(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dearest Review: A Foreign Affair

With just a few days to go til the Oscar nominations are announced, Movie Dearest takes a look at some of the finalists for Best Foreign Language Film... and some worthy contenders that didn't make the first cut.

Among the record 92 films submitted for consideration were several with strong LGBTQ themes, most notably France's BPM (Beats Per Minute). A look back at the AIDS activist group ACT UP Paris, the drama is a little dry and overly familiar when it focuses on the inside machinations and infighting of the group (Le coeur normal?), but stick with it for the surprisingly rich love story that unfolds between a jaded HIV+ vet (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and an eager HIV- newcomer (Arnaud Valois). With four wins at Cannes and the FLF prizes from both the Los Angeles and New York Critics, BPM was an expected front runner for not only a nomination but also for the Oscar itself, so it was quite a surprise when it didn't make the Academy's shortlist. (7/10) Available on Amazon Video January 23rd.

There has been a lot of praises showered on the finalist from Chile, A Fantastic Woman, and its leading lady, trans actress Daniela Vega, who plays a trans woman who faces overwhelming grief and despicable prejudice upon the sudden death of her older boyfriend. Frankly, I found the film disappointingly retrograde and not at all revelatory (again, we've seen this all before) and Vega's performance frustratingly bland and one-note; her character constantly makes the wrong decisions and remains emotionally closed off throughout, so it's hard to elicit much empathy for her. One yearns for her to explode at all the injustices that are heaped upon her that, aside from an anticlimactic freak out on top of a car containing the deceased's deplorable family, never really happens. (5/10) In theaters February 2nd.

A finalist that has proved far more polarizing is South Africa's The Wound, which admittedly has a lot of off-putting factors for modern Western audiences, mostly in its setting in a Xhosa initiation ritual (that is, a "rites of manhood" wilderness retreat where the young men undergo ritual circumcision without any real medical care... ouch). The twist is that three of the characters are various shades of gay, and the power dynamics between them that play out offer an intriguing exploration of what truly makes one "a man". As the central character Xolani, Nakhane Touré, in his first film role, turns in a stunning portrayal of a closeted man who's devotion to his unattainable love leads to the film's shocking conclusion. (7/10) Available on Amazon Video.

I found two of the LGBTQ "also rans" considerably more interesting and entertaining: Thelma, from Norway, and Tom of Finland, from... yeah, Finland. In the former, Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a new college student from a staunchly religious background who's budding lesbian tendencies unlock within her some frighteningly powerful abilities. Director Joachim Trier displays a unique knack in delivering deliciously disturbing imagery (ophidiophobes may want to steer clear) in this fascinating fantasy thriller that mines elements from such disparate sources as Carrie, X-Men and even Frozen. (8/10) Available on Amazon Video.

Touko Laaksonen is better known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, the groundbreaking artist of homoerotica that celebrated gay sex and leather culture in an iconic, hyper-masculine style that is still influential — and titillating — today. As Touko/Tom, Pekka Strang is impressively up to the challenge of embodying him through roughly fifty years of his life, from World War II to the AIDS era. Despite its "straight" (ahem) retelling of Laaksonen's life, director Dome Karukoski adds the unique touch of a hunky apparition, an ideal "Tom's Man" in flesh and leather, who pops in and out of the narrative as a sort of "guardian angel"/muse for the evolving artist. While Tom of Finland the film never quite eludes the typical tropes of the biopic genre, it serves well as a moving, oftentimes sexy, tribute to Tom of Finland the man. (8/10) Available on Amazon Video.

The three remaining films here are all on the Oscar shortlist and are considered (for better or worse) strong contenders for the final nominations (to be announced this Tuesday, January 23rd). My favorite of the whole lot is In the Fade from Germany, which has already won both the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards for Best Foreign Language Film (not to mention placing in my own top 10). Diane Kruger gives a powerhouse performance as Katja, a German woman who's Turkish husband and young son are killed in a bombing, one that turns out to be a racially motivated hate crime. The film follows the increasingly despondent Katja as she seeks justice for her fallen family, at any cost, culminating in a stunningly cathartic "eye for an eye" denouement not soon to be forgotten. (8/10) In select theaters.

Likely the most "of the zeitgeist" is the contender from Lebanon. The Insult, as its title suggests, is about the power of words and how the wrong ones can lead to tragedy. In modern day Beirut, a harsh exchange between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee ends in violence that leads to a scandalous court case that ignites, on a national scale, long-simmering tensions between the two groups the men represent. The film starts out strong but gradually loses focus the larger the story gets; late-in-the-game subplots and backstories put a damper on the thrust of "righteous indignation" powering the main plot. But strong performances and a wisely unbiased viewpoint of the protagonists (neither are depicted as "all bad" or "all good") carry it through, albiet to a curiously anticlimactic resolution. (7/10) In select theaters.

Finally, we come to The Square. Billed as a "satire of the art world", this Swedish film (which somehow won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year) is far from funny, clever or even remotely interesting. It's shoestring of a plot (the curator of a Stockholm museum prepares for the unveiling of a controversial new exhibit, the "Square" of the title) is stretched out over 142 painfully protracted minutes. Writer/director Ruben Östlund sprinkles such oddities as a random chimpanzee, an absurdly violent viral video and Elisabeth Moss as a condom-clutching American journalist into the mix, but it's all just a rambling, pretentious mess. That this film that so sloppily pokes fun at art is itself being acclaimed as "art" is the one hilarious thing about it. (2/10) Available on Amazon Video January 30th.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Magic from the Big Apple

Aladdin has proven to be Disney's latest cash cow on Broadway, at least until Frozen begins previews next month. It is now making its Los Angeles premiere at the fabled Hollywood Pantages through March 31st. After attending opening night last week, I have no doubt this eager-to-please musical will likely be just as successful here.

If anything, the stage adaptation of the 1992 animated film is too eager to please. It pulls out all the stops, leaving a woman seated behind me to declare "I'm exhausted" at both intermission and curtain close. Thankfully, I don't share her sentiment. The show is frequently spectacular and largely enjoyable but is also, as my young friend Steve (who accompanied me to the opening) likes to say, "a little extra."

The plot, derived from the classic Arabian Nights stories, hardly needs recounting. Suffice to say the stage version retains its spirited "street rat" title character, a headstrong princess named Jasmine, and a conniving vizier named Jafar who is out to rule the kingdom if not the world. And yes, the rambunctious genie immortalized by Robin Williams' vocal talents is now flesh and blood... and African-American.

All of the Oscar-winning songs written for the film by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman have been retained, some even expanded. A handful of new songs have been added but most are forgettable. "Proud of Your Boy," the most affecting of the new tunes, was actually written for the movie but cut. Perhaps most egregiously, Aladdin's simian pal Abu has been needlessly replaced by a hapless trio of fellow thieves.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is best known for the decidedly adult-leaning The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten! His sensibilities don't fit comfortably with the more family-friendly fair so the humor in Aladdin often feels restrained. Fortunately, Nicholaw does not restrain the visual aspects of this production. Bob Crowley's scenic design is stunning, Gregg Barnes' costumes are similarly eye-popping, and the special effects involving Aladdin's magic carpet are no less than amazing.

Handsome Adam Jacobs, who originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway, is re-creating his charming performance in LA. Isabelle McCalla makes a lovely Jasmine but Jonathan Weir is pretty one-note as Jafar. However, Michael James Scott makes a fabulous, hilariously sassy, and kinda gay Genie.

Over the top and "extra" though it may be in spots, Aladdin on stage offers some truly magical sights and sounds.

As much as I have grown to love LA, Long Beach and our local theatre scene, New York still remains my favorite city in the world. I wouldn't want to be there this time of year, frigid and partly frozen as it currently is, but Spring through Fall can be glorious.

The "city that doesn't sleep" has long inspired playwrights and other artists. Adam Gwon set his 2008 musical Ordinary Days there. Gwon's heartfelt show just had its local premiere at Long Beach Playhouse as part of the Playhouse's annual Studio Collaborative. Take the Stage Long Beach serves as this production's presenter.

Ordinary Days is a sung-through one act involving four main characters, an accompanist, and a chorus of five attractive young people. While reminiscent of such popular Jason Robert Brown works as Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years, Gwon clearly has his own distinctive, generally more optimistic voice.

The musical's central quartet is Deb, an overwhelmed NYU graduate student; Warren, a lonely art admirer; and Claire and Jason, a romantically-involved couple who have just moved in together. While Jason and Claire quickly face challenges in their newly altered relationship, Deb finds herself unexpectedly drawn to the "wierdo" Warren after he finds Deb's lost dissertation notes.

That's about it in terms of plot, but Gwon and director Bethany Price mine this scenario for its emotional and comedic riches. Similarly, primary cast members Joaquin Nunez (Warren), Jason Holland (Jason), Katie Nicol (Claire) and Jessica Hayes (the vocal and comedic standout as Deb) dive into the material.

Michael Rothbart provides excellent support as the show's musical director and unobtrusive accompanist. There were a few pitch issues with one cast member during the performance I attended, but God knows I've heard worse over the years. Kyra Baklayan, Greg Bystritski, Dane Jamieson, Damian Santana and Ava Tomassini are the black-clad, multi-talented chorus members. They sometimes cleverly play pieces of furniture or modes of transportation in addition to average New Yorkers on the street.

As is the case with many plays and musicals set in Manhattan, the city is something of an omnipresent character itself. Scenic designer Jonathan Torres has provided a colorful, impressionistic backdrop of the New York skyline. For any other Southern Californians longing to visit NYC, I recommend Ordinary Days as the next best thing this time of year.

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

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

2017 GALECA Awards: Call Me Dorian

The picturesque gay coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name leads with nine nominations in the 9th Annual Dorian Awards, announced earlier today by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics*. Guillermo del Toro's aquatic love story The Shape of Water and Jordan Peele's satirical thriller Get Out followed with seven and six nominations, respectively. In the top category, Film of the Year, they are joined by the French AIDS drama BPM (Beats Per Minute) and Greta Gerwig's quirky comedy Lady Bird.

The Shape of Water and Lady Bird leading ladies Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan face off with Frances McDormand (as a grieving mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Margot Robbie (as disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya) and Chilean actress Daniela Vega (as the transgender title character of A Fantastic Woman) in the Film Performance of the Year - Actress category. Meanwhile, in Film Performance of the Year - Actor, newcomers Nahuel Perez Biscayart (BPM), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) are up against two old pros in two wildly different biopics: James Franco as cult icon Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist and Gary Oldman as the legendary Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

GALECA has added two new film categories this year to honor supporting performances. The first nominees for Supporting Film Performance of the Year - Actress are Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!), while the first nominees for Supporting Film Performance of the Year - Actor are Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and both Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg from Call Me By Your Name.

In addition to del Toro, Peele, Gerwig and Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino, Christopher Nolan (for the war epic Dunkirk) and Sean Baker (for the low budget The Florida Project) will vie for Director of the Year honors. Peele, Gerwig and del Toro (with co-writer Vanessa Taylor) are also nominated for Screenplay of the Year, along with James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name and Martin McDonagh for the polarizing drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) and A Fantastic Woman are also nominated in both the Foreign Language Film of the Year and LGBTQ Film of the Year categories. In the former they are up against Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father, the Swedish Palme d'Or winner The Square and the Norwegian lesbian thriller Thelma, while in the latter they are joined by the Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, the British romantic drama God's Own Country and Call Me By Your Name.

Women's stories dominate the nominees for Documentary of the Year with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Agnès Varda's Faces Places and Jane (as in famed primatologist Jane Goodall), along with feline fave Kedi. Dorian's Unsung Films of the Year include BPM (egregiously overlooked for Oscar's Foreign Language Film finalists), Todd Haynes' wonderful Wonderstruck and queer indies Beach Rats, God’s Own Country and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Two unique Dorian Award categories add some glitz and (tacky) glitter to the nominations, with the Visually Striking Film of the Year nominees Blade Runner 2049, Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, The Shape of Water and Wonderstruck and the Campy Film of the Year nominees Baywatch, The Disaster Artist, The Greatest Showman, I, Tonya and mother!.

On the TV side, such Movie Dearest faves as Big Little Lies, Feud: Bette and Joan and Will & Grace received multiple nominations. See the comments section below for a complete list of all the Dorian Award nominations.

The Dorian Awards are named after the classic character Dorian Gray, created by GALECA's "patron saint" Oscar Wilde. The winners will be announced on January 31.

* Movie Dearest critics Chris Carpenter and Kirby Holt are members of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Movie Dearest's Top 10 of 2017

Movie Dearest creator Kirby Holt names his favorite films of 2017.

2017 was a great year for movies, which made this annual tradition of a "10 Best" list harder than usual, but not impossible when I focused in on the films that stuck with me long after the final frame. This top 10 is made up of my own personal favorites, the movies that moved me the most and will stick with me for years to come.

1. The Shape of Water: Guillermo del Toro's breathtakingly mesmerizing tale of a love both unusual and universal was the most cinematically transformative film experience of the year.

2. Wonderstruck: Two parallel stories of loss and hope bridge the expanse of time in Todd Hayne's beautifully crafted exploration of faith and fate.

3. Baby Driver: Edgar Wright's crazy, cool caper flick with a killer soundtrack was the year's most unexpectedly fun and thrilling roller coaster ride.

4. Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman's brilliant embodiment of Winston Churchill is just the beginning of the greatness in this taut biopic of the legendary British Prime Minister.

5. Blade Runner 2049: Rich with themes of humanity and identity, this gorgeously-shot, long awaited sequel one-upped its classic predecessor with a deeper emotional core.

6. Molly's Game: The whip-crack dialogue of Aaron Sorkin as performed by the chemistry-rich duo of Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba was one of the most rewarding surprises of the year.

7. The Greatest Showman: Not everyone appreciates a good old fashioned movie musical, but I was swept away by this lavish P.T. Barnum-inspired spectacle.

8. In the Fade: A life-altering tragedy leads a grieving woman (an excellent Diane Kruger) to go to extreme lengths for justice in this gripping, shocking drama from Germany.

9. God's Own Country: Don't just dismiss this gritty, sexy man-on-man romance as the "British Brokeback Mountain"; it's a gay cinema classic-in-the-making in its own right.

10. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Following last year's equally off-kilter The Lobster, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos delivered an even more darkly twisted tale of extremes.

Of course there were far more than ten movies I loved this year, so my "Honorable Mentions" include the Disney blockbusters Beauty and the Beast, Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi; the atypical romcom The Big Sick; the bittersweet biopic Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool; the haunting-in-a-different-way A Ghost Story; the stunning superhero sagas Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman; the riveting documentary Oklahoma City; the powerful dramas Mudbound, Wind River and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and two very different foreign takes on LGBTQ characters, Thelma and Tom of Finland.

By Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Gay for the Gold Again?

A collective gay and straight gasp was heard around the world last February when the gay-themed independent movie Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture over the more expected La La Land. It was doubly surprising since La La Land was initially, mistakenly announced as the winner.

Needless to say, there will be more stringent controls at this year's Oscar ceremony on March 4th. There is also another chance for a gay-themed film to take home the big prize. Call Me By Your Name is all but assured of being nominated for Best Picture, and no particular 2017 movie is considered a front runner at press time. Other likely nominees include Dunkirk, The Post, The Big Sick and Lady Bird.

As I've been determining my choices for the best films of 2017 (see below), it is clear that there were more great releases last year than in several previous years. Many of my fellow critics agree and have been expanding their traditional top ten lists to recognize additional worthy movies. This has not only been the case for mainstream productions but for a greater-than-usual number of memorable LGBTQ-themed films as well.

In addition to the ballyhooed same-sex romance Call Me By Your Name, Chile's A Fantastic Woman and South Africa's The Wound are finalists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A Fantastic Woman features an acclaimed performance by trans actress Daniela Vega as a woman reeling from her lover's sudden death. The film is currently nominated for a Golden Globe. The Wound, meanwhile, is a hard-hitting drama about two secretly gay lovers who are helping with a traditional initiation of younger men.

I had hoped that the French AIDS drama BPM (Beats Per Minute) as well as Tom of Finland (from Finland, appropriately enough) would have made Oscar's final cut. Both are excellent, insightful and moving. Britain's gay love story God's Own Country could be recognized in other categories since it is an English-language film. Frequently described compared to the modern gay classic Brokeback Mountain, it recently won a number of British Independent Film Awards.

Battle of the Sexes is probably this year's most widely-known LGBTQ awards contender. A recreation of the 1972 tennis competition between lesbian champ Billie Jean King and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, it stars last year's Oscar winner Emma Stone and former Oscar nominee Steve Carell. Both are currently up for Golden Globes for their gutsy performances here.

Here are my picks for the best movies of last year, which I have expanded from the typical 10 to 16 since some of equal excellence share similar themes, settings or plot elements:

1) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: I was blown away by this searing yet ultimately humane chronicle of an angry woman seeking justice for her murdered daughter. Frances McDormand could win her second Academy Award for Best Actress, while co-stars Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell as well as director-screenwriter Martin McDonagh also have a shot at the gold.

2) Dunkirk and Darkest Hour: Two extraordinary, pulse-pounding dramas that quite coincidentally cover the same World War II events from different perspectives. Acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, who has not been nominated for an Oscar before, might deservedly win this year for the former. As Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman is virtually guaranteed to win Best Actor.

3) The Shape of Water, Okja and Wonderstruck: A trio of unique fantasies that owe more than a little to the 1980's films of Steven Spielberg. Two of them feature Spielbergian child protagonists and, unusually, two of them feature leading characters who are deaf and/or mute. The Shape of Water is hands down 2017's queerest movie, but all three are visually stylish and unforgettable.

4) Columbus and Lady Bird: A pair of dramas that spotlight two offbeat American cities: Columbus, Indiana and Sacramento, California, respectively. These are the settings for the coming of age of two young women as well as an adult, Asian-American man (beautifully played by Star Trek's John Cho) coping with his father's declining health. The singularly-named Kogonada and actress Greta Gerwig both make assured, accomplished directorial debuts.

5) mother!: Darren Aronofsky's audacious, near-brilliant theological/ecological thriller was poorly advertised and widely misunderstood. Now on home video, I encourage thinking adults to check it out as well as the full-throttle performances of Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and a deliciously sinister Michelle Pfeiffer.

6) Get Out and Mudbound: Very different but equally incisive depictions of the African-American experience. The first is a contemporary horror-comedy, while the other is a World War II-era drama about black and white sharecroppers in the South. Both are riveting reminders of how far our nation has come and how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations.

7) Colossal: A hard-to-describe but rewarding sci-fi satire involving an aimless woman (Anne Hathaway, giving one of her best performances to date) who discovers she has a monstrous avatar that is tearing up South Korea. Simultaneously heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek, it shouldn't be missed.

8) BPM (Beats Per Minute): This first-hand account of France's answer to America's ACT UP is set in the 1990's and similar to such previous AIDS-themed films as And the Band Played On and Longtime Companion. It is just as moving, angry and inspiring as well as just as good as those earlier, important efforts.

9) Kedi: Yes, I'm a cat lover but even the feline-averse can appreciate this joyous documentary about stray cats who essentially have the run of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. It ultimately reveals the essential inter-dependence humans and felines have had for thousands of years.

10) Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok: The Amazing Amazon finally got her first big-screen adventure, starring the wondrous Gal Gadot. It was everything a comic book movie should be: exciting, funny and romantic, plus a timely anti-war message. Meanwhile, Kiwi director Taika Waititi infused the latest Marvel epic with a more subversive attitude and welcome dose of camp, with Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum providing much of the latter.

In short, 2017 was a great year at the movies! Here's hoping 2018 will be just as strong.

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

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