Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Virgin Herring

The artistocratic, purity-loving Lady Billows in LA Opera's new production of Albert Herring hasn't got anything on arch-conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum. One of the few comedic works by gay composer Benjamin Britten, the 1947 opera humorously skewers the politics and social mores of a small town in the British countryside. The Los Angeles revival, which runs through March 17th and is the company's first performance of the piece in 20 years, couldn't be better timed in light of our current US political debates.

As the month of May approaches each year, the pious Lady Billows (amusingly played and impressively sung in the opening night performance by corrals her town's leadership into naming a virtuous local girl as "the May Queen." The questionably-lucky young lady selected is traditionally feted for a day and will for the first time, as an enticement to other girls to protect their maidenhood, receive a generous cash gift. But when a worthy virgin can't be found, Lady Billows and her cronies decide to instead honor a "May King," and their choice is the opera's title character. Albert (a fine, nuanced turn by fast-rising young tenor Alek Shrader) is the hapless, insecure son of the local grocer, who keeps her son virtually locked up in her store. Albert's only friend is his co-worker Sid, played here by handsome baritone Liam Bonner. Sid is bound and determined to help Albert come out, so to speak, and Sid seizes on Albert's May Day coronation as the perfect opportunity to do so with the assistance of his girlfriend Nancy (the lovely Daniela Mack) and a flask of rum.

Britten's score for Albert Herring is fairly subdued, and some occasional low-volume levels opening night on the part of the James Conlon-conducted orchestra as well as a couple of singers made it sound even more so. It features a number of excellent quartets and quintets that were performed with gusto, however. Act 3 goes on a bit long with its intentionally-excessive lamentations over Albert's disappearance and presumed death, but it is largely redeemed by the triumphal finale in which Albert's new, decidedly less-virtuous lease on life is revealed.

Britten based Albert Herring on Le Rosier de Madame Husson, a short story by French satirist Guy de Maupassant (with the text translated by Eric Crozier). The resultant opera illustrates well how easily the self-serving intentions of the sanctimonious can backfire on them, a lesson those presently vying for the Republican presidential nomination could stand to learn. While watching and listening to Albert's plight as the untarnished, unwilling puppet of socially-conservative forces, I couldn't help but think of how Santorum, Gingrich and Romney is each striving to position himself as the "perfect" candidate by denouncing ad nauseam what they consider immoral. Naturally, homosexuality is one of their frequent targets. There are, appropriately, some subtle nods to gay viewers/listeners in Albert Herring; it is a Britten work, after all. These are evident in the concern Sid has for Albert and a bit of a love triangle that develops between Albert, Nancy and Sid by the end.

LA Opera's production is well-directed by Scotsman Paul Curran (who was wearing a flattering kilt opening night) and entertainingly designed by Kevin Knight. Between the infrequency with which Albert Herring is mounted and the helpful commentary I believe it provides on our nation's current political spectacle, it shouldn't be missed.

For more information or to purchase tickets, please LA Opera's website.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Men on Film: If We Picked the Oscars 2011

Borrowing a page from Siskel and Ebert back in the good ol' days, Movie Dearest's very own Men on Film — Chris Carpenter, Neil Cohen and yours truly — are presenting our own version of "If We Picked the Oscars"! These aren't predictions, but what movies, actors, directors, et al that we would vote for if we were members of the Academy. This year, we're also chiming in with our picks for the "egregiously overlooked" non-nominees.

So without further ado, the envelope please...

The nominees for Best Picture are: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC: The Tree of Life has garnered a love it or hate it reaction but I agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote that its millennia-spanning scale and often nebulous meaning(s) ranks it right up there with the now-classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Terrence Malick's film is a spiritual, moral and family odyssey, beautifully shot and acted, that I hope will gain greater appreciation from future generations.
NC: It is so rare for a film to surprise and amaze jaded critics, but the sheer exuberance and love of cinema of the French import The Artist threatened to make silent movies cool again.
KH: As a silent film enthusiast, I easily succumbed to the whimsical charms and pitch-perfect style of The Artist.
Egregiously Overlooked: Crazy, Stupid, Love, Drive, Take Shelter, Warrior, Win Win.

The nominees for Best Actor are: Demián Bichir in A Better Life, George Clooney in The Descendants, Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Brad Pitt for Moneyball.
And our winners would be:
CC: This is an unusually strong group of performances, and perhaps through a miracle of the Oscar fairy all five nominees will win in a tie! My own vote would go to Clooney. While I haven't admired all of his past performances (even those that have won awards), I was touched by his emotional authenticity as a hurting husband and father in The Descendants.
NC: While Clooney’s pained and almost schlubby performance in The Descendents was his best yet, DuJardin, as The Artist, overcame audiences’ resistance to an old-fashioned silent movie by being as dashing and romantic as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn combined.
KH: I'm torn between the two above choices of my fellow critics, but in the end my vote would go to Clooney, who shed his dashing movie star image and transformed himself in to regular guy in an impossible situation.
Egregiously Overlooked: Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, Ryan Gosling in Drive, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter.

The nominees for Best Actress are: Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Viola Davis in The Help, Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn.
And our winners would be:
CC: Davis, despite my near-equal admiration for La Streep's ah-mah-zing turn as Maggie Thatcher.
NC: The hardest category by far, every woman gave an exemplary performance. But by sheer force of  Streep’s heartbreaking performance, The Iron Lady became watchable. It is time for the Academy to recognize her again.
KH: Davis grounded The Help with her innate grace, dignity and breathtaking talent.
Egregiously Overlooked: Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actor are: Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Nick Nolte in Warrior, Christopher Plummer in Beginners and Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
And our winners would be:
CC: I was very impressed by both Hill and Nolte in their respective films but Plummer (who has never won and has only been nominated twice in his long career despite many fine performances) gets my vote for his delicate, inspiring work as a gay man and father coming out late in life.
NC: This is the easiest category, since Plummer’s performance in Beginners overshadowed all of the others for many reasons: it’s “his year”, everyone in the Academy loves him and, most of all, Plummer perfectly captured the wonderment of his late-in-life coming out.
KH: It's a sign of a great performance in a (in my opinion) mediocre movie that when the character is absent from the screen, you yearn for his return. Such was the case for me with Plummer in Beginners.
Egregiously Overlooked: Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey in Margin Call, Ben Kingsley in Hugo, Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actress are: Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs and Octavia Spencer in The Help.
And our winners would be:
CC: Spencer, who so masterfully balanced fear and humor, dignity and remorse in The Help.
NC: Spencer gave an amazing performance, as did her Help co-star Chastain. McCarthy was delightfully vulgar in Bridesmaids and Bejo was the lovely heart of The Artist, but hands-down, my favorite supporting performance of the year was McTeer’s amazing cross-dressing role in Albert Nobbs.
KH: At first, I didn't even recognize McTeer, let alone catch the "twist" about her character until the "big reveal". Next to The Artist's Uggie, she was the biggest scene-stealer of the year.
Egregiously Overlooked: Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Emma Stone and Cicely Tyson in The Help, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

The nominees for Best Director are: Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne for The Descendants and Martin Scorsese for Hugo.
And our winners would be:
CC: In an auteur showdown between Malick and Scorsese, at least in my mind, I would vote for the never-won Malick.
NC: The most unexpected pleasure of the year was seeing how Hazanavicius created a brand new silent movie with The Artist and made you actually feel real emotions. This year, he deserves the award for his efforts.
KH: And once again, it's a newcomer -- Hazanavicius -- who takes the prize over the star directors.
Egregiously Overlooked: David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lynne Ramsay for We Need to Talk About Kevin, Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive, Tate Taylor for The Help.

The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
And our winners would be:
CC, KH: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's lovely, sensitive adaptation of The Descendants.
NC: I'll go Hugo by John Logan.
Egregiously Overlooked: Drive, The Help, Jane Eyre, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The nominees for Best Original Screenplay are: The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris and A Separation.
And our winners would be:
CC: I wasn't blown away by either The Artist, Bridesmaids or Midnight in Paris, and I haven't yet seen A Separation, so my vote would go to the incisive financial thriller Margin Call by newcomer J.C. Chandor.
NC: The absolute smartest script of the year was Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.
KH: Silence is golden, but dialogue alone doesn't make a script, as Michel Hazanavicius so deftly proved with The Artist.
Egregiously Overlooked: Crazy, Stupid, Love, Take Shelter, Weekend, Win Win.

The nominees for Best Cinematography are: The Artist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, The Tree of Life and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC: The Tree of Life, hands down.
NC: Hugo, with its magical 3D and amazing visuals, trumps all the others.
KH: A tough category, and while The Tree of Life felt at times like a string of jaw dropping images for jaw dropping sake, I'd give it to Emmanual Lubezki for his impressive body of work alone.
Egregiously Overlooked: Drive, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The nominees for Best Art Direction are: The Artist, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Midnight in Paris and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC, NC, KH: A train station with its giant clock tower, the snowy streets of Paris and Georges Melies' dream factory: it's hard to ignore the gorgeous Hugo.
Egregiously Overlooked: Anonymous, J. Edgar, The Tree of Life, Water for Elephants.

The nominees for Best Costume Design are: Anonymous, The Artist, Hugo, Jane Eyre and W.E..
And our winners would be:
CC: Jane Eyre is the standout for me here.
NC, KH: The Artist had sartorial style and elegance to spare... and in black and white!
Egregiously Overlooked: Captain America: The First Avenger, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Potiche.

The nominees for Best Original Score are: The Adventures of Tintin, The Artist, Hugo, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC: As predictable and mushy as some of John Williams' themes for War Horse are, they also perfectly suited Spielberg's overlong but still-affecting tale of a boy and his steed.
NC: With no words, The Artist relied heavily on its music.
KH: The moody, jazzy score of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Egregiously Overlooked: Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Tree of Life.

The nominees for Best Original Song are: "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets and "Real in Rio" from Rio.
And our winners would be:
CC, NC, KH: No contest: "Man or Muppet".
Egregiously Overlooked: Where to begin? "Life's a Happy Song" from The Muppets, "The Living Proof" from The Help, "Star-Spangled Man" from Captain America: The First Avenger...

The nominees for Best Film Editing are: The Artist, The Descendants, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo and Moneyball.
And our winners would be:
CC: Here's the one category I'll go with The Artist.
NC: While I'll go with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
KH: And one more for The Artist.
Egregiously Overlooked: Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior.

The nominees for Best Visual Effects are: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
And our winners would be:
CC, NC, KH: We would all be monkey's uncles if we didn't vote for the incredible, primate-friendly CGI in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Egregiously Overlooked: Captain America: The First Avenger, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life.

The nominees for Best Sound Mixing are: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC: This isn't my area of expertise, but War Horse sure sounded great (at least when the people weren't speaking its leaden dialogue).
NC: Again, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
KH: Hugo, ironically considering it too celebrates the silent era.
Egregiously Overlooked: Drive, Source Code, Super 8.

The nominees for Best Sound Editing are: Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War Horse.
And our winners would be:
CC: War Horse, same as above.
NC, KH: The should-have-been nominated more Drive.
Egregiously Overlooked: Rango, Rise of the Planet of the ApesThor.

The nominees for Best Makeup are: Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Iron Lady.
And our winners would be:
CC, NC, KH: The Iron Lady, in which Streep was aged more convincingly than Close was made to look like a man in Albert Nobbs.
Egregiously Overlooked: The Artist, Hugo, Green Lantern.

The nominees for Best Animated Feature are: A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and Rango.
And our winners would be:
CC: I enjoyed both Puss in Boots and Rango, but I love the steamy Cuban musical-romance Chico & Rita.
NC, KH: We dug the weird and wonderful Rango.
Egregiously Overlooked: Cars 2, Winnie the Pooh.

The nominees for Best Foreign Language Film are: Bullhead from Belgium, Footnote from Israel, In Darkness from Poland, Monsieur Lazhar from Canada and A Separation from Iran.
And our winners would be:
NC goes with A Separation, while CC and KH abstain.
Egregiously Overlooked: Potiche, The Skin I Live In, Tomboy.

The nominees for Best Documentary Feature are: Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pina and Undefeated.
And our winners would be:
CC: Pina is spectacular but If a Tree Falls has a potent, timely message and thereby gets my vote.
NC: Me too with If a Tree Falls.
KH: I'll pass on this one as I was wholly unimpressed with the three I've see so far (Hell and Back, If a Tree Falls and Undefeated, a.k.a. Hoop Dreams Meets The Blind Side).
Egregiously Overlooked: Page One: Inside the New York Times, Project Nim, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, We Were Here.

The nominees for Best Documentary Short are: The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, God is the Bigger Elvis, Incident in New Baghdad, Saving Face and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.
And our winners would be:
CC, NC, KH: We were all moved by the devastating and poetic The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.

The nominees for Best Animated Short are: Dimanche (Sunday), The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, La Luna, A Morning Stroll and Wild Life.
And our winners would be:
CC: Out of all of them, I most enjoyed the century-long, chicken-zombie mash-up A Morning Stroll.
NC, KH: A heartwarming valentine to the timeless joys of the written word, we found The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore absolutely enchanting.

The nominees for Best Live Action Short are: Pentecost, Raju, The Shore, Time Freak and Tuba Atlantic.
And our winners would be:
CC, KH: Raju, dramatic and heartbreaking, featuring powerful performances and a timely story.

And now for our own special category of dishonorable mention, the Worst Nomination of the Year:
CC: This is a rare year in which I don't have a strong objection to a particular nominee, but I am highly critical of the Academy's Music Branch for somehow only finding two tunes worthy of inclusion in the Best Original Song category. If they continue to exclude so many contenders, they ought to scrap the category altogether. Loosen up, members! (Hopefully, things will change by next year.)
NC: No other film managed to be as both cloying and insulting to the memory of 9/11victims and survivors as the atrociously Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Talented though he may be, I wanted to slap young Thomas Horn many times during the film. And unlike my esteemed colleagues, count me as one of the haters of another Best Picture finalist, The Tree of Life, which I found ponderous and pretentious.
KH: I'm still flabbergasted by the acclaim and now Oscar nomination of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, a crass caricature of a performance of a tired and slightly homophobic stereotype (the butch gal who, surprise!, isn't a lesbian). That other actresses (see above) weren't recognized instead of McCarthy is a travesty.

And finally, see the comments section below for how we would rank the nine Best Picture nominees, just like how Academy members are required to do when they vote.

Illustrations by Eda Akaltun for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Down (and Out) in New Orleans

One of last year's most acclaimed documentaries is now available on DVDfrom First Run Features. In The Sons of Tennessee Williams, director Tim Wolff uncovers the vibrant history of gay life in New Orleans via the famous "krewes" that participate in each year's Mardi Gras festivities. As a 1950's newsreel report declares at the film's start, "Gay celebrations usher in Lent!" Needless to say, "gay" meant something else to most folks back then.

One participant who has been involved all along states, "You didn't put your lifestyle on the street the way they do today." Indeed, doing so would almost immediately get one arrested. Since Mardi Gras (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year) was the only day men could legally cross-dress in New Orleans, it became the city's de facto gay pride celebration at an early point in its history. Many decades later, in the wake of such devastating adversities as AIDS and Hurricane Katrina, the annual balls thrown by long-lived gay groups such as the Krewe of KY(!) and the Krewe of Armeinius are not only hot tickets but have won the respect of the local Black and White, moneyed, straight communities.

Amazing, elaborate costumes are in abundance throughout The Sons of Tennessee Williams but the film's finale -- shot during the Krewe of Armeinius's 40th anniversary ball, at which the theme was "desserts" -- is spectacular. Decoupage patterned on gingerbread, petit fours and New York cheesecake will not only make viewers hungry but are guaranteed to take one's breath away.

Reverend's Rating: B

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Mary in Black

The penitential season of Lent begins this week, and Scott Grenke has a lot for which to atone. Grenke is the director, writer, producer and editor of Sister Mary, now available on DVDfrom Ariztical Entertainment. A twisted tale of murder, sexual confusion and religion, the movie isn't so much anti-Catholic as it is criminally unfunny. This is especially unfortunate since Grenke's cast includes comedy heavyweights ANT, Judy Tenuta and Bruce Vilanch.

When a killer wearing a nun's habit begins offing members of the Ex-Choir Boys -- an unapologetically gay Chicago-based music group -- and their "admirers," the city's soap opera-obsessed police chief inexplicably partners flamingly gay Detective Chris Riant (Shaun Quinlan) with the straight, homophobic Detective Mark Rima (James Vallo) and assigns them to the case. The two soon find themselves in over their heads, so FBI Special Agent Peccant (ANT) arrives on the scene to try and set things "straight." They have to contend with Rima's troubling memories of an uber-strict Catholic nun, porn star Brent Corrigan in a confessional booth (and a "Get Some Everyday" t-shirt), and the seediest group of priests seen in a motion picture since 1986's The Name of the Rose.

Sister Mary had great potential but, sadly, Grenke is neither experienced enough nor funded enough to pull it off. The performances in the film are dreadful beyond the name cast members with the exception of Quinlan, who delivers his lines with great comic timing and has great chemistry with ANT. Poor, wasted Tenuta doesn't even get to try to be funny. With only a few, fleeting moments of amusement, sitting through Sister Mary is penance indeed.

Meanwhile, the DVD anthologyBlack Briefs (out this week courtesy of Guest House Films) offers six mostly-worthwhile short films that traffic in darker gay themes. Several of the shorts included made the film festival rounds last year and two of them are award winners.

Remission won the prize for Best Horror Film at the Rhode Island International Film Fest, and it is creepy indeed. Director Greg Ivan Smith orchestrates with aplomb this increasingly frightening ordeal of a cancer-stricken gay man who is separated from his lover at an isolated cabin. As the man and the audience begin to suspect he isn't alone, both are disarmed by his heightened vulnerability. Be warned: The film's finale is plenty disturbing.

QBliss Outstanding Short Film award-winner Communication is adapted from a play about an Orthodox Jew who unexpectedly finds himself the benefactor of his beloved college professor's estate, much to the chagrin of the late academic's longtime lover. Sensitive and moving if perhaps a bit too vague, it alone is well worth the price of the DVD. I also liked Hong Khaou's Spring, which captures an S&M-tinged encounter between a young gay novice and an experienced master. It served as an Official Selection at Outfest, Frameline and NewFest.

The remaining three shorts included in Black Briefs are a mixed bag. Winner Takes All is only fitfully entertaining despite the presence of Alec Mapa and a hunky Latino guy forced to fight another man for the affections of the vain, wealthy hottie they've both been dating. The controversial but potent Promise features a gay couple forced to confront their insecurities and baser instincts the night before their wedding. And Video Night, which co-stars and is co-directed by out actor Jack Plotnick (Down with Love, Straight-Jacket), is a strictly routine captured-on-video thriller a la Paranormal Activity.

Of note, Guest House Films is currently accepting submissions of gay-themed short films, documentaries and feature films for distribution consideration. Queries or links to view submissions online may be sent to briefs@guesthousefilms.com. Black Briefs may be the company's first such compilation but it obviously won't be the last: Blue Briefs, which will spotlight films dealing with the pain that often comes with love, is already slated for release later this year.

Reverend's Ratings:
Sister Mary: C-
Black Briefs: B

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reel Thoughts: The Academy Plays it Safe and Weird

Is the Academy scared of genitalia and cross-dressing, at least when they involve men? It would seem so, at least when you look at who did and didn’t get nominated for Best Actor this year. Snubbed were the handsome Michael Fassbender, whose full-frontal performance as a sex addict in Shame drew raves about how he “endowed” the role, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose coy cross-dressing was more Norman Bates than La Cage aux Folles, in J. Edgar. As I noted in my Top 10/Worst 10 List, this was a year full of pretty good, but mostly not great, films and more amazing performances than we have seen in many years. This makes it anyone’s race to win, so predicting the winners will be hard.

On February 26th, the suspense will be over and we’ll see if The Artist scores the big prize (it should!) and which one of the fantastic actors and actresses nominated will get the ultimate reward for their work.

Here are my somewhat fearless predictions:

Best Picture:
The cloying Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Steven Spielberg’s gorgeous but plodding War Horse have no business vying for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick’s pretentious drama The Tree of Life felt like it took a lifetime to watch. That these three films took slots that could have recognized the quietly brilliant Win Win, the hilarious Crazy, Stupid, Love and the riveting Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the biggest crimes of the year. While Moneyball and The Help are popular hits, their nominations will be considered sufficient reward. The magical children’s film Hugo has the most impressive use of 3D ever, but even Martin Scorcese’s name isn’t going to earn a kid’s movie an Oscar. While Midnight in Paris was my personal favorite film last year, but it has faded from the voters’ minds. That leaves Alexander Payne’s touching family drama The Descendants and Michel Hanavicius’s amazing silent film The Artist.

My pick will be the Academy’s ultimate choice: The Artist.

Best Actor:
This category yielded the biggest snubs with Fassbender and DiCaprio being passed over in favor of Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the unknown but very deserving Demian Bichir for A Better Life. Brad Pitt’s nomination for Moneyball seems like a brazen attempt to draw in more male viewers with a sports-themed nominee, leaving the big decision between Jean Dujardin’s meticulously perfect and mostly silent performance in The Artist and George Clooney’s mature and subdued performance as a grief-stricken father dealing with a comatose wife in The Descendants.

Who should win: Dujardin’s old-Hollywood matinee idol performance was spot-on and deserves recognition for its difficulty and success. Who will win: I can see the Academy voters rewarding the popular Clooney for his performance in The Descendents, as well as for his sly work in The Ides of March.

Best Actress:
This is the most competitive race, and any one of these women deserves to win. And this is with Tilda Swinton’s snub for We Need To Talk About Kevin and Vera Farmiga’s transcendent work in Higher Ground overlooked. Rooney Mara as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will not win, since her film lacked nominations in most of the other major categories, and Michelle Williams’ touching take on Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn is losing a little steam with voters. Glenn Close’s amazing work as Albert Nobbs is not as popular as Meryl Streep’s uncanny work as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, an otherwise forgettable film. Viola Davis seems unable to give a bad performance (even in dreck like Extremely Loud) but her work as Aibileen in The Help was among her finest work yet.

Who should win: Streep anchored almost every moment of The Iron Lady, and she shows extraordinary complexity as a woman suffering from mental lapses who is holding on desperately to her past glories (and deceased husband). Who will win: Davis is the frontrunner, and The Help was much more popular than The Iron Lady.

Best Supporting Actor:
Max von Sydow was the best part of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, while Kenneth Branagh did a masterful job of bringing Sir Laurence Olivier to life in My Week With Marilyn. Nick Nolte won raves for the otherwise forgotten Warrior, while a newly svelte Jonah Hill surprised everyone with a toned-down but still comic performance in Moneyball. The best performance, however, came from Christopher Plummer as Ewan McGregor’s dying gay father in Beginners. His joy as he discovers the life he’d denied himself all his married life was wonderful to watch, even though we knew he would not have long to enjoy it.

Corey Stoll really should have been nominated as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, but even then the person who should and will win is Plummer.

Best Supporting Actress:
This race seems to be The Help's Octavia Spencer’s to lose, although all five women gave vastly different and equally enthralling performances. Okay, so maybe Melissa McCarthy wasn’t exactly “enthralling” as the most obnoxious of the Bridesmaids, but Jessica Chastain in The Help, Berenice Bejo in The Artist and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs were all highlights of their respective films. Chastain has had an amazing year, starring in The Debt, Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help, and Bejo was perfect as hopeful starlet Peppy Miller. McTeer’s performance as Hugo, a proud woman who lives a hearty and fulfilled life as a man in 19th century Ireland, was the finest supporting performance of the year, and one with special appeal to the LGBT community.

Who will win: Spencer. Who should win: My vote goes to McTeer.

Best Director:
Martin Scorcese charmed us with Hugo, Terrence Malick dazzled us while boring us silly with The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne touched us with The Descendents and Michel Hanavicius and Woody Allen took us back to 1920s Hollywood and Paris, respectively. All five directors transported us to perfectly revealed worlds (even if Malick’s was slumberland), but Hanavicius managed to succeed in a genre not seen since the late twenties.

The Artist was a masterpiece of a silent film, so as much as I loved Midnight in Paris, I think that Hanavicius should and will win as Best Director.

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

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Going Crazy

Tourists and locals alike adorent Paris's famed Crazy Horse cabaret. Ranked alongside the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre as a must-see when visiting the City of Lights, the club's burlesque-style celebration of the nude female form has been running strong since its founding in 1951.

Frederick Wiseman's new documentary Crazy Horse, now playing the US art house circuit, gives viewers an unparalleled backstage look at the production. Not unlike a Gallic version of the new TV series Smash, the film intersperses extended discussions amongst the show's directors, producers and designers with brilliantly-conceived musical numbers. The best dance showcased here is set in a whirling, airborne hoop illuminated by a stained-glass lighting effect. Other elegantly erotic -- and frequently sapphic -- pieces are featured (the more shadowy interludes often reminded me of Maurice Binder's classic James Bond title sequences), as well as some numbers devoted to pure kitsch/camp.

The central conflict explored by Wiseman is between Crazy Horse's director-choreographer Philippe Decoufle and the production's financiers. After decades of little change, Decoufle wants to shut the club down for an extended period of re-design and renovation. The producers are understandably hesitant, tending toward the old "Why fix something that isn't broken?" argument, but eventually give in. Wiseman uses this showdown to compose a modern chapter in the classic, never-ending saga of art vs. commerce.

Wiseman is a celebrated, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker responsible for 37 documentaries, including the highly-acclaimed Titicut Follies, Public Housing and La Danse-Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris. He tends to let the camera run with an apparent minimum of cuts and filmmaker interference, preferring to use the editing room to focus and finesse his findings. Wiseman's efforts in his latest work to show both the passion and the exacting process behind Crazy Horse gets tedious at times (the film runs well over two hours). Still, Wiseman provides a more thorough, less sensationalistic show business expose than most documentarians before him. Crazy Horse should be required viewing for adult students of direction and choreography for both theatre and film thanks to it's excellent treatment of the critical subject of artistic choices.

I was amused by insiders' frequent references in the film to Crazy Horse as "The Crazy," as well as when they identify talent who seem to have a particular understanding or appreciation of the club's aesthetic as simply "Crazy." Prudes and some gay men may object to the display of women's breasts and genitalia in Crazy Horse (there is a pair of male performers involved in the production but they are clothed). Call me crazy, but those who take issue ought to instead recognize the artistry and appreciate this troupe's dedication to achieving it over 60-plus years.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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

Friday, February 17, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: Wickedly Talented

To look at Kyle Dean Massey’s resume, you, like him, might marvel at how in 2011, he played “a dead teenager, a Winkie Prince and a tap-dancing cowboy. Now let’s start all over.” Massey is a much sought-after actor who starred as the lead singer in Altar Boyz, as the “dead son” in Next to Normal and then as an aspiring country music singing cowboy whose main rivals were drag sensation Varla Jean Merman and hilarious out comedian Leslie Jordan. The show’s title Lucky Guy didn’t prove prophetic as the show closed quickly on Broadway. The good news is that it is bringing Massey back to Arizona as Fiyero, the gorgeous “Winkie Prince” who falls for the not-so-popular Elphaba in Wicked.

I spoke with Massey,  the handsome star and strong anti-LGBT bullying advocate, while he was finishing a long stop in Los Angeles.  “It’s always different,” Massey explained, about how coming back to the show on tour compares to doing Wicked on Broadway. “The chance to get to do the show in different cities has an effect on it as well. You learn that people in different cities are going to react differently, and that makes it exciting.”

Massey came out with a moving “It Gets Better” video because the Arkansas-born actor wanted kids to know that he came from the same background and now he’s on Broadway. “It’s a disservice to the younger generation not to speak up. What motivated me to make mine was to make it for young gay theater kids.”

Having played the lead of Altar Boyz and now the romantic lead in every tween girl’s favorite musical Wicked has made Massey a teen idol. I asked him which show had the bigger groupies, and he responded that the “Altarholics” were more interested in the performers, while Wicked’s fans are more focused on the show itself. “People get very nervous at the stage door. They’ll ask to take a picture and you can literally see them shaking. That’s the great thing about theater, you can wait by the stage door and meet whoever you want, right after you’ve seen them on stage.”

Asked for the reason for Wicked’s popularity in the LGBT community, Massey replied, “Not to stereotype, but it’s based on The Wizard of Oz. What little gay boy wasn’t obsessed with that movie... I mean, come on,” he said laughing. "The music is very accessible and it’s just spectacular. It just hits on every level. Gay audience, straight audience, there’s something in there for everyone.”

“People identify very closely with one or the other girls, or even my character, who’s changed for the better. It’s just about allowing yourself to be different and how “different can be good” and how you have to look past some things in order to figure out what you think is best or good, or right or wrong.”

“Fiyero is a Winkie prince, and he’s always compared to JFK Jr. He’s royalty and he’s kind of a playboy. Everyone knows who he is, like the male version of a Kardashian. He’s just famous for being famous. He hasn’t done anything and isn’t motivated, he’s always had the means to make people do what he wants. He meets Elphaba and he is so intrigued that he doesn’t “work” on her, that his tricks don’t work on her, and so consequently, he listens to her and learns from her and by the end, he realizes that he wants more than just getting everything he wants, he wants to do good.”

“That show was certainly not smooth sailing,” Massey admitted about Lucky Guy, where Varla Jean Merman played a conniving country star and Leslie Jordan was her partner. “But Jeffrey (Roberson, Varla Jean's alter ego) and Leslie were serious pros. They are both so talented and they brought so much to the table. Leslie was constantly telling stories and I was thinking “You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve got to write a book!” I got to have a lot of fun scenes with Varla. She tried to seduce me, it was just campy and over-the-top and we got to have a good time.”

Xanadu, starring Cheyenne Jackson, was another highlight for Massey, who played a roller-skating muse. “That show was so fun, it was really like the little show that could. No one thought the show was going to run, and here we were getting Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations and appearing on all the morning shows. I don’t think that I’ve had more fun on a show ever.”

Tempe audiences will be the last to see Massey in Wicked, for now. Gammage is his last stop on the tour, but you can also see him on an upcoming episode of the CW show Heart of Dixie, where he plays a stripper who drives a party bus.

When told about Arizona Governor Janice Brewer’s “tiff on the tarmac” with President Obama, the photo of which has been photo-shopped to make Brewer into the Wicked Witch of the West, I asked Massey if all witches are redeemable or just Elphaba. “Well, Glinda is the one who’s redeemable, because Elphaba was always good. Some people, you can’t. Some people are too far gone, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing.

The Wicked tour is now playing through March 11 at ASU Gammage in Tempe, Arizona. For more information on these and future tour dates, visit the official Wicked website.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: One Day in Sedona

When you attend the Q & A with esteemed director Peter Bogdanovich at this year’s Sedona Film Festival, the moderator may look familiar to TV fans. Glenn Scarpelli, the Sedona-based entrepreneur who owns the Sedona NOW station in the scenic Red Rock community, is the same guy who starred as Alex in the latter seasons of the hit sitcom, One Day at a Time (dust off your Tiger Beat magazines if you don’t believe me). He went on to play Audrey Hepburn’s son in Bogdanovich’s 1981 film They All Laughed, which will screen at the Festival. Scarpelli also famously came out of the closet in 2005 in a VH1 countdown show of Awesome Child Stars after having left acting at eighteen to avoid living a double life.

I reached Scarpelli in Los Angeles and he related his latest news, and why you shouldn’t hesitate to say hello when you see him.

NC: First things first, thank you for coming out publicly. It is so cool to learn that the kid from One Day at a Time owns a TV station with his husband in Sedona! I understand you have another business that Movie Dearest readers would like to check out. Tell me about Green Love Lube, how it came about and something funny about the journey bringing it to market.

GS: It seems it's time for a catch up. (My husband) Jude (Belanger) and I are in the process of a divorce after 14 years. We are still great friends and still own the TV station together but we have grown apart on a personal level. We were legally married in California before the whole Prop 8 debacle and now have to get legally divorced. I am still a great supporter of LGBT rights and Marriage Equality, but one thing we need to know in our community is "Marriage Equality" can also mean "Divorce Equality". All's fair in love and war. I have been the type to always remain friends with my exes and Jude is no exception. We've shared so much and no one can ever take that away from us! We will always love each other but I am embracing the single life again... and loving it!

Having said all of that, Green Love Lube has been absorbed by a larger company and is now branded as Aloe Cadabra. We loved being on the ground floor of creating an organic Aloe Vera based personal lubricant and enjoyed all the 'testing" of the product along the way... (Laughing)

NC: In They All Laughed you played Audrey Hepburn's son, were directed by Peter Bogdanovich and worked with Ben Gazzara, John Ritter and Dorothy Stratten. What was the experience like for you? How did Dorothy Stratten's tragic murder affect you and your costars on the film?

GS: I am so excited that Patrick Schweiss has invited They All Laughed to be screened at this year's Sedona International Film Festival with Peter Bogdanovich joining us as recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Shooting that film was certainly one of the greatest experiences of my life. Working with the names you mentioned holds a place of deep gratitude in my heart. When we wrapped on the film, Audrey gave me a present: tapes of her favorite classical music. She really introduced me to an appreciation of such pieces. Her note said, "To my only movie son". I am thrilled to have held that title. Audrey never played a mom in any other feature film.

We also lost John a few years back, but nothing was as sad and shocking as the horrific murder of Dorothy Stratten three weeks after we wrapped. I, along with the entire company, was distraught. She was the sweetest person with such a vital and successful career to look forward to. I don't even know how Peter edited the film after that. Her death created an ominous energy to this lighthearted comedy. I wonder what this film would have been had Dorothy lived. I guess we'll never know.

NC: A lot of people grew up with One Day at a Time, It made you a Tiger Beat idol and you released an album. What was it like, and how did knowing you were gay temper your success?

GS: When I was cast on One Day at a Time it felt like I won the lottery. The show had been on the air five years (it ran a total of nine) and I was a huge fan. Being able to go to work day in and day out on the set of such a great sitcom was a dream! Yes, there were the teen mags and teen idol stuff that came with it but as girls "swooned" all I could think was: “Do any of you have cute brothers?” (Laughing)

I had never been with a guy at that point but for sure knew that day would be apparent. At 18 (shortly after the show ended) I fell madly in love with Gary Scalzo, a talent manager from New York City. I was in no way, shape or form going to lie about who I was just for my career. Back in those days (the 80's) being an "out" actor just didn't happen. So I left acting officially, moved back to New York and wet to NYU Film School. So basically I left my thriving career because I was gay. I refused to play the games. I was out in my personal life for decades before I came out publicly on VH1 in 2005. I'm so happy to live a free and honest life. If anyone out there is afraid to 'come out', don't be. Do it! It's a true expression of our self love, and we deserve it!

Lately I have been throwing my hat back in the ring regarding acting and just shot a comedy pilot for Comedy Central called The Gregory Brothers. I'll let you know if it gets picked up. I'm just so thrilled I can be out and an actor! Times are changing and I like what I see.

NC: You own Sedona Now Network and live amongst the Red Rocks. What inspires you both about the town and the people that live there? Why start a TV station? What causes are you passionate about?

GS: My first partner died of AIDS in 1992. I nursed him until his last breath. I was 26. The week after his passing I moved to Sedona for the first time! Sedona nurtured me during a very tough time of mourning. Sedona has played a very important role in my life through the years. It offers me centering, healing, peace and rejuvenation.

I have been back and forth between LA and Sedona for two decades. I officially moved to Sedona with Jude in 1999. I wasn't sure what I would do for a career. It's not like there's a lot of TV jobs available. So I decided to create one for myself. Sedona NOW TV, Channel 18 in Sedona, first aired on April 4, 2002. We will have been on the air 10 years this April. I'm very proud of the station and the work we do. I'm also very proud to have been a Sedona Internationall Film Festival Media Sponsor for a full decade. The station has also been nominated for four Rocky Mountain Emmys for our documentary work and one for me as interviewer (interviewing Nick Nolte at a Film Festival Event).

I (and the station) have always been very supportive of Equality Arizona (I emceed their Gala a few years back) and the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix (I have emceed their Night for Life gala too). Two amazing organizations that Arizona should be very proud of.

NC: I think people will be surprised to know that you started your career as a child on Broadway with Anne Bancroft and then Al Pacino before One Day at a Time, and that you have also stayed close with Bonnie Franklin, your "Mom". Who really affected your life the most among the people, Peter Bogdanovich included, with whom you worked?

GS: Working on Broadway with Anne Bancroft in Golda (directed by the late great Arthur Penn) and then with Al Pacino in Shakespeare's Richard III were beyond anything I could have dreamed of. Golda was my Broadway debut at age nine. I look back and see how the universe was putting me through acting school by giving me the opportunity to work with the industry's greats. I carry to this day lessons of professionalism I learned from these legends. No college course could ever teach me more. I also had the pleasure of working not only with Peter but Martin Scorsese as well. He directed me in an episode of an NBC anthology series called Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. He taught me to never underestimate your audience. He said that audiences are very smart and subtleties go a long way. I've never forgotten that.

And yes, Bonnie! She has been a close friend and adopted family member for over thirty years. The One Day at a Time creative work experience was special. Bonnie and the cast were very much a part of the writing and re-writing of each episode. Bonnie really took the lead responsibilities. She included me, even at age fourteen, to partake in these writers meetings. She said, "I want you to come in with notes about Alex" (my character). She said, "Even if you don't know what to say keep asking yourself the question: would Alex do these things and why?" I learned so much from those writers meetings. I am forever grateful to Bonnie for that. By the way, Mackenzie Phillips will be at this year's Film Festival too.

NC: How has time treated They All Laughed? I didn't know that Wes Anderson led the commentary with Peter Bogdanovich for the film's DVD release. Can you give us a sneak peek of something you'll talk about when you do the Q & A with Mr. Bogdanovich at the Festival?

GS: They All Laughed, which didn't do much box office 30 years ago, has certainly gained legs over time. Funny story: I was at the TV Land Awards back in 2006-ish and Quentin Tarantino was also a presenter. I am a huge fan so I went over to him to introduce myself. I said, "Mr. Tarantino, my name is Glenn Scarpelli". He stopped and looked at me and said, "Glenn Scarpelli from They All Laughed?" I was friggin floored. What? No way! He then explained that They All Laughed was one of the main reasons he is a director today. Peter is his idol. He studied that film and even did an homage to it in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. I was blown away.

I've been getting a lot of that lately about this film. Peter has said that it certainly is his most personal piece and favorite movie he ever made. Again I am so happy to have been a part of it. The Sedona International Film Festival will also be screening the 40th Anniversary of The Last Picture Show on Saturday, February 18th followed by Peter's Lifetime Achievement award. They All Laughed will be screened on Sunday, February 19th followed be a Bogdanovich Q & A which I will moderate. We will discuss of course Audrey Hepburn! I know it was a dream of Peter's to have directed her. We will also discuss some of the unique ways the film was shot. For instance, there is a whole sequence shot on New York's 5th Ave that involved hidden cameras and all natural background talent. No extras! How Peter pulled this off was remarkable.

NC: What was the most challenging thing about deciding to come out? Were your parents and family supportive, or did that contribute to your decision to stay in the closet? Knowing what you went through, how do you feel about what kids are going through today, trying to come out and sometimes being bullied?

GS: I have already addressed some of my "coming out stuff" but let me say in regards to bullying. We must always walk our truth and be kind and loving to ourselves. We don't need any one else's approval or opinions about who we are! It's true that when I came out to my family it certainly was a journey, specifically with my parents, but over time they came to understand and accept me. They have shown their love for me over the years and I'm grateful for that. As the campaign says, it does get better.

But I think the most important lesson in coming out is to have self acceptance, self awareness and self love. It's really not about anyone else. We, in the LGBT community, deserve happy, fulfilled and passionate lives. We are loved, no matter what books or Dogma might say. We are loved! We can be beacons of light to help wake up those around us that carry ignorance and fear, but coming out is something we do for ourselves. Remember, the truth sets us free. I am so happy to have shared my truth today with all of you! If any of you make it to the Sedona International Film Festival, make sure you find me and say "hi". Especially if you’re cute and single... (Laughing)

The Sedona International Film Festival celebrates its 18th birthday on February 18th, so it is safe to say that it is finally legal. This year features over 145 films, documentaries and animated films, some of which specifically address LGBT issues, and many others that are just amazing films that the LGBT community will also love. For more information, visit their website.

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

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: 2012 Oscar Shorts Round-Up

Flying books, last year's devastating Japanese tsunami, and an actress who famously kissed Elvis only to soon after become a nun figure into the unusual mix of subjects that constitute this year's Oscar-nominated short films. Thanks to Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, moviegoers in Los Angeles, Orange County and New York at least have the opportunity starting today to view them prior to the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th. Some are also available online.

Whereas each year's Live Action Short and Animated Short nominees have been released theatrically for several years now, this is only the second year that the candidates for Best Documentary Short have been made available. Alas, two of the latter -- God is the Bigger Elvis and Saving Face -- weren't available online beforehand for review. I am most interested in God is the Bigger Elvis, which recounts the vocational journey of Dolores Hart. Hart co-starred with Elvis Presley in 1957's Loving You and the following year's King Creole, and she made several other movies with such leading men as Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner and George Hamilton. She left Hollywood, however, in 1963 in order to become a Roman Catholic nun. Today, Hart is better known as Reverend Mother and Prioress of her abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Interestingly, she remains a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is therefore the only nun who gets to vote for each year's Oscar winners.

The standout for me among the 2012 nominees for Best Documentary Short and, I believe, the likely Oscar winner is The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. Directed by Lucy Walker, it opens with devastating, first-hand video footage of the tidal disaster that swept coastal Japan on March 11, 2011 and killed an estimated 23,000 people. As one family took refuge on a nearby hillside, they recorded houses, school buses and neighbors being washed away. Subsequent accounts by survivors and rescue workers reveal their still-fresh grief, less than a year later. As one man tearfully states, "I lost everything that I lived for," including the best friend he watched die.

But the film also shows the re-growth that has already begun even as bodies are still being recovered. Intriguingly, the local cherry trees (many of them well over 100 years old) weren't destroyed and bloomed as usual soon after the tsunami. The trees and their beautiful blossoms, gorgeously photographed here by Aaron Phillips, serve as a potent metaphor for the impacted communities' recovery. Also featuring a Phillip Glass-ish score by alt rocker Moby, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is undeniably moving and impossible to forget.

Among the nominees for Best Live Action Short is Pentecost. I couldn't avoid checking it out, drawn as I was by both its religious-themed title and plot. It is a very funny tale from Ireland of potential redemption from a Catholic perspective, as a young boy wrestles with his love of soccer and his responsibilities as an altar server. When the local archbishop comes to town for the titular holy day, preparations for Mass are likened to an athletic competition. Catholic liturgists will especially enjoy this one.

Due to a sometimes-weak Internet connection, I was unfortunately unable to watch the remainder of the Live Action Short contenders by deadline. On the plus side, though, I did view all five of this year's nominees in the Best Animated Short category. Disney/Pixar scored their now-seemingly obligatory nomination for the charming La Luna, although the studios' 2011 feature Cars 2 was notably excluded as a Best Animated Feature candidate. La Luna (which will screen with this summer's Pixar release Brave) spins a dialogue-free fantasy in which a boy's father and grandfather teach him the tricks of their unusual trade. As usual with Disney/Pixar, it is beautifully animated.

A Morning Stroll is an enjoyable, stylized romp that spans 100 years and involves zombies (both a phone app version and the real deal) as well as a wily chicken. In the process, the film transitions from black & white to color as well as from hand-drawn to CG. Canada's Dimanche (Sunday), meanwhile, is hand-drawn in a fairly simple style as it follows a child's weekend drive with his parents to church and then to his grandparents' house. Before returning home, he receives an unexpected lesson in the value of life.

This year's Oscar winner will most likely be either Wild Life (also from Canada) or The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (which, the filmmakers proudly proclaim, was made entirely in the great state of Louisiana). The former, subtitled "A Western," follows an Englishman with dreams of becoming a rancher to Alberta, 1909. This bittersweet saga by the talented Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby features lovely watercolor work in addition to frequent usage of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic tune, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General."

The CG exercise in surrealism that is The Fantastic Flying Books... plays like something Salvador Dali and Ray Bradbury might have dreamed up. A withdrawn young man finds himself whisked away in a storm to a magical land populated by, yes, airborne works of literature. There, he finds himself tutored in the ways of life and love by Humpty Dumpty (who, curiously, also has a major role in the Best Animated Feature nominee, Puss in Boots). Touching and nicely scored by John Hunter, the short might just fly away with an Academy Award before all is said and done.

Reverend's Rating: A-

Los Angeles Release Date: February 10, 2012 Animation and Live Action at Landmark’s The Nuart Theatre, West LA and Regency Theatres’ South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana.

Los Angeles Release Date: February 17, 2012 Documentary Shorts at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3.

New York Release Date: February 10, 2012 Animation, Live Action and Documentary.

Note: Separate admission required for each program.

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reverend's Interview: Liza with an L

I'm not aware of any other out lesbian writer-directors who have gotten to cross over from the visual arts and short films by making a non-LGBT feature starring such acclaimed actors as Linda Cardellini (Brokeback Mountain), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, the upcoming Superman: Man of Steel) and John Slattery (Mad Men), but Liza Johnson has done so with absorbing results. Her very good military-domestic drama Return opens this Friday in Los Angeles and New York. It will also be available on VOD and iTunes beginning February 28th.

Cardellini plays Kelli, a wife and mother of two young daughters who returns home to smalltown Ohio as the film opens following a year-long stint serving in the National Guard during an unspecified war. It isn't long before Kelli's transition back to civilian life proves less than idyllic. Those who only know Cardellini as Velma in last decade's Scooby Doo franchise will be especially impressed by her performance here and Shannon, as her conflicted husband, is excellent as usual.

Johnson, whose "day job" is as Professor of Art at Williams College, is to be commended for her matter-of-fact approach to this story of a soldier's re-entry as well as for a refreshing lack of histrionics when the process doesn't go as well as expected. She recently spoke with Reverend about her experience making Return, which made its world premiere at no less than the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

"It isn't a gay movie," Johnson said, "but maybe there's a way it could be called a queer movie in that (Kelli) doesn't quite fit in and learns to live outside a traditional family." The filmmaker has been partnered for seven years and now calls Brooklyn home after her own upbringing in "Rust Belt" Ohio. "Sometimes, I am attracted to stories of people who choose to live outside the norm." Her crew on Return included Production Designer Inbal Weinberg, who worked on last year's Pariah, and Editor Affonso Goncalves, a veteran of such LGBT-interest projects as The Delta and Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce.

Johnson interviewed numerous women and friends who had recently returned from military service in Iraq, but she couldn't immediately recall whether she had spoken with any LGBT servicemen/women. "I believe that I did," she stated, and she shared one experience in particular. "I visited a friend of mine at Quantico, and I spoke with one woman there who isn't gay and is married but she checked me into the hotel there for significant others of military personnel. They couldn't or didn't ask our relationship (prior to the repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy), which is interesting." All in all, Johnson says she "had a great experience as an openly gay filmmaker working with military personnel."

Of working with her lead actors, Johnson reflected: "It was great. I worked with Linda for a longer time and did research with her; she took it really seriously and is very hardcore." Shannon, who will next be seen on the big screen as the villainous General Zod, was the first to be cast in Return by Johnson. "He is also very hardcore and committed to his work," she raved. "(Shannon and Cardellini) are both such powerful performers, the whole crew and film benefited from their seriousness."

Other movies in recent years have explored the experience of soldiers' return home from recent overseas conflicts, notably the lesbian-themed A Marine Story as well as Brothers and Stop-Loss. Return raises what could be a hitherto unasked question: what happens when what has long been considered home no longer serves its traditionally comforting purpose? In Johnson's assured hands (she actually has a PhD in coming-home-from-war narratives), the answer proves both enlightening and heartbreaking.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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