(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Race Relations


Whether white/Caucasian, black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx or other, racial differences remain an enduring source of both tension and celebration in our good ol' U.S. of A. An intriguing assortment of new theatrical, cinematic and home video offerings explore this with considerable success.

Slave Play is currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and definitely the most provocative. Written by the young, black and unabashedly queer playwright Jeremy O. Harris (who, coincidentally, was doing a theatre residency at Yale University earlier this year while I was doing a chaplain residency at the neighboring Yale New Haven Hospital), it is a satiric yet hard-hitting look at three bi-racial couples – straight and gay – seeking to address their relationship issues via "antebellum sexual fantasy therapy." In short, they each re-enact a 19th century master-slave dynamic under the supervision of two researchers. Are you sensing the potential for controversy yet?

Harris' play is presented in three acts but without an intermission. Act one introduces the three couples as they play out their various scenarios. While definitely uncomfortable in the use of racial slurs as well as abusive power, these scenes are also unexpectedly, intentionally funny as the modern characters adapt to their regressive situations. Most interesting is the gay couple because the white partner, who is revealed to believe himself to be black, plays slave to his legitimately-black "master."

Act two details the couples' processing of the experience with the researchers, who realize they are in over their heads as things turn confrontational. The final act focuses on one couple, the black Kaneisha (a standout performance by Joaquina Kalukango) and white Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan, who is nude for most of it), as they directly, painfully address their power/control imbalance.

All the actors are excellent in their physically-revealing and emotionally-challenging roles, which necessitate comic timing in addition to absolute seriousness. Robert O'Hara provides incisive direction as well. I came away from the play wishing Harris had shown how the other two couples end up as he does with Kaneisha and Jim. Nevertheless, Slave Play is disturbing, thought-provoking, amusing, and erotic in equal measure while engaging throughout. That's no easy feat when dealing with our country's dark history of slavery and its enduring legacy.

Newly available on home video from Breaking Glass Pictures is writer-director John Butler's Papi Chulo. This dramedy stars out actor Matt Bomer (the Magic Mike movies and currently Will's fiancée on TV's Will & Grace) as Sean, a gay weatherman on the verge of a mental breakdown after an apparent breakup with his longtime partner. In the process of having the deck of his home re-painted, he hires a middle-aged day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

Sean, desperate for companionship, is soon paying Ernesto to join him on personal day trips. Despite their differences in age and ethnicity plus a language barrier since Ernesto is Spanish-speaking, the two men develop an unexpectedly profound friendship. Ernesto proves to be the catalyst for Sean's eventual effort to put his life back together. Bomer and Patino are great together, and enjoyable support is provided by the fun actress-comedians Wendi McLendon-Covey (The Goldbergs, Reno 911) and D'Arcy Carden (The Good Place's all-knowing Janet).

Papi Chulo proves to be a touching film despite some uneveness in tone and late-hour screenplay histrionics. Butler deserves credit though for respecting Ernesto and Sean as their own men, culturally-speaking. Most amusing are scenes wherein Ernesto speaks truthfully with his supportive wife on the phone about the nature of his and Sean's relationship, often in Sean's presence but in Spanish. The movie shows that truth, respect and friendship can overcome any differences.

While racial differences aren't made an issue in Doctor Sleep, the terrific new sequel to The Shining now playing in theaters, they are present nonetheless. A young black girl with powerful psychic abilities named Abra teams up with the grownup Danny "Doc" Torrance, the prequel's similarly gifted but white child, to take down a nasty group of deathless RVers who literally suck "the shine" from unsuspecting children. Their cunning leader is Rose the Hat, and the climactic battle between her, Danny and Abra is set in the notoriously evil Overlook Hotel.

Mike Flanagan (who previously helmed Gerald's Game and Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House series) does a superb job of both adapting Stephen King's 2013 sequel novel and honoring Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, which King largely disavowed. One of the most significant differences between The Shining novel and film is that the Overlook burned down at the end of the novel while Kubrick left it standing. Fortunately, Kubrick's decision has given Flanagan as well as the film's legion of fans a great cinematic opportunity to return to the long abandoned but still haunted resort. King has reportedly approved of Flanagan's take.

Here's Danny!

I would love to see Doctor Sleep's lead trio of Ewan McGregor (as the long-tormented Danny), Rebecca Ferguson (Rose) and talented newcomer Kyliegh Curran (Abra) receive serious awards consideration. Indeed, Ferguson makes Rose the Hat one of the most memorably vile movie villains in some time, tearing into innocent children with no reservations. Veteran actor Carl Lumbly makes several welcome, spectral appearances as Dick Hallorann (played by the late Scatman Crothers in the 1980 movie), while Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) has a nice turn as Danny's compassionate new friend.

References to Kubrick's film abound, arguably too much at times. Most importantly, though, Doctor Sleep illustrates in a quiet yet powerful way how racial differences don't matter at all when it comes to defeating the forces of evil.

Reverend's Ratings:
Slave Play (on Broadway): B+
Papi Chulo: B
Doctor Sleep: A-

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Room for a Third?


Plenty of people fantasize about threesomes. Perhaps some of us have experienced a sexual or romantic encounter with two other people at the same time. But is it possible for three people – gay men in particular – to have a mutual, long-term relationship with one another? That is the question posed by The Third, a provocative, sexy 6-episode series newly available for streaming on Dekkoo and on DVD from TLA Releasing.

Its plot follows Jason (played by Sean McBride), a 29-year old gay man who unexpectedly stumbles into a “triad” with Carl and David (Corey Page and Ryland Shelton), an older, established Palm Springs couple who are struggling after five years of marriage. Thinking that a third person might spice up their relationship, they agree to move forward with Jason only to encounter a whole new set of complications. What begins as a passionate three-way affair is jeopardized by skepticism, jealousy and secrets. Writing their own rules along the way, Jason, Carl and David try to figure out the true definition of love.

The Third is the brainchild of filmmaker Matthew Lynn. To his and primary director Matt McClelland’s credit, a still-controversial subject is handled with grace and humor as well as appropriate doses of dramatic tension. Lynn has traveled around the world producing feature and short films, documentaries, music videos, and series. He has also created original shows for YouTube star Davey Wavey and served as the cinematographer for Brian Jordan Alvarez from Will & Grace. Lynn was actually the cinematographer on The Third and Palm Springs has never looked so good. The queer artist recently spoke with me about his latest project.

Three's company

“For me, this has been a complete labor of love; as they say: art imitates life, which imitates art,” Lynn said when asked about the show’s genesis. “I used to be a Southern Baptist music minister, which didn’t work out too well. When I was 23, I came out to my parents and they said ‘Leave and don’t come home again.’ Soon after, a gay couple took me in and became my surrogate family. Eventually, we entered into the triad relationship which initially inspired the show.” Fortunately, Lynn’s parents eventually came around and accept him today.

Lynn subsequently was in a second triad relationship. Between his personal experiences and in doing research for The Third, he learned “a lot of people are in triads or throuples.” He also learned some are in four-person “quads.” When asked to estimate the number of such multi-person relationships, Lynn reported “I can’t put an exact number on it but they are a lot more frequent than you think. Especially now with dating apps, people can advertise them more so there is more awareness.”

The Third doesn’t shy from showing the good, bad and even the ugly in such relationships. “Most of the stuff you see in season one is real, especially the jealousy and difficulty with communications, Lynn says. “In a triad, there are really four relationships going on: each individual’s relationship with the others and then the group dynamic. It can be tough to navigate, especially at first.”

The series’ cast is terrific, but finding the right actors proved challenging for Lynn and the production team. “We did a standard casting process in LA,” he replied when I asked about it. “We found Sean McBride (who plays Jason) and Corey Page (who plays Carl) quickly but had a hard time finding David,” who seems more troubled and morally complex than his triad partners. “We finally found Ryland Shelton and he was great.”

In addition to the human cast, the sumptuously photographed desert mecca of Palm Springs seems like an additional character in the show. “When I moved there, I was in my second triad relationship,” Lynn reflected. “The Third is a love letter to the city, which really is the gayest place on earth.”

Some viewers may be drawn to the series by the promise of three-way sex scenes. They are there, and in various configurations, but are non-graphic. Lynn is ultimately exploring something more lasting and profound. “Many people are now in non-traditional relationships, and this show is about bringing light and hope to them and their unique stories,” he said. “All of us are looking for somewhere to belong.”

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

Friday, October 18, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Cinema of the Abused


Print media and TV have been rife for some time now with often shocking, always sad stories of abused children, teenagers and adults of all ages. Currently, movie screens are awash in such tales. Two are intimate accounts of true events, while two others are fictional films that ring with varying degrees of truth.

Acclaimed, openly gay filmmaker François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Double Lover) is back with By the Grace of God, opening in New York this Friday and in Los Angeles on October 25th. This powerful exposé of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in France won the coveted Silver Bear grand jury prize at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Ozon's excellent, tasteful screenplay focuses on three adult men who were victimized as children by Fr. Bernard Preynat of the Diocese of Lyons. During the mid 1980's-early 1990's, the victims were Boy Scouts under Preynat's leadership. After protracted negotiations with church leaders starting in 2014 and a legal battle, Preynat was finally removed from the priesthood just last year. His bishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted earlier this year of covering up Preynat's abuse history and was sentenced to a suspended six month prison sentence.

By the Grace of God is not unlike the Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight in its detailed approach, but Ozon's film is unique in that it is told from the victims' perspectives whereas Spotlight focused on the investigation of Boston Globe reporters. (As a nice tribute, a Spotlight poster can be glimpsed in the background of one shot.) While unrelentingly critical of the Church's poor leadership during the abuse crisis, one of the victims – who is atheist – appropriately declares of his and the others' pursuit of justice: "This is about morality, not faith."

Ozon makes great, unexpectedly dramatic use of conveyed letters and email correspondences. And while the three subjects the filmmaker focuses on are heterosexual, one of them played by Melvil Poupaud (who previously starred in Ozon's Le Refuge) accurately states "sexual orientation is not a criminal perversion," unlike pedophilia. Mention is also made of a gay victim of Preynat's who ended up committing suicide, tragically. The victims' varying reactions to their abuse are interesting and authentic.

I came away from By the Grace of God wondering why a strong response to the history of clerical sexual abuse in France, which is so similar to our experience in the United States in the early 2000's, was delayed by more than a decade? Most likely it is because Catholicism has been entrenched there for centuries longer than here in the US. As the courageous survivors depicted in Ozon's latest work boldly state, "We want to push the Church to evolve." Amen to that!

Men of Hard Skin (now available on home video from TLA Releasing) tells a related but even more intimate and insightful story about the plight of young people abused by clergy. Jose Celestino Campusano's Argentina-set drama introduces viewers to Ariel, a religious teenager who devotedly volunteers at his local Catholic church against his father's wishes. That's because Ariel is in love with the hunky Fr. Omar, with whom he has been having a sexual relationship for some time. Ariel becomes enraged when he discovers Fr. Omar is feeling repentant and backing away from him.

After confronting Fr. Omar about his rejection, the precocious Ariel pursues a new, handsome farmhand working on his father's farm. The bisexual Julio is, unbeknownst to Ariel initially, married to a woman and has a baby girl. Things get ugly and more public after Ariel's dad catches his son and Julio having sex and beats Julio before firing him. Fortunately, Ariel's sister is accepting of his sexuality and wisely advises her brother against doing "anything to please others" and "don't betray yourself."

Writer-director Campusano nails the love-hate feelings that some sexual abuse victims develop toward their abusers, something that hasn't been shown often in movies dealing with the subject. It also accurately depicts how victims can become overly sexualized at an early age and, in turn, objectify others. But the character of Ariel (very effectively played by Wall Javier) becomes admirably aggressive toward and defensive against his abuser. He grows to realize he has been wronged and inspires other victims of Fr. Omar to rebel against the priest. This, coupled with its excellent cinematography of scenic settings, makes Men of Hard Skin a film to watch.

Then there are the two J's currently dominating movie screens: Joker and Judy. Both detail the horrific results of abuse starting at an early age, and both boast awards-worthy performances by their leading man and lady, respectively. Joker, however, is excessive and arguably irresponsible in its seeming endorsement of violence against perpetrators, at least wealthy ones.

Joaquin Phoenix is undeniably powerful as Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden resident of decrepit, pre-Batman Gotham City. Long convinced by his mother that his role in life is to bring happiness to others, Fleck works as a clown for hire by local businesses, hospitals and other organizations. Sadly, Fleck endures near-constant physical and/or emotional abuse from street hoodlums, co-workers, employers and passersby. One day he is pushed too far and ends up shooting three employees of the storied Wayne Enterprises to death after they attack him on a subway train. This unanticipated action and the general kudos it receives from his fellow poor citizens of Gotham, as well as more personal revelations, spark Fleck's evolution as the sinister kingpin (and Batman's arch-nemesis) Joker.

Joker, the movie, is a huge international hit but has received wildly divergent reactions from critics and viewers ever since its premiere at September's Venice Film Festival, where it unexpectedly won the fest's Best Picture trophy. Drawing too obviously at times from the early works of Martin Scorsese, it serves as a retro prequel (set in 1981 to be exact) to Tim Burton's Batman series. In presenting a villain forged from personal abuse, however, it takes a dramatic turn from the origin of Jack Nicholson's Joker. While well-acted and well-made, this is a depressing and morally troubling movie, especially when it comes to its "kill the rich" denouement/encouragement.

The late, great singer-actress Judy Garland endured systematic abuse beginning at the age of two from managers, studio heads, and her own mother. Most significantly, they got her addicted to drugs as a child starlet so she could perform on demand. As an adult, her ongoing addictions to drugs, alcohol and manipulative men ruined her career and led to her early death at the age of 47.

Judy, now playing, is the latest of several dramatizations of Garland's life. This biopic is adapted from, and actually an improvement on, Peter Quilter's more sensationalistic play End of the Rainbow. In particular, the movie shows how MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer abused Garland emotionally and subsequently controlled her. Renee Zellweger is sensational in a good way as the title icon. While Zellweger is subtle more often than not in her channeling of Garland, the musical numbers remind viewers simultaneously of both women's artistry and endearing vulnerability. Hollywood's award season is just getting underway but Zellweger would get my vote for Best Actress if I had to vote now.

Reverend's Ratings:
By the Grace of God: A-
Men of Hard Skin: B+
Joker: C
Judy: B+

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Reverend's Preview: SDIFF Presents Scorsese, Pitbull and The Bionic Woman


The 18th Annual San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) will be celebrating a diverse array of movies and artists from October 15th-20th. Produced by the San Diego Film Foundation, organizers announced that they will honor music star and rapper Pitbull with the festival’s Music Icon Award, acclaimed actress Lindsay Wagner with the festival’s Humanitarian Award, and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix series, What’s Love Got to Do With It) with the annual Gregory Peck Award.

Each year’s festival is the signature event presented by the San Diego Film Foundation, which is “dedicated to providing new perspective through the experience of film; we believe that film can be transformative and we are bound together through human connection.” Their mission is to use “the experience of film to explore issues of global impact, to create dialog, and ultimately to develop empathy and understanding.” The fest also provides an advance look at what are sure to be some of this year’s Hollywood awards season darlings.

Other honorees will include British actor Jared Harris (Chernobyl, Carnival Row) with the Cinema Vanguard Award and actress-comedian Jillian Bell (Brittany Runs a Marathon, Office Christmas Party) with the Fairbanks Award. In addition to receiving his award, Pitbull (aka Armando Christian Perez) will perform during the festival’s Night of the Stars Tribute ceremony on October 18th at the Pendry San Diego.

Emmy award-winning actress Lindsay Wagner captured the hearts of audiences around the world with her iconic portrayal of The Bionic Woman. She has since starred in over 60 films, miniseries and specials that were also groundbreaking, socially relevant and often poignant. Wagner made a conscious and courageous decision in the turbulent 1970s to use her stature in the entertainment industry to champion many causes that were receiving little media attention. Forgoing a number of feature film offers, she chose to use her significant clout to make movies that were aired on television in an effort to educate her audiences. Wagner has often been referred to as the “Queen of TV Movies,” and her films and docudramas have covered such important subjects such as healthcare, capital punishment, child sexual abuse, terrorism, domestic violence, revisionist history, and the emotional impact of breast cancer.

And then there are the movies! The local premiere of the controversial Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), will serve as the Opening Night film at the Balboa Theatre on Tuesday, October 15th. This World War II satire follows a lonely German boy, Jojo, whose worldview is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (played by Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (personified by director Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism. Jojo Rabbit recently won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

Other prominent films to be screened at ArcLight Cinema La Jolla on October 17th will be Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated The Irishman featuring the dream teaming of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci; Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver; the acclaimed women’s romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire; and A Hidden Life directed by beloved auteur Terrence Malick. All in all, 107 films will be shown including five Narrative Spotlight Competition films, 20 Narrative Competition films, nine Documentary Competition films, and 66 Short films.

Among the festival’s gay-interest movies are Temblores (Tremors), which will screen on Sunday, October 20th. Set in Guatemala, it tells the potent story of a newly-out gay husband, father, son, and brother and the harsh treatment he receives from his evangelical Christian family. Talented writer-director Jayro Bustamante pulls no punches and one easily feels for Pablo, the handsome, Scruff-ready lead character (beautifully portrayed by Juan Pablo Olyslager).

Also screening on October 20th will be By the Grace of God, gay director François Ozon's gripping drama that follows three men who band together to dismantle the code of silence that continues to protect a priest who abused them decades ago.

Tickets, passes, and the most up to date festival information are available at SDIFF website.

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Movie Dearest Guide to Halloween Costumes 2019

Whether you’ll be out looking for tricks or treats (or both) this All Hallow’s Eve, Movie Dearest has got you covered with the latest creepy and kooky movie and TV-inspired costume ideas:

Kick-Ass Women

Alita, Battle Angel

Captain Marvel

Dark Phoenix

Bo Peep in Toy Story 4


The Stranger Things Scoops Ahoy Crew

Molly and Amy from Booksmart

Anna and Elsa in Frozen II

Eve Polastri and Villanelle from Killing Eve


The Tethered from Us

The Cast of American Horror Story: 1984

The Rose Family of Schitt's Creek

The Hustlers

The Many Lives and/or Deaths of Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll

The Various Elton Johns from Rocketman

Golden Girls

Dame Maggie Smith as The Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

Rita Moreno as Lydia Margarita del Carmen Inclán Maribona Leyte-Vidal de Riera
from One Day at a Time

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite and/or as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown


The Umbrella Academy

The Shazam! Family

Fat Thor

...and Supervillains

The Joker

Mysterio from Spider-Man: Far from Home

Mary Louise from Big Little Lies

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Dearest Review: Upstairs, Downstairs

When the global phenomenon known as Downton Abbey wrapped up its six season run on television a few years back, devoted fans (including yours truly) of the Crawley family and all those who lived and worked within the storied walls of the title abode were more or less quite satisfied with how everything turned out for their favorite characters. There was a couple weddings, a birth, some burgeoning romances and various other "happily ever afters", culminating with (as it should be) Dame Maggie Smith's deliciously droll Dowager Countess getting in the last word.

But as is increasingly the case in this age of remakes, reboots and revivals, there was more to be said, apparently, as we have now been invited back to Downton Abbey, this time at a cinema near you. And, not surprisingly considering practically the entire cast and creative team (led by creator Julian Fellowes) have reunited for the big screen debut, returning viewers will be treated to a super-size version of all the things they loved about the multiple award-winning (including a Dearie) period drama-slash-highbrow soap opera. But even long-time Abbey addicts admit that there were a few faults in the foundation of the august manor along the way (repetitive storylines, questionable motivations, abrupt resolutions) and, alas, some of that did creep into the film as well.

And that brings us to Downton Abbey: The Movie - The Good, The Bad and The Dowager*

*Since nothing about Downton Abbey is ugly, and because: Dame Maggie Smith. 

Wilde times
The Good:
  • Expect lots of goosebumps early in the film, from the familiar strains of John Lunn's iconic theme to the moment when the Abbey first comes majestically into view. The giddiness just increases as each familiar face, from both upstairs and downstairs, makes their first appearance.
  • Once the plot – the King and Queen are coming to Downton! – is established, the story unfolds leisurely, and Fellowes' efficient script gives each of the twenty-some original cast members at least a moment or two to shine. Not even the Star Trek movies could claim that most of the time.
  • The scenes of the loyal Downton service staff reclaiming their turf from the snobbish royal entourage – a rebellion led by Downton super-couple Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) – are a hoot, providing the film with an unexpected but welcome dose of non-Dowager humor. Choice moments are provided by a flummoxed Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the take-no-guff Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the always reliable for a laugh Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle).
  • Robert James-Collier's gay butler Thomas Barrow was one of the few characters to end the series without a romantic interest, but that is resolved satisfactorily here in a nicely done subplot that involves a handsome King's Royal Dresser (Max Brown) and even takes us to a London speakeasy with (shocking!) man-on-man dancing.
  • And of course, aficionados of "period porn" will have much to revel in with all the late-'20s fashions and bobbed hairdos of the upper classes to feast upon.

Irish eyes
The Bad:
  • Allen Leech's Tom Branson spent the latter part of the series either flirting with or fending off various thoroughly modern Millies, yet he quickly finds a true love connection here... too quickly, actually. And that's when he's not busy thwarting an assassination attempt or inadvertently saving a royal marriage. We love our Irish chauffeur-turned-Crawley confidante, but his cinematic plate seems awfully full, particularly in comparison to his onscreen in-laws, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), both surprisingly given not much to do beyond commenting on what's going on around them.
  • Oh Daisy... Apologies if Sophie McShera's kitchen maid is a favorite of yours, because she's never been one of mine, and nothing she does in the film – bitching about the royals, making eyes with a hunky plumber in front of her fiancé, goofy footman Andy (Michael C. Fox) – makes me change my mind. You say spirited, I say shrill; thankfully Lesley Nicol's feisty Mrs. Patmore is usually nearby to put her back in her place.
  • Poor Edith... Laura Carmichael's eternally put-upon middle daughter (the "Jan Brady" of this Crawley bunch) finally got some happiness in the series finale – married to a Marquess (Harry Hadden-Paton) no less! – but she's back to being miserable again here, most absurdly with... an ill-fitting party dress. At least her husband is around for most of the action; Lady Mary's Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is MIA for most of the running time.
  • Also missing in action from the series: Lily James' vivacious Lady Rose, Samantha Bond's meddlesome Lady Rosamund and the Dowager's feuding servants Sprat (Jeremy Swift) and Denker (Sue Johnston).
  • Yes, a big event like Carrie Bradshaw's wedding or the death of Captain Kirk is needed to bridge the gap when a TV show transitions to the movies, and a royal visit certainly fills that bill for Downton Abbey. But I feel a more personal story for the Crawley family would have been even better, although the final scenes hint at just that as a possibility for a sequel, a sequel that is looking more and more likely considering the film's surprisingly robust opening weekend.
There is nothing like this Dame
The Dowager:
  • As Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Dame Maggie Smith has won three Emmys, four Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe, and with Downton Abbey now a movie she may even be up for an Academy Award (fittingly, as her last Oscar nomination was for Fellowes' Gosford Park).
  • Known for her perfect delivery of such meme-ably classic quotes as "What is a weekend?" and "Don't be a defeatist dear, it's very middle class", the Dowager continues to not disappoint with a few choice zingers, most aimed at her frequent target, frenemy Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), such as this exchange: "Oh Violet. After all these years you still astonish me." "Oh good, I'm glad I'm a revelation and not a disappointment."
  • Fellowes often pitted the Dowager against those who flew in the face of English tradition; the prevailing theme of Downton Abbey has always been the relevance of such in the rapidly changing times of the early twentieth century. In the film she faces off with a heretofore unmentioned Crawley cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton, wife of Jim Carter, a.k.a. Downton's Mr. Carson), who just so happens to be the Queen's lady-in-waiting. It all feels a tad contrived, especially since their tiff is over Violet's objections to Maud making her longtime maid and companion, Lucy Smith (played by Tuppence Middleton, which is just like the most British name ever) her sole heir. Naturally, there's a secret involved (and no, it is not that "companion" in this case is a euphemism for "lesbian lover", although the thought did cross my mind) that, once revealed, makes everything hunky-dory.
  • Thankfully, this is not all of the Dowager's story in the film, as is revealed in a memorable scene (truly one of the best in Downton history) between her and her heir apparent, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, as prickly fabulous as ever), that I won't go into details about save to say: bring a period-appropriate lace hanky with you, you'll need it.

I confess, I have no idea how someone who has never seen Downton Abbey will view this movie, but as for anyone who has visited before, I'll paraphrase Petula Clark: you'll forget all your troubles, forget all your cares when you see Downton, no finer place for sure. Downton. Everything's waiting for you...

Dearest Rating: 7/10

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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Putting Some Gay in 'It'

Novelist Stephen King has long trafficked successfully in making seemingly innocent or mundane things vessels of horror. Cars, antique stores, St. Bernards, cell phones, nurses and grand hotels are just a few examples. His most enduring, however, has proven to be a dancing clown who has haunted readers, TV viewers and moviegoers since 1986.

Pennywise, the clown in question, is back on the big screen now in It Chapter 2, the inevitable but appropriate sequel to 2017's blockbuster adaptation of King's novel It. 27 years after being temporarily defeated by seven juvenile inhabitants of Derry, Maine who were able to overcome their fear of him, Pennywise returns not only as part of his ongoing cycle of rejuvenation but for revenge.

King has incorporated gay characters into several of his novels but It may be the most significant in this regard. The new film opens with a horrific gay bashing taken from the book's mid-point that serves here as the catalyst for Pennywise's return. Out filmmaker-actor Xavier Dolan (last seen in Boy Erased) appears as Adrian Mellon. After enjoying a fun night at Derry's fair and talking about their impending move to New York City, Adrian and his boyfriend are accosted by a gang of homophobic townies. They don't go down without a fight but Adrian is thrown off a bridge and ends up in the evil clown's waiting arms/mouth. Some fellow gay press members have condemned this scene as "traumatizing," which I find an overreaction and misplaced. I personally found scenes of Pennywise biting the heads off of unsuspecting, defenseless children much more disturbing.

Besides, Adrian and his partner are vindicated by the end of It Chapter 2. The movie goes a surprising step further than the book in terms of inclusion and actually expands a gay character and storyline only hinted at in King's text. (Spoiler alert) Richie, the wise-cracking kid played in both movies by Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, turns out not only to be gay as an adult (played by Bill Hader), but is in love with his fellow "loser" Eddie (James Ransone). This revelation and relationship really serves as the heart and soul of Chapter 2, with Hader's performance especially resonant out of an all-star ensemble that includes James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and the returning Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. Richie and Eddie together lead the climactic battle that leads to Pennywise's final (?) defeat. This is significant, as is a touching coda shot of Richie carving his and Eddie's initials into a wooden bridge.

Pennywise gay-baits Richie both as a kid and an adult. This was in the novel but King did not confirm Richie's sexuality. The author has reportedly endorsed screenwriter Gary Dauberman's decision to define Richie as gay. King has also spoken recently about how a gay-bashing in his own Maine town inspired the gay-bashing scene in the book and new film.

Perhaps due to the sequel's A-list cast members, Pennywise takes more of a backseat. His two standout scenes are when he tricks a little disfigured girl under the bleachers during a football game, similarly to how he seduced little Georgy into the sewer in the first film, and when he first appears to the grownup Richie by floating in on red balloons while a cheer-leading squad seemingly dances to his arrival. Pennywise/Skarsgård also entertainingly mimics Richie's earlier, bad impression of his dancing. In addition, Skarsgård makes a brief appearance without makeup to Beverly (Chastain), who learns about Pennywise's background during a visit to her former apartment.

At nearly three hours, It Chapter 2 is overlong. While it could be considered justifiable in terms of exposition, wherein we also learn how the evil "Deadlights" that power Pennywise first came to Derry, there are individual scenes that could have been tightened up by director Andy Muschietti and his editor, Jason Ballantine. Prime candidates for tightening or cutting altogether are the numerous slow, conversational scenes set in the hotel where the grownups are staying. Otherwise, this is a satisfying sequel that unexpectedly, courageously illustrates how gay-bashing remains one of the greatest horrors of all.

Homophobia also serves as the primary subject of Groupers, a new indie film that will be released theatrically in the US this fall. Marking the feature debut of writer-director Anderson Cowan, it centers around two all-American high school jocks, Brad and Dylan (Peter Mayer-Klepchick and Cameron Duckett). While out for a night on the town, they are approached by the beautiful and seductive Meg (the very good Nicole Dambro) at a local bar. The guys are subsequently kidnapped, drugged and awaken tied up face-to-face in the empty swimming pool of an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere.

Absurdity and insanity ensue as we learn that Orin (Jesse Pudles), Meg’s overly flamboyant brother dubbed "Fancy Pants," has been the target of Brad and Dylan’s homophobic bullying. Meg is actually a grad student who plans to perform a somewhat sadistic experiment on the pair as part of her thesis, which poses the classic question “Is homosexuality a choice?” The men's "members" are connected in what is amusingly dubbed a "Chinese dick trap." To escape it, they have to achieve simultaneous erections. Brad, who may be secretly gay himself, concludes that their situation is worse than anything he and Dylan did to Orin, making it "a hate hate crime crime."

Groupers is a welcome psycho-sexual comedy, though I wish it would have provided more frequent and abundant laughs beyond the set up. It is also overlong at nearly two hours. On the plus side, the guys are cute and the talented cast of unknowns is fully committed. I also want to note the following statement from the film's distributor: “This is an important film”, stated Global Digital Releasing President Joe Dain. “Homophobia has always been an issue in our society but with the current administration and the potential roll backs of LGBTQ protections in this country, (Groupers) is not only timely but Anderson effectively tackles the subject matter in a dark, humorous, yet thought-provoking and entertaining way that we believe will resonate with audiences.”

Viewers can soon decide for themselves. The film is set to open in Los Angeles on Friday, September 27th at the Laemmle Music Hall theater and will expand into additional markets on October 1st. Additionally, the distributor plans to submit it to this year's GLAAD Media and Spirit Awards for consideration.

Reverend's Ratings:
It Chapter 2: B
Groupers: C

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