Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reverend’s Review: A Less than Rainbow-High Evita

Although it was written by British theatrical wunderkinds Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the musical Evita and its subject — late Argentinian first lady Eva Peron — are hardly pro-British. Peron and her presidential husband, Juan, committed themselves to kicking colonial Brits out of Argentina and largely succeeded in doing so. On the other hand, Evita paints a largely unflattering image of the Perons that can potentially be viewed as Webber’s and Rice’s revenge.

The musical was a huge, award-winning success in both London and New York during its initial late-1970s/early-80s run and was adapted into a hit movie starring Madonna in 1996. Now, a revival of Evita is on tour in the US following its fairly brief London and Broadway productions last year. It is now playing at the historic Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through November 10th. The revival’s British director, Michael Grandage, may think he’s nailed the Perons once and for all but this weak production only ends up affirming the power couple’s theatrical and historical resilience.

Framed by events surrounding Eva’s premature death from cervical cancer at the age of 33 in 1952, the sung-through score recounts her upbringing as a poor, illegitimate daughter of a philandering middle-class father; her early career as an ambitious actress and radio star; and her eventual marriage to Juan and their largely shared political achievements. The leftist revolutionary Che, modeled on Che Guevara, serves as narrator throughout. Webber’s music remains stirring and Rice’s lyrics are enduringly incisive as well as frequently witty, and the revival incorporates their Oscar-winning “You Must Love Me” written for the film version.

This production proved controversial on Broadway primarily due to its casting of Latinos as Eva and Che. While the authenticity-leaning intention behind this was commendable, those cast — Buenos Aires-born Elena Roger and former pop singer (and now openly gay) Ricky Martin — were reportedly not up to the challenge vocally and/or dramatically. Apparently having learned from this experience, the tour’s producers cast all-American performers Caroline Bowman, Josh Young and Sean MacLaughlin in the central roles of Eva, Che and Juan, respectively. They are physically fine but Bowman’s voice was shrill at times on opening night in LA, perhaps due to jitters, and Young lacked some essential fire. MacLaughlin, gifted with an excellent singing voice, came across best.

The cast, however, is the least of the revival tour’s problems. Scenic designer Christopher Oram fills the stage with impressive, opera-scale sets only to have the upper two-thirds of them go mostly unused. Act Two opener “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” is a welcome if obvious exception to this, since it is traditionally sung from the balcony of the presidential palace. Aside from that, the balcony hosts an occasional flag, projection or random appearance by Che but largely stands empty and inert, for which blame ultimately must be placed on director Grandage.

Rob Ashford’s choreography is also disappointingly uninspired. While his work here was nominated for a Tony, I found it busy and unfocused (and, on opening night, the dancers weren’t always in unison when they should have been). The choreography really only comes alive during “And the Money Kept Rolling In” midway through Act Two. The show’s other major dance numbers suffer, sometimes laughably so, from a lack of clarity and an excess of arms-akimbo gestures.

Evita is one of my favorite musicals, and the best production of it I’ve seen to date was an in-the-round, refreshingly scaled-down dinner theatre mounting I caught in Chicago in the mid-1980s. It proved that lavish sets, a full orchestra and authentic casting are not essential to this show’s success but respect for its subjects and historical context is required. The current revival falls disappointingly short in this regard.

Reverend’s Rating: C

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Scary Good

Halloween with its array of ghosts, zombies and demons is just around the corner. For most gay men, though, HIV/AIDS remains the most frightening specter we will face in this lifetime. Two excellent new films serve as unique bookends in their depiction of the AIDS crisis 25+ years ago and today.

In Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club (opening November 1st in Los Angeles and New York before rolling out nationally), Matthew McConaughey gives an impressively unselfconscious, award-worthy performance as perhaps the most anti-heroic of all the antiheroes who have ever appeared on the silver screen. His Ron Woodruff — a real-life, heterosexual man infected with HIV in 1980’s Texas — is unreservedly foul-mouthed and unapologetically homophobic, racist and sexist. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a swindler when it comes to gambling and an unrepentant abuser of both drugs and alcohol. But the hyper-macho rodeo cowboy also established one of the first underground dispensaries of non-FDA approved drugs for HIV in the US, challenging the medical establishment in the process and ultimately saving or at least extending the lives of thousands of men and women of all sexual orientations.

Of course, Woodruff couldn’t have accomplished this alone. He found what he initially considered a less-than-desirable ally in the transsexual Rayon (a revelatory, similarly award-worthy turn by a largely unrecognizable Jared Leto). While Woodruff traveled to Mexico and other countries — often disguised as a Catholic priest — to obtain what proved to be more effective medications than the often prescribed but destructive AZT, Rayon managed their hotel-based office and growing client load. Sadly, both passed away before more successful protease inhibitors against HIV came into use in the mid-1990’s. Who knows, though, if these meds would have been developed and approved as soon as they did without the heat turned on the FDA by Woodruff, Rayon and others.

Screenwriter Craig Borten (Melisa Wallack is also credited) first heard about Woodruff in 1992. He interviewed the man extensively one month prior to Woodruff’s death. The resulting script, which would take 20 years to get produced despite its great longtime reputation, is clinical and frank to the nth degree. Vallee, who previously made the gay-themed C.R.A.Z.Y., and his superb cast (which also includes Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne and out actor Denis O’Hare as various medical types) find the emotional resonance in the literal life and death struggle endured by Woodruff without ever becoming sentimental. Woodruff’s efforts to woo Garner’s doctor help to humanize him but are the film’s weakest element. Dallas Buyers Club wisely doesn’t go the Philadelphia route and make its AIDS-afflicted characters saints, which may disappoint some viewers. These are tarnished men, women and in-betweeners who ended up making a difference despite themselves. We owe it to them and to ourselves to hear their story.

Fast forwarding from 1992 to 2012, we meet another real-life man inadvertently immersed in the world of HIV/AIDS in the beautiful new documentary Blood Brother (now playing in New York and Los Angeles). First-time feature film director Steve Hoover turned his camera on his best friend, Robin “Rocky” Braat. The resulting film scored a rare double win of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Hoover and Braat met while attending art school in Philadelphia, with Braat setting out to become a graphic designer. Braat soon experienced feelings of being directionless and unsure of his purpose in life. On a whim, he set off for a summer in India. There, he came across a home for women and children with HIV who had been ostracized by their families and society. They stole Braat’s heart and, after a brief return to the US, Braat decided to move to India permanently. Hoover accompanied Braat on his return trip to India, intent on discovering and putting on film what had so galvanized his friend. As Braat says to Hoover with absolute conviction upon their arrival, “Look where God has brought me.” It is also a place, Braat notes, that is “70-80 years behind the rest of the world” in terms of development.

The children shown are adorable, as is Braat, and their stories heartbreaking. Hoover captures the unexpected death of one of the girls as well as chronicles the brave battle of a boy named Surya against a horrific infection. (Kleenex is a necessity while watching these scenes but please don’t let that deter you from seeing the film.) Braat is their constant companion through it all, although the camera also reveals the toll such constant illness, poverty and death take on him. Thankfully, things build to a joyful end as Braat marries a local woman, committing himself once and for all to his new life in India. Even so, Braat warily declares “I don’t see an end to the mission; I don’t see an end to the need.”

John Pope’s sun-dappled cinematography, like Braat himself, strives to find the loveliness in their impoverished surroundings. The editing by Hoover and Tyson Vanskiver is likewise great, especially when it comes to cutting between commentators. Yes, AIDS remains scary stuff wherever it is found but, as both Blood Brother and Dallas Buyers Club attest, it can never destroy the human spirit.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Dallas Buyers Club: A-
Blood Brother: A-

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reverend's Interview: From Val to Sal

It is rare for a rising male star, married to a woman, to readily admit he has watched gay porn as well as observed two men having sex live. The latter incident is preserved on screen in James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar., wherein actor Val Lauren is clearly seen during one of the film’s most buzzed-about sequences.

“I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for Interior. Leather Bar.,” Lauren said with a laugh during a recent interview. It is only one of two daring movies he has made recently with longtime friend Franco. The other is Sal, an excellent, intimate look at gay 1950’s matinee idol Sal Mineo. It will be available from Tribeca Film on VOD starting October 22nd and in select theaters on November 1st.

“Playing Sal Mineo was the first time I had to play someone who wasn’t from my imagination but was a real-life guy,” Lauren reflected. “It was a definite responsibility to his memory, his family, his legacy and not something I took lightly.”

Mineo was only 16 when he starred alongside James Dean and Natalie Wood in the now-classic Rebel Without a Cause. He received an Oscar nomination for his turn as Plato, a shy high schooler smitten with an attractive, braver fellow student played by Dean. Mineo received a second Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe a few years later for the epic Exodus. In the 1960’s, he became one of the first major Hollywood actors to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. He was tragically murdered outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976 at the age of 37.

“Sal said something about his homosexuality that I really dug: ‘I’m a human being first and an artist,’ according to Lauren. “He refused labels, either on himself or others. He didn’t let his sexuality define him. I’d never played a homosexual or bisexual character before but I learned what Sal believed, that we are all first and foremost human beings.”

Lauren, a member of LA’s repertory theatre company Playhouse West as well as a veteran of numerous TV shows and indie movies, and the notoriously gay-friendly Franco made Sal in 2011, prior to this year’s Interior. Leather Bar.Sal was good preparation for Leather Bar in terms of being the first time I collaborated with James on a film,” Lauren said, “and we established ways of working together and communicating that would serve us well on Leather Bar.”

The actor, who will next be seen opposite Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman in the big-budget adventure The Last Knights, has nothing but praise for his friend and recent director. “I’ve got to say that (working with Franco) has been the most rewarding on-camera creative relationship I’ve ever had; I’d be happy working with James for the rest of my life.”

Playing Mineo involved considerable “interior and exterior preparation” on Lauren’s part. “I was fortunate to have a few months to prepare for Sal. I had a lot of challenges to face: I had to capture his distinct voice; I had to lose about 20 pounds to gain his lean physique and grow my hair out; I had to do a lot of voice and physical work.”

He continued: “On the inside, our personalities were very, very different so I really had to minimize my own personal mannerisms and feelings. Sal had a very innocent, childlike spirit, which I am really trying to live today. I watched all his movies (in addition to the aforementioned non-Mineo gay porn, for research purposes) and read the fantastic biography about him by Michael Gregg Michaud.” With Michaud as his guide, Lauren visited various places Mineo frequented and met people who knew the star.

Sal is, both to this writer and to Lauren, “a very unconventional approach to a biography.” The entire movie is set on the last day of Mineo’s life. “What I like about Sal,” Lauren shared, “is that it doesn’t capture all the major moments or accomplishments of his life. It allows the viewer to have a very intimate encounter with the soul of the man rather than the facts of his life.”

I asked Lauren about the impact his other current James Franco movie, Interior. Leather Bar., has had on him. “It’s been surprising,” he replied. “I had no preconceptions about what kind of impact that film would have. That being said, it has been so positive and I like the varying responses the film has gotten in terms of what people think it is about.” It is scheduled for theatrical release in early 2014.

Interior. Leather Bar. definitely taught me a couple of things. I got to observe a great moment between this great couple; it was really nice watching them have sex, it made sense,” Lauren said of one of the movie’s standout scenes. “I felt like I was intruding a little bit, like I would if I was watching a man and a woman, but they were so cute!” Lauren is married to actress Eva Lauren, who has a small role as a clinic nurse in Sal. Together, they have “a gorgeous little girl,” a Shih Tzu named Bella, who also appears in Sal as Mineo’s neighbor’s dog.

Lauren shared the second thing he learned while shooting Interior. Leather Bar. “At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all want the same thing: to be loved.” This also seems to echo the message of Sal, the man and the movie.

I asked Lauren whether he has discerned a method to James Franco’s “madness” in making several films now on gay subjects. “James always has had since I’ve known him a very specific lens or paradigm through which he views the world,” he replied. “He is very complex as a man and an artist on one hand and yet very simple on the other. Do I know always where he is coming from? Absolutely not, but I enjoy viewing the result. He invites us to join him on his endeavors, not knowing where things will end up. I love that.”

Since Lauren has now personified two well-known, real-life actors on screen — Al Pacino (in Leather Bar) and Sal Mineo — I asked him if hunky young Marlon Brando would be next. “Oh man, I wish I could do that,” he replied. “I don’t think anyone can though; there’s only one Brando.”

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

Friday, October 18, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: History Lessons

Two much-ballyhooed historical dramas from this year’s festival circuit arrive in Los Angeles and New York City theaters this week. The first, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, is the latest in a recent string of biopics about the revolutionary “Beat” writers of the 1950’s-60’s. One of their number, gay poet Allen Ginsberg, was personified just a few years ago by James Franco in Howl. In Kill Your Darlings, Daniel Radcliffe — yes, Harry Potter himself — portrays a younger, more insecure Ginsberg just starting to come to terms with his homosexuality.

The primary instigator of his coming out process is Lucien Carr (rising star Dane DeHaan, soon to be seen in Franco’s former role as Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Self-assured and seductive, Carr takes Ginsberg under his wing during the latter’s first year at Columbia University. Ginsberg becomes increasingly enamored with his new friend, going so far as to fantasize about Carr while he masturbates. Unfortunately, Carr is under the sway of much older and wealthier David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, late of Dexter), who senses a threat in Ginsberg.

In real life, Kammerer was murdered by Carr but Carr escaped serious punishment by claiming it was an “honor slaying,” i.e. a justified action to protect himself against the advances of a homosexual predator. This little-known legal strategy in New York is the most interesting aspect of Kill Your Darlings, which otherwise turns out to be a disappointingly familiar tale of unrequited gay love albeit with a literary edge (Beat icons William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac also appear courtesy of actors Ben Foster and sexy Jack Huston). Radcliffe and DeHaan are both excellent and share genuine chemistry, with the impressively maturing Radcliffe gaining bonus points for sexually-explicit fearlessness.

As director, Krokidas begins the film promisingly with an intense, attention-grabbing opening and wonderful period detail in the art direction, costumes and music. His screenplay’s similarities to Howl and On the Road become gradually apparent, however, and Krokidas seems to compensate for the story’s familiarity with increasingly over-the-top direction and editing. This reaches its zenith (nadir?) during a four-way penetration scene during which Carr stabs Kammerer, Ginsberg has sex with a man for the first time, Burroughs shoots up, and Kerouac listens to a recording made by a dying soldier friend who recounts how his body was extensively pierced by shrapnel. Two other gay viewers and I gleefully dissected this sequence following the screening we attended. We just couldn’t help ourselves.

The honor-slaying climax of the film, during which Carr essentially revokes his homosexuality (closing cards inform us he would go on to marry a woman), does potently illustrate the plight of gay men in even the most cosmopolitan US cities during the 1940’s and 50’s. Regretfully, Kill Your Darlings’ strong opening and closing don’t provide me quite enough incentive to recommend the film other than to the most ardent fans of Radcliffe and/or the Beat writers.

12 Years a Slave received rapturous responses at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and is being almost-universally anointed as a definite Best Picture contender in this year’s Academy Awards. British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) takes a typically unblinking, no-holds-barred approach to the enduringly uncomfortable subject of slavery in the United States. So horrific and unrelenting are some scenes of torture in his new film that I am tempted to compare it to the season premiere of TV’s American Horror Story, which is similarly set for the most part in Louisiana.

Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 book of the same title by screenwriter John Ridley (Three Kings, Red Tails), the film relates Northup’s own personal experience of being kidnapped as a free man in 1841 Washington, DC and being sold into more than a decade of Southern slavery without any recourse. Northup suffered under three diverse plantation owners (only two are depicted in the movie), each seemingly more brutal in their treatment of their slaves than the one before. The married father of two children was eventually freed through the intervention of a Canadian abolitionist, to whom Northup had a providential opportunity to tell his story. He subsequently pursued legal channels to punish his kidnappers but to no avail. Northup was able, though, to write a graphic (for the time) indictment of the slavery system and became renowned as a leader in the abolitionist movement before he virtually disappeared from history.

Fortunately, Northup is unknown no more thanks to McQueen, Ridley and producer Brad Pitt, who also appears briefly in the film as Northup’s savior. Laurels must also be laid at the feet of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Best known in GLBT circles for his turn as statuesque drag queen Lola in the original Kinky Boots movie, Ejiofor employs here a powerful combination of stunned resignation, abject humility, righteous indignation and graceful dignity, with more than a few nuances for good measure. His performance is also guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

The impressive “name” supporting cast in addition to Pitt includes prolific man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender (who last worked with McQueen on the memorably full-frontal Shame), Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard (sly as a slave turned plantation owner’s wife), Any Day Now’s Garret Dillahunt and out actress Sarah Paulson. Among the lesser-known actors, Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye are stunning as the most victimized of the female slaves, and both Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry from last year’s award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild make cameos.

As much as I consider 12 Years a Slave a masterful achievement and a must-see for adults, I also feel an obligation to caution potential viewers about its bleak tone and discomfiting violence. The abundance of well-liked white actors in unsavory roles and using the “N” word prodigiously is also unnerving. This movie is undeniably strong stuff that illustrates all too well how our slave history remains the most American horror story of all.

A plethora of GLBT-interest documentaries is hitting LA this weekend, and all are deserving of attention... with one notable exception. God Loves Uganda is Roger Ross Williams’ disturbing exposé of how evangelical Christians from the US have infiltrated the African nation and stirred up intense, even life-threatening, homophobia in the name of Jesus. While not as powerful as the recent Call Me Kuchu, with whom it shares several commentators, this is a valuable companion piece. Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro, meanwhile, details a more joyful 12-year journey than 12 Years a Slave: the one undertaken by Grammy-winning songwriter Desmond Child and his partner Curtis Shaw, to have children. The doc captures well (if in sometimes blandly straightforward fashion) the hopes, frustrations, sacrifices and ultimate success they experienced.

Dr. Jennifer Conrad’s The Paw Project serves as an insightful but one-sided and somewhat overwrought indictment of the growing practice of cat-declawing. I am a cat owner myself and know many others (some of whose cats have been declawed) and I’ve yet to see first-hand any of the painful, negative effects the cats shown in the film have sadly experienced. Feel free to watch and decide for yourselves. My strongest reservation among these new releases is in regard to Bridegroom, which was directed by TV queen Linda Bloodworth Thomason. Inspired by the tragic early death of a young gay man and his boyfriend’s failed effort to be recognized by the man’s conservative family, the doc has been popular on this year’s GLBT film fest circuit and will soon receive a national television broadcast (on OWN on Sunday, October 27). I am in the minority — though not alone — in considering it monotonous, self-serving and downright mawkish. True, no one should have to go through what Shane Bitney Crone has gone through to keep his late potential husband’s memory alive… but no one should have to watch it in such excruciating detail either.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Kill Your Darlings: C+
12 Years a Slave: A-
God Loves Uganda: B+
Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro: B
The Paw Project: B-
Bridegroom: C-

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

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Behind the Scenes

I am a proud annual passholder of the Disneyland Resort and get there as often as my schedule allows, even if only for a few hours at a time. As I grow older, though, I realize that not everything there is as happily-ever-after as it appears on the surface. Several news reports and even books have also attested to the malfunctions, accidents and even a few deaths that have occurred over the years between the Magic Kingdoms in California and Florida.

Escape from Tomorrow, Randy Moore’s cheekily bizarre investigation of the darkness he has perceived lurking beneath these family playgrounds’ façades, largely plays like home movies taken during a David Lynch family vacation. It is opening in theaters across the US today. The film was secretly shot, in stunningly clear digital black and white, within the actual Disney parks by cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham and a small army of assistants disguised as everyday tourists. Surprisingly, the notoriously protective Walt Disney Company has refused to take any legal action against the movie since its premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival. You can bet, though, that they will be beefing up park security to ensure a project like Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t happen again.

In the film, Roy Abramsohn (recognizable to fans of Showtime’s Weeds) plays Jim, an unhappily-married father of two on a Disney vacation with his family. (The parks are actually never named but signage can be seen in some shots and attraction titles are frequently uttered.) Jim learns via a phone call from his boss that he has been laid off, which precipitates a series of odd visions and encounters. These include fanged dolls on the “It’s a Small World” boat ride, a former cast member princess who has become a wicked witch, a pair of nubile European teenagers who seem bent on seducing Jim, and a mad scientist who toils in a lab beneath Epcot’s Spaceship Earth. By film’s end, iconic park structures explode and people, including Jim, begin to succumb to a growing epidemic of mysterious “cat flu.” It’s all enough to make general viewers and not just Disney execs exclaim, “WTF?”

Writer-director Moore, making an attention-grabbing feature film debut, clearly has some things to say about marital and parental relationships, corporate greed, media manipulation and the loss of childhood innocence. He and his movie also cannily exploit the underlying terror to be found in seemingly innocuous, everyday family situations like bath time as well as in bigger concerns like unemployment and infidelity. Some of Moore’s critiques are clearer than others and he tends to over-emphasize the sexual innuendo; it is jarring, even disturbing, to see the young women with whom Jim is obsessed superimposed nude over footage from the “Soarin’ Over California” flight-simulating attraction. Despite the family-friendly settings on display in Escape from Tomorrow, it definitely is not for kids.

Abramsohn and his fellow cast members are commendably all-in when it comes to performing in an environment from which they could have been expelled if their ruse was discovered. Also worth noting is the movie’s terrific orchestral score, complete with a few chipper Disney-esque songs including the portentous “Tomorrow There’s Another You,” which was written free of charge by Golden Globe-nominated composer Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man, Madonna’s W.E.). Sly and audacious if imperfect, Escape from Tomorrow has the makings of at least a cult hit should it prove too avant garde for mainstream moviegoers.

No one was taken aback by the effort a few years ago to turn Green Day’s bestselling American Idiot album into a Broadway musical than the members of Green Day themselves. The acclaimed punk/alternative rock band, headed by bisexual singer-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, had to be won over by the proposed stage adaptation before they would grant permission. Fortunately, Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and music producer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) were able to do so, with electrifying theatrical results.

The vibrant, colorful new documentary Broadway Idiot (now playing in New York and on VOD and opening next Friday in Los Angeles theaters) chronicles the various artists’ journeys as they created the musical. Director Doug Hamilton gained early access backstage thanks to Ira Pittelman, one of the show’s producers who also produced the doc. It provides excellent insight into not only how American Idiot developed but how any Broadway musical is mounted nowadays. Armstrong, who would eventually take on the role of sinister alter ego Saint Jimmy during some performances, also reveals details about his personal progress as a musician (he began singing when he was a mere 4 years old) and as a man. “There are people who like to do things the safe way,” he says,” and that’s just never been part of my vocabulary.”

Perhaps due to Pittelman’s dual involvement, the documentary emphasizes the positive and tends to gloss over any backstage tensions. Still, Broadway Idiot is a fine testament to a great modern musical.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Escape from Tomorrow: B
Broadway Idiot: B+

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reverend's Preview: Matthew Lives

It is hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since a young gay man in Wyoming was callously tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die. Matthew Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998 at the age of 21 galvanized the nation and, ironically, helped usher in a new era in the fight for GLBT rights.

South Coast Chorale (SCC) will pay tribute this month to Shepard’s legacy with a world premiere musical production, Matthew Shepard — Beyond the Fence. It will be performed over two weekends, October 11-13 and 18-20, at the Scottish Rite Theater, 855 Elm Avenue in Long Beach. A VIP reception will take place prior to the October 12th performance, and special community forums on bullying will be offered prior to each Saturday performance at 6:30 PM. Tickets may be purchased online here or at the door.

“Matthew’s story has inspired me for a long, long time,” said Steve Davison, SCC’s Creative Director. Davison wrote the script for Beyond the Fence, drawing primarily from biographies by Shepard’s mother, Judy, and his best friend, Romaine Patterson.The production will incorporate existing music by gay composers Levi Kreis, Ryan Amador and Randi Driscoll.

“This is a piece that really is about Matt; he’s in it and his mother and his best friend,” Davison said. “It’s totally different from (the play) The Laramie Project, which is mainly about the effects of something tragic on a town. The two shows are night and day from each other.”

Davison, who lives in Long Beach with his partner of 21 years, Jaie Palmero, has been working with SCC since 2009. His longtime “day job” is as Vice President of Parades, Fireworks & Spectaculars for Disney parks around the world. Among other dazzling displays, Davison created the popular World of Color at Disney’s California Adventure and is currently designing a special holiday edition of the show.

“I think emotion is the biggest thing,” Davison replied when I asked him what his work at Disney and with SCC have in common. “That’s what I do at the parks even though it involves fireworks, squirting water and dancers (laughs). And I try to leave people with a message, whether it be about dreams coming true or respecting ourselves as GLBT people.”

SCC, Long Beach’s GLBT performance troupe (which also includes a few straight allies), has become known in recent years for its parodies of entertainment trends and the works of certain composers. Matthew Shepard—Beyond the Fence represents a new step for the chorale. According to Davison: “This is a more heartfelt show although there is still humor in it, but it isn’t a parody show. We are trying to find a new voice for choral music, especially since choral music today is different from twenty years ago.”

Davison and SCC are planning “to tell epic gay stories” in new, musical ways. Their Spring 2014 production will be tied in to the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Perhaps most significantly, they are reaching out to and inviting high school students to see Beyond the Fence and their upcoming shows. “Most of them have never heard of Matthew Shepard or Stonewall,” notes Davison.

It is also critical that GLBT adults not forget about Shepard and his sacrifice. “One of Matt’s final lines in Beyond the Fence is ‘This could happen to you just like it happened to me,” Davison revealed. Thanks in part to South Coast Chorale, Shepard’s spirit will live on.

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

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Life, Love and... Christmas Movies Already?

Abortion continues to be a hot topic in American society, in both religious and secular settings. Of particular debate is the availability in some states of late-term abortions, in which pregnancies are terminated during the final three months of gestation. There are presently only four doctors in the US willing to perform such procedures. There were five until Dr. George Tiller was shot to death while attending a service at his Wichita, Kansas church in 2009. I’d hardly call his murder a pro-life response to what is for some, including myself, a morally troubling issue.

After Tiller, a wrenching yet illuminating documentary by first-time filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, opens in Los Angeles today and is set for a gradual release across the country. It has already won several festival awards and could well find itself an Oscar contender. Comprised of extensive interviews with the remaining quartet of third-trimester abortion providers as well as with some of their patients (none of whose faces are shown), the film reveals the complex circumstances, emotions and practical aspects behind the procedure.

There are heartbreaking stories behind what leads some prospective parents from all around the world to these doctors’ offices in Colorado, New Mexico and Maryland. Many of the women are victims of rape, while others learn late in their pregnancy that their babies will be born with horrifically painful physical defects. “Its guilt no matter which way you go,” says one mother-to-be of the decision facing her. There is no soft-peddling of these stories or of the abortion providers’ responses. “This isn’t tissue,” says Dr. Shelley Sella (who, incidentally, is lesbian), “these are babies.” Throughout, the doctors are shown to be unquestionably compassionate and thoughtful. They generally reject abortion requests that strike them more as for convenience’s sake, and subsequently late-term abortions represent less than 1% of all abortions performed in the US. To the filmmakers’ credit, the anti-abortion protesters shown in the documentary are also treated respectfully.

It is terrible what these four doctors, in addition to the late Dr. Tiller, have been subjected to by what are accurately termed “anti-abortion terrorists.” Two have had their clinics set on fire, while another saw his personal stable burned to the ground with 21 horses inside. All receive death threats on a regular basis. Such hateful violence — frequently, sinfully perpetrated in the name of God — is worse than the counsel and care these doctors offer to people who are obviously struggling with an enduringly painful issue.

The gay-themed indie Turtle Hill, Brooklyn arrived on DVDthis week without much fanfare but it is well worth seeking out. Brian W. Seibert and Ricardo Valdez wrote, produced and star in this observant, melancholy-tinged comedy about a couple whose relationship goes into meltdown during a 30th birthday party for one of them. Will (Seibert), the birthday boy, hasn't yet come out to his conservative Christian family. He is forced to do so, however, when his sister and brother-in-law unexpectedly stop by. This element of the plot struck me as the least-realistically handled but others who have found themselves in such a situation may disagree. Director Ryan Gielen takes a welcome low-key approach to the film's more dramatic moments, while the mostly unknown cast members are effective and engaging.

It has been available on home videofor a few months now, but I only recently watched Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies. This long awaited sequel to his smash musical adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera has yet to reach Broadway and received only a middling reception when it premiered in London. A revamped production in Melbourne, Australia was well-received last year and it is one of these performances that was recorded. More melodramatic and less musically accomplished than its predecessor, Love Never Dies is nevertheless beautifully designed as well as staged and very affecting in the end. Its creepy Coney Island freak-show setting also makes it appropriate for Halloween season viewing.

Speaking of Halloween, costumes have barely been stocked in stores but Christmas movies are already coming out! All is Bright, starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti as two losers who go into the Christmas tree-selling biz, opens in theaters today, and So This is Christmas was just released on DVDthis week. I love a good holiday movie any time of year. Unfortunately, So This is Christmas is a wannabe inspirational lump of coal that is saddled with an over-abundance of heavy topics involving teenage characters. Drug and alcohol abuse, teen sex and pregnancy, discussion of abortion, shoplifting, a vicious drug dealer and a climactic shooting hardly proclaim "Merry Christmas," especially when the kids' holiday pageant element feels tacked-on. It doesn't help that charismatic name actors Eric Roberts and Vivica A. Fox, who are good as two of the troubled teens' parents, are forced to obviously lip-synch a well-known Christmas song recording by other singers! The film's faith message is awfully heavy-handed too. If one is already in the mood to watch an inspiring Yuletide movie, I recommend The Bishop's Wife or Come to the Stable instead.

Reverend’s Ratings:
After Tiller: B+
Turtle Hill, Brooklyn: B
Love Never Dies: B
So This Is Christmas: D+

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Monthly Wallpaper - October 2013: Witches

Movie Dearest casts a spell on you this October with our calendar wallpaper honoring the wicca and the wicked, the great movie Witches.

From Glinda to Kiki, the witches of Eastwick to the coven from The Craft, it doesn't matter if they're a good witch or a bad witch, these magical maidens will spook and delight you all month long.

Just click on the picture above to enlarge it to its 1024 x 768 size, then right click your mouse and select "Set as Background", and you're all set.