-on-video bludgeoning of the family pet (cat lovers, beware) is enough to wake them up to reality.

I can forgive The Last Exorcism all of this in light of its otherwise (mostly) intelligent handling of an enduringly fascinating subject. It is refreshing to see a non-Catholic approach to possession and exorcism; as Marcus himself notes of Catholics, "They've got the movie," referring of course to the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Marcus also accurately states that every world religion has a method for expelling evil spirits, even as he remains unconvinced of the spiritual efficacy of such rituals.

It is harder to forgive the film's over-the-top, Blair Witch-y finale. I think it would have been much more resonant and disturbing to leave the question of exactly what the hell (no pun intended ... OK, sort of) is going on unresolved. Instead, we get everything but Rev. Marcus's exact fate graphically spelled out, although within the limits of a PG-13 rating, thankfully.

Still, The Last Exorcism is thought-provoking and intense. It even has a gay twist at one point, which I'm not about to give away. One should never underestimate alleged forces of evil, as the good minister and his companions learn the hard way. The film effectively proves the old adage: "When you dance with the Devil, you're sure to get burned."

Reverend's Rating: B

UPDATE: The Last Exorcism is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Latin Love

Love was in the air and on the screen throughout the 2010 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF), held August 19-25. While only a couple movies of specifically GLBT-interest were shown, love — in a variety of forms and stages and with all its natural ups and downs — was the central theme of many festival selections.

I wasn't able to catch one of the GLBT features shown, Hermafrodita, but will try to track it down via its press rep and review it soon. However, the fest's screening of Contracorriente (Undertow, in English), a gay romance from Peru, sold out and enjoyed a reception that cements the acclaim the film has received since its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Audience Award.

Beautifully rendered by writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon and his excellent cast, Contracorriente is set in a small, predominantly Catholic fishing village. It is home to Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who are expecting their first child. A well-regarded fisherman whose devotion to his marriage is unquestioned, Miguel is described as being "on good terms with God." Mariela and their neighbors consider it a quirk that Miguel is more interested in watching the TV soap opera Right to Love than the national sport of soccer.

The conservative community is also the current home of Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an itinerant, openly gay painter. Unbeknownst to anyone as the film begins, Miguel and Santiago have been having an affair. Miguel doesn't consider himself homosexual and bristles when Santiago brings the term up but he also can't stand the thought of Santiago leaving, which the artist plans to do as the birth of Miguel's son grows near.

Before then, and in the wake of an argument between the two men, Santiago disappears. After missing for several days, Santiago reappears in Miguel's home, much to the latter's shock. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that this is Santiago's spirit and neither Miguel's wife nor anyone else in town can see him. Santiago recalls that his body was pulled to the ocean depths and drowned, and it must be found and laid to rest by Miguel before Santiago's spirit can rest. Until then, they take delight in walking around town and being more openly romantic since Santiago is invisible.

Contracorriente traffics in traditional conflicts between homosexuality and religious repression, but the film feels fresh thanks to its unique setting and occasional comedic elements. Fuentes-Leon makes a winking reference to the 1978 Brazilian movie Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, in which the ghost of a woman's former husband begins to haunt her once she becomes engaged to a new man.

Once a nude painting of Miguel done by Santiago is discovered as well as Santiago's body, Miguel is challenged to publicly admit his relationship with Santiago. The film's final 30 minutes perfectly encapsulate both the pain and liberation that come with coming out. Contracorriente (which is due out on DVD in December but may get a theatrical release before then) is not to be missed.

Two non-gay but noteworthy movies I saw during LALIFF are Viajo Porque Preciso, Volto Porque Te Amo (I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You), from Brazil, and Colombia's La Sangre y La Lluvia (Blood and Rain). The first, which is co-directed by Madame Sata's Karim Ainouz, is significant for being perhaps the first film ever where the protagonist is never seen. We hear Jose, a 35-year old geologist on a 30-day road trip to map a proposed canal, and see things from his perspective throughout, but the most viewers ever glimpse of him is a brief, blurry memory shot.

As he travels, Jose (voiced by Irandhir Santos) ruminates on his and his wife's marriage, and the trials and tribulations it has endured. In the process, he meets and occasionally has sex with other women he encounters during his journey. By the end, though, Jose regains his willingness to commit without being able to see what awaits him, exemplified by climactic shots of Speedo-clad men diving off the jagged cliffs of Acupulco, Mexico into the treacherous sea below.

La Sangre y La Lluvia marks the feature debut of promising Colombian director Jorge Navas. It is the often brutal but ultimately touching saga of a taxi driver, Jose (played by Quique Mendoza, who recalls a young Mickey Rourke), who is out to avenge his brother's recent murder. He crosses paths with Angela (the striking and very good Gloria Montoya), a party girl looking to get laid but discovers a deeper attraction toward Jose.

It is impossible not to be drawn into the sympathetic relationship that develops between these two disparate individuals in the span of one blood-soaked, rainy night. The film's climax is unnecessarily protracted and made a late screening even later, but La Sangre y La Lluvia, its director and stars are worth keeping an eye out for.

As LALIFF's omnipresent Co-Founder and Chairman, Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver, Battlestar Galactica), announced prior to one of the screenings I attended, "98% of these films won't be shown elsewhere in the US." While this is unfortunate, I am grateful to LALIFF for giving us Angelenos, at least, a chance to experience the best of what current Latin cinema has to offer.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Saved the Best for Last

“You went and saved the best for last.”
-- Vanessa Williams

And boy, did they! Ugly Betty has always been an GLBT-friendly treat, but the “Fourth and Final Season” now available on DVD ties up plot points with a big pink bow. From a beautiful season opener guest starring the late Lynn Redgrave (in her final, lovely performance) to Justin’s unforgettable Homecoming to Betty’s British invasion, you will find it hard picking a favorite episode.

Season Four starts with Betty (America Ferrera) finding her new promotion as associate features editor very challenging. Her new boss is her bitter ex-boyfriend Matt (Daniel Eric Gold) and her co-workers resent the favoritism Daniel (Eric Mabius) shows her. Her big sis Hilda (Ana Ortiz) is torn between her good guy boyfriend Archie (Ralph “Karate Kid” Macchio) and bad boy ex-flame Bobby Talercio (über-sexy Adam Rodriguez). She is also worried that her son Justin (the fabulous Mark Indelicato) is shutting her out and afraid to come out to her.

Meanwhile, back at Mode, Wilhemina Slater (Vanessa Williams) and her hot Aussie con man beau (sexy Grant Bowler) have a wild on-again/off-again relationship full of sneaky schemes and conjugal visits, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when her prodigal daughter (Yaya DeCosta from The Kids Are All Right) shows up covered in blood. BFFs Marc (Michael Urie) and Amanda (Becky Newton) get an unexpected third when aging temp and party girl Helen (Kristin Johnston) enters their lives, and shows Amanda what she might turn into if she isn’t careful.

Best of all, Justin finds love (a girl named Lily!) but has to compete for her affections with cutie-patootie schoolmate Austin (Ryan McGinnis). If you think that’s the end of his story, then you don’t know Ugly Betty. By the end of this snarky, hilarious and surprisingly moving series, Betty has definitely outgrown the “Ugly” moniker and you’ll love where she and the whole cast of characters wind up.

My favorite moments of the season are:
- Betty and Lynn Redgrave surrounded by hundreds of butterflies in "The Butterfly Effect Part 1".
- Justin’s rocky road to Homecoming hero at a public high school, and his final showdown with his sexuality after attending a performing arts school.
- Betty reunited with Christina (Ashley Jenson) in London, and Betty’s unexpected love connection as the series ends.
- Betty and Marc reduced to dressing as a wiener and a bun.

- Kristin Johnston’s clueless turn as Helen, who has the oblivious hots for Marc.
- One particular couple who has their sweet first dance at Hilda’s wedding reception.
- Daniel’s seduction by Jamie Lynn Sigler, who draws him into the spooky cult, the Community of the Phoenix, headed by even spookier Dylan Baker.
- The episode “Be-Shure” is a classic farce where both Betty and Hilda think they’re pregnant, and the only one who knows it is their dad Ignacio’s new girlfriend, Jean (Faith Prince), the pharmacist who sold the girls their pregnancy tests.

- Wilhemina coming face-to-face with her drag inspiration Wilheldiva Hater (played not-so-convincingly by her brother Chris Williams) and forcing him/her to do events Willi doesn’t want to do.
- Claire Meade’s touching reunion with the son she gave up for adoption (the hunky Neal Bledsoe) and his not-so-happy trip to New York City. Let’s just say that the alcoholic doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

- In “Million Dollar Smile”, Betty becomes braces-free and dreams of a world where she’s the pretty sister. Marc is a doting dad and Amanda is married to Daniel. Her guide to this alternate universe is her chatty orthodontist, played by Kathy Najimy.
- All those cameos! In addition to Redgrave, Najimy and Christie Brinkley as Willi’s arch-rival, there's more Broadway faves like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Bryan Batt and Next to Normal’s Aaron Tveit (soon to be seen in Howl opposite James Franco), RuPaul, Varla Jean Merman, Carol Kane and, of course, Alec Mapa (as bitchy fashion reporter Suzuki St. Pierre).

Like many great people and things, Ugly Betty was cut down in her prime, but as the Fourth and Final Season proves, you want to go out on a high note and leave ‘em wanting more.

The DVD also includes such fun Bonus Features as "Betty Bloops", "Betty Goes Bahamas" and "Mode After Hours".

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Actor Factor: Taming the Cougar

When Cougar Town first premiered last fall, I had been (somewhat) eagerly anticipating it. I have always been a fan of Friends and its talented cast, and I welcomed the return of Courtney Cox to prime time network television comedy after her turn in the abysmal Dirt on FX in 2007-2008.

The pilot episode did indeed make me laugh out loud, guffaw even, several times. The second episode was equally funny with a hysterical photo montage that I watched several times over again through the magic of the bloop-back-button on TiVo. The third episode still provided plenty of laughs as well as the world's first dual manicure/bikini wax, but I was already beginning to tire of the shows basic premise: 40-something real estate agent Jules Cobb (Cox) is freshly divorced and coping with single life and, you guessed it, being a cougar (an older woman chasing after younger men, for those of you not in the know.)

I have never been a fan of current-day one-camera-sitcoms. They usually strike me as forced and insincere. Furthermore, Cox's performance in the show was almost too over-the-top, especially when contrasted against the show's supporting cast, which is ironic as she started out completely understated on Friends and eventually came up to a broader sitcom-style performance. Cougar Town just seemed to be going nowhere, and I stopped watching. Mind you, I didn't dislike the show, but there just wasn't enough there to keep me tuning in, especially with my TiVo memory at 13-percent and too many shows backing up in the queue.

Now, I have an “everything is better on DVD” philosophy, so when the chance came up to review the Cougar Town: The Complete First Season DVD release for Movie Dearest, I jumped at it. And son-of-a-gun, the show is better on DVD! But not just because of the lack of commercials, extra bonus features and chronological viewing convenience. The show itself, about a third of the way into the season, starts to downplay Cox's “cougaresque” sexcapdes, and becomes a character-driven, ensemble show about middle-aged people navigating life.

Yes, it is pretty much Friends twenty years later, but it works. The clever writing now has more substance and pathos beneath it, and the cast is one of the best ensembles to come along since Will & Grace. This becomes most apparent in the Thanksgiving episode “Here Comes My Girl”, wherein the entire cast begins to interact with each other instead of being somewhat separate entities on the periphery of Jules' life.

And what a cast of characters to play with! Jules best friends, next-door neighbor Ellie Torres (Christa Miller-Lawrence) and co-worker Laurie Keller (Busy Phillips) seemingly despise each other. Yet they maintain a bickering and humorous truce out of their friendship for Jules. Miller-Lawrence plays the self-absorbed Ellie with a dry wit reminiscent of Bea Arthur (she better take that as a compliment) and Phillips spouts off some of the shows best non sequitur lines with a sincerity that defies logic, such as: “Maybe Grayson's just being careful because it's a new relationship — they probably haven't even shaved each other yet.”

Rounding out the cast and characters are Bryan Van Holt as Jules' ex, Bobby, a typical, loveable loser type who remains remarkably human with Van Holt's deft and layered portrayal; Ian Gomez as Andy Torres (Ellie's husband) whose slightly inappropriate man-crush on Bobby breaks the mold of best buddy relationships; Josh Hopkins as Grayson Ellis, Jules' neighbor, nemesis, will-they-or-won't-they love interest and “paper buddy;” and the subtle and talented Dan Byrd as Travis Cobb, Jules and Bobby's college-bound son — the child Monica and Chandler probably would have had.

Put any of these characters/actors together in any combination, and the chemistry sparks and the laughs follow, even when it is a slightly inappropriate coupling. That doesn't happen much on television anymore. The show includes great guest appearances as well, including Barry Bostwick, Beverly D'Angelo, Sheryl Crow and Lisa Kudrow in a wonderful turn as the world's meanest dermatologist.

The only character who remains true to the “Cougar Roots” of Cougar Town is the mysterious and wonderfully under-developed, Barb, portrayed by General Hospital's Daytime Emmy-nominated Carolyn Hennessy. Her character pops out of nowhere, often just leaning into camera shot, to offer her two cents of “Cougar Philosophy” and disappears just as quickly. The bonus features offer Barb's Blog Spot from ABC.com, in which she dispenses advice to the middle-aged lovelorn, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Also of note on the bonus features is the Jimmy Kimmel sketch “Saber-Tooth Tiger Land” featuring Cloris Leachman and a foul-mouthed Shirley Jones.

But make no mistake, despite the show's new ensemble direction, it is Courtney Cox that holds it all together. Much as she did with Friends, she sets her tone to that of her fellow cast-mates, and she sparkles all the more for sharing the spotlight.

Created by Bill Lawrence (former Friends writer and co-creator of Spin City and Scrubs) and Kevin Biegle (former Scrubs staff writer), Cougar Town walks a not-so-delicate tightrope between schmaltz and cynicism, which never strays too far from reality, while still daring to dally with the surreal. It is also a dazzling show to look at, with production values that play with color and light in a way few other shows do. In the end, as with Friends, Cougar Town is simply made up of nice (though flawed) people who are just fun to spend time with.

And, for me, that's what television is all about.

The Actor Factor: A View from Both Sides of the Camera is by James Jaeger, Los Angeles based actor and resident television critic of Movie Dearest.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reverend’s Reviews: Mostly-Shining Music for a Summer Night

After listening annually to their 1998 holiday CD ‘Tis the Season since, well, 1998, I had my first chance to hear the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles perform live this past weekend, and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall no less.

Now celebrating their 32nd season, GMCLA is one of the oldest continuous such ensembles in the US. Sure on This Shining Night, the chorale’s August 21 concert, highlighted its strengths but also featured a pair of misguided artistic choices that threatened to sabotage the evening. Fortunately, two significant and impressive premieres kept the 130-member chorale from the brink.

The first act started well enough, with gorgeous renditions of Kevin Robison’s “In the Space of Now” and David Conte’s “Invocation/Dance,” the latter inspired by three verses from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

These were followed by a diverse selection of songs arranged under the heading “Golden Light.” Included was a hymn by Russian composer Pavel Tchesnokov proclaiming (in Russian, naturally) “Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God, Alleluia”; a musical setting of James Agee’s poem, “Sure on This Shining Night”; and Tom Brown’s contemporary and deeply moving “Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.”, about a childhood friend who died of AIDS.

Act I concluded with six selections from famous operas by male composers, which marked the first misstep of the evening. While the excerpts were adequately performed by the choir, the section went on too long, especially in the absence of storylines or theatrical scenery. Also, some of the soloists fell short (bass John Musselman and tenor Jerry Cordova were honorable exceptions to this).

After this interminable interlude and the show’s intermission, Act II began impressively with the world premiere performance of “The End of It All” by electronica composer/DJ John Tejada. Tejada was present to “perform” his piece on laptop and sound console (and, of note, got married the next day to LA PR diva and Movie Dearest friend, Lynn Hasty; Congratulations!).

It was impossible not to bop one’s head or tap one’s feet during “The End of It All,” which I really hope was recorded or will be soon. The mash-up of male chorale voices and techno was inspired and will no doubt be popular in dance clubs and adventurous music halls alike. Steven Young’s lighting design provided perfect support, not only during this number but also throughout the concert.

GMCLA Executive Director Hywel Sims then proudly introduced — rightly so — the debut of the chorale’s new Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Youth Choir. A collaborative effort between the GMCLA and area high schools, this strongly-voiced, high-energy ensemble blew the audience away, especially during their medley of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” A rousing standing ovation followed.

Sadly, a great deal of enthusiasm was then drained as we were subjected to “The Harvey Milk Schools Project.” Another and no doubt worthy collaboration between GMCLA and area schools, it recounts the story of the late, openly gay San Francisco supervisor’s life and assassination interspersed with familiar show tunes and pop songs.

Since Harvey’s story was recently told in the award-winning movie Milk and seen by most of the audience, it was overly familiar and decidedly less artistically-staged. It needlessly inflated the evening to nearly three hours, although the GSA Youth Choir returned thankfully for the concert’s finale: great renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Michael Jackson’s Free Willy theme song, “Will You Be There?”

While I was very happy to finally see GMCLA perform live, I was underwhelmed by some of their selections. If interim Artistic Director Dominic Gregorio is to blame, “Sure on This Shining Night” marked the end of his involvement with the choir. I am looking forward to what GMCLA will do next.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

MD Poll: The Boys of Summer 2010

The end of the summer movie season is almost upon us, so it is time for our annual look back at the film actors that made it so memorable ... and judge them on their looks alone and anoint one the hottest cinematic hunk of the past four months or so!

This year's batch is filled with some familiar faces (Leo, Jake, the Twilight guys) alongside some "fresh meat" (Inception hottie Tom Hardy, Sex and the City 2's sizzling Max Ryan), plus a surprise stud who is technically nearing 50 years old.

Take your pick and place your vote in the MD Poll located in the right hand sidebar. The ultimate summer movie hunk, class of 2010, will be crowned September 25.

UPDATE: This poll is now closed; click here for the results, and click here to vote in the latest MD Poll.

MD Poll: Let's Get Serious

We'll admit it, we're not all that surprised that Heath Ledger's Oscar winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight was named your favorite of his performances in the latest MD Poll. His take on the bat-villain was instantly iconic, as was his Ennis Del Mar in the second place vote getter, a little film called Brokeback Mountain.

In other words, we knew going in that those two taking the top spots were a given. What we were most curious about was what would come in third place. And that was his first movie hit, the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. One could say that his Patrick Verona was just too good to be true.

Illustration by "Green Whimsy" at Deviant Art. See the comments section below for the complete results of the poll.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reverend's Review: Art Appreciation

While I'm no artist and didn't know him personally, the death of celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988 at the age of 27 nonetheless affected me. I was only 21 at the time but had been reading about his growing success and friendship/collaboration with Andy Warhol, who died shortly before Basquiat under similarly unexpected circumstances.

Fellow artist Julian Schnabel (who knew Basquiat personally in New York) paid tribute to the young artist in his well-received 1996 biopic Basquiat, in which Jeffrey Wright gave an attention-grabbing performance as the talented-beyond-his-years, drug-addicted title subject. However, Tamra Davis' new documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, will likely go down as the definitive account of a too-brief career and life, not least because Basquiat himself tells a good part of his story via outtakes from a never-before-seen 1986 video interview.

As we learn from the film's great opening credits sequence, which intersperses quotes about Basquiat's impact with shots of his art, even Madonna was envious of the young man's early success. The American-born but African-French-Creole Basquiat was "at the epicenter of art" when he was 18 years old, according to current MOCA Los Angeles curator Jeffrey Deitch. He soon became the protégé of Warhol who, one observer notes, "probably had a crush on Basquiat." Though Basquiat was straight, he didn't seem to shy from friendships with openly gay fellow artists, including Keith Haring, and once welcomed interviewer Rene Ricard to his home while stark naked.

Basquiat referenced numerous other art works and artists in his work — da Vinci, Van Gogh and Picasso chief among them — and was even referred to as "the black Picasso," which Basquiat found racist. By 1983, his paintings were selling for approximately $30,000 each and Basquiat had become a millionaire. He left over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings at the time of his death, marking an incredibly prolific life.

Too many films depicting artists and the artistic process are stuffy and cerebral. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a welcome exception. It is fast-moving without sacrificing depth or detail, and generously showcases many of Basquiat's paintings. Davis's pop culture-attuned eye (she previously directed music videos by Depeche Mode, The Bangles and the Beastie Boys as well as the movies CB4 and Billy Madison) and Alexis Manya Spraic's impressive editing bring Basquiat's youthful, at times manic, spirit to cinematic life 22 years after his death from a drug overdose.

In the wake of Basquiat's move to Manhattan to pursue an artistic career while he was still a teenager, he learned that it is "difficult to go home once one has chosen a counter-cultural, subversive lifestyle." The film recounts Basquiat's subsequent, strained relationship with his father. These moments especially provide artistically-inclined and/or GLBT viewers alike the opportunity to identify with and feel for a great talent whose life was cut far too short.

Reverend's Rating: A-

UPDATE: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Forever Tilda

Tilda Swinton bears a lot in common with the character she plays in Orlando (available today in a new Special Edition DVD). Swinton’s Orlando is a British nobleman who barely ages over four centuries and who is so androgynous, he spontaneously changes sex halfway through the film. Swinton is so ageless, it makes the film seem practically new. Director Sally Potter’s 1993 adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf is a ravishing and elegant classic, a time-warping, gender-bending mind trip you’ll never forget.

Orlando begins his story as a young nobleman who is much favored by the aging Queen Elizabeth. Potter’s ingenious casting of queer icon Quentin Crisp as the Queen gives the film a surreal and wonderful quality. Orlando is granted favors and property by the ancient royal before her death, and is much in demand as a would-be groom to the nobility. During a freakishly cold winter, Orlando meets and falls in love with a Russian princess who breaks his heart by leaving. Each chapter of the film is introduced with one word, and Orlando’s next obsession is with poetry, then with politics.

Traveling to central Asia as an ambassador, Orlando feels at first freed by the desert life, but then is pressed into fighting alongside the locals. Unwilling to kill and not wanting to be killed, he awakens to find he’s become a woman. Unfortunately, women are not allotted the same rights and privileges, and Orlando finds herself being denied her rightful ownership of her estate and belongings. Time jumps forward throughout Orlando, and it’s best not to dwell on how or why it happens. Revel in Swinton’s magnetic performance and a romantic interlude with a pre-Titanic Billy Zane.

Potter’s creation is magical and engrossing, and her visual imagery (servants skating with torches, elegant English gardens with hedge mazes, etc,) is unmatched. The new DVD includes two hours of additional material, including fascinating features about trying to film in the newly liberated Russia and Uzbekistan, and a piece on Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville entitled "Jimmy Was an Angel" (and in the movie, he is).

Even if you’ve seen Orlando before, you’ll love it more now.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Deplorable Expendables

With only a couple of artistic virtues and even fewer moral attributes to its credit, Sylvester Stallone & Co.'s new exercise in macho mayhem, The Expendables, is wretched. A throwback to the worst of the tough-guy adventures of the 1980s (remember Cobra, Red Scorpion or Commando?), its cast includes every major male action star of the last 30 years. In addition to Stallone, there's Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin and the Terminator himself, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a cameo. Only Jean-Claude Van Damme seems conspicuously absent.

The gang of former military goons that calls themselves "The Expendables" — the logo is emblazoned on their oversized motorcycles — is enlisted by a CIA functionary (a stiff turn by a strangely angelically-lit Willis) to take down a South American dictator. It becomes too quickly apparent that the seemingly ruthless General Garza (David Zayas, recognizable as the Latino gang leader on HBO's frequently homoerotic Oz) is a puppet of a rogue CIA agent played with sadistic glee by Eric Roberts.

Sadism runs high in The Expendables and ranges from the threat of beheadings to actual beheadings, bodies blown literally to smithereens by high-powered assault weapons, knives repeatedly thrown through the sides of people's heads, and the waterboard torture of a young female revolutionary (the appropriately noble Giselle Itie). This is the kind of movie where burning someone alive isn't adequate punishment; their charbroiled but still breathing body has to be stomped to death. To call the film's violence excessive would be a massive understatement.

The production's two not-quite-saving graces are (1) Mickey Rourke and (2) a pair of impressively staged action scenes. Rourke, who continues to enjoy a deserved cinematic resurgence after his Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler and this summer's Iron Man 2, both nails a tongue-in-cheek approach to this material that his castmates sadly lack and manages to pull off the one serious, heartfelt monologue in the whole movie. The latter actually seems out of place, but Rourke brings a desperately needed humanity and pathos to the film within just a few minutes. A fiery plane attack on a villain-occupied dock and a rowdy car chase through busy city streets with guns ablazin' are the film's two memorable set pieces.

Stallone, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with David Callaham) and directs, sports a waxy, veiny physique throughout as the Expendables' leader, improbably named "Barney." The actor who played his nemesis in Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren, similarly looks like he's had bad plastic surgery. Statham comes off best as the vicious but semi-just Lee Christmas. At 37, Statham also has the distinction of being the film's youngest cast member. That being said, there is something inspiring about seeing a bunch of middle-aged men kicking ass, albeit with the help of stunt doubles and some good editing.

Make no mistake: The Expendables is crap. It makes Stallone's previous directorial efforts Staying Alive and Rambo look like masterpieces by comparison.

Reverend's Rating: D

UPDATE: The Expendables is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Gag Yawn Snooze

It finally happened. I finally understand the abject agony straight, football-loving men feel when their girlfriends drag them to 27 Dresses, Made of Honor or Sex and the City 2.

I have survived Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts' seemingly endless cinematic version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s globe-trotting book, but I’m pretty sure I aged seven years and gained a funky white streak in my hair like JoBeth Williams at the end of Poltergeist. How could Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee (not to mention co-writer, actress Jennifer Salt of the 1972 Gargoyles!), and Roberts, one of the most magnetic actresses of our time, unleash such an excruciating, self-indulgent trudge through one not-at-all-interesting woman’s year-long quest to “find herself”?

The simple answer is that this is one book that never should have been made into a movie. I’m sure Liz Gilbert the person is a complex, relatable woman who struggled with real, soul-crushing lack of fulfillment, but that isn’t who ends up on the screen. Murphy and company’s abysmal script takes you places you don’t want to go with a bunch of people you don’t want to know … for two and a half hours!

As the movie opens, Liz Gilbert (Roberts) has it all — she’s married to a pod version of Billy Crudup, is best friends with Doubt’s Viola Davis (and a lump of bald flesh playing Viola’s husband), and travels the world writing inspirational stories while living it up in New York City. Crudup’s Stephen is a directionless dweeb, and when he tells Liz he doesn’t want to go to Aruba with her, she tells him she doesn’t want to be married. She embarks on an affair with James Franco, playing a Joey Tribbiani-type actor who starred in her awful play. We go through another draggy relationship trauma before Liz decides to head off to Italy (to Eat), India (to Pray) and Bali (to Love, although she’s got self-love down pretty well already).

In Italy, she meets a “colorful” group of friends straight out of a Carnival Cruise Line catalogue (who are just about as deep) and devotes herself to eating everything she can get her hands on. Don’t look for the “It’s my ‘No Carb Left Behind” diet” line — part of the sloppiness of the movie is that it feels like they filmed about thirty-four hours of people not doing much and just randomly selected vignettes to throw up on the screen. Did Liz really need to go to Italy to learn that Italians talk with their hands? Really? As far as a love letter to the joys of food goes, Julie & Julia was there first and did it much better.

For no particular reason, Liz packs up and heads to “picturesque” India, meaning that we see her drive through lots of horrid poverty that she promptly forgets about. This is the part of the film I call "The Black Hole of Calcutta". If you have any lists to prepare, paint swatches to choose or quantum physics equations to solve, this would be a good time to do that.

Otherwise, you’ll be subjected to Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins play "Richard from Texas", a sour-milk version of his character from The Visitor. Liz didn’t seem that into Buddhism when David dragged her to his cult-y ashram in New York, but here she is, seeking enlightenment from his guru who, oops, is in New York. What travel writer doesn’t plan better than that? Liz and Richard (who’s kind of a dick) bicker and he spouts all manner of clichés and you feel like you’re stuck there longer than the four months that elapse. You’ll definitely pray for deliverance around this time, but sadly, you know that there’s a whole other third of a year to get through.

Off to Bali Liz goes, where she reconnects with a seventh-generation medicine man who gave her the idea for her quest in the beginning. Sometime around the two-hour mark, Javier Bardem shows up and runs a bike-riding Liz off the road. The set-up to that dust-up shows them each heading toward each other for what seems like five minutes — please, is there an editor in the house?! Of course, the way to a self-absorbed New Yorker’s heart is through her gashed knee, so the two fall into a passionate love affair.

Can Liz let herself love someone other than herself? I won’t say, but I will say “Thank God for Javier Bardem!” By sheer charisma alone, he brings what little life exists in Eat Pray Love, and he and Roberts share a light, fun-to-watch chemistry. Sadly, you’re so weary by that time, you’ll swear you have jet lag.

What went wrong with Eat Pray Love? It’s shorter to answer, “What went right?” because precious little does. Seldom have so many good actors, writers, the director and production designers worked so hard for such meager results. Despite Julia’s best efforts, Liz is an ungrateful pill. Her friends are tedious and there’s an unpleasant condescension about all the places Liz goes and the people that she meets. Now maybe they should have sent 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon on the quest and let Tina Fey write the script. That premise alone makes me laugh more than I did watching Eat Pray Love.

At the screening I attended, a man passed out and fell over right after India. Every other man in the audience (and quite a few women, I bet) wished they were him (after insuring that the man was okay, of course). I enjoyed the critically-reviled Sex and the City 2, and let me tell you, I wished I were back in Abu Dhabi with the gals, having all the fun that’s missing from this mess.

UPDATE: Eat Pray Love is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reverend’s Reviews: Inspiring Figures Shine in New DVDs

Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling overturning Proposition 8 is the latest historic step toward full equality for GLBT citizens of the US. It is important to note, though, that it wouldn’t have been possible without the courage and persistence of a number of gay men and lesbian women who have prepared the way.

One of these figures, Charlene Strong, is the subject of the acclaimed documentary For My Wife: The Making of an Activist for Marriage Equality. The film will be released August 31 on DVD courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio.

Strong’s partner of nine years, Kate Fleming, was the victim of a tragic flooding incident in their Seattle home. As Fleming lay dying in a local hospital, medical personnel refused to allow Strong to visit since she wasn’t legally her partner’s next-of-kin. Strong subsequently fought for the establishment of hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners, and was instrumental in the expansion of Washington state’s Domestic Partnership laws.

For My Wife seems like a promo for GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) when it showcases the organization’s training program, which Strong went through; this unfortunately distracts from Strong’s inspiring story. So long as the film’s focus is on her and her memories of Fleming — who is heard at one point, eerily, via a recorded birthday message to Strong — For My Wife is a powerful testament to how GLBT love can translate into political power.

Another new DVD release, Off and Running (out August 17), spotlights the joys and challenges experienced within a family raised by a same-sex couple (the movie is also scheduled for a September broadcast on PBS; check local listings). It’s not unlike a real-life The Kids Are All Right: lesbian couple Travis and Tovah Klein-Cloud adopted three children of different races/ethnicities over the course of several years. “Our family nickname is ‘the United Nations’,” their African-American middle daughter, Avery, writes in a letter to her birth mother. Her older brother is of mixed race and their younger brother is Korean.

As the film begins, Avery has just been informed of the identity of the woman who gave her up for adoption while she was an infant. The discovery and Avery’s subsequent identity crisis launches the whole family on a journey that threatens at times to tear them apart.

Travis and Tovah, who are Jewish and who met after each had adopted a child, deserve special commendation, as do all couples who have taken in children needing a loving and secure home. They are naturally confused and concerned as Avery grows increasingly distant from them, and watch helplessly as Avery’s performance at school also suffers. As Travis says of their troubled daughter, “She’s deep in her own dramas.”

Off and Running is an excellent, insightful exploration of a contemporary American family, and is unquestionably more true-to-life than a certain current movie starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore.

Playwright Tennessee Williams may not be as contemporary but has left a significant imprint on GLBT progress. The author of such classic works as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire was adept at creating sympathetic portrayals of characters on society’s margins, including prostitutes, addicts, the mentally ill and homosexuals. A gay man himself, Williams passed away in 1983.

After his death, a number of unproduced writings were discovered among Williams’ possessions. One of them was a screenplay entitled The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Written in 1957, it finally made its way to the big screen in 2009, albeit in limited release. It is set for release on DVD and Blu-ray on September 7.

The film boasts an impressive cast: Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard, most recently seen as the vengeful vampire, Victoria, in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse); Chris Evans (who made a very hot Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies and will be seen next summer as Captain America); film vets Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret; and Mamie Gummer, who happens to be Meryl Streep’s daughter.

The central character in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is — true to Williams’ form — a disgraced young socialite, Fisher Willow (Howard). After happily living abroad in Europe for several years, Fisher is summoned home to Memphis, Tennessee by her imperious aunt (Ann-Margret) in the wake of a family scandal.

While the aunt connives to marry her niece off to a wealthy, respectable suitor, Fisher is drawn to Jimmy Dobine V (Evans). The handsome young man is penniless but is the grandson of a well-admired, former governor of Tennessee. Complications both dramatic and romantic ensue when Jimmy escorts Fisher to a Halloween party and the expensive bauble of the film’s title goes missing.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is beautifully photographed (by Giles Nuttgens), and Williams’ script includes such quotable observations as “A person of my kind never has enough money” and “Propriety is a waste of time.” There is also a moment when a man overtly checks out Jimmy’s manhood in a restroom, as well as a scene wherein Jimmy strips “to the skin” (off camera, unfortunately) so two men can thoroughly search him for the lost earring.

Sadly, though, there isn’t much else to recommend The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Jodie Markell’s direction is stilted and the performances are disappointingly one-note, save Jessica Collins as a waitress yearning for “release” from her dead-end life. Still, it’s good to know that Williams’ pioneering spirit lives on.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.