Friday, August 30, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: New DVDs for the Long Weekend

If you are like me and can’t afford an exotic getaway this Labor Day weekend, consider checking out the following new releases on DVD and/or VOD.

Beyond the Walls (Strand Releasing)
A Belgium-set, bittersweet gay romance à la Keep the Lights On and Weekend, and nearly as good as its predecessors. When Ilir (Guillaume Gouix), a hot but closeted bartender, takes the younger and drunk musician Paulo (Matila Malliarakis), home one night, it gradually leads to true love between the two as well as unanticipated complications. Ilir is sentenced to 18 months in prison for drug possession and Paulo, faced with homelessness, is forced to take up with a local S&M daddy. Once reunited, their relationship is decidedly different. “I didn’t grow up,” Paulo tells Ilir, “I made some choices.” The lead actors are both superb but Malliarakis impresses in particular with his “before and after” physicality. Well-written and confidently directed by David Lambert, making his feature film debut.
Reverend’s Rating: B+

After the End: A Journey through Loss to Hope (Cinema Libre Studio)
Since my “day job” comprises bereavement support for families at two local hospices, I brought a considerable amount of personal experience and potential bias while I viewed this documentary about people grieving the loss of a loved one. I was ultimately pleased and frequently moved by it. Director Andrew Morgan was inspired to make the film following his father’s sudden death while the pair was out on a bike ride. The fearless, searching result includes the stories of several men and women, the most heartbreaking of which is a young couple grieving the accidental death of their 2-year old daughter. Most of the losses recounted were unexpected, and I wish Morgan included at least one more story discussing the phenomenon of anticipatory grief when one has a terminally-ill family member whose death is normally less of a surprise. Still, the documentary’s content is illuminating, valuable for the general public and hopeful, true to its subtitle.
Reverend’s Rating: B+

Petunia (Wolfe Video)
The latest from writer-director Ash Christian is a welcome improvement over his last feature, the downright irritating Mangus! A return to the more melancholy but genuinely witty tone of his debut, 2006’s Fat Girls, his new film’s title doubles as the surname of an angst-ridden New York family. The great Christine Lahti and William H. Macy lookalike David Rasche play the brood’s therapist-parents who are naturally in need of therapy themselves. Promising newcomer Tobias Segal portrays their celibate gay son but finds his chastity on the line once he falls for his downstairs neighbor (an excellent, more restrained than usual turn by out actor Michael Urie), who is married to a woman (Brittany Snow from Hairspray and Pitch Perfect). Though the language and humor are often crass, Christian’s screenplay (co-written with Theresa Bennett) has some honest, important things to say about sex in marriage/relationships. Austin F. Schmidt’s nicely-composed camera shots serve as an elegant underscore.
Reverend’s Rating: B

I Do (Breaking Glass Pictures)
I wasn’t as enamored by this pro-marriage equality tale as some when it traveled last year’s LGBT film festival circuit, winning quite a few awards in the process, but it certainly proved to be timely. Directed by Glenn Gaylord from a semi-autobiographical screenplay by David W. Ross, the set up struck me as trite in this otherwise hard-hitting drama about a gay British citizen living in New York City, Jack (played by Ross), who suddenly finds his work visa denied. Since moving back to the U.K. will separate him from his recently widowed sister-in-law and beloved niece, Jack convinces a lesbian friend to marry him so he can stay in the US. Needless to say, things get messy. A good but ultimately over-earnest film. Reverend’s Rating: B

Seattle Superstorm (Arc Entertainment)
SyFy’s knowingly cheesy and subsequently hilarious Sharknado was one of this summer’s unexpected cinematic pleasures, along with Iron Man 3, This Is the End, World War Z and Austenland. This low-budget disaster flick, which was obviously made for TV and will likely be broadcast on SyFy soon if it hasn’t been already, reaches nowhere near such inspired heights but contains a few novel twists that save it from becoming a total waste. For one, what starts out looking like your standard alien invasion that is causing monstrous storms in the Pacific Northwest turns out to be something more creepily home-grown. Meanwhile, the military “strongman” role usually assigned to a male actor is here played by V’s lovely Ona Grauer, whereas veteran actor Esai Morales (so sexily volatile in La Bamba and Rapa Nui) plays the more thoughtful, “softer” scientist trying to figure out what’s really going on. This movie will go down even better with some microwave popcorn and a box of wine.
Reverend’s Rating: C+

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Bottoms Up

The consumption of alcohol is a time-honored way of lubricating social interactions and lowering inhibitions. Of course, it can also cloud the drinker’s ordinarily good judgment and lead one into unanticipated dilemmas. Two films opening this weekend, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and The World’s End, by Shaun of the Dead duo Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, explore this phenomenon. In the first, excess drinking leads to falling in love with one’s virtually engaged co-worker, whereas the latter finds its inebriated quintet of longtime friends up staring down — through glazed and bloodshot eyes — an alien invasion.

Drinking Buddies, which garnered audience acclaim and a distribution deal at this year’s South by Southwest film festival, is an intimate and beautifully-observed drama. Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick all give great, nuanced performances as the story’s mismatched group of alcohol-fueled lovers. (Jason Sudeikis of SNL and the now-playing We're the Millers also appears). Wilde’s Kate is the head marketing honcho at a Chicago brewery where Johnson’s Luke works the production line. They are given to sharing a draft or two after work, and sometimes even during their lunch breaks. The pair shares an easy banter and obvious chemistry, even though Luke seems more obviously attracted to Kate. Quality assurance was never like this.

Luke, however, is this close to becoming formally engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jill (Kendrick, the most lauded cast member given her Oscar nomination for 2009's Up in the Air). Meanwhile, Kate has a serious and savvy music-producer boyfriend, Chris (Livingston, who can also currently be seen in The Conjuring). Things come to a head when the two couples take a weekend trip to Chris's cabin in the woods, during which copious amounts of beer and wine are imbibed.

Joe Swanberg is a big name writer-director in the indie filmmaking world as well as an occasional actor; in fact, he appears in the horror movie You're Next, also opening this weekend. (For a full display of the cute Swanberg's talents ahem as an actor, check out his full-frontal and sexually-aroused performance as a closeted conservative preacher in 2010's gay drama Blackmail Boys.) Drinking Buddies is his best, most accessible/identifiable film to date. It is still loose and improv-feeling (much of the dialogue was reportedly improvised) but more controlled and assured from a directorial standpoint. Its also definitely a date movie, but one best appreciated while sober.

How could the creators of Shaun of the Dead possibly attempt to top their comedic zombie opus, which was an international hit back in 2004? Why, with the covert alien invasion depicted in The World's End, of course. Co-writer and star Simon Pegg plays Gary, an alcoholic 40-year old who never outgrew his high school days and longs to finish an all-night pub crawl that he and his best friends attempted their senior year. While his mates (played by fellow Shaun alum Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and The Hobbit's Martin Freeman) have all settled down with families and respectable jobs, Gary remains jobless and generally aimless.

Returning to their hometown of Newton Haven, billed as the "home of the UK's first roundabout," the old friends reluctantly agree to help Gary achieve his quest. There are 11 pubs standing between them and their final destination, The World's End, and they must each drink at least one pint of beer in each (never mind that Frost's Andy is a recovering alcoholic). Along the way, the group notices things are a little amiss in their old stomping grounds, the most disturbing discrepancies of which are the super-strong, literally blue-blooded replicants who have taken over their town and are in the process of taking over the planet.

While it isn't as outrageously funny nor as clever as this June's similar This is the End, I enjoyed The World's End, especially the playfulness of its actors and Edgar Wright's direction. Paul Machliss's editing is also of great support in this regard. At nearly two hours, the movie gets long and belabored for a lightweight comedy that doesn't have much of gravitas to say but I really liked its post-apocalyptic ending. If excessive drinking can help restore civilization, count me in!

Reverend’s Ratings:
Drinking Buddies: B+
The World’s End: B

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Romantic Adventures

There aren’t too many movies I have seen that I have immediately adored. Loved, yes, but not adored. I’m not exactly sure where the distinction between the two reactions lies but I can say with certainty that I adore Austenland, which begins its gradual nationwide release today. I plan to see it again at the earliest opportunity.

The film is directed and co-adapted from Shannon Hale’s novel by Jerusha Hess, who with her husband Jared previously wrote 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite. Quirkiness is, therefore, to be expected in this spoof of all things related to the works of early-19th century novelist Jane Austen, the numerous films based on her books, and more recent examples of “chick lit” romantic fiction (its telling that the movie is produced by Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer). However, Austenland is more accessible than anything else in the Hess oeuvre, which also includes Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. Jerusha even refers to her and her husband’s previous films as “weird and testicular” in Austenland’s press notes.

An initially de-glammed Keri Russell (currently seen on the small screen as an undercover Soviet agent in The Americans) heads the cast as Jane, a lonely single woman so obsessed with Austen’s vision of idealized Regency-era love that her bed’s headboard reads “Darcy was Here.” This nocturnal homage to the aloof but swoon-inducing hero of Pride and Prejudice concisely sums up Jane’s longing, which in turn compels her to save up enough money to afford an economy-level trip to Austenland. Located outside London and billed as “the world’s only immersive Austen experience,” the resort is lorded over by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (a game, still beautiful Jane Seymour) and populated with actors hired to incarnate archetypes from Austen’s various novels. Confusion related to issues of class, social standing and romance ensues, also in keeping with the original literary blueprint.

Austenland’s entire cast is terrific. In addition to Russell, the always hilarious Jennifer Coolidge plays a fellow tourist dubbed “Miss Elizabeth Charming,” Georgia King of TV’s short-lived The New Normal and the current horror spoof Cockneys vs. Zombies assays “Lady Amelia Heartwright” and James Callis, so memorable as Baltar in the Battlestar Galactica revival, serves as the comically gallant “Colonel Andrews.” A trio of attractive men whom Jane discovers vying for her affections is played by JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger), Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) and Ricky Whittle (well known in England as gay character David Richards on the BBC’s Holby City).

I found Austenland hilariously romantic… or should that be romantically hilarious? It is the most purely enjoyable and, yes, adorable movie I’ve seen all year so far. Be sure to remain through the film’s end credits for further amusement.

Also in a romantic but decidedly less comedic vein is Rodney Evans’ new film, The Happy Sad (which opens today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco). With its biracial, bisexual quartet of primary characters, I’ve been tickling myself thinking it should have been titled Bi Bi Birdie. Evans, who previously made the acclaimed gay drama Brother to Brother, here adapts Ken Urban’s play wherein a black gay couple (Leroy McClain and Gayby’s cute Charlie Barnett) and a seemingly straight white couple (Cameron Scoggins and Sorel Carradine) confront all manner of sexual and relational entanglements.

Despite a fairly obvious metaphor that matters of sexuality are far from “black and white,” the film is refreshing in its lack of racial politics. The gay couple doesn’t have to be African-American, and the issues at hand would likely remain the same if the male-female pair was also comprised of one or two black actors. Unfortunately, the chief issues of fidelity, honesty and commitment explored are routine and little new light is shed on them by The Happy Sad. The script also contains a pointless subplot about a failing stand-up comic friend of the woman. Despite very good performances by the lead cast members, with particularly nice chemistry between McClain and Barnett, the movie falls short.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Austenland: A-
The Happy Sad: B-

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reverend’s Report: A Gay Day at Disney's D23 Expo

Though many GLBT locals may have been unable to attend the D23 Expo on Saturday, August 10th due to the conflicting Orange County Pride celebration, it didn’t stop other GLBT Disney fans from turning out and helping to make it a sell-out day.

The third D23 Expo in four years (it is currently a bi-annual event) actually saw tickets sell out on Friday as well. With Disney’s recent acquisition of the Star Wars universe, the 2013 event also resembled Comic-Con International more than ever before. While a relatively small number of attendees were dressed as iconic characters from Disney films and attractions — the best I saw was a woman attired and coiffed as the voluptuous red-headed “wench” being auctioned off during the Pirates of the Caribbean ride — many more stormtroopers, Boba Fetts and Princess Leias were on display.

A gaggle of gays, myself included, were to be found in the Expo’s now-traditional Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibition. This year’s display wasn’t as extensive as in years past, but it featured a rare collection of items detailing the Disney Studios’ efforts over seven decades to bring L. Frank Baum’s Oz books to the screen. These included costumes and props from an aborted 1950’s TV production, the underrated 1985 flop Return to Oz and this year’s smash hit Oz The Great and Powerful. The remainder of the archives exhibit was dedicated to next year’s 50th anniversary of Disney’s musical masterpiece, Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews’ carpet bag, two of the actual carousel horses used during the standout live action-animation sequence, and some of the written correspondence between Walt Disney and Poppins author P.L. Travers were just a few of the displayed gems. Finally, costumes worn by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt’s battle to secure the movie rights to Mary Poppins from Travers, could be viewed.

Saving Mr. Banks was also trumpeted during Saturday’s preview of upcoming live-action films from Disney and its related entities, chiefly Marvel Studios. Actors Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak, who play Poppins’ brother-composers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman respectively in Saving Mr. Banks, were joined by Richard M. himself for a climactic rendition of the classic song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (Robert B. passed away, sadly, just last year). It truly was a magical moment at the end of a lengthy presentation that also featured appearances by Angelina Jolie, star of next year’s Sleeping Beauty-inspired Maleficent; Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins from this fall’s Thor sequel, Thor: The Dark World; hunky Chris Evans repping next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and Ty Burrell of TV’s Modern Family, arriving onstage in a tiny European auto, who co-stars in the upcoming Muppets Most Wanted. Also, some additional casting was announced for Disney’s 2014 adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, which will be helmed by gay director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine). Joining previously confirmed Meryl Streep (as the Witch) and Johnny Depp (as the Wolf) will be Star Trek’s Chris Pine as one of the Princes, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother. Attendees were rewarded as they left the preview with their own pair of strap-on Maleficent horns!

The expo’s centerpiece pavilion was “Journey Into Imagineering,” a terrific, in-depth but overcrowded exhibit spotlighting the work of Disney’s famous Imagineers when it comes to designing theme park attractions. They are striving to make not only future rides but the typically lengthy queues in which riders wait as immersive and interactive as possible. One of the first major achievements in this is the newly-opened Mystic Manor attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland. It’s time to save up for a trip to China.

Despite the larger crowds and longer wait times for presentations and exhibits since its last incarnation, the 2013 D23 Expo was a typically well-organized, supercalifragilistic experience. Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that it will return in 2015. Start getting your costume — whether inspired by Disney, Marvel or Star Wars — together.

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

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reverend’s Preview: D23 Expo Returns Just in Time

The global Disney conglomerate could use a boost right about now. Sure, Cars Land at Disney California Adventure and the movie prequel Monsters University are big hits. The company is reeling, however, from the box office failure of this summer’s The Lone Ranger (Disney execs are predicting a loss of nearly $200 million) as well as less-than-spectacular ratings for its various non-ESPN television shows.

Fortunately, the third bi-annual D23 Expo arrives in Anaheim this weekend to celebrate all things Disney and reassure fans that all will be well in the Magic Kingdom. Tickets are completely sold out for this Saturday’s Expo events, which will feature previews and panels in support of Disney’s animated holiday film Frozen as well as an all-star sneak peek at upcoming live action movies including the Angelina Jolie-headed Maleficent, Saving Mr. Banks (starring Tom Hanks as none other than Walt Disney himself), next year’s sequel Muppets Most Wanted and Brad Bird’s shrouded-in-secrecy Tomorrowland. The various Marvel superhero adventures in the works will also be spotlighted, and there could well be casting or other news announced in regard to the upcoming Star Wars VII-IX trilogy. For better or worse, Johnny Depp will not be making an appearance as Tonto.

LA fixture Charles Phoenix, a humorist who regularly provides retro explorations of kitschy pop culture icons lost to history, will make his D23 Expo debut on Saturday with a time-travel tour of Disneyland that is guaranteed to be hilarious. The traditional Disney Legends Awards Ceremony will be held Saturday afternoon and honors such big names as Billy Crystal and John Goodman in addition to the late Dick Clark, Steve Jobs and actor Ed Wynn, among others. Saturday’s noteworthy closing event is a rare concert performed by two generations of Oscar-winning Disney songwriters: Richard M. Sherman (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Jungle Book, et al) and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc.).

A full day of events is planned for both Friday and Sunday, and numerous Disney-related exhibitors will be displaying their wares and giving away goodies all weekend long. An advance screening of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, inspired by Marvel’s The Avengers and directed by the movies’ shepherd Joss Whedon, will also occur on Sunday. For the full D23 Expo schedule and to purchase tickets for Friday and/or Sunday, visit the D23 website.

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

Friday, August 2, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Cockneys vs. Aliens

This summer has already seen its big-screen share of zombies (World War Z) and underwater aliens (Pacific Rim), but two movies in theatrical release and on VOD starting today take novel approaches to these subjects.

The obviously British-based Cockneys vs. Zombies is a horror-comedy hoot à la Shaun of the Dead but I actually enjoyed this one a little more. When dim-witted construction workers open an underground vault that was ordered sealed by King Charles II in 1666, they unleash an invasion of the undead on London. The timing couldn’t be worse for a rowdy but well-meaning group of young adults who have just robbed a bank in hopes of saving a local retirement home from demolition. As they hasten to save their grandparents’ residence by pretty much any means necessary, an assortment of flesh-craving zombies is moving in on the codgers.

Matthias Hoene directs the knowing, very funny script by James Moran and Lucas Roche with aplomb, zippily moving between scenes of gory street-bound mayhem and those of the retirees barricading themselves. There is a hilarious scene wherein an old man with a walker capably “outruns” the slow-moving zombies on his heels; needless to say, these aren’t the Brad Pitt variety. Both the younger and elder cast members are eagerly in on the joke, with Honor Blackman — Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore herself — and Georgia King (Goldie on the sadly cancelled TV series The New Normal, whom I didn’t know was from the UK until seeing her back to back in this and the upcoming Austenland) particular standouts.

By contrast, the new sci-fi suspenser Europa Report attempts to break new ground with its meticulously researched, beautifully designed take on long-range space travel. More of a “delayed transmission” than “found footage” potboiler, Europa Report reconstructs events around the first manned voyage to Jupiter’s largest moon more than a year after communications from the ship mysteriously went silent.

The six internationally recruited crew members of the vessel must journey nearly two years to reach Europa. When one of them is lost along the way, it proves to be a foreboding omen of things to come. We viewers don’t get to know much about the astronauts’ backgrounds or home lives, which I feel is an unfortunate discrepancy in Philip Gelatt’s otherwise obsessed-with-detail screenplay. Still, it is impossible not to be moved by the heroic sacrifice made mid-mission by James Corrigan (played by Sharlto Copley of District 9 and next week’s Elysium).

I liked the film’s slow build and hints of menace, many of them provided by Michael Nyqvist (Blomkvist in the Swedish film versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) as a stir-crazy officer. Unfortunately, the menace becomes more obvious and too literal once the ship lands on the ice-covered Europa. Water is discovered beneath the ice, which astronomers largely agree is likely, and there turns out to be something living in it. Europa Report, which is directed by Ecuadoran filmmaker Sebastian Cordero (Cronicas), is best when it is intensely but thoughtfully speculative and leaves conclusions to the astronauts’ and audience’s imaginations.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Europa Report: B-
Cockneys vs. Zombies: B+

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