Sunday, November 24, 2019

2019, A Film Odyssey: Creep Shows

This is Us

This year's hits you may have missed, flops that you should avoid, hidden gems to discover and more, plus where to watch 'em...

Halloween may be over but there's still time to catch up on the scary movies of 2019:

Velvet Buzzsaw (now streaming on Netflix):
An art world satire crossed with a "curse from beyond the grave" fright flick makes this sound like the snobbiest episode of Night Gallery ever, yet it never quite achieves the camp and/or scare level one imagines from such a possibility. Jake Gyllenhaal is delicious though as the bitchy "Morf Vandewait", a bisexual critic who at one point wears nothing but a laptop. (4/10)

Us (now streaming on HBO):
Jordan Peele's follow up to his Oscar-winning Get Out dives deep into its dark mythology... that somehow connects to Hands Across America?? You won't be able to take your eyes off of Lupita Nyong'o as two sides of the same coin, but the creepy premise just gets more and more preposterous and the results less and less satisfying as every twist is unveiled. Maybe less is more next time, Jordan? (6/10)

The Hole in the Ground (now streaming on Amazon Prime):
After a single mother is reunited with her young son who disappeared mysteriously she begins to notice that there's something... odd about him, as if he was a totally different person. Yes, it's the plot to Clint Eastwood's Changeling, but this here is a horror movie so there is an actual changeling involved. An average allegory of the perils of parental paranoia enhanced slightly by its cold Irish setting. (5/10)

Happy Death Day 2U (now streaming on HBO):
The absurdly named final girl Tree Gelbman is back for this slasher sequel that takes the clever Groundhog Day-ness of its predecessor and morphs it into a sci-fi quagmire of parallel universes where the relentless Babyface killer is still offing co-eds (some things never change). Requiring one to be far too versed on the minutiae of the first film, 2U ultimately drags the original down with it. (4/10)

Little Monsters (now streaming on Hulu):
Who knew that Lupita Nyong'o would be Miss Scream Queen 2019? She gamely headlines this Aussie indie as Miss Caroline, a devoted kindergarten teacher who goes from warbling Taylor Swift tunes to wielding a shovel to protect her adorable charges when a zombie outbreak interrupts their field trip. It bites off more than it can chew, yes, but it's a charming addition to the ranks of ZomRomComs. (6/10)

Midsommar (now available on Blu-ray and DVD):
If Ari Aster's Hereditary kept you up nights then his sophomore effort will make you never want to see the inside of your eyelids ever again. Deeply disturbing images, most displayed frankly in the harsh glare of sunlight against the backdrop of an idyllic Swedish countryside, abound in this millennial fever dream about a college trip gone horribly, horribly wrong. Aster is a bit self-indulgent with the slow burn, and he curiously takes on another "batshit crazy death cult" tale in just his second feature, but you'll never forget what you see here and will likely never want to see it again (in this case, that's a compliment). (8/10)

A Midsommar Nightmare

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

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.