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.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Dearest Review: Talk To Her

Ever since her hilarious, Emmy Award-winning performance as an exaggerated (and lesbian) version of herself on a 1997 episode of Ellen, I have said that Emma Thompson needs to do more comedy. And here she is, more than twenty years later, not only starring in a comedy but playing a comedian. And, as nighttime talk show host Katherine Newbury in Late Night (now streaming on Amazon Prime), Emma even seems to be channeling Ellen, sartorially speaking, sporting slacks, sneakers and short hair. Yet the prickly demeanor of Katherine harks back to a far more stern yet still crisply tailored media diva, Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, a film that Late Night oh so apparently tries to be.

Screenwriter/co-star Mindy Kaling has written the Anne Hathaway part for herself, a Betty Suarez-type in over her head as the newly-hired member of the writing staff for the long-running Tonight with Katherine Newbury. Kaling stacks the sympathy deck in her character Molly Patel's favor by making her a complete novice in writing, comedy and showbiz who is still put off when called a "diversity hire". As both the creator of and the actress playing the role, Kaling seems to be steadfastly against painting Molly as anything more than a Pollyanna-ish underdog; she even resists the advances made by the show's resident Lothario (Hugh Dancy). A smarter, less predictable take would have been to lean hard into Molly's Rachel Berry-ish over-earnest tendencies.

"Ah, yes, I'll take that Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy now."

Regardless, Late Night is Emma's show, just as Tonight is Katherine's... at least for now, as declining ratings are allowing a new network president (Amy Ryan) the opportunity to replace her with a douchey young male comic (Ike Barinholtz). With Molly's help Katherine rallies a comeback, but this is 2019 so a "#MeToo" scandal is thrown into the mix, albeit with a refreshingly gender-swapped element for once.

Nisha Ganatra directs Late Night in a breezy way that smooths over the script's rougher spots and adequately balances both sides of this "comedy-drama", the latter of which is featured mostly in a subplot concerning the character of Katherine's long-suffering, now Parkinson's Disease-suffering husband, played nicely by John Lithgow. This of course allows Miss Thompson to also show off her dramatic chops as well, proving that this lady may not be wearing Prada but she sure is a devil of an actress.

Dearest Rating: 7/10

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

Monday, September 2, 2019

Reverend's Preview: Q Stands for 'Queen' at Qfilms 2019


Raise your hand if you have heard of Jose Julio Sarria, a.k.a. Empress the First of California, a.k.a. the Widow Norton. I was humbled to learn recently that I did not know about this gender non-conformist who reigned over San Francisco gay society for more than 50 years.

Everyone who attends the opening night of this month’s QFilms, Long Beach’s annual LGBTQ film festival, will bear witness to Sarria’s incredible life. Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria, a new documentary about this inspiring figure who became one of the founders of the national Imperial Courts movement, will kick off this year’s event with an exclusive sneak preview screening on Thursday, September 5th.

Now in its 26th year, QFilms remains the longest-running film festival — LGBTQ or otherwise — in the ocean-side “international city.” The 2019 edition will run September 5th-8th at the historic Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th Street, and the neighboring LGBTQ Center of Long Beach. All net income from pass, ticket, and drink sales during the weekend as well as sponsorships go directly to the non-profit Center’s numerous, critical community services.

2,400 people attended the fest last year, an increase of 30% over 2017, to view a mix of West Coast, Southern California, Los Angeles and Long Beach premieres. Several of the feature-length and short films being shown this year are among the most acclaimed currently on the film festival circuit. Jury awards will be given in several categories, as well as audience awards for which attendees get to vote. All-access passes and individual tickets are available for purchase through the festival’s website.

“QFilms is one of the most anticipated LGBTQ events in Long Beach every year,” says Porter Gilberg, the festival’s Executive Producer as well as Executive Director of the LGBTQ Center. “This year, both our VIP Filmmaker’s Lounge and lobby lounge will feature craft cocktails and exceptional mixology hosted by Lola’s Mexican Cuisine. Our VIP pass holders will also receive access to a delicious Sunday brunch hosted in the Filmmaker’s Lounge.”

In addition, Gilberg is “incredibly excited to be hosting an exclusive sneak preview of Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria on opening night.” I was able to watch a rough cut of this new documentary that holds universal appeal. Even in unfinished form, it is amazingly insightful and delightfully entertaining.

Sarria was many things: a World War II veteran; a singer known as “the nightingale of San Francisco”; the first openly gay man to run for political office in the US, more than a decade before Harvey Milk; and the aforementioned Empress 1st, the Widow Norton. Regarding the latter, Sarria satirically claimed to be the wife of the late Joshua Norton, a gold prospector who died in San Francisco way back in 1880 but not before proclaiming himself Emperor of the United States. He even went so far as to print his own currency.

Director Joe Castel reveals in Nelly Queen that Sarria’s use of the title would have socio-political repercussions to this very day. As Empress, Sarria challenged anti-gay laws, called out undercover police officers during performances, and helped established the first chapter of the Imperial Court in San Francisco. Today, the Imperial Courts of drag queens have grown throughout the US and have raised millions of dollars to support worthy causes and organizations.

“I had no problems believing in myself,” Sarria states in the film. Castel makes great use of archival photos, videos and interviews to illustrate his subject’s pioneering efforts. After more than 50 years of activism in San Francisco, Sarria retired to Palm Springs but ultimately passed away in New Mexico in 2013. It is definitely time for his story to be told. I have no doubt it will inspire today’s viewers as well as future generations.

And that’s just QFilms’ first night! Many more LGBTQ stories will unspool during the weekend. According to Gilberg: “QFilms will be hosting our first ever LGBTQ Asian Shorts programming, featuring this year’s best short films about the Asian and Asian- American queer and trans experience.” This will be in addition to “Gaytino!” a unique selection of shorts spotlighting Latino gay men.

“QFilms always features unrivaled opportunities to engage directly with some of the brightest LGBTQ filmmakers and actors around,” Gilberg truthfully exclaimed, “and we can’t wait to welcome back the thousands of fans that look forward to our festival every year.” Naturally, newcomers are welcome too.

Several other noteworthy movies scheduled for the festival include:

Making Montgomery Clift, Robert Anderson Clift’s acclaimed, intimate documentary about his late uncle: the closeted, Oscar-nominated actor who starred in such classics as From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun and Suddenly, Last Summer.

The Garden Left Behind, a potent drama centered on a young trans woman, Tina, preparing for her transition. Things get increasingly complicated for her as she draws closer to her dream. The film’s cast includes 89-year old, Emmy-winning actor Ed Asner in a great turn as Tina’s sympathetic psychiatrist.

Dykes, Camera, Action!, which provides an enlightening overview of the history of lesbian cinema and the women who contributed to it.

From Zero to I Love You, a new and sexy dramedy from actor-filmmaker Doug Spearman (Noah’s Arc) about the fraught love affair between a gay black man (played by Noah himself, Darryl Stephens) and a white man who happens to be married to a woman. Other familiar faces in the movie include The Bay’s Scott Bailey, original Queer Eye-r Jai Rodriguez and Ann Walker of Sordid Lives fame.

Good Kisser, a romantic saga in which a lesbian couple hooks up with a stranger in hopes of spicing up their relationship. Instead, the experience exposes faults in the pair’s foundation.

There will be even more quality feature-length and short films shown during QFilms 2019 that reflect the diversity of our community. Everyone who attends can truly be queen for more than just one day!

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