Friday, March 30, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Faithful & True

I spent six years in a Roman Catholic seminary in the early 1990's and was pleased to find it surprisingly tolerant of the more homosexually-inclined among us. We were expected to embrace celibacy and live chastely, but we could otherwise be quite openly gay. That has sadly changed more recently in the wake of the Vatican's 2005 ban on openly-gay men entering seminary and, presumably, the priesthood. Good luck with that!

While the new DVDrelease The Seminarian (available now from Breaking Glass Pictures' QC Cinema) is set in a Protestant educational environment, much of it reminded me of my own seminary experience. The attendant struggle between spiritual ideals and worldly desires -- i.e. "the spirit" and "the flesh" -- is explored respectfully (though not without some nudity and non-graphic gay sex) by talented young filmmaker Joshua Lim, who is the product of a conservative Christian university that partly inspired his latest work.

"It's really hard to pinpoint where the story came from," Lim told me during a recent phone conversation. "It's very instinctive, but it basically came from a group of friends who I met with for dinner once a week" while he was a student at Southern California's Fuller University & Theological Seminary. Lim wasn't on a ministry track, electing to study the arts instead, but was essentially surrounded by ministry-minded students.

The Seminarian similarly centers its revealing plot on Ryan (The Big Gay Musical's Mark Cirillo), a gay but closeted student in his final semester of studies. Self-aware but understandably conflicted at times, Ryan is hardly alone. He has two close gay friends at the seminary: Anthony (Javier Montoya), who has an on again-off again relationship with another male student, and Gerald (Matthew Hannon), who harbors an initially-unspoken crush on Ryan. All of them are compelled to keep such inclinations secret from their predominantly heterosexual classmates, who tend to interpret scripture literally and are therefore far from accepting of homosexuality.

"It was very much 'Don't ask, Don't tell' at Fuller regarding homosexuality," Lim said. While his movie is reality-based but not autobiographical, Lim uses it and Ryan's thesis on "The Divine Gift of Love" to intelligently explore a question that has long dogged theologians: "How can love be a gift from God when it causes so much pain?" For Ryan, a first-hand lesson in this paradox comes via his relationship with a troubled man, Bradley (Eric Parker Bingham), whom he meets through the Internet.

Lim, who hails originally from Singapore, was surprised to learn that the most generous contributors toward his budget for The Seminarian were supporters of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. One such donor, though, told Lim that they were interested in the dialogue they thought his film would inspire. The finished project got a generally positive reaction from film festival audiences but Lim reported some were unhappy with its mix of Christianity and homosexuality. Curiously, The Seminarian was accepted into more mainstream than GLBT fests.

"I couldn't make it too theological or people would fall asleep," according to Lim, "but I did want to make a serious film." Indeed, while not without some humorously observant lines and moments, The Seminarian is a serious piece of work. I admire the reflective pace and visual style Lim employs. The camera lingers on settings, faces and bodies longer than most movies. Director of Photography Lawson Deming is one to watch for his stately, color-saturated work here.

While the cast member's performances aren't the most professional, everyone gets props for their honest, heartfelt approach to their characters and Lim's screenplay. Of course, any contemporary movie that strives to illustrate how "love is an action that reflects the divine" is likely to get kudos in my book. Spiritually-adventurous viewers, gay and straight, should definitely check The Seminarian out.

Former Jesuit priest John J. McNeill is known for being the first openly gay Catholic priest (he came out on the Today show in the 1970's, during one of Tom Brokaw's first interviews on the program) as well as the author of several bestselling books on the topic of GLBT people's role in the Church. The documentary Taking a Chance on God, which will be making film festival rounds this year, is a remarkable expose of McNeill's unusual upbringing, his life-changing time as a prisoner of war during World War II, and his eventual emergence as a global spokesman for the full inclusion of GLBT persons in religious life. McNeill became so influential that his views were ultimately condemned by the Vatican and he was forced out of the Jesuits. Of course, as one observer states in the film, "The Vatican wanting to shut him up really opened his mouth." Watch for it.

Another noteworthy, religious-minded documentary now out on DVDcourtesy of First Run Features is Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero. Romero served as the archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970's and spoke out forcefully on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised against El Salvador's corrupt government. He was subsequently assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass. Raul Julia memorably brought the martyr to life in the 1989 film Romero, but Monsenor uses never-before-seen archival footage and audio recordings to present a truly first-hand account of Romero's last three years. It makes for great viewing during Holy Week (April 1st-8th this year) or any other time.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Seminarian: B
Taking a Chance on God: A-
Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reverend's Report: The Battle Over Bully

Bullying among children and teens, especially of those who are GLBTQ, has been a hot topic in recent years. The discussion has gotten even more heated recently thanks to a new documentary, appropriately titled Bully. It opens in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities this Friday.

Bully explores the plights of five of the estimated 13 million students in the US who are harassed by their classmates each year because of their sexual orientation, gender, race and/or physical appearance. The film gives painful yet inspiring voice to these bullied kids and their families, so much so that its distributor, The Weinstein Company, was planning to arrange screenings of Bully in middle schools and high schools across the country.

This noble plan was thwarted last month, however, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped the documentary with an "R" (Restricted) rating, thereby limiting its viewership to those ages 17 and over unless accompanied by an adult. The MPAA felt compelled to do so because of one sequence where profanity, including repeated use of the "F-word", is hatefully spewed by a bully. There is no sex, nudity, graphic violence or pervasive profanity in the rest of the movie but that one scene was enough for the MPAA to give its second-most restrictive classification.

The Weinstein Company and the MPAA have squared off over ratings before. Last year's Oscar-winning historical drama The King's Speech was similarly rated "R" for one scene in which its subject, King George VI (played by Colin Firth), lets loose with a string of expletives in an effort to overcome his crippling stutter. The studio later re-edited the film to garner a "PG-13" rating in order to allow it to be shown in schools. This time, though, The Weinstein Company challenged the MPAA's initial rating of Bully, arguing that the sequence in question necessarily shows the ugliness of a standard bully's attitude.

Big-name celebrities including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper and Justin Bieber voiced their support in overturning the "R" rating, as have GLBT advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and Nearly 500,000 people signed an online petition started by a Michigan teenager, Katy Butler, who revealed she herself had been bullied, and a growing number of Democrat and Republican members of Congress were at press time calling for the MPAA to overhaul its antiquated ratings system.

A March screening of Bully in Washington DC that was arranged to help defuse controversy over the "R" rating only added more fuel to the fire. At the event, MPAA President (and former US Senator) Christopher Dodd stated "I don't want the ratings issue to step all over what (director Lee Hirsch) has created." The award-winning Hirsch, who was present, quickly fired back: "The "R" is stepping all over it; that's the problem." Subsequently, California state Representative Linda T. Sanchez told the press, "This is a movie that's all about protecting kids, and the fact that (the MPAA) would offer a rating that won't let kids see it seems really counterintuitive."

Criticism of the MPAA for both its mysterious methods and secret membership has been growing in recent years. The 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated incisively detailed the organization's double standards in how it rates movies, including the way GLBT-themed and independent films are typically deemed to have less merit than mainstream productions. Bully, which is independently produced and deals with GLBT themes, could legitimately be the latest victim of the MPAA's time-honored application of these double standards. The unprecedented, widespread uproar over Bully might be able to provoke actual reform of the ratings system where past efforts to do so have failed.

Meanwhile, despite an MPAA appeal panel's re-evaluation of the rating given Bully, the film's "R" rating was upheld. Dodd responded, "I'm stuck; If we change the ruling in this case, I'll have ten other filmmakers lined up saying they shouldn't be given the "R", and who are we to say why this film should be different than the others?" The Weinstein Company, clearly milking the ratings controversy for all its worth in terms of publicity, ultimately announced yesterday that it would release Bully without a rating. This is ordinarily the kiss of death for films in wide release, since most theater chains won't show movies without an MPAA rating. However, Weinstein secured a pledge in advance from the nation's largest exhibitor, AMC, to play Bully without MPAA approval.

Having seen the film, I can attest that the "R" rating is excessive and that this great, eye-opening movie should be seen by students as well as (most especially) by their parents and teachers. But will it be a hit at the almighty box office? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the bullying goes on.

For more information about Bully and where it is being shown, visit the film's official website.

Reverend's Rating: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Let the Games Begin

Despite being the third series of young adult books hoping to become the next big thing after the Twilight and Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games is a whole new kind of thrill ride. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) faced a huge hurdle in bringing Susan Collins’ bestselling novels to the screen, namely how to depict a bloody free-for-all where twenty-four kids ages 12-18 fight each other to the death for their freedom and still earn the film a PG-13. He does a masterful job overall, and The Hunger Games turns out to be the rare heavily-hyped film that earns its hype.

The film is set in a future where the government has become a fascist oppressor over twelve districts, all of whom must sacrifice two of their young people to a wildly popular televised event called the Hunger Games each year. All of the people in the districts toil away in impoverished conditions to supply the decadent Capitol with food, minerals and other staples. The Hunger Games were conceived as a way to remind the rebellious districts of the government’s supremacy, but now in its seventy-fourth year, the event is seen as entertainment as much as a symbol.

When eight year-old Primrose Everdeen is chosen in the lottery, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, in an even bigger star-making performance than her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone) volunteers, joining Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson from The Kids Are All Right) and becoming an instant fan favorite going into the battle. Woody Harrelson is funny and poignant as Haymitch Abernathy, Peeta and Katniss’ drunken mentor, and Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable but hilarious as spokeswoman Effie Trinket.

Once Peeta and Katniss reach the Capitol, they are treated like exalted American Idol finalists, feted and paraded on TV in stylist-approved outfits meant to boost their audience approval ratings. Some of the other “Tributes” (as the government insists they be called) have been bred and trained since birth for the games, putting Katniss and Peeta at a disadvantage against bloodthirsty rivals like Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Glimmer (Leven Rambin from All My Children) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman, the creepy girl in Orphan). Wes Bentley and Stanley Tucci are perfect as Seneca Crane the Gamemaker and Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games’ version of Ryan Seacrest, with a cobalt blue Samurai hairdo.

While Ross depends too much on the shaky handicam to avoid showing too much bloodshed, the production values are spectacular, creating a completely engrossing new world you can’t get enough of. The fact that only one “Tribute” can survive the Hunger Games gives the film a suspense and urgency that raises it miles above the Twilight movies. The casting is perfect and the ending will satisfy audiences while making them eager for the inevitable sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Reel Thoughts Rating: A-

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: John Carter of Palm Springs?

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks over Disney's sci-fi epic John Carter. Seemingly pre-ordained to be a box office flop (the Hollywood Reporter has termed the film's perceived failure "a debacle"), it cost a reported $250 million and has to date grossed less than a fifth of that in the US. However, the movie has raked in nearly $200 million overseas, so the death knells do seem premature to me.

Inspired by a century-old, pre-Tarzan series of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter is over-produced but handsomely so. Relative newcomer Taylor Kitsch is fine as the hunky title character, an anti-social Civil War veteran who one day finds himself transported to Mars courtesy of a mystical amulet. On the Red Planet, he is quickly caught up in political intrigue involving warring tribes, a history-manipulating and shape-shifting trio of psychic baddies, and a beautiful Martian princess (played by Lynn Collins, who is so lovely she could almost turn me straight). Carter, who is amusingly referred to as "Virginia" for most of the movie by aliens who mistake his home state for his name, also discovers that he has been endowed with super strength thanks to Mars' gravity.

The film's otherworldly desert vistas, which were primarily shot in Utah, and barely pronounceable creature names have reminded some of 1984's big-budget disaster Dune. John Carter's battle scenes are also reminiscent of several in the Star Wars saga. One ought to be mindful, though, that Star Wars, Dune, Flash Gordon and their ilk owe more to Burroughs' preexisting stories than today's generation of moviegoers (and, apparently, critics) realizes. I have a feeling John Carter would have at least opened more strongly if Disney's marketing team had played up the source material as the grand-daddy of modern fantasy spectacles.

Much of the blame for the film's alleged failure has been unfairly laid on director Andrew Stanton. While his inexperience with live action shows at times in the movie's uneven pacing and confusing fight sequences, Stanton (who previously directed Pixar's monster hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E) is no slouch when it comes to storytelling. Unlike his previous works, John Carter is overlong and too violent for young children, but it isn't lacking in marvelous special effects, occasional magic and general entertainment value. I'll take it over Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace any day.

A new DVD release transports viewers to an even stranger environ than Mars: Palm Springs, California. The gay mecca plays host to the latest entry in Q. Allan Brocka's seemingly never-ending Eating Out series. Eating Out: The Open Weekend is out todayfrom Ariztical Entertainment.

After an initially obvious but ultimately very funny opening set at a row of bathroom urinals, we follow regulars Zack (Chris Salvatore, who has blossomed into a very appealing actor and sings on the film's soundtrack too), Benji (Aaron Milo) and Casey (the always cute Daniel Skelton) to the Triangle Inn & Resort. As one character describes it, "Picture the entire Manhunt website stuffed into one hotel." Strip tennis, sarong parties and a Harry Potter wand-shaped vibrator ("Time for some Quidditch!") figure into the hijinks.

Some new faces help elevate the now-routine crossed wires and mistaken identities that define the Eating Out movies. Casey hooks up with a hot "pretend boyfriend" played by the easily lovable Michael Vara, and Lilach Mendelovich makes an amusing "hag in training" who also happens to be a virgin. Additionally, trans actress Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road) reprises her role from the previous film in the series as the hilariously bitchy Lilly. Throw in some political satire in the form of a one-hour window when same-sex weddings will be legal again in California thanks to a newly discovered "Liberace Loophole," and Eating Out: The Open Weekend makes for a pleasant if familiar romp.

Reverend's Ratings:
John Carter: B
Eating Out: The Open Weekend: C+

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Feeling Idiotic

The punk band Green Day's 2004, Grammy Award-winning album American Idiot provided something of a narrative in its critique of the Bush-era, post-9/11 USA. The CD's credits even refer to bisexual front man/lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong as "starring" in the piece, so it wasn't much of a surprise when plans were announced to adapt it as a Broadway musical. Billed as Green Day's American Idiot, the theatrical result -- which is just now making it's Los Angeles debut at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 22nd -- is pretty stunning.

Co-adapted (with Armstrong) and directed by Michael Mayer (who has become the premiere stage chronicler of this generation's angst between this and his Tony Award-winning work on Spring Awakening), the musical spins an abstract, largely sung-through tale of three brash young American friends who end up taking different paths to maturity. Johnny, played by the occasionally over-the-top but generally riveting Van Hughes, falls into drug abuse faster than you can say/sing the score's potent "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Then there's sweet-voiced Jake Epstein as Will, who discovers on the eve of his move with Johnny and fellow best friend Tunny to the big city that he's gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Tunny (the Channing Tatum-esque Scott J. Campbell) is subsequently co-opted into the "War on Terror" and joins the military, where he receives his own rude induction into adulthood.

The trio encounter such album-inspired characters as "St. Jimmy," a devilish drug dealer, and love interest "Whatsername" along their various journeys, and they do so accompanied by chart-topping hits "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Are We the Waiting" and the title track. As compelling as these lead performers and songs are, American Idiot on stage would not succeed as well as it does if it weren't for its multi-talented supporting cast members, Darrel Maloney's riveting video/production design, and the choreography of Great Britain's Steven Hoggett.

While Hoggett's stage-pounding dance moves are occasionally predictable and repetitive, they certainly express the show's rebellious, down right confrontational spirit. Hoggett also creates a spectacular, drug-induced airborne duet between Campbell's Tunny and "Extraordinary Girl" Nicci Claspell. I was initially concerned that the handful of female performers/characters in the show were objectified, but there are enough men in boxer briefs on display to balance things out.

It was interesting to watch the reaction of the opening night crowd (which included Oscar nominee Tom Hulce (who also co-produced), Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, and gay blogger extraordinaire Perez Hilton along with various blue-hairs) to American Idiot in LA. Essentially the first decade of the 21st century's answer to such prior revolutionary musicals as Hair or Rent (and, in my opinion, more effective than Spring Awakening), Armstrong & Mayer's opus may not have cross-generational appeal. American Idiot, however, does offer energy to spare as well as a critical yet balanced take on enduring geo-political concerns. You'd be an idiot to miss it.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: Frances Fisher's Sedona Adventure

It’s been six years since director Tommy Stovall released the gripping thriller Hate Crime, and he has been working on his follow-up film, Sedona: The Motion Picture ever since. The comic drama is a love letter to the town he and his partner Marc Sterling call home, and it shows. Their son Trevor even stars in the film as a young boy who wanders away from his two fathers (Hate Crime’s Seth Peterson and Matthew Williamson) in the Sedona woods. Frances Fisher anchors the film as Tammy, a high powered ad executive who has a run-in with a small plane on Sedona’s 89A highway, and ends up stranded in the New Age paradise. Fisher’s friend, Sordid Lives’ Beth Grant, suggested her for the role after scoring the part of the aura-reading salon owner Deb.

Fisher’s Tammy is oblivious to her beautiful surroundings and just wants to get out of town (like Bill Murray in Quick Change and Griffin Dunne in After Hours). Deb tells her that there is some reason that she’s stuck in Sedona, and Tammy finds herself flashing back to a traumatic incident that occurred on her birthday many years earlier. Coincidentally, it is Tammy’s birthday that day, and the town crazy, Claire de Loon (Lin Shaye) is running around demanding people sing “Happy Birthday” with her.

With hyper-saturated aerial shots of the gorgeous Sedona scenery and recognizable settings like the Red Planet Diner, Sedona: The Motion Picture captures the vibe of the funky and affluent town, and the cast is filled with actors you’ll recognize such as the sublime Grant, Barry Corbin from Northern Exposure, Christopher Atkins from The Blue Lagoon and Robert Shields of the mime duo Shields and Yarnell. The film’s low budget gives it a homegrown charm and Fisher is amazing, playing comedy as well as serious drama as her past catches up with her. Stovall’s son is engaging and adorably non-actorly, making you feel terrible when Peterson treats him so coldly.

The Sedona Chamber of Commerce could not have produced a better travelogue, and don’t be surprised if a certain statue prominently featured in the film gets a whole lot more people looking up its loincloth.

Frances Fisher is one of those striking red-haired actresses like Tilda Swinton who immediately imbue their characters with gravitas and integrity, be it as Deborah Saxon in the soap opera Edge of Night, Lucille Ball in Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter or as Kate Winslet’s mother in Titanic. Despite feeling very sick, the star was gracious enough to talk to me about her role in Sedona and other work she’s done.

She was attracted to the role in Sedona when her pal Beth Grant suggested it for a few reasons. “Beth was in as Debbie and I like Sedona and I like playing someone who’s going through a transformation, because that’s what we’re all here to do on this planet, is to learn and grow.”

Fisher, who has a daughter Francesca with her conservative ex Clint Eastwood, isn’t shy about stating her support for same-sex marriage, and happiness with the recent Prop 8 ruling. “I believe that any two people who love each other should be allowed all the rights and privileges of any other two people who love each other legally and emotionally and spiritually.” Her Sedona director and his partner Marc Sterling are good examples of how conventional a same-sex marriage with children can be.

She had to hit the ground running, arriving late the night before filming commenced and wrapping up filming twenty-three days later. There were a lot of locations where they had to shoot, only allowing for one or two takes of any scene, but that contributed to her fish-out-of-water disorientation. “It was pretty intense,” she remarked.

Fisher received good notices for her performance as Lucille Ball, but she was sad that there was so little preparation time allowed. At one point when she was supposed to do Ball’s iconic comedy bit with a bass, the prop people handed her a fiddle.

She’s pleased to see Jessica Chastain, her costar from the 2008 Arizona-set film Jolene, receive such acclaim this year in The Help, The Tree of Life and The Debt. “(Jolene) was her first movie ever and I’m thrilled. She’s a great actress and she’s a good friend and I’m very, very happy for her success.”

Fisher will also soon be swept up in another Oscar-winning media frenzy when Titanic gets its star-studded 3D London premiere, which she will attend. It turns out that surviving the Titanic’s sinking onscreen was not the only disaster Fisher would escape. On Christmas day 2001, Fisher and her daughter narrowly escaped a fire that engulfed their home, with Francesca reportedly jumping from her upstairs window into her mother’s arms.

Fisher definitely brings that maternal fighting instinct to her role in Sedona, and you will love her passionate and comedic work in the film.

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

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Friends in Low Places

One time… at Band Camp... actually, it was in a Creative Writing class... I was tasked with writing a story in which I used as much profanity as I could, since it was something I never did in my writing. The resulting story could have turned out like Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids, but I succeeded much better than the Kissing Jessica Stein actress.

Definitely hoping to ride the wedding dress train of Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids is an adult-themed relationship film with raunchy bits grafted on like a bad science experiment. With Bridesmaids alums like Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolf and Jon Hamm, it is tempting to compare the films, but they really aren’t even in the same genre. Westfeldt is going for a Woody Allen-type ensemble comedy, but unfortunately, she is done in by two fatal flaws: her own blandly wooden performance, and the aforementioned badly done raunchiness.

Westfeldt comes off like Lisa Kudrow with all charm, quirkiness and charisma removed. She creates a void at the center of her own film, no matter how hard costar Adam Scott works to make up for her shortcomings. The misfired nastiness includes extended improbable discussions about vaginal tightness and yet another explosive baby diarrhea scene straight out of last year’s horrible comedy The Change-Up.

The premise of Friends with Kids really doesn’t hold water. After seeing how miserable all of their coupled friends are after having children, platonic best buddies Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Scott) decide that they should have a no-strings attached baby; that way they can share custody half the time and enjoy their single life the other half... what could go wrong? Of course, these pals are deluding themselves, because they both get jealous when the other finds a hot person to date, Ed Burns as a perfect gentleman in her case and Megan Fox as a Broadway actress starring in Chicago in his case.

The conflicts are as unconvincing as Westfeldt’s dirty talk, and because the main wedge in their friendship/baby timeshare arrangement is unbelievable, so is the resolution. Fox is made to be a child-hater, for instance, and Westfeldt makes Julie totally unsympathetic by having her throw herself at Jason when he is clearly in a relationship with Fox. How did she think it would turn out? All of the issues raised in Friends with Kids could have worked (and almost do at times), but Westfeldt is too involved with the material to realize when it goes off the rails. Also, what does it say when the two most unsympathetic characters are played by Westfeldt and her real-life honey Hamm?

Friends with Kids should be commended for putting New York actors to work, but I am surprised that Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum aren’t vilifying the movie for being a contraceptive device. The film made me never want to have kids, so it is more successful at birth control than condoms.

Reel Thoughts Rating: C

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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: You've Got to Have Friends

As often as naive high school seniors pledge to "stay friends forever" and tell their besties "don't ever change" in their yearbooks, the harsh reality is that friendships do change over time. This is especially true once spouses/partners and children enter the picture.

Writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt captures the evolution of longtime friendships well in her new dramedy, Friends with Kids, which opens tomorrow. Westfeldt is best known in LGBT circles as the star of 2002's lesbian romance Kissing Jessica Stein. She also stars in her current film as Julie, a successful, single Manhattanite happy with her intimate but non-sexual relationship with similarly successful, single best friend, Jason (Adam Scott of TV's Parks and Recreation). Horrified as they are by the deteriorating marriages of their longtime friends Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) and Alex and Leslie (Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph) following the births of their respective children, Julie and Jason decide to have a child together the natural way without making an exclusive commitment to each other.

Though their friends are publicly supportive but privately offended initially by Julie and Jason's decision, they are impressed and eventually jealous of the non-traditional family once Jason and Julie's baby is born. The new parents' bliss proves short lived, however, once Jason falls for a hot Broadway dancer (the ever-hot Megan Fox) and Julie is drawn to a recently divorced man played by a surprisingly hunky Edward Burns, director-star of such popular indies as The Brothers McMullen and She's the One.

Friends with Kids is honest and frequently very funny even if the humor sometimes feels forced. Unspooling like a younger, raunchier Woody Allen film, especially in light of its lovingly-shot NYC setting, it is also representative of the growing genre of crude big-screen comedies like last year's hit Bridesmaids that focus on women. Speaking of Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids serves as a mini-reunion of its cast, notably Wiig, Rudolph, Hamm (who is also Westfeldt's real-life, longtime partner) and O'Dowd, who winningly played Bridesmaids' bewildered Irish cop. Their latest effort is better, smarter and less gross-out (despite a scene involving Jason and his infant's explosive diarrhea) than the somewhat overrated Bridesmaids.

"We don't know those people," Jason confesses to Julie at one point after witnessing their friends' at their worst. We can all be tempted at times to say the same of our longtime friends as all our lives lengthen and develop. Challenging and touching in equal measure, perhaps most especially during its potentially polarizing final scene, Friends with Kids makes for worthwhile adult viewing... especially for those with children.

Reverend's Rating: B

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

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Two Men and a Camera

Award-winning cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond spent most of their adult lives joined at the hip. From their native, war-torn Hungary to Hollywood during its renaissance period in the 1960's and 70's, the men "left one revolution behind only to create another." Kovacs lensed the radical Easy Rider, Targets and Five Easy Pieces, while Zsigmond brought a stunning naturalism to such blockbusters as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as the underrated box-office bomb Heaven's Gate.

An Emmy Award-nominated documentary about the pair, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, has just been made available on DVDand Digital Download by Cinema Libre Studio. James Chressanthis' excellent expose features a diverse assortment of commentators who have worked with one or both of the men, including Sandra Bullock, Sharon Stone, the late Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Karen Black, directors Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, composer John Williams and critics Leonard Maltin and Todd McCarthy.

As Stone says of Vilmos and Laszlo (the former shot her 1993 thriller Sliver): "They learned how to light in a war zone." The men fled Budapest while film students when the Russian army suppressed an uprising against Hungary's Communist regime. Along their way to the Austrian border, they shot dramatic first-hand footage of the brutal crackdown against their fellow citizens so the rest of the world would be able to see what was going on. The eventual master cinematographers succeeded so well because they came, according to Stone, "from the training of life and truth."

First, though, Zsigmond and Kovacs had to work their way up the film industry ladder over a ten-year period following their arrival in California. They started out shooting baby pictures, then porn and cheap horror films, including 1964's notoriously bad The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Fearful that they wouldn't be hired because their names sounded too European, the men billed themselves as "William Zsigmond" and "Leslie Kovacs" on their early US films.

It was Kovacs' acclaimed, breakthrough work on Easy Rider that catapulted both him and Zsigmond into the big time. When the newly in-demand Kovacs was unable to take on Peter Fonda's follow-up, The Hired Hand, he recommended his best friend to Fonda as well as to director Robert Altman. Soon after, Zsigmond found himself in demand as well.

No Subtitles Necessary boasts generous helpings of personal anecdotes and clips from the men's films. Kovacs passed away in 2007 (he is seen on oxygen during an interview shot toward the end of his life), but his wife and daughters are on hand to provide more intimate insights. What ultimately, touchingly emerges in the documentary is the mutual admiration and affection Kovacs and Zsigmond held for each other. Director Mark Rydell states, "Like brothers... they matter to one another" and Kovacs' widow, Audrey, shares "They were as close as two men could ever be."

The documentary is itself well-shot by Anka Malatynska and edited to a brisk pace by Elisa Bonora. A fascinating tribute to two courageous visionaries, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos also serves as a great companion piece to the wide variety of American movie classics for which they were largely responsible.

Reverend's Review: A

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

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Monthly Wallpaper - March 2012: Joan Crawford

107 years ago this March 23rd, little Lucille Fay LeSueur was born. But it was several years before she achieved her destiny as Joan Crawford, one of Hollywood's most enduring stars and the patron saint of this very website.

To celebrate her birth month, Movie Dearest dedicates this month's Calendar Wallpaper to our very own "mommie dearest" in a collage of her iconic roles throughout her career, from the Oscar-winning high of Mildred Pierce to the swan song low of Trog. Also included are some of her most memorable characters, such as Sadie Thompson, Crystal Allen and Blanche Hudson.

Just click on the picture above to enlarge it to its 1024 x 768 size, then right click your mouse and select "Set as Background", and you're all set. If you want, you can also save it to your computer and set it up from there, or modify the size in your own photo-editing program if needed.