Monday, April 23, 2018

Reverend's Preview: Newport Beach Film Fest 2018 is Larger than Life


Despite having one major LGBT offering pulled at the eleventh hour by its distributor, this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) will still spotlight several feature-length and short films of interest to our community. The 19th annual event will run April 26th through May 3rd at multiple venues in and around its renowned host city.

NBFF strives each year to bring to Orange County the best of classic and contemporary filmmaking from around the world. It also provides an important forum for cultural understanding and enriching educational opportunities by showcasing a diverse collection of studio and independent films.

Among these are a number of productions with LGBTQ appeal, although this year’s final lineup had not been announced at press time. LGBTQ filmmakers participate as well as thousands of both LGBTQ and straight festival attendees.

One intended inclusion this year was The Game Is Up, a new documentary about LGBT professional athletes. It is inspiring and features several 2018 Olympians including out freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy. Unfortunately, distributor AT&T decided not to screen it at NBFF due to an altered release plan. The film is worth seeing though, whenever and wherever it does eventually show.

UPDATE: The Game Is Up has been retitled as Alone in the Game and will premiere on the AT&T Audience Network on June 28th. Watch the trailer here.

Another standout documentary that will be screened is Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story. Aucoin (pronounced Ah-kwan) revolutionized the art of makeup in the 1980's and 90's and would subsequently become an icon.

After his birth in 1962, Aucoin’s mother gave him up for adoption. He was taken in and raised by a loving family in Lafayette, Louisiana. As a kid, he continuously listened to Barbra Streisand and Cher albums, and was later spotlighted in his high school’s newspaper for his devotion to these divas. He is described in the film as “a tall and lanky club kid, dramatic and over-the-top.”

By the age of 11, Aucoin had committed himself to glamour and beauty, according to one of his friends at the time. Aucoin stated once he was an adult that he had been “a regular little boy who also liked some of the things girls did.” This paid off when he met a New York makeup artist by chance in the early 1980’s. “Months later, he was a pro beyond belief,” the artist who discovered Aucoin reports in the film.

Aucoin took a more naturalistic approach to makeup, and changed the style of the time as a result. “Meticulous,” “a painter” and “a natural with a twist” are a few of the descriptions applied to him in the film. He was also one of the first prominent, openly gay artists at the time and later prided himself on “working toward acceptance of diversity in this business.”

Following his initial work on models (including Paulina Porizkova and Christy Turlington, pictured above with Aucoin) and porn actresses, he began a highly successful career in New York City doing makeup for the covers of such big magazines as Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Aucoin worked on such beautiful and talented women as Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields, Andie McDowell, Liza Minnelli, the late Whitney Houston, and his childhood fave, Cher. As one of them comments, “He was addicted to making us beautiful.”Cher is interviewed in the documentary about her admiration for the late artist.

Sadly, Aucoin was diagnosed with a rare pituitary condition that caused some parts of his body, including his hands and skull, to grow larger than normal. This became more painful over time and he became addicted to Vicodin and other pain medications. Word of his addiction spread through the industry and ended his career. Aucoin died in 2002 at the age of 40 as a result of his drug abuse.

Directed by Tiffany Bartok, Larger Than Life is a comprehensive, intimate look at Aucoin’s short-lived but impressive time on Earth. His legend as both a makeup artist and a pioneer in the fight for LGBT rights lives on. Not even Aucoin’s untimely death could stop the revolution he helped to launch. As no less a luminary than Cher states in the documentary, “He inspired so many people.”

NBFF 2018 will also present an LGBTQ short films program entitled “Short, Sweet & Queer.” The lineup includes the following: 
  • Alex and the Handyman, in which a 9-year old boy develops a crush on the moody 25-year old guy who works in his family’s mansion.
  • Broad Strokes, about two gay, platonic friends who contemplate marrying each other and raising a family when they fail to find their significant others.
  • Disforia finds a young, gender-queer person returning home after an absence to discover his family has moved away and their house has been sold.
  • Jordy in Transitland, a modern fairy tale about a trans woman on the brink of her physical transition who finds it more challenging than anticipated.
  • Manivald, an animated exploration of the title character’s harmonious life being disrupted by the arrival of a hot young plumber.
  • Suitable, which features a young, ethnically diverse cast in a story of gender politics.
  • Swim, the award-winning look at a young trans girl who finds freedom taking a secret midnight swim.

Individual tickets and festival passes are now on sale. They may be purchased by visiting the NBFF website or calling 949-253-2880.

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dearest Reviews: Three Toons and a Baby

No wonder Coco won.

Quick takes on some popular animated movies now streaming and/or on home video.

It's odd to see a family flick centered around the "sport" of bullfighting in this day and age, but here it is. Nevertheless, this modern adaptation of the kid lit classic (previously made by Disney as an Oscar-winning cartoon in 1938) is silly fun and sometimes clever (our hero visits the proverbial china shop), although one has to question the casting of wrestling stud John Cena in the title role... who casts John Cena for his voice? One can only imagine the queer lunacy a Nathan Lane could have brought to the part of a flower-loving pacifist. (6/10) Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Um... is he pointing at his nipples?

The Breadwinner:
This Afghani version of Mulan from Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon begins with the young protagonist witnessing her mother being brutally beaten in the street. Yikes... I don't normally have issues with mature themes in animation, but I do when the characters resemble the cute little sprites from The Secret of Kells. Parents beware. (5/10) Now streaming on Netflix.

Don't trust this face.

Cars 3:
Hey Pixar, are you finally done with this worn-out, over-exposed franchise? Now that I've got that out of my system, this third Cars feature isn't too bad, especially since the focus has shifted back to Lightning McQueen (after the wall-to-wall Mater of Cars 2), even if he is saddled with a downer storyline about facing that final pit stop... uh, retirement? Yep, I think they're done. (6/10) Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Glengarry Glen Gerber

The Boss Baby:
In a field that has included the sad likes of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Shark Tale, The Boss Baby can now easily claim the title of the worst movie to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Crammed to the breaking point with everything that makes today's average animated fare so bad — such sloppy, lazy tropes as stunt voice casting (Alec Baldwin! As a baby!), a soundtrack-ful of tired pop songs, plenty of poop/fart/burp/booger jokes — this Boss Baby deserves a permanent time out. (2/10) Now streaming on Netflix.

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Totally Awesome Visions, New & Old


I have emerged from my longer-than-anticipated, post-awards season recovery coma.  Somewhat similarly, Steven Spielberg has just premiered his first post-The Post movie, Ready Player One. It proves to be an awesome, just plain fun return to the ├╝ber-director's 1980's heyday before he got all serious and stuffy with 1993's Oscar-winning Schindler's List.  Despite a couple of exceptions, Spielberg has been making serious films ever since including Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Munich, Bridge of Spies and last year's The Post.

Ready Player One barely has a serious bone in its body, and the movie is totally successful as a result.  It is also dripping with nostalgia for all things 1980's-early 90's.  The time travel-augmented Delorean from Back to the Future is prominently featured, as are Spock's burial capsule from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, incantations from John Boorman's Arthurian epic Excalibur, and a rampaging T-Rex from Spielberg's own Jurassic Park.  Twisted Sister's rowdy "We're Not Gonna Take It" plays over the film's climactic battle scene.  Had Ready Player One actually been made in the 80's, Corey Haim no doubt would have played hero Wade Watts (a.k.a. Parzival) instead of current headliner Tye Sheridan, while Peter Coyote would be cast as big baddie Nolan Sorrento instead of new villain du jour Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Animal Kingdom).

Set in the year 2045 and a predictably dystopian, post-Trump Ohio, Spielberg's terrific sci-fi adventure showcases Wade's efforts to solve three virtual reality riddles created by the late James Halliday (a great performance by the director's current muse, Mark Rylance, in a fright wig and age-defying CGI).  Whoever solves these puzzles by the Willy Wonka-ish video game designer will win a priceless "Easter egg" including ownership of Halliday's entire online universe, known as the OASIS.

Naturally, anything priceless is going to attract not only well-intentioned folks like Wade but money-grubbing, megalomaniacal people such as Sorrento, who turns out to have been Halliday's former personal assistant. Sorrento lords over a staff of hundreds whose only job is to play the OASIS's games and get the all-powerful Easter egg. A big part of the fun in watching the visually dazzling Ready Player One for anyone over 40 is looking for the many mini "Easter eggs" that play brief background roles.  Appropriately enough, my friends and I saw the movie on Easter Sunday.  It was definitely less messy than dying actual eggs.

The movie's best sequence is set in the Overlook Hotel, haunted setting of Stephen King's horror novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation.  I haven't read the book Ready Player One but I've read that this Shining sequence replaced a lengthy literary homage to Blade Runner. It includes appearances by the scary twin girls and an expanded part for the bathtub-dwelling ghost in infamous room 237.

In the end, Ready Player One incorporates the best elements of Spielberg's 80's oeuvre: heroic young people, awe-inspiring special effects, abundant humor, and an emotionally uplifting finale. Older viewers may have difficulty with all the fast-moving video game CGI on display but will still likely enjoy this thrill ride of a film.

Classic cinema meets modern media in two stunning new Blu-ray releases from the lovingly curated Criterion Collection.  Turning back the clock 90 years, we find Carl Theodore Dreyer's famed religious pageant The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Inspirational in the best sense, it draws from actual court documents of the time to recount the trial, sentencing and execution of the female French soldier who would eventually become one of the Catholic Church's most renowned saints.

Renee Falconetti gives an unforgettable, screen-searing performance in the title role.  Dreyer required Falconetti and the rest of his cast to forego makeup in order to heighten the film's Middle Ages authenticity.  Rudolph Mate's innovative black and white photography, heavy on extreme closeups and odd angles, has inspired generations of cinematographers.

The Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc boasts numerous extras of historical interest as well as three different music scores by which to watch it.  One is Richard Einhorn's acclaimed oratorio "Voices of Light," which accompanied the film's 1995 release on VHS.  While this is the best regarded option, I enjoyed/appreciated the more recent, percussion-heavy score co-composed by rockers Will Gregory of Goldfrapp and Adrian Utley of Portishead.  The third musical option by Japanese pianist Mie Yanashita is lovely and reflective.  This universally-recognized classic is worth watching with all three scores as well as in its original silent mode.

Fast-forwarding to 1968 is Criterion's spotless, newly restored release of George A. Romero's revolutionary Night of the Living Dead.  The late director's famously low-budget horror hit set the template for all subsequent depictions of zombie uprisings, including today's Walking Dead franchise.  But the film may strike many as more significant or timely than ever due to its not-so-subtle commentary on race relations in the US.  Watching it now as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination makes this movie that much more relevant.

Largely set in a Pennsylvania farmhouse and its surrounding countryside, the movie depicts uneasy relations among a group of white strangers who have taken refuge from a siege by flesh-hungry undead.  The appearance of a black man (Ben, memorably played by Duane Jones) who is easily the smartest and strongest of them all only serves to heighten tensions.  In the end, the black hero survives only to be killed by a sheriff's posse that shoots without even determining if he is a zombie.

The original theatrical release of Night of the Living Dead at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was an unintended but providential occurrence that has helped to make the movie a cross-generational, multi-ethnic phenomenon for five decades now.  Sure, the actors' performances are amateurish at times and I noticed upon re-viewing it that some of the sound editing is off, especially during a fistfight scene.  These are minor criticisms though when held up against this movie's enduring cultural impact.  A new documentary about this, Light in the Darkness, is included as a bonus and features new Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro among its commentators. Awesome indeed.

Reverend's Ratings:
Ready Player One: A-
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): A
Night of the Living Dead (1968): A-

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