Friday, August 31, 2012

Monthly Wallpaper - September 2012: Disaster Films

We have all the ingredients for a recipe for disaster with September's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper salute to Disaster Films: all-star casts, life-or-death scenarios, excessive property damage, large amounts of water, a fireball or two, occasionally questionable special effects and, of course, an Oscar-winning power ballad played over the end credits.

Our "masters of disaster" cinematic canon runs the gamut from blockbusters to cult favorites, plus a classic parody of the entire genre. No doubt about it, this month has disaster written all over it.

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.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Leave It To Timothy

Watching the opening twenty minutes of The Odd Life of Timothy Green (now in theaters from Walt Disney Pictures) if not for the jaunty soundtrack, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a creepy horror movie, given how director Peter Hedges stages it. After receiving bad news that they can never conceive a child, Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) bury a box containing notes of the qualities their child would have had in their garden. Lightning flashes and a downpour drenches the drought-stricken farm. Something starts clawing its way out of the mud while Jim and Cindy sleep. Hearing a noise, Jim goes to investigate and a figure flashes by like in Pet Sematary. Returning to bed, he puts his arm around the shrouded figure next to him just as Cindy emerges from the bathroom. Whatever was in the bed disappears, leaving mud from its burial site on the sheets. Finally, Jim and Cindy find a muddy and naked Timothy Green in the nursery, complete with tender leaves protruding from his calves.

This disorienting opening along with a clunky framing device featuring Shoreh Agdashloo as an adoptions agent to whom Garner and Edgerton tell their tale both feel like Test Screening add-ons, and they do nothing to help the plot.

Timothy (CJ Adams) is Jim and Cindy’s dream child, and he seems to annoy or charm whoever he meets. Adams starts out charming you but veers toward annoying you as the film progresses. Anyone unfortunate enough to see Eddie Murphy’s A Thousand Words will know that all is not well when Timothy starts losing his leaves, but he doesn’t tell his parents that he’s experiencing Fall just like the foliage around him. He doesn’t do anything especially magical or special, yet he is utterly revered.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green has an interesting setting, “the pencil capital of the world” run by a sternly rich family headed by matriarch Dianne Wiest, and I appreciated the attention given to the town’s drought-stricken condition, but these layers go nowhere.

The film is a harmless diversion that nowhere near captures the fun and memorability of classic Disney live action films. It is charming, has questionable plotting and character development and it will fade from your mind by the time the Autumn leaves begin to fall.

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Hauntingly Good

On the surface, Michael Hollinger’s Ghost-Writer has all the trappings of your standard ghost story: a recent death, a spectral presence, and a frequently gloomy setting complete with periodic flashes of lightning outside the window. However, this extraordinary play, now having its West Coast premiere at Long Beach’s International City Theatre (ICT) through September 16th, ventures much deeper to a place where the potentially-supernatural is less worrisome than incomplete manuscripts, the proper use of language and punctuation, and unrequited love.

Acclaimed writer Franklin Woolsey (a fine performance by veteran actor Leland Crooke) has been dead several months but his devoted young assistant Myra Babbage (Paige Lindsey White) continues to go each day to his office. Franklin left what was certain to be his greatest work unfinished. Myra, though, strives to complete it with the help of what she claims is Franklin’s spirit speaking silently to her. Word of their phantom collaboration has gotten out to the local, early-20th century press, much to the consternation of Franklin’s grieving widow, Vivian (Cheryl David, who last appeared at ICT as Gertrude Stein in the acclaimed West Coast premiere of Loving/Repeating).

Throughout Ghost-Writer, beautifully staged by ICT’s always reliable Artistic Director caryn desai (sic), Myra remains poised at her typewriter but addresses an unseen skeptic sent to debunk her claims. She relates the story of her initially professional but increasingly personal relationship with Franklin via flashback segments and confessional monologues. Franklin, meanwhile, is omnipresent in both flesh & blood and post-death incarnations. As both Myra and the audience gradually realize, the ghosts that haunt us the most are seldom made of ectoplasm.

Ghost-Writer was inspired by an anecdote Hollinger discovered about the novelist Henry James’s secretary, in which she claimed to continue receiving dictation from her late employer from beyond the grave. Also, Hollinger’s mother had passed away shortly before he came across the story, leading him to an intensely personal reflection on what he terms “the presence of absence.” The results of Hollinger’s reflection are powerfully evident here, leaving most of us in the opening night audience simultaneously exhilarated and misty-eyed. The play, which deservedly won a 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award and the 2011 Barrymore Award, doubles as an excellent treatise on the writing process. If there is any interest remaining in literary art on Broadway, Ghost-Writer must receive a staging there in the near future.

ICT’s production also boasts a true “star is born” revelation in Paige Lindsey White. Her performance as Myra is absolutely riveting, and proves the actress perfectly adept at hitting a full range of emotional and intellectual notes. White is a member of several Los Angeles acting ensembles and has had several television credits. Here’s hoping and praying she breaks out soon. Her obvious talent and emotional honesty should be shared with as wide an audience as possible.

Less spooky than deeply moving, ICT’s Ghost-Writer is guaranteed to haunt viewers long after the curtain has closed. To purchase tickets, please call (562) 436-4610 or visit the ITC website.

Reverend’s Rating: A

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

Monday, August 27, 2012

Reel Thoughts: En Vogue

A fierce updating of the world of Paris is Burning, Leave It On the Floor (now available on DVDfrom Wolfe Video) tells the musical story of a young gay man who is kicked out of his home by his erratic mother only to find a new home among the drag queens and kings of Los Angeles.

Bradley (Ephraim Sykes) stumbles into the glamorous but gritty world of Balls and before he knows it, he is smack in the middle of a full-fledged battle for supremacy between warring “Houses.” Men compete head-to-head in different genres and categories, the most recognizable of which is voguing. The handsome Bradley meets the flamboyant Carter (Andre Myers) who takes him home to his drag mother’s already crowded house. Among the roommates is Eppie Durall (James Alsop) whose drag persona is permanently pregnant.

The hard-driving dance tracks give the film a real energy that is entertaining and the story is a nice mix of comedy, musical interludes and serious drama. Late in the film, one character’s memorial service turns into a battle between the homophobic families who threw their kids out and the drag families who took them in.

Director Sheldon Larry has a great affection for his characters and their lives and it’s impossible to resist them. While the film’s low budget sometimes betrays itself, the ferocity with which the story is told overcomes the rough edges. Leave It On the Floor will leave you wanting to see more.

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Close to Home

I feel uniquely personal connections to two acclaimed documentaries opening in theaters today. The first, Somewhere Between, is “a delicately wrought, deeply felt” (according to its Variety review) profile of four of the approximately 80,000 children in the US who have been adopted from China since 1989. Having just visited last weekend my 4-year old adopted nephew, who was himself born in China but abandoned by his birth parents due to a correctable birth defect, I’m anxious to watch this award-winning film directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton (The World According to Sesame Street). Alas, the link to an online screener made available to me wasn’t working at press time but I hope to yet view it and write a fuller review. In the meantime, those of you in NYC can catch Somewhere Between at the IFC Center. It is scheduled to open in Los Angeles on September 14th, followed by a national release.

I was, however, able to watch the equally inspiring and infuriating Love Free or Die. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this documentary by gay director Macky Alston (Questioning Faith) is now playing in LA. It is also scheduled to air November 12th on PBS’ Independent Lens, in the event it doesn’t open in a theater near you. Alston’s subject is Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Now concluding his controversial nine-year tenure as head of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, Robinson has suffered public criticism, private death threats and the scorn of many of his fellow bishops in the global Anglican Communion since his election in 2003, all because he is openly gay and partnered. Never mind that he is also a compassionate, learned, wise, dedicated and — oh yeah — holy man of God.

Robinson’s election and subsequent travails have been recounted to some extent in previous documentaries, notably 2007’s For the Bible Tells Me So. Alston, however, focuses exclusively on the bishop and spent the better part of seven years following Robinson. Most significant during that time was Robinson’s exclusion from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church’s gathering of bishops held every ten years in London. Robinson went to London anyway to meet with other disenfranchised Christians, and Alston’s camera was on hand to capture key moments. For me, the film’s most powerful, moving sequence occurs when Robinson, not invited with the gathered bishops to tea with the Queen, chooses to have tea with HIV-infected “commoners” instead. It is exactly what Jesus would have done.

Love Free or Die also reveals how far the Episcopal Church has come regarding the full inclusion of GLBT people in the last decade, largely and ironically thanks to the backlash to Robinson’s consecration. While it has had to weather departures from conservative/traditionalist clergy and members, some of whom left to form rival congregations and others to join the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopalians are now the undisputed leaders within mainstream American Christianity when it comes to incorporating men and women in same-sex relationships. This was cemented in 2009, when an overwhelming majority of the church’s bishops, clergy and laity voted against the larger Anglican Communion’s will to not only continue ordaining bishops in committed same-sex relationships but to bless same-sex unions among its clergy and laity as well.

Bishop Robinson’s journey as recounted in Love Free or Die and elsewhere has frequently come to mind for me since my own ordination two years ago as an openly-gay, partnered bishop of the Reformed Catholic Church. While our independent communion is considerably smaller and has a lower profile, we embrace the same enlightened reforms and understanding of human sexuality for which Robinson and so many of his US supporters have been chastised by their prevailing powers that be. Viewing this film leads me to denounce utterly the inexcusable decision by Rowan Williams, the still-reigning Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican primate, to ban Robinson from the Lambeth Conference. Williams clearly placed his fear of reprisals from church conservatives over the sacramental and fraternal responsibility he had to invite a duly-elected and -consecrated fellow bishop. From one bishop to another: shame on you, Rowan.

Although Robinson will be stepping down as the 9th bishop of New Hampshire at the end of this year, his involvement in political reform including GLBT equality will only be growing. He has accepted an appointment as Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. Coupled with President Obama’s selection of Robinson to give the invocation at his 2009 opening inaugural ceremonies, the good bishop will no doubt continue to advocate on behalf of all God’s people.

Reverend’s Rating for Love Free or Die: B+

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

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: A Well-Oiled Machine

Based on the film's trailer, I was fearful that Robot & Frank (out today in New York and in Los Angeles on August 24th before expanding nationally) would end up being little more than a jokey, mawkish mashup of Grumpy Old Men and 1986's woeful Short Circuit. Thankfully, this new release's mechanical star is a vast improvement on "Johnny 5" and star Frank Langella grounds the movie's considerable humor and gravitas, making both more down-to-earth.

Langella plays the second of the title characters. Frank is a retired cat burglar and ex-con living in "the near future" and slipping from mild into advanced dementia. Long divorced and with two grown children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) who want little to do with him, Frank subsists on little more than cold cereal. He spends his days making trips to the local, imperiled library, where he flirts with the mature, friendly librarian (Susan Sarandon). Frank then spends most nights breaking into his own home in an effort to reclaim past thrills.

Concerned about his father's well-being but not wanting to get too involved, Frank's son buys his dad the latest in home health robots. A faceless, nameless piece of advanced technology that speaks with the soothing tones of actor Peter Sarsgaard, Robot cooks, cleans, monitors Frank's vital signs and encourages Frank to participate in physically- and mentally-stimulating activities. Frank initially resents the electronic "babysitter" but a bond gradually grows between them as Frank's health does indeed improve. Since Robot knows nothing in the way of morals or ethics apart from its absolute dedication to Frank's well-being, Frank soon enlists his companion as an unwitting accomplice in a new string of increasingly-risky heists.

Unpredictable, smart and sweet, Robot & Frank is also entertaining and thought-provoking on multiple levels. The first produced screenplay written by Christopher D. Ford and the feature debut of director Jake Schreier, the film heralds the arrival of two new talents to watch. It also boasts excellent, seemingly effortless performances by Langella and Sarandon, a too-brief cameo appearance by Ana Gasteyer, fine robot costumes/effects and a terrific, primarily electronic music score by Francis and the Lights. Ultimately a reflection on connections lost and regained in our post-modern, technology-dependent era, Robot & Frank is a late-summer movie treat that may end up one of the year's better films. I loved it.

Reverend's Rating: A-

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reverend's Interview: Jonesin’ for Jean Valjean

Although still a relatively young man, actor Peter Lockyer has celebrated some significant anniversaries with the beloved musical, Les Miserables. Lockyer played chief revolutionary Marius on Broadway in the show’s 10th anniversary production in 1997. Now, he has graduated to the lead role of the heroic but hunted Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary tour. It will play San Diego’s Civic Theatre from August 28th-September 2nd.

A native of Connecticut, Lockyer also spent time in Canada while growing up and has traveled to such exotic locales as China and South Korea in prior tours of Les Miserables. He and his actress wife, Melanie (who, conveniently, is rehearsing the new musical Allegiance at the Old Globe this month) even lived in nearby Long Beach for two years.

Lockyer generously spoke to me from San Francisco last month before moving to Southern California.

CC: How long have you been with this tour now?
PL: Three months. It’s been fantastic, best show ever.

CC: How has the experience of playing Jean Valjean been for you?
PL: It’s arguably the best role in musical theatre. I’m three months in now and I think a lifetime could be spent getting to know this character. It’s sort of a spiritual lesson to me every day, to remember to love and not become cynical.

CC: Why do you think this story and musical have such an enduring appeal?
PL: I’ve said it before: I think Victor Hugo’s novel is so sprawling and epic with so many characters that I think it represents all of human life. Each character represents some aspect or facet of the human experience. And then, of course, it has an amazing score, one of the best scores in the musical-theatre canon.

CC: What have been some of the key changes with the staging of Les Mis since you first appeared in it 15 years ago?
PL: All the technological changes, which are visual changes that just hit you in the face. The direction is also different. The original production had a poetic majesty to it. This production is grittier and more in your face. It gives us a new lens to view the story through. I find it interesting that technology is being used in a new way that kind of combines theatre and cinema, not only in Les Mis but in other shows as well.

CC: Would you say this production of Les Mis holds any special appeal or message for GLBT viewers?
PL: Wow, I’ve never thought about that but yeah, absolutely. The message of this show is to love another person. To see the face of God is to love another. In this time when we’re fighting for marriage equality, I think that message is absolutely powerful. Plus, it’s musical theatre, come on! (Laughs)

CC: Any thoughts about the upcoming movie version of Les Mis (scheduled for release this December and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, among others)?
PL: We can’t wait! When you’re doing a show or tour, you feel like you own it, but we (the tour’s cast) have all seen the trailer and we were all just completely silent. It looks great! I think what worked great in Sweeney Todd with more naturalistic music and voices will work great in it. I’m excited to see it.

CC: What have been some of your other favorite roles or memorable show experiences?
PL: Les Mis is part of my life and life’s blood. Other shows have touched me in different ways: Miss Saigon, by the same writers as Les Mis; La Boheme on Broadway, during which I learned so much from working with director Baz Luhrmann (also known for the movies Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge! and his upcoming version of The Great Gatsby); and Cyrano: The Musical.

CC: How about the 1993 made-for-TV version of Gypsy, which starred Bette Midler?
PL: Gypsy was my second professional job, and then I got cast in my first Broadway show. We rehearsed Gypsy for a long time at the studio in Los Angeles before we shot it, so it was more like a Broadway show. Bette was amazing to work with. It was also an odd experience because the director, Emile Ardolino (who also directed Dirty Dancing and Sister Act), was dying of AIDS complications at the time. We all wondered whether he would be well enough to show up to work each day, but he did. It was very sad when he died shortly after we wrapped production.

CC: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
PL: Whether it’s your first time or your 12th time, come see Les Miserables!

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: High School Memories

Having won the “Changed the Most” award at my own ten-year high school reunion thanks to my ordination as a priest just a month beforehand, I could identify with the dream sequence in the 1997 comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion wherein its hapless heroines are similarly honored. Thanks to the film’s debut today on Blu-rayin a special 15th Anniversary Edition, we now have the opportunity to re-live their experience in high definition. I only wish I could be digitally restored to look as good!

Romy and Michele (winningly played by Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino and Emmy-winner Lisa Kudrow, respectively) were regarded as clueless party girls by their Tucson classmates. A decade later finds the BFFs rooming together in beachside Southern California but otherwise little has changed. Michele wants to be a fashion designer but is happily unemployed, whereas Romy is a cashier at the local Jaguar dealership. It is there that Romy once again crosses paths with gloriously bitchy schoolmate Heather (a hilarious Janeane Garofalo), who informs Romy of the upcoming reunion.

Determined to attend but not be perceived as losers, Michele and Romy go on a crash weight-loss program, rent a hot convertible, and concoct a plan to present themselves to their former classmates as the inventors of Post-It notes. While en route, however, they have a falling out in the wake of Michele’s “I’m the Mary and you’re the Rhoda” declaration to Romy. Will they patch things up in time for their scheme to succeed?

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion features a number of charms in addition to its memorable cast (a young and dorky, pre-out Alan Cumming also appears): a score chock-full of bouncy 80’s and 90’s dance hits (supervised by Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek), Reynaldo Villalobos’ colorful cinematography (which is especially prominent on the new Blu-ray), and the so-garish-they’re-stylish costumes designed by Mona May. Of note, screenwriter Robin Schiff went on to write and/or produce seasons of numerous TV series including Miss Match, Hung and the recent Are You There, Chelsea?

There is also a distinct GLBT sensibility to Romy and Michele that becomes overt when Michele, frustrated by their inability to land quality guys, proposes to Romy that they become lesbian lovers. Romy initially responds with disgust but quickly re-thinks her position. “If I’m not married by the time we’re 30,” Romy replies, “ask me again.” And the pair’s climactic, three-way dance with Cumming’s character set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” is uproariously funny.

I hesitate to call the movie a contemporary classic by any stretch, mainly due to its sometimes erratic script, but it certainly has gained a devoted following. Sweet and snarky in equal measure — and sometimes simultaneously — it is worth checking out on Blu-ray whether one is seeing it for the first time or the umpteenth. Also out today for the first time on Blu-ray are a 25th anniversary editionof 1987’s family-friendly cult favorite Adventures in Babysitting and The Preacher’s Wife, a forced but tuneful 1996 remakeof Christmas chestnut The Bishop’s Wife starring Denzel Washington and the late Whitney Houston.

Reverend’s Rating: B-

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

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Hooray for Weiwei

I had the privilege of spending two weeks touring China back in 2005 and loved the scenery, history and people I met. More recently, I gained a significant "souvenir" from the People's Republic: my adopted nephew, Maximilian. Given the many wonderful things China has provided the world, the Chinese government's ongoing intolerance of criticism directed toward it and of the citizen-dissidents increasingly voicing their valid concerns is troubling and disappointing.

One such dissident is Ai Weiwei (pronounced "Eye Way-way"), who also happens to be a globally-acclaimed artist. An excellent, revelatory new documentary about him, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Orange County after winning a Special Jury Award for "Spirit of Defiance" at January's Sundance Film Festival. The film is directed by Alison Klayman, who followed Weiwei while she lived in China from 2006-2010.

Charismatic and partly-educated in the US, Weiwei proves a thoroughly compelling subject. He rose to prominence in the art world as a photographer, filmmaker and sculptor. His design of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing gained him international prominence. Before the Olympics had ended, however, Weiwei notoriously denounced the games as Communist Party propaganda. Shortly after, he led an effort to determine the true number of casualties resulting from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Whereas the government had reported a small number of deaths, Weiwei learned more than 80,000 citizens had lost their lives, more than 5,000 of them children who had been studying in shoddily-constructed schools.

Klayman gains intimate access not only to Weiwei but to numerous other artists, critics and Weiwei's family members, including his fretful mother and his now-3 year old son. His work is also prominently featured. Weiwei was one of the first artists anywhere to address AIDS with his 1985 exhibition, "Old Shoes Safe Sex." His most moving piece in my opinion is "Remembering," an installation consisting of 9,000 children's backpacks that serves as a memorial to the Sichuan earthquake's youngest victims that now hangs on the facade of Munich's Haus der Kunst.

Weiwei has suffered considerable persecution as a result of his continuing criticism of the Chinese government. He was beaten by police so severely he had to undergo surgery for a brain hemorrhage, had his popular blog shut down (he now communicates via Twitter and can be followed at @aiww), saw a newly-built studio bulldozed by authorities, was taxed excessively as a retaliatory move, and was ultimately held in secret detention for 80 days last year. Nothing has silenced him permanently, though, and Weiwei continues to think of himself as "an eternal optimist" despite his difficulties. As he states in the film, "I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression" no matter what the cost.

At last count, Weiwei has 40 cats who prowl his studio's grounds. One of them has learned how to open his front door by jumping up on the handle. The artist notes, "The biggest difference between people and cats is that cats will open the door but never close it behind them." Similarly, Weiwei has opened a political door in China that won't be closing any time soon, especially as more people around the world become inspired by his art and courage.

Reverend's Rating: A-

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Monthly Wallpaper - August 2012: Silent Film

This August will be filled with the sound of silence... the glorious silence one can only experience while watching the classic plays of light and shadow seen on the silver screen at the dawn of cinema with Silent Film.

Legendary actors (Chaney, Fairbanks, Valentino), actresses (Gish, Pickford, Gaynor), comics (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd) and directors (Griffith, Lang, Murnau) filled the silent era with laughs, tears, passion and thrills, all on display in this month's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper.

All you have to do is click on the picture above to enlarge it, then simply right click your mouse and select "Set as Background". (You can also save it to your computer and set it up from there if you prefer.) The size is 1024 x 768, but you can modify it if needed in your own photo-editing program.