Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: Songs of Bernadette

Few Broadway stars generate the unadulterated love and devotion in their fans that Bernadette Peters does. Patti Lupone, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Betty Buckley and Bebe Neuwirth all have their obsessive fans, but Peters is in a class by herself, thanks in no small part to her frequent collaboration with musical genius Stephen Sondheim. Whenever she is asked why gay audiences love her so much, she always quips, “Because they have great taste.”

There is much more to Peters’ appeal, which lucky Scottsdale audiences will discover when the icon brings her musical evening to the annual Scottsdale Center for the Arts benefit ARTrageous on December 1st. A look at Peters’ calendar shows that she is selective with the number of shows she’ll perform, which makes her appearance this weekend that much more special.

Along with her long time collaborator Marvin Laird, Peters will entertain the audience with music from her long career, and even promises to lounge across the top of the piano while doing a sultry version of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”.

Of course, if you can’t score tickets, you only need to turn on NBC’s deliciously addictive drama Smash to see Ms. Peters playing Megan Hilty’s mother, a Broadway star whose success and perfectionism have scarred poor Ivy (Hilty). Peters hinted that after living in her mother’s shadow, Ivy has to deal with her mother being in the show with her. “You try to make a name for yourself, and then your mother whose shadow you live under is in the show!” Peters said, laughing. “Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote me a wonderful song, and I’m going to do another one, but I don’t know what it is yet.”

The sixty-four year-old powerhouse is guaranteed to give a show legs or keep it running longer than its original star, which is what happened when she gave a devastating performance as Sally in Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway and, before that, took over the part of Desiree in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music from the well-regarded Catherine Zeta Jones.

A well-known animal welfare advocate, Peters co-founded the charity Broadway Barks with her deaqr friend Mary Tyler Moore. The annual event brings out all of Broadways brightest stars like Angela Lansbury and others who donate their time to help unwanted animals find new homes.

Ms. Peters phoned from her home in New York City just days after Hurricane Sandy had devastated Manhattan and the rest of the Northeast.

“I’m very lucky because I live on the Upper West Side and we made it through very well, but friends who live downtown are still without power. But I have another friend who lives all the way down in Tribeca and one of the parking attendants in the garage lost his life. The water must have come rushing in and he drowned.” She posted a link to Broadway Cares on her web site to help fans donate to the victims. “They are an amazing organization. The word “cares,” they really mean it. They really do whatever they can when disaster hits.”

Peters and Moore hit upon the idea to found Broadway Barks when Peters was starring in Annie Get Your Gun. Now approaching its fifteenth year, the event is a fun way for the public to meet their Broadway idols and rescue pets from the shelters.

NC: I’m thrilled that you’ll be in Scottsdale in December. Do you have some favorite songs that you will be singing for us?
BP: There are certain ones I love just hearing the sentiments of like “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.” Those are important things in life, and just for me to hear them again is a great reminder of how we should be thinking about each other and our lives. I do Rodgers and Hammerstein – “Some Enchanted Evening” – and I do “When You Wish Upon a Star” and I do some Sondheim as well.

NC: I flew out to NYC just to see you in Follies, and I was blown away.
BP: Thank you. That’s quite something, that show, isn’t it? I’m bringing two songs from Follies also.

NC: How did you become the go-to woman to bring Sondheim’s songs and characters to life, and how do you identify with his works?
BP: You know, I’m just so fortunate that he gives me so many things to sing about. He writes the music and the lyrics and he says exactly what the character is feeling. He writes the notes which expresses the passion and he writes the words that express the emotion of the moment. He writes about really great stuff... what a gift he is to us! He’s a national treasure, we’re just so blessed to have him.

NC: You must hear this a lot, but you are so iconic in all the roles you have created; how does someone with your talent and resumé still find challenging work?
BP: I trust the universe! (Laughing) And then things come to me. When I plan something, forget it, it never happens. Right now, I’m doing Smash. I am having fun with that because it’s an interesting role.

NC: I just saw the trailer for the film Coming Up Roses. It looks terrific.
BP: Thank you. It’s loosely based on the director’s story. She’s a fifteen year-old girl and I play her mother who has emotional issues. Back in those days, they didn’t really put names on them. She’s not only bipolar but also emotional, scary issues and the girl takes care of her. It’s sort of sad. But family triumphs in the end. It’s a very touching story, I think.

NC: I was touched to see your support of Spirit Day. What else would you like your GLBT fans to know about your support of our issues?
BP: Well, it’s interesting, I just came back yesterday from performing on my “dream cruise” which was that it never left the port and my audience was a gay audience. It was the most wonderful, lovely experience. But in the end I go out in the audience and sing a lullaby and I thought, “Why is this different?” They’re just so open and willing and eager and open. I think that their spirits are just so open, it’s really a beautiful thing. That’s what I felt from the audience, this great warmth. It was lovely, just lovely.

5 Other Places to See Bernadette Peters:
  • All’s Fair: This 1976 sitcom by two of the writers on I Love Lucy, Maude and All in the Family cast Peters as liberal photographer Charley Drake who is dating conservative writer Richard Barrington, played by Richard Crenna. “Richard Crenna really knew about scripts. I just felt honored to be in his company.”
  • Silent Movie: Before The Artist, comedy genius Mel Brooks filmed an almost silent movie starring Peters, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise and every star in Hollywood in hilarious cameos. “He pushed the envelope, but it was always funny. I think what happens today is that they’re shocking, but they’re not funny.”
  • Gypsy: YouTube videos recall Peters’ amazing performance as Mama Rose on Broadway. “I loved that role. It was like going into therapy... it was like the best therapy I ever had. I sort of lived that life because I was on the road with my mother and my sister in that show.
  • Into the Woods: PBS recorded Peters’ performance as the witch in Sondheim’s twisted take on Grimms' fairy tales, which predated TV’s Once Upon a Time by two decades. “That’s another show that I feel so fortunate to have done, and I’m so glad they recorded it because it’s so funny. You don’t ever get to see it when you’re in it, but I finally watched it and thought, “What a good idea for a show! This is great!” But kids across the country studying theater got to see it and Sunday in the Park with George. And I just think it’s the most beautiful score.”
  • The Jerk and Pennies from Heaven: Peters partnership with Steve Martin produced the iconic idiot comedy The Jerk and the unusual musical Pennies from Heaven, which also includes a dance number by Christopher Walken. Peters won a Golden Globe for her performance in the latter.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Thanksgiving Leftovers

The long, quiet Thanksgiving/Black Friday weekend presented me with the opportunity to dive into several recent releases.  Like the offerings laid out on a holiday dinner table, these films ended up representing a variety of flavors and colors — artistically, politically and/or religiously speaking — but I didn’t walk out of any of them completely unsatisfied.

For an appetizer, I couldn’t resist the sexually-charged true story The Sessions.  While it has been generating awards buzz ever since its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, primarily for John Hawkes’ and Helen Hunt’s soul-and-body-baring performances, I was unprepared to find the movie so deeply moving.  I had tears in my eyes for nearly half of the 95-minute running time.  Viewing paralyzed protagonist Mark O’Brien’s plight is inherently humbling, even though the Oscar-worthy Hawkes (an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone and also visible in the current Lincoln) invests him with a sense of grace and humor that nullifies any potential pity.  I was equally touched, though, by William H. Macy as the compassionate Roman Catholic priest (seemingly a dying breed nowadays) who serves as Mark’s spiritual and unwitting sexual advisor.  But perhaps more than anything, The Sessions impressed and moved me with its all-too-rare, positive approach to human sexuality.  While Hunt’s real-life sex surrogate is the least-developed character in the film (Hunt deserves kudos for making her more complex), she rightly demonstratesand learns for herselfthat sex entails much more than intercourse.  This is a great movie for adults and even for older adolescents.

I next jumped to what many fellow critics would surely call the turkey in my cinematic buffet: Breaking Dawn Part 2, the finale to the mega-successful Twilight Saga.  Having sat out the first part of the series’ climax after seeing the previous chapters, I was quickly struck by how I apparently hadn’t missed anything but the birth of Bella and Edward’s bizarre vampire-human hybrid baby (who is even more bizarrely named “Renesmee”).  Edward (Robert Pattinson) is a little less gloomy since marrying Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the last chapter and she’s happier too, at least until she receives word that the ruling vampire clan, the Volturi (led by a deliciously campy Michael Sheen), are out to kill Renesmee.  Everything builds to a showdown, which is the case in most of the Twilight films, but this one is truly impressive and features a truly unexpected twist.  If only the other films in the series featured such surprises instead of being so by-the-numbers in adaptation and crafting, the saga might have proven more significant.  At least the filmmakers have truly saved the best for last.

Lincoln arrived in theaters swathed in early critical accolades and a seeming guarantee that it would be the important, “good for you” movie of the year, essentially serving as the green vegetable in one’s Thanksgiving dinner.  Steven Spielberg’s biopic about the 16th president of the United States, resurrected via a compelling performance by two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, boasts a screenplay by gay Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America) as well as a massive cast of other award-winning actors including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, David Straithairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and many more (watch for a brief but welcome appearance by Tony winner and gay fave Julie White of The Little Dog Laughed and Transformers fame).  The proceedings are beautifully shot and given a burnished, painterly quality, and are supported by typically top-notch art direction, costumes and a John Williams score.  Kushner’s script, however, seems much too narrowly focused on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment that would ban slavery; as my partner aptly commented, the movie should have been more accurately titled The 13th Amendment.  The resultant, generally saintly image projected of the “Great Emancipator” ends up feeling constrained and limited, not to mention historically questionable.  The film is a talky, 150-minute affair but not without interesting modern-day ironies and parallels, including to our GLBT fight for marriage equality.  While worth seeing for Day-Lewis (Field is also great as his wife, Mary Todd), one needs to take the one-sided history depicted in Lincoln with a grain of salt.

For dessert, I took in Ang Lee’s 3D visual spectacle Life of Pi at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, appropriately enough.  I have not read the bestselling book it is adapted from so I knew little of what to expect other than a kid and a tiger stuck in a lifeboat together.  The movie, at least, is a thought-provoking religious parable.  Primarily conveyed by grown-up survivor Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a doubting writer (Rafe Spall, a late-in-the-game replacement for Tobey Maguire), it entails young love in Pi’s native India, a shipwreck that claims the rest of his family, and a handful of exotic animals that also make it to the lifeboat.  One is a full-grown Bengal tiger with the unlikely moniker Richard Parker, superbly brought to life by CGI.  Young Pi (an excellent, wholly believable turn by newcomer Suraj Sharma) must befriend the tiger to make it through what turns out to be more than six months at sea, and he learns more than a few things about both animal and divine nature in the process.  The storytelling approach is used a bit excessively; I think I would have preferred it limited to the opening and close of the film and let the images and action speak for themselves in between.  Otherwise, Life of Pi is a profound, haunting and beautifully-made motion picture experience suitable for ages 10 and up.

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Sessions: B+
Breaking Dawn, Part II: C+
Lincoln: B-
Life of Pi: B+

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reverend's Interview: Anything Goes with Marcus Shane

Cole Porter's raucous musical-comedy Anything Goes has been entertaining audiences around the world pretty much non-stop since its Broadway debut way back in 1934.  With a storyline involving evangelists, sailors, gangsters and mismatched lovers, plus a score that includes such standards as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and the title tune, the show has proven to be truly timeless.

If there was any doubt as to this popularity before 2011, that year's New York revival of Anything Goes proved naysayers wrong.  With current Broadway "It Girl" Sutton Foster as evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, a role previously played by Ethel Merman and Patti Lupone, and high-energy choreography and direction by Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall, the new production was a huge success.  The touring version pulls into port at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles for a six-week, holiday run beginning today.

Gay cast member Marcus Shane spoke with Reverend from the tour's first stop in Cleveland, Ohio.  Shane plays John, one of two Chinese gamblers who are posing as innocent missionaries.  Originally named Ching and Ling, the pair were given more politically correct, Gospel-inspired names (the other is Luke) in the musical's revised libretto.  The 27-year old Shane was born in South Korea but adopted by American parents when he was young.

REV:  Thanks for taking time out to talk with us.  How long have you been with the tour now?
MS: No problem!  Well, we just opened two weeks ago in Cleveland, which is our first stop following five weeks of rehearsal, so all in all it's been about two months.

REV: What have been some of the highlights of the show or tour for you?
MS: First and foremost, working with Kathleen Marshall, who came back and choreographed and directed. Then, working with Rachel York (veteran of the original casts of Broadway's City of Angels, Victor/Victoria and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, among many other shows) as Reno.  She is spectacular!  It's a great cast and show.

REV: What do you most enjoy about performing?
MS: The audiences, really getting to share our story with them and getting their feedback.  Every performance and audience is different.

REV:  When were you first bitten by "the bug"?
MS: Probably when I was in kindergarten.  I played the sun, with a yellow paper plate on my face, and sang "You Are My Sunshine" in a school production!  (Laughs.)  I've been singing and performing ever since.

REV: Anything Goes is such a well-known, classic show.  Does that pose any unique challenges for you as a performer?
MS: It does, but there have been countless revivals and so many interpretations.  It is always evolving. Kathleen Marshall has really made this one spectacular, and brought in a new writer to add and update some things.

REV: Would you say the show has any special appeal or relevance to the GLBT community, aside from Cole Porter's well-known bisexuality?
MS: You know what, it's a show for everyone but we have the hottest guys and gals of any show in very sexy outfits.  The chorus boys wear sailor suits that leave little to the imagination!

REV: I read that you were formerly a go-go dancer.  Where was that and what was the experience like?
MS: (Laughs.)  I had just graduated and moved to New York.  I got a tip from a friend of mine in Michigan (Shane's home state) to audition for this gay Asian club.  I went there and it was like Miss Saigon! (Laughing.)  The guys were so in-shape and hot, and I was so intimidated and shy that I worked there only one day.  My go-go dancing career lasted exactly eight hours!  It just was not for me. (Laughs.)

REV: What are your long-term goals?
MS: Being employed is #1.  As an actor, I want to play as many parts as I can.  I want to move to Los Angeles at some point.  I just did a short film called Half-Share, which is set on Fire Island and stars (gay actors) Alec Mapa and Jack Plotnick.  It was my first experience on a film set but I loved it and would like to do more movies in the future.

REV: Last question, but one I'm sure one many will ask you: are you single?
MS: I am.  I'm Grindr single. (Laughs.)

For more information about the L.A. engagement of Anything Goes and to purchase tickets, visit the Center Theatre Group website.

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Without a Hitch

The battle of the Hitchcock biographies has played out with The Girl on HBO and Hitchcock on the big screen, and the winner is no contest. Hitchcock murders The Girl like Norman Bates slaughtered poor Marion Crane The dull, one-note The Girl never stood a chance against Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Mrs. Hitch, Alma Reville, and Scarlett Johansson in a spot-on performance as Janet Leigh. Hitchcock delights in showing all the dishy behind-the-scenes dramas that went into the making of Psycho.

The Girl, on the other hand, fails miserably to capture the complex and allegedly abusive relationship between Hitchcock and his “exciting new discovery,” Tippi Hedren. Toby Jones does well, but seems small in stature and presence as Hitchcock, while Sienna Miller never even captures Tippi’s signature sexy monotone, much less her odd charisma. The film misses many opportunities to celebrate the films Hitch and Hedren made together, especially The Birds, never even showing Hedren with a single co-star. Was the budget that low? All we see is unpleasant to watch sexual harassment from Hitch toward Hedren, his obsession.

On the other hand, Hitchcock pumps up the suspense, naturally, considering that it is a film about making one of the scariest movies of all time. Director Sasha Gervasi and Black Swan screenwriter John J. McLaughlin introduce infamous serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the inspiration for Norman Bates, as a devil on Hitchcock’s shoulder as he films Psycho. With Gein's unexpected appearances, you are never sure if he will start some bloodletting of his own via Hitch, although he's essentially a red herring.

Hopkins disappears into his role as Hitchcock, capturing the brilliant director’s ego and vulnerability, while Mirren also gives a moving performance as a woman used to being invisible beside her famous husband. Toni Collette is wonderful as Hitch’s faithful secretary, and Jessica Biel is fun as the unfortunate Vera Miles, who suffered Hitch’s wrath on Psycho for having previously dared to get pregnant when he wanted to make her a star. Johansson is the real stand-out, managing to capture Janet Leigh down to the most subtle detail. Likewise, James D’Arcy makes the most of closeted star Anthony Perkins, who found parallels between his struggles and his twisted character.

Hitchcock is a fun behind-the-scenes look at 1960’s Hollywood that is one of the best movies of the year

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Tiger By the Tale

If you were captivated by the film and novel The Black Stallion, you will fall in love with the gorgeously-shot Life of Pi. Ang Lee’s adaptation of the 2001 best-seller makes the best use of 3-D you will see this year as he tells the story of a teenager who survives an unbelievable 227 day ordeal at sea.

Living happily in India, Pi (which is short for piscine, the French word for pool) is upset to learn that his parents plan to sell the zoo that they own and move the family to Canada to escape political unrest. Along with most of the animals, Pi and his family board a Japanese freighter for their trip across the Pacific. Unfortunately, a terrible storm capsizes the ship and only Pi escapes onto a lifeboat with an injured zebra who jumped in as the boat launched. Pi then discovers a spotted hyena hiding under the boat’s cover, followed by a beloved orangutan who floats up on a raft of bananas. His last unexpected guest is the ferocious tiger humorously named Richard Parker, who leaps onto the already crowded lifeboat. As the sea’s fury continues, nature’s fury unfolds on the boat, leaving Pi with life-or-death decisions to make in order to survive.

Pi and the tiger form an uneasy truce as the need for food and fresh water becomes more and more serious. Amazing sights and events happen, like a phosphorescent sea of jellyfish that light up the water one evening, or the mysterious island Pi discovers that holds a deadly secret. Lee’s storytelling and visual genius makes Life of Pi the most beautiful film of the year with a haunting story that will appeal to most ages. The animal violence may be too harsh for younger kids and the long time at sea may tire them, but otherwise the film is perfect for everyone.

It is no spoiler to say that Pi survives his adventure at sea, since the story is told in flashback by Irrfan Khan from The Namesake to an interested writer. Khan’s epilogue on the story creates questions about what really happened, but the film concludes with a moving scene that caps the tale beautifully.

Life of Pi is a movie you have to see on the big screen, and you will be blown away.

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Ice, Rust & Bone

The holiday season has begun, and its requisite songs celebrating snowy landscapes dominate radio stations. "Sleigh Bells", "Winter Wonderland", "Let It Snow" and other tunes are as much a part of Christmas as trees and tinsel.  We should enjoy the frigid phenomenon they celebrate while we can since, as the makers of the new documentary Chasing Ice illustrate, it probably won’t last much longer.

Chasing Ice (now playing in Los Angeles and New York before a national rollout) reveals the staggering damage done to Earth’s ice caps as a result of human-caused global warming via stunning time-lapse photography shot between 2007 to 2010.  National Geographic photographer James Balog and his crew perched cameras on the edge of millennia-old glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Alaska and other historically snow-covered spots. When they retrieved the footage a few years later, they were stunned — as viewers will be — by the shockingly rapid pace of melt they captured. The results are not only now-barren wilderness but also rising sea levels with decreased salinity that is impacting life both in the ocean and on land.  The reduction in ice is also contributing to a global rise in temperature and increasing ferocity of hurricanes and other “superstorms.”

So long as filmmaker Jeff Orlowski keeps his focus on the findings from Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) and the researcher’s subsequent efforts to educate the world about global warming, Chasing Ice is gripping.  Occasional diversions into knee surgery that Balog had to undergo and logistical hardships his team endured seem calculated and excessive.  This award-winning testament to disaster need provide no greater human interest than the obvious natural effects we will all soon suffer.

Jacques Audiard’s unsparing drama Rust and Bone is also screening now in NY and will open in LA on December 7th.  I first wrote about the film a few weeks back in my preview of AFI Fest, where it received a special screening.  Marion Cotillard (who won the Best Actress Academy Award for La Vie En Rose and seems a shoo-in for a nomination this year for her exceptional work here) plays Stephanie, a whale trainer at Marineland in the south of France who loses both her legs during a performance gone bad.  While I was grateful that Audiard depicts this accident minimally and tastefully, it also left me wondering exactly what happened.

Now confined to a wheelchair, Stephanie reaches out to a club bouncer she had met briefly prior to the accident. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, the terrific, previously unknown star of last year’s Oscar-nominated Bullhead) is a brutish, washed-up fighter with a little boy who has had to move in with his sister and her husband.  Although Ali accuses Stephanie of being a whore during their initial encounter, he’s the one who has sex with women indiscriminately and farms himself out for small-scale boxing matches to make money.

Stephanie and Ali gradually find wounded common ground, and more, between them.  A subplot about Ali installing surveillance cameras in unsuspecting workplaces seems extraneous, and Ali’s young son is forced to undergo a considerable amount of physical and emotional trauma during the course of the film.  Rust and Bone isn’t a love story for everyone, but many will find it and its two lead performances undeniably powerful.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Chasing Ice: B+
Rust and Bone: B

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reverend’s Review: A Lengthy Family

The late, great director Ingmar Bergman didn’t often (if at all) deal with gay themes in his cinematic explorations of family and mortality (Smiles of a Summer Night, Fanny & Alexander, Cries and Whispers, et al).  If Bergman had done so, however, and put an Asian-American instead of a Swede at the center of the film, the result may have looked like In the Family.  This award-winning drama by Patrick Wang is re-opening in New York City by popular demand and premiering in Las Vegas today.  It is scheduled for release in other cities, including San Francisco and San Diego, next month.

Proclaimed “an indie masterpiece” by no less than Roger Ebert, Wang focuses on and plays Joey, a Tennessee man fighting for the legal right to raise his partner’s son following the father’s sudden death.  Though Cody (played by One Life to Live’s Trevor St. John) and Joey had been together several years, Cody hadn’t updated his will prior to his tragic demise.  As a result, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) gains sole custody of precocious, 6-year old Chip (Sebastian Banes), whose birth mother had also died prematurely.

Joey -- a contractor by trade with an “Aw, shucks” demeanor who was himself adopted as a child -- admits “I’m kind of a moron when it comes to these things” as Eileen confronts him with the truth about her legal standing (she also gains Cody’s financial assets, including the house in which Joey resides).  Soon after she forcibly takes Chip, Joey tries to secure a lawyer to represent him as the only other parent Chip has ever known but is repeatedly rebuffed.  Finally, a retired attorney (a nice, dignified performance by three-time Tony Award nominee Brian Murray) married to the woman whose home Joey is renovating agrees to take the case.  As Joey’s new legal counsel pointedly tells him, “Just because the law has limits doesn’t mean our lives have those same limits.”

Things build slowly to Joey and Eileen’s climactic legal hearing, and I do mean slowly: In the Family runs nearly three hours.  Wang’s deliberate, naturalistic style proves to be both a strength and a weakness.  At times, such as a wordless scene wherein Joey and Chip have a drink together that perfectly captures the “shorthand” of parent-child intimacy, it is a bravura approach that would make Ingmar Bergman proud.  Several sequences flashing back to when Cody and Joey first began their relationship (interestingly, neither man had been attracted to a member of the same gender before) are similarly well done.

At other moments, though, especially when Joey is brooding and grieving alone or receiving advice from some female friends, the pace can be grueling.  Wang is apparently emulating the more relaxed rhythm of small-town Southern life (amusingly, most of the film was shot in Yonkers, New York).  He is effectively aided and abetted in this regard not only by his fellow actors but by Frank Barrera’s stately cinematography.  In the final analysis, the overall timeliness of Wang’s storyline as well as the film’s lack of sentimentality is of considerable value despite its lack of economy.

I can’t say whether the very heterosexual Bergman would approve of In the Family’s central, same-sex relationship from a moral standpoint but I like to think the master would appreciate the importance Wang assigns to family, however defined.

Reverend’s Rating: B

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reverend's Report: AFImpossible

I have to come to admire the annual AFI Fest greatly, not only for its programming mix of potential end-of-the-year awards contenders and US premieres of acclaimed foreign language films but because tickets are provided free of charge to many festival attendees thanks to presenting sponsor Audi.  However, this year's fest, which ran November 1st-8th at Graumann's Chinese Theatre and neighboring venues in Hollywood, proved frustrating to me and numerous other people with whom I spoke.  Free tickets ran out quickly online, and some hopeful attendees who secured them were ultimately turned away from over-filled capacity screenings.  Even holding a press pass, which I had, was no guarantee of admission.  Press were permitted in the priority admission line for some screenings but, inconsistently, not for all.  And many of us journalists were denied tickets for the fest's opening and closing night gala screenings of Hitchcock and Lincoln.

Fortunately, I got into a special screening of the family drama/disaster movie The Impossible but not without overcoming unexpected obstacles in the form of the film's uninformed PR reps and an overzealous security guard.  You know a situation has become intense when I -- a generally rules-abiding, non-threatening type open to dialogue -- and said security guard were angrily staring each other down from a maximum of two feet apart at the gate in front of the Chinese Theatre entrance.  Two other journalists were detained with me for not having hard tickets to the screening, which bearers of press passes weren't required to have, but our initial attempts to clarify that fell on deaf ears.  Thankfully, an in-the-know AFI staffer intervened and let us into the theatre after several harrowing minutes.

Our uncomfortable dilemma was nothing, though, in comparison with the horrific destruction and loss of life depicted in The Impossible that many Thai nationals and holiday tourists endured on December 26th, 2004. A massive tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean struck the coast of Thailand and 13 other countries that tragic morning, killing approximately 230,000 people.  Ewan McGregor, who was on hand to introduce the AFI Fest screening, and Naomi Watts star as a real-life married couple on vacation with their three sons when disaster struck.

The Impossible is undeniably compelling and frequently harrowing thanks to its very impressive visual and make-up effects.  The always likable Watts (who spends most of the film’s second half incapacitated) and McGregor have no trouble gaining audience sympathy for their characters’ terrible plight, and the young actors playing their sons are similarly good and charming.  Unfortunately, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) unnecessarily piles on foreboding touches such as extreme airplane turbulence during the family’s flight to Thailand.  He also employs a  new 3D sound system so loud and strong that it literally made my teeth vibrate.  Such excesses tend to distract from rather than augment this otherwise solid drama.

There is annually a “secret screening” or two announced during AFI Fest, and this year’s biggie was the Los Angeles premiere of Skyfall on November 7th.  This 23rd James Bond adventure is indeed (in keeping with its advance buzz) one of the very best in the series’ 50-year history.  Daniel Craig truly owns the role now, and his steely blue eyes are more piercing than ever thanks to Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography.  Theatrically-trained, Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) gathered a superb cast and technical team for this 007 outing and their collective proficiency shows.  Judi Dench as M gets a fitting send-off, Javier Bardem as the possibly gay villain is simultaneously terrifying and comedic, and series stalwarts Q and Miss Moneypenny, both MIA in recent episodes, make welcome returns.  Bond is back after a 4-year hiatus and the series is in its best shape since the 1960’s.
Of course, AFI Fest is primarily construed of smaller independent films, many of which receive their world or US premieres.  One lovely example this year was Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky.  The increasingly revered writer-director, who also photographed and edited here, is also an actor who made a memorably graphic appearance in 2010’s gay indie Blackmail Boys.  Jane Adams (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Brave One) headlines Swanberg’s latest as Marie, a 40-ish actress quietly questioning her career and life in general as she finds herself increasingly losing roles to the likes of Kristen Wiig.  A visit from her young, relationship-testing niece (well played by Sophia Takal) helps give Marie some perspective.  The film, beautifully shot in Adams’ own Malibu beach property, is observant, gently adult and wryly funny.  Meanwhile, the festival’s Audience and Jury Awards went to the similarly low-budget Eat Sleep Die, A Hijacking, Only the Young and Nairobi Half Life. 

Two of the best films I’ve seen in recent weeks weren’t at AFI Fest but had played other festivals prior to their current theatrical releases.  Cloud Atlas is a stunning romantic-philosophical spectacle that gleefully mixes genres as it hops back and forth through 500 years of past and future history.  Its spectacular cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry (the best utilized she has been in some time), Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent and Bond’s new Q, Ben Whishaw, among others.  Sadly, the pricey film — co-directed by trans filmmaker Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry of The Matrix series’ Wachowski Brothershas been a box office flop in the US, so I encourage anyone remotely interested to see it on the big screen for which it was intended immediately.

Then there is Flight, the Denzel Washington-starrer instantly notable for its standout shot of a passenger jet flying upside down.  Once that intense sequence ends in a crash thirty minutes into the film, there are still 100 minutes to go that serve as a very effective and positive exploration of the time-honored Twelve Steps in overcoming addiction.  As one of those steps prescribes the recognition that there is a Higher Power capable of restoring an addict to sanity, there is considerable and welcome discussion of faith during the movie.  Washington is award-worthy as the denial-plagued pilot, and it is great to have Robert Zemeckis directing flesh and blood characters once again after his motion-capture opuses The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. The screenplay does get a bit heavy-handed bordering on the preachy at times, but Flight succeeds as thought-provoking and inspiring cinema.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Impossible: B
Skyfall: A-
All the Light in the Sky: B
Cloud Atlas: A-
Flight: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Dinosaurs Rule

Even though they’ve been extinct for 65 million years, dinosaurs still hold a fascination for us like few other creatures past or present.  Our only real reference points for them, however, are skeletal remains in museums and movies such as the Jurassic Park series (a fourth chapter of which is reportedly coming soon).  There have also been a handful of animated dinosaur-themed films, including The Land Before Time and Disney’s Dinosaur, that feature cuddly, talking depictions of the beasts.

Enter Dinotasia, now available on Blu-ray and DVDcourtesy of Flatiron Film Company.  Its multiple animated vignettes that span nearly 200 million years provide a more naturalistic, often visually-stunning view of how Earth’s reptilian ancestors may truly have lived.  In the process, co-directors Erik Nelson and David Krentz (Krentz served as lead character designer of the prior Disney-made feature) and narrator Werner Herzog (yes, the auteur responsible for Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man and last year’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, among many other acclaimed films) make the creatures’ varied plights unexpectedly amusing and disarmingly moving.

The first story, which opens with a tired mother irritated by a noisy ostrich-like contemporary and culminates with one of her injured offspring seeking payback for the damage done to it, gives an indication of the film’s unusual tone.  The primeval segment of Fantasia or your standard Animal Planet documentary, Dinotasia is not.  These dinos don’t have to speak dialogue or be drawn with human-like features to strike viewers as eerily like us.  Other segments adapt time-honored scenarios like a mother bird teaching its young ones how to fly, parents trying to protect their children from predators, and the results of unintentionally ingesting hallucinogenic substances to the dinosaur era in novel ways.  The best is “Herd,” in which an orphaned triceratops finds temporary refuge with an elder who is on a significant journey.  If the ending doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you’d better check to make sure you aren’t cold-blooded.

Herzog’s introductions to each story are at once welcome and unnecessary.  Also, the CGI quality runs hot and cold and generally isn’t as convincing during daytime scenes as it is in darker, nighttime settings.  Still, Dinotasia is gripping, droll and poignant in equal measure, and will give one a new appreciation of the scaled and feathered giants that once roamed our world.

Many people also think of silent movies as being extinct, but last year’s Oscar-winning hit The Artist was dialogue-free until its very end.  Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, just released on Blu-rayin a beautifully restored edition, tells the twisted tale of a faded silent-film star who is desperate for “a return” (not a comeback) and the down-on-his-luck screenwriter who falls into her trap.

Gloria Swanson, who plays Sunset Boulevard’s psychotic yet tragic Norma Desmond to unforgettable perfection, was herself a largely forgotten veteran of the silent era by the time Wilder cast her.  William Holden co-stars as the hapless object of her self-obsessed affection.  Both actors were nominated for the Academy Award for their performances here.  The film itself was nominated as Best Picture but lost to the belovedly catty backstage drama, All About EveSunset Boulevard, though, has proven to be the better-regarded movie, currently ranking #16 (twelve steps above All About Eve) on the American Film Institute’s 2007 revised list of the greatest American films.

Alternately classified as an industry-insider drama, film noir, horror film and even as a comedy — all of these accurateSunset Boulevard is awash in an embarrassment of riches.  Most notable are the razor-sharp dialogue contained in the knowing, Oscar-winning screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.; Swanson’s fellow silent-film vets Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s wordless “waxworks” friends; an appearance by Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper as herself; and the film’s exquisite art direction.  Best of all perhaps are the acting turns by director greats Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim.  Both directed Swanson in some of her early films, and this professional as well as more personal, intimate history between them makes their scenes together all the more believable.

Holden’s voiceover strikes me as particularly dated by today’s standards, but it is probably Sunset Boulevard’s only weakness.  It is truly iconic and a film for the ages.  Recommended extras on the Blu-ray are a deleted scene with a very funny song entitled “The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues,” numerous documentary shorts about the film’s production and cultural impact, biographies of Swanson and Holden, and an insightful look at the work of celebrated costume designer Edith Head while she was under contract at Paramount.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Dinotasia: B+
Sunset Boulevard: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Dark, Blond & Red

Another Halloween may have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the holiday’s scary and comedic aspects have to end. I’m a year-round follower of Ghost Hunters as well as other paranormal-themed reality series and the spate of “found footage” horror movies. They are genres ripe for satire and one actor-turned-director, Derek Lee Nixon, has taken advantage of that. His Supernatural Activity will be available on DVDand digital download from Well Go USA Entertainment beginning November 6th.

In the spoof, hot-and-he-knows-it Damon Dealer (the funny and, yes, hot Andrew Pozza, obviously channeling hunky but obnoxious host Zak Bagans of TV’s Ghost Adventures) headlines a myth-debunking reality show. At his girlfriend’s insistence, Dealer leads his crew to a remote Texas town to investigate reported sightings of the Samsquatch, a smaller-than-usual variety of Bigfoot. They soon encounter odd characters and phenomena as Nixon satirizes such movies as The Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield and, of course, the ongoing Paranormal Activity series.

Not unlike many of the shows and films it is sending up, Supernatural Activity is crudely-made and goes on for too long. A number of unintentional misspellings in title cards used throughout the movie also irritated me greatly. However, there are quite a few funny to very funny visual and character gags to be enjoyed. Nixon as well as Pozza and most of the cast possess talent and an obvious affection for their source material that overcomes the film’s low budget and lack of subtlety. Most viewers familiar with the found footage genre will get a kick out of it.

Alas, there are no pleasures to be found in the new DVDrelease Becoming Blond (from Ariztical Entertainment). This simply awful wannabe comedy by writer-director Kevin Duffy involves dead romance languages, nudist octogenarians, scheming gangsters, pampered poodles and sexual confusion. These coalesce about as effectively as oil and water. Casting John Waters favorite Mink Stole would, one could reasonably assume, guarantee some degree of camp credibility but no such luck. Every element of Becoming Blond — the direction, the acting, the photography, editing and sound mix — is just plain bad. Perhaps Duffy inhaled too much hair coloring dye during production? I hate to rail against a movie so thoroughly, but I would feel guilty to learn someone bought or rented this one based on any perceived recommendation from me. Avoid it at all costs.

I can much more enthusiastically recommend a new DVD box setof uncut comedy specials by that flame-haired vixen of stand up, Kathy Griffin. Available now from Shout! Factory, The Kathy Griffin Collection: Red, White & Raw boasts seven of her no-holds-barred shows, with five of them on DVD for the first time. Riffing on everything from reality shows to politics and everyone from Tiger Woods to Sarah Palin, Barbara Walters, Bruce Jenner, Nancy Grace and so many more, the set is a must-have for K Grif fans whether you have previously seen them all individually or not.

While it isn’t a comedy, I would be remiss before concluding my latest review column if I didn’t mention the above-average gay romance, Morgan. Now on DVDfrom Water Bearer Films, not only is Morgan assured, moving and sexy, but it is important for its focus on a seldom-seen population within our community: paraplegic gay men. Leo Minaya gives an excellent performance in the title role, a former athlete confined to a wheelchair in the wake of a tragic accident. He is angry, sexless and hopeless until the day he meets handsome, well-meaning Dean (Jack Kesy). Morgan is scared by his renewed feelings of attraction and love, so the relationship that develops between him and Dean is frustratingly but realistically halting. Director Michael Akers (Gone, But Not Forgotten) deserves kudos for his sensitive handling of their story. Well worth seeing.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Supernatural Activity: C+
Becoming Blond: F
The Kathy Griffin Collection: Red, White & Raw: A-
Morgan: B+

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Dead Funny

Even though he passed away in 1989, that hasn’t stopped Monty Python’s Graham Chapman from starring in a new cinematic testament to himself, albeit in animated form. A Liar's Autobiography - The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman — which also features the voices of MP members John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones — will premiere tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on EPIX. It is also having an exclusive, one-week theatrical run starting today at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre, and in 3D no less.

Chapman was the blonde, more athletic-looking (thanks to rugby and mountaineering) troupe player who also had lead roles in their Life of Brian and Yellowbeard films. Born in Great Britain during the outbreak of World War II, Chapman’s eventual comic sensibility was seemingly impacted by the war-time violence he witnessed as a youngster (which may have been the case with all of MP’s members). He was also MP’s sole gay member, and A Liar’s Autobiography explores Chapman’s sexual coming of age in fairly graphic cartoon detail (see clip below). Sadly, Chapman died of throat cancer when he was only 48 years old.

The film is animated in a variety of styles and with numerous amusing touches to illustrate the stages of Chapman’s life. These styles of animation include traditional hand-drawn, both crude and more sophisticated forms of CGI, stop motion (notably during a Sigmund Freud segment which features the voice of “gratuitous special guest star” Cameron Diaz as Freud), charcoal sketches and watercolor paintings. Some live-action archival footage of Chapman and Monty Python is also utilized. All of the vignettes are framed by a theatrical sketch that has Chapman playing Oscar Wilde.

For gay audiences at least, the film’s primary point of interest will be the substantial amount of time devoted to Chapman’s homosexuality. While initially stating “my sexual life consisted of sleeping with women while dreaming about men,” Chapman later determined himself to be 70% gay on the famous Kinsey Scale. He fell in love with the man who would become his longtime partner, David Sherlock, during a trip to Ibiza. Prior to his death, Chapman came out publicly and also admitted to his longtime alcoholism on British talk shows.

As suggested by its subtitle, The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, A Liar’s Autobiography is hardly dedicated to painting a completely accurate portrait of the late comedian. However, directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett draw primarily from Chapman’s own reading of his book, so any discrepancies between the subject and the telling are likely the result of liberties taken by Chapman himself. Both the storytelling and the imagery are often beautiful, sometimes baffling, but captivating throughout. To MP devotees, this film will serve as a great companion piece to Holy Flying Circus, a clever exposé of the controversy surrounding Life of Brian that was just released on DVDlast month.

Reverend's Rating: B

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