Friday, February 28, 2014

Monthly Wallpaper: March 2014 - Group Mentality

The Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper for this month, a collection of our favorite cinematic coteries, is experiencing a bit of Group Mentality.

From the legendary to the notorious, these gangs of cops and robbers, samurais and gunslingers, justice leagues and wild bunches, will make for a considerably crowded March.

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

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reverend's Reviews: Pretty Picture

What would you do if you learned your more popular and successful identical twin was mistakenly identified as yourself following a tragic accident that killed her or him? Would you fess up and tell the truth, or be tempted to assume their identity as the ticket to a better life?

These are the questions confronting Laurel (played by Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of classic movie director Elia Kazan) in Jenee LaMarque's The Pretty One (opening today in Los Angeles, at the Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood, in addition to Edwards University Town Center 6 in Orange County). Once she learns her twin sister, Audrey (also Kazan, naturally, though briefly), died and was burned beyond recognition after the truck in which they were both traveling was struck in a head-on collision, the shy, mousy Laurel decides to present herself as her wheeling and dealing real estate agent sibling. She enjoys surprising acceptance as Audrey, even finding love with her late sister's antagonistic tenant (New Girl's Jake Johnson, with whom Kazan shares good chemistry).

Given its morbid, somewhat clichéd premise, I was pleasantly surprised by The Pretty One. While no classic, it is both refreshingly quirky and more sensitive than expected. Laurel and Audrey are well-differentiated physically and vocally by Kazan, and Anne Costa's excellent production design also delineates well the sisters' very separate lives. The film also incorporates a nice, low-key electronic score by Julian Wass as well as a handful of original songs and covers. A first-rate supporting cast (including Ron Livingston, with whom Johnson co-starred in last year's very good Drinking Buddies) is the icing on this semi-psycho-twin cake.

Do let me add my voice too to the chorus of hosannas for The Lego Movie, the current family-friendly blockbuster. I'm not one to use the word brilliant very often but this endlessly inventive toy-inspired comedy is brilliantly designed and animated, even if it goes on a little too long and gets a bit treacly toward the end. Whether you are a kid or an adult, it is not to be missed.

Reverend's Rating:
The Pretty One: B
The Lego Movie: B+

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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reverend's Interview: Bonner is Billy Budd

In honor of gay composer Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday, LA Opera is reviving one of his most renowned works this month. Billy Budd, a homoerotic tale of intrigue set on the high seas, will run for six performances only February 22nd-March 16th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The 1951 opera explores the relationship between the title character, a handsome young sailor, and his ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart's obsession with Billy leads to devastating tragedy. Britten was inspired by a novella written by Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame, and fellow gay writer E.M. Forster wrote the libretto to accompany Britten's acclaimed score.

32-year old baritone Liam Bonner will headline the production, with bass Greer Grimsley making his LA Opera debut as Billy's sexually frustrated nemesis. Bonner recently chatted with Reverend via e-mail.

REV: This is the first time you have played the role of Billy. What most excites you or intrigues you about the role or this opera?
LB: Billy is probably one of the furthest roles away from my own personality, so I'm really excited about pushing myself as an actor. I love his innocence and the way Britten sets Billy's words so simply. I feel fortunate that for the first time doing this role I have both Maestro James Conlon steering this ship musically as well as Francesca Zambello's production and experience with this piece.

REV: Has preparing for this role presented any unique demands or challenges for you?
LB: This role is known for having a certain "look" by its baritones. I'm tall and thin, but putting the muscle on for this role has honestly been the greatest challenge, and I'm still working on it.

REV: What about the gay or homoerotic aspects of the plot and opera? Any particular challenges or insights you'd like to share?
LB: The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece, but they have more to do with Claggart than Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him. When Billy is being warned to watch out for Claggart, he honestly believes that Claggart is just being friendly to him and can't possibly imagine any ulterior motive. To quote Billy's argument: "But Jemmy Legs likes me. He calls me that sweet pleasant fellow. He gives me the smile and easy order when we meet. And when I gave Squeak that drubbing, 'handsomely done' was all he said... and he smiled. No, he likes me, he likes me." Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.

REV: Any thoughts about or impressions of Benjamin Britten's works in general?
LB: One word: adore! Seriously, I think his skill as an opera composer is right there with Mozart and Verdi. It just depends on my mood which one I'd prefer to listen to at any particular moment. I've been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to perform many of Britten's operas (Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sid in Albert Herring, Ned Keene in Peter Grimes) and I'm always blown away by his ability to set the English language as well as his understanding of drama; knowing what stories make great operas and need to be sung because saying the words just isn't enough.

REV: You are counted among the current "barihunks," i.e. hot male opera singers. How do you feel about that designation?
LB: Well, they say there's no such thing as bad press so I'm happy to have the recognition, but I suppose I don't feel like I belong on the list based on what I understand as the qualifying requirements.

REV: I read you once played the Witch in Engelbert Humperdinck's classic Hansel and Gretel. Is that role traditionally played by a male? If not, how were you cast in it?
LB: Yes, usually the role is played by a male, specifically a character tenor, and then also performed by mezzos (or an aging soprano). I'm not aware of another baritone having sung the role. For this particular production at Houston Grand Opera, the costume was designed by director and puppeteer Basil Twist and was built by the Jim Henson Company. The requirement for the singer was to basically be inside this 15-foot puppet and manipulate it like a puppeteer while singing the role. The original singer had some issue with heights and was unable to move forward with the piece. I was in the Studio at the time and singing the role of the Father. Former HGO General Director, Anthony Freud, and former Head of Music Staff, Kathleen Kelly, discussed their options and realized that I had sung the role of Eisenstein in college, a role that shared the same tessitura with the Witch. Kathy called me up, asked me to come in and sing through the role for her, asked me how it felt afterward, and the rest is history. It's still, to this day, one of my favorite performing memories. I had a blast!

REV: Where do you hail from originally? Where do you call home today?
LB: I'm originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (proud Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins fan) and spent the first 22 years of my life there as I attended Carnegie Mellon University for my undergraduate work. Currently, I make my home base in Houston, Texas where I fell in love with the city from my years in the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

REV: Anything else you want people to know about yourself or this production?
LB: This will actually be my second time working on Billy Budd, as I first performed the role of Lieutenant Redburn my final year in the Houston Grand Opera Studio. However, it is a different production.

Additional information about LA Opera's production of Billy Budd and ticket availability may be found at their website or by calling (213) 972-8001.

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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Men & the Men Who Love Them

Things aren’t always black and white when it comes to men loving other men. As a result, there is a growing subgenre of short and feature films that may be marketed primarily to gay viewers but hold appeal for bisexual, bi-curious and predominantly heterosexual guys as well. Here are my takes on a few new home video releases in this vein.

The aptly titled Straight Men & the Men Who Love Them 3 will be out February 25th on DVD courtesy of Ariztical Entertainment. Somehow, the first two volumes in this compilation series passed me by but may be familiar to some readers. Five short films are featured in this new edition, several of them hits from the 2013 gay film festival circuit. Quarters, directed by Jorge Ameer (who also compiled and "presents" the DVD), is a heartfelt story in which a groom's best man confesses his longtime love for his buddy the night before the wedding. Meanwhile, Henry Alberto's Rubber Duckie is a strange episode set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world. Two male survivors spend aimless days clad in their underwear, with the more straight-seeming and dominant of the two playing increasingly sexual games of one-upmanship with the other. Its finale struck me as distasteful, but desperate times may indeed lead to such extreme measures.

Boy Game, from Sweden, depicts two teens struggling with the perennial question of how best to have sex with a girl. In their search for answers, they decide to practice on each other. Its a little rough around the edges in terms of filmmaking technique but this also helps to heighten the tale's authenticity. The most controversial short in the lot is Early One Summer, by British director Gary Thomas. A high school tennis coach, married to a woman, grows close to one of his male students. They go on a camping trip together during which their feelings for one another become romantic and sexual. At only 10 minutes, Thomas really doesn't have enough time to develop his story fully and the ending is too abrupt. However, it could be developed into a longer, more nuanced short or feature.

The best inclusion in Straight Men & the Men Who Love Them 3 is Hong Kong's From Here to There. Director Yee Lam Wong apparently made this short as his thesis at, surprisingly, a Baptist university! It is a nicely shot, well-acted look at the years-later reunion of two men who were lovers while in high school together. The film will resonate with any of us who had feelings for our straight, adolescent best friend. All in all (with the possible exception of Rubber Duckie) this collection demands checking out.

The Passenger, now available from TLA Releasing, is the latest feature by German filmmaker Tor Iben. It follows Iben's 2011 The Visitor (a.k.a. Cibrail), in which a man unexpectedly falls for his girlfriend's gay cousin. With The Passenger, Iben takes a decidedly dark turn as he focuses on an attractive sociopath, Nick (played by Ryan Gosling doppelganger Niklas Peters, who also sports a nice tanline). Nick enjoys sexually manipulating women and men until he kills them. His latest, unfortunate quarry are an aspiring actress, Lilli (Lynne Femme), and her photographer roommate Philipp (Urs Stampfli). Philipp claims to be straight although he exclusively shoots male subjects, and he and Nick quickly establish a bromance. Whether one enjoys this film will largely depend on one's enjoyment of Nick's teasing, cat and mouse game with his new friends, but it takes nice advantage of its Berlin setting and is unquestionably well-acted and well-made.

For my money, the current expert at making initially bromantic movies that develop into something more is Argentinian writer-director Marco Berger. His previous, very good features Absent and Plan B as well as the short story compilation Sexual Tension: Volatile serve as strong evidence of this. Berger's latest, Hawaii, will be released on DVD February 18th by newbie distributor Canteen Outlaws. Plan B alum Manuel Vignau stars as Eugenio, a lonely writer housesitting for his aunt and uncle. A childhood friend, Martin (Mateo Chiarino, blessed with expressive eyes and nice hindquarters), re-enters Eugenio's life one day looking for work. It isn't long before the sexual tension starts bubbling between them and Eugenio takes in his homeless friend.

Hawaii is chock full of Berger's signature smoldering looks, crotch shots (mostly clothed) and seemingly non-sexual physical intimacy. Unfortunately, its all dragged out a little too long here at 105 minutes. The final 10 or so minutes, when the film's enigmatic title finally makes sense, are great though and the long-awaited romantic payoff is nice. Pedro Irusta's classical-infused music score is also worth listening to.

I do wish mainstream movies would take more risks in this men-loving-men regard, especially since it seems increasingly common in our society at large. Maybe Michael Keaton's character could at least have the semi-hots for Joel Kinnaman's cyborg hero in the new RoboCop!

Reverend’s Ratings:
Straight Men & the Men Who Love Them 3: B
The Passenger: B-
Hawaii: B

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Durang Durang

Gay playwright Christopher Durang has gradually transitioned over the decades from penning authentically funny but more absurdist works like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Baby with the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo to more “respectable” plays like the Pulitzer Prize finalist Miss Witherspoon and last year’s Tony Award winner, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Durang’s latest is currently making its Los Angeles debut at the Mark Taper Forum in a lively production helmed by out actor David Hyde Pierce, who performed in it on Broadway but chose to stay behind the scenes here.

Both a loving, US-set satire of Anton Chekhov’s theatre classics — most notably/obviously Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya — as well as a more in-your-face critique of our increasingly illiterate and forgetful culture, Durang gets to indulge his lifelong admiration for the Russian bard (which he amusingly chronicles in the show’s program) while somewhat minimizing but, thankfully, not abandoning his beloved acerbic wit.

The three “sisters” here are globe-trotting but aging actress Masha (the always enjoyable Christine Ebersole, taking over from the New York production’s Sigourney Weaver), the unwed and bipolar Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, reprising her Tony-nominated Broadway turn), and their gay brother Vanya (Mark Blum in the role Hyde Pierce originated). All were named after characters in Chekhov plays as a result of their late parents’ love for the writer. Whereas Masha has enjoyed a successful Hollywood career, Vanya and Sonia stayed on the family homestead in rural Pennsylvania to care for their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother and father. They have remained there for some time after their parents’ deaths, lonely and jobless but subsisting on a stipend Masha sends them each month.

Their psychic, African-American housekeeper (a hysterical Shalita Grant) warns Sonia and Vanya one morning of several premonitions she’s had, including a vision that Masha is soon returning and plans to sell their home. One premonition becomes reality only a few moments later when Masha enters, accompanied by her hot young boy toy, Spike (played by the hot, frequently undressed and thoroughly entertaining David Hull). They are ostensibly there to attend a wealthy neighbor’s costume party that night, which Masha plans to attend as Snow White joined by Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as two of the seven dwarves. Sonia, perpetually insulted by her spotlight-hogging sister, decides to acquire her own costume and ultimately attends in convoluted but hilarious guise as Snow White’s evil queen as played by Maggie Smith circa 1979, when Smith won her second Academy Award for California Suite.

True to the Chekhov blueprint, sibling rivalries gradually give way to reconciliation, the values of home and family are affirmed, and the follies of youth become stepping stones to graceful aging. There is also a Chekhovian theatrical performance within Durang’s homage, as Vanya arranges a preview of a play he is in the process of writing. This episode toward the end of Act 2, intended to be emotionally climactic, struck me as the weakest element in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. As a monologue, it is too long and repetitive, especially when Vanya bemoans ad nauseum the demise of lickable postage stamps in lieu of the self-sticking variety. Blum also failed to escalate his delivery of it on opening night, and it subsequently didn’t pack as much of a wallop as it should have.

Though this play stands on its own, the more familiar one is with Chekhov’s oeuvre the greater one’s appreciation will be. I have a premonition that at the Mark Taper and wherever Durang’s unquestionably entertaining effort is performed in the future, it will be a hit.

Reverend’s Rating: B+

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

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Tales from Texas to Lebanon

This week’s home video release of Dallas Buyers Club seems a bit premature given that it is still playing in US theaters and is up for six yet-to-be-awarded Oscars. Then again, it may prove to be a canny bit of striking while the iron’s hot for this excellent but underseen reality-based AIDS drama. The film, released in early November, has only taken in $22 million at the box office to date. Sadly, even many gay men have been hesitant to check the film out, citing its heterosexual yet HIV-infected protagonist (an award-winning Matthew McConaughey) and/or their perception that it is a dreary, depressing movie (it isn’t, and is downright inspiring in the end). Those of us who survived the plague years of the 1980s-90s owe it to ourselves as well as to those who didn’t make it to watch Dallas Buyers Club.

Several other above average gay-themed dramas by talented up and coming filmmakers are also now available on DVD and, in some cases, download. The acclaimed Pit Stop (Wolfe Video) is another tale set in Texas (Austin in this case) courtesy of Yen Tan, the Malaysian writer-director who previously helmed Happy Birthday and Ciao. His latest is a deliberately paced, naturalistic examination of two closeted gay men whose lives gradually converge. Some viewers may find the 80-minute running time a little too slow-moving but I encourage them to hang in there. It is ultimately a hopeful piece buoyed by the fine, sexy lead performances of Bill Heck (from ABC’s late, lamented Pan Am) and Marcus DeAnda (seen in last year’s underrated K-11).

Moving northeast from the panhandle to the Catskills, we happen upon Patrick McGuinn’s unique gay romance Leather (QC Cinema). Hunky Andrew Glaszek stars as Andrew, the estranged son of his recently deceased father. Returning to his family’s cabin in rural upstate New York for the first time since he was a teen, Andrew is surprised to find a childhood friend, Birch (Chris Graham), serving as caretaker of the property. He also learns that Birch served as caregiver to Andrew’s father during his last days. Old resentments naturally find expression, but so does a long unspoken attraction between Birch and Andrew. Unfortunately for them, at least initially, Andrew’s shallow partner Kyle (Jeremy Neal) has tagged along.

Greg Chandler’s sensitive screenplay takes some new approaches to this fairly routine set up. The most interesting is making Birch a true salt-of-the-earth mountain man who shuns modern technology and dresses like a wayward Amish. He also refreshingly refuses to label himself sexually, even as he is falling for the out and proud Andrew. “I’m gay for you,” Birch tells his longtime friend in all sincerity even as he admits his continuing interest in women. Additionally, Chandler throws into the mix an intoxicated, in-your-face art therapist who gleefully illustrates Andrew’s painful upbringing using hand puppets.

Though Neal's Kyle is frequently grating and McGuinn employs an excessive repertoire of original songs, the actors are attractively diverse and their woodland goings on are nicely photographed by Nick Morr. Leather is a pleasant surprise.

Moving much further east to Lebanon, Samer Daboul’s Out Loud is a find. Now available from Ariztical Entertainment, it is billed as the predominantly conservative Muslim country’s first gay-themed commercial feature. Five men and one woman (whom one of them meets on the Internet) embark on a daring, potentially life-threatening journey to define themselves as a family. “Why are traditional families the only legitimate ones?” wisely asks Ziad, one half of a gay couple within the group.

The film boasts excellent cinematography and editing, with numerous stylistically-grabbing moments including a dance sequence and an elaborate double wedding. Daboul and his cast infuse Out Loud with a joyous spirit, even with danger lurking about in the form of Ziad’s anti-gay cousins. A few moments feel forced, as does at times the central performance of Rudy Moarbes, but this remains a noteworthy, even historic movie.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Dallas Buyers Club: A-
Pit Stop: B+
Leather: B+
Out Loud: B+

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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Monthly Wallpaper: February 2014 - Best Original Song

It's February, which means it's time for the Academy Awards, and this month's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper is whistling a happy tune with Oscar's Best Original Songs.

Love it or hate it, the oft-controversial category has nevertheless honored some of the greatest moments in movie music, sending us over the rainbow and under the sea, lifting us up where we belong with a zip-a-dee-doo-dah day. Sung by the likes of Fred, Bing, Doris, Bob, Judy, Barbra and Madonna, oh what a feeling these memorable melodies gave us, and this is our thanks for the memories.

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