Monday, August 27, 2018

Dearest Reviews: That Was Then, This Is Now


Gay cinema, then and now.

Long before Philadelphia (not to mention Longtime Companion, Parting Glances and even An Early Frost) there was Buddies, the 1985 independent drama that was the first narrative film about AIDS. If you've never heard of it, let alone seen it, that's probably because it has never been released on home video in any format... until now. Thanks to a company called "Vinegar Syndrome", this forgotten classic has been restored and is now available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack no less (perhaps you'll want to give the extra disc to your own "buddy").

Written and directed by Arthur J. Bressen Jr. (an early gay porn auteur of the "arty" variety), Buddies follows a by-now familiar formula (most recently seen in last year's BPM: Beats Per Minute) of pairing a sympathetic yet naïve young gay with a slightly older, slightly wiser/jaded gay man living with AIDS. David (David Schachter), a volunteer from the local gay center, has been assigned as a "buddy" to Robert (Geoff Edholm), who has been basically abandoned by everyone in his life and is now wasting away, alone, in a hospital bed. Initially antipathetic, their relationship evolves into a deep, even intimate, friendship, although David (and we, the audience) know how this will all end.

A buddy picture

Even restored, there is no hiding the fact that Buddies is a product of its time. The 80s were a watershed period for American indie film in general and early queer cinema in particular, and truly independent examples from this era all have that scrappy "do it yourself" feel to them, as Buddies certainly does. The dialogue can be a tad too theatrical and the acting a bit unpolished at times, and certain technical aspects leave a lot to be desired (let's just say that the set decorator latched on to the fact that David is a typesetter and ran with it... into the ground).

Yet despite its short-comings, Buddies does deliver dramatically, and the film's emotional coda packs a particularly powerful punch. A lot of Buddies feels familiar, but one must remember that it did it first, and now, finally, we are all able to see it. (8/10)

Love, Simon
At the time of Buddies, one would never have imagined a gay teen romcom, let alone a gay teen romcom distributed by a major Hollywood studio and advertised as a gay teen romcom on prime time network television. Oh, and also be a box office hit. But this is 2018, and there's a lot of things we never could have imagined thirtysomething years ago.

The gay teen romcom in question is Love, Simon (directed by Greg Berlanti, of Broken Hearts Club and 3/4ths of all superhero shows on TV right now fame), now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Simon Spier (a winning Nick Robinson) seems to have the perfect life. Loving parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel)? Check. A close knit group of supportive friends? Check. A girlfriend? Yeah, about that... See, Simon also has a secret: he's gay. So when another closeted gay student at his high school anonymously posts an online confessional, a curious Simon begins an email correspondence with this mystery boy he only knows as "Blue".

The kids in the hall

Things get complicated though when, as he is developing feelings for his digital pen pal/potential boyfriend, yet another student (Martin) sees Simon's messages to Blue and blackmails Simon into setting him up with one of his besties (Abby). (Theater Nerd Rant: Simon does this by setting up Martin and Abby on a "date" to practice their lines for the school musical, which is Cabaret, wherein Martin plays the Emcee and Abby plays Sally Bowles. This is, of course, bullshit because the Emcee doesn't have any dialogue outside of introducing the musical numbers. End of Theater Nerd Rant.)

Simon spends the bulk of the film (which is based on Becky Albertalli's YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; thank god they changed the title) in crisis mode, trying to suss out the true identity of his little boy Blue while simultaneously scrambling to keep his secret a secret, screwing up most of his other relationships in the process. Does it all work itself out, culminating with a swoony romantic clinch at the top of a Ferris wheel at the school carnival? Well yeah, of course it does, but considering all the times we've seen straight characters in the same scenario, it's nice to finally see not just a "happy ending" for this charming crowd pleaser, but a "Hollywood happy ending". (7/10)

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Big Gay Summer Roundup


Reverend spent most of his summer re-locating from fire-ridden California to decidedly moister New England.  The excessive moving effort involved prevented me from writing any reviews for the last month or so.  I'm happy to be back with my round up of several new gay-interest releases either in theaters now, available via streaming/home video, or on the festival circuit.

The most celebrated among them are We the Animals and The Cakemaker, both playing theatrically in select cities.  The first is hot off its Jury Award win for Best Narrative Feature at Outfest last month and its director, Jeremiah Zagar, also won the Innovator Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  This look at a young gay boy's upbringing within a troubled family, adapted from Justin Torres' novel, didn't wow me as it has others.  Zagar handles the material sensitively as well as with a documentarian's eye for detail (this is his first narrative film after a number of documentaries).  He also employs some striking drawn/animated sequences.  Looking's Raul Castillo impresses in his role as the boy's father.  However, the unflinching depiction of often abusive family dynamics is disturbing and presented too non-critically.  It is ultimately difficult to sympathize with anyone, including the central gay character.

I was somewhat similarly underwhelmed by The Cakemaker, which was initially released earlier this summer to capitalize on the US Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who refused to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple on religious grounds.  The court disappointed many by siding with the baker.

In this Israeli-German co-production, the gay male character of the title falls in love with a closeted businessman.  They cross paths when the businessman, Oren, stops into the Berlin pastry shop where Thomas works.  The pair undertake a secret affair but it comes to an unexpected end when Oren is killed in an accident.  Thomas subsequently goes to Jerusalem and ingratiates himself with Oren's wife and young son.  It isn't long though before local friends become suspicious of Thomas and the nature of his relationship with the late Oren.  There are a number of moving moments and fine performances in writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer's film but it suffers from some clichéd, dated elements.

A fresher story now making the LGBT film fest rounds is Cuernavaca, from writer-director Alejandro Andrade.  Like We the Animals, it also focuses on a gay boy's coming of age within the confines of his dysfunctional family after his mother dies suddenly.  Since his father is in jail, Andy is sent to live with his strict grandmother (played by fabulous Almodovar regular Carmen Maura) at her rural estate.  Things seem grim until Andy falls for his grandmother's hunky, frequently shirtless gardener, Charly.  Charly takes Andy under his wing, serving as both father figure and sexual fantasy.  Over time, Charly's own issues throw a wrench into things between them but their relationship still emerges as the most authentic and loving in the film.  Andrade indulges in a couple of excesses, namely ants and kittens, but this is an engrossing, beautifully shot (by Fernando Reyes Allendes) and hopeful tale.  Watch for it.

Another must-see is the award-winning documentary Hot to Trot.  It is scheduled for theatrical release in NYC and other major cities beginning August 24th.  Shot over four years, it explores the little-known world of same-sex ballroom dance competitions.  Since same-sex couples are currently forbidden to participate in mainstream events, a number of competitions have popped up around the world so male-male and female-female dance pairs can compete.  As one observer states in the doc, "Its Fred and Fred (Astaire) and Ginger and Ginger (Rogers)!"

Director Gail Freedman focuses on two couples who have consistently won multiple expositions.  Ernesto Palma and Robbie Tristan bluntly describe their choreographic relationship as "a marriage without the fucking."  After several successful years together, they are sidelined when Robbie is diagnosed with a brain tumor and returns to his native Hungary for treatment.  While his tumor proves benign, Ernesto necessarily moves on with a Russian-born substitute, Nikolai.

Emily Coles and Kieren Jameson, meanwhile, are the ladies on pointe.  Their longtime dance partnership has endured despite significant personal challenges: Emily has Type 1 diabetes while Kieren battles depression and anxiety.  The film shows how their relationship evolves over time as well as their more personal partnerships.  It also reveals the great camaraderie and mutual respect inherent among the dancers.  The last 30 minutes of Hot to Trot features dazzling dancing and cinematography.  Sashay to wherever the doc is playing ASAP.

For sheer camp value, check out the early summer hit Book Club, now available on digital and out on Blu-ray/DVD on August 28th.  A quartet of fine, mature actresses -- Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen -- were assembled for this silly crowd-pleaser.  The women are longtime members of a book discussion group.  Steenburgen's character is married (to "Mr. Incredible" himself, Craig T. Nelson) but is as unhappy as her single or widowed friends.

Fonda selects Fifty Shades of Grey as their next novel to read and discuss, hoping its bondage storyline will inspire them all to pursue more satisfying sexual and/or romantic relationships.  They succeed in doing so with the likes of Andy Garcia, Don Johnson (looking especially good) and Richard Dreyfuss.  Its all predictable and the humor is forced more often than not, with a negligible connection to the Fifty Shades books.  Bergen comes off best as a lovelorn judge and the film is best when it is, like Bergen's performance, grounded and heartfelt.  Still, Book Club may inspire future generations of drag queens via its saltier moments and dialogue à la Steel Magnolias.

While not exactly gay, despite the participation of gay fave Ewan McGregor, Disney's adorable Christopher Robin is hands down the best movie I've seen all summer.  Applying the Hook approach to Winnie the Pooh works as A.A. Milne's classic, stuffed toy characters are called to intervene in their grown-up human friend's life to save him and his family.  Reliable genre filmmaker Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, World War Z) masterfully helmed this beautifully designed, very funny yet gently heart-tugging family flick.  Enjoy it with your favorite Pooh bear(s).

Reverend's Ratings:
We the Animals: B
The Cakemaker: B-
Cuernavaca: B+
Hot to Trot: B+
Book Club: C+
Christopher Robin: A-

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Dearest Reviews: Apocalypse, Now


The end of the world is just around the corner...

Alex Garland made an impressive directorial debut four years ago with Ex Machina, one of the best true science fiction films in recent memory, but sadly stumbles with this, a murky and convoluted adaptation of the award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It starts with a promising premise: biologist Natalie Portman risks her life to save her soldier husband (played by Oscar Isaac, so yeah, it’s easy to understand her concern) by entering “The Shimmer”, a quarantined zone infected by some mysterious alien force. She is joined by a uniquely all-female suicide squad (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Westworld’s Tessa Thompson and Jane the Virgin herself Gina Rodriguez) who, after experiencing lost time, watching a literally “viral” video, and being mauled by mutated alligators and bears (oh my), are killed off in reverse order of famousness. Don’t fret, this is not a spoiler, as Garland employs early the old “sole survivor” trope, wherein Natalie is grilled by HAZMATted government types who are just a little curious as to why she’s the last lady standing. Alas, her tale – and the movie’s – slowly devolves into pseudo-2001 sci-fi hooey.
(4/10) Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

A Quiet Place:
Director/co-writer John Krasinski manages to inject some new ideas into the over-saturated subgenre of post-apocalyptic thrillers (not an easy feat) with this springtime hit. He co-stars with his real-life leading lady, a luminous Emily Blunt, as the parents of last year's "wonder" kids, Wonderstruck's Millicent Simmonds and Wonder's Noah Jupe; they are a rural family who, having suffered a devastating loss, have managed to turn their farm into a reasonably well-fortified sanctuary... the titular quiet place. Why the need for the silent treatment? Seems the planet has been invaded by a particularly nasty breed of bloodthirsty extraterrestrials (think a hybrid of a Cloverfield beastie and the Stranger Things Demigorgon), whose blindness is more than made up for with their highly-attuned hearing. A tense, tactile atmosphere is maintained throughout, and special kudos for the expert sound work; prolonged silence has never been more nerve-racking. It's a shame that some rather deep plot holes (most acutely the rather obvious weakness of the alien antagonists) nearly derail the whole thing.
(7/10) Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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