Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Monthly Wallpaper - June 2011: Queer Cinema

In celebration of Gay Pride month, Movie Dearest once again offers up a special calendar wallpaper for June paying tribute to some of the best in queer cinema.

The 2011 edition features such old and new GLBT favorites as The Hours, A Single Man, Little Ashes, The Boys in the Band, Heavenly Creatures, The Wedding Banquet, Breakfast on Pluto and The Birdcage.

All you have to do is click on the picture above to enlarge it, then simply right click your mouse and select "Set as Background". (You can also save it to your computer and set it up from there if you prefer.) The size is 1024 x 768, but you can modify it if needed in your own photo-editing program.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reverend's Preview: Summer Picks for GLBT Moviegoers

In addition to Beginners (opening June 3) and an onslaught of superhero epics, there are a number of movies being released between now and the end of August that will be of special interest to the GLBT community:

Mr. Popper's Penguins (June 17): OK, so a family film starring Jim Carrey as the surprised recipient of a gift of six penguins might not seem like gay-interest fare. Throw co-star Angela Lansbury into the mix, however, and it becomes the biggest event for her GLBT fans since her 2009 Tony Award-winning turn in Blithe Spirit on Broadway!

The Smurfs (July 29): Similarly, a big-screen version of the more irritating than charming kiddie icons from the early 1980's may tempt us to run screaming from our local multiplex, but Neil Patrick Harris (its openly gay star) will no doubt get me to fork over $10 to watch him help the little blue animated critters fight the villainous Gargamel (played by gay fave Hank Azaria).

Larry Crowne (July 1): Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts reunite in this dramedy co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos. Vardalos previously wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Connie and Carla, both popular among GLBT viewers. Hanks, who played gay in 1993's Philadelphia and won an Academy Award for it, directs as well as stars as a recently laid-off man who decides to go back to college.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (July 15): Femme-centric director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) returns with a new tale about forbidden friendship between two young women in 19th-century China. Several modern-day scenes include one in a Shanghai nightclub that features a musical cameo by Hugh Jackman.

Friends with Benefits (July 22): Justin Timberlake headlines and reportedly shows a lot of skin in this romantic comedy that has him and hot co-star Mila Kunis (a recent Golden Globe nominee for her bisexual turn in Black Swan) grappling with unexpected emotions that intrude into their initially strictly-sexual relationship. Will Gluck, who made last year's delightful Easy A, directs and Woody Harrelson plays a gay role!

The Perfect Host (July 1): Out actor David Hyde Pierce stars as a man planning a lavish dinner party at which a bank robber hiding from the police shows up in this dark comedy-thriller. Singer-actress Helen Reddy, long absent from the screen since her 1970's heyday, is in the supporting cast.

The Help (August 12): Based on the bestselling novel that details the lives of African-American maids in the early 1960's and the white families for whom they work. The film's star-studded cast includes Emma Stone (also an alum of Easy A), Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson.

Circumstance (August 19): A lesbian love story set in repressive Iran, this movie has been hailed by some as the best of numerous GLBT-themed entries at this year's Sundance Film Festival. While it is American-produced, much of it was secretly shot in Iran.

Conan the Barbarian (August 19): Summer will end on a hunky note, as newcomer Jason Momoa inherits Arnold Schwarzenegger's loincloth to become Robert E. Howard's classic warrior. Stephen Lang (Avatar) plays his supernaturally-powered nemesis.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: That's Show Biz

Magicians and ventriloquists may be considered by some to inhabit the lower rungs of the show business ladder, but that doesn't give pause to the diverse group of aspirants on display in two new documentaries, Dumbstruck and Make Believe (both opening today in Los Angeles). While one is more accomplished than the other, they make a fascinating "double feature."

Dumbstruck (playing exclusively at Landmark's Regent Theatre, where writer-director Mark Goffman, producer Lindsay Goffman and Dan Horn, one of the ventriloquists featured, will be appearing at select opening weekend shows) follows five voice-throwing puppeteers. They are a 14-year old white boy who operates a black dummy; a six-foot-five woman who has been ostracized by her family; a cruise ship performer with a failing marriage (Horn, who Arizona readers may recognize from his days on The Wallace and Ladmo Show); a former Miss Ohio, whose mother bemoans "She always played with the little puppets; I thought it would end as she got older"; and Terry Fator, the rare success to score a $100 million contract at a Las Vegas resort.

While the filmmakers do a good job showcasing their subjects' talents, I found the movie a bit lacking in exploring their personal lives and motivations. Wilma, the plus-sized former security guard turned ventriloquist, shares "I can say things that I can't say as myself or I'd get fired or beat up" so long as she has her puppet in hand. That's about as far as Dumbstruck goes, though, in revealing what keeps these people devoted to their craft against numerous obstacles. Similarly, we are told Horn's wife is planning to divorce him due to his long periods away from her and their family, but we never hear his wife's or kids' perspective firsthand. We also don't learn what grievance Wilma's family has against her, so the film serves as an accessory to the proverbial "elephant in the room."

On the other hand, Make Believe (which won prominent awards at last year's LA and Austin Film Festivals) more than satisfies with its multi-layered approach to an assortment of teenaged, wannabe magicians from the US, Japan and South Africa. They converge at the 2009 World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, referred to as "the Magic Olympics," where superstar illusionist Lance Burton will ultimately name one of them Teen World Champion. We see their performances in full, and also meet the young people's friends, family members, classmates and mentors.

"Magic is borderless," according to the impressive Hiroki Hara, an 18-year old Japanese contestant. One-half of a poverty-stricken duo from Cape Town says, "With magic, we're trying to find out who we are as a person." And Bill Koch, a 19-year old magician-musician from Ohio, shares his mantra: "The goal is excellence, nothing less." Such wisdom "from the mouths of babes" could put many older performers in the entertainment industry to shame. Make Believe also provides viewers a rare inside look at LA's famed Magic Castle, with openly gay board member and actor Neil Patrick Harris making a brief appearance.

Make Believe, by the proficient filmmaking team behind 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and beautifully shot by Richard Marcus, reaches deep into its magic hat and pulls out a treasury of human and show business revelations. Especially when viewed in conjunction with Dumbstruck, I gained a greater appreciation for those willing to risk all for their respective craft... including the risk of being christened a misfit in our modern, high-tech entertainment world.

Reverend's Ratings:
Dumbstruck: B-
Make Believe: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Toon Talk: Yo Ho-Hum

By the time a successful film franchise hits the fourth installment, a certain formula has usually settled in. In the case of Disney’s hit Pirates of the Caribbean movies, such by-now familiar aspects include a complex plot steeped in legendary pirate lore, a rogues’ gallery of mythical and/or magical characters, enough double crosses and double-double crosses to make your eyes cross, and plenty of swashbuckling stunts and special effects spectacle.

All that, as well as Johnny Depp’s swarthy, swishy Captain Jack Sparrow, are on hand in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in theaters now. Gone are original trilogy director Gore Virbinski and lovebirds Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. In their place are Academy Award nominated director Rob Marshall (of the glitzy and gritty musicals Chicago and Nine fame) and a love interest for Captain Jack himself, played by Oscar winning actress Penélope Cruz.

But even with this mixture of old and new blood, On Stranger Tides is curiously lacking in excitement, as if we’ve all rode this E ticket too many times to care much any more...

UPDATE: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.

Click here to continue reading my Toon Talk review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at LaughingPlace.com.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reverend's Interview: Mike Mills Memorializes His Gay Dad in Beginners

No one was more surprised than graphic artist turned filmmaker Mike Mills when his father came out as a gay man shortly after the death of Mills' mother. Mills has parlayed his unusual experience into the alternately funny and dramatic new movie Beginners, which opens June 3 in Los Angeles and will expand throughout California and the nation next month. I had the opportunity to watch the movie in advance and speak with Mills about it.

"I have so much at stake with this project: My memories of my dad and my career as a filmmaker," the sensitive, soft-spoken screenwriter/director said. "I feel more like a sharer than an author." Beginners is only Mills' third cinematic outing, following the 2005 film festival favorite Thumbsucker and the 2007 documentary Does Your Soul Have a Cold? "This script was developed with the belief that something this personal can become universal."

Mills' father was 75 years old when he came out and had been married to his mother for 45 years. When his parents married in the 1950's, conservatism and homophobia were the norm in the United States. Mills' father told his wife-to-be he was gay prior to their marriage. She was Jewish, and faced as much difficulty fitting into post-war America as he did. Subsequently, Mills says, "My mom took off her Jewish badge and he took off his gay badge."

Following his mother's death and dad's revelation, their son watched with equal parts surprise, confusion and admiration as his father became heavily involved in Southern California gay life and began a relationship with a younger man. "He just started living this explosive new life," marveled Mills. "He became more emotionally alive than I'd ever seen him." Just five years later, however, the elder Mills was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away. His father's death served as the true catalyst for what would become Beginners.

Mills was fortunate to secure the participation of two fine actors in the roles based on his father and himself: Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music and an Oscar nominee for 2009's The Last Station) and gay favorite Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!, Star Wars Episodes 1-3). The filmmaker wrote them both very personal, impassioned letters asking them to be in his movie. While both actors were initially hesitant to play characters so close to Mills, they eventually agreed based on the strength of Mills' screenplay and his reassurance that they could make the parts their own. They deliver excellent performances, as do fellow cast members Mary Page Keller (as Mills' mother), Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) and ER's Goran Visnjic, who plays Mills' father's late-in-life boyfriend. An impressive Jack Russell terrier also plays a pivotal role.

"The experience I'm most trying to communicate with Beginners is that of an adventure, the feeling of something breaking open," Mills shared. "While this film has illness and death, it's about beginnings, change, and how deeply funny life can be in its most serious moments." It is a touching movie with truly universal appeal. As Mills has learned via feedback from audience members at early screenings, his father's long-closeted homosexuality wasn't as unique as the filmmaker originally thought.

Beginners is composed of both autobiographical and fictional elements. "I wanted to root around between the way things really happened and the way we choose to remember them," Mills says. In the film, Mills goes back and forth between events in 1955, when his parents married, and 2003, when his father died. The historical sequences include a powerful gay rights montage set to words about "becoming real" taken from the classic children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

"The film is hopefully asking, 'What is real, anyway?' Are these memories real, or did I get them wrong?" according to Mills. "I lived with a man whose biography was somewhat fictionalized, a performance of sorts. He had to hide deep, personal, intimate things."

While Beginners tells a broader story than just a gay-themed one, there is considerable gay interest in it. "To be honest, the gay community is the audience I am most concerned about," Mills told me. "My dad's gayness taught me so much as a straight man, but it's definitely a film by a straight man curious about his gay dad and I'm not sure how that will resonate." I assured Mills I didn't think he has anything to worry about; between Plummer's liberated performance and the overall humanity of the film, Beginners will move gay and straight viewers alike.

"I do think my father would have loved coming out to the world through Beginners," Mills concluded. "He would have seen it as keeping the party going — but with a larger invite list."

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: Mamma's Boy

When Mario Matthews goes to a nightclub and an ABBA song is playing, he knows all the words. That’s because he’s been employed in a touring show of Mamma Mia! on and off since 2007. Matthews is part of the handsome male ensemble and is an understudy to Sky, the romantic lead.

“ABBA has been very good to me,” Matthews said of the Swedish pop group whose classic songs from the 1970s are the source material for the musical now on tour (and currently playing at ASU Gammage through May 22). It features songs like “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All” and “Waterloo.”

In the story, Sky is about to marry Sophie, a 20–year–old girl living on an idyllic Greek island with her mother, Donna. Sophie desperately wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The only problem is she has no idea who he is, and her mother’s diary reveals that it could have been one of three different men. Sophie invites all three to her wedding hoping that she will figure out her parentage when she meets them face–to–face. Meanwhile, Donna and her two best girlfriends reminisce about when they were a singing group known as Donna and the Dynamos. The stage is set for a comedy of errors and a few love stories. And then there’s a gay surprise.

Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfreid, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan starred in the 2008 movie. But the stage musical also continues to be popular in New York City and on the road, a testament to the music’s infectious enthusiasm.

“I think that after the movie came out, it really gave us a boost,” Matthews said. “People really enjoy Mamma Mia! Everyone recognizes the songs, it’s a really fun–filled show, and the book in general is done really well in how they include the songs in the story. If anything, people can relate to love, because Mamma Mia! is about the aspects of finding love within yourself, finding a long–lost love or finding a new love. It’s so relatable in that way,” he said. “It’s about expressing individuality.”

Matthews, a native of Oklahoma City, said he’s happy at the positive response the show receives, even in conservative markets. He also says that the gay audience will enjoy the show’s spectacle. “Every gay man loves a little sparkle in their life! What’s been most exciting about our society is that it’s constantly growing and evolving, and people are becoming more gay–friendly. I think that’s awesome,” he said. “It’s great to see people becoming more understanding.”

Matthews, who also has been part of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular ensemble, urged aspiring performers to pursue their dreams. “But with that dream comes a lot of hard work,” he said. “Everybody on this tour has had a long trail of hard work; they’ve gone to school, taken voice lessons, dance lessons, acting lessons, and almost everyone has gone to college,” Matthews said. “If you really want something to happen in your life, it can happen, but it takes work.”

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Short Stack

The short films shown at various film festivals sometimes end up outshining the feature offerings. Recognizing this, The Film Collaborative and First Run Features have teamed up to gather some of the best shorts from the 2010 GLBT circuit and release them on DVD. Volumes 1 of Fest Selects: Best Gay Shorts and Fest Selects: Best Lesbian Shorts are both out today.

While they vary wildly in tone and style, the eight films included on the Best Gay Shorts edition are generally excellent. A couple of them — My Name is Love and Steam — may strike some as uncomfortably dark, and the partly animated Mouse's Birthday is just plain bizarre, but the high quality of these assorted filmmakers' techniques can't be denied.

After, a stylish tribute to the stories of Dennis Cooper, kicks off the collection. Written and directed by Mark Pariselli, it is awash in Cooper's trademark mix of kink and tragedy. Three gay college students sit silently on the stoop of their house, watching a group of seemingly straight boys play football at a park across the street. When an athlete being observed unexpectedly shows a tender interest in one of them, each of the students fantasizes about a sexual encounter with him. Faithful as it is to Cooper, don't expect a happy ending.

Two of the films featured were shown at last year's Long Beach Q Film Festival, for which I served as a programmer. I'm very happy to see them included here. Gaysharktank.com, by the clever Guy Shalem, is a hilarious expose of modern gay life utilizing the ultimate online dating site. The short's stellar cast includes Coco Peru, Jack Plotnick, Jai Rodriguez and Drew Droege. Pierre Stefanos' sweet Bedfellows spins a decades-spanning love story. While the two lead actors don't age convincingly during the 30+ years depicted, it otherwise all but proves that true love can be found when least expected.

Gayby is a very funny short about a straight woman desperate to bear a child before her biological clock runs out. With what could be termed mixed motives, she turns to her now gay college-era boyfriend to help her conceive "the old fashioned way." Writer-director Jonathan Lisecki has a great ear for contemporary dialogue and is a sharp observer of relationships between women and the gay men they love.

Matthew Wilkas, the attractive actor who plays Gayby's male lead, also headlines another film included in Best Gay Shorts entitled Curious Thing. Billing itself as "based on true stories" of straight-bi-gay confusion, it focuses on the complex attraction between two seemingly straight guys. It will likely remind viewers, as it did me, of one's first crush on our typically straight best friend in high school or college. The actors' performances here are particular good.

The aforementioned My Name is Love, Mouse's Birthday and Steam round out the collection. The first is Swedish filmmaker David Fardmar's painfully autobiographical story of a young man's first gay encounter going horribly awry. Mouse's Birthday, by Barry Morse, relates in avant-garde (and then some) fashion an encounter between a rodent, a cockroach and a thong-clad, mohawk-sporting muscle boy. It serves as both cautionary tale and pride statement, with fun choreography by fellow indie filmmaker PJ Raval.

Finally, the Twilight Zone-esque Steam focuses on two hot men (literally and figuratively) who find themselves mysteriously trapped in a doorless gym's sauna following a sexual encounter between them. The denouement struck me as somewhat muddled theologically and morally, but the short gets considerable points for its provocative originality. And did I mention the guys are hot?

In short (pun intended), these new gay and lesbian releases are well worth one's investment.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Separation Anxiety

For a few years now, I've been looking for a buyer for my nearly complete, nearly mint if loose collection of original Star Wars action figures. I am fortunate to not be in a financial situation where I feel I have to sell them, but my partner and I could use the space they currently occupy. No one has yet offered me what I understand them to be worth. I know that it will be a painful day, should it come, when I finally divest myself of my favorite childhood playthings.

George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars saga and the pop culture empire it spawned, is accused of "pillaging the playgrounds of our childhoods" and of inappropriately "fingering the late adolescence" of numerous detractors in the entertaining documentary The People vs. George Lucas, opening in Los Angeles and other major cities today. Lucas's alleged crime? Releasing twenty years later revised "special editions" of his original film trilogy and a new series of prequels that, his critics charge, cheapened and distorted the filmmaker's original creation or (more accurately) fans' cherished memories of it.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe incorporates an impressive amount of footage not only from the Star Wars movies (both the original and revised versions) but from the many fan films and spoofs that have been produced over the decades, many of which Lucas approved (check out the marvelous StarWarsUncut.com if you never have). It becomes clear that Lucas has been more tolerant of his fans and their homages than they have been to him.

While the more recent Star Wars Episodes 1-3 have their faults in both the storytelling and acting departments, one commentator in The People vs. George Lucas rightly points out that "super-nerd nitpicking" is more to blame for their poor reception among many admirers of Lucas's original series than the films' actual quality. Expectations for 1999's Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, the first movie since 1983, were excessively if naturally high. Whereas many adults surveyed despised the comic relief, possibly-racist Jar-Jar Binks character, the documentary shows that children loved the character and weren't offended in the least by him.

Sure, childhood memories are precious, and I fondly recall waiting in line for hours as a teenager for the thrilling first screenings of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But George Lucas, "tinkerer" though he may be, hardly deserves the hatred leveled at him by those who are overly invested in his original films and/or simply refuse to grow up.

L'Amour Fou, another documentary opening today in New York City and on May 20 in Los Angeles, similarly explores the challenge of letting go of one's past loves and life. In this case, it is the true story of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his longtime partner, Pierre Bergé. The men met in 1957 at the funeral of Saint Laurent's mentor, Christian Dior, and remained together until Saint Laurent's death in 2008. The designer's remains are interred in a lovely garden at their home in Marakech, Morocco.

Bergé was subsequently tasked with the responsibility of selling their valuable art collection, which included works by Picasso, Matisse and Rembrandt in addition to one-of-a-kind art deco vases and African sculptures. The surviving partner solemnly refers to the collection as "a part of my soul, a part of my life." Bergé speaks eloquently and insightfully of his 50-year relationship with Saint Laurent, including the difficult period in the 1980's when Saint Laurent battled addictions to both drugs and alcohol (he became sober in 1990 and remained so until his death).

Despite Bergé's remarks, little is shown in L'Amour Fou that effectively depicts intimacy between the men. Their relationship was no secret, as Bergé was Saint Laurent's ever-present right hand during fashion shows and other public events. The documentary, however, seems strangely coy when it comes to showing the two together. I found this disappointing, although the sequences of their various art pieces being assessed, dismantled and shipped off to auction are effective at conveying the slow dissolution of the men's partnership.

L'Amour Fou reveals much through predictably beautiful settings/trappings and striking photography (it is one of those rare, non-nature documentaries that should be seen on a wide theatrical screen), but the impressive relationship it celebrates remains unnecessarily remote.

Reverend's Ratings:
The People vs. George Lucas: B+
L'Amour Fou: C

UPDATE: L'Amour Fou is now available on DVD and The People vs. George Lucas is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Toon Talk: Hammer Time

Back in my comic book reading youth, The Avengers was always a must-read. A Justice League of America for the Marvel Comics set, the super group included such faves as Captain America, Hawkeye and Iron Man in spectacular battles that only the world’s greatest superheroes could win. One of the Avengers’ many-many members was the mighty Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. Although he had a cool weapon (an oversized hammer he called Mjolnir), his stoic nature and stilted, archaic dialogue (filled with “thee’s” and “thou’s” and such) never endeared him to me much.

So now that it has come time in Marvel Studios’ prolonged build-up to next year’s Avengers movie to introduce Thor to the movie-going masses, I was a bit skeptical that this chapter would be a sword-and-sorcery snooze fest. Thankfully, I was wrong, as Marvel has wisely followed the format of the two hit Iron Man movies and injected Thor (in theaters now) with plenty of humor and over-the-top fantasy sequences, enough at least to distract you from the fact that this is basically a feature length prologue to 2012’s main event.

Following in the footsteps of his fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman, relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth (best known stateside as Kirk’s father in the most recent Star Trek movie) gives a robust, star-making performance as the title character...

Click here to continue my Toon Talk review of Thor at LaughingPlace.com.

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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reverend's Preview: From Chastity to Chaz

Even though I was just a few years older than she was, I vividly remember little 2-year old Chastity Bono sending all us viewers a good night kiss at the end of her parents' hit 1970's TV show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Her mother, of course, went on to become an acclaimed solo singer and Academy Award-winning actress. Her father was a sometime actor (including a role in the original Hairspray) before serving as mayor of Palm Springs and, a few years later, dying tragically in a ski accident.

And little Chastity? Well, she is now a he in the wake of successful gender-reassignment surgery and hormone therapy that began in 2009. Having legally changed his name to Chaz Salvatore Bono (the middle name was his father's birth name), the now-son of Sonny and Cher is the subject of an eye-opening documentary, Becoming Chaz. It is scheduled to premiere on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network tomorrow night, but Reverend got an advance look at the film.

"I've hated my body since puberty," Chaz says on camera of his pre-op state. "In high school, I often went to bed praying I would wake up as a boy." He started considering transitioning from female to male in the late 1990's as he saw cultural acceptance growing, partly due to the acclaimed movie Boys Don't Cry. Chaz gratefully recalls Sonny encouraging him to dress and act like a boy following his parents' divorce when Chaz was four years old.

Years prior to the decision to transition, Chastity had come out publicly as a lesbian. Jennifer Elia, Chaz's longtime partner, plays an integral part in the documentary. A recovering alcoholic, Jennifer's sobriety is put to the test during the "exhausting process" of Chaz's surgery and recovery. Chaz's own, 10-year addiction to prescription painkillers proved its own challenge, resulting in a low tolerance to the drugs intended to give him comfort during and after his initial operation and following six years of abstinence.

"I believe this happened when it was meant to happen," Chaz says of his transition. The post-op Chaz appears much happier in the documentary than he does before surgery, whether he is playing video games with good friend RuPaul, buying a suit for the premiere of his mother's movie Burlesque, or serving as a role model/consultant to trans children and their parents. On bravely going public with his decision to transition, Chaz reveals, "I'm doing this to try to put a public face on a serious issue."

Becoming Chaz also helps to answer a long-standing question on the lips of many: what has been Cher's reaction to her only daughter's decision to become a male? (She has a biological son by fellow singer Greg Allman.) Cher was initially silent but allows this film's accomplished directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (who previously made 101 Rent Boys, Party Monster and the wonderful The Eyes of Tammy Faye) to interview her extensively.

"I wasn't happy," Cher says of her first reaction to Chaz's decision to go public. She later recounts hearing Chastity's (female) voice for the last time on her answering machine. "That's when it hit me." Whereas Jennifer does call Cher from the recovery room following Chaz's surgery to assure her everything had gone well, Cher apparently couldn't bring herself to be there personally.

One scene in the film shows Chaz watching his mother's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in late 2010, and being moved by Cher's first public or private reference then to Chaz as a "he." Cher clearly continues wrestling with her child's decision but seems to be coming along. Be sure to watch through the end credits of Becoming Chaz to see Cher's and Chaz's face-to-face reunion at the Burlesque premiere.

Immediately following tomorrow's broadcast of Becoming Chaz on OWN, Rosie O'Donnell will interview Chaz and the filmmakers about their experience making it on The Doc Club with Rosie O'Donnell.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Dragons Slays

Director Roland Joffe has had some major highs (Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations for his first two movies, The Killing Fields and The Mission) and significant lows (Super Mario Bros., which he produced; the sexed-up, Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter; 2007's torture-porn flick Captivity) in his 27-year film career. He returns to surer, more classical footing with There Be Dragons, a visually stunning, undeniably intriguing saga about a controversial Catholic saint. The film, released nationwide by Samuel Goldwyn Films today, is being heavily promoted among clergy and church groups, à la The Passion of the Christ.

Josemaria Escriva (played here by Charlie Cox, best known from Stardust and the Heath Ledger-starrer Casanova) was a young priest during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. He received a vision that showed him one didn't have to become a member of the clergy or live an overtly religious life to do God's will in one's life. Escriva subsequently founded Opus Dei, Latin for "Work of God," which is probably best known among moviegoers as the conspiratorial, murderous order depicted in The Da Vinci Code. While Escriva is shown flagellating himself in one scene in There Be Dragons, not unlike the self-abusing albino monk played by Paul Bettany in Ron Howard's 2006 movie, the resemblances pretty much stop there. Escriva, who died in 1975, was canonized as "the saint of the ordinary" in 2002 by Pope John Paul II (who was just beatified himself). Today, Opus Dei counts 90,000 members worldwide, including the new Archbishop of Los Angeles and two of this film's producers.

To its credit, Joffe's screenplay takes as much inspiration from Oscar Wilde's famous (and truthful) quote, "Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future" as it does Escriva's biography. There Be Dragons features a decades-spanning mystery as its main storyline. An investigative journalist (played by Dougray Scott of Mission: Impossible II and Desperate Housewives, among other credits) is writing a book about Escriva, whom his elderly father knew personally as a young man. Escriva and the writer's father, Manolo (a strong turn by American Beauty's Wes Bentley), were fellow seminarians for a time and became close friends. They parted ways, however, when Manolo enlisted in the war effort.

While Escriva is founding Opus Dei, Manolo becomes enmeshed in a love triangle between himself, his military leader (Rodrigo Santoro of 300 and I Love You Phillip Morris) and a lovely Hungarian revolutionary played by recent Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). Secrets are buried and both friendship and faith become tested in these characters' wake.

There Be Dragons is overly earnest at times, and the film's array of British and American actors don't even try to play Spaniards convincingly. Cox makes an attractive and admirable man of God, but Escriva as written here is mostly one-dimensional. An impressive supporting cast of pros including Derek Jacobi, Geraldine Chaplin and Charles Dance helps to give the movie greater credibility.

The production is beautifully designed by Oscar-winner Eugenio Zanetti (What Dreams May Come) and photographed in gorgeous hues by Gabriel Beristain (Derek Jarman's Caravaggio). There Be Dragons is truly one of the best-looking movies in recent memory.
I came away wishing it were a bit more objective in depicting a recent saint about whom much is known as well as the religious order he founded, but this is still one of the more genuinely spiritual contemporary films to hit the big screen.

Reverend's Rating: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reverend's Report: TCM Classic Film Festival 2011

In only its second year, this past weekend's TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood had noticeably greater attendance over the initial outing in 2010 and sold out all passes. The fest also featured an increased number of screenings, celebrity appearances and special events. Clearly, a new star has been born on the ever-expanding and diversified film festival circuit, and TCM plans to build on their success not only with a third event in 2012 but a first-time classic movie lovers' cruise this December.

Signs that the 2011 festival would be bigger than the first were in evidence opening night, with the addition of a bleacher area for people to watch red carpet arrivals for the opening night selection, a lovingly restored 60th anniversary edition of An American in Paris. The 1951 Best Picture Oscar winner's co-star (with Gene Kelly), Leslie Caron, was in attendance and reportedly charmed the crowd with her radiance and recollections.

While we had tickets for the oversold screening of An American in Paris, my partner and I willingly sacrificed them in order to attend a simultaneous showing of one of our few mutual all-time favorites: 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Neither of us had ever seen it on the big screen, and it was a wonderful experience to view it "the way it was meant to be seen" as so many TCM Fest films are rightly presented.

Dorothy Herrmann (one of the daughters of the film's composer, Bernard Herrmann) was on hand to introduce the film and relate how its score was her esteemed father's personal favorite. "It sure wasn't Psycho," she said of her dad's preference for his work on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, to the amusement of the audience. Herrmann was represented at the festival by a number of films in a special tribute that included Citizen Kane, 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the latter of which served as his final film score.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney (in roles reportedly slated originally for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) memorably play characters who gradually fall in love despite the ultimate taboo: he's dead and she's alive. In this respect, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir may hold special resonance to this day for GLBT viewers who have felt love impossible for them, or for anyone who is still searching for that one "immortal" relationship.

The great Peter O'Toole graced the fest in person on both Friday and Saturday. On Friday, he attended a screening of 1964's Becket, in which he co-starred with Richard Burton, and sat down for a lengthy chat about his life and career with TCM's Robert Osborne that will be broadcast later this year. On Saturday, O'Toole was immortalized in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre by placing his hands and feet in cement. "It's been years since I've been this intimate with concrete," O'Toole told the crowd in a very funny, self-effacing nod to his drinking years. Sober for some time now, O'Toole's appearance will definitely be remembered as one of the festival's highlights. Also noteworthy was Friday night's appearance by Kirk Douglas to introduce Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. While long past his loincloth-clad prime as seen in the 1960 epic, Douglas followed his stealing of this year's Oscar telecast with a number of memorable comments.

On Sunday, I took in back-to-back screenings of two renowned films I'd never seen: the rarely-shown British drama Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and George Stevens' much-acclaimed literary adaptation A Place in the Sun (1951), based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The former is a still-provocative piece about children who mistake an escaped killer (Alan Bates, in his first lead film role) hiding in their barn for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Produced by eventual Oscar-winner Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and the first film directed by Bryan Forbes (who would go on to make the original version of The Stepford Wives among other movies), Whistle Down the Wind impressively walks a very fine line between affirming faith and denouncing it.

Hayley Mills, daughter of actor John Mills and headlining ingénue of Whistle Down the Wind as well as a number of 1960's Walt Disney productions, was on hand to discuss the film, adapted from an allegorical story written by her mother, and her enduring legacy as an actress. "It's normal for kids to act," Mills replied in response to the question whether she was a "natural" actress. "I was terribly lucky," she said in all humility. She recounted her first day on the set of Disney's classic Pollyanna as "the most stressful and challenging" of her entire career, not least because she had impulsively cut her bangs off the night before shooting to the dismay of the production team. Mills, who has more recently appeared on stage in The King and I and in a number of TV series, is as lovely and vivacious now in her mid-60's as ever.

A Place in the Sun, which was nominated for Best Picture but lost to An American in Paris much to some film lovers' enduring dismay, was a revelation. The movie's packed screening during the TCM fest was designated a tribute to the late Elizabeth Taylor, who stars in the film alongside Oscar nominees Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Clift (who was never more attractive on screen than he is here between the tight white t-shirts he sports and, tragically, a near-crippling car accident he was in a few years later) plays the poor son of a Kansas religious worker who does everything he can to infiltrate the upper class, including possibly killing his pregnant girlfriend (Winters).

One would never think Clift was gay (he was, though deeply conflicted) based on his smolderingly heterosexual performance here. Taylor declared that between Stevens' direction and her partnering with Clift, A Place in the Sun was the film that taught her what it meant to truly act. Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint, who co-starred with Taylor in both Raintree County and The Sandpiper, spoke admiringly with Robert Osborne after the screening about the impact of Taylor's work and life.

The festival's closing night on Sunday offered three equally tempting films at the same time: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, also starring Taylor; a 70mm print of West Side Story; and Disney's classic pairing of music and visuals, Fantasia. I opted for the latter, and was impressed by the number of younger patrons who came out to see what was for most of them the first opportunity they had to see the movie on the big screen (its last theatrical release was in 1990).

Fantasia was as spectacular as ever as shown in a beautifully restored, vibrantly colored digital print in Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Dancer-choreographer Marge Champion was in attendance (she reportedly served as a model for the ballerina-hippo in the film's Dance of the Hours segment), as was Walt Disney's daughter, Diane. The audience watched and listened in rapt silence, apart from moments when it was appropriate to laugh, and applauded heartily at the end of each of the movie's "movements."

The TCM Classic Movie Festival prides itself on catering to a "community" of reverent film lovers from around the world, and that community was out in force in Hollywood the last weekend of April. Kudos to MCs Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz and Leonard Maltin as well as to chief programmer Charlie Tabesh for their contagious dedication to the art, history and cultural impact of the industry's best work.

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.