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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Monthly Wallpaper - October 2015: Ghost Stories

For this month's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper, we spotlight all sorts of spirits and spooks and things that go bump in the night with our favorite movie Ghost Stories.

From Casper and Beetlejuice to Samara and the Grady sisters, these cinematic specters can make you laugh or scare the daylights out of you, or possibly even swoon like Mrs. Muir. We hope you enjoy this October trick or treat treat, and happy hauntings!

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.