Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Reverend's Review: Death Becomes Him


 

After zig-zagging back and forth across the US the last few years, the Tony Award-winning musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is finally making its Los Angeles debut now through May 1st at the Ahmanson Theatre. It was first performed at Connecticut's Hartford Stage and was then finessed at the Old Globe in San Diego before premiering on Broadway, where it won Tonys for Best Musical, Direction of a Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Costume Design.


This gleefully black comedy concerns the efforts of a young lower-class Englishman, Monty Navarro (charmingly played by Kevin Massey), to ascend to the top of early 20th-century British society by offing the members of the upper-class D'Ysquith family, of which he learns his mother was a cast-off descendant. While some of the snooty D'Ysquiths end up succumbing more accidentally or as the result of natural causes, Monty resorts to murder via drowning, crushing, shooting and engineered bee attack in other cases. Meanwhile, Monty is torn between his romantic feelings for two different women: the seductive Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and his sweet but ditzy D'Ysquith cousin, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller).


The musical was inspired by Roy Horniman's novel Israel Rank, which also served as the source for 1949's film classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. The movie is best remembered for casting Alec Guinness as all eight members/victims (both male and female), there named the D'Ascoynes. In keeping with this inspired element, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder has one actor playing all the D'Ysquiths. John Rapson has taken over for the current tour from the incomparable, Tony-nominated Jefferson Mays. While funny and as adept at the many quick costume changes as Mays was, Rapson doesn't differentiate between the characters quite as well. The result is that several of them sound or act identical despite the differences in their appearance. His hilarious turn as the globe-trotting, self-serving philanthropist Lady Hyacinth is a notable exception to this.

Williams and Eller are both lyrical and lovely as Monty's paramours, who find themselves in increased competition with each other as the story progresses but eventually unite to support Monty when he is arrested for one murder he had nothing to do with. The relatively small supporting cast (an additional benefit when you have one actor playing eight roles) is excellent and was in great voice opening night. Also of note is this musical's unique, small-scale chamber orchestra, which beautifully underscores the droll score by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman.


Director Darko Tresnjak piles an abundance of comedic schtick onto the touring production, to its detriment. The musical is best as a darkly funny but perceptive social critique. Excessive mugging and prancing by Rapson and others distracts from this. Technically, the show is a colorful, projection-enhanced marvel. While it isn't as finely-tuned as it should be dramatically or comedically, it won't kill one to see A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder in its current incarnation.

Reverend's Rating: B

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Romantic Princes & Singing Marines


 

Both Long Beach Shakespeare Company and Long Beach Opera are currently presenting truly unique productions through March 20th. Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a sweeping, rarely performed saga involving the lovelorn title character, multiple exotic locations, incestuous kings, virtuous women, lusty pirates and much more. It is also a late-career work by the Bard, who may not have been its sole or primary author.


The play opens in ancient Antioch. Young prince Pericles, longing to have a wife and family, is hoping to marry the king's daughter but must first solve a riddle. If he fails to do so, Pericles not only won't win the princess's hand but will lose his head. Pericles answers the riddle correctly; however, its disturbing revelation forces him to flee to his homeland and, from there, other historic kingdoms such as Tarsus, Pentapolis and Ephesus. He encounters numerous challenges along the way, including a theatrically-impressive shipwreck. Many years pass before the play's happy ending, which is unusual in what would otherwise seem one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

As written, Pericles boasts more than 30 characters. Director Helen Borgers' cast of nine assume all of the roles, often with only masks used to differentiate the characters and locations. This proves problematic, even confusing at times. Some of the performers are skilled enough to distinguish their roles through vocal or physical changes. This is especially true of veteran actor Leo Lerma, who effectively assays a number of kings, advisors and townspeople. Most of his fellow cast members aren't yet up to Lerma's level of experience or proficiency.

An exception to this among the younger performers is Joe LoCicero, who is superb as Pericles. Handsome and confident, LoCicero perfectly conveys the hero's inner struggles as well as Shakespeare's sometimes convoluted text. That he does so while often making direct, prolonged eye contact with audience members makes his performance that much more impressive. LoCicero also served as the production's fight coordinator.

Tim Leach's special effects in concert with Saki Sato's lighting go a long way in transforming the company's small space into a believable storm-tossed sea, a drought-stricken wasteland and another land of plentiful greenery. Despite it's occasional shortcomings, LB Shakespeare's Pericles demands attention since the play is so rarely staged. The company also deserves credit for taking the risk. For tickets, visit the LB Shakespeare website or call 562-997-1494.


Fallujah is an altogether different yet similarly noteworthy enterprise. Long Beach Opera is currently presenting its world premiere at, appropriately enough, the National Guard Armory on 7th Street. This intense musical work by composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo was inspired by the experiences of Christian Ellis, a Marine who served in Iraq in 2004. He returned home suffering from a broken back as well as even more debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

The opera opens with USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston (played by LaMarcus Miller, who is excellent both vocally and dramatically) being placed in a hospital room for observation following his third post-combat suicide attempt. Fellow Marine and best friend Taylor tends to him while Philip's adoptive mother anxiously waits to see her son. Philip is plagued by flashbacks to his time in Fallujah, where he witnessed numerous atrocities and his tentative friendship with an Iraqi boy, Wissam, resulted in tragedy.

As with many LB Opera productions, Fallujah is an immersive experience. It features an actual military transport and uniformed performers patrolling the aisles with guns drawn in addition to its real-life military setting. The orchestra, under the assured direction of Kristof Van Grysperre, is veiled by a large camouflage tent. Lighting projections and overhead videos occasionally punctuate the music and action to dramatic effect.

In what ultimately struck me as excessive, several Iraq War vets speak of their experiences via video interviews prior to the opera's start. While their reflections are insightful, they really don't add to or better prepare audience members for what they are about to see and hear. Two or three of the interviews might be acceptable in an effort to help set the stage, but they go on for nearly ten minutes and end up being repetitive.

Stokes' score is, like many modern operas, minimalist but serviceably dramatic and pleasingly lyrical in spots. I especially liked the occasional "head-banging" rock flourishes that Stokes incorporates during the Iraq flashbacks. These are guaranteed to wake up anyone who might be in danger of falling asleep. Raffo's libretto and the overall production are deeply moving at times, especially in recounting the doomed friendship between Philip and Wissam. The opera's finale, in which Philip's mother tenderly assures her troubled son that she will listen to his stories without judgment as he begins a difficult recovery process, is beautiful.

All in all, Fallujah is a potent production with a promising post-Long Beach future. It is being performed through March 20th and tickets may be purchased via the LB Opera website. The March 18th performance will be broadcast live on KCET and Link TV at 8:00 PM.

Reverend's Ratings:
Pericles, Prince of Tyre: B
Fallujah: B+

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

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Landis Ho!


 

Writer-director John Landis was responsible for some of the best and most popular movie comedies of the late 20th century, among them Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Coming to America and An American Werewolf in London. Together with his wife, Oscar-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman (Raiders of the Lost Ark), he is also responsible for a son born in 1985: Max Landis. After a successful screenwriting career, Max is making his feature film directorial debut this weekend with Me Him Her, a refreshingly irreverent LGBT-themed comedy. It is now playing in Los Angeles and New York City.


The thoroughly-Hollywood Brendan (knowingly played by Australian actor Luke Bracey) is star of the top-rated TV series Hard Evidence, which hilariously co-stars Haley Joel Osment as his nemesis. Tired of living a closeted life, gay Brendan invites his BFF Cory (Dustin Milligan, who can currently be seen as Ted on TV's Schitt's Creek) to visit from Ohio and help him through the coming out process. Cory is initially more than willing to help out but things get complicated once he falls in love with the seemingly-lesbian Gabbi (Emily Meade, who played Aimee on season one of The Leftovers). When Brendan is outed by a tabloid newscaster played by The Talking Dead's Chris Hardwick before he can come out on his own terms, all concerned have to deal with their perceptions of themselves and one another.

Landis' screenplay is not without its predictable moments and stereotypical elements but he writes and directs with a modern, no-nonsense sensibility that many recent indie LGBT movies have lacked. He has also assembled an excellent cast of both up and comers like those previously mentioned and admired veterans including Geena Davis, Scott Bakula and Casey Wilson of the late lamented Happy Endings, not to mention Osment's cat-loving turn. Angela Sarafyan is also a standout as Gabbi's non-committal yet possessive ex-girlfriend. Credit also must be paid to Ross Riege for his colorful cinematography and Joe Landauer's snappy editing. Landis Jr. clearly has an eye for talent and a satire-leaning ear for contemporary relationships. Me Him Her is a polyamorous winner.


The Blue Hour, now available on home video from Strand Releasing, starts out promisingly but gets mired down in largely incomprehensible supernatural shenanigans. Thai filmmaker Anucha Boonyawatana casts attractive leads Atthaphan Poonsawas and Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang as Tam and Phum, respectively. Tam, bullied both at school and at home for being gay, meets Phum at the local haunted swimming pool(?) and a tender romance commences. It isn't long, however, before Tam becomes plagued by gruesome visions of dead family members and the swimming building's former regulars.

The director ultimately seems to be paying excessive homage to The Walking Dead even if that zombie drama doesn't have quite as many male cast members in Speedos on display (which is a pity). Cinematographers Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich and Kamolpam Ngiwtong do capture some arresting images, especially the film's final shots, but the plot becomes frustratingly tedious.

Reverend's Ratings:
Me Him Her: B+
The Blue Hour: C-

The Blue Hour is now available on DVD:



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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reverend's Interview: A Bloody Tragedy on Stage… with Music


 

Thirty years ago — when AIDS was a deadly disease but still considered limited to gay men — medical companies in the US knowingly sold HIV-infected blood to Japan. More than 2,000 Japanese citizens died as a result.


Robert Allan Ackerman’s world premiere play Blood, presented by Los Angeles’ Garage Theatre Company now through April 3rd, promises to expose the truth behind this shocking, little-known scandal. Ackerman is the Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated director of numerous made for TV exposes including Nothing Sacred (1998), Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) and The Reagans (2003). He recently spoke with me via phone about his new and possibly most important project.

CC: How and when did you first become aware of the “Japanese tainted blood scandal”?
RAA: I first became aware of it as it was happening, in the early- to mid-1980’s. I was living in Tokyo at the time and was approached by a film company to write a screenplay about it. They gave me all the research and I read it all and followed what I could in the press. I wrote a treatment but was then advised not to do it because it could be dangerous for me, that I could be targeted by someone involved. So I put it away and moved on to other projects.


CC: What made you decide to dramatize it now, and for the stage?
RAA: When the tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukishima nuclear power plant happened (in 2011), and there were constant reports of misinformation coming out of Japan. I thought “maybe it’s time to take another look at this piece.” I took out the treatment and turned it into a theatre piece. Blood is a fictionalized account, including making the main reporter American as was originally suggested by the film company. Also, I had retired from film and TV and returned to my roots in theatre.

CC: The play’s press release describes Blood as a “political thriller with music,” which seems an unusual combination. How does the music figure in?
RAA: It is predominantly rock music (composed by “The Virgins” bassist Nick Ackerman and “Jet” drummer/vocalist Chris Cester) and some music borrowed from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. I sort of envisioned Blood as a theatrical opus incorporating music, vaudeville, kabuki theatre, kind of everything I know about theatre. I also added humor because it could otherwise be a very dark piece. I envisioned the villains more as vaudevillian clowns, which I think is more interesting.

CC: Despite considerable strides in prevention and treatment, AIDS remains sadly relevant for the gay community today. Is there any other specifically gay or LGBT content in Blood?
RAA: No, not really. There are no gay characters in the play. When the AIDS crisis began in Japan, it was hemophiliacs getting it through infected blood. I remember that in the gay section of Tokyo, all the bars had signs out saying “No Americans allowed.” At the time, AIDS was seen as a gay American problem.


CC: You’ve previously helmed TV dramatizations of such major real-life figures as Judy Garland and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. How has your approach to the story told in Blood been similar to or different from those previous projects?
RAA: This is kind of different. Dealing with Garland and the Reagans, we were very, very careful to be totally historically accurate at every moment we could be. With Blood, I really had to condense the timeline and events. For example, the main trial in Japan (holding those accountable for selling infected blood) took eight years but we depict it as just lasting a few months in Blood. It’s necessary to do so from a dramatic standpoint or else the play would last forever.

CC: What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Blood?
RAA: I’m hoping people begin to feel a sense of activism. It’s a story about taking action against greed, hypocrisy and corruption. For me, the enemy is pacifism, knowing something is wrong but doing nothing about it and avoiding responsibility. What really opened people’s eyes in Japan was when a young man, a boy really, went public and said “I have AIDS.”

CC: Were you personally impacted by AIDS in the 1980’s-90’s?
RAA: Oh yeah, very close friends and my companion of 20 years died. Many of the people I worked with in the theatre in New York died. I very much feel that Blood is a memorial to them. Whenever people today say “AIDS is so passé,” I tell them “No, it isn’t.” It’s still happening.

For more information about the play or tickets, please call 323-960-7745 or visit www.plays411.com/blood.

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

Friday, March 4, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Disastrous


 

I so wish I lived in New York City right now so I could check out Disaster!, the musical spoof of 1970's disaster movies by talented gay funny men Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick (OK, that and Hamilton). Instead, I shall tide myself over with The Wave — no pun intended — a new epic from that unexpected epicenter of mayhem, Norway. It opens in theaters today in Los Angeles, New York and other US cities.


The modern inhabitants of the picturesque lakeside town of Geiranger are well aware of a massive tsunami that flooded their predecessors on the site approximately a century ago. Resulting from a rockslide in the geologically unsound mountains that surround it, Geiranger remains all too susceptible to history repeating itself.

Kristian (passionately played by Kristoffer Joner, who can also currently be seen in The Revenant) knows this well but, fortunately for him and his family, is on the eve of leaving the village for a new job in the big city with an oil company. Unfortunately for the surveyor and his brood, the rocks decide to fall that very night. Kristian has exactly ten minutes to try to save his wife, son and neighbors before a new tsunami sweeps them all away.

Screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg follow the blueprint previously provided by such disaster movies as 1936's San Francisco, 1974's Earthquake and last year's campy San Andreas. While The Wave is less sprawling in terms of its cast of characters, primarily focusing on Kristian's family and a handful of co-workers and hotel guests, it incorporates many of the genre's conventions including local politicians ignoring the potential for danger during tourist season, a crusading expert that no one will listen to, and a brave soul or two willing to sacrifice their lives so that others might live.

The film's climactic CG tsunami is obvious yet still impressive, as is John Christian Rosenlund's cinematography. But while its Norwegian location might be new there is too much about The Wave that is overly familiar. All it is lacking to be a complete throwback is veteran actor George Kennedy (who passed away earlier this week at the age of 91); he survived Earthquake, all four Airport movies and a cinematic disaster of another kind: the flop 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. Rest in peace, Patroni.


I really hate to condemn the new gay-themed home video release You're Killing Me, especially since I have some friends and acquaintances in the cast, yet I feel I must. Uneven doesn't begin to describe this wannabe horror-comedy's style and tone. Campy with some genuine laughs one moment then excessively, disturbingly gory the next, it was ultimately more off-putting than entertaining to me. Directed and co-written by Jim Hansen, best known as creator of Drew Droege's hilarious Chloe videos (Droege cameos here, as does Disaster! The Musical's previously mentioned Jack Plotnick), You're Killing Me sadly misses the mark big time.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Wave: B-
You're Killing Me: D

You're Killing Me is now available on DVD:


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

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper for March 2016: We Are Family


"We are family, I've got all my sisters... and brothers and mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and grandpas and grandmas and aunts and uncles and even cousins... with me."


Celebrate March with all your favorite cinematic kinfolk, from Uncle Buck to Mommie dearest, a bad grandpa and a couple of Blues brothers, plus Hannah and all her sisters and an unwanted son-in-law. For this month's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper, it's all relative.

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