Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reverend's Report: Going Independent at LA Film Fest 2011

Even as the annual Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) primarily champions movies made outside the studio system, the 2011 edition — held June 16-26 — wasn't above showcasing such would-be blockbusters as Green Lantern, Winnie the Pooh and Guillermo del Toro's remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. 25th anniversary screenings of 1986's Hollywood hits Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Stand By Me were also shown. Still, it is the fest's indie offerings that stoke most attendees' devotion. This was the fest's second year at the downtown LA Live complex and, based on the obviously increased number of attendees over 2010, it is proving to be a good fit.

A healthy number of GLBT-interest films were featured, and I appreciate the festival organizers' continued dedication to including our community's stories. Wish Me Away, which details the tumultuous coming-out experience of country-western singer Chely Wright, even ended up winning the fest's Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. The jurors remarked that Wish Me Away was noteworthy for its "honesty, humor and potential to change minds and even save lives." (The Canadian comedy Familiar Ground won the jury's Narrative Award, while Attack the Block, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest and Senna won Audience Awards.) Here's my take on a few of the festival's memorable offerings, gay and otherwise.

Man of letters James Franco was on hand to introduce the world premiere of his latest exploration of literature and liberation, The Broken Tower. Having portrayed Allen Ginsberg in last year's Howl to great acclaim, Franco now directs, writes and stars as another gay poet, the lesser-known Hart Crane. Unfortunately, I couldn't get into the sold-out event but I was informed after that our love of all things Franco should remain intact. Next up for the GLBT-friendly star: raising Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee, and bedding Frieda Pinto in August's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Theatre and film director Julie Taymor wisely traded NYC for LA the very week that the much-delayed, injury-inducing musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally premiered on the Great White Way. Taymor spoke to an adoring audience the night of June 19 at the Grammy Museum about her dual careers on film and stage. Even more unexpected, however, was the on-stage pairing of Jack Black and Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine on June 23. The pair entertainingly discussed their diverse approaches to acting as well as working together on the festival's Opening Night selection, Richard Linklater's unusual Bernie.

The GLBT component of this year's festival really kicked in, though, on June 18 with the World Premiere of Leave It On the Floor, a spectacular musical-on-a-budget by director Sheldon Larry and screenwriter/lyricist Glenn Gaylord (with music by Beyoncé collaborator Kimberly Bursa). Set in Los Angeles, it focuses on local "dynasties" of GLBT young people who perform in weekly drag balls. It combines elements of the 1991 documentary Paris is Burning as well as Dreamgirls and features the best (only?) dance number set in a bowling alley since Grease 2, the latter choreographed to the great, instantly memorable song "Knock The Mother F***er Down"! The sold-out crowd loved it, and the VIP after party/ball was the fest's best fête.

I am not only happy but grateful to have caught the North American premiere of Tomboy, an exquisite new film by French writer-director Celine Sciamma. It depicts a transgender girl's efforts to fit into a new community by presenting herself as a boy, which naturally leads to complications. Young lead actress Zoe Heran gives one of several beautifully-nuanced performances in this sensitive, compassionate movie. Rocket Releasing acquired the US rights to Tomboy, so watch for it later this year.

Also making its North American debut during LAFF was Christopher and His Kind, a feature-length distillation of the 2010 BBC miniseries about gay writer Christopher Isherwood. Best known for the autobiographical I Am A Camera, based on his years in pre-World War II Berlin and later musicalized as Cabaret, Isherwood pushed social and political barriers as he explored his family, his romances and the rise of the Nazi party. Christopher and His Kind — which features fine performances by Doctor Who's Matt Smith (as Isherwood), Toby Jones and Imogen Poots — also boasts gorgeous settings and male supporting players. As Isherwood is quoted in one of the voiceovers that opens the film, "To me, Berlin meant boys." Screenwriter Kevin Elyot and director Geoffrey Sax effectively take the author at his word. (Christopher and His Kind was released on DVD this week and is now available from

Alas, I was disappointed by another gay-themed production having its much-ballyhooed World Premiere in Los Angeles, Mike Akel's An Ordinary Family. A serio-comic take on religious and moral tensions within a "typical" American family, its central dispute between an Episcopal priest and his gay brother (who brings his new partner along for a week at their parents' lake house) seemed unnecessarily strained to the point of feeling dated. First, mainstream Episcopalians are hardly as conservative as they are made to look here and, second, no self-respecting 21st-century gay man would put up with the criticism he and his partner are made to put up with. Despite a good cast led by Troy Schremmer (who starred in Akel's acclaimed Chalk) and Greg Wise as the feuding brothers, An Ordinary Family suffers from a lack of authenticity.

There is no way to catch all of the nearly 200 LAFF selections, despite multiple showings and advance press screenings of some of them. That made it especially critical, then, to be on the lookout for those non-GLBT films that came with some pedigree. To that end, I was most intrigued by actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, which was well-received at January's Sundance Film Festival. That it deals with religion and spirituality naturally piqued my interest as well.

Farmiga plays a life-long Christian who, at midlife, begins to experience doubts and tensions with her faith. The fact that she and her family live in a commune-like, fundamentalist environment with fellow devotees makes her discernment all the more difficult. The actress-director was able to assemble a stellar cast that includes Broadway stalwarts and Tony Award-winners Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy and Bill Irwin as well as recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone). Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project, Humpday) is also excellent as Farmiga's husband. The standout performance in the film, though, may well be Dagmara Dominczyk's heartbreaking turn as Farmiga's earthy, doomed best friend. I love the movie's haunting final shot. Higher Ground will be released nationally later this summer and could easily emerge a 2011 awards contender.

Another LAFF has come and gone, but the festival only gets better each year as a celebration of movies... independently made and otherwise.

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reverend's Preview: Let Your Freak Flag Fly at Shrek The Musical

DreamWorks Animation Studios has created such hit movies over the years as The Prince of Egypt, How to Train Your Dragon and the current blockbuster Kung Fu Panda 2. But as Dreamworks' CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg recently told a group of journalists (including myself) specially invited to his lavish studio compound for a private sneak peek at Shrek The Musical, a Broadway smash making its Southern California premiere in July, "Welcome to the house that Shrek built."

The first Shrek film, inspired by William Steig's classic storybook, was released in 2001 and inspired three sequels. Shrek The Musical premiered in New York in 2009 and was subsequently nominated for several Tony Awards. It will be performed at San Diego's Civic Theatre from July 5-10 and at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles July 12-31.

"There is no more defining character or story for DreamWorks than Shrek," Katzenberg said. It took a diverse group of artists to transfer the film to the stage. These include Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who directed 1999's Best Picture American Beauty for DreamWorks and first proposed the idea of a Shrek musical; author and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole (which was made last year into an Oscar-nominated movie); Jeanine Tesori, who also composed the music for gay playwright Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change; and co-directors Jason Moore (Avenue Q) and Rob Ashford (the recent Broadway revival of Promises Promises, among other credits).

Shrek The Musical adheres closely to the first movie's plot about an initially disgruntled, ultimately heroic ogre who falls in love with the seemingly human Princess Fiona. Along the way, he befriends a chatty Donkey and squares off against the villainous Lord Farquad. An assortment of classic fairy tale characters (including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, Humpty Dumpty and the Gingerbread Man) round out the cast.

"We could make all sorts of changes in telling the story," according to DreamWorks Theatricals President Bill Damaschke, "but in the end Shrek has to be Shrek, Fiona has to be Fiona, Farquad has to be Farquad, and Donkey has to be Donkey." Damaschke, who is currently preparing the first London production of Shrek The Musical, also said, "It's a big show, necessitating many logistical challenges" in transferring it from Broadway to the tour. It also entailed several artistic challenges. Some things that didn't work as well in the generally well-received New York production were "too literal," says Damaschke, so the tour has simplified them and is more successful as a result.

Eric Petersen, a 29-year old actor who performed in Shrek The Musical on Broadway, will play the title role in Los Angeles and San Diego. He was on hand at the press event to sing a show-stopping song from the production, "Who I'd Be," and discuss his participation.

"This is such a big, huge character but I approach it honestly," Petersen said of his take on the iconic, green-skinned ogre. The married father of a baby girl shared about how he recalls his crush on a 6th-grade classmate during the scene where Shrek removes his knight's helmet for the first time before the lovely Fiona.

It takes 90 minutes and two make-up artists to prepare Petersen before each performance. He recounted how he "enjoyed" the process of developing the tour after being in the Broadway production, with Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori on hand "every day" to re-work songs and dialogue. The touring production includes a new song, "Forever," sung by a massive puppet of the dragon that protects Princess Fiona's tower.

Petersen also elaborated on the "definite" GLBT appeal to be found in Shrek The Musical. "Shrek and Fiona both ultimately realize 'I'm OK with who I am' despite their differences," he said. The star cites the show's production number "Freak Flag," in which all the fairy tale creatures sing of the culture-changing power they can draw from their uniqueness, as being particularly relevant to GLBT theatergoers.

Finally, DreamWorks Animation production designer Guillaume Aretos spoke about his consultative role in adapting the original film for the stage. "The design is at the service of the story," Aretos said, whether working in film or theatre. He is currently hard at work on the Shrek prequel, Puss in Boots. Antonio Banderas will reprise his vocal performance as the feline hero in the movie, which is scheduled for theatrical release on November 4, 2011.

Be sure to see Shrek The Musical and "Let your freak flag wave!" For additional information or to purchase tickets for the tour's limited runs in San Diego or Los Angeles, visit the show's official website.

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Toon Talk: Mater Days

One could call Pixar’s seemingly unending winning streak an embarrassment of riches. With a string of number one box office hits and Academy Award wins, not to mention all the critical huzzahs and audience love, it’s not entirely unforgivable that the studio would take a chance to rest on their laurels for a bit with their latest animated release Cars 2 (in theaters now).

Ask any Pixar fan to name their favorite Pixar movie and chances are you won’t hear Cars mentioned much. It is also one of only two Pixars to not win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature since the category’s creation in 2001 (ironically, the other is Monsters, Inc., which will also get a sequel next year). So why a second Cars instead of a sequel to one of Pixar’s bigger, more beloved hits like Finding Nemo or The Incredibles...?

Click here to continue reading my Toon Talk review of Cars 2 at

UPDATE: Cars 2 is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Trollin'

Norway's legendary trolls are alive but not well in first-timer André Øvredal's handheld fantasy TrollHunter, opening today in Los Angeles and playing other US cities this summer. After centuries of seclusion in their remote territories — monitored by the secretive Troll Security Service (TSS) — the giant beasts have begun rampaging beyond their traditional fjords and caves. Could this be the result of humans encroaching on their land? Global warming? Some kind of infection or disease?

A group of college students has noticed an unusual degree of government activity in the troll-impacted areas. Unaware of the existence of trolls and suspecting bears instead, they set out with video cameras to document "the truth." Needless to say, the students can't all handle the truth. This is especially the case for the closeted Christian among them since, faithful to troll specs, the critters can smell believers' blood and aren't fond of it.

Filmgoers have endured similar faux exposés of the supernatural captured on video in recent years, ever since the blockbuster success of 1999's low-budget The Blair Witch Project. We've seen shaky-cam hauntings (Paranormal Activity 1 and 2), possessions (The Last Exorcism), zombie uprisings (Diary of the Dead), monster attacks (Cloverfield) and alien invasions (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles). TrollHunter doesn't offer anything new to the genre, but it rises a notch above most of these entries thanks to its excellent special effects. The visual and sound designs for the trolls bring the simultaneously amusing but scary creatures to vivid cinematic life.

Øvredal's screenplay riffs cleverly on Norwegian folklore and history as well as science, religion and government conspiracy theories. For example, we're informed that trolls customarily consume large amounts of charcoal and concrete because they suffer from "calcium deficiency," and a new member of the documentary team responds "Muslim is OK, right?" after learning of the trolls' violent aversion to Christianity. The actors are adequate for their naïve-student roles, although veteran Otto Jespersen is great as the film's crusading title character.

One has to wonder what's next in the burgeoning series of documentary style creatures-on-camera epics; dragons, fairies or gnomes seem like prime candidates. In the meantime, TrollHunter offers some unique and entertaining modern twists on the legends of old.

Reverend's Rating: B-

UPDATE: TrollHunter is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Modern Gay Classics on DVD

Longtime fans of independent queer cinema will probably find it hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Todd Haynes' Poison hit the screen. The controversial anthology of three mini-movies exploring the darker side of the gay experience debuted at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and won its Grand Jury Prize. It also won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Poison is being re-released today by Zeitgeist Films as a special, remastered 20th anniversary edition DVD. Packed with rare extras and a 16-page booklet, it provides an excellent opportunity to re-discover the film or see it for the first time. The success of Poison enabled Haynes to write and direct such popular queer titles as Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and the recent HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce.

The filmmaker's classic opens with the foreboding words, "The whole world is dying of panicky fright." Haynes then intersperses scenes from the stylistically-diverse "Hero," "Horror" and "Homo" over the next 85 minutes. The first is a mock TV news report of a boy who kills his sexually abusive father and then, inexplicably, flies away. "Horror" serves simultaneously as a black & white homage to 1950's B-movies and as a metaphorical account of the AIDS epidemic, focusing on a well-intentioned scientist who isolates the human sex drive with devastating results. "Homo," inspired by the work of gay writer Jean Genet, is a dream-like but disturbing romance between two prison inmates. All three stories are beautifully photographed by Maryse Alberti and Barry Ellsworth.

Upon its release, Poison was denounced by conservative commentators such as Ralph Reed and the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon. They objected to both Haynes' subversive, pro-gay commentary and the graphic nudity and sex depicted in the "Homo' segment, especially since the film had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Of course, many more critics — including J. Hoberman (whose original essay from The Village Voice is included in the DVD's booklet), David Ansen and Richard Corliss — lauded the movie.

Poison also launched the careers of producers Christine Vachon and James Schamus, who have supervised many of the most significant independent films of the last 20 years. Schamus eventually became president of Focus Features, which released Far from Heaven, Brokeback Mountain, Milk and the current Beginners. He and Vachon as well as Haynes are featured in a special 20th anniversary Q&A about their achievements. As made clear by the new, remastered DVD, the impact of Poison has been far-reaching.

1981's German production Taxi zum Klo (in English, Taxi to the Toilet) has left a similar mark on queer film history and was also recently made available on DVD in a 30th anniversary Director's Cut by QC Cinema. It was written and directed by Frank Ripploh, who also stars as a respected schoolteacher with a secret gay life. Set in West Berlin, it has been hailed as "the first masterpiece about the mainstream of male gay life." While dated in some respects and perhaps not the most positive portrait of our community by today's standards, Taxi zum Klo is nonetheless an enduring testament to the gay experience, then and now.

Reverend's Ratings:
Poison: A-
Taxi zum Klo: B-

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Coal Miner's Disaster

Now that the political/sexting scandal dubbed "Weinergate" is over (please God!), it's time to get back to more critical matters like big corporations raping the environment and local communities. The eye-opening, ire-raising new documentary The Last Mountain, which opens this weekend in Los Angeles and Orange County and will soon expand nationally, is well timed in this regard.

Eco-filmmaker Bill Haney, whose last film was the acclaimed The Price of Sugar, has once again teamed with social issues-oriented producer/director Tim Disney (American Violet) to pull back the curtain on the continuing battle over coal strip-mining in the Appalachian Mountains. The citizens of Coal River Valley, West Virginia, have long been subjected to deforestation, flooding, birth defects and brain tumors that they claim are the consequences of mountain top removal by Massey Energy in their vicinity. According to a statistic cited in The Last Mountain, "Mountain top removal has destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2,000 miles of streams."

Haney focuses on efforts over the past decade led by Maria Gunhoe, a local waitress-turned-activist, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to hold Massey Energy's CEO and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, one of the corporation's biggest defenders, accountable. Along the way, we meet numerous townspeople and experts concerned about the coal industry in particular and America's ongoing dependence on coal energy in general. The film also provides gorgeous, almost painterly shots of the Appalachians. This is one movie that really ought to be presented in 3D.

The Last Mountain filmmakers unquestionably side with Massey Energy's critics, which limits their objectivity. Defenders of the corporation and of coal mining are given very brief screen time. Still, this is an important account of a disastrous situation that was permitted to grow out of control under former President George W. Bush. Damage has obviously been done. Hopefully, The Last Mountain will encourage justice to be achieved and healing to begin.

Reverend's Rating: A-

UPDATE: The Last Mountain is now available on DVDfrom

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

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Ryan Reynolds’ Green Bland Turn

They say that sci-fi or comic book “origin story” films are often boring due to all the exposition necessary to start the franchise. A fellow critic always says that any movie that starts with voice-over narration is automatically going to suck. Then, there is always the possibility that some actors can’t overcome lazy writing and end up looking amazing but bland. The latter would be my guess why Green Lantern looks so good but feels so empty.

Ryan Reynolds plays Hal Jordan, a generically cocky fighter pilot with daddy issues (his hero father died in a plane crash) who is also afraid of commitment. Thanks to helpful narration at the beginning, we know that the universe was created by a set of “Guardians” who have harnessed the green power of “will” (I wonder what Fundamentalists think of that?) and have entrusted the safety of the universe to an elite group of peacekeepers called the Green Lantern Corps. As the film opens, a trio of aliens crashes onto a desolate planet in “the Lost Sector” unleashing a malevolent entity known as Parallax. The big-headed villain feeds on fear, sucking the life force from any living thing he meets and swallowing planets whole. He wastes no time mortally wounding the Green Lantern who imprisoned him, sending him plummeting to Earth to look for someone to take his mantle before he dies. The Green Lantern ring “chooses” who will possess it, and for some reason the ring thinks professional screw-up Hal is the best man on Earth for the job.

While the writhing Parallax speeds across the galaxy towards Earth, a wormy scientist named Hector Hammond (played by Peter Sarsgaard) gets infected by some of Parallax’s yellow fear mojo and begins getting a swelled head, literally and figuratively. He is an old schoolmate of Hal’s and is obsessed with Hal’s old girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), and his jealousy makes him a perfect proxy villain for Parallax.

Green Lantern has many plusses going for it. It has the most impressive use of 3-D effects I’ve seen in a live-action film. Reynolds, although dull in the role, looks amazing in his skintight costume. Tim Robbins has fun as Hector’s father, a questionable congressman, and it is always a pleasure seeing Angela Bassett, even in a throwaway role like this.

Given the high expectations for Green Lantern, it may well do blockbuster business, and I have to admit that my friend, who is a longtime fan of the comic book, enjoyed it immensely. For the uninitiated, however, Green Lantern is a comic book movie to leave on the newsstand.

UPDATE: Green Lantern is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reverend's Preview: Dance Camera West 2011

As the founder of a famed Massachusetts dance troupe and festival is quoted in a new documentary, "Dance is the one art form that leaves nothing but memories." While the more recent technologies of film and video can now record such "memories" for the ages, dance remains distinct from painting, sculpture and what can be described as tangible or permanent media.

Southern California's annual Dance Camera West Film Festival, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary June 16-19, is a major chronicler of dance's magnificent global evolution. This year's event will take place at a variety of locations in and around Los Angeles, including the Getty Center, UCLA and the Hammer Museum. For a full schedule and to purchase tickets, visit the fest's official website.

The GLBT pinnacle of this year's festival is Never Stand Still, the feature-length documentary referenced above. It will make its West Coast premiere on June 19. The film recounts the fascinating history behind the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, which is derived from the first all-male dance troupe established by choreographer Ted Shawn in 1931. Shawn had been partly paralyzed as a young man, the result of diphtheria, and initially took up dance for strictly therapeutic purposes. He later came across and purchased an abandoned farm in the Berkshires (later learned to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad), which was christened Jacob's Pillow. According to gay choreographer Bill T. Jones, who narrates Never Stand Still, Shawn "wanted to prove dance could be a viable career for men" at a time when it was dominated by women.

Dance was also dominated by ballet when Shawn established Jacob's Pillow, so he set out to expand modern dance as a legitimate field of study and performance. The results were trailblazing. 80 years later, Jacob's Pillow is today considered one of the world's preeminent dance studios by such choreographic luminaries as Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor (all of whom are gay and appear in Never Stand Still) as well as acclaimed dancers/performers Marge Champion, Bill Irwin and Rasta Thomas.

The documentary, insightfully directed by Ron Honsa, showcases some remarkable dance pieces featuring an array of diverse styles and techniques. Honsa will be on hand to introduce the screening on June 19. Also not to be missed during DCW is the incredible short film Stronger, which will be shown as part of the "Global Screendance 2" program on Friday, June 17. Two attractive, shirtless male dancers leap through the woods and into the trees during this beautifully choreographed, photographed and edited film.

Whether or not you are a dance aficionado, DCW is the place to be and create new memories this June.

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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Mixed Musicals Now on Blu-ray

There are various theories as to why Martin Scorsese's first big-budget movie — 1977's New York, New York — was a box office flop. One is that its blend of 1940's musical melodrama with more modern language and acting styles was off-putting. Scorsese seems most accepting of this suspicion in his commentary on the film's just-released Blu-ray edition. Another is that New York, New York was doomed by such contemporary mega-hits as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and Annie Hall, all released in 1977 as well.

Upon watching the gorgeously-designed movie on Blu-ray, however, another reason quickly becomes clear: its screenplay is awful. At 163 minutes, the story about an egotistical saxophone player (Robert De Niro) and a rising jazz singer (Liza Minnelli) who share a tortured romance is too slim and derivative of other, better movies such as the 1954 version of A Star is Born (which even starred Liza's mother, Judy Garland).

Jimmy and Francine meet cute, even though De Niro comes across as only a slightly less psychotic version of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, in a nightclub the night of V-J Day. She is understandably wary at first, and Minnelli is great in these early scenes as well as in her later musical numbers. The Blu-ray includes the lengthy, lavish production number "Happy Endings," which was quickly cut from the film after its release in a desperate effort to make a shorter, more audience-friendly version.

There is much to admire in New York, New York, especially Boris Leven's production design, Theodora Van Runkle's costumes and Laszlo Kovacs' stunning cinematography. But the script by Earl MacRauch and Mardik Martin takes a full half-hour for anything substantial to happen, and even then nothing too substantial happens. It's best to skip chapters, stopping each time Liza sings.

Along with New York, New York, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and MGM have also released Milos Forman's energetic adaptation of the rock musical Hair (1979), choreographed by Twyla Tharp, and the more recent gay classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Blu-ray for the first time. Both look great in the high-def format, and boast memorable performances and musical numbers. They serve as great inspiration to anyone who hasn't yet invested in Blu-ray player to do so.

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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reverend's Preview: It's All Greek to Me

If the Greeks didn't actually invent homosexuality, they were at least the first culture to recognize and integrate it. The Los Angeles/Hollywood summer season of film festivals kicks off this weekend with the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival (LAGFF), a more obscure or specialized but increasingly popular event. Now in its 5th year, the fest runs through Sunday, June 12 at the Laemmle's Sunset 5 in the gay mecca that is West Hollywood. Seven feature films (including one of definite GLBTQ interest reviewed below), five documentaries and nine shorts will be screened, and represent three world premieres, ten US premieres and eight LA premieres. "This year's films represent all facets of Greek life: humor, music, wine, erotica, and family... with a twist! Los Angeles audiences will not be disappointed," says Ersi Danou, LAGFF co-founder.

Last night's opening gala celebrated Lea Binzer's documentary Pelican's Watch. It pulls back the veil on a small community of elders on the island of Santorini, where they are charged with the unique duty of preserving the ancient traditions of vine growing and winemaking in the face of changing times. It was followed by a reception featuring some of the top Greek wines with the Santorini winemakers and the filmmakers in attendance. Tonight, LAGFF will present the US premiere of Roy Sher's My Sweet Canary, which recounts the life story of Roza Eskenazy, the Diva of Rebetiko, or “Greek Blues," whose music shaped the soundtrack of Greece and Asia Minor for almost a century.

The festival's major GLBT happening takes place on Saturday night, with the LA premiere of Strella (A Woman's Way). No doubt the tale of "family... with a twist" that Danou refers to above, this provocative drama-comedy weaves elements from traditional Greek tragedies and myths through a decidedly modern story. Set in Athens, it opens with an inmate, Yiorgos (a fine, subtle performance by Yanis Kokiasmenos), kissing his cellmate/lover goodbye as he is released from prison. Yiorgos doesn't waste time in starting to search for his long-estranged son. He settles into a hotel, where he makes the acquaintance of his pre-op transexual neighbor, Strella (Mina Orfanou, very good). Although Strella makes her living as a prostitute, she and Yiorgos embark on a sexual relationship together that soon turns romantic.

I don't want to give away any of the plot's sometimes jaw-dropping twists, so let's just say Yiorgos's son turns out to be closer than his father suspected. Directed by Panos H. Koutras and written by Koutras with Panajotis Evangelidis, Strella is well-structured and -layered. The lighting and photography aren't the most glamorous but this generally suits the film's lonely, wounded central figures. There are also some amusing sequences involving an animated squirrel that serves as Yiorgos's id. Ultimately, much of Strella's impact and resonance can be summed up in one character's line to another: "You made me love you in every possible way."

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, a documentary about the legendary comics creator, and the reality-inspired horror film The Death I Dreamed Of will also be shown during the fest. "The growing Greek film community is rapidly proving itself a formidable source of truly groundbreaking cinema, and I am proud to help bring these incredible works to the Los Angeles screen," states Owen Ward, Director of Programming. LAGFF will conclude Sunday with another gala screening and reception. Tickets for screenings and other festival events can be purchased online at the fest's official website or at the door while still available.

Reverend's Rating:
Strella (A Woman's Way): B+

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reel Thoughts: The Last Time I Saw Paris

Who would have guessed that Woody Allen’s 41st film, starring Owen Wilson of all people, would be one of the best pictures of the year? After the nightmarishly shrill You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, in which all of the ingredients (acting, story and direction) were curdled, Midnight in Paris is a fine, light French soufflé that harkens back to my favorite Woody Allen masterworks, such as Manhattan, Bullets Over Broadway and The Purple Rose of Cairo. It is the story of a nostalgic screenwriter who escapes from his Hollywood hack life into the golden age of Paris in the 20’s via a magical midnight limousine ride.

Like a Twilight Zone episode written by an English Lit major, Midnight in Paris is a wonderful fantasy filled with characters like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil (Wilson) is thrilled to find himself among his literary heroes, as well as rubbing elbows with Picasso, Dalí, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker and director Luis Buñuel, all played by wonderful actors like Kathy Bates, Allison Pill and Adrian Brody.

Creatively stifled by his money-and-status-conscious wife, Inez (Rachel McAdams, in the film’s one bad, thankless role), Gil comes alive with his 20’s cohorts, and falls in love with Adriana (a luminous Marion Cotillard), an art muse already linked to Picasso and Modigliani. Is it cheating if it’s in an alternate reality? There is no explanation for how or why Gil keeps finding his way back to the 20’s, nor does there need to be. Wilson does a great job as Allen’s stand-in, and his innocent love of the period will draw in viewers, even if they (like me) have no idea who Djuna Barnes was!

As with most time travel tales, there comes the time where the hero must decide in which world he wants to live, and I am not completely satisfied with Gil’s choice. It almost feels as if Allen realized that he had to tie things up in a hurry... although, given his perfectionism, that seems unlikely. At least in the similarly-themed Night Gallery episode, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” a wrecking ball ended the story with a bang. Then again, with wonderful performances like Bates’ Stein, Pill’s flighty Zelda and Corey Stoll’s manly Hemingway, maybe I just didn’t want Midnight in Paris to end.

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

Monday, June 6, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: Cole Burden Takes the Watch

Hailing from Rome, Georgia, Cole Burden is a long way from Paris, but he still finds himself climbing a barricade and fighting for French independence eight times a week. As Courfeyrac in the hit musical Les Misérables, which has launched its 25th Anniversary tour, he is part of a band of idealistic students who rise up against the oppressive government. Given the current climate of union-busting and stripping rights from public employees, Les Misérables couldn’t be more timely.

Set in the early nineteenth century, Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s epic story of love, revolution and redemption, centering on Jean Valjean, a former prisoner, who spends his life trying to help others, but is pursued by Inspector Javert, who vows to bring Valjean down no matter how long it takes. A love triangle develops between Cosette, Valjean’s adopted daughter, Marius, an idealistic student, and Eponine, the daughter of the cruel couple who raised Cosette before Valjean rescued her. The show’s staying power has always been its gorgeous score, featuring songs like “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On My Own”, “Bring Him Home” and the comedic “Master of the House.”

“It’s nice to stay on the go. I like that lifestyle,” Burden explained. The handsome twenty-seven year old actor gave up plans to sing opera when he realized that he would be relegated to doing the same few roles due to his vocal range. “I’ve always been drawn to acting, in film or on stage. I just happen to be able to sing.” Musical theater fulfills him more. He has been in workshops of Yank!, the musical about gay soldiers in love during World War II, and played Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, in the new musical Bonnie and Clyde by Hunter Foster of Urinetown fame.

“I think I’m the only actor in musical theater who had never seen Les Miz,” Burden laughed. “It’s such a rewarding show to do because I do a lot of workshops of new musicals and you’re trying to get a feel for what the audience thinks. With Les Miz, it’s so great because it’s such a ‘sure thing’ every night. The audience is singing the finale with us every night. I think every actor needs to experience what it’s like to do such a hit, because that’s not always the case. It’s nice to do something that everybody loves.”

Being in the ensemble means that Burden is working non-stop. “I think I have fifteen costume changes,” he explained. “It’s a lot of fun. I get to be a little bit of everything. I’m a sailor, I’m one of the poor at the beginning of the show, and I’m Courfeyrac, one of the students, who’s told, “Courfeyrac, you take the watch”. I’ve started a blog on my website called “Taking the Watch” where I let people know what’s going on on the tour. I also understudy Bamatabois, who’s one of the fops. I get to put on a lot of make-up and beat up on (downtrodden heroine) Fantine, so that’s a lot of fun.” Burden’s blog gives a rare look behind the scenes at an actor’s life on the road, including one incident where the infamous iPhone Daylight Savings glitch made him late to a performance. “I just want to talk to people about life within Les Miz. Nothing personal, but there are so many fans of the show that I think they’d love to hear stuff that goes on. It’s such an epic production, I think that there are lots of interesting stories that one can tell.”

Burden devotes a lot of his time to raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “It’s so important as an actor to stay abreast of what’s going on, for lack of a better term, ‘in the real world’.” He is committed to making sure that people continue to fight the spread of HIV, and is proud that they as a cast have already raised more than $75,000. “Just the difference (in attitudes about AIDS) as a gay man between being twenty-seven and twenty-three... it’s like there’s a complacency about unprotected sex. I just don’t understand where that comes from. I guess we’re just getting away from an understanding of how it all originated. It’s very scary, actually.”

He’s glad that Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, is back on stage in New York. “I draw a correlation between that play and what happens to the students in Les Miz. It’s about standing up and fighting, literally going into the streets and fighting for a cause that you believe in. In Les Miz, it’s about children and education and the decline of Paris and we have to take control and get it back together because the government is not going to. I relate more to seeing a film like Milk and seeing what Harvey Milk really did for the gay community. That’s something as a person that I can relate to, that I’m passionate about.” Burden hopes that people of all generations can take the message from Les Misérables that you have to stand up and be willing to fight against those who want to keep you down.”

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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Absolute Beginners

Parents are mysterious creatures to their kids, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to figure them out. Mike Mills’ engrossing and uplifting film, Beginners, seeks to document his own experiences with his parents, in a fictionalized way. It is such a specific, personal journey, full of details that you know came straight from Mills’ life, yet Beginners feels relatable to anyone who has turned around a strained relationship with a parent or anyone who has embarked on a romantic relationship not knowing if they have what it takes to make it work. The film has whimsical elements, like the way Arthur the Jack Russell Terrier has ongoing subtitles to reveal his feelings, but overall, the film is a leisurely-paced love story paired with a late-in-life coming out tale.

Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, is packing up his late father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) belongings as the film begins, and in flashback, you are introduced to the man who, after being widowed at age 75, decides to come out of the closet. The film is both a tribute to a man who, being a product of the 50’s, denied his true sexual orientation his whole life, only to embrace it in the end, and an intelligent examination of the effect parents have on their children and the way they interact with others. Oliver is closed off emotionally, and doesn’t stick with relationships very long. He watched his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who made Oliver her confidant and surrogate best friend, suffer from the loneliness of being in a marriage with a closeted gay man. At the same time, Hal was a distant and absentee father.

Oliver meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds) at a costume party where she is playing mute to save her voice. Their courtship is sweet and tentative, since both come with a lot of baggage. Hal, on the other hand, embraces every aspect of gay life, trying out bars where youth rules supreme and then settling in with a great group of “Prime Timers” who host movie nights and dinners out in West Hollywood. He even gets a wild and crazy boyfriend named Andy (ER’s Goran Visnjic, in a horrible bowl cut). But Hal’s days are numbered, it turns out, and Oliver becomes much closer with his father than he ever was growing up. Mills keeps the tone even and mostly light-hearted, but the reality of losing a parent is explored in a way everyone can relate to; don’t be afraid if tears flow... it’s good for you.

Beginners has many moments of emotional truth, and the performances could not be better. Plummer is sure to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he does a great service to a group in the gay community that tends to be ignored, namely older gay men. McGregor has a much quieter role to play, but he does it with his usual intelligence and intensity. Laurent is quirky and beautiful and Cosmo the dog makes the perfect cinematic companion for Oliver. If you can handle a summer movie that isn’t full of shape-shifting robots or Caribbean pirates, Beginners is a nice, quiet beginning to the season.

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