Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dearest Review: Beasts of the Northern Isles


A giant tree man and a menagerie of magical critters make up the latest, literary-inspired British invasion. 

A Monster Calls:
With his mother (Felicity Jones) terminally ill, young Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is visited by the wooden behemoth of the title (voiced and mo-capped by Liam Neeson), who tells him three stories and expects a fourth from Connor himself. The monster’s morality tales, cleverly brought to life via stylized animation, are not-so-subtle life lessons for the boy to help him deal with his stern gran (Sigourney Weaver… yep, Sigourney Weaver is now playing grandmothers), the requisite school bully and, ultimately, the fate of his beloved mum.

Even with its unique fantasy elements A Monster Calls still feels overly-familiar and there is a befuddling disconnect along the way that leaves the film cold and distancing, this despite an emotion-stirring final act that makes one wish the rest of the film lived up to. (6/10)

Tree's Company

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
As if eight Harry Potter movies weren’t enough, Warner Brothers is back to milk even more out their magical cash cow with this spin-off franchise, the first to be written directly for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself. Set long before Harry, the title refers to a Hogwarts textbook written by “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who has traveled to New York City with a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase brimming with all manner of, well, fantastic beasts (that’s where you find them!). Naturally, some of the creatures escape and wreak havoc on the Big Apple, which catches the attention of the local wizard’s council, who are none too thrilled by the risk of being exposed to the world of “No-Majs” (the American version of “Muggles”, i.e.: non-magical people).

One would think that after, what, five zillion hours of the original series they would want to try something a little different, a little fresh for these original adventures. No such luck. Director David Yates, who helmed half of the Potter films, returns with the same muddy, turgid style that turned the latter Potters into such a chore to sit through. Redmayne doesn’t help much with his uninspired performance that consists mostly of one blank, mirthless expression through most of the film; the character is supposed to be odd, but it should be in a whimsical, Dr. Dolittle way, not in a creepy, Dr. Oz kind of way.

Fantastic Bore

Bloated with computer-generated effects (a practical effect here and there would have been nice), Fantastic Beasts is un-shockingly left open-ended to make way for the already announced four sequels, the only ray of hope of which is the addition of a young and (fingers crossed) openly gay Dumbledore, to be played by Jude Law. (4/10)

This Monster and these Beasts are only the latest examples of an increasing, frustrating trend plaguing today’s fantasy films. Modern filmmakers have every technological tool at their disposal to bring these fantastic tales to the screen, but they are forgetting the most important thing: a sense of wonder, the surprise of something wholly created by the imagination brought to living, breathing life right before your eyes.

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Dearest Review: The Dead Zone


If you, like me, have long-since grown tired of all the never-ending shenanigans on The Walking Dead but still hold out hope for a decent zombie flick, then thank god for Netflix, for they are now streaming an awesome import that seems to have been tailor made for the phrase “roller coaster ride”.

A monster hit in its native South Korea, Train to Busan places you on its titular transport just as some kind of viral outbreak takes over the country, turning the recently dead into herky-jerky reanimated corpses with a helluva hankering for fresh flesh. Populated with your typical disaster movie cast of characters, director Yeon Sang-ho still has you rooting for the good guys to make it even as he continually places them into increasingly perilous (yet creatively fresh) action set pieces.

While Train to Busan may be the best zombie apocalypse movie you’ve seen in a long time, less successful is the intriguingly premised yet ultimately disappointing The Girl with All the Gifts. This recent Blu-ray/DVD release takes place in a world gutted by a mysterious fungal infection that (what do you know) turns its victims into carnivorous cannibals.

Humanity’s last hope lays in Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a precocious young girl who, although super smart and cute as a button, also craves human flesh. Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close (yes, that Glenn Close) play the adults protecting her once their post-apocalyptic military base is overrun by a horde of “hungries” (yes, seriously, that is what they call them). Alas, the film slowly devolves as the lapses in logic pile up, eventually bottoming out into complete silliness by the time a gang of feral “lost children” right out of 60’s-era Star Trek show up.

Bottom line: take the Train (rated 8/10) but return the Gifts (6/10).

Reviews by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reverend's Preview: Awards Give Voice to Our Community

Artwork by David Kawena


Many of us, myself included, prefer singing in the shower to singing on stage in front of hundreds of people. Fortunately, the 270 active members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) have no such fear, especially when it comes to using music to support voice-less and even bullied LGBTQ youth.

GMCLA's 6th annual Voice Awards gala will be held on May 20th at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles. Featuring a silent auction along with incredible musical performances, the event benefits the chorus's youth outreach initiatives including the Alive Music Project and the "it gets better" Tour. Attendees include a diverse audience of over 700 guests ranging from corporate, entertainment industry and business executives to celebrity friends and noted philanthropists. The gala has raised $1.5 million since 2012 and hopes to add significantly more this year.

Founded in 1979, GMCLA has grown to be one of the largest all-male choral organizations in the United States. It has also become one of the largest LGBT advocacy organizations in the world, boasting a diverse and inter-generational membership. Now under the leadership of new executive director Jonathan Weedman, GMCLA "has a deep history of service within the LGBT community, singing at countless memorials, making and commissioning music that helps the community to mourn, to celebrate, to dream, and to prepare for victory" over social and political forces that still oppose LGBT equality. The chorus's members donate over 60,000 volunteer hours annually to make GMCLA’s mission of musical excellence and community partnership a reality.

The annual Voice Awards honor those who, according to their press release, "advance our world, refute silence, lend a voice to the oppressed, exhibit leadership and give hope to those living under the weight of silence." 2017 Community Leader Voice Award will be presented to Gwen Baba, who has a long history of involvement with both the Human Rights Campaign and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, while the Visionary Voice Award will go to the Logo TV channel.

Renowned composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz will be the recipient of the 2017 Vanguard Voice Award. Schwartz has written the scores for such popular stage hits as Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. He won Academy Awards for the animated films Pocahontas and The Prince of Egypt, and received additional nominations for Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.

"I'm very proud to be receiving the GMCLA Vanguard Voice Award," Schwartz told this writer via email. "I had a wonderful experience with the chorus when they performed my choral piece Testimony, which is based on interviews for the "it gets better" project, and it meant a lot to me when they brought performances of that piece into schools around the country. It's not easy for writers to have a social impact, but organizations such as the GMCLA help make that possible."

Indeed, GMCLA operates two innovative community projects that offer education and outreach to over 50,000 middle and high school youth in our public school system. The Alive Music Project is a music education and outreach program focused on LA-area middle and high schools. It will be expanding this year to incarcerated youth throughout Los Angeles. The "it gets better" Tour, meanwhile, educates youth and reduces incidences of bullying and violence across the US where over 85% of LGBT students are physically or verbally abused each year. In addition, GMCLA supports the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, an organization with the mission "to fiercely empower trans and gender-expansive people to love their voices and perform with courage and strength."

Support of the Voice Awards helps GMCLA fund its general operations and continue offering these very important programs.

To purchase Voice Awards tickets or sponsorships or for additional information, visit the GMCLA website.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reverend's Reviews: Sex Gods


It's the lusty month of May, as Guinevere declares via song in Camelot.  Judging by the graphic sexual content in a new crop of streaming and home video offerings, she wasn't kidding. That at least one of them deals rather profoundly with the current state of religion in America piqued Reverend's interest all the more.

American Gods, the current Starz series adapted from Neil Gaiman's fantastical novel, features more theology, mythology, violence and diverse sexual proclivities than any one show should be able to handle. While the first four episodes I watched were uneven in tone and quality, their high points exceed anything I've seen on TV recently with the exception of The Man in the High Castle.  These include a gay sex scene — between a mortal and a jinn or genie, no less — so lengthy and apparently revolutionary that GLAAD held a special advance screening of the episode (#3) in Los Angeles last week. Other divine characters featured include Bilquis, a poly-amorous goddess of love who uniquely ingests her partners via her vagina, as well as Media, a new deity played by Gillian Anderson who offers numerous enticements including sex while taking on the appearance of Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, Judy Garland and other classic screen divas.

"You ain't never had a friend like me"
Omid Abtahi, Mousa Kraish in American Gods

The show's central character is Shadow Moon (the very hot, smoldering Ricky Whittle).  No sooner is Shadow released from prison for his role in a casino robbery gone wrong than he is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (the great British actor Ian McShane).  The ex-con is primarily employed as Wednesday's driver and bodyguard but finds himself drawn into a war between old and new gods. We learn that Mr. Wednesday is also known as Wotang or Odin, the Norse god most recently played in the Thor movies by Anthony Hopkins.  By the end of episode 4 this divine conflict hadn't yet kicked into full gear but the series is well worth watching, despite sex (complete with male erections) and violence that may startle other religious viewers, if for no other other reason than seeing old pro Cloris Leachman and musical powerhouse Kristen Chenoweth play other classic deities.  I'm completely devoted to Gods.

There is more far from mindless sex on display in two new gay-themed releases.  Utopians (Breaking Glass Pictures) is probably the most sexually explicit movie made in China to date.  That it primarily deals with homosexual relations is even more astounding.  Writer-director/provocateur Scud weaves a philosophy-infused story in which a young Hong Kong student struggling with his budding homosexuality is gradually seduced by his openly gay professor.  Some aspects of their relationship may seem dated and/or unethical by western standards, but we must be mindful that openly gay relationships remain frowned upon in China.

Paris 05:59 Theo & Hugo, now available from Wolfe Video, is an explicit yet very romantic love story told in real time between the two title characters. They make an instant connection in a Paris sex club but their fledgling relationship is quickly tested by the specter of HIV.  Co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau won multiple awards for their significant achievement.  The actors in both Utopians and Theo & Hugo also deserve kudos for their fearlessness.

Then there is Fifty Shades Darker (Universal).  This sequel to 2015's hit, hetero S&M fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey is even glossier and disappointingly more tame.  A change of directors is primarily to blame, with veteran James Foley (At Close Range, Fear) taking over from the more adventurous (and notably female) Sam Taylor-Johnson.  Not that the original was a very good movie but it proves to be better than the latest.  Controlling billionaire Christian Grey (returning Jamie Dornan, yum) returns after having been spurned by his latest disciple, Anastasia Steele (still Dakota Johnson, ugh), at the conclusion of episode 1.  He is humbled and contrite as the new film opens.  She agrees to take him back on her terms which quickly become more like his terms, Ben Wa balls and all.  In a nod to the 1980's kink semi-classic 9 1/2 Weeks, Foley casts Kim Basinger in a sadly minimal role as Christian's original master.  Before it all ends, there is a masquerade ball, a new boss for Anastasia who turns out to be a vengeful rapist, a helicopter crash (?) and a wedding engagement for Anastasia and Christian complete with fireworks.  There are sex scenes, especially in the unrated extended edition available, but they are fairly succint and Dornan, oddly, keeps his pants on for most of them.  Alas, there is one more sequel coming (no pun intended), next year's Fifty Shades Freed.  Then hopefully we will be freed from such exploitative, bondage-light silliness.

While not as sexually graphic as these predecessors, three other gay-interest home video releases this month aren't completely without worthwhile elements.  Taekwondo from TLA Releasing is the latest exercise in teasing homoeroticism by expert Marco Berger (Hawaii, Plan B), this time with co-director Martin Farina.  Unlike Berger's previous works, however, there is actual full-frontal nudity and a gay character in this one.  The plot is minimal — a bunch of gorgeous Argentinian friends gather for a boys-only vacation — but host Fernando clearly has the hots for gay newcomer German.  Berger draws out the tease a bit too long but the payoff is worth the wait.

A Little Lust, also available from TLA, is one of the few gay-themed films from Italy to date.  As such, its a bit dated and retro, especially since it was reportedly made in 2009 under the title Neither Juliet Nor Romeo.  Still, better late than never.

And the semi-autobiographical domestic drama Counting for Thunder (Wolfe Video) suffers from over-involvement by its writer/producer/director/leading man Phillip Irwin Cooper.  It is well-written but the film could have benefited from more objectivity.  It has a great supporting cast though including Mariette Hartley, John Heard (so sexy in 1982's Cat People) and Alison Elliott.

Reverend's Ratings:
American Gods (Episodes 1-4): B+
Utopians: B
Paris 05:59 Theo & Hugo: A-
Fifty Shades Darker: C-
Taekwondo: C+
A Little Lust: B-
Counting for Thunder: C

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dearest Review: Desperate Housewife

About two-thirds into the 1994 comedy Serial Mom there is a scene where happy homemaker Beverly Sutphin, suspected of being a serial murderer/crank phone caller, is followed by a string of Baltimore police cars in a low speed chase as she and her family drive to church. Cut to roughly two months after the movie opened to piddling box office returns and we have the world tuning in to live television coverage of basically the same scenario, except the Sutphin family car has been replaced with a now-infamous white Bronco.

In the 23 years since cult movie director John Waters unleashed the film he considers his best onto the world it has become even more prescient... and popular (Mother's Day TV airings have become an annual tradition in some markets). With its main satirical target being America's obsession with turning bad people who do bad things into pop culture icons, Serial Mom kind of sort of predicted our current state, a climate where a smarmy ex-reality TV star and self-confessed sexual predator can be elected to the highest office in the country.

"Yes, Mr. President, I said pussy willow."

Featuring a comedic tour de force performance by Kathleen Turner in the title role, Serial Mom cheerfully lampoons not just "true crime" sensationalism but suburban life (a recurring theme in Waters work; see also Polyester); with its Bernard Herrmann-esque score and frequent bird references, it's like Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates. The cinematic homages don't end there, with onscreen clips from such grindhouse classics as Herschel Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast and William Castle's Strait-Jacket. (In a genius casting move, Waters recently played Castle in an episode of the FX TV series Feud: Bette and Joan.) And it wouldn't be a John Waters movie without cameos by such fringe celebrities as Patricia Hearst, Traci Lords and even Chesty Morgan.

The new collector's edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory (available tomorrow) includes two feature-length audio commentaries by Waters (he is joined by his leading lady in one) plus approximately 80 minutes of additional bonus features, most of them new. Of particular interest is a filmed conversation between Waters, Turner and co-star Mink Stole, a Waters regular who memorably played Beverly's crank call victim Dottie Hinkle in Serial Mom; after listening to them reminisce here one can't help but wish they would each do more work (it's been 13 years since Waters' last movie, for example). At one point in the conversation Waters mentions that he has spoken to several people who actually believed Serial Mom was based on a real case, which just goes to show that when it comes to America's fixation on "true crime" stories, the "truth" is all relative.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

Review by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.