Wednesday, December 30, 2015

MD Reviews: There's No Business Like Show Business


As the year draws to a close, 2015 has turned out to be the year of the show biz documentary. From an Academy Award winning actor to a Grammy Award winning singer, these docs have offered a peek into the private lives of some of entertainment's legendary personalities, both in and out of the spotlight. There has also been looks at those fans who love their favorite movies, iconic characters and even classic toys a little — OK, a lot — more than your average person. And the best of the lot looked back at two outsize personas who mesmerized America by openly hating each other on television decades before reality TV existed.

Three beloved chanteuses from three vastly different eras are the subjects of Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Outrageous Sophie Tucker. Of these, Amy (now on DVD/Blu-ray) has the highest profile and has already won a handful of awards as well as Oscar front runner status. Using Amy Winehouse's own voice (via never before seen home videos and the like), director Asif Kapadia paints a fascinating portrait of an artist so overwhelmed by fame that it engulfed her. You'll feel retroactively guilty for all those "Amy Wino-house" jokes you laughed at years ago.

Nina Simone also followed a similar self-destructive path, although her abusive manager/husband certainly contributed to her many ills. Her oft-estranged daughter provides the most compelling interview footage in the film (now streaming on Netflix), while Simone's own writings bring to light the deep psychological issues fueled by years of racism that ultimately took over her life and destroyed her career.

On a much lighter note, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (now available on DVD and Amazon Prime) is a loving look at the bawdy singer mostly known nowadays as a key influence of Bette Midler's. She of course was much more than that, and this biodoc provides a good avenue to discover her and her musical legacy.

Although they became movie stars at roughly the same time, it is highly doubtful that Marlon Brando and Tab Hunter competed for roles. The latter was the ultimate blue-eyed boy next door, while the former was the original bad boy (and yes, there was that significant divide in their talent levels as well). Like Amy, Listen to Me Marlon (available on Showtime On Demand) uses a wealth of the artist's personal recordings (here on audio cassette) to provide hitherto unexplored access to the man behind the Method. (And, also like Amy, Brando's bisexuality is completely ignored.) Brando's oft-reported eccentricities make more sense in his own words, but some odd directorial choices lessen the overall impact.

Following his documentaries on such gay icons as Divine, Vito Russo and Jack Wrangler, director Jeffrey Schwarz now gives us Tab Hunter Confidential, based on Hunter's autobiography of the same name. A fascinating look at an era of deep closets in Hollywood, Confidential is at its most enjoyable when it coyly presents vintage footage of Hunter (who came out via his book in 2006) at odds with his then straight-laced image. The former matinee idol (now content to just tend to his beloved horse) also goes into detail about his relationship with another closeted star of the time, Anthony Perkins.

Much was made of October 21st of this year, a.k.a. "Back to the Future Day", the exact date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled forward in time to in the 1989 sequel Back to the Future Part II. It was a lot of fuss for what was a pretty awful sequel to a purely original classic that continues to spawn subpar follow ups, including the new documentary on its legacy, Back in Time (available on DVD and Blu-ray and now streaming on Netflix). Credit is due for rounding up all the BTTF cast and creators, but the amateurish production too skews heavily toward the die hard DIY DeLorean fans (some who even claim Part II is the best of the trilogy?!?).

Speaking of obsessive movie fans, you'll find none more so than the Angulo brothers, a.k.a. The Wolfpack (on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix streaming). Confined to their tiny, cluttered New York City apartment for most of their lives by a controlling father, the six brothers find escape in not only watching their favorite films but also meticulously recreating them with homemade costumes, sets and props. What at first is fascinating in a voyeuristic way is ultimately frustrating as director Crystal Moselle (who became very close to the family while filming) leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered, not the least of which is how Mr. Angulo got away with years of child abuse.

Another, far less dysfunctional family is at the center of Batkid Begins (available on DVD). Miles Scott, a 5-year-old cancer survivor, had his dream come true one day in 2013 when he became "Batkid", the pint-sized sidekick to his favorite superhero Batman. In what quickly steamrolled into the largest and most elaborate Make-a-Wish project ever, the entire city of San Francisco and more turned out for the event, which had become a global social media phenomenon. While lightweight, the family friendly doc is an inspirational one that proves that the goodness of humanity can still triumph in this day and age.

While also exploring the long and varied history of the popular plastic building blocks, A Lego Brickumentary (on DVD/Blu-ray and Amazon Prime) features sequences of the various, often unlikely, uses of Legos, from engineers to artists to, of course, fans, from elaborate home-made designs (most impressively a huge miniature recreation of Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings) to stop motion animated mini-movies. Although clearly sanctioned by The Lego Group (the only ones who insist on calling them "Lego bricks" instead of just "Legos"), this "brickumentary" is, like the toy, colorful and fun for the whole family.

These days we're used to seeing real people screaming at each other (and worse) on television, but back in 1968 it was such a novelty that it revitalized a whole network's news division and changed televised political reporting forever. As detailed in the engrossing documentary Best of Enemies (available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix), a struggling ABC News figured "why not?" when they decided to pit two verbose intellectuals — conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and controversial author Gore Vidal — against each other on live TV to debate over the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. From the very first telecast, it was all too apparent that the two actively loathed one another and weren't afraid to say it to the others' face in every as-wittingly-phrased way as possible. Audiences started watching, and by the time a blustering Buckley, in response to being referred to as a "crypto-Nazi", called Gore a "queer" on live television, ABC had struck ratings gold. But it is what happened to Vidal and especially Buckley after the debates that Best of Enemies strikes gold, showing just how damaging such a public spectacle can be. American intellectualism never fully recovered.

Note: Amy, Best of Enemies, Listen to Me Marlon and What Happened, Miss Simone? are among the fifteen finalists for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

For even more 2015 show biz docs, see also the MD Reviews for An Honest Liar, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and Tig.

MD Ratings:
Amy: B+ / What Happened, Miss Simone?: B / The Outrageous Sophie Tucker: B / Listen to Me Marlon: B+ / Tab Hunter Confidential: B+ / Back in Time: C / The Wolfpack: B- / Batkid Begins: B / A Lego Brickumentary: B / Best of Enemies: A-

The following are available on Blu-ray, DVD and/or Amazon Prime:

Reviews by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Inspired Lunacy on Stage for the Holidays


Happy holidays! 'Tis the season once again for Santa, menorahs, ugly sweaters and obligatory office parties. Three Long Beach theatre companies are also bringing us the latest installments of their traditional December offerings.

The Garage Theatre's annual family-friendly holiday melodrama, now in its 12th year, is Rod McGirdlebutt Strikes Back, or The Sun Sets on the Cyclone Racer One Last Time. This new chapter in the ongoing saga of a heroic roller coaster operator fighting the villainous Ian Sidious for control of the since-shuttered Pike boardwalk is set in 1956. Combining Long Beach nostalgia with references to modern cultural touchpoints like the Star Wars and Back to the Future films proves to be a winning formula. Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan also make appearances but they aren't the inspiring figures here that their fans are accustomed to.

Sidious (played by Joe Howells in most performances but by Craig Johnson a couple of times) is once again out to take over the Pike. This time around he has the help of a time machine developed by the equally sinister Dr. Lucifer Prince (Paul Knox, who also does a terrific Joe Cocker impersonation). In addition to McGirdlebutt (endearingly played by Rob Young), those intent on foiling the pair include reporter Dixie Troobaloo (a somewhat underused Jami McCoy), imprisoned whistleblower Ging Pao (Sally Nguyen), the dimwitted Jim Joe Bob Louie the 4th (Matthew Vincent Julian) and an alligator named Alice (a charming Jacqueline Jacobs), who happened to study law at Yale.

Jamie Sweet, who wrote and directed the production, fills it with "smoke, lasers, flying objects and guffaws," to quote the program cover. Although it could be trimmed by a good half hour to better accommodate their attention spans, kids will likely enjoy the overall silliness and interactive nature of the show. Audience members are instructed in how to cheer or hiss its various heroes and villains, and are also provided generous quantities of stuffed felt tomatoes and fake flowers with which to shower Sidious, Prince or Dixie. While there actually isn't any Christmas content in Rod McGirdlebutt Strikes Back aside from some cool red and green laser lights, the show can still serve as a holiday treat for the whole family.

Somberton Senior Residence Presents The Nutcracker, now in its fourth year at the Found Theatre through January 17th, is more adult-leaning but more specifically Christmas-oriented. Set in a retirement home chock-full of (mostly) happily demented oldsters, it is also an interactive affair. Attendees are welcomed to each performance as new residents and given little cups of candy "medication" and/or nuts. One audience member at the matinee I attended was even ordered to wear a hospital gown.

Presided over by the strict Nurse Jessica (Joyce Hackett), resident activities include playing Bingo, watching Jeopardy and, during this time of year, participating in their annual holiday show for family members. Kevin Gillespie (played by stage and film vet Derek Long) is the director recruited to stage the event and he quickly finds himself flummoxed. Wrangling a cast that includes a woman who thinks she is Judy Garland, a flamboyantly gay former dancer and a man confined to a wheelchair would try anyone's patience.

In the end, though, Gillespie pulls it off with a scaled-down but still impressive Nutcracker performance complete with traditional growing Christmas tree. Kudos to the Found production's director-choreographer Lauren Nave and her cast, most of whom doubled as the production's set and costume designers, for their endlessly clever work here. I've seen many productions of The Nutcracker over the years, most of them interchangeable. I won't soon forget this uniquely hilarious version presented by the Somberton Seniors.

Each December brings hundreds, possibly thousands, of stage adaptations around the world of A Christmas Carol. Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens' yuletide tale of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's spiritual and moral conversion has been told in traditional as well as more contemporary ways. One of the most innovative and entertaining interpretations I've seen was a circus-set version that Long Beach's ICT presented for several years.

Long Beach Playhouse's 4th annual production of A Christmas Carol is playing in their Mainstage theater through December 20th. Phie (shortened from Sophie) Mura, a frequent Playhouse cast member, is making her Mainstage directorial debut. As she notes in the program, "This story has been told, again and again ever since (its initial publication). It has an undeniable link to the human heart and spirit that we cannot seem to shake, nor do we want to." Very true indeed.

The character of Scrooge needs no introduction, as his name has become synonymous over the last century and a half with greed and a callous disregard for his fellow human beings. He receives a forced lesson in compassion on Christmas Eve courtesy of the spirit of his deceased former partner, Jacob Marley. Plus the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, of course.

An interesting but unnecessary conceit of this otherwise straightforward telling, adapted from Dickens by Mura and Gregory Cohen, is the addition of a number of other ghosts. In fact (mild spoiler alert), all the actors in its play-within-a-play format turn out to be ectoplasmic. However, only one of the spirits is briefly scary enough for parents of young children to be mildly concerned. The production is fine family fare complete with music, dance and a puppet or two. Kids will also enjoy another of Mura's unusual directorial choices: having the actors portray such non-human elements as a coat stand, the fire in Scrooge's fireplaces and even the curtains around his bed.

Critical to the success of any stage, film or TV version of A Christmas Carol is the actor cast as Scrooge. For every Alastair Sim, George C. Scott or Michael Caine who has played the role there is a Henry Winkler, Kelsey Grammer and Jim Carrey. Thankfully, Gregory Cohen excels at the Playhouse. His is a somewhat livelier, funnier take on the curmudgeonly character than most but Cohen makes Scrooge's gradual change of heart palpable. He and Rick Reischman, who plays Scrooge's ever-optimistic nephew Fred, also jointly provide a lovely commendation of Scrooge's late, beloved sister in the play's most moving moment.

Other performances deserving of mention are Steve Shane's sympathetic Marley, Ashley J. Woods as Belle and young Carmel Artstein as Tiny Tim and other children's roles. Talented actor-dancer Leigh Hayes makes a more youthful (not to mention male) Ghost of Christmas Past than normally presented, while Gary Douglas and Reischman serve well respectively as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future.

Despite its undead cast of characters, A Christmas Carol at Long Beach Playhouse will be a lively addition to one's holiday celebrations.

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

MD Reviews: Of Mice and Men


Considering he is one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th Century, Walt Disney has, surprisingly, pretty much eluded the big screen biopic treatment. Aside from supporting turns in the TV movie A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story and the Disney Studios' own Saving Mr. Banks (played by Tom Hanks), "Uncle Walt" hasn't even appeared many times as an onscreen character, although he has been the subject of such documentaries as the Disney Family-approved Walt: The Man Behind the Myth and this year's excellent Walt Disney via PBS' American Experience.

So it is ironic that not one but two screen biographies of Disney have appeared in the last two years, both low budget attempts from small independent studios and both focusing on his early years as a struggling animator prior to making it big thanks to a certain cartoon mouse. The first was last year's low-rated As Dreamers Do (now available on Amazon Prime) while the second, Walt Before Mickey (a.k.a. The Dreamer) was just released yesterday on what was the 114th anniversary of Walt's birth.

Of the two, the latter at least has some name recognition in the cast, with American Pie's Thomas Ian Nicholas as Walt and Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, as his sensible older brother Roy. Sadly, the film doesn't have much more going for it aside from those meager assets, bogged down as it is by a screenplay (adapted from the book of the same name by Timothy Susanin by the film's producers Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez, who also plays legendary animator/co-creator of Mickey Mouse Ub Iwerks) laden with trite homespun platitudes ("Anything worth doing is worth doing well") and clunky allusions to its main character's impending greatness, visualized by director Khoa Le as, you guessed it, a friendly mouse that magically shows up when Walt needs him most.

Like cute animal sidekicks, every Disney movie (even, apparently, movies about him) has a cackling, over-the-top villain to jeopardize the protagonist's happily ever after, and here it is Charles Mintz (Conor Dubin), distributor of Disney's early Alice comedies (a series that combined a live action little girl's adventures in an animated wonderland), who eventually screwed Walt out of ownership of his work and poached his artists out from under him. This lead to Walt's last ditch shot at success, his near-mythic creation of... Mortimer Mouse (later, thankfully, renamed Mickey).

While Walt Before Mickey certainly has its heart in the right place, it can't overcome its mostly amateurish cast (I don't know who is worse, Kate Katzman as Walt's wife Lillian or Frank Licari as Mintz's Boris Badenov-accented lackey) and low production values (the costumers and prop crew must have got a great deal on white men's dress shirts and non-filtered cigarettes considering their practically fetishized onscreen abundances). As it is, we're still waiting for that big budget, complete biopic of the man behind the mouse; we've always imagined a splashy Hollywood musical would be best.

MD Rating: C

Walt Before Mickey is now available on DVD and Streaming:

Review by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Monthly Wallpaper - December 2015: Judi Dench

Movie Dearest is giving a special gift this December, a Calendar Wallpaper salute to one of our favorite actresses, the one and only Judi Dench.

Dame Judi turns 81 this month, and to honor her we have all her award winning roles, including two queens, two lesbians, a movie star and a cow. Whether she is Mrs. Brown or Mrs. Henderson or just plain "M", we love our Judi.

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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reverend's Preview: That Fascinating Danish Girl

An impressive cast and crew of Academy Award winners have teamed to bring a little-known chapter of LGBTQ history to the big screen this month. The Danish Girl, scheduled to open this Friday, relates the challenging personal journey undertaken by acclaimed painter Einar Wegener in the 1920’s to transition from male to female. Wegener adopted the name Lili Elbe and hers became one of the first documented cases of gender reassignment or confirmation surgery.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, stars as Wegener. He will surely be nominated again for his excellent, beautifully nuanced and authentic performance here. If he should win, Redmayne will become the first back-to-back Best Actor winner since Tom Hanks over 20 years ago.

The Danish Girl is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award for directing The King’s Speech. Hooper followed that historical hit with the 2012 musical Les Miserables, in which Redmayne played the French revolutionary Marius.

“I was at the Les Miserables barricades and Tom said, ‘I would like you to read something,” Redmayne recalls. “Tom then got me the script (for The Danish Girl) and I sat down to read it, knowing nothing about it. I was profoundly moved, it blew my mind. I found it extraordinarily passionate and deeply felt.”

Lucinda Coxon’s revelatory screenplay was adapted from a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff. The book won the Lambda Literary Award and was immediately optioned for a movie, but it has taken 15 years and numerous false starts to finally bring it to fruition. Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner — whose Working Title productions, including Billy Elliot, Dead Man Walking and Fargo, have been honored with 11 Oscars and even more nominations — saw The Danish Girl through to completion.

“When I read (the book), I realized that Lili’s remarkable story had been swept away by the tide of history,” Coxon said. “What I was particularly struck by was that this was the story of a marriage, a love between two artists of courage and imagination.”

Einar/Lili was happily married to Gerda, at least until his gender issues emerged. Initially, Gerda (played in the film by rising star Alicia Vikander) treats Lili playfully and even uses Lili as the model for Gerda’s own well-received paintings. They are both forced to grapple with the reality that Einar considers himself a woman accidentally born into a male body. Anxious to have a child together but ultimately unable to do so, the movie powerfully depicts the couple as “giving birth” to Lili through Einar’s transition.

The Danish Girl, both Ebershoff’s novel and the new motion picture, takes some dramatic license in detailing the relationship between Lili and Gerda. Gerda is shown standing by her spouse throughout the gender-confirmation surgeries and being at least partly responsible for having Einar’s/Lili’s journals published in 1933 as the book Man Into Woman. In reality, though, their marriage was annulled and Gerda married another man while Lili was still alive. The movie holds a more romanticized view but, in doing so, delves more deeply into the challenges and risks associated with Lili’s pioneering decision than it might have otherwise.

According to Coxon, “Hers was an incredibly important moment, and one I’d not heard about at all. And I suppose what appealed to me (while writing the script) was telling a universal story through something highly particular.”

I similarly found Lili’s a fascinating story about which I knew nothing. The Danish Girl is beautifully shot by Danny Cohen (who also shot The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) using painterly compositions appropriate to the film’s artistic lead characters. Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) provides a lovely music score too. On the negative side, a gay character played by out actor Ben Whishaw, who can also currently be seen as Q in the new James Bond epic Spectre, is awkwardly under-developed. The film's depiction of transgender issues might also be considered dated by some, although I was able to accept this within the context of its 90-year old true story.

“When I read a script, I go on an instinctive, emotional reaction,” Whishaw shared. “I read this script in one sitting, barely catching my breath. On reflection, I realized that it was about something that’s rarely dealt with in a mainstream film but the themes are universal: it’s about a relationship, and about a person who is trying to be authentic to themselves. (The script) shows kindness, hopefulness and sensitivity, but also how it’s not a walk in the park.”

The finished film shows Einar and Lili undergoing considerable hardships in addition to negotiating their marriage to Gerda. As Einar attempts initially to disassociate himself from his true self, he experiences nosebleeds and painful headaches. In one memorable scene, he pays to watch a private dancer in order to study her movements and sensuality only to have her reciprocate unexpectedly. Once Lili embraces her identity, she is beaten by two men and left for dead before submitting to gender-confirmation surgery while the risky procedures involved were in their infancy.

“Was I daunted by it?” Redmayne reflected on his decision to accept the role. “Yes, I was, but I’m daunted by everything! But I have begun to realize that fear of not doing a character or a story justice is a galvanizing thing — it pushes me forward and makes me work harder.” The actor met with numerous people in the trans community and researched their lives in his effort to make Lili as realistic as possible. Director Tom Hooper also cast transgender actors in background roles. Despite this, The Danish Girl is being met by some criticism that a trans actress wasn’t cast as Lili.

No one can fault Redmayne’s sincere dedication to the role, which also required full-frontal nudity from him. “If you are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play Lili Elbe and tell her story,” the actor said, “you should be giving every ounce of yourself. It’s a great privilege, and a great responsibility.”

Don’t miss The Danish Girl and the opportunity it presents to learn about Lili’s remarkable life.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Scary Christmas


Halloween 2015 has come and gone, and the Christmas movie season is well underway with both the James Bond adventure Spectre and The Peanuts Movie raking in big bucks. But a pair of spooky flicks, one new in theaters and one new to home video, are trying to assert themselves before the Santas, reindeer and snowmen take over. The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington would be proud.

The Hallow, opening this weekend in Los Angeles, is an Irish-set tale of malevolent fairy folk out to protect their forest home from usurpers. Their primary target is a young family headed by Adam (Joseph Mawle), a conservationist hired by the company that is planning to turn the forest into tract homes. His wife, Clare (Serbian actress Bojana Novakovic, who has a number of horror films under her belt), and their infant son are (unfortunately for them) along for the ride.

Despite warnings from their neighbors, the unbelieving Hitchenses are soon beset by ancient, fungus-based creatures that have called the forest home for millennia. They are able to turn humans into their own with the help of needle-like appendages that inject their fungal spores. One particularly tense scene in the film shows Clare this close to being injected via her eyeball.

Director Corin Hardy has a great eye himself for visuals and his success on The Hallow, his first feature, has already secured him a job directing the upcoming reboot of The Crow. The creepy creatures are shown only fleetingly until the film's finale, which proves most effective. Unfortunately, the script falls prey to the old "Why don't they just get out of the house?" complaint that has prevented many previous horror movies from achieving their full potential. Adam is especially, egregiously stupid as a father, frequently abandoning his baby in seedy locales. One ends up rooting for the monsters to succeed in stealing the baby because we suspect they will take better care of it. I dare say Adam is the dumbest dad in horror movie history.

This past summer's suspenseful sleeper hit The Gift is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. The first film written and directed by actor Joel Edgerton (Exodus: Gods & Kings, Warrior), who also co-stars, it is a tense freakfest with an unexpected social conscience.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall headline the cast as Simon and Robyn, a happily married couple who have just relocated to Simon's hometown. They haven't been there too long before they cross paths with Gordo (Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon's. Mutually friendly at first, things get uncomfortable once Gordo starts leaving strange gifts on their doorstep and, more disturbingly, showing up at their house while Robyn is home alone.

Secrets are gradually unearthed about the true nature of Simon's prior relationship with Gordo. The transformation of Simon from sympathetic protagonist to the plot's true villain is extremely well-handled by Edgerton as writer-director as well as by Bateman. I won't reveal specifics about this or about Gordo's motivations but they make The Gift more significant than your average modern-day psychological thriller. The film's ending is truly haunting but the Blu-ray and DVD include an alternate ending that clarifies some unresolved plot points as a bonus feature.

Between its opening sequence set against the backdrop of Mexico's Day of the Dead and overall sense of foreboding, Spectre emerges as probably the darkest out of all 24 "official" big-screen James Bond sagas. It is also the longest at 148 minutes and most expensive of them all, and the film's excess becomes sadly draining rather than exhilarating.

007, once again effectively embodied by Daniel Craig, ends up in Mexico at the behest of a posthumous message he receives from the former M (Judi Dench), who died at the end of Skyfall. There, he offs an Italian mafia strongman but, more importantly, steals his octopus-emblazoned ring. Longtime Bond fans know the multi-tentacled sea dweller is emblematic of SPECTRE (ordinarily capitalized except in this film's title), a vast and powerful criminal organization intent on world domination. What's more, it is headed by Bond's cat-loving archnemesis, Blofeld, who makes an appearance here for the first time since 1983's "unofficial" entry Never Say Never Again.

Spectre boasts many impressive elements, including its "Writing's on the Wall" title song performed by Sam Smith (the first out gay singer to pen and warble a Bond theme), typically spectacular stunts and Hoyte Van Hoytema's gorgeous cinematography. Ben Whishaw's Q has a beefed-up role here (the character's possible homosexuality is also hinted at), while Christoph Waltz is more restrained than usual as a key villain and more threatening as a result.

I can't help but feel though that a leaner, less expensive Spectre would have been better. For starters, the film's first five minutes could be cut with no negative impact on the story. There is also a pointless supporting villain, Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a largely wasted turn by Monica Bellucci. Blofeld's efficiency experts should have been allowed in the budget meetings and editing room.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Hallow: C
The Gift: B
Spectre: B-

The Gift is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Monthly Wallpaper - November 2015: James Bond 007

With this month's premiere of Spectre, the 24th film in the 007 series, Movie Dearest celebrates the films of "Bond... James Bond" with this month's Calendar Wallpaper.

For over fifty years, with six leading men and countless baddies, babes and bathing suits (!?), the cinematic adventures of Britain's greatest super spy have left us both shaken and stirred.

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, October 23, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Intolerance on Stage

At first glance, two new local productions appear to have little in common. Both stories are told primarily through music and each has a young male, one a humanoid creature drawn from tabloid news and the other all too tragically real, at its center. These would seem to be where the similarities between Bat Boy: The Musical and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard end.

However, a timely common theme unites them. Bat Boy, which was an off-Broadway hit in 2001, depicts the conflicted reception a mutant receives from the generally loving family that takes him in and less-understanding townspeople after he is discovered by teenagers in a West Virginia cave. The young man (eventually christened Edgar) sports pointed ears and sharp teeth, which he uses to attack one of the teens in an act of self-defense.

Once captured, Edgar is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local veterinarian, and his wife and daughter. Things aren't as picture perfect in the Parker family as they seem to their neighbors. Mrs. Parker teaches Edgar to speak English (in a proper British accent courtesy of Masterpiece Theatre), Dr. Parker feeds his new "pet" a secret diet, and young Shelley falls in love with her new housemate. Meanwhile, the citizens of the aptly-named Hope Falls blame Edgar for a rash of cow deaths. Their intolerance and animosity reach a fever pitch when the girl attacked by Edgar dies.

Long Beach Playhouse's current production of Bat Boy had some problems during the preview performance I attended. Clearly written as a satire, director Andrew Vonderschmitt and his cast tended to play things too seriously and the tone was frequently off. There are elements of Greek tragedy in the show but they shouldn't be allowed to dominate. As a result, audience members laughed at the musical's more serious moments and didn't laugh at those more intentionally comedic.

A bigger issue still was that the cast's singing was too often off-pitch and dissonant. While some of the actors have better voices than others, it was obvious few of them were listening to one another. This also resulted in frequently unintelligible lyrics. Hopefully, all was corrected by opening night.

Truly impressive, though, in terms of both singing and acting is Bat Boy himself, Russell Malang. Born without forearms, Malang's physical appearance dramatically heightens his character's other-ness. This talented, seemingly fearless young man provides a significant reason to see the show even if its problems endure.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard commemorates the shocking murder of its subject 17 years ago this month. A powerful oratorio written by Leslea Newman and First Congregational Church of Long Beach's Curtis Heard, it will be re-presented at the Art Theatre on Sunday, October 25th following its smash opening weekend at First Congregational.

Shepard was a 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. Openly gay but somewhat naïve, he was tricked by two local men who ended up robbing Shepard, beating him and leaving him tied to a fence on the remote outskirts of Laramie. He was discovered the next day by a police officer but never regained consciousness and died five days later. Shepard has been considered a martyr and hero by many people, both gay and straight, ever since.

October Mourning features lovely, deeply moving musical compositions performed by First Congregational's sanctuary choir, South Coast Chorale, a specially-assembled chamber orchestra and the Wilson High School Women's Chorus. The music is accompanied by evocative visual projections as well as solo singers and dramatic readings by several professional actors. It is a must-see/-hear production.

As far as our modern-day society has come in terms of acceptance and inclusion, intolerance driven by irrational fears sadly endures. Whether directed toward immigrants, LGBT people or other minorities, it holds us all back. May the arts continue to challenge us to overcome intolerance in our community.

For more information about Bat Boy: The Musical, visit Long Beach Playhouse website or call 562-494-1014 and for October Mourning visit the First Congressional Church of Long Beach website.

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Barney Frank and Other Tricks & Treats


With Halloween approaching, a number of home viewing treats are being dropped into our plastic pumpkins. They range from an intimate look at a gay congressman, to the misadventures of a trio of self-proclaimed geeks in South Central LA and the release of a modern gay-themed classic on Blu-ray for the first time.

An exceptional documentary, Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank, will be premiering October 23rd on Showtime. Its subject had an extraordinary run of 32 years as a member of the US House of Representatives before his retirement in 2013. Frank was firmly in the closet when first elected by the people of Massachusetts but came out in 1987 and immediately became our nation's most prominent gay politician.

Directed by Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler, the film employs archival footage, interviews of Frank past and present, and video of his 2012 wedding to longtime partner Jim Ready to paint a largely favorable portrait of the man. Even conservative Republicans go on record extolling Frank's virtues. The filmmakers don't shy, however (and rightfully so), from the mid-1980's scandal that followed revelations of Frank's illicit relationship with a male prostitute. Despite censure from his fellow representatives, Frank was easily re-elected.

There are many more openly-LGBT politicians today than there were before Frank, and many of them credit him with the greater spirit of openness in Congress. Firmly and consistently devoted to the greater good, Frank's story is well worth viewing and emulating.

Dope, the 2015 Sundance sensation newly available on Blu-ray and DVD, is set a long way from the corridors of power in Washington, DC. It took a trio of black industry insiders, though — namely Forest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams and Sean Combs — to bring Rick Famuyiwa's entertainingly unapologetic coming-of-age tale to the big screen despite its writer-director's prior success helming such urban hits as The Wood, Our Family Wedding and Brown Sugar.

Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are devoted to 1990's hip hop music and fashion, which makes them outsiders to their peers in modern-day Inglewood. The fact that Diggy is a lesbian sets the friends that much farther apart from others in their school and neighborhood. Malcolm is intent on getting accepted to Harvard, and his plans seem to be going well until he and his homies innocently run afoul of local drug dealers.

I enjoyed the retro-anarchic spirit of Dope very much. If anything, I wish there was more of it. Famuyiwa wavers uneasily at times between observant, cross-generational satire and uncomfortably contemporary shoot-em-up. Still, the resulting Boyz n the Hood meets Risky Business vibe with a significant dash of Sapphic content ends up feeling fresh in general.

Gay filmgoers of a certain age (late 40's) may be surprised to realize that Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden is already 15 years old. A hit on the 2000 film festival circuit, the movie has just been released for the first time on Blu-ray by Wolfe Video in a digital transfer that makes its mountainous Montana setting all the more spectacular.

Arye Gross stars as Henry, a talented artist living in Manhattan who is summoned back to his rural hometown of the film's title when the grandfather who raised him has a stroke. Once there, Henry finds himself unexpectedly torn between Dean, the hunky high school best friend for whom Henry has long carried a torch (and vice versa) and the unassuming Pike, an awkward yet imposing Native American gentleman who runs the local general store.

All three men have to work out their personal and collective issues, but Bezucha optimistically surrounds them with a compassionate cast of supporting characters played by the likes of Academy Award-winner Louise Fletcher, Broadway star Veanne Cox, the late great Nan Martin and the more recently-deceased George Coe. Whether or not you've seen it before, Big Eden demands a fresh, hi-def look.

Also newly-available from TLA Releasing are the hi-def, Blu-ray release of 2013's popular if somewhat belabored gay romantic-comedy Love or Whatever; the DVD Dishonored Bodies, a collection of nine stylishly sexy short films by queer Spanish director Juanma Carrillo; and Argentinian filmmaker Santiago Giralt's Jess & James, which depicts a revelatory road trip undertaken by its super-hot title characters. Trust me, these films are tastier than a fistful of candy corn.

Reverend's Ratings:
Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank: A-
Dope: B
Big Eden: B+
Love or Whatever: B-
Dishonored Bodies: B+
Jess & James: B

Dope, Big Eden, Love or Whatever, Dishonored Bodies and Jess & James are now available on DVD and/or Blu-ray:

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reverend's Preview: Remembering Matthew in Song


The horrific gay-bashing and murder of Matthew Shepard 17 years ago has previously inspired a number of books, plays and movies. This month, a unique collaboration of Long Beach-area musical artists will offer a new, musical take on the tragedy.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard will be presented over two weekends in October at two different venues. First Congregational Church Long Beach, located at 241 Cedar Avenue, is the 100-year old host location on October 17th and 18th. The production will then move to Long Beach’s historic Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th Street, for a performance at 2:00 pm on October 25th. A donation of $25 is suggested for admission at either venue.

It was October of 1998 when Shepard, a 21-year old University of Wyoming student, was attacked by two men he met in a bar and left to die strung up on a buck rail fence. His story shocked and captivated people not only throughout the US but around the world. While much has changed for the better for LGBTQ Americans in the wake of that brutal event, the hate and inhumanity behind it remains in many places today.

There is still a great need for work to be done to expose, illuminate and ultimately eradicate prejudice. That’s the message that Long Beach composer Curtis Heard, acclaimed author Leslea Newman and the Reverend Elena Larssen hope to share with the community by creating October Mourning.

“This story is still urgently important today, when human rights violations continue against LBGTQ people both here in the US and abroad,” said Larssen, Senior Minister at First Congregational Church Long Beach. “The story of Matthew Shepard isn’t ancient history,” she continued. “The bullying of vulnerable youth and children, the violence we see directed toward immigrant communities or the transgender community, the raw emotions and tumult of Ferguson, all these teach us that we must speak and sing and act against violence.”

The resulting musical production is, according to its press release, a deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful theatrical exploration. Audience members will be transported back in time to 1998 through spoken word, music, song and visuals. Viewers are promised the opportunity to experience the impact of this vicious crime and its aftermath through imaginative monologues from various points of view, including the fence to which Matthew was tied, the deer that kept watch beside him, and even Matthew himself.

"Although the poems (written by Newman) are quite specific to the Matthew Shepard murder, the emotional impact is universal to all hate crimes,” added Heard, the musical’s composer. “It is my hope that audiences will appreciate the work on an artistic level but also be motivated to do more to help make this a more compassionate world."

Bringing October Mourning to life will be a cast of 11 professional actors and soloists; the powerful 50-voice Sanctuary Choir of First Congregational Church; South Coast Chorale, Long Beach’s accomplished LGBTQ chorus; and the Wilson High School Women’s Chorus. They will be accompanied by a 16-piece orchestra.

Net proceeds from all three performances will be donated to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the South Coast Chorale and the Board of Cultural Arts at First Congregational Church Long Beach. For more information, visit their website.

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

Friday, October 9, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Alienated


I apologize for being away a few weeks, dear readers, but Reverend was busy doing something he never thought he'd do: I got married! It was a lovely celebration in my now-husband's home state of Connecticut followed by a nice, if too brief, honeymoon in a nearly 300-year old haunted inn. And yes, a ghost paid us a visit our second night there, rifling curiously through our wedding gift bag at 2:30 AM.

The honeymoon really came to an end though, theatrically speaking, on October 4th when I attended the West Coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate. Hard-hitting but incorporating considerable humor, it shines a glaring light on the long-hidden secrets, contemporary controversies and general dysfunction plaguing an Arkansas family, the Lafayettes. The production is running now through November 1st at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Like Long Day's Journey Into Night and August: Osage County before it, the play practically encourages viewers to avoid marriage and family altogether.

Long-estranged siblings Bo, Toni and Frank (who prefers to be referred to as "Franz") are reunited at their childhood plantation house in the wake of their father's death. Toni and Bo are looking to sell the estate and its related property ASAP in order to pay off daddy's sizable debts. They are thrown a curve ball when Frank appears for the first time in ten years, having done time and lived off the radar after having sex with an underage girl. His current, psychically-sensitive girlfriend, River, is in tow. Also on the scene are Bo's Jewish wife and their two children as well as Toni's secretly gay teenaged son Rhys.

Whereas family relations are tense from the get-go, they only worsen with the discovery of an album containing shocking photos of racist atrocities that apparently belonged to dear old dad. Everyone has their own opinion about what should be done with the album, and this provides much of the dramatic fuel for Appropriate's nearly 3-hour running time. Meanwhile, Mimi Lien's fantastic, massive set of the main plantation house slowly crumbles and is essentially destroyed before the audience's eyes during the play's climax.

Author Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't offer much new in terms of Southern-set explorations of human nature or family dynamics, and one can't help but to compare his plot to Tracy Lett's similar yet superior August: Osage County. The saving grace of the current production, aside from its scenic design, is the excellent cast assembled by director Eric Ting. Melora Hardin of TV's Transparent and The Office dominates as the wounded, over-compensating Toni, but David Bishins as Bo and Robert Beitzel as Frank give ultimately heartbreaking performances. Beitzel's nervous reading of a letter making amends to his siblings is a highlight, as is the sight of young Rhys (played by Will Tranfo) masturbating to gay porn on the sofa while, unaware to Rhys, Frank watches embarrassedly. Some older audience members, apparently themselves embarrassed, left during the second intermission following this scene.

Appropriate, as a word and title, can be pronounced two different ways with two different meanings. Neither is completely accurate when applied to this play, although the meaning could be somewhere in between the two. Sounds kind of like the love-hate relationships often found among siblings, don't you think?

If Appropriate is to some extent about feeling alienated within one's own family, the current movie blockbuster The Martian takes the subject of alienation to an ultimate extreme: being left alone on another planet. Matt Damon's astronaut botanist, Mark Watney, isn't abandoned there intentionally. Rather, the rest of his exploratory crew is forced to leave him for dead on Mars in the midst of a fierce sudden storm.

Initially cut off from contact with Earth and faced with a limited supply of food and water, Watney must rely on his botany skills and ingenuity to survive. Once the NASA powers-that-be (personified by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and... Kristen Wiig?) learn he is still alive, they initiate an ambitious rescue plan. However, when that fails it falls to his almost-home crew to slingshot around the Earth and make a somewhat speedier return to Mars before Watney runs out of potatoes.

The Martian is effectively and entertainingly adapted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) from Andy Weir's bestselling novel. The film's somewhat surprising wild card (aside from Wiig's casting) turns out to be its veteran director, Ridley Scott. Sure, Scott has successfully helmed sci-fi scenarios before, notably Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus. But he has never made a movie as conventionally crowd-pleasing and optimistic as his latest. He previously came closest with 1985's Legend, which was unfortunately doomed by behind-the-scenes battles with its studio. Lots of people, myself included, love Scott's rowdy Thelma & Louise (1991) but its title heroines die in the end.

The Martian is an exercise in pure, unabashed American patriotism with a nod to multi-national cooperation. It runs a bit long at 140 minutes and isn't as original as some may think (check out 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars for comparison's sake). I also question the film's social stance, since it implies its OK to spend billions of dollars on rescuing one man from another planet while millions here at home flounder. Fox also spent an arguably excessive $150 million on the movie. Still, its fun to see Ridley Scott finally having some fun.

While we were back east getting hitched, Pope Francis was in the vicinity stirring up the Catholic faithful as well as plenty of other folks. (We asked him to officiate at our nuptials but he was understandably overbooked.) To mark the occasion of his visit, a 1989 film biography of his papal namesake was released for the first time on Blu-ray in September. Liliani Cavani's Francesco is now available courtesy of Film Movement.

The newly-restored movie, which is included among the Vatican's list of the 15 top religious films of all time, features a mostly Italian cast and crew but boasts the decidedly unconventional Mickey Rourke as the poverty-loving St. Francis of Assisi and Helena Bonham Carter as his beloved St. Clare. Both are quite good, with Bonham Carter the most naturalistic she has been on screen before or since. The film offers a refreshingly gritty and unsanitized (with plentiful male nudity), occasionally hokey take on the lives of these beloved saints and their original devotees. Whether you are religious or not, Francesco is worth checking out.

Reverend's Ratings:
Appropriate: C+
The Martian: B
Francesco: B

Francesco is now available on Blu-ray:

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

MD Reviews: Departures


"You'll find someone when you're not trying", as the adage goes, but what if the reason you're not trying is the death of a loved one and/or a diagnosis of a potentially terminal disease? The answers to that potent question are explored in two recent films, one a bittersweet drama starring one of our favorite actresses in her first(!) starring role, the other a funny yet moving documentary featuring a stand-up comic following the hardest year of her life.

In I'll See You in My Dreams, Blythe Danner shines as Carol, a widowed retired teacher who, after the death of her beloved dog, finds herself, practically unintentionally, seeking companionship with two very different men. The first, the thirtysomething slacker (Martin Starr) who cleans her pool, elicits good natured clucks of cougarism from her golden girl-friends (the delightful trio of Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman and June Squibb). But it is the second, a silver fox played by Sam Elliott, who reawakens within Carol the possibilities of something more.

Touching on themes — love, sex, death, the joys of medical marijuana — familiar in films about aging, I'll See You in My Dreams still feels fresh, due in large part to the natural direction of Brett Haley and his (with Marc Basch) intelligent script. But it is Danner who hits the home run here, delivering a complex, lived-in performance that is never maudlin, always real. Here's hoping that this Emmy and Tony Award winner gets a chance to complete her "triple crown" of acting laurels with an Oscar.

"Hello... I have cancer." That is how comedian Tig Notaro (think a drier, even more deadpan Ellen) opened what would become known as a legendary stand-up set in 2012. But that was just the latest in a Job-like string of tragedies that befell her at the time; not only had she just recovered from a nasty intestinal infection that could have killed her, her mother had recently died after a freak accident. She found catharsis by turning the tragedy into comedy and it changed her life and career... yet how do you top that?

The documentary Tig (now streaming exclusively on Netflix) relates the year following that fateful night at the comedy club, including Notaro's successful mastectomy, her creative struggle to re-find her comedic voice and her attempts to have a child post-cancer. However, like another recent doc (An Honest Liar), Tig's most unexpected, compelling aspect is a love story, here between Notaro and her In a World... co-star/now-fiancée Stephanie Allynne. How it develops from a kindred spirit friendship into a romantic relationship, particularly since Allynne had never dated a woman before, is both sweet and, thanks to their shared senses of humor, very funny (seriously, they'd have a best seller on their hands if they published their LOL text messages).

You'll find lots to enjoy in these two different, life-affirming hidden gems. Seek them out.

MD Ratings:
I'll See You in My Dreams: A-
Tig: B+

I'll See You in My Dreams is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Review by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

MD Reviews: The Cannonball Run


If you were a movie-going child of the 80s, chances are you've seen a Golan/Globus production or two, even if you have no idea who they were then or now. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were true independent spirits who, like their spiritual forefather Edward Wood Jr., loved to make movies... they just weren't very good at it. As the heads of the production company known as the Cannon Group throughout the 1980s, they also followed in the footsteps of film renegades Roger Corman (small budgets=huge returns) and Russ Meyer (lots and lots of boobs and blood) and brought to the screen such beloved bad movies as The Apple, Enter the Ninja and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Obviously borrowing the title from that seminal breakdancing opus, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films documents the unlikely rise and inevitable fall of the B-movie factory that cranked out everything from softcore period pieces (Lady Chatterly's Lover, Bolero) to cheesy sci-fi epics (Lifeforce, Cyborg) to the unintentionally homoerotic gay faves Hercules (starring "The Incredible" Lou Ferrigno) and Masters of the Universe. Cannon is probably best known for their seemingly endless run of action flicks starring action stars both on the rise (Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme) and on the decline (Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone), as well as their "sloppy seconds" sequels such as Death Wish 2 through 5 and the camp fest known as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Starstruck from an early age, Yoram and Menahem had big Hollywood dreams when they came to America, and their scrappy enthusiasm was quite infectious as witnessed by the number of directors, screenwriters and actors (including Richard Chamberlain, Bo Derek, Elliott Gould, Tobe Hooper, Dolph Lundgren, Franco Nero, Molly Ringwald, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson and Franco Zeffirelli) who show up in this Electric Boogaloo. Some confess their amused affection for the so-called "Go-Go Boys", others relate eyebrow-raising on-set horror stories, quite a few offer their best Yoram impressions, and all appear, even now decades later, slightly perplexed that it all happened at all and that they were there, fortunately or unfortunately, to witness it.

Writer/director Mark Hartley infuses his Boogaloo with a lot of the cheeseball fun of the Cannon canon, although some of the more graphic film clips (mostly of brutality toward mostly unclad women) is overly excessive, and the seemingly shadier side of the studio is pretty much unexplored. Although the largely lowbrow legacy of Cannon Films will be all but ignored in the annals of cinema, fans old and new will find Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films a revealing time capsule of the decade of greed and excess that is, like, totally awesome.

MD Rating: B+

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is now available on DVD:

Review by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.