Film/Arts/Satire*
(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Dearest Review: Dude, Where's My Carpet?



Racist. Culturally insensitive. "Whitewashed". The start of all those crappy direct-to-video sequels. The Disney Aladdin franchise has faced some formidable complaints in the past, but likely it's biggest misstep just opened in a theater near you this past weekend.


The newest splashy, special effects-y Aladdin is just the latest result of a beloved classic getting yanked from the fabled "Disney Vault" and fed through the live action remake machine Bob Iger has working in overdrive of late (it's just one of five such projects this year alone). Yet unlike the enchanting recent returns of Cinderella, Mowgli and Belle, Al & Company find themselves mired in a rote, by-the-numbers rehash nearly devoid of all the charm, whimsy and magic of its predecessor, the latter obviously the most necessary ingredient of all for this exotic tale of a boy and his big blue genie.


An in-the-flesh Aladdin should have worked, a Thief of Bagdad for the new millennium. How could it go so wrong? Well, for starters we have Guy Ritchie in charge, a director with zero family friendly credits and who's closest brush with a musical on his résumé is a music video for his (now ex-)wife Madonna. Then we have Mena Massoud, a lackluster leading man with limited singing abilities clad not in MC Hammer pants but a Justin Bieber hoodie. And most damaging of all is Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Agrabah's resident sneering bad guy. Except here he's without a sneer... or any discernible change of facial expression at all for that matter. In the original Aladdin, voice actor Jonathan Freeman and ace animator Andreas Deja created a memorably oily, power-hungry Villain with a capital 'V' (the OG Jafar even quoted Republican sound bites through song); Kenzari is so unimpressive you would think he was a Marvel supervillain.

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge, casting wise, was finding someone willing to take on the daunting task of filling Robin Williams' pointy-toed shoes as the iconic Genie of the Lamp. Will Smith, to his credit, does an adequate, amiable job that, while it certainly won't make you forget Williams' legendary turn, won't make you want to immediately forget his take on it either (well, except for his horrendous end credit hip hop cover of "Friend Like Me"). Fairing the best is the lovely Naomi Scott as Jasmine, a thoroughly modern (as in 21st century) maiden with a purpose, and it's not to marry some prince but to rule as sultan herself. She even gets her own "Let It Go-ish" princess power ballad in "Speechless", the sole new song (from Alan Menken and his umpteenth Aladdin collaborators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, of La La Land/The Greatest Showman fame) that is surely being over-earnestly covered by a multitude of YouTubers as we speak.


In addition to this film and the already released Dumbo, Disney has Jon Favreau's "photo realistic" reimagining of The Lion King coming out this summer, then Angelina Jolie reprises her Sleeping Beauty villainess in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in October, plus there's a live Lady and the Tramp reboot set to debut on Disney's new streaming service the following month. If you add in the Avengers, Toy Story, Frozen and Star Wars sequels also premiering this year, that's a lot of cashing in on IP for the House of Mouse in 2019. At the rate they're going, soon Disney will be churning out animated remakes of the live action versions. If so, one can only wish that Aladdin 3.0 will be more inspired than its current iteration.

Dearest Rating: 5/10

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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Sexual Politics


 

"Is sex political?," a reporter asks the openly gay, real-life filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in a newly-released biopic. "Of course," Pasolini replies, "There's nothing that isn't political." This query opens Pasolini, Abel Ferrara's 2014 movie that is only now being released in the US thanks to Kino Lorber. It opens this weekend in New York.


The controversial artist, who considered himself a writer first and foremost, was also an avowed Communist and atheist. This didn't exactly ingratiate him with the public in his native Italy or elsewhere during the 1960's and 70's. Few people were surprised when Pasolini was found beaten to death, presumably by someone he met for sex, in 1975. He would have a final word, however, when his shockingly graphic anti-fascism film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, had its premiere just a couple of weeks later. Nonetheless, Pasolini is generally revered among cinephiles today. Even the Vatican has acclaimed his 1964 version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew as the best film about Jesus Christ yet made despite the filmmaker's unbelief, not to mention his homosexuality.

Four-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars as Pasolini in Ferrara's film. Clad in bell bottoms and constantly sporting dark sunglasses, it is a good personification despite Dafoe's lack of an Italian accent. The main action in the movie takes place on the day Pasolini would die. Flashbacks reveal significant moments and interests from his past. This device proves confusing at times, especially since other actors play the younger Pasolini.

This biopic, though long delayed, marks an appropriate subject and fine big-screen return for Ferrara. After all, the "bad boy" American director made his mark with 1992's Pasolini-esque Bad Lieutenant. The movie was also beautifully photographed on location by Stefano Falivene. Don't miss this opportunity to get re-acquainted with Ferrara and more intimately acquainted with Pasolini himself.


Non-Fiction, award-winning director Olivier Assayas' latest, is also now playing in US theaters courtesy of IFC Films. It also dabbles in political and romantic/sexual topics via challenges confronting the contemporary publishing industry. Leonard (played by the endearing Vincent Macaigne) is a successful author of what he terms "auto-fiction," or fictional stories inspired by his own life. This doesn't please the thinly-veiled ex-girlfriends and other actual people who populate his works.

Having grown tired of Leonard's style, his longtime publisher Alain (handsome Guillaume Canet) decides not to print the writer's latest. This sets off existential and relational angst not only for Leonard but for Alain's actress wife Selena (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche), who has been having an affair with Leonard, and Leonard's current political-advisor girlfriend. Alain, meanwhile, is having an affair with Laure, his company's bisexual head of "digital transition" as they try to adapt to an increasingly online readership.

Set primarily in Paris, Assayas' screenplay is a brainy, bracing dissertation on our modern cultural zeitgeist. It includes such perceptive zingers as "addiction is now our default setting" and defines our "post-truth," "fake news" era as "people living in a fictional world ruled by their prejudices." Critics are obsolete (exempting myself, naturally) as public opinion and internet algorithms reign supreme. The film also features a very funny meta moment involving Binoche. But its most accurate observation may actually be one quoted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's 1958 novel The Leopard: "Everything must change for things to stay as they are."

I haven't actually seen any of Assayas' previous films such as Personal Shopper and The Clouds of Sil Maria, which I intend to seek out. Non-Fiction serves as a great, enjoyable primer on the auteur's style and technique.


A writer-director with whom I am very familiar is Stewart Wade, who previously helmed the LGBT-themed indies Coffee Date, Tru Loved and Such Good People. His new release, Say Yes, is now available on Amazon Prime and is well worth renting. It is a touching dramedy in which a married straight couple deal with the wife's unexpected terminal illness. Her twin brother moves in to help care for her. This is initially challenging for her husband but he and her brother develop a friendship. Prior to her death, his wife makes an unusual last request: she wants her husband and brother to be a couple after she's gone. While neither of them is gay, the men begin to explore their "hetero-flexibility" with surprising results. Say Yes is low budget and the acting amateurish at times but it is a moving look at modern love.


I wish I could be as positive about TLA's new gay DVD release, The Skin of the Teeth (not to be confused with Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth). Billed as "Get Out meets Grindr," Matthew Wollin's bizarre movie lacks the best elements of either, although lead actors Pascal Arquimedes and Donal Brophy are attractive. They play Josef and John, respectively, who get together at John's place after connecting online. Josef unwisely ingests an "experimental" pill he discovers while snooping around, which leads to unusual complications and hallucinations... or are they? Unfortunately, the stranger things become, the less interesting the film is and it grows prolonged and boring. There is some good cinematography and use of shadow during a police interrogation scene. Wollin seems to be going for something David Lynchian but sadly doesn't succeed.

Reverend's Ratings:
Pasolini: B
Non-Fiction: B+
Say Yes: B
The Skin of the Teeth: D

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: How to Stream Like a Queen


 

Let’s take a time machine trip back to the groovy 1970’s. On second thought, let’s not. In terms of home entertainment, it was a primitive time when there were only three national television networks plus a handful of public TV and cable access stations. The 1980’s introduced several dozen pay cable options, which was an improvement, but painfully few if any of these regular TV or cable networks featured shows with positive depictions of LGBTQ characters. What’s more, everything could only be watched on a boxy, heavy TV set.


My, how things have changed in the modern era! There are hundreds of satellite and cable channels today and as many or more websites offering a plethora of LGBTQ-interest shows. Some channels and sites broadcast nothing but LGBTQ shows! Our long-deceased, more conservative elders would probably roll over in their graves…although, in fairness, my grandfather was a big fan of Billy Crystal’s pioneering portrayal of an out gay character on the late-70’s sitcom Soap.

Freed from traditional constraints, LGBTQ writers, producers, actors and directors have found welcome freedom in today’s TV and internet landscape. Network and original shows streamed online provide a storytelling environment that viewers around the world can tune in to any time. Streaming shows also provide greater storytelling flexibility. Individual episodes can range from just a few minutes to the more traditional 30 or 60 minutes. Blessedly, many of them are shown without ads or commercials. And we can watch today’s shows through a variety of media: on our televisions, our phones, our laptops, iPads and more. Viewers are now able to keep up with their favorite shows anytime, anywhere: during lunch and bathroom breaks at work or school, or while riding the bus, plane or train. One can watch an episode at a time or “binge” an entire series in one sitting.


The “DC Universe” of series adapted from classic comic book superheroes has been one of the most popular and inclusive when it comes to LGBTQ characters. Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, DC's Legends of Tomorrow and Black Lightning, all available on cwtv.com as well as Netflix, feature an assortment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer heroes, villains and/or associates. Joining them this fall with her own CW show will be the lady-loving Batwoman.

Lest the CW be solely populated by DC’s characters, the comics giant recently inaugurated its own streaming network. DCuniverse.com provides a number of original series and classic movies for the low monthly price of $7.99. Chief among these in terms of queer content is Doom Patrol, about a diverse band of antiheroes. Out actor Matt Bomer plays Negative Man, a gay man with a troubled past including an ex-boyfriend with whom he longs to re-connect.

Here’s a rundown of several other LGBTQ-interest shows currently streaming that I recommend most highly:


Special (Netflix):
Ryan O’Connell created and headlines this autobiographical series about a gay man with cerebral palsy. While he is accepting of and open about his homosexuality, he has a hard time embracing his physical disability. Heartfelt and hilarious by turns, Special is special indeed.


American Gods (Starz):
An adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novel about a brewing war between traditional deities brought to the shores of North America by immigrants and newer, human-created “false idols.” Now in its second season, it is a sexually explicit series that features a hot gay jinn (or genie) and his lover among its heavenly hosts.


Now Apocalypse (Starz):
Envelope-pushing queer filmmaker Gregg Araki recently debuted his first-ever streaming series. It explores identity, sexuality and artistry in ways both comedic and serious, as a struggling artist grows increasingly troubled by foreboding dreams. The cute young cast is frequently undressed and definitely worthy of ogling.


The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime):
A superb, frightening show inspired by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s novel. It envisions an alternate past in which Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II and have taken over the US. A revolution is brewing, however, led in part by an out and proud gay man. The series also features a closeted, conflicted lesbian who heads the Nazis’ propaganda office.


The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu):
Another scary, dystopian series, this time based on Margaret Atwood’s classic book. Here, the religious right has risen to power in the US and is forcing fertile women to bear children for the impotent upper class. Alexis Bledel, all grown up after her prior teenager role on the popular Gilmore Girls, plays a persecuted lesbian plotting to take the anti-LGBTQ leadership down.


Gaycation with Ellen Page and Ian Daniel (Hulu):
Openly lesbian actress Ellen Page set out with her gay best friend Ian to explore LGBTQ communities around the world in this documentary series. Eye-opening and frequently funny, it’s a streaming trip worth taking.


The Umbrella Academy (Netflix):
Speaking of Ellen Page, she is also part of the ensemble of this new, offbeat superhero series adapted from a graphic novel. She plays Vanya, one of eight children from different mothers gifted with special powers. Adopted by a manipulative billionaire, they end up a dysfunctional family but must unite to stop the end of the world. One of the other siblings is Klaus (Robert Sheehan), a time-tripping drug addict grieving the death of his male lover during the Vietnam War.


Grace and Frankie (Netflix):
This sitcom starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin is now in its 5th season but is must-see TV. The pair play former frenemies who bond after their secretly-gay husbands, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, fall in love with one another. While it’s always fun to see Fonda and Tomlin together (they previously co-starred in the movie 9 to 5 way back in 1980), Sheen and Waterston are equally great as the women’s newly liberated exes.


Black Mirror (Netflix):
This creepy-cool series about the unexpected costs of technology has featured a fair share of LGBTQ storylines and characters. The best may be the touching episode “San Junipero,” a time travel tale about two women in love that won a pair of Emmy Awards.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your favorite device and start streaming!

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