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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Monthly Wallpaper: June 2016 - Queer Cinema, Independent Edition

For the ninth year in a row, Movie Dearest salutes Pride Month with a celebration of Queer Cinema. And this June, we're going Independent.

Since the dawn of the "New Queer Cinema" in the 1990s, independent film has been the place for such filmmakers as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Dee Rees and John Cameron Mitchell to tell compelling and ofttimes controversial stories about the lives of GLBTQ people. Celebrate your independence early this year with these groundbreaking films all month long.