Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dearest Reviews: Avengers Disassembled

With its string of blockbusters piling up on the list of all-time box office champions, it looks like superhero fatigue isn't much of a threat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least not yet). And with the overwhelming success of Black Panther and the surprisingly deep characterization of the big bad in Avengers: Infinity War, plus the upcoming female-led Captain Marvel and hints of a long-awaited Black Widow solo outing, it appears that Marvel is (slowly but surely) addressing all of the biggest complaints against them from their first decade of existence, at least in regard to ethnic and gender diversity and its rogues gallery of underwhelming villains.

Granted, there's still the issues of convoluted plots (thank god this business with Infinity Stones is almost over), rushed storylines (the Sokovia Accords) and questionable motivations (the Sokovia Accords), not to mention the film division's snobbish disregard for the entire TV side of the MCU (by the by, forget those drama queen "defenders" on Netflix and tune in instead to the criminally underrated, recently renewed Agents of SHIELD on ABC, where the terrific ensemble of Phil Coulson and Co. are currently facing an apocalypse of their own). No, the biggest threat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they just can't help cracking a few jokes.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little "funny" in these "funny pages"-based movies, but that's the point: the jokes should be funny. Starting around the time boy scout Captain America chastised rich playboy Iron Man for his salty language in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the attempts at injecting humor into the superheroic fray began to become forced, often corny, and increasingly embarrassing. Just look at Doctor Strange playing straight man to a sentient cloak and try not to stop your eyes from rolling out of your head.

Nowhere is this increasing overreliance on humor more evident than in Thor: Ragnarok (now available on DVD and Blu-ray). Who knew the Norse God of Thunder was such a quipster? Yeah, Chris Hemwsorth (apparently more than willing to take on the mantle of "funny hunk" for the rest of his career) has always imbued his Thor with a healthy dose of self-aware humor, but he nearly OD's here. But then again, maybe he's overcompensating for losing his mighty hammer and golden locks to the baddies played by, respectively, Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum, each out-camping the other as the film (directed by Taika Waititi of What We Do in the Shadows cult fame) goes on. And then there's Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, who here (and continuing in Infinity War) has been transformed into the Marvel version of (parent company) Disney's Absent-Minded Professor.

Even that overpraised overperformer Black Panther (available on DVD and Blu-ray today) isn't immune to these lame attempts at laughs, most cringingly with the silly "don't freeze"/"did he freeze"/"he froze" running gag. To superhero sagas in the way that Get Out was to horror flicks, Black Panther has been given a lot of extra credit for simply being a good genre offering that just so happens to have a black protagonist. Its real strength lies not in Chadwick Boseman's (let's face it, kinda dull) King T'Challa but his trifecta of Wakandan Woman Warriors™ played by The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright (not to mention Angela Bassett as a fierce Queen Mother). Black Panther did manage to illicit a few chortles out of me... of derision, that is... for its "wonder element" vibranium, an all-purpose substance that does all sorts of nifty things; no matter what the script dictates, have no fear, vibranium can fix it!

The saving grace for all three of these films is that once the plot starts rolling, the jokes peter out and the action amps up, giving us what we all want from a superhero movie: some kick-ass fight scenes. Infinity War does this best, with several climactic set pieces unfolding at roughly the same time (reminiscent of the final battle(s) in Return of the Jedi), and relatively seamlessly at that. Speaking of which, kudos must be given to directors Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for not only managing to bring all these characters together and (mostly) serving each one well, but also for keeping the huge scope of the movie from consuming itself; just take a look at Ready Player One to see how easily a massive clusterfuck can happen when you have a cast of pop culture thousands.

With the biggest feature film cliffhanger since The Empire Strikes Back (what, two Star Wars references? Wait, doesn't Disney own that too...?), it's not hard to look at Infinity War as incomplete, and ultimately irrelevant once the next Avengers flick comes out and un-dos < insert "tip-toe around the spoilers" here > (come on, it's been out for over two weeks now, go see it already!). But, unlike the three year wait for Empire, at least we only have to hold on for a year to find out how they do it, and hopefully without the use of a "screenwriting equivalent of a "Get Out of Jail Free card" like the Time Stone, or vibranium. Or too many jokes, for that matter.

Dearest Ratings:
Thor: Ragnarok: 6/10
Black Panther: 6/10
Avengers: Infinity War: 7/10

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Theatre on the Fringe


Long Beach, California's International City Theatre (ICT) has presented a number of bold, challenging plays throughout its 33-year history.  With Cardboard Piano, however, the company goes farther than I have known them to go during the 12 years I have been associated with them.  ICT is staging the West Coast premiere of Hansol Jung's powerful, lesbian-themed drama now through May 20th at the Beverly O'Neill Theater.

caryn desai, ICT's Artistic Director/Producer, caught the world premiere of Cardboard Piano at 2016's Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.  She was deeply moved and felt immediately inspired to seek the rights to present it locally.  Although Jung is Korean, the playwright drew from Uganda's tortured political history for her latest work.

During the 1980's-1990's, more than half a million Ugandans were either killed or expelled from the county between four different, harsh presidential regimes.  A civil war raged in the country for 21 years.  The play opens in 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, and concludes 15 years later.  This provides a glimpse into conditions both during and after the civil war.

It is difficult to relate the plot of Cardboard Piano without revealing what might be considered spoilers by those who haven't seen it. As the play begins, a young American missionary in Uganda, Chris, is solemnizing her same-sex relationship with a local girl, Adiel.  The couple has prepared to flee Chris's disapproving parents and the troubled country right after their marriage ceremony.  Fate intervenes tragically via the arrival of Pika, a teenaged soldier.

Chris returns alone to Uganda in 2014 and the small church her father established there.  An unexpected reunion as well as a chance meeting with Adiel's gay cousin provides Chris with both challenge and hope as she tries to reconcile with her past.  As the play's author has observed, "Religion can do two opposite things: it can destroy, hurt, and be an instigator of violence, but it can also be the only thing capable of controlling that violence."  This is well-illustrated during the course of Cardboard Piano.

desai directs this provocative work with her usual clarity and compassion.  Scenic designer Yuri Okahana, working with ICT for the first time, has provided an impressive set for the action to take place.  Most impressive though is the four-member cast, two of whom play double roles.  I felt Allison Blaize lacked a little focus or commitment on opening night with her performance as Chris but this could have been due to nerves.  Dashawn "Dash" Barnes, JoJo Nwoko and Demetrius Eugene Hodges were excellent.  All four actors are to be commended for their willingness to take on this emotionally wrenching play.

While exiting the theater, I overheard another attendee say "Well, not every play can have a happy ending."  This is true but I believe Cardboard Piano has an open, ultimately hopeful ending.  Kudos to ICT for having the courage to mount this noteworthy premiere.

For tickets, call 562-436-4610 or visit the ICT website.  Use coupon code CENTER18 at checkout for a $10.00 discount on each ticket that will also benefit the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach.

Plenty of us LGBTQ folk feel like we’ve long lived on the fringes of society. The irony is that over time we’ve become cultural tastemakers, deciding which TV shows, movies, plays and musicals are truly worthy of attention.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an annual, open access, community-derived event celebrating freedom of expression and collaboration in the performing arts community. Begun in 2010, this year’s dates are June 7th-24th. World-premiere plays, musicals, revivals and other theatrical events will infiltrate the Hollywood neighborhood. Fully-equipped theaters, parks, clubs, churches, restaurants and other unexpected places will host hundreds of productions by local, national, and international arts companies as well as independent performers.

Participation in the non-profit fest is completely open and uncensored. This free-for-all approach underlines the festival’s mission to be a platform for artists without the barrier of a curative body. By opening the gates to anyone with a vision, the festival is able to exhibit the most diverse and cutting-edge points of view the world has to offer. Additionally, by creating an environment where artists must self-produce their work, the Fringe motivates its participants to cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurialism in the arts.

The Fringe concept was incubated in Edinburgh, Scotland more than 70 years ago. In 1947, eight performance groups appeared uninvited on the “fringes” of the exclusive Edinburgh International Festival. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has since grown into the largest arts festival in the world with hundreds of artists, thousands of performances, and millions of patrons every summer. It annually grosses over $100 million for the local economy and remains the biggest tourist draw in the UK.

Fringe Festivals have since sprung up in dozens of cities around the world. Diversity in programming is strongly encouraged to provide a true festival atmosphere. This typically results in a number of projects with LGBTQ interests. 2018’s offerings will include:

  • The Importance of Being Oscar, which follows Oscar Wilde at the end of his life. Released from prison, he discusses love, loss, morality and lack thereof. A whimsical and heartbreaking tribute, laced with Wilde’s own words and wit.
  • The Actor’s Nightmare, by award-winning gay playwright Christopher Durang, is a one-act comedy exploring different styles of theatre (Shakespeare, Beckett, Coward) and how one man deals with being thrust onstage to perform without having seen his lines.
  • Expectations High, written by teens for teens (and anyone who has ever been a teen). Overheard humor, rumor, drama, trauma, bromance, romance and karma play out during passing periods in high school.
  • Snap Honey. Do you wanna get snapped? Grab a seat, get some tip money and enjoy female impersonator Vageena Honey as she tells the story of her rise to fame in a no-holds-barred diva style.
  • The Book That I’m Going to Write, by Judy Garland. Tasked with dictating her memoirs alone to a tape recorder, the legend's life story quickly gives way to the searing inner-rage and personal revenge fantasies of a woman left robbed and broken by decades of abuse in Hollywood, now living the profound heartbreak of not being heard.
  • A Pride of Queers. What does it mean to be queer? What is queer art? And how do we approach the truth, the vanity, and the stereotypes to find something new? Come and find out.
  • My Calico Soul, a theatrical journey about taking all the labels that get thrust upon us or even give to ourselves and fully embracing them, including bisexuality.
  • Cameron’s in Drag, an emotionally driven musical about adolescence and the difficulties of a young black teen being bullied as he struggles with gender identity, both at his private high school and at home with his widowed father.
  • The Craftlesque, a musical-burlesque parody of the cult classic horror film The Craft!
  • Salve Regina: A Coming of Gay Story. Born in Puerto Rico to an ultra-religious mother and a domineering father is not easy, especially when it’s likely you are a big Queen. Thank God for Madonna.
  • Lorelei: I'm Coming Out. Glitter, Grace, and Grindr… who says the life of a drag queen is easy?
  • Converted. Matt and Zeke get caught having sex at a gay conversion therapy camp in southern Ohio is just the beginning of this one-act comedy.
  • Sex and the Musical. A new parody musical, this prequel to Sex and the City answers the question of how our favorite ladies became friends.
  • Les Deux Remember This: The Musical. This juke box musical begins in 2006 where Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton go out to the famed club Les Deux and discover that their Bentley can time travel.
  • Marilyn Monroe: The Last Interview. Subtitled "The Raw Truth of a Hollywood Legend", this solo show is based on Marilyn's final interview for Life Magazine in 1962.
  • The Bitch is Back: An Elton John Cabaret. A musical journey through Elton John’s hits from the early 70’s to the late 80’s.
  • The Oz Monologues goes beyond the story you already know, exploring each of the beloved characters from The Wizard of Oz... with a poetic and irreverent modern take.

Who knows, some of these shows could go on to off-Broadway or even Broadway as previous Fringe offerings have done.  For more information about these performances and the festival, visit the HFF website.

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