Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reel Thoughts: There's an App for That

A big hit from the Desperado Film Festival, the funny romantic comedy eCupid (now on DVDfrom TLA Releasing) is about a gay couple in the doldrums who suffer the effects of a seemingly unstoppable online dating service. Marshall (handsome blond Houston Rhines) is an ad executive who is burned out and under-appreciated by his boss (All My Children’s John Callahan). He’s about to turn thirty and his home life with his gorgeous boyfriend Gabe (cute dark-haired Noah Schuffman) is strictly on auto-pilot when he discovers an app that will give him everything he wants but nothing that he needs.

After seven years, Marshall and Gabe aren’t really connecting emotionally or sexually, so Marshall gives in to the “Seven Year Itch” and downloads the app, called eCupid, whose Siri-like voice sounds remarkably like Morgan Fairchild. Soon, Gabe, a struggling coffee house owner, is receiving “Dear John” texts via eCupid and as soon as he moves out in a huff, all kinds of hot (and not-so-hot) young men start showing up at Marshall’s door. “Dawson”, a “horny frat boy” hustler, appears and doesn’t want to take no for an answer, followed by a party planner and a pick-up who looks nothing like his online picture. “I see that you’re good with Photoshop,” Marshall later tells him. Then there is Keith, played by the gorgeous Matt Lewis, an intern at Marshall’s work who has a lot more than work on his mind.

Writer/director J.C. Calciano keeps the action and comedy moving, while exploring questions of gay fidelity and relationships that will strike a chord with many people. The internet has made meeting people much easier while oftentimes leaving people feeling lonelier than ever. Calciano is smart enough to fill his film with lots of eye candy while he delivers his message about remembering what is important in your life. Rhines, Schuffman and Lewis make a triangle few men would resist joining, and despite the low budget, all of the actors give funny, polished performances.

There is a thread of magic running through the film as well, as eCupid manages to sabotage Marshall’s life at every turn. By the time he meets a diner waitress who actually is Morgan Fairchild, you’ll believe that true love can conquer all... if you ignore all the online noise and distractions that get in the way.

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reverend's Interview: A Performer Who's No Idiot

Green Day's 2004, Grammy-winning album American Idiot provided something of a narrative in its rockin' critique of the Bush-era, post-9/11 USA. The CD's credits even refer to the band's 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 stage musical. The visually stunning, Tony Award-winning hit will be having its Orange County premiere May 29th-June 3rd at the Segerstrom Center.

Kelvin Moon Loh performs in the ensemble and serves as understudy for Will, one of the lead characters in this abstract, largely sung-through tale of three brash young American friends who end up taking different paths to maturity. The 28-year old triple threat from Long Island is also the only openly gay member of the touring cast, as well as its only fully Asian-American participant. He spoke with Reverend during the show's recently-concluded L.A. run.

"Every night, I feel tremendous pressure to represent my (gay and Asian-American) communities," Moon Loh laughed before getting more serious. "This show is right up my alley. I was a big fan of Green Day before, and I love contemporary musical theatre."

The production is directed by Michael Mayer, who has become the go-to theatrical chronicler of this generation's angst between American Idiot and the acclaimed original staging of Spring Awakening. "To my knowledge, there have only been four other openly gay artists involved in the show's history," Moon Loh revealed. They include Mayer and choreographer Steven Hoggett.

Moon Loh has been part of the tour since shortly after last Christmas, and was cast following tours of the more Asian-influenced musicals Miss Saigon and The King and I. "Been there, done that," he writes amusingly of these turns in his American Idiot program bio. Nabbing his current role, though, was no easy task. "I got called in to audition, and had to play guitar and sing two contemporary songs," Moon Loh said of the process. (Every member of the cast plays guitar together on stage -- impressively -- during the show's climax.) "Then I got called back for a dance audition, then final callbacks."

GLBT theatregoers may not think of Green Day and American Idiot as being of particular interest to our community, despite Armstrong's admitted bisexuality. Think again. "It completely speaks to the GLBT audience," according to Moon Loh, "because it speaks to the outcast, to those who don't fit in." He continued, "The characters in the show don't want the idea of being normal forced on them; (the musical) gives voice to the minorities."

In addition to acting, singing and dancing, Moon Loh is also a free-lance musical librettist as well as a Marvel Comics enthusiast. He most recently co-wrote Matchmaker, Matchmaker, a musical comedy about Internet dating. He doesn't have any acting roles beyond American Idiot lined up, but he still has three months with the tour. "That's the actor's life," Moon Loh said with both resignation and optimism in his voice.

In the meantime, he is enjoying his time on the road. "I'm single and ready to mingle," Moon Loh declared of his relationship status. He asked this Southern California-based interviewer where the gay hot spots in Orange County are, and I first and foremost recommended (only half-jokingly) the Disneyland Resort. Perhaps you saw him if you happened to visit "the happiest place on Earth" over this past Memorial Day weekend.

Moon Loh directed me before ending our conversation to tell readers that "American Idiot has really pretty people in it, men and women, plus awesome singing and dancing." After seeing Kelvin & Company during the LA stop of their tour, I can't recommend the musical highly enough.

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

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Nuclear Waste

Oren Peli is the go-to guy for "found footage" horror films, so it isn’t surprising to see his name as screenwriter of Chernobyl Diaries, the new fright flick about a group of “extreme tourists” who travel to the abandoned city of Pripyat in the shadow of the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. Things get a bit more extreme than any of them wanted, and soon they probably wish that they had just gone to Disneyland Paris instead.

Chernobyl Diaries isn't exactly a "found footage" film, although it does employ video and camera footage to scary effect. It also uses the true story and setting of Pripyat to create a creepy canvas for what turns out to be a fairly ho-hum horror flick. Peli’s dialogue would make a high school playwright groan (“You’re here with your brother!” Jonathan Sadowski says, establishing his relationship with pop star Jesse McCartney in the most obvious way possible). Later, a curious girl helpfully asks “What happened at Chernobyl?” so that tour guide Uri can set up the eerie setting.

Defying guards who say that Pripyat is closed, the six tourists sneak in and enjoy tromping around the abandoned amusement park, apartment buildings and crumbling restaurants of the 1970’s city built to house the Chernobyl workers, which was evacuated in 1986 immediately after the explosion at the plant. When the time comes to leave, the group finds that someone has sabotaged their engine, leaving them stranded for the night. An attack follows that begins the extreme tourists’ nightmare.

Given the “R” rating, one would expect Chernobyl Diaries to have more gory fun and shocking scares. It actually feels more like one of those emasculated horror remakes like Prom Night that shy away from real horror. There are also bigger holes in the plot that Chernobyl’s damaged Reactor Number 4. Who messed with the car, for instance? Certainly not the subhuman creatures who may or may not be residents who never left. Once the attacks start, the film devolves into one long chase, with an ending that throws the earlier events into question. With the demise of Peli’s dull ABC show The River and this underwhelming Diary, it looks like the Paranormal Activity creator may want some supernatural help to escape the doldrums in his career.

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Black Dramady

When he isn’t playing obnoxious jerks, Jack Black can really handle more dramatic, complex roles. He gives his richest performance to date as the title character in Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Based on a true story, Black plays mild-mannered Bernie Tiede, a beloved figure in little Carthage, Texas, who commits a shocking act. Bernie is one of those “confirmed bachelors” who seem to be involved in everything in town. He’s a conscientious funeral director who gives lectures on how best to prepare bodies for viewing, he stars in and directs the local community theater musicals, and he even serenades the citizens with a rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” when asked. He also pumped four shots into the back of widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) with her own “armadillo gun”.

What would make Carthage’s favorite son commit cold-blooded murder? And will the self-promoting prosecutor, hilariously played by Linklater favorite Matthew McConaughey, use Bernie’s case to make a name for himself? Linklater frames Bernie’s story with talking head interviews of sympathetic Carthage neighbors, all of whom paint Mrs. Nugent in the worst possible light, while praising the beloved Bernie. It gives the film a Lifetime docudrama (with an A-List cast) feel. Title cards pose questions like “Is Bernie gay?” and Linklater and Black do nothing to dispel that perception.

MacLaine makes Marjorie into a sympathetic gorgon, part irascible Ouiser Boudreau from Steel Magnolias and part lonely Eve Rand from Being There. She’s one of those women who has literally driven everyone in her life away, but Bernie won’t take no for an answer, so she lets him in. For a while the free-spending widow makes Bernie feel like a king as he escorts her all over the world. Old habits die hard, and soon, Marjorie is treating Bernie like a servant, which is one thing he won’t tolerate. However, he loves the good life she’d given him, so out comes the Armadillo Gun. Problem solved, at least for a (surprisingly long) time.

The real Bernie is in prison, though, so you know how it turns out. As a film, Bernie is entertaining and filled with great performances, especially by Black, but it ultimately feels like a simple true crime story without much of a payoff. I Love You Phillip Morris took a similar true Texas tale and made it something outrageous. Bernie the film is as mild and unassuming as its title character. You’ll enjoy spending time with Bernie and company, but you might not remember him once he’s sent away.

Reel Thoughts Rating: B-

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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Coming to America

As big a fame whore as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sasha Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen (rhymes with Paula Deen) of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya -- a.k.a. The Dictator -- is a power-mad man-child who rules his oil-rich country like a giant sandbox. He is desperate to build nuclear weapons, but he has a bad tendency of killing the scientists who he needs for minor slights. Although he spends his lonely nights in bed with celebrities like Megan Fox (in a hilarious cameo), soon reality intrudes and Aladeen is compelled to address the United Nations to avoid ending up like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi.

Unbeknownst to him, it is really a plot by his uncle Tahir (Ben Kingsley) to replace him with his goat-herder double so that he can sell Wadiya’s oil to the West. Escaping from John C. Reilly’s FBI assassin, Aladeen is soon running around New York City puncturing all kinds of sacred cows (pro-war politicians, anti-war activists, snobby New Yorkers, etc.). He is rescued by Anna Faris (in a brunette pixie cut), who runs an impossibly politically-correct co-op and who mistakes the now-beardless despot for a Wadiyan dissident, albeit an incredibly rude one.

Freed from the constraints of the hidden-cam mockumentary structure of Borat and Bruno, The Dictator is more conventional but just as much of an equal opportunity offender as those comedies. You will definitely laugh out loud many times, even as many jokes or plot points fall flat. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll also hear some pretty trenchant political and pop culture jabs.

Will Aladeen see the errors of his oppressive, misogynistic ways and make Wadiya into a democracy? Will Tahir and his Big Business buddies turn Wadiya into a new source of oil for the US? The Dictator is a mixed bag of comedy, laugh-out loud scenes, groan-inducing parts and everything in between. Whether or not you want to meet The Dictator will depend on how much you like its leading man.

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

Friday, May 18, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Noisemakers

As the predominantly mindless and noisy summer movie season gets into full swing with this weekend's release of the board game-inspired, eardrum-shattering Battleship, keep your eyes open for these decidedly smarter, quieter gems. They are now playing in Los Angeles and New York City but are scheduled to expand nationally over the next few months, so please make some noise of your own and talk them up.

Hysteria (Sony Pictures Classics): The only sound effect of note here is the electric buzzing of Victorian-era vibrators, the development of which is covered fully. However, lesbian director Tanya Wexler (Finding North) has a lot more on her mind than "personal massagers." She uses this unusual if factual premise as a springboard to explore gender equality, economic justice and our current need for socioeconomic reform. I haven't been a big fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal (although I definitely preferred her to Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight), but she shines here as the rebellious, crusading daughter of Jonathan Pryce's gynecologist. The doctor's young apprentice (Hugh Dancy) naturally becomes smitten with her despite his engagement to the doctor's other daughter (Felicity Jones). Out actor Rupert Everett is also on hand, playing the "full-time sexual deviant" who creates the gadget that would enable women to relieve themselves of "tension in the womb" forevermore. Hysteria is an insightful, entertaining, beautifully-designed and -photographed film. Be sure to stay through the end credits.

I Wish (Magnolia Pictures): Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows) has crafted a lovely, authentic exploration of family bonds tested by separation. 12-year old Koichi and his younger brother, Ryunosuke (played by real-life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, who are also a famed comedy duo in Japan known as MaedaMaeda), are living apart due to their parents' divorce. Koichi, who lives with their mother while Ryu resides hundreds of miles away with their father, is increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of how to reunite them all. Rumors of a time-traveling miracle that could result when the northbound and southbound cars of a new bullet train pass each other for the first time at top speed gets Koichi's hopes up. Not everything goes as well as Koichi and his friends would like but they gain important life lessons in the process. Though the film is overlong at 128 minutes, it is a warm and wise winner.

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (Music Box Films): Also from Japan, this acclaimed 2004 film is only now receiving an American release, perhaps thanks to the success of 2008's Marley & Me. While both movies track a lovable Labrador's life from birth to death (have Kleenex handy), Quill has a nobler purpose: he is specially trained to be a guide dog to the blind. Director Yoichi Sai lays the sentimentality and humor on thick at times, and whoever composed the irritatingly whimsical, calliope-esque music score should have been spayed or neutered. Still, the movie is charming more often than not, and Sai's pseudo-documentary approach gives viewers a greater appreciation of service animals and the sacrifices they unknowingly make to assist us.

Polisse (Sundance Selects): While The Artist may have swept this year's Academy Awards, it didn't receive as many Cesar nominations in its native France as this hard-hitting film about the various members of the Parisian police department's Child Protection Unit. As one can imagine, they encounter some horrific situations on a day-to-day basis including child prostitution, physical and sexual abuse, and incest, and the resultant mental and emotional toll impacts their personal lives. Directed and co-written by Luc Besson protege Maiwenn (who also co-stars as a government photographer assigned to the unit) employs real situations but fictional characters to powerful dramatic effect. Polisse won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and will also be available for viewing via video-on-demand starting May 25th.

Reverend's Ratings:
All four films: B+

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: From a Different Angle

Broadway has proven much more welcoming to GLBT actors than Hollywood, and one example is Christopher Sieber. The tall, handsome actor has had success in television, playing father to the Olsen Twins in Two of a Kind and one half of a high-profile but short-lived gay couple in It’s All Relative, but his real successes have come on Broadway. The 6’2” Minneapolis native has entertained audiences playing Sir Galahad in Monty Python’s Spamalot (for which he was nominated for a Tony Award), the tiny Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical (another Tony Nomination), Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Billy Flynn in Chicago. His latest Broadway appearance was replacing an ailing Jeffrey Tambor as Georges in La Cage aux Folles opposite none other than the writer himself, Harvey Fierstein.

In the show, the two play the Emcee and star attraction of a seedy San Tropez drag bar who have been partners for over twenty years and have raised a son together. Their lives are thrown for a loop when their son Jean Michel announces that he is getting married to the daughter of a rabidly anti-gay politician. If that wasn’t bad enough, the ungrateful boy wants his dad to de-gay the house and invite both the in-laws-to-be and his biological mother to dinner, leaving Zaza in the cold. This sets up the most awkward dinner party imaginable, especially when Zaza “saves the day” by appearing suddenly as Jean Michel’s “Maman.” Offering running commentary is Jacob, their maid/butler and a bevy of dangerous Cagelles, the performers from the club. From the show comes the classic GLBT anthem “I Am What I Am”, “The Best of Times” and the title number.

Now that La Cage has closed on Broadway and gone on national tour, Sieber has been busy donning wigs, mascara and gowns to play Fierstein’s role opposite none other than George Hamilton as Georges. The debonair and permanently tanned Hamilton is thirty years older than Sieber, giving their relationship extra poignancy. I spoke with Sieber, who was very funny and down-to-earth, about how life is on the road with Hamilton in La Cage. “I’m seven foot eight in hair and heels,” Sieber laughed. “Even my dad said, “You know, Chris, you’re not an attractive woman.” I told him, “Yeah, Dad, I know. It’s okay.”

Not every actor gets to play both halves of a couple, and Sieber was grateful for the opportunity to play Georges first. “Thank goodness that I had that experience, because now I know the ins and outs of the part playing opposite Harvey, the guy who wrote it. I never expected to play Albin, it just sort of happened. It’s kind of strange that I’m doing it, but playing opposite Harvey was pretty cool."

Sieber has nothing but praise for his famous co-star. He said that Hamilton was open and admitted when he was having challenges learning his lines at first. “He is absolutely the loveliest guy. He’s so generous, he’s so sweet. He doesn’t have a diva bone in his body. He really works his butt off because he wants to be good. And the stories that he tells! He’s been with every starlet and every star in Hollywood and he knows them personally, so when you hear these old Hollywood stories, you just ask George what really happened and he’ll tell you. He was there! He’d talk about Judy Garland and he was with (President) L.B.J. for a while and dated his daughter. It’s amazing t he amount of drinking that went on in old Hollywood…”

Well-known ladies’ man Hamilton had no trouble playing gay, Sieber said. “He had a gay brother, so he was very cool with it right off. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but the first time we kissed, we had never rehearsed it, we just looked at each other like, “This is happening,” and we did it,” he said, laughing. “And of course, he went off to the side a little because he barely knew me, but now it’s just full-on kissing. He doesn’t really care what people think of him, because he’s so charming, he’ll win you over anyway. We’ve developed a really great working relationship but also a personal relationship. He trusts me completely, and he really has to,” Sieber explained.

“This production is very intimate,” Sieber said. “Our director, Terry Johnson, wanted it to be like a club where you would go. Everything is very close. In the original, the gag was “which one’s a man, which one’s a woman?” We don’t have that. We’re a drag club. There are no women Cagelles. There’s a line that we’re bawdy but we’re also rather grand. Ours is kind of gritty. La Cage aux Folles has been around a while, which is like Georges and Albin’s life. We’ve been together twenty years and we built this life together, probably the only life we ever could have had, being gay people in that time period. We’ve carved out this beautiful, wonderful life together.”

“What makes me laugh is when Georges introduces the Cagelles, he’s showcasing the talent, but the talent he’s showcasing is terrible. Chantal can hit a note, but she really doesn’t do anything. Hannah from Hamburg has a skill with a whip, but Phaedra, the Enigma, literally has no talent. The only thing she does is flick her tongue. That’s her talent,” he said laughing. Of course, the buff and agile actors playing the Cagelles have nothing but talent, and if you are lucky enough to sit at the onstage cabaret tables, they will put their talents right in your face.

“There is so much heart. It’s such a great story. Ultimately, it’s about a family. It doesn’t matter who you love, just that you love. With today’s political climate, where they’re making us gays and lesbians footballs to kick around and say we’re evil... Santorum can kiss my f-in’ ass, but even someone like Rick Santorum, if he came to see our show, it might, possibly, change their mind. The message is so strong, and people leap to their feet at the end. Even the hardest of theater-goers, who were probably dragged their by their wives, probably didn’t want to be there because they thought it was going to be “a bunch of fruity guys leaping around in skirts”, they are leaping to their feet and clapping and cheering because they got it.”

Zaza’s beauty secret is Dermablend make-up, developed to cover up scars. “I’m not hairy by any means, but every guy gets a five o’clock shadow. This stuff Dermablend just takes it away. After eight shows a week, it takes its toll on me, with the corset and the lipstick. My face is okay... I moisturize like crazy because I’m a good gay boy. I have some great shoes... I have nine different pairs and half of them are heels. It’s up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down.”

Sieber came out publically while promoting ABC’s sadly short-lived comedy It’s All Relative, where he and John Benjamin Hickey played parents of a girl who begins dating a boy with conservative Irish-American parents. “I thought I’d nip it in the bud and get it out there, since I knew it was going to be a high-profile show on ABC. I’ve known I was gay since fourth grade. If you make a big deal out of it, it will be a big deal. If you don’t, it won’t.”

The La Cage aux Folles tour will play Tempe's Gammage Auditorium starting tonight and running through May 20th. For tickets, future tour dates and locations and more information, see the tour's official website.

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

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Maimed in the USA

I never considered myself a Bobcat Goldthwait fan, but then he started making wild black comedies like Sleeping Dogs Lie and his new satire, God Bless America. Joel Murray (brother of Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray) is finally given a movie to headline, and although its ultimate targets are simple and somewhat dated, getting there is all the fun.

Fun is an odd choice of words for a film about a man who, faced with an inoperable brain tumor, sets off on a cross-country killing spree with a runaway teenager. However, the people this modern day Bonnie and Clyde decides to off are people that a lot of us would never dream of saying “deserve their fate”, as much as we may think it. God Bless America is like Serial Mom’s sensibility grafted onto Natural Born Killers’ mindset.

Frank (Murray) often fantasizes about killing off his annoying coworkers and the rudely noisy couple with the wailing baby next door, but once he gets a death sentence from his distracted doctor, his nausea-inducing television diet of reality shows about bad girls, American Superstars and super un-sweet sixteen year-olds, he sets off on a mission: he will rid the world of people who are mean and hurt people.

He starts with Chloe, a spoiled rotten reality star whose parents buy her everything. Chloe’s schoolmate Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) witnesses the crime and convinces Frank she would be a great accomplice, even suggesting potential next targets. A Glenn Beck-style TV bully, a bunch of Westboro-styled hate-mongers and a smarmy TMZ-type host all earn the duo’s wrath, before the sight of a William Hung-like contestant being laughed at on American Superstars gives Frank his ultimate target.

God Bless America is not afraid to take on media’s biggest bullies and narcissists, exposing not only the groups Frank opposes, but also his self-importance at naming himself executioner of decency. A lighter touch with the material and a broader swath of people on whom the two exact revenge would have raised the film to Serial Mom absurdity and perfection, but God Bless America ends up dulled by going after American Idol and the rude host who hasn’t been on it for two seasons.

Still, the scene where Frank and Roxy open fire on sign-wielding protestors at a funeral will give a secret buzz to anyone who has seen the same kind of ignorance in news reports. Not everyone can fight back with a flash mob of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

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

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Return to Collinwood

Fans of the original Dark Shadows can breathe an undead sigh of relief. Despite trailers that show all but the raunchiest comic bits from the newest Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s twisted take on the beloved Gothic soap opera of the late sixties is a fairly faithful reimagining, featuring more than enough nods to the original series to keep fans chuckling. It will be the people expecting a full-on Brady Bunch Movie parody or Scary Movie-type schlock who will be disappointed.

As in the original 1967-1971 series and its 1991 remake, the film takes place in the chilly Maine town of Collinsport, in the shadow of forbidding Collinwood Manor. Barnabus Collins, played mischievously but seriously by Johnny Depp, is the callow young son of a successful British nobleman who founds Collinsport in 1760. Barnabus spurns the advances of evil witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who curses the entire Collins family and turns Barnabus into a vampire, before leading the townspeople to chain him into a coffin and bury him alive… or undead.

Fast forward to 1972, and Collinwood is a wreck, full of the dysfunctional remnants of the once mighty Collins clan. Young Maggie Evans a.k.a. Victoria Winters (a sly reference to how the series combined the characters of proper Victoria Winters and diner waitress Maggie Evans) begins her journey on a train to Collinwood to become the governess for unruly young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath, the only actor to play the role who you didn’t want to strangle).

Michelle Pfeiffer is a hoot as the world-weary Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Jonny Lee Miller is funny if under-utilized as snobby brother Roger, David’s absentee father. Chloe Grace Moretz makes a wonderfully zonked-out Caroline, who was more of a spoiled princess in the series. Helena Bonham Carter looks amazingly garish as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and her performance is spot on, but hers is the character who is most underserved by the script.

Depp’s Barnabus is released by clueless construction workers at a McDonald’s and treks back to Collinwood and sets about restoring the Collins’ good name in the village, unaware that Angelique has spent the last two hundred years continuing her vendetta against the poor family. Depp is a perfect choice, and he imbues Barnabus with just the right amount of pompousness and charm. Green makes a throaty and entertaining Angelique, while Jackie Earle Haley is a funny grump as Willie Loomis.

One of the wackiest things about Dark Shadows was the way that one little Maine town managed to be home to vampires, witches, warlocks, werewolves, ghosts, a phoenix, demons and a time portal. While most of those don’t appear in Tim Burton’s version, the crazed ending unleashes enough supernatural beings to fill the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

Of course, a lot of Dark Shadows lore had to be lost to fit a 113 minute film, and I wish that the original cast members, including the late Jonathan Frid, had been given more to do in their cameos, but I appreciated the care with which Burton and Depp approached the piece, and I loved the production design immensely. I missed Barnabus and Julia’s odd relationship from the show, but since Burton wanted to concentrate on Barnabus and the family, I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Plus, there is always the sequel, however unlikely that is.

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

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Haunted Heartache

Upon entering the Ahmanson Theatre this past week, regulars like myself were initially startled to find the space in a state of apparent disrepair. The walls, speakers and seating boxes were covered with black tarps, and the curtain partly covering the proscenium was torn and frayed. What's more, a howling wind could be intermittently heard and the smell of mildew hung in the air. I felt I had walked into the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather than LA's premiere theatrical venue.

The occasion for this intentional display of decay was opening night of the first post-New York staging of last year's acclaimed, Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's and James Goldman's 1971 musical, Follies. Their work has been performed rarely in the last 30 years due to the mixed reception it received upon its debut, it's unusually large (by today's standards) cast and orchestra, and the requisite multi-million dollar budget that naturally accompanies these amenities. Despite such extravagance, the original production was Sondheim's second significant attempt (after Company) to deconstruct and downsize the Broadway musical, which the composer later achieved par excellence via such shows as A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion.

As if the dilapidated scenery wasn't enough (the current production is magnificently designed by Derek McLane, costumer Gregg Barnes and lighting designer Natasha Katz), the stage and levels above it fill with the seeming ghosts of showgirls past during the orchestral prologue. These bedazzled wraiths are gradually revealed to be the younger incarnations of the now-aged chorines who serve as Follies' central characters, and they hover eerily throughout the performance and even during intermission.

Sally (Tony-winner Victoria Clark who, as a replacement for Bernadette Peters, is the only leading non-member of the revival's New York cast), Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), Carlotta (British stage legend Elaine Paige) and their cohorts all performed during the 1930's-40's in the since-defunct Weismann Follies. They have reunited thirty years later in their former theatre on the eve of its demolition, many with their husbands or lovers in tow. It quickly becomes apparent that Sally and Phyllis have lingering issues with the men they met during their follies run and eventually married: Buddy and Ben (played, respectively, by Tony nominees Danny Burstein and Ron Raines). Said issues come to a head during their reunion in now-typical, truth-telling Sondheim style.

The score of Follies includes several songs that serve today as standards, notably "I'm Still Here" (performed delectably by Paige), "Losing My Mind," "Broadway Baby" and "Too Many Mornings." I was therefore shocked to overhear the two older gentlemen in front of me in the restroom line during intermission agree that "the music is great but this show doesn't have any memorable songs"! Other gems are "Ah, Paris!," "The Road You Didn't Take," "In Buddy's Eyes," the showstopping "Who's That Woman" (featuring lead singer Terri White, who still has the energy and verve she displayed in 1980 as Joice Heth in Broadway's Barnum), "Live, Laugh, Love" and the haunting (and spectacularly sung) "One More Kiss."

Between scenes and acts, I found myself reflecting as much on my own life choices these past 30 years as the show's characters do, which may well be the ultimate intent of Sondheim and book author Goldman. Much credit also has to be given director Eric Schaefer (Million Dollar Quartet, The Witches of Eastwick), who along with his amazing cast has breathed new, 21st century-relevant life into what could have been in lesser hands a drab, dusty chestnut.

Follies plays at the Ahmanson through June 9th. It is superb and absolutely, positively should not be missed by anyone who cares about theatre, love or life.

Reverend's Rating: A

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

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reel Thoughts Preview: Camp Vamp

Television fans of Dark Shadows have been in a snit ever since the very campy trailer of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows came out. But even die-hard fans can’t explain why the real world of the late sixties and early seventies, save for groovy costumes and hairstyles, never seemed to intrude on the bizarre world of Collinsport, Maine. Barnabus Collins, the show’s fly-away star, wasn’t even a part of the series until a year into its run. In honor of Burton’s comic new take on the old classic, here is some more Dark Shadows trivia you might like:

- At first, Dark Shadows played like a daytime Jane Eyre, with sweet orphan Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) summoned to the creepy Collinwood Estate by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) to care for her misbehaving nephew David (David Henesy). She hoped to discover her roots. Hints were dropped that her parent might be closer than she thought, but they were dropped altogether once the show introduced ghosts and the supernatural.

- The first major monster to strike Collinwood wasn’t vampire Barnabus, but rather David’s crazy mother Laura Collins (Diana Millay), who reportedly died in a fire in Phoenix only to appear suddenly at Collinwood’s front door. She was an actual Phoenix, it turns out, and had to burn herself and her son up in order to live for another hundred years.

- The film’s imposing Collinwood Manor is fake, but is much inspired by the Carey Mansion, a Newport, Rhode Island landmark that served as Collinwood in the original series. In the 1991 TV remake, the house looked like a detailed model covered in rain and fog.

- Katheryn Leigh Scott’s diner waitress Maggie Evans was intended to inject a little working class grit into Dark Shadows, complete with a crazy drunken painter for a father. She was tapped as Barnabus’ reborn lover Josette DuPres, however, and soon became the show’s more popular heroine.

- Alexandra Moltke gained unwanted notoriety as the mistress of Claus von Bulow, who was convicted then cleared of killing his socialite wife Sunny. The case inspired the film Reversal of Fortune, with Jeremy Irons (in an Oscar-winning performance), Glenn Close and Christine Baranski playing Claus’ girlfriend.

- Many of Collinwood’s visitors were gay, at least off-screen. While the original Barnabus, the very private Jonathan Frid, passed away last month without confirmation of his sexual orientation, Louis Edmonds (Roger Collins), hunky Joel Crothers (Joe Haskell), handsome Boys in the Band star Keith Prentice (Morgan Collins), spooky Thayer David (Professor Timothy Stokes), and flamboyant Humbert Allen Astredo (Nicholas Blair) definitely set off many viewers’ gaydar.

- Surprisingly, tough ol’ broad Grayson Hall, who played Dr. Julia Hoffman, was not a lesbian, although she played one rather convincingly in the hilarious Satan in High Heels.

- Did you know about the lost Dark Shadows? Not the two spin-off movies House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, nor the 1991 short-lived remake starring Ben Cross as Barnabus and a steely Barbara Steel as Julia. In 2004, a pilot starring Marley Shelton as Victoria Winters and recent Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain as Caroline was filmed for the WB, but never aired. It is probably better that way.

Tim Burton's big screen take on Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp, Michell Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter, opens today at a theater near you.

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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Whit's End

If you like those “Bein’ Quirky With Zooey Deschanel” skits on Saturday Night Live, you’ll love Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress, starring Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton (from America’s Next Top Model and Crazy, Stupid, Love). There is more quirk per minute than any other film this year; whether this is a good or a bad thing will determine whether or not you should see these Damsels.

Transfer student Lily (Tipton) shows up to Seven Oaks College and is immediately taken on as a project by a trio of self-appointed do-gooders, Violet (Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Unlike Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless, these girls are pretty clueless themselves, as is everyone on the campus. The frat boys are so sheltered, they don’t even know the names of the colors.

Not much happens in Damsels in Distress, mostly the girls are disappointed by the men in their lives, Violet tries to start an international dance craze and Lily goes through a mid-movie personality change that serves no purpose. Of course, Stillman knows how to write funny dialogue, like the scene where Brody decries how homosexuality has gone down the tubes and now gays are just muscle men working out.

Getting there is all the fun in Damsels in Distress. The performances are all pitched at a level completely out of touch with reality, which is done on purpose and which seems to reflect Stillman’s peculiar worldview. Metropolitan, Stillman’s first hit, portrayed the same kind of rarefied preppies, but was more naturalistic. If you don’t find Damsels in Distress too precious and forced, you should enjoy its witty writing and charming WASP-centric pleasures.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Love & Denial

As Saturday Night Live's self-help guru Stuart Smalley (played by now-Senator Al Franken) regularly declared back in the 1990's, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." It didn't matter whether he was addressing addiction, codependency, emotional inadequacy or sexuality, Stuart called his celebrity guests on their dirty little secrets.

Two new DVD releases out today, Kawa(Wolfe Video) and This is What Love in Action Looks Like(TLA Releasing), effectively illustrate the life-sapping power denial has when it comes to homosexuality. The first, which is also available via download and Video on Demand, is a visually-stunning family saga set in seaside New Zealand. Billed as "a coming out drama," it depicts the title character's struggle to keep his attraction to men a secret from his wife, children, co-workers and father, whom Kawa is destined to succeed as leader of the local Maori community.

Straight New Zealand superstar Calvin Tuteao (Once Were Warriors) imbues Kawa with a sense of nobility and yearning integrity that makes his dilemma that much more palpable, especially when he falls for a handsome actor. Of interest, Kawa was made primarily by women, notably writer-director Katie Wolfe (adapting a novel by Witi Ihimaera, who also wrote the movie-inspiring Whale Rider). Wolfe balances well the film's other characters and the impact Kawa's denial has on them, especially given its slender running time of 77 minutes. Also of note is the movie's moody, sensual music score. And though the plot may seem somewhat dated to us somewhat more open "westerners," there are still many men and women around the world who will no doubt identify with Kawa's plight.

This is What Love in Action Looks Like, meanwhile, is a documentary by activist-filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox that exposes the reprehensible tactics used by organizations and facilities that claim to be able to cure homosexuality. When 16-year old Zack Stark told his parents he was gay in 2005, he quickly found himself sent to Refuge, a fundamentalist-Christian youth program based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Before going, though, Stark blogged about the program's anti-gay agenda which espoused, among other untruths, "A homosexual lifestyle leads to an early death." A nationwide protest ensued, which was covered at the time by CNN, Good Morning America and many other outlets. As a result of the controversy, Refuge was thankfully shut down in 2009.

Unfortunately, the ministry that ran Refuge, Love in Action (LIA), remains in operation. Founded in 1973 -- the same year that homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association -- LIA and its larger "parent organization," Exodus International, continue to try to convince GLBT people that our sexual orientation can be changed, despite few if any of their past clients acknowledging success in this effort. LIA's former director, the Rev. John Smid, ultimately disavowed the ministry he led for 18 years and allowed himself to be interviewed extensively for this film.

More than a few commentators, several of them former LIA clients, in This is What Love in Action Looks Like reference the comedy But I'm a Cheerleader in their description of Refuge. As Stark and now Fox reveal, though, such programs are no laughing matter. The documentary moves along briskly and subsequently doesn't allow for much nuance, but its potency can't be denied.

Reverend's Ratings:
Kawa: B+
This is What Love in Action Looks Like: B

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

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Young Love & Death

Fresh from a series of awards across the festival circuit comes Jitters, an Icelandic coming-of-age film about first love now available on DVD. On a Summer trip to study abroad in Manchester, England, Gabriel (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) meets a supposedly straight boy named Markus (Haraldur Ari Stefánsson) who seems intent on corrupting the introverted Gabriel.

After a night of drinking, the boys share a fantastic kiss that makes Gabriel realize and accept that he’s gay, but then he has to return to the prying attention of his parents, who realize that something is different. Even Gabriel’s friends notice a change, but they are going through a lot of changes themselves. His best friend Stella finds love with Mitrovik, a boy who works with her at a drug store, while his friend Greta is desperate to meet her birth father.

When Gabriel runs into Markus again, sparks fly and he is ready to take their relationship further. Unfortunately, Markus seems to have retreated back into the closet. A number of events force all of the friends to grow up and seek out what is important to them, especially Gabriel.

Jitters is a sweet and moving film, and its Icelandic setting is intriguing. In many ways, it reminded me of Spring Awakening, the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, because it deals with teens who are trying to explore their sexuality amongst controlling or oppressive adults. Not everyone has a happy ending in both pieces, but both end on a hopeful note.

Billed as a twisted Bonnie and Clyde for the new generation, American Translation is a film now on DVD that is sure to disturb many people. Pierre Perrier plays a brooding and sexually voracious wanderer named Chris, who picks up an American girl named Aurore (Sleeping Beauty’s real name) and draws her into an escalating life of sex and serial killings.

Set in France, American Translation depicts the seductive and psychotic Chris as the epitome of an anti-hero. He chooses to be with women sexually, but he is obsessed with having sex with male prostitutes and then murdering them. It isn’t clear why Aurore, played by Brittany Murphy look-alike Lizzie Brochère, doesn’t run screaming when she finds that Chris has strangled a cute young hustler while having sex with him, but the feeling is that she is a lot like Caril Ann Fugate, who helped the infamous Charles Starkweather in the late fifties in what was termed a “spree killing”. Starkweather’s explanation of how freeing it felt to kill someone is echoed in Chris’ explanation to Aurore. The film is an unsettling blend of sexuality and violence, although the murders are not often depicted.

American Translation aims to put you in the mind of a serial killer, but its determination not to give the film a moral makes the story feel like it meanders from murder to murder until something happens to interrupt the killing. There is a lot of frank nudity and sex, and the cast is purposely gorgeous. It is just not certain who will be able to appreciate the film’s mix of sensuality and sadism.

Of course, true crime stories are always popular, and although this is not based on real events, the director finishes the film by telling you that it is inspired by real serial killers. The fact that the killer is a bisexual intent on killing gay men is important to remember before bringing American Translation home for date night.

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

Friday, May 4, 2012

Reverend's Preview: Sunny Days & Dark Shadows

Ah, summer, beloved season of Pride, fruity cocktails and minimal swimsuits.  It is also the time of year when Hollywood releases its biggest, most expensive spectacles for audiences to ogle.  Superheroes, vampires and aliens typically reign supreme, but this summer's more GLBT-interest movies will feature such sights as male strippers, Tom Cruise in ass-less chaps, and a pairing of Brit divas Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Here's the rundown (Please note all release dates are subject to change)...

The Avengers (May 4):  The largest collection of men in tights to hit the big screen since, well, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Marvel Comics heroes Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) join forces with The Hulk (ever-dreamy Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson) to save the world.  Written and directed by Joss Whedon, who also masterminded Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (May 4):  A group of British senior citizens, led by Dench and Smith, decide to retire to an unexpectedly-rundown hotel in India in this comedy.  Co-starring cute Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire and directed by John Madden, who previously steered Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow to Oscar glory in Shakespeare in Love.

The Perfect Family (May 4):  Kathleen Turner plays a devout wife and mother up for her parish's "Catholic Woman of the Year" award who suddenly learns that her daughter (Emily Deschanel) isn't only a lesbian but is about to get married to her partner.  While it doesn't get all the church details right, the film is an enjoyable dramedy that premiered at last year's Outfest.  Out actor Richard Chamberlain plays the local monsignor. 

Dark Shadows (May 11): Based on what I've seen of it, Tim Burton's take on the supernatural soap opera that ran in the late 1960's-early 70's will no doubt be the campiest movie of the summer, possibly of the year. Johnny Depp stars as 200-year old vampire Barnabas Collins, who wakes up in 1972 to a decidedly different world.  The great supporting cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and horror veteran Christopher Lee.

Hysteria (May 18):  This film's director, Tanya Wexler, likely describes it best: "It's a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England."  She even bought cast members Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and gay fave Rupert Everett, among others, vibrators as gifts.  Needless to say, the movie's got... buzz.

Virginia (May 18):  Academy Award-winning, openly gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) has assembled several top-drawer actors including Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris and Emma Roberts for his directorial debut.  I'm not sure what, if any, GLBT content is in the film but it will nonetheless give our community the opportunity to support one of our own as Black's standing in Hollywood continues to rise.

Chely Wright: Wish Me Away (June 1):  An eye-opening documentary, featured at last year's Long Beach Q Film Festival, about the former country music superstar's process of coming out as a lesbian.  Wright is impressively, movingly candid in her recounting of events before, during and after her tumultuous decision.

Rock of Ages (June 15):  Gay director-choreographer Adam Shankman (Hairspray) adapts another Broadway musical for the screen.  This time, he got big names Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Paul Giamatti and Tom Cruise (and convinced Cruise to wear a codpiece and the previously mentioned chaps) to pay homage to the rock & roll "hair bands" of the 1980's.  Pour some sugar on me, baby! 

Brave (June 22):  This summer's animated epic from Disney-Pixar features a female lead, a first for the mega-successful Pixar.  Merida, a Scottish teenager during the Middle Ages, takes it upon herself to defend her parents' kingdom when it is endangered by the wicked witch Merida had sought counsel from to avoid being married against her will.  Sure sounds like a lesbian-gay parable to me!

Magic Mike (June 29):  The gays (myself included) will definitely be lining up for this expose of the goings-on at a male strip club, which reportedly includes a gay character/subplot. The movie was inspired by the pre-Hollywood career of its hot leading man, Channing Tatum, and is directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Contagion).  And if Tatum doesn't do it for you, one of his thong-clad co-stars (Matthew McConaughey, True Blood's Joe Manganiello, Alex Pettyfer, Adam Rodriguez and the recently out Matt Bomer) surely will.

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3):  Andrew Garfield, taking over the title role from Tobey Maguire, told a reporter last month that he went commando under his form-fitting costume during filming.  That revelation has sure got my "Spidey Sense" tingling over this adventure, in which the webslinger tries to solve the mystery behind his parents' death while battling The Lizard, a mutated scientist.

Katy Perry: Part of Me (July 4):  Nothing screams "Independence Day" to me more than a 3-D concert film starring the fireworks-laden pop singer.  While Perry comes in second to Lady Gaga in many gay men's minds, I consider her "Fireworks" song to be as much of a gay anthem as Gaga's "Born This Way."  By the way, why hasn't Gaga had a 3-D movie devoted to her yet?  Well, I guess there's always next summer.

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20):  Batman (Christian Bale) returns to contend with the villainous Bane (rising star and hottie Tom Hardy) and the more mysterious Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (the fabulous Anne Hathaway).  Joseph Gordon-Levitt also appears as a cop with potentially conflicting motives. Football fields will explode, Gotham City will be endangered, and ticket sales will soar.

Ruby Sparks (July 25):  Not much has been made known yet about this one, but the fact that it is co-directed by Little Miss Sunshine's Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is enough to get my gay hopes up. Their earlier film's Paul Dano here plays a struggling author who discovers that the fictional girl in the book he is writing has somehow come to life.  Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas also star.

The Bourne Legacy (August 3):  Jeremy Renner, who made a splash in last December's Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol and also appears in this May's The Avengers, takes over from Matt Damon in the latest installment of this durable, intelligent franchise.

Hope Springs (August 10):  Any movie starring La Meryl (Streep, that is) is cause for gay celebration.  She re-teams here with David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada, for a romantic comedy in which Streep is a married women who seeks marriage therapy with her prickly husband, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Steve Carell co-stars as their therapist.

Sparkle (August 17):  The late Whitney Houston produced and makes her final screen appearance in this remake of a Dreamgirls-esque 1976 film about a girl group on the rise.  Houston plays the mother of one young singer (played by American Idol alumna Jordin Sparks) who is yearning for stardom.  She also sings on the movie's soundtrack.

Lawless (August 31):  Tom Hardy makes his second summer movie appearance of 2012 as a bootlegger in this reality-based story set during the Prohibition era.  Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke appear as his conniving siblings, and all must try to stay one step ahead of the obsessed G-man on their collective tail (played by Guy Pearce of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and last year's made-for-TV version of Mildred Pierce).

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