Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Thankful To Be Alive

Along with family gatherings and holiday shopping, the long Thanksgiving weekend is always a good time for checking out new releases in theaters and on home video. A fascinating, must-see documentary for LGBT and straight viewers alike is Alive Inside now available on DVD.Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it explores the powerful effect that music is increasingly proving to have on memory loss and other debilitating symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. There are currently five million people living with dementia in the US, according to the film.

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett spotlights the groundbreaking work undertaken by Dan Cohen. As a nursing home social worker, Cohen was disturbed by the typical over-medication of patients with dementia, which hampered his efforts to communicate with them. I can attest to his observations in this regard, as I regularly deal with nursing home residents in my hospice chaplain ministry. Cohen began to notice that patients tended to become more alert and responsive when music they were familiar with from their younger years was played. With the use of individualized iPods, he then created personal playlists for each patient and was amazed at how dramatically their memory and communication ability improved in the wake of some time spent listening to their favorite songs. Several of these “before and after” moments are featured in the documentary, which was shot over three years as Rossato-Bennett followed Cohen, and they are truly impressive. As Cohen states, “all of a sudden, everything falls into place” in the mind of a usually-confused patient thanks to the strategic use of music. Other recent research studies have also attested to this.

The film poses the vital question, “Who are we without our memory?” Any of us who have had a family member or friend with dementia can easily echo this. Alive Inside offers great hope for anyone living or working with the memory-impaired. It testifies to the power music holds in helping one “re-acquire their identity” and, subsequently, their dignity. Rossato-Bennett and Cohen struck me at times as being perhaps a little too self-congratulatory, yet the significance of this beautifully-composed documentary and the breakthroughs it depicts can’t be denied. For more information, visit the Music & Memory website.

Another interesting but more problematic documentary newly available on DVD,Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, takes us way back to 1966 and the 12-hour period Clarke and her team spent with a gay man as he recounted his life. Subject Jason Holliday, who reveals his birth name to have been Aaron Payne, is by turns flamboyant, down-to-earth, insecure (“I’m scared of myself ‘cause I’m a pretty frightening cat,” he confesses at one point), highly intelligent, obviously talented and increasingly drunk. This pioneering cinematic examination of a gay man’s triumphs and tragedies in his own words was surprisingly successful upon its theatrical release in 1967. Holliday enjoyed celebrity status and even had a brief recording career. However, both he and the film fell into obscurity eventually. Portrait of Jason was only recently restored and is now seemingly ripe for rediscovery.

Holliday’s experiences and perspective on gay life of the time won’t be surprising to gay viewers of his generation or older, but younger viewers should be warned that he and the verite-influenced Clarke don’t paint a rosy picture (it is also a frequently blurry, out-of-focus picture). The film serves as something of a time capsule, offering an increasingly — and thankfully — rare glimpse into a decidedly less LGBT-friendly era. I became upset watching the doc at how often the filmmakers ply Holliday with alcohol and seem to expect him to perform songs and funny recollections on demand. It is hard not to think of Portrait of Jason as exploitative, certainly by today’s standards. Then again, Holliday himself declares at one point “I go out of my way to unglue people.” The movie at least testifies well to his memory (he died in 1998) in this regard.

Gay viewers may be tempted to consider Snails in the Rain, now available on DVDfrom TLA Releasing, suitable for their post-turkey respite this weekend. Unfortunately, despite the participation of gorgeous Israeli actor Yoav Reuveni, the film is something of a disappointment. Writer-director Yariv Mozer revisits well-traveled territory in this 1989-set tale. Reuveni stars as Boaz, a seemingly straight university student who begins to receive love letters from an unidentified male admirer. He subsequently becomes suspicious of every guy he sees: fellow students, professors, gym mates, librarians. It isn’t long before Boaz’s girlfriend discovers one of the letters and becomes suspicious herself.

Mozer incorporates some awkward flashbacks to Boaz’s time in the Israeli military, when he and his fellow enlisted enjoyed group jack off sessions (!) and Boaz had at least some degree of sexual/romantic interest in another soldier. It ultimately doesn’t amount to much, and the ending of Snails in the Rain is a dud. Go see the inspiring gay history lesson The Imitation Game or Disney’s more mature but thoroughly enjoyable Big Hero 6 instead.

We wish all our Movie Dearest readers a happy Thanksgiving and festive holiday season!

Reverend’s Ratings:
Alive Inside: A-
Portrait of Jason: B
Snails in the Rain: C

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Singlets Scene

Though its dark true story may prove a turn off to some, Foxcatcher’s dream pairing of Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as wrestling brothers in form-fitting gear will no doubt appeal to gay viewers and others. This highly-touted new film by Capote and Moneyball director Bennett Miller opens in Los Angeles and New York this weekend and hopes to capture awards season attention. Indeed, Miller already snagged Best Director for Foxcatcher at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) both won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, making them one of only two pairs of siblings to do so to date. Soon after, Mark found himself recruited by billionaire John du Pont to train the US freestyle wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Steve Carell plays the eccentric du Pont in Foxcatcher and in so doing gives a memorably dramatic, image-busting performance. Once Mark proves himself a disappointment, at least according to the film, du Pont hired Dave Schultz to co-coach his team. This leads to an explosion of the long-simmering rivalry Mark feels toward his brother as well as to Dave’s shocking murder in 1996 at the hands of du Pont, who was convicted and died in prison in 2010.

As always, Miller exhibits observant, masterful control as director and coaxes excellent work from his great cast (Vanessa Redgrave also appears as du Pont’s condemning mother). But I found the screenplay, by E. Max Frye and Capote collaborator Dan Futterman, problematic in terms of failing to provide much psychological insight into its tragic trio of lead characters. Though du Pont was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, this is never mentioned in Foxcatcher. Carell succeeds in making du Pont appear sketchy physically even if the beak-like, predatory false nose he dons (du Pont was a published ornithologist, among other things) is a bit excessive. Similarly, Mark’s conflicted feelings of love and hate toward the older brother who raised him are largely unexplained, which risks making them seem exaggerated as well.

There is palpable homoerotic tension in Foxcatcher, which seems natural given its wrestling backdrop, but little is seemingly known or revealed about the late du Pont’s sexuality. However, his impromptu, late-night demands of Mark for “practice in the gallery” in the film, with Mark wearing nothing but tiny workout shorts as du Pont rubs up against him, certainly invite speculation. I came away from this unquestionably provocative film (the pursuit of “the American dream” is also frequently evoked) feeling somewhat empty-handed despite the considerable talent on display.

Another stranger-than-fiction story newly available on DVDand VOD from Wolfe is Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story. It is also gunning for documentary awards consideration. The film opens disarmingly at a meeting of several transgender former military personnel, one of whom is Kristin Beck. A former Navy SEAL for over 20 years and born Christopher Beck, she came out as trans following her retirement in 2011.

Declaring “I’m not used to doing anything halfway,” Kristin has shared her experiences via numerous television appearances, online videos and public speaking engagements. She has largely received nothing but support from fellow enlisted, past and present, one of whom says of Kristin “that sister is my brother.” Most but not all of Kristin’s family members have also been supportive, including her older brother who tearfully contemplates “The shit he’s been through? Unbelievable.”

Co-directors Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog have obvious respect for their subject and her journey, which Kristin admits has been “more mentally and physically challenging than anything else I’ve done.” Honest and engrossing, Lady Valor demands attention.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Foxcatcher: B
Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story: A-

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reverend's Preview: Honoring LGBT on TV

Depending on when each of us came of age, the first openly LGBT figure on television we might have been familiar with was Billy Crystal’s Jodie on the 1970’s sitcom Soap. Or it may have been Will Truman (Eric McCormack) or Jack McFarland (the out Sean Hayes) on Will & Grace, or lesbian comedian/talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Two of my earliest role models as a kid were closeted actor Paul Lynde (of Bewitched and Hollywood Squares fame) and the histrionic, comically nasty Dr. Smith on Lost in Space (played by the late Jonathan Harris, who was somewhat surprisingly straight). This likely explains a lot to those who know me.

The Paley Center for Media is, according to its President and CEO Maureen Reidy, “the leading non-profit cultural organization that showcases the importance of media in our society” with offices in both Los Angeles and New York. Their annual Los Angeles gala, to be held on November 12th at the Skirball Cultural Center, will celebrate the critical role television has played in advancing LGBT equality over six decades. Such classic programs as All in the Family, L.A. Law, Roseanne, The Real World, The L Word and Modern Family will be spotlighted.

“Television has reshaped and redefined American identity and culture and has led to important social change,” Reidy said. “We believe this is the perfect time to celebrate television’s role in LGBT progress.” The November 12th event will benefit the Paley Center’s public, industry and educational programs.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi are serving as this year’s gala Co-Chairs. Celebrity presenters will include Sean Hayes, Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, sitcom pioneer Norman Lear and out NBA player Jason Collins. An impressive array of sponsors and supporters has also been secured, with ESPN, Lionsgate, the David Geffen Foundation, Disney/ABC Television Group and HBO among them.

I inquired as to whether Reidy has encountered any opposition from corporations or individuals since announcing this year’s gala. “The Paley Center has received unanimous support – and tremendous excitement – from everyone who has learned about this event and the important initiative behind it, the expansion and preservation of our LGBT archive,” she replied. “The encouragement we’ve received from our Board of Trustees, the heads of so many major media companies, and organizations including GLAAD has been very gratifying.”

Reidy has ascended rapidly to her leading position, from Chief Marketing Office to President/CEO in less than two years. “The Paley Center for Media is a very special organization that produces an exceptional lineup of programming that, I believe, is unmatched,” according to Reidy. “Year round, we curate dynamic in-depth conversations by bringing together industry leaders, emerging influencers, top creative talents, and the public for insightful programs that provide a peek behind-the-scenes and explore media’s influence on our society and culture.” Among these is the annual PaleyFest, which has become a hot ticket among TV fans.

In addition to the previously mentioned shows and actors, there are several others who have been instrumental in furthering LGBT equality via TV and the media over the years. The Phil Donahue Show, Doing Time on Maple Drive, Queer as Folk, Glee, How to Survive a Plague, True Blood and Ryan Murphy’s short-lived The New Normal are but a few additional examples. Reidy singled out one classic television program and the people behind it in particular.

“The writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, and director Lamont Johnson come to mind immediately,” she said. “They had the courage to write and direct the groundbreaking ABC Movie of the Week That Certain Summer in 1972, a film that was a pivotal step forward towards changing our perceptions about gay relationships. Their script about a middle-aged divorcé, living in San Francisco with his male partner, who must decide whether or not to be open about his life when his teenage son comes to visit included a father’s simple declaration to his son that he and his partner loved each other.” Award-winning actors Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen courageously played the gay roles. “It was a powerful and hopeful statement at the time, and it still resonates today.”

As part of its mission, the Paley Center for Media (which was originally known as the Museum of Television & Radio, founded in 1975 by CBS founder William S. Paley) plays a critical role in preserving, exploring, discussing and interpreting key issues as they appear in media. To this end, their LGBT Collection is one of many special collections that comprise the more than 160,000 programs in their curated archives in LA and NYC. These are accessible to educators, scholars, media creators and the general public.

The current 2014-2015 television season is shaping up to be one of the strongest to date in terms of LGBT visibility. I asked Reidy whether there are any new series she finds particularly noteworthy. “It’s a truly exciting and inclusive time in television and digital media,” she replied. “You can’t help but be thrilled with the success of shows including ABC’s Modern Family, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and Amazon’s Transparent, which have been a giant leap forward in terms of representation for the LGBT community.” Reidy continued: “It’s also been refreshing to see new series like The CW and Warner Bros. Television’s Jane the Virgin and Disney/ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, amongst other new shows with gay characters who are central to the storyline.”

I agree with her summation of How to Get Away with Murder, which has been unusually forthright in its depiction of gay sex and relationships. The superhero series Arrow and The Flash are also significant in their inclusion of LGBT characters and performers. Among the out actors who have appeared or will soon be appearing on these DC Comics-inspired shows are John Barrowman, Wentworth Miller, Victor Garber and Andy Mientus.There have also been persistent rumors that the most popular series currently on TV, AMC’s zombie thriller The Walking Dead, will be introducing or outing a gay male character (joining the out lesbian Tara, played by Alanna Masterson) before this season is out.

For more info about the Paley Center and its work, visit their website.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Cowards, Heroes & Pelicans

Movies this time of year tend to evoke cold temperatures and snow-covered landscapes, but few will cause such thought-provoking chills as writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure. Now playing in select cities, it is Sweden’s entry in this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film and it has already won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Force Majeure’s premise is deceptively simple: a family on holiday confronted with an unexpected situation that throws off its seemingly secure balance. Tomas (an effectively confident-turned-troubled Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have taken their two school-age children to a picturesque resort in the French Alps. While at breakfast one day, an allegedly planned avalanche threatens to grow out of control and engulf them along with other tourists. Ebba maternally grabs and covers her two children in an effort to protect them. Tomas doesn’t even witness this, since he unthinkingly abandons his family and runs to safety ahead of them.

Subjected to accusatory looks and the silent treatment from Ebba and the kids in the aftermath of the incident, the initially ignorant Tomas begins to spiral into embarrassment, guilt and self-pity. These feelings are heightened as Ebba openly shares their story with fellow guests, which leads at least one other reflective couple to discuss how they would react if they found themselves in a similar life-threatening situation. By film’s end, family dynamics and Tomas himself change in unpredictable ways.

Ostlund drew from accounts of how men have typically preserved themselves over women and children in real-life disasters, apparently throwing the old “women and children first” standard out the window, while writing his screenplay. The resulting film is a sharp, honest critique of what constitutes “manhood” and reveals how fragile a concept it can be. With its spectacular, CG-enhanced alpine setting as the icing on the cake, Force Majeure offers an engrossing (if occasionally slow-moving) treatise.

The mighty Hercules of Greek mythology would never be considered cowardly, although last summer’s latest big-budget take on the legend makes him more emotionally vulnerable than he has traditionally been presented. It is newly available on home videofrom Paramount. While the epic looks great on hi-def Blu-ray, it remains pretty routine from a storytelling angle.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, even more bulging and glistening than usual, stars as Hercules and holds his own among a largely British cast of veteran actors that includes John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes, Rufus Sewell and, best of all, Ian McShane. While there are some women in the film, this is a disproportionately and disappointingly masculine affair… even if most of the men are wearing skirts. A lawyer could put Hercules on display as the latest evidence of director Brett Ratner’s conflicted, occasionally homophobic approach to gay moviegoers.

While it garnered positive reviews from many critics, I found this Hercules to be as loud, unoriginal and ham-fistedly directed as most wannabe blockbusters. Fans of Johnson and McShane, which I am, will at least enjoy their presence.

Pelican Dreams, the latest avian expose by Judy Irving (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), opens this Friday in Los Angeles and New York. It is also a contender for a slot among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Irving and her cameras get up close and personal with a variety of brown (saltwater) and white (freshwater) pelicans living along the western coast of the US. They capture genuinely fascinating aspects of the birds’ lives including their mating rituals, first flights and diving practice. The film also covers its subject’s impressive comeback from DDT contamination in the late 1960’s while revealing newer threats to pelicans’ survival like global warming, oil spills and becoming tangled in excessive amounts of fishing tackle (be warned: some of this footage is upsetting for bird/animal lovers).

Although informative and well-intentioned, Pelican Dreams is a bit dull whenever the focus moves off the birds. This isn’t helped by Irving’s flat narration. The doc’s nice cinematography of pelicans in flight may be best appreciated with the sound turned off.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Force Majeure: B+
Hercules: C+
Pelican Dreams: B

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reverend’s Preview: Happy Holi-gays at the Cineplex

There are still 50-some shopping days til Christmas, but Hollywood's holiday season starts this Friday with the release of Disney’s animated Big Hero 6 and the sci-fi epic Interstellar. A number of these end-of-year releases are of particular interest to LGBT moviegoers.

The most prominent of these is The Imitation Game, which is scheduled to open in Los Angeles on November 28th and in other cities in mid-December. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch of the BBC’s Sherlock as Alan Turing, one of the 20th century’s greatest unsung heroes. Turing succeeded in cracking Nazi Germany’s seemingly-unbreakable Enigma machine codes by creating the world’s first computer. As a result, he is credited with shortening World War II by at least two years and saving millions of lives.

Turing was also gay during a time when homosexuality was still criminalized in Great Britain. He was arrested in 1952, convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to hormone therapy that basically served as chemical castration. Tragically, Turing ended up committing suicide at the age of 41. He received a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II just last year.

Cumberbatch gives a superb, ultimately heartbreaking performance and is considered a front runner for the Best Actor Academy Award along with fellow Brit Eddie Redmayne, who plays physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (opening November 7th), and Birdman’s Michael Keaton. Through an excellent inter-cutting of time periods in The Imitation Game, we learn about Turing’s doomed first love with a fellow student in his all-boys boarding school.

Although Cumberbatch will be heard and not seen, his fans will also want to line up for both Penguins of Madagascar (out November 26th) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (out December 17th). In the second, the actor reprises the voice of ferocious dragon Smaug in this final chapter of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy. Returning with him are out master thespian Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf and gay faves Cate Blanchett, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Manu Bennett and Stephen Fry.

We gays love our movie musicals, and Santa is bringing not one but two for Christmas this year. Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s take on classic fairy tales, will arrive on December 25th. Helmed by openly gay director-choreographer Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), the film’s all-star roster includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine. Christine Baranski will likely be bitchy fun as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother.

Meanwhile, the beloved stage tuner Annie will be receiving its second big-screen treatment on December 19th. The tale of the little orphan who gradually warms a wealthy power broker’s heart has been updated from the Great Depression to modern-day NYC by Easy A writer-director Will Gluck, with contemporary covers of the original Tony Award-winning score that includes “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” This new version also boasts a multi-ethnic cast headed by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) with Jamie Foxx, Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz as nasty Miss Hannigan.

An abundance of men in togas, loincloths and eye-liner will be on full display in Exodus: Gods and Kings, opening December 12th. Cinematic stylist Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) directs this latest telling of the biblical epic in which Moses (Christian Bale) leads his fellow Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. Joel Edgerton plays the ruling pharaoh, Rameses, while Scott semi-regular Sigourney Weaver plays Rameses’ calculating mother. If nothing else, the film’s costumes and art direction are sure to be top-notch.

A final holiday offering with a predominantly male cast and likely gay appeal is Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, out on Christmas Day. It recounts the inspiring, true-life adventure of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the US Air Force during World War II. He became a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down by the Japanese and endured several years of torture by a sadistic prison camp officer. Eventually liberated, Zamperini was a popular speaker until his death just this past summer at the age of 97. Relative newcomer Jack O’Connell is receiving awards buzz for his performance as the hero.

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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Monthly Wallpaper: November 2014 - Literary Classics

The Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper for November takes a trip to the library to uncover our favorite cinematic classics based on the Literary Classics!

Spend this month browsing through the finest film adaptations of the works of Austen, the Brontës, Burroughs, Dickens, Hugo, Melville, Steinbeck, Stevenson, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Twain, Wilde and more.

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.