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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