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.

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.

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.

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).

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.