Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Dearest Review: Darling Lily

From her spirited performance as the impetuous Lady Rose on TV's Downton Abbey to her luminous portrayals of Cinderella and the feisty waitress Debora in Baby Driver on the big screen, Lily James has become a true star across several mediums. And as she proves in the hit musical sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, she very well could add pop star to her resume if she so chose.

Leave it to our darling Lily to make us all forget about Meryl Streep as she takes on the younger version of Streep's character Donna in this follow-up to the 2008 box office smash Mamma Mia!, itself based on the long-running global stage musical that cemented the 70s chart-topping Swedish quartet ABBA permanently in the pop culture firmament well into the 21st century. Yes, she sings better (and leaves all the mugging to her predecessor/older self), but Lily also makes us so smitten with Donna that it doesn't even occur to us that she's a bit of a slut, what with sleeping with three different men she barely knows all within a short span of time (thus setting up the whole "who's your daddy?" plot of the first movie).

And she's super cute in those overalls to boot.

Taking a page from, of all things, The Godfather Part II, Here We Go Again is a hybrid prequel/sequel that, like the conventional wisdom regarding that gangster classic, is better than the "part I". Writer/director Ol Parker (whose directorial debut was the lesbian romcom Imagine Me & You) had the unenviable task of taking the sow's ear that was the critically-reviled original and turning out, if not quite a silk purse, at least a gorgeous looking light entertainment that unabashedly chugs along in happy ABBAland until it sneaks in a heart-tugging valentine to motherhood in the final act that will surely create tear-diluted glasses of Chardonnay in girls' night viewing parties for years to come.

When a Mamma Mia sequel was first announced, many wondered what ABBA songs were left considering all their biggest hits were, more or less, already used. But Parker took a deep dive into the ABBA back catalog and while you (like me) have likely never heard them before, found several – "Why Did It Have To Be Me?", "I've Been Waiting For You", "My Love, My Life" – that actually fit quite seamlessly into his narrative, almost as if they were written specifically for it. He even manages to squeeze in "Waterloo" (previously relegated to the "curtain call" on both stage and screen) into the story proper, plus a few choice reprises of songs – "Dancing Queen", "Mamma Mia" – no ABBA project could do without.

Cher will next play Lady Gaga's long-lost mom in A Star is Born 2.

Considering it was one of ABBA's many #1 songs (not to mention one of the best-selling singles of all-time), the absence of "Fernando" was glaringly obvious from Mamma Mia! since it first opened on the musical stage way back in 1999. Well, the wait for it was worth it, as the song is finally performed in the "ABBAverse" here by none other than Cher as Donna's globe-trotting mother... that's right, 35 years post-Silkwood Cher plays Meryl Streep's mom. And if that wasn't bonkers enough, Cher is joined by both Donnas, Lily and Meryl, as well as the whole Mamma Mia! gang (both young and older versions), in belting out "Super Trouper", Here We Go Again's time-bending grand finale, an irresistible coda to the whole Mamma Mia! franchise... for now.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Reverend's Review: Do the Konga


One of cinema's biggest, most enduringly popular beasts is making his unexpected debut on the Broadway stage this month. No, I'm not referring to Duane Johnson but rather King Kong, the massive simian ruler of Skull Island. Kong first appeared on movie screens way back in 1933 and has reigned over sequels and remakes ever since. When I first heard he was to be the star of a theatrical musical, I scratched my head like many naysayers but I was also intrigued. So intrigued was I that I set out to make King Kong, which opened November 8th, the subject of my first official Broadway review since moving to the east coast!

Although this production actually originated in Australia, it is most fitting that it is having its American premiere in the city Kong has terrorized repeatedly. The book, written by recent Tony winner Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), is set in Depression-era NYC just as the 1933 and 2005 movies were. It follows the original plot's basic outline but makes some striking changes with the lead human characters. Carl Denham, the charmingly reckless filmmaker, is now a full on villain with little regard for his leading lady, Ann Darrow, Kong or anyone/anything else. Ann, meanwhile, is no longer a wilting flower scream queen à la Fay Wray but a newly empowered heroine for the #MeToo generation (she is also currently being played by a black actress, Christiani Pitts, making Ann even more relevant in 21st century USA).

Denham, Ann, and a hunky all-male crew journey to Kong's home via a spectacular evocation of a sailing tanker courtesy of scenic and projection designer Peter England. Once there, the original tale's gorilla-worshipping natives are replaced by mysterious sentient plant life, which is initially confusing but explained later in Act Two. These crafty vines "kidnap" Ann and present her to the larger-than-life master of Skull Island.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The genuine thrills of this stage adaptation of King Kong are provided by its title creation: a 2,000-pound, two-story-tall, absolutely-believable puppet designed by Sonny Tilders and operated by ten cast members dubbed the "King's Company." It roars, it carries Ann in its fist, it "runs" through the jungle, and it convincingly climbs the Empire State Building (uniquely viewed from within the tower). At one point, when Kong breaks free from his theatrical captivity, it even moves down to the first view rows of the audience and "sniffs" patrons before roaring at them. The audience responded with wild applause to practically every gesture and facial expression of this marvelous faux monkey.

One does wish the musical's book was stronger and its songs more memorable but it is hardly "The Mess That Roared," as it was recently dubbed in a merciless New York Times review. The techno-pop score by Marius de Vries (of Moulin Rouge! and La La Land fame), Eddie Perfect (who will soon also be represented on Broadway with the new musical version of Beetlejuice) and a handful of other contributors features a few numbers that are catchy, moving, and/or hilarious (intentionally so). The most touching and memorable of these is one of the simplest: a lullaby Ann sings to the wounded Kong while a full moon casts its light upon them. Ann gets a couple of powerhouse songs including "Last of Our Kind" but the climactic "The Wonder," sung by the entire cast, is genuinely spine-tingling.

Director-choreographer Drew McOnie puts his predominantly male cast through some dazzling paces. The fluidity not only of the dances but the show as a whole is truly impressive. The handful of female performers are fine in largely chorine roles, and several of them nearly steal the show away from Kong when they are forced to sing while the monster is breaking free.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pitts is fetching and in command as Ann, the queen to Kong's king, even if her character comes across as too contemporary at times. As the conniving Carl, Eric William Morris has charm but is saddled with a pretty one-dimensional role and isn't given much to do musically. Veteran actor Erik Lochtefeld is affecting as Lumpy, a new character with a tragic backstory. And ensemble member Casey Garvin is a standout as "Fake Carl" in the show-within-a-show relating the story of Kong's capture. Garvin is handsome and hilarious, and the unknown woman sitting next to me concurred that he is this production's best asset after the Kong puppet.

It is difficult to predict the longevity of the stage version of King Kong, given the mixed critical reaction it is receiving plus its enormous scale and related cost. There is no question, though, that it is the best giant-monster musical out there... at least until a Godzilla tuner comes along.

Reverend's Rating: B+

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

Friday, November 9, 2018

Reverend's Preview: Gay Movies on the Bay


Although this November will mark its third edition, the Coronado Island Film Festival is now garnering our fullest attention. This increasingly popular event will run November 9th-12th at San Diego’s iconic Hotel del Coronado and other nearby locales.

Coronado Island’s enduring love affair with Hollywood began back in the earliest days of filmmaking, when “movie people” were irresistibly drawn to the still-legendary hospitality of the host hotel (which also serves as the festival’s Presenting Sponsor). The hotel was built right on the sand in 1888. Coronado’s world-class beaches, perfect weather, and proximity to Hollywood have made it a favorite go-to spot for the stars since those halcyon days when Errol Flynn, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin strolled the Avenue.

The film festival, inaugurated in 2016, is an intimate, pedestrian-friendly festival, with most screening venues an easy walk from one another. Organizers promise a weekend to remember with films of every genre, many introduced by their makers; memorable panel discussions; a welcoming Hospitality Lounge; live performances; numerous parties; a “Meet the Jury” reception; and a signature Celebrity Tribute hosted by renowned film critic Leonard Maltin, back for his third year as Festival Host and Honorary Jury President. Jury awards will be presented in several categories.

A number of gay-interest movies will be screened this year. They include Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story; the acclaimed documentaries Love, Cecil and Studio 54; and the cross-dressing comedy classic Some Like It Hot.

Another film of significant interest to LGBT viewers is Words and Music by Jerry Herman. Amber Edwards’ insightful look at the life of the gay, Tony Award-winning composer will be screened the afternoon of Sunday, November 11th. Although Edwards made her documentary a decade ago, Herman has been in the spotlight once again thanks to the smash Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!.

Herman is also renowned as the songwriter behind La Cage aux Folles, Mame and Mack & Mabel, among other shows. He made his Broadway debut at the age of 29 with the Jewish-themed musical Milk and Honey, and subsequently scored his first Tony nomination. The documentary features interviews with such luminaries as Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Michael Feinstein, and the late great Charles Nelson Reilly. Now 87, Herman often works as a coach to budding theatre artists.

I asked Edwards about the films with LGBT appeal that will be screened during the Coronado Island Film Festival during a recent phone interview. “There are quite a lot of them, including mine,” she replied from her home in Connecticut. “Jerry Herman is a gay man but the film is primarily about his career as a Broadway composer; I think it’s a sign of progress that the gay-interest films are no longer in a separate or niche program.”

The director attended last year’s event and presented Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, her most recent documentary. “One of the things I found (about the fest) and made me feel good is that they pay a lot of attention to the people who make the films — animators, composers, production designers, etc — versus big stars or actors,” Edwards said upon reflection. “There is an emphasis on peeling back the layers of a film and filmmaking as a holistic thing, rather than focusing on name stars or directors.”

Edwards described another significant benefit of this festival’s size and location. “For one thing, they don’t overpack it in terms of screenings. When you have too many films, you can’t find common ground to talk about them because everyone has seen something else. (Finding common ground) is one of the great, socializing aspects of film festivals.”

Word and Music by Jerry Herman provides plenty of fodder to get attendees talking, especially gay viewers. Herman discusses the AIDS-related death of his partner, Marty, as well as his own HIV+ status. He has been living with HIV for approximately 30 years. The doc also boasts generous use of vintage and backstage photography of fantastic musical numbers from Herman’s classic musicals.

It sounds like the third edition of the Coronado Island Film Festival shouldn’t be missed. “I really just fell in love with the people who run it and the community,” Edwards noted. “The local community was so interested and excited; usually, the organizers of a festival are really excited but nobody else (laugh). This is a great, very well-run festival.”

Visit the Coronado Island Film Festival website for full details and tickets.

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Dearest Reviews: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


This year is shaping up to be a great year for actresses, especially those whose characters are doing all they can do to not lose their minds.

In reverse order of their ability to keep their shit together, here are 2018’s “women on the verge of a nervous breakdown”:

Private Life (now streaming on Netflix):
WOTVOANB: Rachel Biegler, played by Kathryn Hahn.
Supportive spouse: Richard, played by Paul Giamatti.
What’s driving her crazy: This middle-aged New York couple’s increasingly desperate attempts at getting pregnant.
How bad does it get?: They resort to asking their step-niece (Kayli Carter) to be their surrogate, drawing the wrath of her mother, another WOTVOANB, played by Molly Shannon.
Oscar Moment: Rachel has a street freak out when Richard supports the previously off-the-table idea of surrogacy.
Review: Fertility issues usually crop up in long-running TV shows when the writers decide to tackle a pregnancy storyline and want to draw it out as long as possible. Thankfully, writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) nicely manages to make this oft-told scenario fresh and funny. She also smartly cast two warm and wonderful character actors as her leads; it is especially gratifying to see Hahn (easily the best thing in the incredibly overrated Transparent) finally in the spotlight.
Rating: 7/10

Tully (now available on DVD and Blu-ray):
WOTVOANB: Marlo Moreau, played by Charlize Theron.
Supportive spouse: Drew, played by Ron Livingston.
What’s driving her crazy: Already on shaky ground dealing with her two young kids (one of whom is obviously autistic yet the film rather shamefully just labels “quirky”), Marlo is pushed over the edge in the aftermath of the birth of her third child.
How bad does it get?: Actually, it gets better with the arrival of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny of the “manic pixie dream girl” variety. But then a diner waitress uniform enters the picture and it gets weird…
Oscar Moment: Sitting on her living room sofa nursing the baby, Marlo wonders if it is her life that is empty or just her right breast.
Review: Eleven years after Juno, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody revisit the topic of pregnancy, this time from a postpartum perspective, with their sharp comedic sensibility still intact. A once-again de-glammed Theron grounds the story, even when it goes in unexpected directions, with her lived-in performance.
Rating: 7/10

The Kindergarten Teacher (now streaming on Netflix):
WOTVOANB: Lisa Spinelli, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Supportive spouse: Grant, played by Orange is the New Black’s Michael Chernus.
What’s driving her crazy: As the titular educator, Lisa discovers that Jimmy (Parker Sevak), one of her young charges, is a poetry prodigy and becomes determined to nurture his natural talent… no matter what.
How bad does it get?: Plagiarism, adultery and child endangerment are just a few of the many lines Lisa crosses.
Oscar Moment: Lisa confronts Jimmy’s preoccupied father and tries to convince him his son is the next Mozart.
Review: A remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, writer/director Sara Colangelo creates here an engrossing tale of mounting anxiety anchored by a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-her, career best performance from Gyllenhaal (who also co-produced the film). Her character starts out with the best intentions and, even though she ends up committing highly questionable acts, we kind of see her point, which is then proven correct by a gut-punch of a final moment.
Rating: 8/10

Hereditary (now available on DVD and Blu-ray):
WOTVOANB: Annie Graham, played by Toni Collette.
Supportive spouse: Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne.
What’s driving her crazy: Where to start? There’s a couple of funerals, a few ghostly sightings, some light witchcraft, plus an unnervingly disembodied tongue click or two, all topped off with some mounting paranoia and a heaping helping of soul-crushing grief.
How bad does it get?: You. Have. No. Idea.
Oscar Moment: When questions of guilt and responsibility arise during a family dinner, an increasingly unhinged Annie verbally lashes out at her grieving son Peter (My Friend Dahmer’s Alex Wolff).
Review: Honestly, the less you know about Hereditary (a masterful feature debut for writer/director Ari Aster) the better the scares, of which there is a plentiful amount. Trust me, this is not for the faint of heart. Yet if you are in the mood for a good dose of terror, this is definitely the one for you. Finally, a horror film that actually lives up to being compared to The Exorcist.
Rating: 9/10

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