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.

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