Saturday, December 3, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Holiday Treats on Stage

 

'Tis the season for all manner of Scrooges, sprites and Santas to take over performance spaces across the country.  It wasn't so long ago that the only productions one could find this time of year were of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.  Today, though, there are so many adaptations of popular holiday-themed movies as well as original works that they all couldn't possibly fit into Santa's largest sack.


One that has been on Broadway and tour for several seasons now is Irving Berlin's White Christmas. It is now playing for one week only at Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre before moving on to other cities in the western US.  Two things become quickly apparent in this stage adaptation of the classic 1954 film.  One is that its post-World War II storyline is pretty darn dated, and book writers David Ives and Paul Blake seem to have had no interest in updating it in the slightest.  The second is that the musical really has nothing to do with Christmas aside from the opening number, "Happy Holiday," and the climactic title song with requisite decorated tree and snowfall.

The plot, for those somehow unfamiliar with the movie, involves a male song & dance team, Phil and Bob, who have become stars 10 years after serving in the Army together.  They cross paths with two singing sisters, Betty and Judy, who are en route to perform at a Vermont ski lodge over the Christmas holiday.  But there turns out to be one big problem: Vermont is having a heat wave and no snow is in the forecast, so the girls find their engagement cancelled in the absence of guests.


Leave it to Phil and Bob to come up with a plan to save the girls' engagement as well as the resort's bankruptcy-facing owner, who happens to have been their commanding officer during the war.  They recruit their fellow former soldiers to come to Vermont for Christmas with their families and enjoy a spectacular show, thereby raising enough money to bail everyone out.

White Christmas features plenty of retro-feeling flag waving, spirited tap dance numbers courtesy of director-choreographer Randy Skinner (his non-tap choreography is less impressive), and a cast that is so aggressively energetic they often threaten to go over the top.  This latter observation is especially true of Lorna Luft -- yes, Judy Garland's other daughter -- who overpowers with her Ethel Merman-esque turn in the role the late, great Mary Wickes played in the movie.  Carrie Robbins' costumes are colorful and serviceable enough but can't compare with Edith Head's eye-popping cinematic versions.

It is hard to imagine anyone under the age of 60 being blown away by this show despite its generation-bridging lineup of Berlin standards that also includes "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Sisters," "Snow" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."  Still, if its a holiday chestnut one is looking for then White Christmas is a good one to roast.


L. Frank Baum may be best remembered as the author of The Wizard of Oz and its many sequels, but he also offered his own fanciful take on a Yuletide legend.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, published in 1902, follows its title subject from birth to near-death and rebirth as the perennial face of Christmas gift-giving.

Local writer Jo McLachlan has adapted Baum's book for the stage and it is now having its premiere production courtesy of Long Beach Shakespeare Company.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus runs through December 11th at the Richard Goad Theatre in Long Beach.  As evidenced by the reactions of several children present at its opening night performance, this delightful play with music is a must-see for families and anyone else eager for an infusion of holiday cheer.

We meet the man who will become Santa as a newborn baby abandoned in the mysterious Burzee Forest (which is actually located in the land of Oz).  Adopted by one of the elves and christened "Claus," he grows up under the tutelage of other woodland creatures. Once the Forest King, Ak, takes Claus on a trip around the world, the young man decides to leave the forest and serve his fellow human beings with his developing skills as a toymaker.  However, Claus must first escape the clutches of the evil Awgwas who kidnap him.

McLachlan has done an impressive job of streamlining Baum's lengthy narrative into a kid-friendly 60 minutes.  The addition of a few songs (one features lyrics written by Baum set to music by Edmund Velasco) and dance numbers help hold children's attention.  For me, the best and funniest piece of Ramzi Jneid's choreography involves two reindeer: one is a professional ballerina (the lovely Ashley Wilkerson) while the other reindeer (Amy Paloma Welch) is decidedly, hilariously not as adept.  Dana Leach's colorful costumes and Tim Leach's assortment of clever special effects, including falling "snow" during the show's finale, catch the eye of youngsters and adults alike.


This production also benefits from an assortment of gorgeous projections that evoke the forest setting, complete with snow flurries.  Another more active projection accompanies Claus and Ak on their high-speed global journey.  Long Beach Shakespeare Company has often used such visuals during other performances I've attended but these are their best such effects to date.

Ultimately bringing the fantastical story to life are its great cast members.  In addition to the aforementioned Wilkerson and Paloma Welch, who play a variety of other roles, are Tate Howell as the younger Claus, Andy Kallok as Ak and the older Claus, and Leonardo Lerma as King Awgwa and other characters.  Two students at nearby Lakewood Christian School, Kate Dougherty and Giancarlo Roldan, round out the cast and are making their professional theatre debuts.

All children who attend will be invited to sit in the first row of the audience.  I sat in the second row on opening night so had not only a bird's eye view of the stage but of the youngsters present as well. The continuous expressions of joy and excitement on their faces were proof enough to me that The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a theatrical winner.  For tickets, visit LBShakespeare.org or call 562-997-1494.  The company will also be presenting Orson Welles' radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as they do every year, the weekend of December 16th-18th.

Reverend's Ratings:
Irving Berlin's White Christmas: C+
The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus: A-

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: A Fall Film Harvest


 

This current, fallow period between the big summer movies and the holiday/awards season has given me a long overdue opportunity to catch up on some recent releases I missed.  Once I watched them all, it took me another two weeks to find time to write about them!  Such is my crazy busy life.  Fortunately for our readers, most are now available on home video or VOD, including a bevy of unusually high-quality gay themed flicks.


Star Trek Beyond (now available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD) is one would-be blockbuster I couldn't quite get to in July.  Apparently, neither did a lot of other people.  This is a shame, because it is certainly a funnier, more enjoyable entry in the long-running sci fi series than either of its immediate two predecessors.  J.J. Abrams, who directed Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, serves as producer on the latest but handed over the director reins to Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame. Lin proves to have been a great pick and Beyond is, well, faster and furious-er as a result.

Also elevating the new sequel is a more tongue-in-cheek screenplay written by Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty in the rebooted series, and Doug Jung.  Their plot involves an insect-like villain, Krall (Idris Elba, unrecognizable until the film's finale), who is out for revenge against the Federation and has a nasty weapon at his disposal.  Once Krall forces the Enterprise to crash on his planet, the surviving crew members join forces with Jaylah, a fierce female alien who has her own score to settle against the big nasty guy.

Star Trek Beyond features a serious story to be sure, but also has more comedic and welcome interplay among the lead characters.  It is also revealed at long last that Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) is gay, as something of an homage to gay actor and activist George Takei, the original Sulu.  Sofia Boutella's Jaylah is a terrific addition to the cast and appears set to continue in any further adventures. Unfortunately, that seems less guaranteed since the new film was something of a disappointment at the box office even though the next announced entry is supposed to involve Kirk's father.  As we all know, Star Trek can never be counted out entirely.


The sequel I was most looking forward to and actually did see in theaters but didn't get a chance to review was Independence Day: Resurgence.  This 20 years later effort definitely wasn't needed (and subsequently failed to set the box office on fire too) but is a well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining follow up boasting excellent special effects.

While Resurgence's lead characters are a bunch of 20-something newcomers, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner return in addition to the late Robert Loggia in a brief cameo. Goldblum and Hirsch are once again hilarious together, and Spiner's mad scientist comes out of the closet.  The planet-harvesting aliens are evil as ever as they re-invade in a spaceship big enough to straddle the entire Atlantic Ocean.  Their all-powerful queen faces off against the humans in a thrilling climax that leaves the door open for another sequel.  I really hope out director Roland Emmerich and his cast re-unite one more time to fulfill the desire of Spiner's character to "kick some alien ass"!


I also saw and even reviewed here July's all-female remake of Ghostbusters.  Like most, I was somewhat disappointed by it even as I liked Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the new crew. An extended edition of the supernatural comedy now out on Blu-ray is something of an improvement.  The original version itself turns out to be funnier on second viewing, while additional scenes that give Wiig's research scientist a romance develop her character more plus allow Wiig to do more funny stuff.  Most critically, one new scene provides a bit of needed lightness to Neil Casey's ghost-controlling villain, a bullied young man who was handled way too seriously in the theatrical edition.  Whether for the first or second time, I recommend "answering the call" and checking out the 2016 Ghostbusters extended cut.


It's hard to believe that 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of Brian DePalma's screen adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie.  Regarded as a landmark of the horror genre pretty much since 1976, it has been released on Blu-ray for the first time by Shout Factory.  Both Sissy Spacek, as the title character, and Piper Laurie as her psychotic religious-fanatic mother were nominated for that year's Academy Awards, pretty rare for performances in a low-budget thriller.

Carrie's hi-def transfer, while great, also highlights a couple of the movie's weaknesses.  One is the inconsistency of the supporting performances.  Spacek remains a fresh-faced revelation but Laurie comes across as more comical than ever (Laurie has stated in the past that she thought the film was a comedy until DePalma told her otherwise midway through shooting).  Nancy Allen, playing Carrie's chief high school nemesis, also seems to swing between camp and horror.  Betty Buckley remains solid as Carrie's understanding gym teacher.  Another deficiency is DePalma's split-screen depiction of the prom-set climax.  Though technically impressive at the time, it comes across as excessive and heavy-handed today.  Stronger by today's standards is the movie's pro-feminist message, which I'm not sure was even noticed at the time of its original release.  Carrie discovers her psychic powers as she comes of age as an independent woman, and she duly punishes all the men (and most of the women) she perceives as having done her wrong.  I'm not sure if Gloria Steinem approved then but Carrie is worth re-examining from this perspective 40 years later.

2016 is proving to be a great year for gay-themed films, with current theatrical release Moonlight being consistently mentioned as a potential Oscar contender.  While I haven't caught that one yet, here are several other new home video/VOD releases deserving of attention:


King Cobra relates the lurid but intriguing true story of how young gay porn star Brent Corrigan (born Sean Paul Lockhart) crossed paths with two unsavory producers and subsequently found himself embroiled in a murder case.  Christian Slater and James Franco turn in revelatory performances as the entrepreneurs fighting to control Corrigan's career, with former Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton appropriately fetching as Corrigan/Lockhart.  Writer-director Justin Kelly's script doesn't provide much in terms of characters' background or motivations other than those old mainstays, fame and fortune.  Still, I would call King Cobra a must-see for all connoisseurs of Corrigan's body... of work, that is.


Fire Song, now available from Wolfe Video, is significant for being the first gay storyline involving Anishinaabe (or First Nation) characters and actors.  Set in rural Ontario, Canada, it focuses on two young men, Shane and David, struggling to keep their relationship both secret and alive amidst numerous challenges and temptations.  Shane is preparing to move to the city and attend college, while David serves as one of their tribe's leaders.  The tribe's matriarch, who also happens to be David's grandmother, is disapproving of same-sex relations but doesn't realize one is going on under her nose and roof.

Canadian filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones gets points for exploring gay life within a too often ignored community.  His mostly non-professional cast members give mixed performances with a few downright amateurish, although Andrew Martin makes an impression as Shane and will hopefully be hired onto bigger projects in the future.  Fire Song may not offer much that is new apart from its setting but this alone is sufficient reason to recommend it.


Confessions (TLA Releasing) is a new compendium of short films by gay filmmaker Mark Bessenger (The Last Straight Man).  True to the title, each of the ten stories is relayed directly to the camera by their protagonists. Among the cast are such recognizable out actors as Dylan Vox, Mark Cirillo and David Pevsner, the latter of whom is very funny as a doctor who only treats name Hollywood actors.  Some of Bessenger's tales are comic, some romantic and some dramatic.  The most disturbing of them is actually the best, a mini horror movie about a man who takes vengeance on the fellow student who bullied him in high school for being gay.  Plenty of flesh is on display throughout although Bessenger and his cast shy away from full frontal nudity.


Finally, and just in time for the holiday season, is Rob Williams' award-winning Shared Rooms (Wolfe).  Williams previously made the Christmas-themed charmer Make the Yuletide Gay in addition to such films as Role/Play, Back Soon and Long-Term Relationship.  Whereas Williams has been a consistently good writer, his past productions have sometimes suffered from weak actors/performances.  Happily, Shared Rooms is his strongest film to date both in terms of its screenplay and its cast.  Between these factors and the plentiful full frontal nudity on display, Shared Rooms will warm your heart and more during cold winter nights.

Reverend's Ratings:
Star Trek Beyond: B
Independence Day: Resurgence: B+
Ghostbusters: Extended Edition: B
Carrie: Collector's Edition: B
King Cobra: B-
Fire Song: B+
Confessions: B-
Shared Rooms: B

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Disney Do-Overs


 

The Walt Disney Company has been raking in cash recently by turning their animated classics into live-action blockbusters.  This actually isn't new for them.  Back in the mid-1990's, the Mouse House struck gold with non-cartoon versions of The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians.  History is now repeating itself with such hits as Cinderella, Maleficent (inspired by Disney's Sleeping Beauty) and yet another take on The Jungle Book.  Still to come are Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and the one I'm most looking forward to: Dumbo, to be directed by Tim Burton.


I recently, finally, got to see Disney's most surprising and arguably most successful reinvention of one of their older properties, Newsies.  This stage version of the studio's 1992 live-action musical flop packed them in on Broadway starting in 2012 and has been doing the same on tour across the US.  I checked it out a couple weeks ago during its return engagement at LA's Pantages Theatre, having been unable to catch it there the first time around.

Based on actual events in New York City at the tail end of the 19th century, both the film and stage Newsies feature a ragtag band of newspaper boys who form a union in order to stop abuses by greedy publishing tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (yes, the man for whom the Pulitzer Prize remains named).  Christian Bale, long before his Batman days, headed the movie's cast as rebellious Jack Kelly while Jeremy Jordan (Smash, Supergirl) originated the role on Broadway and scored a Tony nomination.


Whoever plays Jack on stage has to have charisma.  Fortunately, Joey Barreiro has it as well as good looks to spare as star of the national tour.  He doesn't have to dance much but the same can't be said of his castmates.  I was blessed with front row seats at the performance I attended and was privy to every straining muscle and rivers of sweat the young male company exuded while being put through Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli's paces.

None other than Harvey Fierstein overhauled the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  Fierstein's most significant change is the addition of a female reporter, Katherine, who covers the newsboys' strike while doubling as a love interest for Jack.  Morgan Keene makes a charmingly quirky Katherine on tour whereas Broadway veteran Steve Blanchard is commanding as Pulitzer, who ends up having a surprising connection to Katherine.

The Newsies movie is hardly as terrible as its pre-Broadway reputation may lead one to believe but the stage adaptation is nevertheless an improvement.  Songwriters Alan Menken and Jack Feldman overhauled their original score for the movie and ultimately won a Tony (their songs were completely overlooked when it came to Oscar nominations, which were dominated that year by Disney's own Aladdin).  Ironically, it was the movie's grown up fans who made the stage version of Newsies such a hit initially, but a new generation has discovered the film as a result of their enjoyment of the stage version.  Its a win-win for Disney all around.


I expect a similar circular response will result from Disney's current big screen "re-imagining" of Pete's Dragon.  The 1977 original is a thoroughly enjoyable if dated and kitschy musical hybrid of animation and live action à la the studio's prior smash, Mary PoppinsIt hasn't ended up having Poppins' longevity but kids are likely to rediscover it after seeing the new, truly magical movie.

Screenwriters David Lowery (who also directs) and Toby Halbrooks retain the basic premise of a young, orphaned boy who finds an unlikely friend and defender in a giant winged creature named Elliot.  However, they transpose the action from the original's New England setting to the Pacific Northwest, which has never looked better on film thanks to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli.  The remake jettisons musical numbers (although a couple of new songs are featured) for more of a fairy tale approach, albeit a naturalistic one.  Elliot remains animated, but digitally so rather than hand-drawn like his 1977 predecessor.  He is more serious and fearsome here even as he still comes across as man's, or at least Pete's, best friend.

Robert Redford essentially takes over for Mickey Rooney as a townie who has seen Elliot but who no one believes.  He also remains father to the film's lead female character, a forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard rather than Helen Reddy's lighthouse keeper in the original movie.  Howard has apparently become Hollywood's go-to woman when it comes to acting against giant reptilian critters between Jurassic World and this.  As Pete, young Oakes Fegley makes a strong impression and tugs at heartstrings without the film becoming overly sentimental.  Karl Urban and Wes Bentley round out the cast as very different brothers working in the local lumber industry.

The special effects are terrific but what struck me as most successful about the new Pete's Dragon is its reverence for mythology and our human need for storytelling as an essential tool in making it through life.  Like a candle on the water, if I may reference a song from the first version, classic stories light our way and Disney understands this better than just about anyone.


That being said, I don't know anyone who was clamoring for another movie of Rudyard Kipling's classic, The Jungle Book.  Disney had filmed it twice before, as an animated version in 1967 and live action in 1994, in addition to a well regarded non-Disney adaptation in 1942.  But the lure of a new generation of allowance-sporting kids plus the opportunities presented by CGI obviously became too tempting.  Happily, their new version directed by Iron Man's Jon Favreau makes the adventure tale live anew.  It is newly available on home video and is really a must see on Blu-ray.

Its excellent voice cast includes Bill Murray (pretty predictably perfect as Baloo), Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson and Lupita Nyong'o.  Only Idris Elba's interpretation of the villainous tiger, Shere Khan, is a bit heavy-handed and had me longing for the more seductive tones of George Saunders in the earlier animated film.  Best of all may be Christopher Walken voicing King Louie, a now-massive orangutan, who also gets to sing the Sherman Brothers' tune "I Wanna Be Like You" (with a couple new verses provided by Richard M. Sherman).  Newcomer Neel Sethi is serviceable as Mowgli but this new Jungle Book is all about the amazingly realistic, computer-generated lions, tigers and bears (oh my) plus more than a few monkeys.

Visually, the remake is spectacular and may be even more so in 3D.  Christopher Glass's amazing production design is sure to be remembered this awards season.  This crowdpleaser (to the tune of nearly $1 billion worldwide) might also prove to be one of the few blockbusters that actually gets a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  Time will tell but time obviously continues to be good to both The Jungle Book and Disney Studios.

Reverend's Ratings:
Newsies (touring stage production): B+
Pete's Dragon (2016): B+
The Jungle Book (2016): B+

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Reverend's Preview: Long Beach Celebrates Cinematic Diversity Too


 

Palm Springs’ Cinema Diverse may have a bigger reputation and budget but each September also brings the Long Beach Q Film Festival. Now in its 23rd year, Qfilms (as it is more briefly known locally) remains the longest-running film festival in the ocean-side “international city.”


The 2016 edition will run September 8th-11th at the historic Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th Street, and the neighboring LGBTQ Center of Long Beach. Qfilms isn’t just Long Beach’s longest-running LGBTQ fest, it is the longest-running film fest period. What’s more, all net income from pass, ticket and drink sales as well as in-kind sponsorships during the weekend go directly to the non-profit Center’s important community services.

More than 1,500 people attend each year to view a mix of West Coast, Southern California, Los Angeles and Long Beach premieres. Several of the feature-length and short films being shown this year are among the most acclaimed currently on the film festival circuit, LGBTQ or mainstream. Jury and audience awards will be given in several categories. All-access passes and individual tickets are now available for purchase through the festival’s website.


Qfilms 2016 will open the evening of Thursday, September 8th with the Long Beach premiere of Jewel’s Catch One, the celebratory documentary about the queer black woman who established Los Angeles’s landmark nightclub “for gays, lesbians, bis, tris and otherwise.” It will be followed by the Los Angeles-area premiere of Rob Williams’s Shared Rooms, a sexy and moving story focused on several different gay men whose paths inadvertently cross between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. An Opening Night party will take place between screenings at the LGBTQ Center of Greater Long Beach, located directly next door to the Art Theatre.

Two acclaimed, “killer” features will have their local premieres the night of Friday, September 9th. Women Who Kill is a dark comedy of manners involving two ex-girlfriends who have become true-crime podcasters. Writer-director-star Ingrid Jungermann’s screenplay has won awards at both the Tribeca and Outfest film festivals. It will be followed by Casper Andreas’s Kiss Me, Kill Me, in which a man is accused of murdering his unfaithful boyfriend. This twist-filled mystery’s cast includes Gale Harold of Queer as Folk fame. It recently won multiple awards including Best Narrative Feature at FilmOut San Diego. A party to die for will take place between screenings at the Center.

Other narrative and documentary features that will have their Long Beach premieres between Saturday and Sunday are: Kiki, a worthy successor to Paris is Burning and Leave It on the Floor about the young, multicultural participants in New York City’s famed drag balls; Retake, in which a man played by Tuc Watkins (Desperate Housewives, Where the Bears Are) hires a hustler to accompany him on a life-changing road trip; The Revival: Women & The Word, a fly-on-the-wall documentary focusing on four queer, black women devoted to poetry and the spoken word; Free CeCe, another powerful documentary (featuring Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black) that confronts the culture of violence surrounding trans women of color; Bruising for Besos, in which a lesbian artist finds her life upended when she falls for a Puerto Rican woman; Raising Zoey, the inspiring real-life story of a transgender teenager who won an anti-discrimination legal case against her school district; and Angry Indian Goddesses, a delightful, award-winning Bollywood comedy-drama set against the backdrop of a woman’s impending wedding.


The Closing Night films on Sunday, September 11th will be First Girl I Loved, a Sundance Film Festival award winner about the love triangle between two high school girls and a jealous male best friend, and Paris 05:59: Theo & Hugo, the initially racy but ultimately romantic tale (and winner of the prestigious “Teddy” Audience Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival) of two men who meet in an underground sex club.

Even if you are planning to attend Cinema Diverse this year, be sure to make a pit stop in Long Beach first for the very best in current LGBTQ movies. The complete 2016 QFilm Festival selections and schedule follows. Please note all talent availability is subject to change.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8TH
7:00pm- JEWEL’S CATCH ONE (Long Beach premiere) followed by Q&A with subject Jewel Thais Williams and director C Fitz.
8:00pm-10:00pm- Opening Night Party at The Center.
9:15pm- SHARED ROOMS (Los Angeles area premiere) preceded by short film “The Radical Fairy Prince” and followed by Q&A with writer-director Rob Williams and cast members.
10:00pm-1:00am- After Party at Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Ave.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9th
7:00pm- WOMEN WHO KILL (Long Beach premiere).
8:00pm-10:00pm- Friday Night Party at The Center.
9:15pm- KISS ME, KILL ME (Los Angeles area premiere) followed by Q&A.
10:00pm-1:00am- After Party at Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Ave.


SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10th
10:30am- QUEER & TRANS PEOPLE OF COLOR SHORTS program featuring “Afuera,” “Xavier,” “Gaysians,” “Transcend,” “Whittier Boulevard,” “Vessels” and “NUOC.” Followed by Q&A with filmmakers and cast members.
12:00-4:00pm- Film Industry Professionals Open House (also open to All Access Pass Holders) at Filmmakers’ Gallery in Long Beach.
12:45pm- WOMEN IN SHORTS short film program featuring ”Wedlocked,” “Persistence of Memory,” “Partners,” “Prudence,” “Angelino Heights,” “Vamonos” and “Never a Cover.” Followed by Q&A with filmmakers and cast members.
2:45pm- THE REVIVAL: WOMEN & THE WORD (Long Beach premiere) followed by an exclusive reception for members of Black Lesbians United at The Filmmakers’ Gallery.
5:00pm- RETAKE (Long Beach premiere) followed by Q&A with writer-director Nick Corporon and cast members Tuc Watkins and Devon Graye.
7:15pm- BRUISING FOR BESOS (Long Beach premiere and fully closed captioned) followed by Q&A with ASL interpretation.
8:00pm-10:00pm- Saturday Night Party at The Center.
9:30pm- KIKI (Long Beach premiere).
10:00pm-1:00am- After Party at Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Ave.
12:00am- THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW at the Art Theatre (requires separate ticket purchase).

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11th
10:30am- RAISING ZOEY (Long Beach premiere) preceded by short film “Dawn” and followed by Q&A with director Dante Alencastre and subjects Zoey Luna, Ofelia Barba and Leticia Barba.
11:30am-1:30pm- Brunch at The Center (Free with festival pass or ticket to RAISING ZOEY or MEN IN BRIEFS).
12:30pm- MEN IN BRIEFS short film program featuring “Tremulo,” “Burning Soul: The Raising of the Flag,” “Bed Buddies,” “Seeking: Jack Tripper,” “Me + You” and “Boys on the Rooftop.” Followed by Q&A with filmmakers and cast members.
12:30-3:30pm: QFilms Open House at the Filmmakers’ Gallery, 2238 E. Broadway.
2:45pm- ANGRY INDIAN GODDESSES (Los Angeles area premiere).
5:15pm- FREE CECE (Long Beach premiere) followed by Q&A with director Jacqueline Gares.
7:15pm- FIRST GIRL I LOVED (Long Beach premiere) followed by Q&A with writer-director Kerem Sanga and producer Ross Putman.
7:30pm-9:00pm- Closing Night Party at the Center.
9:30pm- PARIS 05:59: THEO & HUGO (Long Beach premiere).
10:00pm-12:00am- After Party at Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Ave.

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

Friday, August 5, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: All Dressed Up


 

While hardly a household name today, costume designer Orry-Kelly enjoyed a 40-year Hollywood career that garnered him three Academy Awards and numerous additional nominations. He designed wardrobes for such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis (with whom he had a particularly lengthy partnership) and Barbara Stanwyk as well as Rosalind Russell's memorable Auntie Mame ensemble.


Orry-Kelly was openly gay at a time when such openness was discouraged by the studios. Still, his star relationships and Oscars for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot kept him somewhat protected. He also enjoyed a lengthy if closeted romance with one Archibald Leach, better known to the world as Cary Grant.

The designer's life is depicted to generally fabulous effect in Women He's Undressed, now playing theatrically in select cities prior to its VOD/DVD release on August 9th by Wolfe Video. Unexpectedly directed by veteran Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, the 1994 version of Little Women), it combines vintage film footage with interviews of celebs and film historians as well as dramatized segments featuring Orry-Kelly, played by Darren Gilshenan.

Though Gilshenan's flamboyant performance irritated my husband, I found it enjoyable and its incorporation helps to fill in the subject's less-documented early life Down Under (hence the involvement of his countrywoman, Armstrong). Both the re-enactments and the original footage of Orry-Kelly's work that dominates the second half of the film illustrate his personal and professional significance during a time when Hollywood was deeply, often hypocritically, anti-gay. Women He's Undressed is a must-see for gay viewers and anyone with an interest in classic film.


Two current, female-dominated movies have received mixed responses at the US box office but the women involved are hardly to blame. Ghostbusters, Paul Fieg's remake/reboot of the 1980's blockbusters, finds its lead, mostly SNL-bred quartet overshadowed by a too-familiar script and excessive budget. While Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon shine collectively and individually, this scattershot comedy's grim central plotline -- involving a bullied nerd who intentionally wakens the dead in his quest for revenge -- lacks the original movies' less serious spirit. Runaway special effects also detract from what could have been a lighter, less derivative hoot. Hopefully the virtually guaranteed sequel will do it better.


Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is a big-screen chapter of the hilarious, long-running British TV series. Jennifer Saunders (who also wrote the screenplay) and Joanna Lumley reprise their performances as wannabe fashionistas Edina (aka Eddie) and Patsy, and its great to find them in as fine form as ever. Virtually all the series' regulars make appearances during the course of a slight story that finds Eddie and Patsy on the lam when Eddie is accused of murdering supermodel Kate Moss. Saunders makes Eddie unnecessarily reflective and serious at a few points, undermining the otherwise amusing goings on. As usual, Lumley pretty much steals the show and ultimately makes the movie worth seeing.

Reverend's Ratings:
Women He's Undressed: A-
Ghostbusters (2016): C+
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie: B

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Bouviers & Con Men in the Spotlight


 

Popular movies have been serving as inspiration for Broadway musicals for at least the past two decades. The Producers, Hairspray, The Lion King and Kinky Boots all originated on the silver screen. The much-admired 1975 documentary Grey Gardens and 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are additional, somewhat more surprising picks for musicalization but both were well-received during their original New York runs.


Grey Gardens is finally making its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre through August 14th. Broadway divas Rachel York and Betty Buckley are headlining as "Little" Edie Beale and her dominating mother, Edith Bouvier Beale. Real-life relations of Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier, who famously married John F. Kennedy and served as First Lady, the Beale women fell from high society and were later discovered living impoverished lives in the run-down mansion after which the documentary and musical are named.

York plays Edith Bouvier Beale in the musical's first act, then takes on the role of "Little" Edie in act two while Buckley plays the aged Edith. York makes the transition fine and craftily "channels" Buckley at times during act one. Unfortunately, York wasn't in the best singing voice during Grey Gardens' opening night performance on July 13th. Whether the result of illness or this production's presumably intensive rehearsal process, she sounded raspy at times and had difficulty hitting some high notes. She was fine in terms of characterization, though, especially as irascible, tragic "Little" Edie. Buckley was predictably superb as "Big" Edie in act two.


Out actor Bryan Batt also has a featured role in act one as George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist and confidante. He is fine but Doug Wright's book for the musical hits audience members over the head with George's homosexuality. It seemed like the character's orientation is mentioned or referenced with nearly every line of dialogue involving George. This is definitely excessive.

Jeff Cowie's stunning set design includes both "before" and "after" views of the Beales' homestead. Since the documentary film noted the 52 feral cats (plus a raccoon family) that called Grey Gardens home at the time, the scenic design incorporates occasional, amusing projections of cats prowling across the window panes. Ilona Somogyi's costume designs are also eye-catching.

Having long been a fan of the documentary as well as of the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, I was prepared to like the LA production of Grey Gardens a bit more than I ultimately did. The book's flaws and Michael Wilson's direction proved distracting (especially whenever the actors had to narrowly navigate around openings in the stage over the orchestra). Still, it is an entertaining depiction of two enduringly fascinating characters.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as dueling con men in the French Riviera, was a modest hit upon its release nearly three decades ago but is not particularly well-remembered. Long Beach's Musical Theatre West is currently presenting the musical's local premiere at the Carpenter Center through July 24th. Buoyed by a host of catchy, funny songs by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), it turns out to be one of the few stage adaptations to date that actually improves upon its source material while retaining several of the film's funniest moments. The musical's original, 2005 New York production ended up nabbing 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Score.

Making MTW's staging even more of a must-see (though for adults only due to some risque material and crude language) are the bonafide Broadway stars heading its cast. Davis Gaines, who has the distinction of being the longest-running Phantom of the Opera in over 2,000 performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster, plays the elegant Lawrence Jamison. Jamison has made quite a living out of seducing wealthy women visiting the local casinos, aided and abetted by police chief Andre Thibault (Kyle Nudo). Gaines employs here the commanding presence and full-throated baritone that made him such a success as the Phantom, if in a less-threatening manner.

Benjamin Schrader, Gaines' fellow Great White Way import with credits in The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, is hilarious as the decidedly less-refined Freddy Benson. Yearning to live at the same level as Jamison's extravagance, Benson convinces Jamison to take him under his wing. The pair pull off a few cons together and Freddy is about to go his separate way when a new target, the sweet natured American "soap queen" Christina Colgate (MTW regular Rebecca Ann Johnson), arrives. They make a wager on which of them can swindle $50,000 from her first. Things get complicated when both men end up falling in love with her.


These lead cast members as well as the musical's high-stepping ensemble members raise the bar in terms of local performance. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Cynthia Ferrer's sparkling turn as Muriel, a wealthy matron who doesn't necessarily mind being taken advantage of financially. She stops the show several times with the songs "What Was a Woman to Do?" and "Like Zis/Like Zat" and their reprises.

The MTW orchestra sounded great on opening night under the direction of John Glaudini, who also happens to be serving as music director of the new stage adaptation of Frozen at Disney's California Adventure. I only detected a couple of singing glitches and some sloppy lighting, chiefly a lazy or wandering spotlight, during the premiere performance. For tickets, call 562-856-1999 extension 4 or visit the Musical Theatre West website.

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reverend's Preview: Who Ya Gonna Call for LGBTQ Movies? Outfest!


 

Lesbian lawmakers, real-life gay porn stars, the world’s first lady ghostbusters and sexually-searching Asian Americans will headline some of the most anxiously anticipated movies at Outfest 2016 this month.


The 34th annual Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival runs July 7th-17th at multiple venues in the LA/Hollywood area, including the newly-renovated Ford Amphitheater. The Ford wasn’t available last summer for Outfest’s popular outdoor screenings, of which only one was presented at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.


This year’s Outfest audiences will be among the first to check out what they’ve done to the revamped Ford. Five films will be shown there, including the LA premiere of a rebooted Ghostbusters featuring an all-star female cast. Comedy heavyweights Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones inherit the proton packs from their male 1980’s predecessors in an effort to stop evil supernatural forces from taking over Manhattan. They wisely hire Chris Hemsworth of Thor and The Avengers fame as their hunky receptionist, taking over from the decidedly brainier Annie Potts in the original Ghostbusters flicks.

Also screening at the Ford will be Kiki, the fest’s Documentary Centerpiece exploring today’s NYC drag ball scene not unlike the classic Paris is Burning; the world premiere of the fur-infused men’s sequel BearCity 3; Modern Love, another world premiere about a gay couple facing challenges on the eve of their wedding; and the closing night comedy Other People, starring Jesse Plemons (TV’s Fargo and Breaking Bad), Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford and Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods.


Christopher Racster, Outfest’s Executive Director, and Director of Programming Lucy Mukerjee-Brown wrote in a joint statement: “What better time or place to revel in our own stories — and to discover the commonalities within our own community — than Outfest Los Angeles? Our hope is that you will walk away from this year’s festival with a deeper understanding of the breadth of our community.”

Political Animals, one of the fest’s Spotlight screenings on July 14th, is essential viewing for anyone interested in our LGBT history. It premiered at last month’s LA Film Festival and ended up walking away with both the Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary.


Sheila Kuehl, Christine Kehoe, Jackie Goldberg and Carole Migden were the only openly lesbian or gay California state representatives in the 1990’s-early 2000’s. Individually and collectively, they took on Governor Pete Wilson’s 1990 veto of the state’s first gay rights bill, the first effort to ban anti-gay bullying in public schools in 1996, and the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. They also worked on behalf of people with AIDS and established California’s domestic partnership registry.

The inspiring documentary is nicely structured by director Jonah Markowitz, who provides incisive, insightful examinations of each legislator’s personal background as well as their political career. Most dramatically, it literally shows how far California and the nation have come over the last 26 years in accepting their LGBTQ citizens thanks to these four women. The film culminates in a modern-day dinner scene with the quartet at which they humbly declare “we didn’t know we would be such groundbreakers.” Of note, Kuehl is today an LA County Supervisor.


Making its US premiere at Outfest on July 13th will be the long-awaited movie version of Holding the Man. Based on the autobiography of Australian actor and playwright Timothy Conigrave, it recounts the romantic but ultimately heartbreaking love story between Conigrave and John Caleo. After meeting in high school, where Caleo was captain of their football team, the pair forged a relationship that’s been referred to as Australia’s Brokeback Mountain. Name actors Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Fox play supporting roles in this sure-to-be-memorable film.

Women He’s Undressed is another film with roots Down Under screening on July 9th. This fantastic documentary by excellent Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, the 1994 adaptation of Little Women) uncovers the little known life of gay, Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. Armstrong utilizes both interviews with his still-living peers and dramatic re-creations of episodes from the designer’s life, including his secret affair with Cary Grant.


Rounding out my recommendations of movies to catch at Outfest 2016 are Looking: The Movie, the big-screen conclusion of HBO’s series about three gay friends living in San Francisco; a special screening of 1983’s bisexual vampire love story The Hunger, co-starring the late David Bowie; Spa Night, starring Sundance Breakthrough Performance Award winner Joe Seo as a Korean-American man who discovers his homosexuality when he takes a job at a men’s health club; the US premiere of Outfest UCLA Legacy Project’s revelatory restoration of the 1919 German film Different from the Others, the earliest surviving positive portrayal of a gay protagonist; and King Cobra, inspired by the real-life struggle of two competitors over the career of gay adult superstar Brent Corrigan.

In addition to a star-making performance by Garrett Clayton as Corrigan, the cast of King Cobra boasts James Franco (who also produces), Molly Ringwald, Alicia Silverstone and Christian Slater. Franco will be presented with Outfest’s inaugural James Schamus Award, honoring his considerable efforts to bring LGBTQ stories to the forefront of current cinema, immediately prior to the film’s screening on July 16th.

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

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

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Still the Lord of the Jungle


 

Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic creation Tarzan is swinging his way to the big screen this weekend for the first time since Disney's animated adaptation in 1999. The Legend of Tarzan, starring True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård in the title role, mark's the character's first live-action appearance since 1998's woeful Tarzan and the Lost City.


While Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) remains for me the definitive cinematic exploration of the jungle lord's animal upbringing and eventual humanization, the new movie has much to recommend it. Skarsgård definitely brings a suitable physique and physicality to the role, even if he doesn't exhibit much range in his facial expressions. The film is stunningly shot by up and coming cinematographer Henry Braham (Guardians of the Galaxy) and boasts exquisite sets by Oscar-winner Stuart Craig (who previously, similarly designed Greystoke). Director David Yates, who helmed the last four films in the Harry Potter series, confidently orchestrates the drama as well as the movie's impressive action sequences.

As the story begins, Tarzan has married his longtime love, Jane (Margot Robbie), and assumed his entitled position in London's Parliament as John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke Manor. It isn't long, though, before he is lured back to his former home in the Congo to serve a seemingly political purpose that turns out out to be a conspiracy involving both a vengeance-minded tribal chieftain (played by Djimon Hounsou) and the evil envoy (Christoph Waltz in his latest villain role) of Belgium's greedy King Leopold. When Jane is taken prisoner, Tarzan recruits both his human and animal friends as well as George Washington Williams, a real-life US representative played by Samuel L. Jackson, to take their now-shared enemies down.


There is considerably more history and fact-based political intrigue in The Legend of Tarzan than in most previous iterations of the ape man's story. As a result, kids will likely continue to prefer the Disney version. But for adults, Yates & Company's film is the most ethnically, culturally and ecologically respectful depiction of the character to date.

During a press conference I attended last weekend in which Yates, Skarsgård, Robbie, Hounsou and Jackson all participated (Waltz was disappointingly unable to attend), they all spoke of how this more historically-accurate and mature approach appealed to them. Yates spoke of how he was drawn to the screenplay's "sexual, sensual" take on Burroughs' stories, which is understandable after directing four youth-oriented Harry Potter movies in a row. Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Hustle & Flow's Craig Brewer co-wrote the script.

Skarsgård handled inevitable questions about why he didn't wear Tarzan's traditional loincloth more with humor and aplomb. "I begged David for months to let me wear the loincloth," he joked. Skarsgård wears trousers of the time, though perhaps a bit more form-fitting, throughout the movie but does don a loincloth ("more of a sarong," Skarsgård calls it) for the film's final scene. No stranger to nudity as illustrated by True Blood, Skarsgård still shows plenty of skin in The Legend of Tarzan. He is fleetingly nude during flashbacks to his early, ape-reared jungle years.


Robbie makes the most beautiful and resourceful big-screen Jane ever (sorry, Maureen O'Sullivan and Bo Derek) but her performance struck me as too contemporary. She charmingly shared during the press conference that, due to her youth, Disney's Tarzan served as her primary previous exposure to the characters. The screenplay doesn't help her in this regard, most notably during a bizarre exchange she has with Waltz's villainous yet devoutly-Catholic Leon Rom that alludes to the 21st-century scandal resulting from the sexual abuse of children by priests. Rom's employment of a killer rosary also gives the film a distasteful, unnecessary anti-Catholic feel.

The inclusion of George Washington Williams is the film's most novel element yet also proves to be its most unexpectedly poignant. In one scene, the character recounts the mistreatment black men and women just one generation earlier than him suffered as slaves but concludes it was little compared to the suffering inflicted on Native Americans. Jackson spoke in depth about the research he did into Williams' life, of which he knew little before receiving The Legend of Tarzan script. The actor also joked about how he, unlike Skarsgård, had to "get in shape" for his role by gaining 20 pounds after he had lost considerable weight filming Tim Burton's upcoming Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Even if doesn't ultimately rank among the very best Tarzan movies made to date (of which there are over 100), the ape man's latest adventure provides more food for thought than the typical summer blockbuster in addition to the requisite action and spectacular special effects.

Reverend's Rating: B

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Tickle Fits


 

An intriguing new documentary pulls back the curtain on an odd topic: online tickling competitions. New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve stumbled across them while researching potential subjects. The out Farrier immediately recognized a "sort of gay" aspect to the allegedly female-produced videos. Little did he realize that what initially looked like an innocent fetish would become all too serious, even life-threatening.


Tickled, opening this weekend in Los Angeles and playing in other cities, is the final result. As the film reveals, there are "tickle cells" all over the US (especially in the midwest) and beyond in which young men are paid sizable amounts of money to either tickle other guys or be tickled themselves. The online videos of these sessions, some of which are more overtly sexual in nature, generate millions of dollars. But when Farrier contacted Jane O'Brien Media, source of the initial batch of videos he discovered, he was shocked to receive an anti-gay reply threatening legal action to stop him from making his documentary.

As Farrier dug deeper, he learned that the true identity of the producer was neither Jane O'Brien nor her 1990's predecessor, Terri DiSisto. Rather, the increasingly virulent responses he was receiving were from one David D'Amato, a closeted, tickling-obsessed former high school assistant principal. While serving time in prison for computer fraud, D'Amato studied law and today occupies a lofty position in his father's law firm.

Farrier finally tracks down and confronts D'Amato on camera, but the documentary takes a long time getting there. There are interesting detours along the way to secret sites where the tickling "competitions" take place as well as interviews with some of their former participants. What becomes glaringly clear is how D'Amato and his underlings consistently prey on gullible young men, some underage, who are desperate for money. In one case, a ticklee agreed to do the videos because he had a family member battling cancer with no health insurance. D'Amato proves to be obsessed with power and control, as his tickling fetish reflects.

Even as a documentary, Tickled will appeal primarily to a niche audience. I do hope, though, that it helps to expose and bring down the "c*nt" (not my word but the word applied to him in the doc by a former participant) D'Amato. Expect Movie Dearest to start receiving excessively-threatening legal notices from one of D'Amato's pseudonynomous representatives.


Also intriguing and unexpectedly good is writer-director Anna Rose Holmer's breakout narrative drama, The Fits (Oscilloscope). It also opens this weekend in Orange County and Pasadena following successful runs in LA and New York. Set amid and among the members of a dancing troupe comprised of African-American girls, it uses dance as both a metaphor for and illustration of adolescent awakening.

The film's protagonist, Toni (an impressive acting debut by young Royalty Hightower), starts out as a wannabe boxer under the tutelage of her older brother. However, she becomes increasingly drawn to the troupe that she watches rehearse each day. Toni begins to mimic their moves but is given pause when some dancers suddenly become stricken by unusual, seizure-like fits. Each girl affected reports different experiences, some of a more spiritual nature. Are they being caused by simple pre-performance jitters, something in the school's drinking water or something more sinister? Or could they be considered the ultimate expression of female empowerment and freedom?

Despite the fact that it doesn't spell out any conclusions, which may frustrate some viewers, The Fits proves to be as focused and determined as Toni. The cinematographer employs lots of long, slow tracking shots not unlike director Stanley Kubrick to heighten both the movement and mystery of the proceedings. The excellent, combat-like choreography by Chariah and Mariah Jones underscores the tension while serving in its impressive own right, especially during the film's finale. Finally, pay special attention to the climactic song that poses the question, "Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?" It may prove key to the whole undertaking.

I have noticed over the last couple years, as both a critic and LGBT film festival programmer, that so many LGBT movies being produced nowadays are downers. Sure, our community has gained acceptance and garnered greater civil rights. So why are the stories our filmmakers are telling so morose? Does becoming mainstream lead to clinical depression?


From Afar (Strand Releasing), Lorenzo Vigas' new movie opening today in LA, proves to be the latest illustration of this. It begins with the beating of a middle-aged gay orthodontist, masochistically played by Alfredo Castro, by a 17-year old hustler he has picked up. Soon after, the hustler (ironically named "Elder" and portrayed by the sultry Luis Silva) recognizes his mark, Armando, as a key to paying for the banged-up car Elder has been fixing up.

He starts to come around more but Armando proves to have his own motivations in encouraging Elder's growing interest. When Elder is himself beaten up by the disapproving brothers of the girl he has been seeing, Armando nurses him back to health. The two establish an emotional bond once they reveal that they were both abused by their fathers. Elder comes to regard Armando as his "buddy" but increasingly finds himself drawn romantically to his decidedly older friend.

There is no denying that the Venezuelan Vigas and his co-writer, Guillermo Arriaga, have created an engrossing and emotionally complex script. Despite their significant age difference, I found myself rooting for Armando and Elder to forge a relationship. I was deeply disappointed therefore, without giving too much away, by the movie's dramatically surprising but downbeat ending. While I don't deny that there ought to be darker takes on the LGBT experience and relationships, please join me in praying they don't become the norm.

Reverend's Ratings:
Tickled: B
The Fits: B+
From Afar: B-

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Summer Lovin'... or Not


 

With summer comes Pride season, and with Pride season comes LGBT film festivals across the USA. Not even Donald Trump will be able to stop that. As surely as Christmas has fallen on December 25th for centuries, summer will always bring film festivals.


The Los Angeles Film Festival is actually a mainstream fest but this year it boasts more movies of LGBT appeal than it has in a while. The fest is currently underway at downtown's LA Live entertainment complex. Among the offerings are Political Animals, a documentary focusing on four out lesbians in public service; Denial, about its director's discovery that his father is transgender; and Maria Govan's acclaimed Play the Devil.

The latter film explores some familiar coming out themes but its Caribbean location (Trinidad and Tobago) and stark socio-economic distinctions make it somewhat unique. Protagonist Gregory (easy-on-the-eyes Petrice Jones) is a gifted photographer and actor but really wants to be a doctor. He and his older brother, estranged from their father, live with their religious grandmother. Greg is forced to confront his sexuality following a weekend trip with a wealthy, married male admirer to a private beach house. As the annual island celebration of Carnival approaches, Greg wrestles with the various people and circumstances tugging at him. Play the Devil shines an important light on heretofore under-represented populations and locations but features a disappointingly negative ending.


Holy Hell, meanwhile, premiered during January's Sundance Film Festival and garnered serious buzz that translated into its current US theatrical release. Newly-anointed Suicide Squad Joker and Oscar winner Jared Leto even signed on as an executive producer. In this fascinating and unusually revealing documentary, director Will Allen recounts his 22-year affiliation with a religious cult known, at least during its California incarnation, as the Buddhafield. Led by an enigmatic former actor known as simply "Michel," the Buddhafield had hundreds of members at its high point. Eventually, many of the group's male members including Allen would admit that the frequently Speedo-sporting Michel sexually abused them on numerous occasions.

Allen had been a budding filmmaker from a young age, which led to his appointment by Michel as the Buddhafield's chief documentarian. The footage amassed by Allen during more than two decades provides plenty of intimate insights into the cult's philosophy and activities. Much of these are admirable, as the members forged a near-Utopian lifestyle and obviously grew to love their "teacher" and one another deeply. Sadly, as other religious bodies have also learned in recent years, requiring followers to pledge blind obedience to their leaders is a recipe for disaster. Kudos to Allen and his fellow survivors for going on record in Holy Hell up to and including a years-later confrontation of their former guru, who eventually moved to Hawaii and re-christened himself "Andreas" but continued his former practices with a new set of disciples. Woe to those who are easily-duped by manipulative spiritual leaders, not by this film.


Two other gay-themed films have just made their DVD debuts courtesy of TLA Releasing. Like Cattle Towards Glow is co-writer Dennis Cooper's latest exercise in cinematic sadism, although Zac Farley has the directing honors. Cooper's trademark sad, sexy but abused boys are on full display -- including erections and some graphic sex -- in five mostly wordless stories. The most interesting is the last, in which a camera-armed drone spies on a naked young man who has been lured to some sort of military outpost. Farley's direction is occasionally stylish but the film is bizarre and/or inscrutable more often than not. TLA's Holiday, meanwhile, is a fairly routine coming of age story despite its spectacular setting: the foothills of Ecuador's Andes mountains, circa 1999. A teenager has been sent there to spend the summer with extended family headed by a crooked banker. He ends up falling in love with a sexy local boy devoted to heavy metal music. The movie's ending is simultaneously sad yet empowering.

I have anxiously awaited the movie version of Stephen King's technology-meets-zombies novel Cell since the book's publication ten years ago. Well, the screen adaptation is being made available June 10th on VOD prior to its July theatrical release. John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, who co-starred in 2007's King-inspired spook story 1408, are reunited for this post-apocalyptic tale in which a mysterious "pulse" of sound through all the world's cell phones turn people into a bloodthirsty, single-minded pack of killers. Those few who were fortunate not to have been using their phones when the pulse struck, including Cusack's estranged husband and father and Jackson's loner, band together to try to survive.


Cell, the movie, is a disappointingly low-budget but sporadically effective affair. Director Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor) is capable but it consistently feels like the producers don't trust the material. Perhaps wisely, the ability of the zombies in the book to levitate has been jettisoned. Unwisely and somewhat offensively, the sexuality of the character played by Jackson has been changed from gay to straight. The film's ending is also decidedly darker than the novel's more hopeful if open-ended finale. On the plus side, Jackson steals the movie with an atypically understated performance. Maybe someone will yet make a fuller, more authentic adaptation of Cell as filmmakers are reportedly doing now with King's classic It.

If one is looking for tongue-in-cheek scares this summer, be sure to check out RLJ Entertainment's new DVD and VOD release Monsterland. This anthology of creature-infused stories by a number of different directors is mostly more silly than scary but generally well-made. One is even animated. "Hag," about a man slowly coming to terms with the fact that his wife is a succubus, is the most serious and interesting of the lot, while the more comedic "Hellyfish" and "The Grey Matter" have their charms and boast some impressive special effects. A fair number of scantily-clad men also make Monsterland worth the price of rental or download.


Happy summer/Pride season to all!

Reverend's Ratings:
Play the Devil: B
Holy Hell: B+
Like Cattle Towards Glow: C-
Holiday: C+
Cell: C
Monsterland: B

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

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