Sunday, June 9, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Celebrating Pride at the Movies


Rocketman – the appropriately flamboyant, occasionally surreal Elton John biopic – may be the gayest movie of the summer (at least from a major studio) but its hardly the only one. As Pride month/season gets underway, there are a number of new and re-released LGBTQ movies definitely worth checking out.

But first let's talk about Rocketman, now playing in theaters thanks to Paramount Pictures. And I do thank Paramount because, contrary to early reports, they backed the most honest and moving big-studio exploration of gay desire since 2005's Brokeback Mountain. I didn't expect this based on the film's frothy trailers so I was quite pleasantly surprised. The cinematic Elton peers at so many men so longingly, I frequently sighed with identification/admiration.

I wouldn't say moviegoers have been clamoring for a jukebox musical drawn from the singer-songwriter repertoire, but then I didn't think a bio of Freddie Mercury would become a global blockbuster not to mention a winner of multiple Oscars. However, it will be hard for people to resist the abundant charms of this film directed by Dexter Fletcher who, coincidentally, completed last year's Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired amid both professional and personal controversy.

The other Dark Phoenix

Chief among Rocketman's achievements is a revelatory performance by pretty-boy Kingsman Taron Egerton as Sir Elton. He sings, he dances, he goes on ugly drug- and alcohol-fueled benders, he goes bald, and he prances about in his undies plus all manner of over-the-top costumes. I didn't know he had it in him. Its a showier turn than Rami Malek's Freddie Mercury but it is also more genuinely emotional and explicit. Egerton seems a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

Also unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie is an all-out musical boasting energetic, eye-popping dance numbers choreographed by the talented Adam Murray. These moments help compensate for a fairly straightforward dramatic approach to its subject's life. Other attributes include the performances of Bryce Dallas Howard and Jamie Bell as, respectively, John's chilly mother and his more supportive writing partner Bernie Taupin. In addition to providing an informative look at Elton John's life, Rocketman is just a plain old, toe-tapping good time. How can you not love a movie that opens with the child Elton and cast singing "The Bitch is Back"?

My favorite among the other new releases, though, is Kanarie (a.k.a. Canary). Opening June 14th and out on DVD June 18th courtesy of Breaking Glass, it offers a rare glimpse into LGBTQ life in South Africa during the apartheid era. I laughed out loud when I read the current IMDb description of the film as "a coming-of-age war musical." It is that, I guess, but so much more.

Set in the mid-1980's, Kanarie's central character is the decidedly queer Johan (a bold performance by Schalk Bezuidenhout). The movie opens with a terrific dance number straight out of an early Madonna video and progresses from there with abundant references to Prince, Kate Bush (my personal fave) and Boy George/Culture Club. Johan gets drafted into a 2-year stint with the South African military but is fortunate enough to be accepted into the Kanaries, the state's Christian choir. Under the direction of Rev. Engelbrecht, their sensitive and possibly closeted director/chaplain, Johan and his fellow Kanaries flourish. Things hit a snag, though, once Johan falls in love with a handsome and sympatico choir mate, Wolfgang.

Johan becomes increasingly confused and conflicted, which gets heavy-handed, but the movie is nevertheless an insightful glimpse into a thankfully-bygone era of institutionalized racism and homophobia. The fact that its more serious moments are interspersed with musical numbers headed by facsimiles of 1980's pop icons as well as lovely hymns and choral episodes is icing on a cake that IMDb could also adequately sum up as a gayer Full Metal Jacket. It even comes complete with a R. Lee Ermey-ish corporal who ultimately proves more hunky (especially during a full-frontal shower scene) than fearsome.

Speaking of hunky, we come to the bizarre but lovably campy Diamantino from Kino Lorber. Currently set for a Los Angeles opening on June 28th, this Portuguese movie is a wild, visually-striking and occasionally kinky ride that should not be missed.

The title character is an adorably child-like, world champion soccer player played by the delicious Carloto Cotta. Although he is beset by evil twin sisters, a pair of undercover lesbian spies and a pack of giant Pekinese puppies (!), Diamantino remains blissfully unaware of worldly concerns until he rescues some refugees at sea and his father subsequently dies. Devastated, Diamantino retreats from the public eye but his greedy siblings hatch a plan to have him cloned without his knowledge.

This turns out to be part of a plot to convince the people of Portugal to leave the European Union and build a wall around their country (sound familiar?). It also results in Diamantino adopting a "child" and growing breasts. Co-written and -directed by the creative Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes, Diamantino is baffling at times yet nuanced where it needs to be. The sexy, minimally-clad Cotta alone is well worth the price of admission.

The similarly sexy and even more minimally-clad actor Brian Jordan Alvarez is currently gracing the big screen in Everything is Free, which also marks his feature directorial debut. The film will be available on DVD from Breaking Glass starting June 11th. Alvarez is best known for playing Jack's newlywed husband, Estefan, on TV's Will & Grace.

Here he plays Ivan, a gay artist living in Colombia. He receives a visit from his American best friend, Christian (Peter Vack), as well as Christian's younger brother, Cole (Morgan Krantz). Although both brothers are straight, Cole and Ivan find themselves increasingly drawn to each other. Things get romantic yet messy as the pair have to hide their relationship from the suddenly homophobic Christian.

Everything is Free proves to be a great showcase for the multi-talented and attractive Alvarez. He has a good eye for fellow acting talent (including Jason Greene as Ivan's gender-fluid friend Eli and the super-cute Jimmy Fowlie as a new suitor) as well as for visuals, as illustrated by sunny cinematography and several stylish fantasy interludes. Alvarez even composed his film's bouncy electronic score! Unfortunately, the screenplay's treatment of Ivan becomes problematic as Christian's dark side is revealed. Ivan tolerates too much abuse and Christian is permitted to get away with too much. Despite this, the movie is worth checking out for Alvarez's rising star.

But the cinematic piece de resistance of Pride 2019 is the Blu-ray debuts of four queer classics courtesy of Shout! Factory. These are 1980's endearingly campy Village People musical Can't Stop the Music; the 1995 drag queen road trip comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar; and the hilarious, 1995 adaptation of Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey featuring an all-star cast.

The more questionable release among these – both in terms of quality and queerness – is 1968's Boom! A notorious box office flop, the film stars then-"it" couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a just plain weird adaptation of a lesser Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (the original title survives as a nonsensical line of dialogue).

Set on an Italian island privately owned by Sissy Goforth (Taylor), the world's wealthiest woman, there is no shortage of lavish sets and beautiful scenery. Burton arrives unannounced as a poet and possible angel of death. The only truly gay element of the film is a rare acting appearance by famed playwright Noël Coward. Coward was cast in the originally female role of the Witch of Capri after Katharine Hepburn wisely turned it down. He plays the role as a gay man, who makes his entrance on the shoulders of one of Sissy's male servants.

John Waters, who provides audio commentary on the Blu-ray, has long heralded Boom! as an under-appreciated film. Out critic Alonso Duralde concurs in an extra on the disc. I don't revere it as much but it should be viewed at least once so one can draw your own conclusion. And please note that during the month of June a donation will be made to LA's LGBTQ Center from each purchase of these films via the Shout! Factory website.

Reverend's Ratings:
Rocketman: B+
Kanarie: A-
Diamantino: B+
Everything is Free: B
Boom!: C

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

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