Friday, March 29, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Sex, Dance & Rock n Roll

Diversity is an understatement when it comes to these new DVD releases!

Sexual Tension: Volatile (TLA Releasing)
Talented Argentinian director Marco Berger (Plan B, Absent) and porn writer Marcelo Monaco deliver this compilation of six stories involving straight or questioning men who find themselves in steamy situations with another man.  The scenarios include a teen fantasizing about the tattoo artist working on him, a buddy teaching his overly-endowed friend how to make love to a woman without scaring her away, and a married man on vacation with his wife who develops a naked kinship with their innkeeper.  Most of the stories end with a frustrating lack of resolution, but this is intentional on the filmmakers’ part.  However, the final short, “Workout,” is a satisfying mix of hot guys, muscle worship and flirtation set to a cheery music score.
Reverend’s Rating: B

The Wishmakers (Ariztical Entertainment)
A newly out, Jewish dancer from Ohio moves to West Hollywood in hopes of starting his new gay life.  After making a wish for true love with his two best friends, he meets a cute fellow dancer with a secret or two.  David Grotell’s enjoyable film has a slight, sometimes strained plot but benefits from its four lead actors as well as supporting turns by Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland and “Chloe” YouTube sensation Drew Droege.  Don’t miss the romantic, digitally-enhanced dance finale.
Reverend’s Rating: B-

Satan's Angel: Queen of the Fire Tassels (Breaking Glass/QC)
Angel Walker, aka Satan’s Angel, has ruled the burlesque scene in San Francisco for decades.  A long-out lesbian, she also partied with The Doors and the Rat Pack in the 1960’s and toured with Bob Hope in the USO.  Josh Dragotta’s documentary gets the performer to dish about her experiences while showcasing her commitment to the art of burlesque.  Walker’s brassy personality takes a bit of getting used to and I wish the film featured more serious discussion of Walker’s relationship with her devoted wife, Vic.  Still, it provides an insightful glimpse into a little-known life and industry.
Reverend’s Rating: C+

Strange Frame (Wolfe Video)
An undeniably stylish and ambitious animated sci-fi film.  Set in the 28th century, it plays something like a lesbian version of Blade Runner or Total Recall as a rock musician/freedom fighter falls in love with a biologically-enhanced “debt slave” forced to work on a dangerous, other world.  The character animation is colorful but stiff and video game-like, which can be irritating, while the environments and backgrounds are often stunning.  It features a commendably diverse voice cast that includes Juliet Landau (Martin’s daughter), Claudia Christian, gay actor George Takei of Star Trek fame, Barney Miller’s Ron Glass and that “Sweet Transvestite” himself, Tim Curry.
Reverend’s Rating: B

Les Misérables (Universal Home Entertainment)
There are riches and deficits to be found in Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper’s big-screen transfer of the beloved stage musical.  Among its big-name cast members, Hugh Jackman shines as reformed convict Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway over-emotes but still makes a moving Fantine, and young newcomer Samantha Barks shines as the tragic Eponine.  (But then isn’t every character here pretty tragic?)  Russell Crowe looks great as the law-revering policeman Javert but lacks vocal strength and Amanda Seyfried is one-note dramatically and musically as Cosette, while Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are simultaneously under-utilized and excessive as the comically villainous Thenardiers.  Hooper also relies too heavily on lavish digital scenery.  Fortunately, the film’s weaknesses fail to diminish the power of Victor Hugo’s 150-year old saga of morality, grace, sacrifice and redemption, and the score’s best songs — generally well-performed in much-ballyhooed live recordings — highlight this all the more.
Reverend’s Rating: B

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reverend's Reviews: Dueling Divas

At first glance, last year's Tony-nominated End of the Rainbow and 1995's Tony-winning Master Class share a number of similarities.  Each has a real-life, late-career superstar as its subject, and each features a piano accompanist character who serves as supporter/confidante.  Both plays have one room as the primary setting, although they periodically break their respective set's back wall to transform it into a performance space.  And both works are by renown writers with serious diva fixations: Judy Garland in the first instance and opera's "La Divina" Maria Callas in the second.

Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, now having its West Coast premiere by Center Theatre Group (CTG) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through April 21st, takes place in 1968 London.  Garland (played by Tony nominee Tracie Bennett, more on her later) has arrived with her new manager and fiancé, Mickey Deans (the very good and grounded Erik Heger), to perform a five-week series of shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub.  Waiting for them in Judy's lavish but not-big-enough hotel room is her longtime accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), who is apparently an amalgamation of the numerous, frequently gay accompanists with whom Garland worked.

Mickey has cut Judy off of alcohol and drugs in advance of her financially-necessary London run.  Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Garland's troubled life and premature death in 1969 will realize its only a matter of time before she jumps off the wagon.  Indeed, by the end of Rainbow's first act, the girl is high as a kite and literally barking like a dog.

It may all be historically accurate but Quilter's play, directed here by Terry Johnson, often takes a demeaning, borderline-sensationalistic approach to Garland and her tragic addictions.  Quilter also implies, strangely, that Garland's legion of gay fans were to blame for her downfall, with Mickey telling Anthony at one point, "You people love to see her fall down and get back up again."  The playwright and director wisely avoid camp but watching Garland's decline in End of the Rainbow is at times literally, sickeningly akin to watching a train wreck.

Bennett's galvanizing performance goes a long way toward redeeming this boozy spectacle.  While arguably a bit too gimmicky and histrionic at times (even though it is a matter of public record that Garland could be histrionic), Bennett is a force of nature who makes a more than credible Judy.  This is especially evident during the show's several musical numbers, where Bennett sings such Garland classics as "Just in Time," "The Trolley Song," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and, yes, "Over the Rainbow," backed by a terrific band that magically appears whenever that back wall flies up.  Bennett's vocal strength and approximation of Garland's increasingly insecure and erratic behavior at several points convinced me I was actually watching Garland, and makes the play's denouement genuinely heartbreaking.

In terms of writing finesse, gay playwright Terrence McNally's Master Class is definitely the superior work.  It is now enjoying a worthy if imperfect revival at Long Beach's International City Theatre (ICT) that runs through April 14th.  McNally presents Callas leading a tutorial in opera performance to a trio of eager, if dangerously naïve, students.  Most winningly, the audience also comprises the student body, with the blunt Callas speaking directly to and otherwise engaging viewers throughout.

As Callas, Gigi Bermingham (a veteran of TV's Hart of Dixie and other shows, films and plays) seemed a bit restrained on opening night; Callas should be an unquestionably commanding (or, as she states in the play, "conquering") presence.  Some of Bermingham's transitions between recollections from Callas's past and the present moment were also rushed.  Whether the result of opening night jitters or faulty direction on the part of Todd Nielsen, I encourage Bermingham to make Callas bigger vocally and in terms of physical presence and to take her time during the transitions.

The supporting cast is excellent.  As Callas's "victims," Danielle Skalsky, Jennifer Shelton and the über-talented Tyler Milliron (he also dances, paints, writes music and makes short films) are full-voiced and full-blooded.  In addition, James Lent serves well as the session's adoring yet gently reassuring accompanist.
Whereas I recommend End of the Rainbow for Bennett's reincarnation of Judy Garland more than for the material, I recommend ICT's Master Class primarily for McNally's exceptional, quotable writing despite its fine performances.  Long after Bennett has moved on to other roles, McNally's will be the play that lives on.

Reverend's Ratings:
End of the Rainbow (CTG): B-
Master Class (ICT): B+

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

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reverend's Preview: Outfest Fusion at 10

This weekend's tenth-anniversary celebration in Los Angeles of the Outfest Fusion Film Festival will incorporate some of the best representations of LGBT people of color not only of last year but of the last 30+ years.  As the only multicultural platform of its kind, Outfest Fusion has grown from a mere festival into a full-fledged film development program that nurtures emerging artists and their projects.

One such artist, writer-director-producer Angela Robinson, will be honored with the 2013 Fusion Achievement Award on Saturday.  Robinson's short film D.E.B.S., about a team of schoolgirl super-spies battling lesbian villainesses, was expanded into a hit 2004 feature.  She subsequently became the first out lesbian to direct a Disney family comedy, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and has more recently helmed episodes of The L Word, True Blood and Hung.

A special retrospective of short films made in the last ten years and dealing with multicultural LGBT themes will kick off the festival tonight.  Among these are such gems as 2009's The Queen, about a gay Korean-American teenager fantasizing about his ideal prom date; Julian Breece's unforgettable The Young and Evil, in which a troubled gay black teen tries to seduce an HIV+ prevention advocate; and Marlon Riggs' classic, poetic documentary from 1990, Affirmations.

Also on Friday night, Fusion digs even further into the past to showcase one of the first feature films to deal with the often conjoined issues of race and sexuality, Fame.  This Oscar-winning musical, directed by Alan Parker, is set in New York's High School for the Performing Arts.  It launched the careers of Irene Cara, Debbie Allen, Barry Miller and Boyd Gaines as well as a TV series and Broadway musical (and spawned a less successful 2009 remake).  Paul McCrane is memorable as Montgomery, a gay teen struggling to come out of the closet.

The fest is carrying over several acclaimed standouts from Outfest 2012 including the teen lesbian tale Mosquita y Mari, Quentin Lee's White Frog and the engrossing doc Audre Lord - The Berlin Years.  I've more recently seen and highly recommend My Brother the Devil, which won awards at last year's Sundance Film Festival as well as at Outfest.  This excellent drama by Sally El Hosaini centers on two brothers of Arab-Muslim descent living with their parents in modern-day London.  Mo (short for Mohammed and played by Fady Elsayed) is the younger of the two as well as a good student and the "good boy."  Older brother Rashid (a strong performance by the handsome James Floyd) runs with a local gang and deals drugs.

The good son/bad son table starts to turn, though, as Rashid begins to question his sexuality while Mo also joins the gang and starts dealing.  Although he has a girlfriend, Rashid takes a job as a gay photographer's assistant (in an effort to go straight, professionally speaking) and is soon sleeping with his boss.  El Hosaini, in addition to having a great ear for contemporary street talk, handles the various volatile relationships within My Brother the Devil with intelligence and sensitivity.  David Raedeker's lensing is superb and deservedly snagged Sundance's World Cinema Cinematography Award.

I rate the film an A-.  But don't despair if you are unable to make it to the Fusion screening: My Brother the Devil will be released theatrically in L.A. and the U.S. beginning April 5th.  For more information about the fest, visit the Outfest Fusion website

There are a slew of other intriguing and/or noteworthy indie movies opening in LA this weekend, so many that I couldn't screen them all in time.  Be on the lookout though for The Happy Poet, in which a Texas bohemian works to open what may be the world's first vegan hot dog stand; Come Out and Play, a creepy remake of the 1976 Spanish film El Juego de Ninos about a couple vacationing in Mexico who run up against some killer kids (it is also currently available on VOD); Bob's New Suit, a romantic-comedy featuring a Trans character and a turn by gay actor Jack Larson (aka Jimmy Olsen on the old Adventures of Superman TV series); Dorfman in Love, starring the fabulous Sara Rue (Gypsy 83 and currently the best thing about TV's Malibu Country) as a woman cat-sitting for the guy she's crushing on; and, best of all, Hunky Dory, featuring Minnie Driver as a high-school drama teacher in 1976 who inspires her students to perform a glam-rock musical version of The Tempest!

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reverend's Reviews: Cellblock Tango

I doubt anything I write about K-11 can sum it up as accurately and succinctly as The Hollywood Reporter’s critic, who described the film as being “like a deranged John Waters remake of The Shawshank Redemption.”

The film’s title refers to a real-life section of the Los Angeles County Jail in which gay, bisexual and transgender inmates are held (no “real” girls are allowed).  Goran Visnjic gives an impressive performance as Raymond Saxx, a successful music producer who wakes from a drug-induced stupor to find himself K-11’s newest arrival.  He is doubly-surprised once he learns the sexual orientation of his colorful neighbors, since Raymond is heterosexual.  A young Trans woman who takes pity on him best sums up K-11 as “a sanctuary for broken toys.”  Raymond is most definitely in need of repair since, in addition to his obvious addiction issues, he has also been accused of murdering an associate.

Most aggressive among his cellmates is the transsexual Mousey (a fabulously fierce turn by Mexican superstar Kate Del Castillo).  Ruling the ward with stiletto heels and an iron fist, Mousey quickly asserts her authority over Raymond.  In time, though, the two bond over a plan to simultaneously restore Raymond’s innocence and Mousey’s drug trafficking business.  The latter has been disrupted by K-11’s chief guard, Lt. Johnson (entertainingly played with a Hitler-esque combover by D.B. Sweeney), who also has something sinister to do with Raymond’s incarceration.

Jules Stewart makes a supremely confident directorial debut with K-11, especially given the dark, frequently racy material.  Although the screenplay comes perilously close at times to sensationalizing or stereotyping the characters, Stewart wisely resists.  The uniformly excellent cast of supporting players also helps in this regard.  Finally, the film is nicely-shot by Adam Silver and well-edited by Duwayne Dunham.

I certainly wouldn’t call K-11 as depicted here a nice place to visit, but this movie’s intriguing plot and set of characters is worthy of viewers’ time.

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reverend's Interview: Jules Stewart, Kristen’s Mom & More

Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman star Kristen Stewart wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award this year.  That didn’t stop her though from pretty much owning the red carpet at last month’s event, where she did serve as a presenter.  No one was prouder of Kristen than her mother, Jules Stewart.

“It’s crazy,” Stewart replied the day after the Oscars when I asked her how it felt to be the mother of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.   “I’m so proud of her and all my children (Stewart’s three sons are also involved in the film industry), but Kristen is so real in every part she does.”

Mama Stewart is well-known within the industry as a longtime script supervisor.  Since the late 1980’s, she developed an eclectic resume that includes the cult favorite Meet the Applegates, martial arts epics Showdown in Little Tokyo and Mortal Kombat, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, and the family films Jingle All the Way, Flubber and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.

She is now making her directorial debut with the LGBT-interest K-11, now in limited release.  It centers on a straight record producer who is suspected of murder and subsequently consigned to a special jail ward for gay, bi and transsexual men.  The setting is inspired by an actual unit in the Los Angeles County Jail, although residence in it is voluntary.

“I was working on a television pilot and one of the writers came to me with this idea about K-11,” Stewart recounted.  “I hadn’t heard about it but once I looked into it I thought this was a great opportunity to create some great characters.  It was also an unusual story, in the good sense, that I hadn’t seen before.”

Stewart co-wrote the screenplay with Jared Kurt and decided to direct it since she “felt closer to the material” by that point.  According to her, it took six years to bring K-11 to the big screen and her daughter Kristen was originally going to be in it as a sweet, naïve inmate named Butterfly.  “She attached herself, I think, during filming of the first Twilight when we first had a complete script.”  As the process of funding K-11 went on and Kristen’s career took off, however, the younger Stewart instead committed to the recent Snow White remake, with her mother’s blessing.  Kristen does make a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the final film as the producer’s secretary.

I asked Stewart whether the fact that K-11 is based on a real place added any extra responsibility or pressure to directing her first feature.  “It did in that you want to be truthful,” she replied.  “In the dorm they have a routine, and that gave us a structure; then we invented really amazing characters to put in this situation.  I wanted it to be a revenge story but with a happy ending, which I think it has.”

She also spoke enthusiastically about the experience of helming this particular movie:  “It was awesome (laughing), I have to say.  I had a great crew and an amazing cast.  It was fun, and hugely collaborative. When you have 46 people in one room, the energy is just amazing.  I hope people feel that (while watching the film).”

The cast of K-11 is headed by Goran Visnjic, who recently co-starred as Christopher Plummer’s much younger lover in Beginners, and Kate Del Castillo, who is not only one of Mexico’s most popular actresses but also serves as Ambassador for the Mexican Commission on Human Rights.  I asked Stewart how she assembled such a great, “name” cast for her debut film.

“Funny you should mention that,” Stewart answered.  “My casting director came to me with Goran.  That character could have been played by anyone since he’s the fish out of water, but we met and he was so enthusiastic about the part; I was so glad he wanted to do it.”  Of Del Castillo, who plays the cellblock’s vicious Trans queen bee, Stewart said: “Kate was the first actor we cast.  I wanted a female to play a man becoming a woman since (the character) was halfway there.  She’s a dynamic actress, and she’s beautiful.”

I was curious as to whether the writer-director had much exposure to LGBT people prior to filming K-11.  “Not really,” Stewart answered.  “I have a lot of gay friends but they’re not really transgender; still, for me, it was sort of never really an issue.”

She continued: “I did learn a lot about transgender people (while making the movie) because I became friends with them on the set; there are only three girls in the film, so there are actual Trans people in it.  My casting director went to the LA Gay & Lesbian Center for referrals and we cast several of them.  And you know what?  They were at the set on time every single day because they were so excited to be a part of this story.”

While LGBT and other viewers will ultimately draw their own conclusions about her movie, Stewart is optimistic.  “I hope K-11 is well-received,” she said.  “I think it’s a story worth telling and I hope they love the characters as much as I do.  They are different and I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of The Brady Bunch.”

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

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Kooky & Spooky

The violent yet artful stylings of Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Thirst) are applied to a contrived, Southern Gothic plot in Stoker, now playing nationwide.  The result is artistically queasy and may induce physical queasiness in some viewers.  Written by Wentworth Miller, who formerly starred on TV’s Prison Break and is now apparently retired from acting, Stoker’s screenplay was acclaimed in recent years as one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  It’s hard to see what all the fuss was about via the final film despite the A-list cast it attracted, including Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland), Matthew Goode (Watchmen, Colin Firth’s boyfriend in A Single Man) and Nicole Kidman.

Wasikowska plays teenaged India Stoker, who is grieving her father’s recent, tragic death in an apparent car accident.  She receives little comfort from her similarly-grieving but chilly mother (Kidman).  When long-absent Uncle Charlie (Goode) reappears at the funeral reception, he kindles sexual urges in both women and unexpectedly homicidal instincts in his niece.

Stoker boasts provocative shots of spiders crawling up India’s legs, pseudo-philosophical reflections such as “To become an adult is to become free,” erotic piano duets, and a virtual cameo by recent Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).  Kidman’s character becomes increasingly unhinged as the story progresses; between her campy turn in last year’s The Paperboy and this, I fear the Oscar-winning actress risks becoming the new Faye Dunaway.  Die-hard fans of director Park may appreciate Stoker but most everyone else would do best to steer clear.

Meanwhile, another haunted family back on the big screen in select cities and on Video On Demand (VOD) this weekend is all too real.  George and Kathy Lutz and their three children allegedly endured 28 days and nights of terror during the mid-1970’s in Amityville, New York.  Their new home was the site of a massacre one year earlier, when Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his entire family while they slept.  Shortly after moving in, the Lutzes began experiencing supernatural phenomenon that ultimately drove them from the house.  This has been recounted in the bestselling book The Amityville Horror as well as several films inspired by it.

George and Kathy have since passed away, but their son Daniel Lutz has broken the children’s longtime silence about the Lutz family’s ordeal in the intrinsically intriguing new documentary My Amityville Horror.  During the 37 years since, Daniel moved from place to place, was married and divorced, and underwent extensive therapy before settling into his current life as a small town UPS deliveryman.  He shares his remembrances openly, even movingly at times.

Given the opportunity to debunk reports of his family’s experience, as some researchers and more recent residents of the house have done, Daniel affirms the book’s account of events with just a few corrections or clarifications.  This was surprising to me given the vehemence with which he often speaks in the film of his stepfather, George.  He also acknowledges that George, who seemingly had a pre-haunting interest in telekinesis and the occult, may have manipulated Daniel and his siblings or the phenomenon they witnessed.  Still, Daniel resolutely maintains that his family was indeed under siege by unearthly forces that may have been unintentionally stirred up by George’s physical resemblance to prior tenant Ronald DeFeo.  (DeFeo, who was convicted of his family members’ murders and remains in prison, claimed that voices in the house commanded him to kill.)

My Amityville Horror is spooky stuff, effectively directed by Eric Walter, even as it rehashes much of what is well known from the books and movies.  One thing shown in the documentary that I had not previously seen is a creepy photo taken in the empty house by a researcher’s camera following the Lutzes’ sudden departure.  A frighteningly clear image reveals a young boy with glowing eyes, possibly the spirit of DeFeo’s youngest brother, peering out from a doorway.  It made my hair stand up, as the best moments in horror movies should.  Tragically, Daniel’s scarred psyche testifies to a ghost story that is too true for comfort.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Stoker: C-
My Amityville Horror: B

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Franco the Great and Sexual

James Franco proved himself the King of Hollywood this past weekend.  Despite mixed reviews for his performance in the title role of Oz the Great and Powerful, he helped power the film to an international blockbuster debut.  The 34-year old, Oscar-nominated actor/filmmaker also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 7th, further cementing — literallyhis industry immortality.

I found Franco’s performance one of the better, more genuine things about Disney’s given-to-excess adaptation of the classic L. Frank Baum books and, more directly, prequel to 1939’s beloved movie musical The Wizard of Oz.  His Oscar Diggs, known to his associates (since he doesn’t have any friends) as “Oz,” starts out as a sideshow magician in 1905 Kansas prior to being whisked away by a tornado to that vibrantly Technicolor world “somewhere over the rainbow.”  Once there, he is proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophecy that a man bearing the same name as the land of Oz would descend from the sky and ascend the long-vacant throne.  Diggs is initially reluctant to be proclaimed wizard but becomes much more amenable once he is shown the massive treasure that awaits whoever proves worthy of the realm.

First, though, he must defeat the Wicked Witch who, with her army of marauding flying baboons, has been terrorizing the countryside.  Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams play the film’s trio of enchantresses.  Williams makes a wonderful Glinda and Weisz is fine as her shadier counterpart, but Kunis struck me as lacking when she has to kick into full sorceress mode (her obvious prosthetic make-up doesn’t help either).  Then again, she is competing against Margaret Hamilton’s turn in the original movie.  This new Oz only serves to reinforce the indelibility of Hamilton and so many other elements of the MGM classic.

Director Sam Raimi makes more than a few nods to The Wizard of Oz, most of them welcome, including the opening transition from full-frame black and white to widescreen color and cameo appearances by the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.  As visually spectacular as much of the new film is, however, some visual effects sequences go on far too long.  The chief offenders are Diggs’ white-river rafting/waterfall plunging experience when his balloon first touches down in Oz and several characters’ bubble-borne journey to Munchkinland.  Such excesses may look great in 3D (in which I did not view the film) but are seemingly endless and probably add five non-essential minutes to the film’s running time.  Parents of young children should also be cautioned about a scene where the bad witches publicly torture Glinda; I don’t remember that from the original Baum tales!  Still, Oz the Great and Powerful is on the whole engaging and entertaining.

Back to Franco.  He is more understated than the initially-cast Robert Downey, Jr. likely would have been in the role but Franco’s natural sincerity rings true, especially at those moments when Diggs wrestles with his insincere tendencies.  While Franco is good with his female co-stars, his best scenes tend to be with non-human creations: a lovely little girl made of porcelain (dubbed “China Girl”) and a less-vicious, bellhop-dressed winged monkey who serves as his valet.  Franco also wisely avoids jokiness throughout, something Downey, Jr. — good as he might have beenprobably wouldn’t have been able to resist.

For full James Franco real-ness though, gay and other, adventurous viewers must check out Interior.Leather Bar., one of his several other current projects.  (He is in Spring Breakers, opening this Friday, and produced the porn documentary Kink, which is currently making festival rounds.)  Franco co-directed the movie with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews, and both appear in it.

Interior. Leather Bar. serves as a fascinating rumination on the current state of GLBT acceptance in society via a graphic re-creation of missing footage from 1980’s controversial Cruising.  William Friedkin’s suspense film starred Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York City’s leather community to hunt down a murderer. Even before its release, the film was criticized for allegedly stereotyping members of the community.  It was heavily edited as a result, with a rumored 40 minutes of more sexually-explicit content left on the cutting room floor.  Cruising still bombed upon its release and has been little remembered apart from its infamy, until now.

The latest in Franco’s ongoing, apparently deepening interest in gay topics (witness his previous turns in Milk, Howl and The Broken Tower, the latter of which he also directed), Interior. Leather Bar. intersperses sex scenes, interviews with cast members prior to the filming of the sex scenes, and private conversations between Franco, Mathews and/or Val Lauren, their Pacino doppelganger.  Lauren is quite good if, as a straight man who claims to have had no homosexual experiences, he is understandably uncomfortable with the man-on-man action going on around him.  Franco is himself uncomfortably but amusingly wide-eyed at one point while apparently watching an off-camera fisting scene.

The men’s discomfort, though, sparks insightful dialogue about the representation of GLBT life and issues on film.  At one point, Lauren bluntly asks Franco how he can be making such a movie while in production on the much-ballyhooed, family-friendly Oz prequel.  Franco responds inspirationally, speaking about his unhappiness at being raised in a country and culture that taught him to consider gay sex and gay people as unnatural or lesser-than.  He also states or at least implies that if his exploration of such topics limits his options in Hollywood, then so be it.

I didn’t need another reason to admire Franco, even after his admittedly disappointing Oscar-hosting gig in 2011, but his recent output including Interior. Leather Bar. has made me a true Franco-phile.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Oz the Great and Powerful: B-
Interior. Leather Bar.: B+

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

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reverend's Interview: Alan Turing, Broken But Brilliant

The smartphones, desktop computers and laptops/notebooks upon which most of us have grown dependent in the 21st century likely would not exist if it wasn’t for the little-known Alan Turing.  This brilliant mathematician who was born in London 100 years ago not only laid the foundations for the computer in a 1936 paper, but cracked the Nazis’ secret military codes and helped turn the tide of World War II against them.

Turing was also an openly gay man at a time when the vast majority of us were deep in the closet.  A new documentary, Codebreaker, is currently removing the veil that has obscured Turing and his dramatic contributions to history and modern technology.  In addition, rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the title detective on BBC’s Sherlock and the central villain in this summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness, has been signed to play Turing in an upcoming dramatized biography.

Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs is among the experts interviewed in Codebreaker who attest to Turing’s revolutionary genius.  Turing began to develop computers from the theoretical to the actual in 1948, with the intention of “putting something like a human consciousness in an inorganic machine.”  In this regard, Turing is considered to be the father of Artificial Intelligence.

Sadly, though, Turing would not live to see his vision realized.  He was arrested on charges of gross indecency with a younger man whom Turing had accused of burglary.  Homosexuality was still illegal in Great Britain at the time, and Turing was convicted in 1952.  As a condition of his sentencing, he was forced to undergo chemical castration through hormone replacement therapy.  This was, in a cruel irony, the same abuse that the Nazi doctors Turing helped to defeat had subjected many Jewish men to in the concentration camps.  The psychological effects of this combined with his public disgrace drove Turing to take his life in 1954, at the age of 41.

The British government formally apologized for its mistreatment of Turing but not until 2009, 55 years after his death.  Today, Turing is increasingly being praised for his mathematical brilliance and advanced technological vision, his heroism in the fight against Nazi Germany, and his pioneering honesty about his homosexuality.  If he could be “naïve,” as one commentator describes Turing in Codebreaker, he can also be regarded more positively as optimistic, even if to a fault.

Patrick Sammon, creator and executive producer of Codebreaker, had not heard of Turing before he came across a story about him while visiting the Smithsonian Institute in 2004.  “It was a long road,” Sammon said of his film’s development during a recent phone interview.  “I’m on my third career now after being a TV reporter and documentary filmmaker for PBS, then I took a detour into leading the Log Cabin Republicans.”

It was while Sammon was researching ideas for possible future movies after he decided to try filmmaking full time that he discovered Turing.  “At the time, I stuck it in my file folder,” recalls Sammon, who is now 38 years old.  “I came across it again in 2009; it was that September when I said ‘I’m going to get this made’ and started to get the production team together.”  Codebreaker is excellent and engrossing due in large part to the work of director Clare Beavan and editor Leigh Brzeski.  Actor Ed Stoppard (The Pianist) plays Turing in several dramatic vignettes during the course of the film.

Sammon partnered with Channel 4 in the UK and produced an initial, British version of Codebreaker (titled Britain's Greatest Codebreaker) that was broadcast there in 2011.  He and his team have since re-edited the film to make a uniquely American cut.  This is the version currently being shown in US theaters via a new approach to exhibition entitled Theatrical on Demand, or TOD for short.  When Codebreaker gets enough demand from a particular city or region through the website, a screening or longer run of the film is scheduled.

“We’ve played in nine cities so far,” Sammon reported.  “This builds on the Video on Demand (VOD) model, but it is great to see this film on the big screen and with other people.”  TOD has a relationship with AMC theaters and, according to Sammon, “they really market films well to the LGBT community.”  Codebreaker has also been screened several times to date as a fundraiser for local LGBT community centers in different parts of the country.

“It’s been seen by more than two million people around the world at this point,” Sammon says of his film, the first he has ever produced.  “People’s first response (to Turing’s story) is usually outrage, but they then feel inspired by it. He was someone who thought outside the box and was a really creative, unusual man.”

More personally, Sammon shared about what he has learned as a gay man from Turing and what he hopes audiences will take from his film.  “I was really personally inspired by his outsider’s personality, and I hope it helps people to better appreciate our differences whatever they may be: gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.”

The producer and his team were most intent on “doing Turing justice” with Codebreaker.  I asked Sammon whether he had heard about the announced biopic in which Cumberbatch will star.  He had and stated: “It’s going to be good, it’s all good; the more people that know about Turing, the better.”

It is enormously inspiring to realize that the digital age in which we now live was ushered in by an openly gay man who also played a critical role in vanquishing Hitler and the Nazis, thereby ensuring greater freedom for those persecuted by them including LGBT people.  Despite his achievements, Turing suffered greatly and unnecessarily during his life.  We all owe him a tremendous debt.

For more information about Codebreaker, visit the film's official website.

More and more movies are being produced that shine a well-deserved spotlight on the LGBT men and women who helped pave the way for our visibility, acceptance and growing equality today.  Here are a few must-sees that have already come out, so to speak:

Milk (2008):  Easily the best such film to date, Sean Penn won his second Oscar as Best Actor for his turn as Harvey Milk, the crusading San Francisco supervisor who was tragically assassinated by a disgruntled colleague.  It was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director (openly gay Gus Van Sant), and out writer Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

De-Lovely (2004):  The life of songwriter Cole Porter had been previously dramatized in 1946’s Night and Day but his bisexuality had been (in)conveniently omitted.  Kevin Kline plays Porter in this all-out musical.  In one memorable scene, he gives out actor John Barrowman of Torchwood fame a very intimate singing lesson.

A Beautiful Mind (2001):  Some accused this Oscar-winning movie about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash of making its bisexual subject straight, à la Night and Day and Cole Porter.  I disagree.  Director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe take a subtle approach, but there is a definite homoerotic vibe between Nash and the graduate assistant/figment of his imagination played by Paul Bettany.

The Music Lovers (1970):  Gay composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, et al) is given flamboyant big-screen treatment by equally flamboyant director Ken Russell.  Richard Chamberlain, who later came out himself, plays Tchaikovsky.

Henry & June (1990):  An intelligent, sensual exploration of the real-life love triangle between author Henry Miller, his wife June and erotic writer Anaïs Nin. Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros heat things up as, respectively, June and Anais, resulting in the first NC-17 movie rating.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987):  Gary Oldman made a big impression on international audiences as playwright Joe Orton in this film focusing on Orton’s 16-year, ill-fated partnership with Kenneth Halliwell (played by Alfred Molina).  Both funny and disturbing, it was one of the first warts-and-all explorations of a gay relationship to hit the silver screen.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985):  Unusual, highly-stylized examination of the life of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.  More speculative than factual, Paul Schrader’s film is nonetheless one of the more unique and truly cinematic biopics ever made about anyone, gay or straight.  Handsome Ken Ogata is riveting in the title role.

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

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Teen Tunes & Tales

For those of us who came of age in the late 1970’s-1980’s, the songs of Journey provided much of the soundtrack for our adolescent lives (along with Queen, Eurythmics, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and, of course, Pet Shop Boys).  The popular rock band put out such now-classics as “Open Arms,” “Faithfully,” “Who’s Crying Now” and “Any Way You Want It,” and even provided a couple of tunes for Disney’s groundbreaking Tron in 1982.

Don’t Stop Believin’:Everyman’s Journey opens today in Southern California theaters and will be available on VOD beginning tomorrow. Drawing its title from one of the group’s biggest hits, which has been re-popularized in recent years thanks to covers in Glee and Rock of Ages, it documents the rise to stardom of current Journey front man Arnel Pineda.  Pineda was born and raised in the Philippines and, following decades of singing with local bands, was chosen by longtime Journey members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain in 2007 after they saw Pineda’s YouTube videos.  They were particularly impressed by how much Pineda sounds like Journey’s original, distinctively-voiced lead singer, Steve Perry.

Pineda had much to overcome beginning at a young age.  His mother, who encouraged Pineda to mimic the vocal stylings of such expert singers as Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, passed away when her son was only 13.  Left with medical debts his father couldn’t pay, Pineda and his siblings were farmed out to other relatives.  Pineda quit school soon after and spent several years working odd jobs and living on the street.  Throughout all his struggles, he maintained his love for music and eventually formed a band in Manila with some of his friends.

As inspiring as much of Pineda’s story is, Filipina director Ramona S. Diaz (Imelda) may be a little too enamored with her subject and, subsequently, comes across at times as less than objective.  Don’t Stop Believin’ is a very by-the-numbers documentary (and overly long at nearly two hours) that keeps things positive and doesn’t delve into any potential current issues/tensions with either Pineda or Journey’s other members.  Although the band is big again thanks in large part to Pineda, they largely recycle former hits and don’t take many musical risks.  If that’s the way Journey wants it then good for them, but it doesn’t make for very compelling cinema.

On the other hand, today’s music-loving teenagers — at least a multi-ethnic group of them living in the South Bronx — are given a frequently invigorating big-screen treatment by experimental French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep).  Gondry’s The We and the I is now playing in New York and is set to open in Los Angeles on March 22nd before expanding nationally.

Set entirely on a city bus, the film follows several teens and their interactions with one another at the end of their last day of school before summer vacation.  The kingpin among them is Michael (played by Michael Brodie, a promising standout among the mostly amateur cast), who with two devotees commandeers the back of the bus.  His position also affords him a place to try to hide from Teresa (played by Teresa Lynn), a budding artist and Michael’s sometime girlfriend who, it turns out, did a drawing of Michael for which he posed nude.  The complex emotional interplay between them serves as the film’s center.

The We and the I represents a return to successful form for Gondry after 2011’s big-budget but wretched The Green Hornet, Christoph Waltz’s entertaining villain aside.  Though not as experimental or downright odd as some of his prior films, Gondry is still able to work in some of his trademark visual jokes and artistic references. The dialogue is graphic (usually amusingly so) when it comes to discussion of others’ genitals, sex acts, disabilities and/or race, including prodigious use of “the N-word,” but the screenplay (co-written with Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch) captures the modern teen spirit, lingo and reliance on technology exceptionally well.  It also illustrates a more tolerant, fluid understanding of sexuality among today’s teens than prior generations, with both gay and lesbian couples as well as a trans character on the bus.

As strong as much of The We and the I is, it suffers somewhat due to the cast’s more-often-than-not amateurish performances.  The film was made in collaboration with the Point Community Development Corporation, which is striving to improve the quality of life among South Bronx residents.  This is a noble effort that gives a lot of kids who likely wouldn’t have had a chance the opportunity to appear in a feature film by a world-class filmmaker.  Still, some of their line readings and reaction shots are painful and distract from an otherwise worthy production.  The screenplay also gets heavy-handedly serious toward the end.

Fittingly, The We and the I’s soundtrack boasts a cool mix of old school and contemporary rap and hip-hop.  The times may change but music will clearly always be foundational to the teen experience.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey: C+
The We and the I: B

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Rejoice and Be Mayor

Even non-Jews are familiar with “Hava Nagila,” the joyful song traditionally played at Jewish weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other occasions.  As Roberta Grossman’s fun and illuminating new documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie makes clear, though, few people — Jewish or otherwise know exactly what the tune means or of the dramatic history behind it.  The film is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles on March 15th.

Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain (who previously teamed on 2008’s Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh) went on a “Havaquest” to discover its origins.  Dubbed “a song all scholars of Jewish music love to hate” by one expert interviewed for the film, the melody took root among Hasidic Jews living in Ukraine approximately 150 years ago.  Their chief rabbi believed that joy was a requirement for worshipping God, even under less than joyful circumstances, and felt the tune had “an extra-magical power” that ultimately inspired ordinary Jews.

It wasn’t given lyrics and a title, however, until after World War I.  A.Z. Idelsohn, a cantor living in Jerusalem, drew from the biblical psalms and selected “Hava Nagila” (translation: “Let us rejoice”) as the most fitting refrain.  Idelsohn has come to be regarded as “the father of Hava” despite objections from the descendants of one of his students, Moshe Nathanson, who claim Nathanson wrote the song’s lyrics as a school assignment when he was a mere 12 years old.

The film follows the song’s literal journey from Israel to Nazi-occupied Europe, its endurance through the horrors of the Holocaust, and to the post-World War II United States.  American singers including Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Danny Kaye and Glen Campbell made “Hava Nagila” an international recording smash between the 1950’s and 60’s.  All but the deceased Kaye provide new interviews in the movie, as do Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy and numerous rabbis and scholars.  Grossman also references many Hollywood productions that have incorporated the song, notably A Raisin in the Sun, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Private Benjamin and Wedding Crashers.

Grossman and Sartain’s tongue-in-cheek approach further serves to illustrate the film’s primary thesis, that Jews are “a happy people.”  Hava Nagila: The Movie as well as the song serve as fitting, entertaining testaments to the resilience of the Jewish people.

As a Jew, the famed longtime mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, likely sang and/or danced along to “Hava Nagila” countless times during his storied life.  Koch, who just passed away last month at the age of 88, is now himself the subject of a documentary.  Simply but appropriately titled Koch, it is now playing in LA and other US cities.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter and first-time filmmaker Neil Barsky does a generally remarkable job shuttling back and forth between clips from archival footage beginning in 1977 and an intimate 2010 interview he conducted of Koch.  In covering key moments from Koch’s unprecedented 12-year run as mayor, things can get a little confusing and/or frustrating for viewers when certain events or timeframes overlap.  For example, I was keenly interested in the film’s depiction of Koch’s handling of the AIDS crisis that exploded in NYC in the early 1980’s.  Barsky doesn’t address this until he is well into the second half of the 80’s, but my patience was finally rewarded even if Koch is defined as “largely ineffective” at dealing with AIDS.

Koch was dogged by rumors he was gay starting at an early point in his political career, and they became public in a big way when his chief rival, Mario Cuomo, told New Yorkers to “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”  Koch never confirmed these rumors, not even when Barsky asks him directly during his interview.  Throughout the film, though, Koch comes across as sharp, witty and responsive as only a gay man could be.

New Yorkers today and those who have visited the Big Apple have much for which to be thankful to Koch, including housing renewal initiatives in previously blighted areas and the first attempts to clean up Times Square and make it more tourist-friendly.  The late mayor was apparently most proud toward the end of his life of the city’s decision to rename the Queensboro Bridge in his honor.  Barksy uses the debate over this decision as an effective framing device, one that illustrates well the man’s accomplishments and what will surely be enduring arguments over them.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Hava Nagila:The Movie: B+
Koch: A-

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