Friday, January 22, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Death & Disney at Long Beach Playhouse


Whodunnit? That is the question frequently posed and ultimately popularized by Agatha Christie, murder-mystery writer extraordinaire. She set the standard for the genre in assembling various people, each with a potential motive and alibi, in the proximity of a mysterious death. It then falls to one of them to deduce clues and identify the killer.

Christie's play The Mousetrap premiered in London in 1952 and has played continuously there ever since. It is currently enjoying a local revival on Long Beach Playhouse's Mainstage through February 13th. Based on Three Blind Mice, a radio play Christie wrote in 1947 to mark (somewhat oddly) Queen Mary's 80th birthday, it incorporates all the author's trademark elements with perhaps a bit more humor than readers of her novels may be accustomed to.

A group of apparent strangers gathers during the opening weekend of a county inn outside London. A snowstorm (nicely visualized by this production's tech crew) is raging outside. The inn's owners, Giles and Mollie Ralston, are a young and somewhat overwhelmed married couple. Their guests are Christopher Wren, an over-excited architect; Mrs. Boyle, a crotchety, critical spinster; Major Metcalf, retired from her Majesty's army; Miss Casewell, a self-described socialist given to dressing like a man; and the seemingly Italian Paravicini, who shows up at the house when his car breaks down nearby.

While Mrs. Boyle isn't happy, all is generally going well until the arrival of Sergeant Trotter, an inspector with Scotland Yard. He reports that he has been sent there in the wake of an earlier murder in London. The victim had a connection to the Ralstons' neighborhood and her killer may be in the vicinity. These fears are confirmed when Mrs. Boyle is discovered dead. Act two of The Mousetrap serves as a police procedural while Sergeant Trotter investigates the suspects. Being an Agatha Christie work, there is naturally a twist ending which the audience is subsequently sworn not to reveal. This secret has largely been kept for 64 years now.

The chief strength of any production of The Mousetrap aside from its text is its cast, and director Jeff Brown has lined up a fine one at the Playhouse. As Mrs. Boyle and Major Metcalf, respectively, Kathleen Fabry and Doug Seagraves are obvious old pros. Anissa Loer and Lee Samuel Tanng, both seen last fall in the Playhouse's staging of Hay Fever, exude boundary-pushing charisma as Miss Casewell and Christopher Wren. Sri Chilukuri and Andrea Pincus, both making their LBP debuts, make a sympathetic pair as Mr. and Mrs. Ralston, while Cort Huckabone is an effectively creepy Paravicini. For me, however, young Bradley Roa II's assured, commanding turn as Sergeant Trotter was the standout performance in this altogether commendable and entertaining production. Please visit Long Beach Playhouse website or call 562-494-1014 for tickets.

Now playing upstairs at the Playhouse in the Studio Theatre through January 23rd is a decidedly different yet equally not-to-be-missed show, Digested Disney. It is the brainchild of friends and lifelong Disney fans Sean Engard and John Schwendinger, who both wrote and perform this impressive, 90-minute homage to all 50+ animated feature films produced to date (in chronological order) by the fabled studio. Well, almost all 50+ of them. A few are mentioned but skipped over due to the writer-actors' amusing admitted biases.

Things get off to a rollicking start with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, presented as an episode of The Dating Game with Engard as the husband-seeking princess and Schwendinger channeling all seven dwarfs. This is followed shortly after by such inspirations as a funeral/eulogy for Bambi's mother, Peter Pan as a film noir-ish detective story, and the villainous Cruella DeVil of 101 Dalmatians at a wildlife conservation gathering.

Schwendinger and/or Engard perform sung synopses of the more contemporary films The Black Cauldron, Pocahontas (with the dance hit "Uptown Funk" re-dubbed "Jamestown Funk") and Hercules. Their very funny take on Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame serves as "a cautionary tale about how not to take advice from stoned friends," referencing the movie's gargoyle characters. Things culminate in a hilarious Frozen finale that finds Engard sporting full Elsa drag. There are also timely references to Disney-owned Star Wars and even the Playhouse's Mousetrap production downstairs.

Not all the show's skits work, especially a dated version of Alice in Wonderland as the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? TV game show. And while audience participation in this kind of production has great potential, there is a little too much of it especially since it is obvious most of the participants have been pre-selected and rehearsed. With a bit more finessing, practice and promotion, though, Digested Disney could prove itself very popular, especially among fellow Disney fans. For information about the current and future performances, visit the show's website.

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

And the 2015 Dorian Awards Go To...

Carol, Todd Haynes' beautifully crafted lesbian romance, and Transparent, the hit Amazon Prime trans dramedy, have swept this year's Dorian Awards. Presented by the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (of which I and my fellow Movie Dearest critic Chris Carpenter are members), the Dorians (named after Dorian Gray, the literary creation of GALECA's patron saint Oscar Wilde) have honored the year's best in film and television since 2009.

With a record-setting seven film nominations, Carol is also the new Dorian cinematic champ with five wins, besting previous winner A Single Man, which won three awards in the Dorians' first year. In addition to Film and Director of the Year prizes, Carol was named the LGBTQ Film of the Year and netted wins for its screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and star Cate Blanchett. A previous winner for Blue Jasmine two years ago, this win makes Blanchett the Dorians' most-honored film actor to date. Director Haynes was also named the "Wilde Artist of the Year", given to a "truly groundbreaking force in film".

Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hungarian Holocaust drama Son of Saul and the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy continued their winning streaks on their way to the Oscars with wins for, respectively, his gritty performance in The Revenant and as Foreign Language Film and Documentary of the Year. The scrappy indie comedy Tangerine was named the year's Unsung Film, while the eye-popping apocalyptic adventure Mad Max: Fury Road added the Dorian for Visually Striking Film of the Year to its growing haul of kudos. And just like the original Magic Mike three years ago, the ignominious Magic Mike XXL was crowned the Campy Flick of the Year.

For the second year in a row, Transparent won the television Dorians for TV Comedy and LGBTQ TV Show of the Year and for its star Jeffrey Tambor. As a result of a tie, Fargo and Orange is the New Black share TV Drama top honors this year, while Taraji P. Henson took TV Actress and her show, Empire, took Campy TV Show of the Year. Unsung TV honors went to the late Looking, and another HBO series, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, won for TV Current Affairs Show. And Aretha Franklin's show-stopping rendition of Carol King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" from last month's Kennedy Center Honors took the prize for TV Musical Moment of the Year.

Additional awards went to Ex Machina and The Danish Girl MVP Alicia Vikander as the year's "We're Wilde About You" Rising Star and ubiquitous Trainwreck comedienne Amy Schumer as the "Wilde Wit of the Year". And last but certainly not least, legendary actress Jane Fonda was awarded the "Timeless Award", GALECA's version of a life achievement honor. Previous "Timeless" winners include Betty White, Ian McKellen, George Takei and Jane's 9 to 5/Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin.

For the complete list of the 2015 Dorian Award nominees and winners, see the comments section below.

Friday, January 15, 2016

MD Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love


Let's talk about sex... comedies:

Amy Schumer has built her career on the comic persona of the matter-of-fact slut, and she doesn't stray very far from that in Trainwreck, her big screen debut as star and screenwriter. Amy plays (surprise!) Amy, who's big on casual sex, not so much on commitment (in other words, a "typical man" in female form). In this role-reversal scenario, Bill Hader plays the thankless "girlfriend" role, that apparent rarity in the Schumer universe, a guy who calls the day after sex and likes to spoon. Although comedically well-partnered, there's little romantic spark between the two, leaving little dramatic drive once the plot inevitably gets to the "will they or won't they get back together" stage.

Director Judd Apatow once again gives his cast free reign to improvise, resulting in an excruciatingly unfunny "intervention" scene where Matthew Broderick appears as himself for absolutely no reason... maybe he was visiting the set that day? Other famous faces make the most of their supporting turns, notably a "yes, that's Tilda Swinton" Tilda Swinton as Amy's over-tanned, Miranda Priestly-ish boss, and pro wrestler John Cena, deliciously hilarious as a muscle hunk who can't quite get the swing of talking dirty during sex. Another sports star, basketballer LeBron James, pops up as himself in a cameo and then never leaves, assuming the role of overprotective "gal pal" to Hader in a never-ending, not-as-hilarious-as-they-think-it-is subplot.

Aside from the gender swap of the traditional leads, Trainwreck is your basic romantic comedy, complete with forced happy ending. I can't help but wonder that if this were a skit on Schumer's acerbic TV show that the resolution would have been far more daring.

Magic Mike bumped and ground itself into pop culture consciousness in 2012 and, despite being a darker look into the world of male strippers than the marketing led on, was enough of a hit to spawn a sequel last summer. The cheekily titled Magic Mike XXL is closer to what we all expected the original to be, a free-wheeling party thrown by a bunch of greased-up, half-naked dudes. It is also one big mess of a movie.

XXL does jettison the two weakest links from the original cast (Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn) but also lost its strongest (Matthew McConaughey as stripper guru Dallas). The remaining cast, lead by Channing Tatum and including Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello, are saddled with a ludicrous road trip to a stripper convention (?!?) plot. This is Magic Mike-land, so naturally they strip along the way: for a random convenience store clerk, for a cougar-ish Andie MacDowell, for no reason. The absurdity never ends, culminating in an epic strip spectacular staged like a naughty trade show. It's all more ridiculous than arousing and, trust me, the bountiful eye candy is not worth sitting through this embarrassment.

Where stars Amy Schumer and Channing Tatum stumbled, a cast of unknowns score with the Australian film The Little Death (now streaming on Netflix). A series of interconnected stories all built around suburban couples exploring their kinkier sides, The Little Death (a slang term for an orgasm) is funny, sexy and relatable in ways Trainwreck and Magic Mike XXL don't even consider let alone attempt. From a role-playing husband who gets carried away to a wife who gets turned on when her husband cries, writer/director Josh Lawson (who also co-stars) mines the inherent humor found in sex in general and fetishes in particular. Seek it out.

MD Ratings:
Trainwreck: B-
Magic Mike XXL: D
The Little Death: B

Trainwreck, Magic Mike XXL and The Little Death are now available on Blu-ray and/or DVD:

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

Friday, January 8, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: The Best & Worst Movies of 2015


Could it be that the movies we consider “the best” are those that resonate most personally with us? Many of last year’s films currently being hailed by critics and Hollywood guilds are drawn from true stories, with LGBT lives being recognized more than ever before. Here are my personal picks of the best and less-honorable cinematic achievements of 2015 including who I consider this awards season’s front runners in various categories:

1) Spotlight and The Big Short. The two finest films of the year were both drawn from horrific events that occurred in the last decade. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight shows with near-documentary precision how an intrepid team of Boston Globe reporters uncovered the Catholic Church’s long history of sexually abusing children. (A gay victim is featured during one heartbreaking scene.) It rightfully infuriates but also inspires and is completely engrossing. And, as a former Roman Catholic priest myself who served during the church’s resultant global sex abuse crisis, I can attest to the film’s authenticity.

The Big Short, meanwhile, is an eye-opening but unexpectedly entertaining exposé of how big banks manipulated the mortgage loan industry, ultimately crippling the US economy in 2008 and costing millions of Americans their homes and jobs. Both films’ terrific all-star casts are award-worthy as a whole but I would single out Spotlight’s Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as well as Short’s Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and a perpetually pissed-off Steve Carell.

2) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I could identify with the young wannabe filmmakers, since I was a film student my first few years of college, who lead this comedy infused with some very serious moments. Their friendship with a leukemia-stricken classmate ultimately serves as a wake up call regarding what is truly important in life. TV director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon makes an impressive leap to the big screen with this offbeat, visually engaging tearjerker. I would love to see him and/or this film’s adapted screenplay further honored after it deservedly won both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

3) Phoenix. The title of this psychological thriller has nothing to do with my hometown in Arizona. Rather, it is a Hitchcockian tale from Germany of a young woman (disfigured by her time in a Nazi concentration camp but having undergone plastic surgery) who returns home after the war to learn terrible truths about her husband. Since he doesn’t recognize her as his wife, she is that much more able to exact a slow-burning revenge. Nina Hoss is excellent as the wronged woman. While Phoenix isn’t eligible for this year’s Academy Awards, it was recently named one of the top foreign films of 2015 by the National Board of Review.

4) Carol. This acclaimed lesbian romance set in the 1950’s has already racked up a ton of trophies from various critics groups and is sure to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. It was helmed by gay director Todd Haynes, who previously made the queer classics Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven, and adapted from a novel by lesbian author Patricia Highsmith. Cate Blanchett (who was also splendid in 2015 as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother) and Rooney Mara provide fully committed turns as the film’s ahead-of-their-time lovers, with out actress Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) along for moral support. Carol turns all those self-loathing Children’s Hour conventions of the period on their heads, and it’s about time.

5) Brooklyn. Also set in the 1950’s, this is an unapologetically nostalgic and charmingly romantic story of a young woman’s journey from Ireland to America (not unlike my great grandmother), where she falls in love with a young Italian man played by the adorable Emory Cohen. An unexpected trip back to her home country challenges her loyalties while offering evidence that sometimes the grass truly is greener on the other side. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) gives a beautifully unaffected, touching performance as the film’s pioneering Eilis that may be the one to beat at the Oscars. Nick Hornby’s script, based on Colm Toibin’s novel, will likely duke it out with The Big Short for Best Adapted Screenplay honors.

6) Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Yet another strong woman’s tale, even as it raises questions about its title character’s sanity. Dissatisfied Kumiko feels trapped in a dead-end job in Japan. The two loves of her life are her pet rabbit Bunzo and the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo. She gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that a suitcase full of loot buried in the film actually exists for the taking, so Kumiko hightails it to the US to find it. From this somewhat absurdist premise grows a poignant if bittersweet fable about wish fulfillment. It is American-made but stars an unforgettable Rinko Kikuchi (Babel).

7) Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I don’t recall ever having two animated films at once in my annual top 10 list but it would be a crime not to include these. They are totally different from each other in tone and style, the first a frequently touching CG-rendered depiction of a teenage girl’s coming of age and the other a slapstick-leaning tale of a flock of Claymation sheep who hop a bus for a day of adventure in the Big City. Each serves as the new pinnacle in their respective mediums, both in terms of technique and storytelling. Inside Out is already the presumptive winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Film.

8) Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. I watched a ton of fine documentaries this year on a variety of interesting subjects, but these are the three that stuck with me the most. While the murder of young gay man Matthew Shepard has received plenty of coverage during the last 17 years, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is the first doc made by one of his best friends, Michele Josue, and provides a much more intimate perspective. The Man in the Machine is a more in-depth portrait of the late tech wizard and helps to fill in the many blanks left by last year’s more fictionalized, frustrating Steve Jobs biopic (although Michael Fassbender is excellent in it). Finally, Electric Boogaloo is an endlessly entertaining piece of nostalgia about the low-budget studio that turned out tons of cheesy movies during the 1980’s, including the homoerotic classic Masters of the Universe.

9) The Last Five Years. It’s great that Hollywood has produced more movie musicals in recent years and that audiences have embraced them. This one, adapted from Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit, wasn’t as well promoted or as successful as some of its predecessors but it is nevertheless one of the best. It succeeds beautifully with a storytelling conceit that is risky both on stage and screen: the rise and fall of a romance, with the woman’s perspective being told from the end of the relationship and the man’s perspective told/sung from its beginning. Plus it boasts terrific performances by the reigning queen of musicals, Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Into the Woods), and dreamy Jeremy Jordan (Newsies on Broadway, TV’s Supergirl).

10) 52 Tuesdays, Tangerine and The Danish Girl. 2015 has already been proclaimed as the year that trans stories broke through to the big screen, and these three films are the main reason why. Each is distinct in budget and technique (Tangerine was shot exclusively on cell phones with a non-professional cast) but each is a gem that provides unique, long-overdue insight into trans lives, both historic and contemporary. If I were a member of the Academy, Eddie Redmayne would get my vote for Best Actor for his subtle, immensely moving turn as the true-life Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, in The Danish Girl.

When it comes to the worst movies of 2015, here in no particular order of lack of distinction, the less said is probably the better: Jupiter Ascending (which Eddie Redmayne also starred in, probably to his current regret), Maps to the Stars, Minions (when the banana-hued critters went from amusing to irritating), Chocolate City, The Harvest, San Andreas (which could also potentially be the campiest disaster movie ever (sorry Earthquake), complete with an inexplicable supporting turn by Kylie Minogue?!), The Hallow, Poltergeist (probably the most unnecessary remake ever) and Fifty Shades of Grey (‘nuff said).

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

Monday, January 4, 2016

MD Reviews: Seconds


From Jiminy Cricket to Olaf the Snowman, animated sidekicks have always been scene-stealing fan favorites. Some have even become so popular recently that they are now the stars of their own movies. Not just direct-to-video spin-offs like Bartok the Magnificent or Kronk's New Groove, but feature films like Puss in Boots, The Penguins of Madagascar and now Minions and Shaun the Sheep Movie that are equal to or even better than the originals they were spawned from.

The jabbering little yellow critters known as the Minions first appeared as, well, the minions of supervillain Gru in Despicable Me and its sequel. These bipedal, seemingly innumerable over-alled, oversized Twinkies are given an origin story in their first of what will no doubt be many movies. From the dawn of creation, the Minions have had a innate desire toward subservience, and the more despicable their master the better. Through the ages they glom on to such baddies as a T-Rex and Napoleon until the film settles on a setting: the swinging mod London of the 1960's (cue the incessant prog rock).

There, the main Minion trio of Kevin, Stuart and Bob try to impress superstar villainess Scarlett Overkill, the comedic development of which apparently ended with the casting against type of girl next door Sandra Bullock. (Note to animated filmmakers: just putting an A-lister in an atypical role isn't funny in and of itself.) John Hamm, Geoffrey Rush and the Absolutely Fabulous Jennifer Saunders as the Queen of England fill out the vocal cast, but in spite of all this celebrity the Minions steal back their own movie with their simple shtick and lovable personalities. Enough with the humans, here's to a Minion-only Minions 2.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Academy Award winning Aardman Animation short A Close Shave. A truly breakout character, Shaun soon found himself with his own merchandise and TV show, the basis of which is the jumping off point for this sweet solo movie, sans his former co-stars Wallace and Gromit. To the infectiously happy tune "Feels Like Summer" (which better be nominated for the Best Song Oscar), Shaun starts his first big screen adventure on Mossy Bottom (!) Farm where he and his flock innocently plot to take a break from their daily routine, run like clockwork by their friendly yet dim owner. Naturally, things go awry and the farmer, beset with amnesia, ends up lost in the nearby big city, and the intrepid sheep, led by Shaun, set off to rescue him. But when they run afoul of an overzealous animal control officer, it is up to our clever hero to save the day and return them all to the simple joys of rural life.

Aardman once again has created a deliriously entertaining stop motion gem that, with dialogue reduced to the merest of sounds, relies almost solely on the lovingly-crafted and intricately-detailed visuals to elicit the biggest of laughs. Like Gromit before him, Shaun is the Buster Keaton of clay, capable of hilarity with even the slightest of deadpan expressions. This "silliness of the lambs" was easily, almost effortlessly the most blissfully enjoyable movie-watching experience of the past year.

MD Ratings:
Minions: B
Shaun the Sheep Movie: A

Minions and Shaun the Sheep Movie are 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.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper for January 2016: 2015 - The Year in Film

Ring out the old and ring in the new with January's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper salute to 2015: The Year in Film!

From inside a little girl's mind to a galaxy far, far away, our cinematic celebration of the past year stars Max & Carol & Steve & Sin-Dee, a Danish girl and a man from Mars, a legendary detective and an enigmatic android, a fairy tale princess and a sheep named Shaun, not to mention a whole bunch of Bostonian investigative reporters, Wall Street investors and minions, lots and lots of minions.....

Start 2016 off right with the best of 2015!