Friday, July 25, 2014

Reverend’s Report: Last Weekend at Outfest 2014

Outfest, the 10-day Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, began to draw to a close last weekend with, appropriately enough, the LA premiere of Tom Dolby and Tom Williams’ lovely dramedy Last Weekend. Featuring an award-worthy performance by the never-disappointing Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Far from Heaven) that fully utilizes her sensitivity, comedic timing and other distinctive acting gifts, the movie is well worth keeping an eye out for once it hits theaters or home video.

Clarkson heads an excellent cast as Celia, matriarch of the all-male Green family consisting of husband Malcolm (Chris Mulkey), son Roger (Joseph Cross, all grown up since his early turns in such late-90’s films as Wide Awake and Jack Frost) and other, gay son Theo (Zachary Booth, who also played the closeted lawyer in 2012’s acclaimed Keep the Lights On). The boys have come home to the family’s Lake Tahoe cabin for Labor Day weekend at Celia’s behest, with successful TV writer Theo bringing an entourage of friends, his latest flame Luke (pretty Devon Graye) and the star of his current hit show (Glee’s Jayma Mays).

Unbeknownst to their sons initially, Celia and Malcolm are considering selling their longtime manse in an effort to downsize. Unbeknownst to Celia and Malcolm initially, corporate accountant Roger has just lost his job after making a $30 million error. These are the primary conflicts in Dolby’s screenplay, with the developing relationship between Theo and Luke a bit more incidental. Celia’s realization that “it’s hard to let go of things” — whether talking about possessions, people or the past — is belabored at times but is also affecting, thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s emotional palette. The film is also well-supported visually by Paula Huidobro’s beautiful cinematography and aurally by Stephen Barton’s Thomas Newman-esque score. There are also terrific acting turns by Judith Light as the Greens’ grasping neighbor and Mary Kay Place as a lesbian townie.

Dolby, who is gay, introduced the film’s Outfest screening by giving a sweet, heartfelt tribute to Williams. He revealed that the co-directors have been best friends for over 20 years and that Williams has been his “straight ally” since they first met in college. The visibly moved Williams could barely utter a word after Dolby spoke. It served as a nice testimony not only to the growing diversity of LGBT-inclusive movies but of those filmmakers who create them.

Numerous LGBT-interest documentaries debut during Outfest each year, and this year was no exception. Two stood out for me as particularly revelatory in addition to being exceptionally well-made. Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt’s The Circle uses an engrossing combination of vintage footage, modern-day interviews and dramatic re-creations in its exploration of a Europe-based international gay network that thrived prior to the rise of the Nazis. Haupt centers on the romantic saga of two men who met at the time through the Circle and are not only still alive but still together 70 years later. The film was rightly awarded this year’s Outfest Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature as well as the Teddy for Best LGBT Film at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Jim Tushinski’s I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole served as a similar eye-opener. While known to me and many as the pioneering gay porn filmmaker of the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, I had no idea that Poole was first a professional dancer with the renowned Ballets Russes as well as a successful Broadway dancer-choreographer. After an ugly legal clash with composer Richard Rodgers during the original production of Do I Hear a Waltz? essentially ended Poole’s Broadway career (although he made a brief comeback in the late 70’s), he began producing short films for art exhibitions and eventually exploited his eye for glossily explicit men’s stories. Poole’s Boys in the Sand became a surprising crossover smash hit, a gay porn epic that drew gay men, straight men and women alike. Tushinski’s film accomplishes what the best docs do, informing and entertaining in spades.

As such, I Always Said Yes stood in stark contrast with Back on Board: Greg Louganis. This latest exposé of the gay, HIV+ Olympic diver offers little that is new to anyone who has read his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, or seen the Mario Lopez-starring TV movie adapted from, it apart from Louganis’ more recent financial woes. Back on Board isn’t particularly interesting or well made yet it inexplicably won Outfest’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, presumably because the voting audience was stacked with the subject’s numerous local friends.

Rounding out the docs I saw were Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy, a very funny yet disarmingly moving film of the “Gaysian” comedian’s stand up routine detailing his and his husband’s tireless efforts to adopt a child, and Andrea Meyerson’s Letter to Anita, an interesting bio of trailblazing lesbian educator-activist Dr. Ronni Sanlo that is unfortunately marred by the oddly journalistic employment of out actress Meredith Baxter. The numerous shots of Baxter sitting on a stool, bottle of water at her side, reading from Sanlo’s decades-old missive to anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant become laughable. Still, Sanlo’s inspiring life shines through the directorial excess.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Last Weekend: B+
The Circle: A-
I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole: A
Back on Board: Greg Louganis: C
Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy: B
Letter to Anita: B

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reverend's Interview: Having Fun with Alex Newell

21-year old Alex Newell has already conquered the world of TV, thanks to his recurring role as transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Glee. He won the role as a result of competing on The Glee Project in 2011, while he was still in high school. Newell’s initial reward was a two-episode story arc but he is about to begin his fourth season.

The self-proclaimed diva has now set his eyes on the music world. His first single, a cover of "Nobody to Love", just became available and Newell is currently putting the finishing touches on his first album. He will be likely be introducing some of the tracks during his Main Stage performance at the San Diego LGBT Pride Music Festival the afternoon of Sunday, July 20th. I recently had a delightful phone chat with this truly unique and gifted multi-hyphenate.

CC: How’s it going? What are you up to?
AN: Hey! She’s just shopping in New York today, waking up and having fun.

CC: We are very excited to have you back at San Diego Pride! How was your first experience here in 2012?
AN: It was so much fun! I love coming to San Diego and just having fun. The first time I went, I was with my mom and two agents. We had a blast.

CC: What will you be singing? Can you give us a sneak peek?
AN: I have no idea. I never know what I’m going to do until I’m there. When I spoke at San Diego Pride two years ago as a Grand Marshal, I didn’t know what I was going to say until just beforehand. I believe in living in the moment and going with the spirit.

CC: You recently released your first single, congrats! When is the album coming out?
AN: I don’t know yet. We’re still recording everything. It’s a lot of work but going great. I’m really excited about it.

CC: Glee is heading into its last season. Is Unique still a part of it? Do you know what’s going to become of her?
AN: You want to know, we want to know! (Laugh) The actors are waiting to hear. As soon as we know, you’ll know… at least what we’re allowed to talk about.

CC: How has the Glee experience been for you all in all?
AN: It’s been amazing. I was still in high school when I entered the Glee world and everything just took off. It’s been so fast-paced but I’ve loved every minute of it.

CC: I read you attended a Catholic high school. What was that like as a gay teenager?
AN: It was perfectly fine. I’m every bit of a diva so nobody really bothered me. When I came out I was a force of nature, so they didn’t dare get in my way. (Laugh) Plus, they respected me as a singer, which I had been doing since I was a kid, and then I was on The Glee Project. The former principal is so sweet to me still, Sister Cathy. She’s a nun. (Laugh)

CC: This is a more philosophical question, but what does pride mean to you?
AN: Being prideful of who you are; what you did today or this week or month that has made you who you are. And as a community, being proud of how far we have come.

CC: Looking ahead 20 or 30 years, where do you hope to be?
AN: Married with at least three kids, being a stay-at-home daddy. Working only for fun. I’d love to have four albums out, six Tonys, four Grammys and three Oscars, and be happy. Thirty years from now? Wow, I’ll be 50! (Laugh) I’m very family oriented. I love cooking, cleaning and shopping. I’d be happy taking care of my husband and kids.

CC: Who is your ideal man?
AN: Rich. (Laugh) No, someone understanding of my past and my emotions. As an actor, you have to dig into your past and your emotions a lot. Losing my dad, he died when I was 6, was hard. In a way, I’m still getting over it. Whoever I share my life with has to be understanding of that. They have to accept everything I have been through and everything that I am.

CC: Wow, I’m sure you will find someone special. Thanks so much for your time, Alex. We can’t wait to see you at San Diego Pride!
AN: Thank you! It’s going to be a blast!

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reverend’s Review: Babsylon

Barbra Streisand’s multimillion-dollar compound in Malibu, California surely holds many mysteries, despite her photographing much of it for a coffee table book published a few years back. Chief among them is an underground mini mall comprised of shops (or shoppes, in at least one case of signage) in which many of her personal treasures are stored. These include costumes from her numerous stage and film appearances, antiques and an extensive doll collection.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds) became fascinated with this aspect of Babs’ home when he read her book, and it soon served as an unexpected muse. Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar debuted off-Broadway in 2013 and became a word-of-mouth sensation among friends and foes of Streisand alike. It is currently on a US tour featuring original, award-winning star, Michael Urie (see our recent interview with Urie here), and is now playing at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum through August 17th. Urie carries off every role in this one-man, one-act show, including the notoriously controlling diva herself.

The primary character though in this very LA story is Alex More, a struggling actor recently fired from his job at Disneyland. He receives a call inquiring if he would be open to working for a not-yet-identified “lady of the house” in seaside Malibu. After being thoroughly vetted by the estate’s female Chief of Staff (played by Urie) and signing a confidentiality agreement, Alex is hired as the sole employee in Streisand’s basement mini-mall. As she is the shops’ only visitor, he initially spends days alone during which he dusts the “merchandise” and tends to the dolls.

Finally, the day comes when Streisand descends… and proceeds to act like an anonymous shopper. Alex quickly takes on the persona of salesman, only to discover his would-be customer haggling with him over the price of a doll she already owns! This sequence is arguably the funniest in the play, especially once the singer/actress/director/philanthropist presents a self-made discount coupon. Through the bizarre experience, however, Streisand sheds her veneer and a tender friendship gradually develops between her and Alex. Their relationship culminates in Streisand hiring Alex to serve as her coach as she prepares a silver screen comeback as Mama Rose in a remake of Gypsy (a project which was widely reported to be in development prior to the death of director Arthur Laurents in 2011).

Tolins’ fantasia explores economic differences, the perks as well as the cost of fame, and homosexuality, especially the awe with which gay men tend to regard Streisand. Most of the latter is filtered through Alex’s boyfriend, a screenwriter and TCM addict named Barry. To the play’s detriment, though, none of these are dealt with in great depth. What resounded most significantly for me in the text is the timeless notion of utopia, and the sometimes extreme lengths to which Streisand and each of us can go to secure our vision of habitable perfection.

The immensely talented, classically trained and genuinely affable Urie is splendid as each character: Alex, Streisand (whom he eerily yet amusingly evokes with little more than a slight stoop in posture, a deeper voice and an occasional invisible hair flip), Barry and, perhaps best of all, Babs’ husband James Brolin, who goes downstairs on one occasion to fetch frozen yogurt from the mall’s machine. Urie was a bit too enthusiastic when he first entered on opening night and he appeared to forget his place at one point, which I imagine would be fairly easy to do while bouncing from one character to another over the course of 100 minutes, but he quickly recovered. Director Stephen Brackett wisely provides just enough structure to keep Urie from going over the top, which also could be fairly easy for him to do. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design struck me at times as overly minimalistic but it is necessarily versatile.

I’m not sure, since I hadn’t seen Buyer & Cellar previously, but the LA production features a possibly added opening “disclaimer.” The writer and/or producers may have felt it necessary while performing in Streisand’s backyard, especially since her manager has told local press that she plans to finally see the play while it is in LA. This disclaimer seems excessive and unnecessary, even if it is comedically presented. Streisand really has nothing to fear. By the end of opening night, my affection for her — neuroses, warts and all — had only grown thanks to Urie & Co.

Reverend’s Rating: B

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Crazy Train

I remember seeing as a kid The Big Bus, a 1976 spoof of the disaster movies that were all the rage then. Its all-star cast included Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty and the great Ruth Gordon as assorted passengers on the world’s first nuclear-powered luxury bus. Massive enough to accommodate an Olympic-size swimming pool, a bowling alley and much more, the vehicle was naturally targeted by a madman during its maiden voyage.

Taking in the elaborately-designed train at the center of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, now playing in select cities, I couldn’t help but recall that earlier film. Boasting a nightclub, a spa, an aquarium car (with an adjoining sushi bar no less) and numerous living spaces distinguished by stark differences in class among its passengers, the ice-breaking locomotive is also powered by an inexhaustible energy source as it travels endlessly around a frozen planet Earth in the year 2031. If the train should ever stop, the last remnants of humanity on board will die from exposure to the cold.

Unlike The Big Bus, Bong’s sci-fi spectacle/political allegory is deadly serious with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s arch performance as Mason, the wealthy trainmaster’s somewhat androgynous secondhand man/woman. Sporting Austin Powers-esque false teeth, thick eyeglasses and an elaborate wardrobe, Mason manages to be frightening and hilarious at the same time. Playing things much more despairingly are Chris Evans (Captain America himself), Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as the downtrodden inhabitants of the train’s rear. The revolt they launch to force their way to the front, seize the “sacred engine” and upend the system of inequality they have been subjected to for 17 years provides the film’s main storyline, which Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson adapted from a French graphic novel.

The South Korea-born Bong previously made the above-average 2006 creature feature The Host and the excellent, Hitchcockian Mother. He proves himself more than adept here at directing an international cast and crew and primarily in English for the first time. Several Korean actors, including Host alumnae Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song, have featured roles as well. Spencer, who at first glance seems the odd woman out among the cast and not only because she has an Oscar (as does Swinton), gives the film’s most emotionally-affecting performance and also gets to kick some serious butt.

Few of the screenplay’s class-struggle elements are new, and they are driven home in some scenes with a very heavy hand (i.e. drug abuse as an escape from reality, the mystery ingredient in the poor passengers’ protein bars, and cannibalistic references). Bong’s depiction of violence is also given to excess here, with limbs frequently hacked off and blood spraying (albeit stylishly) the interior of train car windows. However, the cast, visual conceptualization, production design (by Ondrej Nekvasil) and art direction (by Stefan Kovacik) of Snowpiercer are so strong that these criticisms end up being fairly minor. Between it, the current Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens this Friday but is already garnering rave reviews, 2014 is shaping up to the best year for serious science fiction movies in some time. All aboard!

With Pride and the LGBT film festival season well under way, a number of new VOD and/or DVD releases are vying for gay men's attentions. Most of these shorts and features were standouts on last year’s fest circuit.

Fun in Boys Shorts (Strand Releasing) offers seven highlights from San Francisco’s Frameline event. While they lean toward the comedic, there are a couple of notable exceptions. Alaska is a Drag is the story of a young, black gay man working on the docks of Anchorage (although the movie was mostly shot at the Port of Long Beach, California). Hounded by his co-workers, a new employee offers unexpected friendship. This could easily be developed into an appealing feature. The young cast members’ performances are exceptional. The other more serious short in the collection, Sabbatical, explores a gay couple’s reunion after taking a three-month break apart. It also benefits from strong acting by its attractive leads.

Among the comedies, P.D.A. and the partially animated Desanimado (Unanimated) both fall a bit flat, but Skallamann is a joyous, well-staged musical celebration of bald men while Spooners is an at times forced but still very funny tale about a gay couple shopping for a new bed who are introduced to an unusually high-tech model. Housebroken, about an insecure gay man taken in by a high-maintenance, seemingly straight couple, rounds the shorts off.

Several recommended, gay-themed feature films now available are Cuba’s muy caliente The Last Match (Canteen Outlaws); In Bloom (TLA Releasing), about two young men falling out of love; Getting Go, The Go Doc Project (Wolfe Video), in which a documentary filmmaker’s obsession with a hot go-go dancer leads to romance; and Alan Brown’s dramatic, appropriately fleet-footed Five Dances (also from Wolfe). If there isn’t an LGBT film fest near you, consider renting, streaming or buying these and hosting your own.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Snowpiercer: B+
Fun in Boys Shorts: B

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Reverend’s Preview: Dead & Loving It at Outfest 2014

The dead are rising all over large and small screens nowadays. One new movie about a restless ghost/zombie, Jamie Marks is Dead, caused a homoerotic stir at January’s Sundance Film Festival. It will be making its Los Angeles premiere on July 11th as part of Outfest, which runs July 10th-20th.

Jamie is a bullied teenager whose body is found in the woods by a local girl, Gracie. Soon after, Jamie begins appearing not only to Gracie but to Adam, her track star semi-boyfriend. Adam finds himself increasingly drawn to the underwear-clad specter and, as he tries to discover how Jamie died, has to confront his emerging romantic feelings for his unusual friend.

It is rare for a film to be creepy, sexy and deeply moving, often all at the same time. Openly gay filmmaker Carter Smith (who previously helmed the horror movie The Ruins) walks an impressive high wire act with Jamie Marks is Dead, and the result is one of the best entries at this year’s Outfest. Smith chatted with me in advance of the event.

CC: What spoke to you about the novel One for Sorrow that made you want to film it?
CS: I randomly picked up the book in a book store. I was about halfway through it and thought, “This would make a great film.” Christopher Barzak’s story was beautiful and I loved the honesty in the relationships between Jamie and Adam, and Adam and Gracie. It felt very real and not a fictional version of what adults think teenagers are.

CC: Did you relate to this story on a more personal level?
CS: I grew up in a very small town in rural Maine that was not all that dissimilar from where the film takes place. I know what it is to live in an isolated way. I also responded to the relationship between Adam and Jamie as well as between Adam and Gracie, trying to figure out who they are. It isn’t really a coming out story but explores that more fluid time in a young person’s development.

CC: How has your film been received so far? Any unusual or surprising reactions?
CS: It’s always interesting to see how a film like this with a very specific milieu affects people outside it. I’ve had great conversations with middle-aged women and schoolteachers about some of the issues explored. Then there’s the Sundance crowd that just loves a good story.

CC: What led you to cast Noah Silver (best known as Benito Sforza on The Borgias) as Jamie and Cameron Monaghan (who plays Shameless’ Ian Gallagher) as Adam?
CS: We spent a long time looking, looking at people with a lot of experience and just a little experience. Noah actually put himself on tape two years ago playing both Adam and Jamie. It was when I put Noah and Cameron together that I noticed, “This is going to be an interesting contrast,” both physically and emotionally.

CC: How did out, Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) come on as a co-producer?
CS: I had met John and been friendly with him and at dinner one night he asked, “So, what are you working on?” I told him about the script and he was really interested. He asked me to send it to him. I did, and he read it and replied saying he loved it and really wanted to do it. He was passionate. He really wanted to stay true to the emotional aspect of it, as did I. We didn’t want it to become just a horror film.

CC: The film isn’t being billed as a gay-themed movie per se. Is this intentional? Are you wanting a broader audience?
CS: Hopefully it will play to a broader audience, but the LGBT community is going to respond to certain themes and parts of it. It’s also gotten a great response from the horror film community for the same reason.

CC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m writing something which I’m really excited about but can’t really talk about yet. I’m also reading stuff and looking for ideas. But my day job is still fashion photography, which is where I got my start. I’m shooting Chloe Moretz (star of the Kick-Ass movies and the recent remake of Carrie) tomorrow for the cover of Allure magazine.

CC: Nice. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Best of luck with Jamie Marks and in the future.
CS: Thank you. I’m so glad you liked the film.

Outfest is never short on homoerotic or just downright erotic gay-themed films. A few I recommend this year are:

  • The Way He Looks, a Brazilian tale of two high school best friends who discover they have a deeper interest in one another. Oh, and one of them is blind, adding some needed novelty to the gay coming of age genre. It will screen in the International Centerpiece slot on July 14th.
  • Eternity: The Movie, a funny satire set in the 1980’s and focusing on the two men who make up the title R&B sensation. Any resemblance between Eternity and Hall & Oates is totally intentional. It screens on July 11th.
  • Tiger Orange, in which Frankie Valenti (a.k.a. porn star Johnny Hazzard) gives an impressive dramatic performance as one of two gay brothers (the other is played by Mark Strano) trying to bring closure to their troubled past. Never fear, Hazzard fans: he still takes his clothes off. The film will have its world premiere on July 18th.
  • Gerontophilia, Bruce LaBruce’s acclaimed dramedy about a young man who has the hots for decidedly older gentlemen, eventually falling in love with a resident of the nursing home in which he works. Screens on July 17th.
  • The Third One, who happens to be a sexy, younger guy invited by a gay couple he meets online to dinner and more at their home. This disarming, insightful and, yes, hot film from Argentina will screen on July 15th.
  • I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole, an explicit, revealing documentary about the ballet dancer/choreographer who became a pioneering gay porn filmmaker in the 1970’s. Screens on July 12th.

James Schamus, screenwriter (The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm, Taking Woodstock), producer (Poison, Swoon, Brokeback Mountain) and former CEO of Focus Pictures (Milk, The Kids Are All Right, Dallas Buyers Club) will be receiving the 18th annual Outfest Achievement Award during the festival's Opening Night Gala on July 10th. Outfest's highest honor, the Achievement Award is presented in recognition of a body of work that has made a significant contribution to LGBT film and media.

For the full film schedule and to purchase passes or tickets, visit the Outfest website.

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reverend's Interview: Michael Urie is Good People

One of America’s favorite queer funny men, Michael Urie, plays half of a sweet but scheming gay couple (Queer as Folk’s Randy Harrison is his other half) in Stewart Wade’s Such Good People. The comedy will have its West Coast Premiere during FilmOut San Diego on Sunday, June 1st. Urie spoke with me last month as he was driving from San Francisco to San Diego for screenings of a new documentary, Thank You for Judging, that he directed.

CC: You are doing it all: movies, TV, theatre, online. How do you feel about your success and career to date?
MU: Well, I’m always looking up and onward. I don’t feel I’m on the outside looking in; I’m on the inside looking up. There’s so much more I want to do but I’m so happy. I’ve had such luck but also hard work that’s paid off. This documentary I have coming out has taken years but it’s probably my proudest moment.

CC: My partner and I were bummed when your series Partners got cancelled. I’m sure that was disappointing for you.
MU: It was disappointing. You know, I grew up watching sitcoms — real sitcoms with three cameras — and to actually work on one with the creators of Will & Grace was amazing. Once we were on the air, though, we were fighting for our lives. We started with five million viewers, which is huge! But in the TV ocean, we were plankton (Laughs).

CC: So many people remember you from Ugly Betty. How was that experience for you?
MU: Pretty life-changing. That was one of those wonderful, rare opportunities. I loved the people I worked with. And then we were cancelled! (Laughs) I think that show easily could have gone on a few more years.

CC: Do you keep in touch with Vanessa Williams or other cast members?
MU: I keep in touch with pretty much all of them. I see Vanessa and Judith Light the most since we’re in theatre, but I keep in touch with America (Ferrera) and just saw Tony Plana (who played Betty’s father) in a play. And Ana Ortiz (who played Betty’s older sister) is in Such Good People. It’s been a challenge to keep in touch; it’s been four years since the show ended.

CC: How did you get involved in Such Good People?
MU: I don’t remember exactly because I was attached for a long time. Independent movies take a long time to develop. When I read it, I thought the script was adorable. And I loved the kind of movie it is, a caper movie. They really were great at working around my schedule so I could do it. I’m so bummed I can’t be at FilmOut for the screening since I’ll be on tour then.

CC: What was it like to work with Randy Harrison? You two are adorable together.
MU: Thank you! We knew each other socially before working on the movie. He has a great sense of play and is very funny. So much of comedy is instinct and he has a great instinct for comedy. It’s a different side of him than the serious, angsty guy he played on Queer as Folk. Plus, he’s super cute and I have a thing for blondes, so it was really easy for me to hop into bed with him. (Laughs)

CC: You’ve directed a few films now. Do you prefer directing, acting or doing both simultaneously?
MU: I love directing quite a bit, I have to say. I hope to do more of it but I don’t think I will ever stop acting. Directing makes one a better actor. It’s flexing all your storytelling muscles. Timing and pacing is everything as a director. Doing Buyer & Cellar in New York I found myself thinking more as a director, since it’s a one-man show.

CC: We can’t wait to see you in Buyer & Cellar in Los Angeles! (The play will run July 9th-August 17th at the Mark Taper Forum.) How has the experience been for you?
MU: It’s been a great surprise but wonderful. When the script came my way, my representation didn’t like the idea of me being off-Broadway and missing TV pilot season but I thought it could be a big hit. And it was! It was great. I think it’s going to play like gangbusters in LA too.

CC: You were classically trained at Julliard. Do you miss doing Shakespeare or more dramatic work?
MU: I do, I really do. There’s a company in New York called the Red Bull Theatre and I get my Shakespeare fix doing readings with them. I was doing a Jacobean play when the casting director for Ugly Betty was in the audience, so a lot of my success is due to my classical background.

CC: You said in an Advocate interview a few years ago that you prefer the term queer for yourself rather than gay or bi. Do you still prefer queer today?
MU: That’s still the closest term to how I feel. I’ve been in a relationship with a dude, though, for 5 ½ years.

CC: Where do you call home today: New York, LA or your native Texas?
MU: I always miss New York City whenever I leave there after about 15 minutes, so that’s definitely home for me.

In addition to Such Good People, a number of films will be making their West Coast or California premieres at the 16th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival between Friday, May 30th and Sunday, June 1st:
  • Boy Meets Girl. A poignant coming-of-age comedy set in Kentucky and centering on three 20-somethings, one of them a gorgeous trans girl, whose paths cross.
  • Lilting. A Chinese-Cambodian mother grieving the death of her closeted son finds her life further disrupted when her son’s partner shows up on her doorstep. Out actor Ben Whishaw (the new “Q” in Skyfall and upcoming James Bond movies) plays the partner.
  • Waiting in the Wings: The Musical. Lee “Catwoman” Meriwether, Shirley Jones, Sally Struthers and Blue Lagoon hottie Christopher Atkins make appearances in this comedy about a male stripper and a naïve musical-theatre enthusiast who are erroneously cast in one another’s proper venues.
  • 10 Year Plan. This new film by director J.C. Calciano (Is It Just Me?, eCupid) is a sexy romantic comedy that features two male best friends who make a pact to stay together forever if neither finds love in ten years. They only have two months left before their deadline.
  • Floating Skyscrapers. An acclaimed, sexually-graphic drama from Poland in which a promising professional swimmer falls in love with a young student. Unfortunately, the closeted swimmer’s controlling girlfriend stands in their way.

The full festival schedule and ticket info can be found online at their website.

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

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Starry Lives

In addition to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and a number of classic Saturday morning cartoons, I pretty much grew up on the televised antics of Chicago-based film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They first caught my attention through their initial, national PBS series, Sneak Previews, during the summer of 1979 with their hilarious dissection of the dreadful disaster movie Meteor. While they often disagreed, sometimes vociferously, they were united in their “thumbs down” disdain on that occasion. The pair became household names as they reviewed together through a series of shows for over twenty years, until Siskel’s premature death in 1999 at the age of 53.

Ebert joined his former sparring partner in that great movie theater balcony in the sky just last year. He was 70 years old and, while Ebert had been battling cancer for a number of years, his death was no less expected. Not long before his passing, Ebert’s autobiography — both somewhat grandly and rather simply titled Life Itself — was published. Now, award-winning documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) has brought the critic’s tome, its title intact, to the big screen in select US cities starting today as well as to small screens via iTunes and OnDemand. The film is an obvious labor of love and likely payback to some degree for Ebert’s loud praise for Hoop Dreams back in 1994. Ebert famously took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to task when James’ film was denied a nomination for the Best Documentary Oscar, causing the Documentary branch to review its consideration policies.

One could accuse James of presenting a too-flattering picture of his subject. While a couple of even Ebert’s admirers describe him in Life Itself as “full of himself” and “a bit of a control freak,” there are many more gushing appraisals of the man including current New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s assessment of Ebert as “the definitive mainstream film critic in American letters.” There are mentions of Ebert’s bad taste in women prior to meeting Chaz, the woman who would become his wife relatively late in life, as well as his alcoholism (Ebert was in recovery since 1979, and Chaz reveals in the film that they first met one another at an AA meeting). Still, the documentary serves all in all as a glowing tribute.

At over two hours, Life Itself boasts lively, engaging editorial style but is also a tad overlong and redundant in spots. James devotes at least thirty minutes to the best-known aspect of Ebert’s life: his love-hate relationship with Siskel. Fans naturally wouldn’t want James to avoid this, and the revelation that Yale-educated philosophy major Siskel was a member of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s inner circle prior to his mainstream journalism career is truly startling, but it is largely ground already well-covered. The doc does feature some great, vintage footage from the pair’s various review shows, including their amusingly hostile debate over the 1987 kid-oriented movie, Benji the Hunted (I have to say I’m with the more complementary Ebert on that one).

James’ film is most revealing, at times excruciatingly so, of Ebert’s final hospital visits prior to his death in April, 2013. The director was at Ebert’s bedside along with Chaz much of the time. The critic puts up a good-natured fight against the ravages of cancer and endures considerable probing and pain with humor, but his physical decline is evident. There is also moving footage from the packed memorial service for Ebert that was held in Chicago.

“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says in this final testament to his life’s work. Life Itself certainly helps prove his thesis. I encourage all film fans, especially fellow and budding critics out there, to see it and/or read the autobiography.

Another somewhat excessively flattering but still recommended documentary now available on VOD from DirecTV Cinema for a limited time prior to its August theatrical release reveals the story behind a pop culture icon: Star Trek’s George Takei, aka Mr. (eventually Captain) Sulu. In To Be Takei, director Jennifer M. Kroot’s camera accompanies the actor as well as, frequently, his husband Brad as Takei recounts his upbringing, including time in a Japanese interment camp during World War II even though he was born in the US, his start in Hollywood as an English-language dubber on one of the original Godzilla movies, the Star Trek years and his more recent service as an out spokesman for LGBT marriage equality. Takei’s age shows at times in the film (he is now a less spry 77) but he is still sharp mentally, as his frequent Facebook postings attest. The doc is a must for Trekkies/Trekkers, younger Japanese Americans, and gays everywhere.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Life Itself: B+
To Be Takei: B

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reverend’s Interview: Barry Sandler on Crimes of Passion’s 30th Anniversary

In 1984, one of the most daring motion pictures to date about human sexuality, Crimes of Passion, was released. Kathleen Turner stars as call girl China Blue, who by day is a talented fashion designer. Her already conflicted life becomes even more complicated once she crosses paths with both a repressed husband (played by a full-frontal, totally hot John Laughlin) and an insane street preacher intent on “saving” her (the late Anthony Perkins, giving his most out there performance among many).

The film’s screenwriter, Barry Sandler, will be appearing at a special 30th anniversary screening sponsored by Outfest tonight in West Hollywood. He currently lives in central Florida and teaches filmmaking at a local university. I was privileged to speak with Sandler at length recently about Crimes of Passion and several of his other memorable — and memorably gay-aware — works.

Rev: Where did the idea or story of Crimes of Passion come from?
Sandler: (Laugh) You know, I started writing it in the late 1970’s, during the sexual revolution and pre-AIDS. It was clear to me that people were substituting sex for intimacy, as a substitute for any kind of romance. I was trying to convey that using a dramatic hook, how sexuality is sometimes used as a shield or a barrier to real connection. I used a heterosexual context but I thought gay viewers could relate to it. I knew I succeeded when I went out on Halloween that year and saw how many men were dressed as China Blue (laughs)!

Rev: How was the film received upon its initial release?
Sandler: I never had or even seen a movie that had such polarized reactions. I have a list of critics who loved it and thought it was brilliant, and then there were a lot of critics who said it was depraved and disgusting. The other thing is that it got a lot of publicity because the ratings board gave it an X rating, so there were two versions of it ultimately released on home video: R and Unrated. Richard Heffner, the head of the ratings board at the time, encouraged me as a producer on the film to release it as an X and restore the legitimacy of the X rating. Midnight Cowboy, which won the Oscar, had been rated X before it became synonymous with pornography. Heffner defended Crimes of Passion as a serious treatment of human sexuality. The studio (New World), though, would only release it as an R. It had disappointing box office since everyone had naturally been looking forward to the X-rated version but it became something of a cult movie and was big on home video, especially the unrated version.

Rev: I think Kathleen Turner gives one of her best performances as China Blue. What was she like on set?
Sandler: She is great in it. She won the Los Angeles Film Critics award and is on the record as saying it’s her best performance. It was a difficult, intense shoot because her fiancée didn’t want her to do it. She was just coming off Romancing the Stone and was a big star. She was a little bit nervous doing this subversive, transgressive role but the actress in her really wanted to do it.

Rev: As screenwriter, how was working with the one and only director Ken Russell (The Devils, Tommy, Women in Love and nearly 70 other films, many of them controversial)?
Sandler: I loved it, it was just great. He had just done Altered States, written by Paddy Chayefsky, and they did not get along. Paddy had it in his contract that not a word of his script could be changed without his permission. They fought a lot, so (Russell) was very skeptical and suspect of the idea of working with me, since I had it in my contract that I had to write any changes in the script. I wasn’t opposed to changes but I had to make them. The first time I met with Ken, he was a little bit standoffish and aloof. I really wanted to work with him, and had such respect and admiration for him as a filmmaker. It took a couple of meetings but he eventually warmed up to me. We also didn’t really make any changes. We were going to make another movie after Crimes of Passion but the financing never came together.

Rev: Making Love (which Sandler wrote and produced) also got a mixed reaction when it was released in 1982. Would you say its reputation has improved?
Sandler: I would say so, yeah. Critics were divided on it but not as polarized as Crimes of Passion. It was warmly embraced by the gay community. My generation grew up with all these negative stereotypes of gay people. I still have a lot of the nice clippings in the gay press and letters I received at the time. Some people were confused by it because it was sold in two different ways: to the straight audience and the gay audience. I remember seeing it in a theater full of mostly straight people. When the two men kissed, some people groaned and some even got up and left the theater. I don’t think that would happen today. There really aren’t these two different audiences anymore, which is great.

Rev: And you wrote what most of my friends and I consider two of the best Agatha Christie movies, The Mirror Crack’d (1980) and Evil Under the Sun (1982). How were those experiences?
Sandler: (Laugh) I had the most fun because I got to live in England for months and meeting and working with all these big stars on The Mirror Crack’d: Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Angela Lansbury, Tony Curtis. It was Kim Novak’s first movie in a while and I remember her being pretty nervous. Liz Taylor was great. I would quote lines from her movies to her and ask her to guess which movie each was from. She got about half of them right. (Laughs) Unfortunately, I wasn’t on set when they filmed Evil Under the Sun because they were shooting Making Love at the same time.

Rev: What are you working on now?
Sandler: I just finished a movie, Knock ‘em Dead, that is a lot like the Agatha Christie movies. It comes out in February. It has an all-black cast and is very low budget but it’s a lot of fun. (The film is directed by David DeCoteau, the out mastermind behind The Brotherhood and 1313 series.)

Rev: Any thoughts on how far cinema has come from an LGBT perspective?
Sandler: I tell you, we’ve come along an enormous amount, mainly thanks to television. Once you have gay people, gay characters coming into your home, it really de-stigmatizes us. The more that image of gay people as non-threatening is out there, the more accepted we are. We have really come a long, long way.

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Monthly Wallpaper: July 2014 - Real American Heroes

Just in time for Fourth of July celebrations, the Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper for this month honors the movies' greatest Real American Heroes!

No, not G.I. Joes, but the actual subjects of inspirational biopics (and a few musicalized ones), real American legends whose "reel" depictions carry on their heroic legacies for generations of film watchers.

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.