Friday, June 13, 2014

Reverend's Reviews: Time Warps

The naivete of youth and the fears of the elderly are on cinematic display this weekend, albeit in two very different vehicles. Now in release from Focus Features, The Signal is a sci-fi head-scratcher that combines elements of The Blair Witch Project, District 9 and The Andromeda Strain. Three college students played by Brenton Thwaites (who can also currently be seen as the Prince in Maleficent), Beau Knapp (Super 8) and Olivia Cooke (Emma on TV's Bates Motel) are determined to uncover the identity of a hacker who has broken into the MIT computer system as well as their own personal laptops. Their trail leads to a seemingly abandoned house in a remote part of Nevada where, predictably, something is laying in wait.

Group ringleader Nic (Thwaites) awakens, alone and unable to walk, in a mysterious medical facility. He is introduced to Dr. Damon (a congenial Laurence Fishburne), who provides Nic with more questions than answers as to his condition and the whereabouts of his friends. Eventually making a break for it, Nic discovers even more unusual aspects of his situation.

In the hands of director and co-writer William Eubank, who made his debut a few years back with the space station-set Love, The Signal is captivating and engrossing. The film's 97 minutes run by quickly. What begins, though, as a clever rumination on found-footage and other movie tropes (as well as on "the aesthetic of antiquated methodologies") becomes too derivative by the end. The finale also left a few notable fellow critics and I in attendance at an advance screening wondering exactly what the ---- had transpired. I can recommend The Signal to die-hard genre fans but most other viewers will be as baffled as its lead character.

PJ Raval's latest documentary, Before You Know It, examines three gay men's perspectives on aging. It is now playing in Los Angeles and other US cities. The director, who previously explored the transgender experience in the fascinating Trinidad, succeeds in showing that growing old (as difficult as it is for straight people) is even more challenging for LGBT people who haven't historically had the same opportunities for support, including housing.

We are first introduced to 78 year-old Dennis, who proves to be Raval's most compelling and affecting subject. A Star Trek fan married to a woman for 30 years but more recently widowed, the lonely Florida resident indulges his long-suppressed fondness for cross-dressing and begins to spend summers at a rare LGBT retirement community in Oregon. "I didn't feel like I was living up to society's goals" for the better part of his life, Dennis says. It is wonderful to watch him become more comfortable in his own skin and gradually spread his wings during the course of the film, even if a gay cruise he goes on doesn't end very successfully.

The two other men featured, outreach-oriented New Yorker Ty and Texas gay bar owner Robert, aren't quite as interesting but share their own legitimate concerns about enduring homophobia, the new option of same-sex marriage, declining health, financial limitations and personal legacies. Before You Know It is naturally well-intentioned but morose at times, and some scenes (especially while Dennis is on his uncomfortable cruise) seem potentially staged or manipulated in the editing room for maximum effect. The documentary doesn't make growing old something to look forward to exactly, but it goes a way in helping to demystify or de-stigmatize it.

Two other worthwhile movies of LGBT interest previously reviewed here are opening in LA theaters this weekend. Test is a potent and sexy drama set in mid-1980's San Francisco about the impact of AIDS on a modern dance company. The film's period soundtrack consisting of songs by Jimmy Somerville, Laurie Anderson, Cocteau Twins and others offers a great nostalgia fix. Test will also be available on DVDstarting June 17th.

Also now playing is the amusing horror-comedy All Cheerleaders Die, in which a pack of vengeful undead hollaback girls get back at the high school boys who did them wrong. It is especially noteworthy in having two nonchalant lesbian characters front and center, and could be a cult classic in the making.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Signal: B-
Before You Know It: B
Test: B+
All Cheerleaders Die: B

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

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