Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Fall Into New Releases

Summer is over and young people are back to school. A flurry of new GLBT-interest movies on home video this month, though, offers tantalizing viewing options for the fall. First out of the gate on September 1st is Finding Mr. Wright, from Nandar Entertainment. It stars the always amusing Rebekah Kochan (best known for the Eating Out series) as well as one of our favorite out actors, Matthew Montgomery, in a contemporary screwball comedy involving Hollywood politics and gay romance. Montgomery reveals an endearing, previously unseen funny side, and comedian Jason Stuart is thrown in for good measure.

On September 13th, the 2010 festival hit Leading Ladies will make its DVD debut courtesy of Wolfe Video. While it primarily puts a lesbian spin on the 1992 Australian film Strictly Ballroom, the plot also features an overtly gay character played by cute Benji Schwimmer, season 2 winner of TV's So You Think You Can Dance. Schwimmer isn't the only connection between that series and this movie; the show's choreographer, Melanie LaPatin, staged the dances in Leading Ladies and stars as the overbearing mother of two sisters groomed for ballroom competition stardom. When one of her daughters becomes pregnant and the other falls in love with another female dancer, Mom is less than pleased.

Leading Ladies suffers initially from some forced performances and dialogue but both improve as the film moves along. There are some great dance numbers, notably one between Schwimmer and a hunky suitor and another set amongst the aisles of a grocery store, and fine photography by Peter Biagi throughout. The moral of the story -- "Let love lead" -- becomes clear early on and serves as important guidance through the difficult choices the main characters have to make.

A more unusual, less polished but very effective glimpse into love and its challenges is provided by Open. The first American film ever to win the Berlin Film Festival's prestigious "Teddy" Jury Prize, it is set for a September 20th release on DVD and streaming video by Ariztical Entertainment. A striking feature film debut (despite some amateurish performances) by writer-director Jake Yuzna, Open focuses on the travails of two atypical couples. One pair is comprised of hermaphroditic individuals given to frequent cosmetic surgery in their effort to be as similar in appearance as possible. As one observer notes of them, "They truly feel they are one entity, and they want their bodies to reflect that." When one has to travel, an androgynous acquaintance threatens to come between them.

The other couple features a young man who falls in love with a female-to-male transgender person. As they work to define their relationship and sexual interactions, the trans partner's troubled past provides challenges. When the trans character unexpectedly becomes pregnant, a whole new set of questions emerges. Open is a unique and engrossing exploration of the ever-increasing diversity in human relationships.

Finally, IFC Midnight is unveiling the provocative Autoerotic in September via Video on Demand (VOD). While there isn't much GLBT content in this anthology of four stories that expose some of the more secretive aspects of sexuality, the best segment is about a very pregnant married woman who accepts another woman's offer to help her achieve orgasm, something her loving husband hasn't been able to provide in the latter months of her pregnancy. It is simultaneously funny and erotic, mainly because it is told with considerable honesty. Both lesbian and straight women should thoroughly enjoy it.

Reverend's Ratings:
Finding Mr. Wright: B-
Leading Ladies: B
Open: B+
Autoerotic: C+

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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reel Thoughts: The Vamp Next Door

Now, come on! If Colin Farrell moved next door to you, in a dull, foreclosure-riddled Vegas subdivision, would you really wait more than five seconds before you were at his door asking for a little sugar? The new Fright Night is a meaner, leaner version of the 1985 classic, which changes up enough of the story to make it worth remaking. The original featured some bizarre casting including Stephen Geoffreys, a Tony-nominated actor who went into gay porn, and Amanda Bearse, playing Charlie’s virginal girlfriend a few years before she came out of the closet. William Ragsdale exhibited an acting range that rivals Zack Galligan in its lack of quality. Still, Chris Sarandon was a dark and sexy vampire nemesis and Roddy McDowell was a hoot as the faded TV ghost host Peter Vincent.

Fright Night 2011 takes advantage of the modern economic downturn to explain how a vampire could be preying on people without anyone noticing their absence. Families are fleeing their tract homes in Charlie Brewster’s (Anton Yelchin) North Vegas neighborhood by the truckload, so what who’s to know if they were foreclosed on... or fed upon? Toni Collette (who must have had Yelchin when she was 16) plays Charlie’s mother, a lonely real estate agent who is ticked at new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) who works nights in casino construction and has a butt-ugly dumpster in his front yard.

Narrative whiplash sets in as Charlie is informed that Jerry is a vampire by his nerdy former best friend Ed (McLovin’ himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) almost immediately. Ed had been tracing Jerry’s movements and managed to not-capture him on camera, and he begs his old friend to help him take the bloodsucker down. Once Charlie realizes that Ed was right, his buddy is missing, so Charlie seeks out Vegas Goth magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, channeling Russell Brandt and Chris Angel), a dissolute so-called vampire expert. The drunken lothario is not very supportive, to say the least.

Fright Night ramps up the action above the original with Jerry baring his fangs early and launching an all-out assault on Charlie, his mom and his hot girlfriend, Amy (played by the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots). While the original’s acting was sitcom-my, Farrell’s hot, dangerous performance makes the new version sexier and funnier. Wait until you see how Jerry gets around the old, “Vampires can’t come in if you don’t invite them” rule.

Even the ubiquitous 3-D is used well in Fright Night. While Yelchin is a little long in the tooth to be a high schooler, he’s way better than Ragsdale, who inexplicably had a career after the 1985 opus. While Geoffreys was creepy and cringe-worthy (“You’re so cool, Brewster!”), Mintz-Plasse actually gets some sympathy as the spurned friend. Poots does well in the thankless girlfriend role, and Collette is fun to watch and really knows how to wield a realty sign!

If you’re looking for a fun night with a few frights, Fright Night should be just right.

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

MD Poll: The Boys of Summer 2011

The end of the summer movie season is 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 we have a slew of sexy superheroes (including all-American hunk Chris Evans and swarthy barbarian Jason Momoa, pictured) plus a vampire, a wizard and previous Summer Movie Hunk winner Ryan Reynolds.

Take your pick and place your vote in the MD Poll located in the right hand sidebar. The ultimate summer movie hunk, class of 2011, will be crowned September 24.

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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Iranian Girls Gone Wild

The Islamic fundamentalist president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, definitely wouldn't approve of the award-winning, pro-LGBT drama Circumstance (opening today in Los Angeles and New York). Maryam Keshavarz's sensual look at two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love shines a more revealing light than ever before on Iranian culture and politics. Not surprisingly, GLBT people bear the brunt of the current regime's repressive tactics, and can even be put to death.

In Circumstance, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), who comes from a wealthy family, meets lower class, orphaned Shireen (Sarah Kazmy) at an underground dance party in Tehran (the film was shot in Lebanon). Despite the constant threats of surveillance and raids by Iran's Morality Police, the girls and their teen/young adult friends can't resist the time-honored temptations to dance, drink, try drugs and have sex. The biggest surprise to Shireen and Atafeh is their unexpected, mutual attraction to each other.

Naturally, they know to keep their relationship a secret. It becomes more difficult to do so once Atafeh's brother (Reza Sixo Safai) returns home from prison. Having embraced extremist religious and political views while incarcerated, he increasingly forces his conservative expectations on his family and threatens to uncover the forbidden love between Shireen and his sister.

Circumstance has swept the major awards at many of this year's film festivals, including Sundance, New Directors/New Films (a.k.a. Newfest) and Outfest, and Boosheri was honored with Outfest's Best Actress award for her film debut as the conflicted Atafeh. While I didn't find much new in the film's girl-girl romantic dynamics, it's setting and social-political commentary are certainly above the norm. Writer-director Keshavarz, who is Iranian herself, structures and frames her story beautifully, with scenes gradually moving from open and airy settings to tighter, more oppressive settings and camera shots. The performances from the mix of experienced and neophyte actors are uniformly excellent.

In an online chat with critics, Keshavarz related the many risks that she, her cast and crew members took in making the film. "I had serious discussions with the actors that we likely couldn't go back to Iran after making the film," she wrote. "Even shooting in a liberal country, like Lebanon, was still difficult; it is still illegal to be gay there." Keshavarz has been thrilled, however, with the "amazing," positive response Circumstance has received from GLBT audiences in the US as well as from younger Middle Eastern immigrants who have seen it.

While homosexuality remains a criminal offense in many Middle Eastern countries and other parts of the world, there is hope to be found in Circumstance. As history has shown — and can currently be seen in Libya and other former dictatorships — the more repressive/oppressive the environment, the more emboldened the oppressed become. This is true of both political and religious structures. Shireen and Atafeh are our latest cinematic heroines in the GLBT community's growing call for acceptance and justice.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Off the Shelf: Hire Me, Hollywood!

Curious about a career in craft services? Think you got what it takes to be an on-set tutor for Abigail Breslin or a stunt double for Pamela Anderson? Always wondered how you could be a hair stylist on American Idol or the co-host of Entertainment Tonight? If you are looking to make it big in show biz but don't know how to do it, authors and entertainment industry vets Mark Scherzer and Keith Fenmore may have the answers for you in their new book Hire Me, Hollywood!

Subtitled "Your Behind-the-Scenes Guide to the Most Exciting — and Unexpected — Jobs in Show Business", this breezy tome is more of a "how did" than a "how to" as it serves up enlightening (and "uncensored") interviews with thirty "industry insiders". Some of the names you'll recognize (Stan Lee, Leonard Maltin, True Blood's Sam Trammell), most you won't. For Hire Me, Hollywood! covers every link in the show biz food chain, from heads of network programming and senior talent producers on down to the guy who makes protein shakes for the stars.

Each interviewee (including at least three out participants: Dancing with the Stars costume supervisor Howard Sussman, creative director David Thomas and special effects artist Steven J. Scott) offers up their own stories of how they made it in their various fields. From nerve-racking first days on set to personal career triumphs (like being singled out for praise by none other than James Cameron), one tenet remains constant throughout: be passionate about what you do and things will happen for you. In other words, think of Hire Me, Hollywood! as a "How to Succeed in Show Business by Really Trying... and With a Little Bit of Luck!"

Hire Me, Hollywood! is now available for purchase at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reverend's Report: D23 2011

Upon my arrival at the Anaheim Convention Center on the first morning of the D23 Expo, I could tell it was going to have a much larger turnout than the first such event in 2009. I ended up having to park on the top floor of the parking structure, and negotiated large crowds of Disney fanatics once inside the center. The second day of the expo sold out the afternoon before, a significant testament to the increased attention being paid to it.

My first stop was the traditional Disney Legends ceremony. A dozen people who have helped build the Disney empire since its founding in 1923 were honored, including five women who have voiced princesses in the more contemporary Disney animated features The Little Mermaid (Jodi Benson), Beauty and the Beast (Paige O'Hara), Aladdin (Lea Salonga, Princess Jasmine's singing voice, and Linda Larkin, Jasmine's speaking voice), Mulan (Salonga again) and The Princess and the Frog (Anika Noni Rose). Host Tom Bergeron, who was nicely casual and provided very funny commentary throughout, noted that Noni Rose is the youngest honoree to be named a Disney Legend.

All five actresses performed to montages of scenes from their respective films, with Benson bringing down the nearly full, 4,000 seat arena both through her audience-participation version of "Part of Your World" and her utterly heartfelt, unapologetic faith sharing. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," she said upon reaching the podium, quoting a traditional Christian hymn. "This is my ministry," Benson remarked of her continuing voice performance as Ariel in video games, television and the new ride inspired by The Little Mermaid at Disney's California Adventure park.

The ceremony climaxed with the induction of late Muppets creator, Jim Henson. While Henson didn't work for Disney while he was alive, his company was bought by Disney after his death and the Muppets have been a welcome, appropriate addition to the studio's holdings. Henson's children, Lisa and Brian, were on hand and reminisced about their father, moving audience members to both tears and laughter. But it was a masterstroke on the part of the event planners to bring Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog out at the end to sing "The Rainbow Connection." Attendees were utterly mesmerized.

Kermit was on hand again Saturday morning at the Walt Disney Studios' presentation of upcoming movies. The amphibian was joined by Miss Piggy (who arrived in a motorcycle sidecar) as well as actor Jason Segel, their co-star in November's big-screen reunion, The Muppets. New studio head Rich Ross and animation executive John Lasseter were fairly giddy as they hyped next spring's John Carter; next summer's Brave; the direct-to-DVD Planes, an airborne knockoff of Cars; The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which does indeed look odd; and their more recently-acquired Marvel epic, The Avengers.

John Carter in particular, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series, looks really cool. The crowd went predictably wild when cast members from the last came out, including Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johanssen and Jeremy Renner. Other big stars on hand to plug their respective Disney projects were Billy Crystal (the Monsters, Inc. prequel Monsters University), Willem Dafoe (John Carter), Jennifer Garner (Odd Life...) and Jon Cryer (Planes).

A special showroom exhibit entitled "Carousel of Projects" and a Friday afternoon presentation revealed a plethora of developments regarding Disney theme parks around the world. In the Carousel of Projects, visitors could check out a detailed model of the massive Fantasyland expansion currently underway in the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World in Florida. When completed in the fall of 2012, it will nearly double Fantasyland's current size and will feature a "Seven Dwarfs Mine Train" roller coaster (which looks like a milder, kid-friendly version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but with individually swinging cars) as well as an east coast version of The Little Mermaid ride, among other new attractions. I can't wait to visit and check it out once finished.

Details were also shared at the Theme Parks presentation about Disney's new park in Shanghai, China; the company's beautiful new Hawaiian resort, Aulani, which opens next week; the "Cars Land" addition and overall makeover of California Adventure; and magnificent new ships under construction for Disney Cruise Line. A pending expansion of California's Fantasyland was also announced, which will take over the current Carnation Gardens concert area at the end of Disneyland's Main Street USA. The expo also hosted a 45th-anniversary celebration of "It's a Small World" with special souvenirs and a panel of artists, including songwriter Richard Sherman, who helped create the mostly beloved but sometimes hated attraction.

The presentations and pavilions throughout this year's D23 Expo were very satisfying all in all, despite the larger crowds and long lines for everything, including food and restrooms. The only truly disappointing aspect of this year's D23 Expo was the "Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives" exhibition. Most of the noteworthy artifacts featured were repeats from the first expo's display, and the new additions from less well-regarded Disney films such as Hocus Pocus, Father of the Bride and The Rocketeer were decidedly underwhelming. One newly-included treasure well worth checking out was Walt Disney's personal limousine, but it was on display in the main showroom.

It will be interesting to see what Disney does next with the D23 Expo, now that it is well on its way to becoming a Comic Con-esque success. Will they offer it annually? Will it be moved beyond Anaheim as it increasingly outgrows the convention center there? All it will take is a little time... and some continued pixie dust.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Babs vs. Active Child

In one corner, we have a legendary, Grammy/Oscar/Emmy-winning superstar, Barbra Streisand. Opposite her is young, falsetto-singing upstart Active Child, a.k.a. former choirboy Patrick Grossi. Both are duking it out via new CDs being released today, and darn it if the young upstart doesn't come out on top... artistically speaking.

Don't get me wrong: I've loved Babs ever since her back-to-back triumphs while I was in high school of the movie Yentl and her Broadway Album. Of course, her career began nearly 20 years earlier in New York City, initially as a cabaret sensation and then as the triumphant headliner of Funny Girl, both on stage and screen. Streisand's vocal dynamics, clarity and showmanship have been unmatched. Now, though, she is approaching 70 and — as her new release makes clear — her voice isn't what it used to be.

What Matters Most satisfies Streisand's stated, long-desired effort to record an album of songs exclusively written by her longtime collaborators, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The Bergmans won Academy Awards for their score of Yentl (with composer Michel Legrand) as well as for the title tune from the Streisand-starring hit, The Way We Were (which they co-wrote with Marvin Hamlisch). What Matters Most opens with Streisand singing another Bergman-penned Oscar winner, "The Windmills of Your Mind." Her diction is as impeccable as ever in this somewhat slowed-down cover, and the orchestrations throughout the new CD are lovely.

Sadly, it begins to become evident on the album's second track, "Something New in My Life," that Streisand should probably stop recording. She's been singing in a lower octave for a while now, which is to be expected as a singer ages and which was put to good use on her last, loungy CD, 2009's Love is the Answer. But here, Streisand's voice sounds harsh whenever she strains to reach a higher note at louder volume. This is confirmed by at least two other songs, "Alone in the World" and "The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye."

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Streisand concludes What Matters Most with the elegiac song of the same name. In it, she sings that "what matters most is that we loved at all." This is presumably directed to the Bergmans but could also serve as a fitting farewell to her longtime fans. While I hate the prospect of never hearing Streisand sing something new after this, a true artist usually recognizes when their best work is behind them but will naturally endure.

As one recording artist enters their twilight, another is emerging. You Are All I See is Active Child's second CD — following last year's Curtis Lane — but the first that I've heard. It represents an amazing amalgamation of Grossi's angelic voice, ethereal music comprised of harp and strings, and 1980's synthesizer-manufactured sound. Active Child can perhaps best be considered the musical offspring of the Thompson Twins and Sarah Brightman, with a little Jimmy Somerville DNA thrown in for good measure.

From the opening title track on You Are All I See, I was hooked. "Playing House," featuring R&B singer How to Dress Well, is a standout, as is "See Thru Eyes." As a matter of fact, every song on Active Child's latest is a winner. Trust me: If you haven't heard of him, check him out. I think you'll be glad you did.

Reverend's Ratings:
What Matters Most: C
You Are All I See: A

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

Men on Film: Two Critics, One Day

Reverend's Reviews: One (Not Very Fine) Day:

July 15th is revered in Anglican Church circles as the feast of Saint Swithin (sometimes spelled Swithun), a 9th-century bishop of Winchester known for — in the words of his Wikipedia entry — "posthumous miracle-working." Swithin is referenced several times in the new movie One Day, opening nationwide today. If only the good saint's miracles extended to cinematic adaptations of bestselling novels; One Day could use one.

An uneasy mix of romantic longing and thwarted fairy tale, the plot follows two British friends and occasional lovers over a 20-year period beginning with their initial encounter on July 15, 1988. A middle-class, ambitious wannabe-writer, Emma (played by American actress Anne Hathaway), meets the wealthy, uninhibited Dex (Jim Sturgess of the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe) following their college graduation. The film subsequently revisits the pair each July 15th thereafter, and we watch the ebb and flow of their careers and angst-ridden relationship via vignettes accompanied by period-appropriate pop songs.

This "annual checkup" conceit ultimately proves precious and plodding, despite the occasionally clever ways each date is worked into the scene visually. I haven't read the novel by David Nicholls upon which the film is based (Nicholls also wrote the screenplay). A co-worker who has read the book informs me that the years and events aren't presented chronologically/sequentially on the page as they are on screen. I therefore suspect that events in the novel are presented in a more nuanced and layered way than they are in this heavy-handed movie version.

At least viewers are privy to some lovely scenery in Great Britain and France (shot by Benoit Delhomme) while we watch the lead characters struggle, work, love, grieve and skinny dip. By film's end, one of them learns "Whatever happens tomorrow, we've had today" as the result of a tragic twist so heavily foreshadowed in the moments before that it should surprise no one.

The cast can't be faulted for One Day's shortcomings. Hathaway and Sturgess are fine in their roles and have good chemistry. I am already weary, however, of Hathaway playing tortured romantic victims following this and last year's Love & Other Drugs. Here's hoping she gets to bust loose and kick some ass as Catwoman in next summer's The Dark Knight Rises. Patricia Clarkson (Far from Heaven, Easy A) is good as always in her brief turn as Dex's doting, terminally ill mother.

Directed by Lone Scherfig, One Day serves as a disappointing follow-up to her more subtle, Oscar-nominated film of 2009, An Education. It also represents a rare misstep for the usually reliable Focus Features, maker of such gay-interest successes as Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Beginners. Some fellow critics and audience members may find One Day miraculous somehow. By it's final 20 minutes, though, I was praying to Saint Swithin for deliverance.

Reverend's Rating: C-

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

On the other hand...

Reel Thoughts: A Blue Valentine (That People Will Actually Want to Watch):

From Same Time, Next Year to (500) Days of Summer to last year’s brutal Blue Valentine, films that unfold on timelines are fascinating, because you get to see the characters change, sometimes radically, from date to date. One Day is like Same Time, Next Year in that we follow Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess on the same date over twenty-three years, starting with a night of passion on the graduation day in 1988 all the way to 2011. At first, the date skipping from year to year seemed too quick and too facile, but as the film progressed, you grow to love Emma and Dex, flaws and all. July 15th, or St. Swithin’s Day as Dex informs Emma after their not-completed tryst, grows dramatically in significance as the pair grow older.

David Nicholls has adapted his best-selling novel masterfully, showing Dex’s rise as a smarmy television host and Emma’s escape from a dead-end restaurant job to become the teacher and then novelist she always wanted to be. Of course, Dex’s superficial fame leads to a drug-addicted, sex-drenched superficial life that is bound to burn out, and it does. Through everything, Emma’s and Dex’s friendship and love survives, and this is what makes One Day so powerful and moving.

Everyone has regrets and wonders how there life might have been different if they had engaged with that one elusive person. Writer Nicholls and Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) frankly show the highs and lows that fate gives us, and never stoop to easy laughs or unearned payoffs. Hathaway and Sturgess each give incredibly nuanced performances, aided by the luminous Patricia Clarkson as Dex’s mother and a cast of fine British actors. Emma and Dex’s relationship is presented in a real, mature fashion, full of the fights and reconciliations that every couple faces.

Anyone who has ever experienced the highs of love and the devastating lows of loss will want to experience this One Day. Its hopeful ending will comfort you with the promise that life can rebound, even when you think it cannot. With Sarah’s Key, The Help and now One Day, the best movies of the year are finally arriving.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Darwin or Bust

While most of us long to live in a place that truly accepts us just as we are with no questions asked, few of us would like that place to be anywhere in the vicinity of Death Valley. Long considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth, Death Valley has nonetheless been called "home" for 150 years by the varied residents of tiny Darwin, California.

Nick Brandestini's illuminating new expose of the locale — appropriately titled Darwin — is now playing as part of the 15th annual DocuWeeks in New York and Los Angeles (showtimes and more information may be found at the film's official website). The town is currently inhabited by 35 generally eccentric men and women, a mere 1% of Darwin's population of 3,500 at its peak in 1877. They proudly boast in the film of having no government, no church, no children and no jobs, save one. "I got the best job," says local postmaster Susan, "because it's the only job." Virtually everyone else lives on Social Security or disability benefits alone, and everyone has a past.

Darwin's other residents include Monty, an originally very handsome man with artistic longings who moved there in the 1950's to work as a lead miner, and his wife; Hank and Connie, who have embraced paganism after abandoning their formerly conservative Christian lives; and Hank and Connie's transgender son Ryal, who was born a girl but found in Darwin a tolerant community that supported his transition to male. Ryal and his partner, Penny, have since moved away from Darwin, hoping to find similar acceptance in the world beyond Death Valley.

As if Darwin's position on the map wasn't enough to discourage habitation, it is also located near a Naval Weapons Station established in 1943. The residents' only apparent, enduring fear aside from their water supply potentially being cut off is of one day having a nuclear bomb "accidentally" dropped on their community. Interestingly, the town's most prominent, longtime inhabitant is Michael Laemmle, grandson of the great Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures and supervised many westerns and other movies shot in the vicinity of Darwin during the 1930's-50's.

As someone is quoted during the film, "There sure is a lot of wasted talent in Darwin." The real-life characters depicted, though, more often than not credit their isolated home with bringing true peace and fulfillment to their previously troubled lives. They clearly have no regrets. Darwin is not only revealing but also quite funny due to things the residents say. To its credit, the documentary never leads viewers to laugh at the subjects' expense.

The Swiss-born Brandestini (who last made an acclaimed film about artist H.R. Giger) writes in the film's press notes of how he became fascinated with America's "living ghost towns" such as Darwin. He not only directed and produced the result of his interest, but personally shot the doc in vivid, hi-def style that captures the landscape's natural drama and edited it as well. While I haven't personally visited Darwin, I won't soon forget it thanks to Brandestini's haunting travelogue.

Reverend's Rating: A-

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reverend's Preview: Disney's D23 Expo Returns to Anaheim

D23 serves as the official club for die-hard fans of all things Disney. While a bit pricey to join, D23 certainly isn’t as exclusive as Disneyland’s fabled Club 33, which reportedly has a decade-long waiting list to get in. For those unaware, the “D” in D23 stands for Disney, naturally, and “23” is a shortened form of 1923, the year Walt Disney Studios was founded in Hollywood.

The bi-annual D23 Expo, which will take place August 19-21 at the Anaheim Convention Center, will once again provide a unique opportunity for non-members to savor the history and magic behind Disney’s greatest creations. Billed as “the ultimate Disney fan experience,” the first D23 Expo was held in September of 2009. The event was well attended if on a slightly smaller scale than some expected, and featured live appearances from the likes of Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage.

I personally enjoyed several of the behind-the-scenes workshops offered and the fabulous “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives” exhibit. Showcasing 80+ years of Disney history, it featured amazing props such as the Nautilus submarine model from the Disney classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as costumes worn in Mary Poppins, Babes in Toyland, Tron, The Rocketeer and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. This year’s exhibit space will be twice as large as 2009 and includes Walt Disney’s personal limousine, among other new items.

Walt Disney Studios has experienced both hits and misses during the past two years. While their live-action, Tim Burton-directed version of Alice in Wonderland was a colossal global hit, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the expensive Tron: Legacy foundered. Toy Story 3 and Tangled delighted both critics and moviegoers, but The Princess and the Frog and Cars 2 weren’t as successful. Still, the Disney legacy endures among both GLBT and mainstream devotees.

A highlight of each D23 Expo is the Disney Legends ceremony, which will be held the morning of August 19. This year’s honorees will be the late Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets; Regis Philbin; Guy Williams, who stirred many a young gay man’s heart in the 1950’s-60’s as Zorro as well as star of the non-Disney TV series Lost in Space; and “Disney Princess” voice actresses Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid), Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast), Lea Salonga (Aladdin and Mulan) and Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog). Past recipients include Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Annette Funicello, Robin Williams and Angela Lansbury, as well as out composers Elton John (The Lion King) and the late Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast).

Special sneak peeks will be provided of upcoming Disney productions such as this November’s The Muppets, the beloved characters’ first big-screen outing since 1996, and next summer’s animated adventure Brave. There will also be a special screening of 1994’s The Lion King in 3D for the first time prior to its release on Blu-ray this fall.

Each D23 Expo is partly devoted to celebrations of Disney films celebrating significant anniversaries. This year’s roster includes Dumbo (70 years old), the animated Alice in Wonderland (60 years), 101 Dalmatians (50 years) and Beauty and the Beast (20 years). Attendees are encouraged to dress in costume as their favorite Disney characters throughout the weekend.

Tickets are required for admission to the D23 Expo, and may be purchased in advance by visiting the D23 website.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Ch-Ch-Changes

The Change-Up is a "Career-Down" for everyone involved, a piece of cinematic baby poop so noxious, it could wipe out the rain forests. I was personally offended by every single minute of this stupid, curdled monstrosity. It is all the more depressing for how it sours the charisma of Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde and especially poor Leslie Mann. The scene where Mann is forced to sit on a toilet and fumigate the bathroom with her Thai food diarrhea is the kind of thing you would force an actor to do when you really, really hate them. Similarly, Reynolds’ debased slacker and Bateman’s mopey drip make you wonder why they’re stars at all. My "Worst Movie of the Year" list just got a lot easier to compile.

Easily the worst entry in the Freaky Friday body swap oeuvre, The Change-Up presents us with two equally awful baby-men who exchange pea brains after peeing in a magic Atlanta fountain. Dave Lockwood (Bateman) is a work-obsessed family man while Mitch Planko (Reynolds) is a repulsive womanizer who trolls Lamaze classes for his sex partners. Alan Arkin plays his hugely disappointed father, echoing the audience’s feelings. Once they’ve traded places, each man ruins the other’s lives, and we couldn’t care less.

Trust me when I tell you that after the opening scene where Dave’s baby shoots projectile poop straight into his mouth not once but twice, the film only goes downhill from there. The story has no point, the characters change from scene to scene from hating the switch to loving it and the narrative has the momentum of a clogged sewer line. Only the least discriminating viewer could laugh at the admittedly outrageous and sometimes sickly funny sight gags without feeling supremely guilty and dirty afterwards.

The Change-Up even looks cheap and low budget. Supporting characters like Arkin’s newest wife look like they were plucked from a mall contest, and the Atlanta setting feels like the winner in “the cheapest filming location” sweepstakes (watch out, Albuquerque!). I hope that Bateman and Reynolds can change up their agents and get better parts in better movies.

Reel Thoughts Rating: F

UPDATE: The Change-Up is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: Could It Happen Here?

When you listen to the vile rhetoric of Christian Conservatives like Michelle Bachmann and her “therapist” husband Marcus, who call LGBT people “barbarians” who are “linked to Satan”, it isn’t hard to sympathize with the foreign-born French Jews in Sarah’s Key, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s heart-breaking drama based on the best-selling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. Could such a witch-hunt happen again, this time to the LGBT community, the Mexican immigrant population or the Muslim community?

Director Paquet-Brenner pondered the question of whether such inhumanity as occurs in his film could happen again to another scapegoat minority when we spoke recently at the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton. “I don’t see gay people as different people, so I think everyone will appreciate the story. I am more in a political or religious perspective with Sarah’s Key, but I see where you are going,” Paquet-Brenner replied. “What is very important to me is that the film is universal, and so of course, you can include other minorities such as the gay community. I can see how someone especially in, how you say Deep America (Middle America), I understand how you can feel excluded or attacked, so you can definitely relate to these people. That is very interesting.”

Sarah’s Key interweaves two stories set almost seventy years apart in Paris. In 1942, ten year-old Sarah (the amazing Mélusine Mayance) is a Jew living in the Marais section of Paris when the police suddenly show up door-to-door to arrest all foreign Jews. Instinctively knowing that something terrible will happen to her family, she locks her young brother in a closet, assuring him that she will return. She is sure that her father, hiding in the basement, would come upstairs and free him, but he is found also and there is no one to save the boy as the family is taken to an indoor sports rink called the Vel’ D’Hiv.

In 2009, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is investigating the infamous round up, where 13,000 French Jews were locked into the hot arena without food, water or bathrooms for three days, leading to conditions much worse than the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Those who survived were taken to concentration camps, including Sarah’s family. In her research, Julia discovers shocking connections to Sarah through her French husband’s family, and she is determined to uncover the truth of what happened to the little girl and her brother, who escaped internment in the camps.

“I often say that the story isn’t about a Jewish family, it’s about a family. The same thing could have happened in Rwanda during the genocide,” Paquet-Brenner explained. “It could happen to a gay couple living in Iran or Uganda.” He also knows that Scott Thomas’ following in the gay community holds appeal. “She’s an icon, right? I can see it because she is a very strong woman.”

The film is very faithful to the book. “I chose to work very hard on the screenplay, because if you try to fix it in the editing room, you’re dead. It has to work as a reading experience, and then it translates straight to the screen.” He did expand on what happened to Sarah, which turns out to be one of the film’s most touching parts. He split the filming in two to accommodate Scott Thomas’ schedule and to allow him to give the 1942 scenes the raw, hand-held camera technique that puts you right in the terrifying action.

“The thing with the round-up is that it’s not like the authorities were brutal on purpose with the Vel D’Hiv, it’s just that they were totally unprepared. In the police, you had people who were against it, and people who supported it. It was a very, very difficult time in France, society was totally torn apart. You had this Vichy Government who was collaborating with the Germans. My grandfather was a German Jew from Berlin and he was arrested by the French. It was very complicated. I like when Kristin says to the young journalist (who asks why no one objected to the round up), “What would you have done? You have no idea what you would do in that situation. Some people want to simplify it; I don’t.”

Paquet-Brenner has already received acclaim and French awards for his first film, Pretty Things, in which future Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard played twin sisters, one who assumes the other’s identity when she is murdered. The handsome director shows such mastery with Sarah’s Key, he deserves Oscar attention as well.

Sarah’s Key Review:

As terrible as it sounds, some films about the Holocaust and its aftermath leave you feeling unmoved, well-made though they may be. Schindler’s List was the most searing and gut-wrenching experience on the subject, and Sarah’s Key possesses a more modulated but similar power to devastate you.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays a part close to her life as Julia, an American married to a French man and living in Paris. Julia is a passionate journalist who wants to shed light on a shameful period in France’s history, when they aided the Nazis in persecuting the Jews. Like in Arizona today, however, it was the foreign-born who were singled out for arrest and who found themselves demonized by the politicians.

Julia discovers the story of one little girl who escaped in order to save her brother who’d been left behind in their Paris apartment, but she has no clue how close to home the story will hit. Gilles Paquet-Brenner does an incredible job putting you into Sarah’s life, and seamlessly layering it with Julia’s journey of discovery and heartache. The film leaves you feeling uplifted by the end, much like the experience of reading a perfect novel.

The performances, especially by young Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Scott Thomas, will leave you catching your breath with their honest power. The story itself will reduce you to tears many times, but Paquet-Brenner is a compassionate director who cuts back and forth in time perfectly, saving you from dissolving into uncontrollable sobbing from the brutality of the 1942 atrocities.

Sarah’s Key is a mystery well worth unlocking, and you will find one of the best films of the year.

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

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reverend's Review: A Theological Tree Worth Scaling

Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life had its world premiere at May's Cannes Film Festival and received a decidedly mixed reaction. Reportedly, as many attendees booed as applauded it but the film was ultimately awarded the Palme D'Or, the festival's top prize. It has similarly received as many pans as kudos from US critics since opening in limited release here, and has grossed a mere $9 million at the box office to date.

Malick is the much-revered but far from prolific auteur responsible for such thinking-person's epics as Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. The Tree of Life is only his seventh film in over 40 years as a director. His movies are naturalistic, frequently wordless, lengthy (this one is 2 ½ hours) and slow moving, all of which translates as "dull" to many modern filmgoers. I do agree with most, though, that Malick's last venture — 2005's The New World, based on the story of Pocahontas — was a colossal bore.

The Tree of Life, however, is easily Malick's warmest movie and may well endure as his masterpiece... although the obnoxious heckler at the screening I attended would surely disagree. It is also a profoundly theological work. While different viewers may draw different conclusions, the movie struck me as being about nothing so much as God's relationship with what God has created. This creation, as depicted in The Tree of Life, includes planets, dinosaurs, and a Texas family struggling with the untimely death of one of its members.

Brad Pitt gives a terrific, multi-layered performance as the domineering head of the O'Brien family, which also includes his wife (the radiant Jessica Chastain) and their three precocious boys. Oldest son Jack (played by newcomer Hunter McCracken as a youngster and Oscar-winner Sean Penn as an adult) increasingly challenges his father's authority as he matures. This serves as a fairly obvious but effective metaphor for many people's relationship with God and/or the faith in which they were raised while transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Mrs. O'Brien comments early on in The Tree of Life about the choice human beings must make between the order of Nature which, she says, "seeks its own good," or that of Grace, "which seeks the good of all." Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others, would appreciate this framing device. The eternal tension between Grace and Nature is subsequently illustrated via gorgeous, painterly sequences (by George Lucas's special effects house, Industrial Light & Magic) replicating the creation of the universe and Earth's primitive past, as well as through Jack's decades-long effort to reconcile the family's loss and his feelings toward his father.

Most of what constitutes dialogue in the movie is intimate voiceovers, wherein the characters question God and themselves about whatever meaning there might be behind everyday events great and small. That makes The Tree of Life a film that must be listened to carefully, which apparently is increasingly difficult for today's cineplex attendees. The excellent music score — much of it woven from seemingly disparate classical and contemporary sources — by Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech) similarly helps to make this an aural as well as a visual experience. Luminous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) accentuates the latter dimension.

Being a Terrence Malick movie, much of The Tree of Life is deliberately paced and intentionally vague. Roger Ebert has compared it to 2001: A Space Odyssey in scope, but I didn't find Malick's work nearly as confounding as Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi/pseudo-religious classic. Adventurous moviegoers who don't require over-amplified sound and 3D glasses (although this is one movie that would be even more spectacular in 3D) will likely be enthralled as I was. The Tree of Life is one of the very best films of 2011 thus far, no matter what its more graceless detractors are saying.

Reverend's Rating: A-

UPDATE: The Tree of Life is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.

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