Friday, June 26, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Good Lord

As the youngest member in parliament and sole heir to his family's 7,000-acre English estate, Lord Edward Montagu's life was rich and privileged. However, it came crashing down in 1954 when the then-25-year old became England's most infamous aristocrat when he was arrested for homosexual offenses and became the focus of a landmark trial known as “The Montagu Case.” His guilty verdict sent off shock waves and became the catalyst to overturn a centuries old law, but Montagu’s once pristine reputation and career were all but ruined.

This sordid episode as well as the nobleman's eventual, surprising re-ascension in British public life is the subject of a fine new documentary, appropriately titled Lord Montagu. It is newly available on VOD through iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and other streaming sites. After serving a year in prison and discovering he was nearly penniless, Montagu became the first member of the aristocracy to boldly transform his private estate and family home into a public tourist attraction. He created spectacles at his home, most notably Britain's first motor museum, and thus invented a new form of tourism known as “the stately home business.” His showmanship and success inspired a new breed of aristocrats to open their doors and transformed Lord Montagu into a prominent, esteemed and once again wealthy national figure, sort of a UK version of Walt Disney.

Insightfully written and directed by Luke Korem and featuring gorgeous cinematography of Montagu's grounds by Jacob Hamilton and Ricardo Diaz, the film nonetheless utilizes some typically British restraint in its coverage of the Lord's sexuality. He wrote in his eventual autobiography that he had long been attracted to both men and women but went into few details. The most interesting aspect of his case as revealed in the documentary is that the biggest scandal wasn't that Montagu had been having sex with men at the time of his arrest, but that the men he had sex with were of a lower social class. Same-sex relations in 1950's England were apparently more tolerated, at least among their aristocracy, than crossing class lines.

The film's main subject is still alive although he is only briefly glimpsed in the film's modern-day footage. His son Ralph provides considerable commentary, as do numerous personal friends and business associates. In terms of revealing a bisexual man of integrity's rise from the ashes of intolerance, Lord Montagu is a heroic portrayal.

Not aging so well, politically speaking, are the handlers of the 65-million year old beasts currently appearing in Jurassic World. The mega-blockbuster sequel to Steven Spielberg's 1993 mere-blockbuster adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park, about cloned dinosaurs running amok at an island resort, has several thrilling moments, my favorite being three velociraptors chasing a speeding truck with its unlocked rear doors swinging open and two tasty teenagers in the back.

It actually isn't the dinosaurs who aren't holding up well. The special effects bringing them to cinematic life are better than ever. Rather, it is the retro gender politics employed by screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow (who also directs, impressively for his first studio movie) and Derek Connolly that are disappointing. Lead female character Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is depicted as a career-obsessed perfectionist who has no time for her sister, her two visiting nephews, the hunky dinosaur whisperer in her employ (Chris Pratt) or men in general. It is such a dated caricature, they could have cloned Mildred Pierce-era Joan Crawford to play her and nothing would seem amiss. The three other significant women in the film aren't treated much better. See Jurassic World for its reptilian stars but try to ignore the humans.

Ukrainian filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe, opening this weekend in Los Angeles, is definitely more forward-looking in setting and style but I was ultimately disappointed by its over-reliance on graphic sex and violence. It is centered on the students attending a special school for the deaf, and subsequently features no dialogue nor subtitles for the signed communications between them and their teachers. The film also doesn't have a music score but it isn't completely silent; natural environmental sound effects are audible throughout.

New arrival Plemya (the hulkingly sexy Grigoriy Fesenko) is quickly recruited to serve as strong arm of the school's underground racketeers. Several older male students, aided and abetted by their shop teacher, use other students to steal for them and even force two female students into prostitution. Cracks begin to form in boys' black market operation once Plemya and one of the girls fall in love with each other.

Slaboshpitsky's risky no-dialogue or -subtitles approach pays off, with the cast members' reliance on facial expressions and emotional exaggeration in addition to their signing easily conveying a scene's meaning to attentive viewers. Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych's extensive, superb use of tracking shots also provides intimacy and immediacy. Its too bad, though, that The Tribe's dark plot grows increasingly off-putting and culminates in a murderous finale. The film proves, once again, that technique isn't everything.

Reverend's Ratings:
Lord Montagu: B+
Jurassic World: B-
The Tribe: C

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

MD Reviews: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

"Yeah, but... if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."

It took twenty-two years and three movies, but we finally got what Jeff Goldblum's character quipped about in the original Jurassic Park in this summer's newest blockbuster Jurassic World: full-scale dinosaur-on-tourist carnage. Yep, the park is finally open for business, complete with corporate sponsorships, endless lines, jaded employees and, oh yeah, deadly prehistoric animals genetically modified to up the "wow" factor with little regard to what might happen if the park's biggest attractions decided to go off script, tap into their natural instincts and chow down on some vacationers.

Unlike our previous cinematic visits to Isla Nublar where all we got was the likes of Sam Neill and William H. Macy, this time we get a full-fledged hunky action hero in Guardians of the Galaxy's Chris Pratt, playing what can best be called a "raptor whisperer", one of many silly/illogical plot points you'll scratch your head about once this thrill ride comes to a complete stop. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Jurassic World's workaholic operations manager, holds her own in the hero department, even more so by doing it in all heels. Once the mayhem ensues, the scruffy Pratt and the porcelain Howard set out to find her two wayward nephews (one a generic morose teen, the other a mop-topped, well, moppet), dodging dive-bombing Pterodactyls along the way as well as the film's big-big bad, the only-a-marketing-exec-could-come-up-with-this-name Indominus rex, a super-dino with quite a few tricks up his tiny-tiny metaphorical sleeves.

Even with all the digital dinos zipping across the screen, Jurassic World somehow escapes a CGI-overload, and the effects crew wisely included (like the previous Parks) some practical, hand-made dinos for the cast to get up close and personal with. Also wise is the inclusion of John Williams' iconic theme music, piped in just when a note of nostalgia is needed. Unwise was a few extraneous subplots and the need for a human "villain", nevertheless played to the moustache-twirling hilt by Vincent D'Onofrio.

All in all, Jurassic World proves to be quite the roller coaster ride, impressively helmed by a relative newcomer, Colin Trevorrow. Just remember that it would be best if you check your brain at the door when you cash in your E ticket for this one. Oh, and keep your hands and feet inside the theater at all times.

MD Rating: B

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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reverend's Preview: Short Stuff

Length does matter… at least when it comes to the more than 300 short films that will screen this month at the 21st annual Palm Springs International ShortFest. The event runs June 16th-22nd at the Camelot Theatre, 2300 E. Baristo Road in Palm Springs.

While I wouldn’t say shorter is automatically better in terms of cinematic storytelling, some shorts can weave a tale more effectively and certainly more economically than a feature-length Hollywood production. This year’s entries come from over 50 countries and include a healthy smattering of LGBT-interest films. Most are between 5 and 15 minutes in length. The concurrent Short Film Market will feature a library of more than 3,000 films available to film buyers, industry and press, the only Short Film Market in North America. Special events include nightly receptions as well as seminars and master classes with industry experts and filmmaking professionals, which are free to all filmmakers who participate in the fest.

Somewhere in Palm Springs

Recently hailed by USA Today as the best US film festival for short films, the 2015 Palm Springs International ShortFest has also announced the first 13 films chosen to represent the ShortFest Online Film Festival. Now in its fifth year, these select films are currently available for free viewing on a special section of the festival website. Online voting for these films is now open and will run through June 20th, with the “ShortFest Online Audience Award” announced at the Festival Award Ceremony on Closing Night.

“The online world has become an increasingly important avenue for short filmmakers in terms of exposing their work to a wider audience. While the best way to appreciate a film – whether short or feature length – remains seeing it on a large screen with a rapt audience, our commitment to providing a launching pad for emerging filmmakers is not limited to theatrical screenings,” said Festival Director Darryl Macdonald. “That’s why we created ShortFest Online five years ago, and the films included in this year’s online edition show the same spirit of inventiveness and unbridled talent exemplified by the 300+ films selected for theatrical screenings at the 2015 Palm Springs International ShortFest.”

San Cristóbal

One of the shorts in the online competition is the aptly-titled Somewhere in Palm Springs, a very funny animated comedy about three trash-talking gay men and their girlfriend hanging out at a local hotel pool. Also of note is We Are Fire, a documentary revealing how a group of Indian women decked in red saris help other women who have been oppressed or victimized in their native country.

A number of other LGBT films will be screening at the Camelot Theatre during ShortFest. These include:

  • Dániel, in which a young student from Budapest works as a male escort to pay for his college tuition in London.
  • Morning is Broken, a beautifully-shot story about two men attending a wedding who share an unexpected kiss that could inadvertently tear them apart.
  • Going Down finds a tense accountant trapped in an elevator with a massage therapist, only to have their encounter turn sensually surreal.
  • The Future Perfect stars out actor Zachary Quinto in a time-travel tale that results in a compromised future.
  • Nineteen, a sensitive drama in which a closeted teenager makes a connection with a rent boy, who soon learns his client has another secret.
  • Manchego, a comedy centered on a young woman who comes home to tell her parents about her new relationship but finds an unwelcome surprise waiting.
  • San Cristóbal, in which an unlikely romance develops between a struggling young fisherman and another Chilean man about to move abroad. This sexy short won the Teddy Award for Best Short Film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
  • Pink Boy, an intimate, heartwarming documentary about a gender-creative boy growing up in rural Florida who is adopted by a butch lesbian.
  • Roxanne, a dramatic story of a hardened, isolated transgender sex worker who takes in an abandoned young girl.
  • Setting Them Straight, about a man who amusingly works up the courage to tell his long- accepting parents that he isn’t gay.

To purchase tickets for these and other great shorts, visit the Palm Springs International Film Society website or call 1-800-898-7526.

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

Friday, June 12, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Girls Gone Wild

Novelist Roald Dahl's books are rife with precocious children, many of them depicted in a less than favorable light. Think of the greedy brats in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Danny the Champion of the World's schoolyard bullies. Of course, Dahl was perceptive enough to lay the blame for children's misbehavior where it more often than not belongs: on their parents. His classic Matilda is another popular chapter in the author's literary treatise.

Adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, Matilda the Musical has proven a box office smash in both London and New York and won five Tony Awards in 2013. Its US national tour has just launched at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, where it is running through July 12th. Having attended the touring company's opening night, I would say the musical's prospects for a similarly successful life on the road are virtually guaranteed.

The title character of the book and show is 6-year old Matilda Wormwood. Her birth having been an unexpected and undesired "accident" by her car salesman father and dance-obsessed mother, the neglected girl (whose dad insists on calling her a boy) finds solace and inspiration in reading left-leaning classics by Dickens, Dostoyevsky and others. Her revolutionary bent comes in handy once her parents banish her to a grim private school run in totalitarian fashion by the wicked Miss Trunchbull, who takes excessive pride in having once been Britain's hammer-throwing champion at the Olympics.

Matilda rightly concludes "sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty," courtesy of one of composer Tim Minchin's many catchy songs, in order to effectively confront injustice. By Act II, she is leading a subversive revolt with the help of some hitherto undiscovered psychic powers against Trunchbull on behalf of her fellow, abused students as well as Miss Honey, their sweet, put-upon teacher.

The musical's chief assets are Minchin's excellent score and Dennis Kelly's Tony-winning book, especially their blend of whimsy and social critique. Dahl's usual targets — gluttonous children, irresponsible and just plain stupid parents, television — have been lovingly preserved, and the adaptors have made Miss Trunchbull (embodied by a man in an oversized suit that manages to be both athletic and militaristic) simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Played on tour by Bryce Ryness, who in real life is blessed with movie star-quality good looks, Trunchbull's fierce sway went beyond the stage opening night when she stopped the show to stare down a crying child in the audience. As a result, I don't recommend Matilda the Musical for kids under 10 despite the number of juveniles in the show.

Matthew Warchus' staging varies wildly between effectively understated and overly complicated, and Peter Darling's choreography relies too heavily on excessive gesticulation. The show's energetic cast, however, makes the best of things. Particular standouts in addition to Ryness are Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, the limber and funny Jaquez Andre Sims as Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner Rudolpho and Jennifer Blood, blessed with a lovely singing voice, as Miss Honey. Mia Sinclair Jenness, who played Matilda on opening night, struck me as a bit halting with her dialogue but was otherwise fine. She alternates in the role with Gabby Gutierrez (the first Filipina to play Matilda) and Mabel Tyler.

Roald Dahl is reported to have been a rather prickly character and I'm not sure he liked musicals but something tells me he would enjoy Matilda the Musical, thoroughly infused with his sensibility as it is. He would probably especially approve of Miss Trunchbull — the physical representation of every small-minded yet domineering adult who ever lived — being played by a man in drag.

The life-changing power of the written word, for better and worse, also informs Peter Greenaway's 1996 adults-only film The Pillow Book. This beautifully bizarre tale by the British iconoclast has received a suitably gorgeous hi-def digital transfer and is now available on Blu-ray as the first release from Film Movement Classics.

Full-frontal nudity (male and female but mostly male) abounds in this story of a Japanese woman, Nagiko (lovely Vivian Wu), who is obsessed with using the human body as a literary canvas as her father lovingly treated her own when she was a child. After her father is betrayed by an unscrupulous, gay book publisher, Nagiko sets into motion an elaborate plan of revenge involving the publisher's bisexual lover (the then up and coming Ewan McGregor) and a bevy of elaborately encrypted naked men.

In addition to all the flesh on display, the fearless Greenaway (who made this film and the similarly provocative The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and my personal favorite of his, Prospero's Books, in quick succession) employs an East-meets-West aural landscape and unique frame-within-a-frame visual technique to weave his seductive tale. His characters' motivations don't always make sense and what becomes of McGregor's "manuscript" can definitely be termed over the top, but The Pillow Book is nevertheless a modern classic.

Two other gay-interest titles are also newly available on DVD and VOD. David Au's Eat with Me (Wolfe Video) is a low-key but frequently affecting look at a closeted Chinese-American gay man whose life is turned upside down when his mother unexpectedly leaves his father and moves in with him. Sharon Omi is especially good as the mother, and the timeless George Takei makes a brief but welcome cameo appearance as himself.

Also out now is the somewhat familiar Italian drama Beyond Love (Ariztical Entertainment), in which a lesbian couple enlists their gay best friends to help them have a baby. Complications ensue. Not bad but not a must-see either.

Reverend's Ratings:
Matilda the Musical (US national tour): B+
The Pillow Book (Blu-ray): A-
Eat with Me: B
Beyond Love: B-

The Pillow Book Blu-ray, Eat with Me and Beyond Love are now available:

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

Monday, June 8, 2015

MD Review: Bound

When E.L. James' debut novel Fifty Shades of Grey hit bookstore shelves it became a runaway bestseller and, almost as quickly, a pop culture punchline. Its sordid mixture of Harlequin romance and kinky sexploits was a hit among desperate housewives and the like, a sort of Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls for the 21st century. 

But unlike those dog-eared paperback classics, Fifty Shades spelled out all the "dirty parts", leaving little to the imagination and providing ample fodder for late night talk show hosts to titter at all this "raciness" on sale at your local Wal-Mart. Like Peyton and Dolls, a quick film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was rushed out to capitalize on all that notoriety. Alas, unlike its predecessors, Fifty Shades: The Movie isn't of the "so bad, it's good" variety; it's just plain bad.

The Grey of the title is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, formerly of Once Upon a Time), a billionaire businessman those "People's Hottest Bachelors" lists are made for. Into his assiduously ordered life stumbles (literally) the young Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), a mousy college virgin who somehow catches the fancy of Mr. Grey. Before you can say "it's complicated", he's deflowered her and introduced her to his darker side via his "play room", a scarlet lair fully-equipped with all manner of bondage paraphernalia. Anastasia just wants a "normal boyfriend", but Christian doesn't "do romance"... yet he fully expects her to submit to his every salacious whim.

Filled with stilted dialogue, schizophrenic characterizations and a flabbergastingly overwhelming sense of its own misguided importance, Fifty Shades of Grey most disappointingly doesn't even qualify as camp, even with a heroine that blurts out "What's a butt plug?". It's a softcore Lifetime Move of the Week made naughty with frequent nudity and mentions of "genital clamps" and "vaginal fisting".

And beware: there are two more books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, so there's two (or most likely three) more of these on their way to a theater near you. "Mr. Grey will see you now" but by all means, don't see him.

MD Rating: D

Fifty Shades of Grey is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Signing Nuns & Future Dreamers


Although it evokes both the classic Helen Keller biopic The Miracle Worker and Jodie Foster's 1994 Nell, Marie's Story (now playing in Los Angeles) nevertheless forges its own path as a movie, and a respectfully Catholic one at that. It recounts the true story of Marie Heurtin, an unfortunate girl born both blind and deaf to indigent parents in late-19th century France. A local convent that specialized in teaching hearing-impaired girls initially refused Marie admittance, but the saintly Sister Marguerite took pity on her and convinced their Mother Superior to let her take a crack at reaching the understandably unruly child.

Jean-Pierre Ameris' film, co-written by Philippe Blasband, is a beautifully shot (by Virginie Saint-Martin) testament to the power of faith, perseverance and love as it depicts Sr. Marguerite's tireless efforts to socialize Marie. That Marguerite was dying of tuberculosis at the time makes her determination all the more resonant. Isabelle Carre and Ariana Rivoire give stunning, physically rough and tumble performances as the nun and her charge, respectively.

Two scenes in the film stand out as its emotional and dramatic high points. The first comes when Marie is presented to her parents for the first time after her "rehabilitation." Her parents are believably stunned at first but quickly resort to their lovingly tactile way of communicating with their disabled daughter. The second scene comes when Sr. Marguerite has to explain death to Marie by having her fully explore the lifeless body of an older nun who passes away unexpectedly. And one will want tissue handy during the climactic scenes where Marie devotedly tends to her teacher as she lays dying. Marie's Story is one worth telling and seeing.

Its too bad that Disney's current Tomorrowland is already being dubbed the first big-budget flop of the summer. This refreshingly optimistic sci-fi adventure inspired by the company's theme park district posits, among other things, that there is or at least was a secret time-travel device stowed beneath It's a Small World. When a young boy, Frank, discovers this during the 1964 World's Fair (where It's a Small World made its pre-Disneyland debut), he embarks on a journey that will remain with him as a disgruntled adult played by George Clooney.

Frank is reluctantly drawn back to Tomorrowland by Casey, a forward-looking young woman (engagingly played by Under the Dome's Britt Robertson) who discovers its existence after being bequeathed with a special pin by the mysterious, ageless Athena (the splendid Raffey Cassidy, who holds her own with Clooney in several decidedly emotionally-mature scenes). Soon, the three are on the run from grinning Audio-Animatronic assassins under the employ of the future's villainous Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie).

As written by Lost's Damon Lindelof and directed by the great Brad Bird (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Tomorrowland contains enough plot mechanics and dazzling special effects to fuel a few summer blockbusters. The movie's visual centerpiece involves a massive time-traveling rocket tucked within the Eiffel Tower that launches in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, the storyline may be too complex and mature for younger viewers, which may explain Tomorrowland's current under-performance at the box office. Adults and teens however, especially those with a fetish for all things Disneyland-ish, will find much to appreciate and enjoy.

Reverend's Reviews:
Marie's Story: B+
Tomorrowland: B

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