(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Reverend's Preview: SDIFF 2020: Virtual But Not Silent


We can add this month's San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) to the ever-growing list of events that have had to largely go the streaming route this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Uniquely though, the fest will still be providing opportunities for film fans to gather together in safe, socially-distanced ways at its first-ever "Virtual Village."

This re-imagined, COVID-appropriate 2020 San Diego International Film Festival will take place October 15th-18th. As the region’s premier film festival and one of the leading stops on the independent film circuit, film lovers can enjoy 114 features, documentaries and short films online in the Virtual Village and on the big screen at the Festival Drive-In Movies at Westfield UTC. Full details as well as the complete movie lineup may be accessed at the SDIFF website.

According to Tonya Mantooth, the fest's CEO/Artistic Director: “The leadership of the San Diego International Film Festival has embraced the challenges to create a new footprint that will not only serve for this year’s festival but also expand our capabilities for the long term. This commitment to re-imagining the festival is vitally important to fulfilling our mission of presenting films that create conversation in an increasingly complex and divided world.”

SDIFF is presented by the non-profit San Diego Film Foundation, which is dedicated to creating empathy through the medium of motion pictures. The foundation leverages these important conversations via partnerships with the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Unified School District, using cinematic storytelling to help educate future leaders on key issues affecting our communities and world. Their newest partnership is with the UC San Diego Extension to create a Social Impact Film Channel on the UCTV platform, which will support the "17 Sustainable Development Goals to Transform Our World" set by the United Nations. The festival will curate films from around the globe to help further understanding of these UN goals as well as inspire conversations and, most importantly, action.

"This year, we are creating space in our Virtual Village for panels around some films that examine important conversations we want to have," Mantooth revealed. "We have programmed some impactful and timely documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. We are thrilled that Leon Clark, General Manager of Channel 10, will moderate a discussion on those documentaries for us, examining history and where we find ourselves as a country today." This sounds especially important in preparation for the upcoming US presidential election. Also to be screened are films that explore the issues of developmental disabilities, homelessness, prejudice, pollution of the world’s rivers, animal and environmental extinction, sustainability, sex trafficking and more.

Other topics to be covered are LGBTQ lives and the military, with one standout documentary incorporating both. Surviving the Silence relates a little-known story that took place years before the US Armed Forces' failed "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, which allowed LGBTQ soldiers to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation under wraps. Colonel Patsy Thompson was forced to expel Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer of the US Army for being a lesbian. However, the way that Thompson – a closeted lesbian herself – presided over the discharge hearing eventually led to Cammermeyer’s re-instatement via federal court and the undoing of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Cammermeyer’s memoir, Serving in Silence, was adapted as a 1995 television movie produced by Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close, but Thompson’s own story remained a secret. In Cindy L. Abel's new documentary, Thompson and her wife, Barbara Brass, candidly share how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices that included hiding their relationship and struggling to protect their love while preserving Patsy's military career. They emerged to become vibrant activists later in life, with Thompson coming out to her family and the public at the age of 80. As she states in the film, she has learned "the freedom that comes with living your truth."

Prior to Surviving the Silence, Abel directed and produced the award-winning Breaking Through, a documentary in which openly-LGBTQ elected officials share their stories of self-doubt and triumph over multiple barriers. Her earlier film reveals a deeply personal, rarely seen side of both politicians and LGBTQ people. She was named “Best Filmmaker” by The Georgia Voice in 2019 and has served as National Co-Chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Vice-Chair of the Atlanta Film Festival, and Vice President of Communications of Women in Film & Television Atlanta.

Speaking about the inspiration behind her new documentary, Abel said "the first thing I fell in love with was (Thompson and Brass's) love story; I was fascinated that here were these women who had been together for 30 years and for much of that time had to pretend that they were not together." Abel sensitively examines each woman's personal background, which includes the fact that Brass is the Jewish daughter of two Holocaust survivors.

The highlight of Surviving the Silence is its climactic reunion of Thompson and Cammermeyer. The pair had not met since the fateful military trial in 1992. Both women admirably express their appreciation for each other 28 years later and continue to fulfill the Army motto of "duty, honor, country." This movie is a must-see.

Another LGBTQ-interest entry in this year's SDIFF is the provocative thriller, Through the Glass Darkly. A year after their daughter disappears, same-sex partners Charlie (Robyn Lively) and Angela (Bethany Anne Lind) continue to grow apart in the small town of Elrod, Georgia. When another girl goes missing, Charlie becomes convinced that the cases are connected and teams up with Amy (Shanola Hampton), a pushy reporter. This unlikely duo draws suspicion and contempt from local law enforcement but will stop at nothing to expose the town’s darkest and most devastating secrets.

Despite the current, necessary restrictions, SDIFF is taking a bold approach to what a film festival can look like in the COVID era. As Fest CEO Mantooth stated, "Film has the power to shift our perspective and allow us to look at topics through someone else’s lens. We look forward to doing a lot of that this year.”

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

Monday, October 5, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Classically Queer Horror Movies

As we enter the spooky month of October, it seems there are more things to be afraid of this year than ever before! An ongoing global pandemic, an openly hostile presidential election and an unexpected opening on the Supreme Court are scary stuff indeed. Horror movies are traditionally popular in preparation for Halloween but I thought it might be more comforting, as well as more interesting, to look to the past than the present.

Monsters, ghosts and ghouls have consistently haunted movie screens since the very beginning of the film industry. One of the first was a 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein produced by inventor Thomas Edison. The Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu soon followed. This last film, as well as an early version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde titled The Head of Janus, were directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau, who was openly gay.

In fact, there were many gay men, lesbian women and other queer artists both behind and in front of the camera for these early horror offerings. They can be considered queer in several different ways, according to Harry M. Benshoff in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (paid link). He wrote: "By 'queer,' I mean to use the word both in its everyday connotations ('questionable... suspicious... strange...') and also as how it has been theorized in recent years within academia and social politics... (it) is what opposes the binary definitions and proscriptions of a patriarchal heterosexism."

Benshoff goes on to define four ways in which a horror movie can be considered LGBTQ:
  1. The film includes identifiably LGBTQ characters;
  2. The film is written, produced, and/or directed by an LGBTQ filmmaker, even if it does not contain visibly LGBTQ characters;
  3. The film incorporates subtextual or connotative LGBTQ elements (including LGBTQ actors); and
  4. Any film viewed by an LGBTQ spectator might be considered queer due to "the queer spectator's 'gaydar,' already attuned to the possible discovery of homosexuality within the culture-at-large."

Here is a rundown of some of the most significant queer horror movies produced between 1930 and 1965:

"It's fun to stay at the Y...."
Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935):
This early trifecta of scares (though not without some welcome, knowing laughs) were all directed by the great James Whale. In 1998, Whale became the subject of gay director Bill Condon's film Gods and Monsters, which explores Whale's homosexuality in explicit detail. The handsome but closeted gay actor Colin Clive plays Dr. Frankenstein in both the original film and its sequel, and the character's relationships with his henchman Igor as well as fellow mad scientist Dr. Pretorius (wonderfully played by the bisexual Ernest Thesiger) definitely have homoerotic and/or campy shadings.

When Boris Met Bela...
The Black Cat (1934):
Horror greats Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi co-star (for their first of eight films together) as frenemies who delight in torturing each other, both psychologically and physically. As Benshoff notes in his book, they are essentially "a sadomasochistic queer couple who dabble in all sorts of queer romance: Satanism, incest, necrophilia and bestiality." They do so in a spectacularly strange, expressionist house. The film has been assessed more recently as prefiguring the decadence and depravity of Nazi Germany.

The Hunger from Hungary
Dracula's Daughter (1936):
The stunningly beautiful Gloria Holden thrills and chills in the title role of this lesbian-leaning sequel to 1931's Dracula. Unlike most vampires, she wants to be cured of her blood-sucking condition and become "free to live as a woman." As her high-society alter ego, Hungarian Countess Zaleska, she seduces women as well as men. She also has a bitch-queen manservant who frequently comments with disdain on their shared plight as representatives of a minority.

Faster pussycat, kill, kill
Cat People (1942):
This may be my fave of the oldies, and I love its more graphically kinky 1982 remake even more. A mysterious woman, Irena (Simone Simon), with a history of difficulty with men (ahem) learns she is the descendant of a mystical race of humans who turn into panthers when they become sexually aroused. Will a handsome psychiatrist "cure" her of her deviant sexuality once he marries her in order to make love to her? While the subject matter is handled discreetly in the original, stylish director Val Lewton (who began his career as a pornographic novelist and was a nephew of lesbian actress Alla Nazimova) pushes things as far as probably any filmmaker could at the time.

Fop Culture
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945):
The Catholic-run Hollywood Production Code of the time tried to stamp out all LGBTQ references in studio films. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's queer novel about a man whose portrait ages instead of him is the most overtly gay movie of the era. Hurd Hatfield, who was never romantically linked to women and never married, stars as Dorian, with the caustic yet debonair George Sanders co-starring as Lord Henry. They essentially play a foppish gay couple doomed by one partner's narcissism. Sound familiar?

Damn, Teenage Frankenstein was ripped...
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958):
Hunky young Michael Landon and Gary Conway, respectively, are both exploited by queer mad scientists in the first two films, which were big hits with the 1950's drive-in crowd. In the third, an unsuspecting young woman becomes betrothed to an alien (handsome Tom Tryon) who seeks out male members of his kind in public parks by night (double ahem). These movies are more comedic than scary by today's standards but still offer queer food for thought.

The black turtleneck proves it.
The Haunting (1963):
Adapted from queer author Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, this was one of the scariest movies I watched as a kid and it remains effective today. Among the investigators of a ghost-infested estate is a seemingly-fearless lesbian, Theodora (played by Claire Bloom). Her sexual orientation isn't specified in the film but it doesn't have to be. A 1999 big-screen remake starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theodora as well as 2018's The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix have presented the character as out and proud, but they don't top the original movie when it comes to inducing goosebumps.

How many of these have you seen? This month provides a great opportunity to check them all out, especially in the absence of Halloween parties. These classic scary flicks might just provide a welcome distraction from real-life frights!

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

Monday, September 14, 2020

And the 2020 Dorian TV Awards Go To...

Best TV Comedy, Best LGBTQ TV Show,
Best TV Performance - Actress: Catherine O'Hara,
Best Supporting TV Performance - Actress: Annie Murphy,
Best Supporting TV Performance - Actor: Dan Levy

Best TV Drama

Best TV Movie or Limited Series,
Most Visually Striking Show

Best TV Performance - Actor: Hugh Jackman

Best TV Musical Performance: Janelle Monáe & Billy Porter, Opening Number

Best Current Affairs Program

Best Unsung TV Show

Campiest TV Show

Wilde Wit Award - Honoring a performer, writer or commentator whose observations both challenge and amuse

Congratulations to the winners of the 2020 Dorian TV Awards, presented by GALECA, The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (of which Movie Dearest's own Chris Carpenter and myself are members). Click here to watch all the glitz and glamour of the very first televised Dorian Award "toast" on Revry TV, a new streaming service that offers "queer TV 24/7". The special includes appearances from such "gay-list" talent as Margaret Cho, Laverne Cox, Lea DeLaria, Chad Michaels, Alex Newell, Thomas Roberts, Bruce Vilanch and more.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Reverend's Preview: QFilms 2020 - International Spirit

Long Beach was long ago crowned "the international city" thanks to its well-utilized port and other commercial and cultural elements. It is most appropriate than that this year's Long Beach QFilm Festival is going worldwide for the first time virtually! The 27th annual celebration of the rich diversity and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people will run September 10th through 13th online.

LGBTQ cinema lovers can use a streaming device or smart TV to view more than 40 new narrative, documentary, and short films not yet seen in theaters or on major streaming platforms. Tickets are now available at the official QFilms website. An all-access festival pass that allows buyers to watch all the films may be purchased for $50. QFilms' net proceeds will support the many important programs offered by the LGBTQ Center Long Beach, known locally as simply "The Center."

“We made lemonade out of lemons this year,” said Andrew Dorado, interim executive director of The Center. “COVID-19 was not going to stop The Center from presenting unique queer stories and storytellers while raising funds to serve the community.” The Center supports more than 25,000 people a year through its outreach programs, which include youth services, senior services, counseling, legal services, domestic violence support, trans health programs, HIV and STI testing and more than 20 weekly support groups. Many of these services are currently being offered online during the pandemic.

“We are excited that this year, QFilms has the potential to not only reach our local community but also the LGBTQ community and our allies all around the world,” said the festival's founder, Robert Cano. As it does each year, the festival will award Jury and Audience awards to films in several feature and short film categories.

I know, having lived in Long Beach myself for 12 years, that it is also a uniquely diverse city from a spiritual-religious perspective. Some of the best movies to be screened during QFilms 2020 seem reflective of this diversity. My favorite among these that I have previewed is Breaking Fast. It centers on Mohammed (aka "Mo"), a medical specialist and practicing Muslim living in West Hollywood, who is still learning to navigate life one year after his conflicted boyfriend broke up with him.

Enter Kal, an all-American guy and struggling actor Mo meets at his best friend's birthday party. Kal surprises Mo soon after by offering to break fast with him each night during the holy month of Ramadan. Their attraction to each other grows but Mo is dedicated to making it through Ramadan without succumbing to "lustful" thoughts or actions. While Kal strives to be respectful of this, troubling aspects of his personal history begin to intrude on the men's blossoming relationship.

Written and directed by the talented Mike Mosallam, Breaking Fast is significant as the first gay Muslim rom-com. While the film's first half is rather light and fluffy, it's second half becomes more serious. Much of the welcome comic relief throughout is provided by Mo's flamboyant best friend as well as Mo's histrionic mother. The movie provides a respectful, intimate glimpse into Muslim family life and traditions even as it doesn't shy from addressing tensions between faith and sexuality. It also boasts supporting performances by veteran actress Veronica Cartwright (Alien, The Witches of Eastwick) and Patrick Sabongui (TV's The Flash), plus fabulous homages to both Superman: The Movie and The Sound of Music!

Tahara, directed by Olivia Peace, is another QFilms entry dealing with the time-honored conflict between sexuality and faith. Best friends Carrie Lowstein and Hannah Rosen, both Jewish, have been inseparable for as long as they can remember. When their former Hebrew school classmate commits suicide, the two girls go to her funeral as well as the "Teen Talk-back" session designed to be an opportunity for them to understand grief through their faith. But, after an innocent kissing exercise turns Carrie's world inside out, the girls find themselves understandably distracted by the teenage complications of lust, social status and wavering faith.

Also scheduled to screen is Welcome to Chechnya from award-winning director David France. His latest searing documentary shadows a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive Russian republic. Much of it is driven by Orthodox and evangelical Christian fundamentalism. Also, the recently departed LGBTQ activist, author and playwright Larry Kramer will be honored with a showing of France's Academy Award-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, about the early years of the AIDS pandemic and the efforts of activist groups ACT UP (co-founded by Kramer) and TAG. It also details in part the Roman Catholic Church's historic oppression of LGBTQ people.

An additional feature film highlight during QFilms will be Gossamer Folds. Produced by and featuring actress Yeardley Smith of The Simpsons, It spins a tender tale of friendship between a lonely boy and his grown-up transgender neighbor, Gossamer, as well as her retired college professor father during the 1980's.

A number of great feature documentaries to be screened include:
  • Ahead of the Curve, about Franco Stevens, the extraordinary woman who started the renowned Curve magazine and the women who carry on her fight for lesbian visibility today.
  • The Archivettes, an inspiring documentary that profiles the scrappy and determined cross-generational team of women who literally rescued history from the trash to form the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
  • Double Income, Kids, which explores the Israeli gay baby boom by following Motty and Alon, a gay couple on their year-long journey to have biological twins through their American gestational surrogate.
  • Changing the Game, Michael Barnett’s dynamic documentary that takes us into the lives of three high school athletes who are all at different stages of their athletic seasons, personal lives, and their unique paths as transgender teens.

QFilms' short film programs are some of the best-regarded on the film festival circuit, and this year is no exception. In addition to traditional men's, women's and queer/trans shorts lineups, two new short film categories are being introduced this year. Queer Activist shorts will inspire the LGBTQ community and its allies in our ongoing fight for equal rights, to live our truth, love whom we want, or serve in the military. "Dance like Everyone is Watching," meanwhile, will encourage viewers to channel one’s inner Beyoncé with a collection of narrative and documentary style shorts celebrating the beauty and many movements of dance.

For the complete list of films, visit the QFilms website.

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

Monday, September 7, 2020

Dearest Review: Big Trouble in Disney China

Even fans of Disney's 1998 animated favorite Mulan will admit that it is not perfect; it forgets it's a musical about halfway through and that ending is embarrassing. But the good parts – its equally big doses of humor, heart and '90s "girl power" energy – outweigh its short-comings. Sadly, the new live action version of Mulan (now streaming – for an additional fee – on Disney+) chose to ditch most of what made the original so charming and entertaining; no man-making musical numbers or wisecracking dragon sidekicks here. Instead what we get is a stunning-looking but shallow adventure that fatally strips our beloved heroine of what made her so inspiring in the original.

Mulan then was a normal young woman who bravely takes her elderly father's place in the Emperor's Army and, through raw determination and enduring honor, goes and saves all of China. Mulan now is some kind of budding Jedi, able to tap into her qi and perform amazing feats of agility with Crouching Tiger-esque ease. Not exactly relatable (and bizarrely reminiscent of what the recent biopic Harriet did with its titular legend); the bland lead performance by Yifei Liu doesn't help much either. And to further "The Force" of it all is a screwy subplot involving a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li, wasted) who tries to lure Mulan to the "Dark Side". They traded Mushu for this?

Disney obviously spent a lot on this Mulan, and the money was well spent in regards to its technical and design aspects, which don't suffer much from home viewing. But you needn't spend extra to watch it now, just wait till December when it will be available to all Disney+ subscribers, and just stream the superior original instead. 

Dearest Rating: 5/10

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Dearest Review: The Music Man

Although largely known for only four works (the cult musical Little Shop of Horrors and the modern Disney classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin), the legacy of Academy Award-winning songwriter Howard Ashman still looms large almost 30 years after his death. Through stage adaptations, live action remakes and endless theme park iterations, his toon tunes (mini-musical masterpieces filled with deliciously intricate wordplay set to the magical melodies of co-composer Alan Menken) have all become permanent additions to the soundtracks of life of anyone who has ever heard and loved them.

Directed by Beauty producer Don Hahn, the documentary Howard (now streaming on Disney+) takes an informative and intimate look into the life and career of Ashman, from his early successes (the record-setting Off-Broadway run of Little Shop) and failures (the Broadway bomb Smile) to his triumphant reinvention of the animated movie musical with Little Mermaid. Ashman's life was tragically cut short by AIDS at the age of 40 in 1991. The thought of all he could have done had he lived longer adds the bitter to the sweet that is this celebration of his life and music.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

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

Monday, August 17, 2020

Reverend's Preview: Outfest 2020 Goes Hybrid


There are hybrid plants, hybrid animals, even hybrid cars. But a hybrid LGBTQ film festival? That's how Outfest Los Angeles is billing itself this year in light of our present, socially-distanced circumstances. LA's largest and oldest film fest, also considered the preeminent LGBTQ fest in the world, is scheduled to take place August 20th-30th.

Presented by Warner Media, Outfest 2020 will feature ten days of LGBTQ movies, panel discussions with filmmakers and celebrities, and numerous special events. It will take advantage of the latest "hybrid" opportunities in streaming/digital, at-home, and in-person (as allowed) events that will make the fest accessible to a global audience for the first time in its history. Each previous summer, Outfest has screened more than 200 feature and short films from around the world to an audience of more than 50,000 people in venues throughout Los Angeles. This year's program is being promoted as "Out Where You Are" in recognition of the current difficulty of having so many people gather together in person.

"The Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival was born out of an era of advocacy, understanding that the only way we would ever see ourselves reflected three-dimensionally in entertainment was if we found a way for storytellers to find visibility," according to organizers. "As the channels, audiences, and the marginalization and acceptance of our community shifts, so shall we."

Readers can visit the Outfest website for up-to-date information, as well as to purchase a full-festival online viewing pass at the low price of $59. Each film or program will be available to watch for 72 hours after its premiere. I was able to preview several features to be screened including Cured, which will be making its world premiere on August 24th. This eye-opening documentary is directed by Bennett Singer (Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) and Patrick Sammon (Codebreaker), and was co-produced by Outfest's former Executive Director, Christopher Racster. It illuminates a pivotal yet largely unknown chapter in the struggle for LGBTQ equality: the years-long campaign that led the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to finally remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973.

Homosexuality was listed in the APA's first edition of "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) in 1952, based on limited studies of people institutionalized in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. This was subsequently used to enforce laws against LGBTQ relations, and generations of US school children were taught that being LGBTQ was "a sickness." Most psychiatrists turned a blind eye to important studies by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey arguing that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

As depicted in Cured via vintage film footage as well as more recent interviews with participants and witnesses, several pioneers in the gay rights movement saw it as essential to take on the APA. This was especially true in the wake of the Stonewall riots. As lesbian activist Barbara Gittings recognized, "Nothing would ever change as long as we were burdened with the 'sickness' label." Gittings was joined by Mattachine Society head Frank Kameny, GLAAD co-founder Ron Gold and others in storming the APA's annual meetings and demanding dialogue on the subject of homosexuality.

Despite the vociferous opposition of Dr. Charles Socarides, who remained anti-gay even after his own son came out to him, this dialogue led within a few years to the removal of homosexuality from the DSM. Ironically, Cured reveals that the current head of the APA, Dr. Saul Levin, is openly gay. The documentary serves as a strong, timely testament to the power of persistence and righteous anger to affect change.

A delightfully different, narrative movie that will also be an official selection at the fest is Dramarama. This semi-autobiographical dramedy by Jonathan Wysocki is set in Escondido at the end of summer, 1994. Five longtime friends and recent high school grads gather for an overnight Victorian murder-mystery party before heading their separate ways to college. The fact that all of them were involved in theatre together adds a hilariously over-the-top element to the proceedings.

Among this group of three girls and two boys is the closeted Gene, who is questioning not only his sexuality but his faith. He is attracted to his best friend, Oscar, as well as a local pizza delivery guy. Tensions, sexual and otherwise, bubble up throughout the friends' final night together. Dramarama is well worth seeing for Wysocki's smart script, abundant references to early-90's pop culture, a fun Danny Elfman-esque music score by Chanda Dancy, and the terrific performances given by its talented, fresh-faced cast.

Two other noteworthy films that will be screened during Outfest are Dry Wind and No Hard Feelings. "Hybrid" is a good term to describe the storytelling and/or characters in these features. Dry Wind incorporates hardcore pornography in its narrative at times, while the lead character in No Hard Feelings is often conflicted between his Iranian ethnicity but German citizenship.

Dry Wind, from Brazil, weaves a sensual tale from its Speedo-filled opening minutes to a climactic three-way. Sandro (a bold performance by Leandro Faria Lelo) is a middle-aged gay man drawn to two younger co-workers at the fertilizer plant where he works. He is also drawn to numerous fetishes including leather, motorcycles, piercings, sportswear and tattoos. Talented writer-director Daniel Nolasco references both Tom of Finland and Alfred Hitchcock in this vibrant, voyeuristic drama that features abundant full-frontal nudity and explicit gay sex.

No Hard Feelings focuses on Parvis (played by the charismatic Benny Radjaipour), a young gay man born to Iranian refugees in Hanover, Germany. After getting in some legal trouble, Parvis is assigned to complete community service hours at a local center for migrants. There he meets handsome, closeted Amon and his sister, who are both from Iran. Parvis and Amon slowly grow close to each other and embark on a genuinely sexy, ultimately tender relationship despite the threat of deportation that hangs over Amon and his sister. Faraz Shariat's admirably complex film is also a colorful, music-filled celebration of Iranian culture.

There will be many more can't-miss LGBTQ films shown during Outfest 2020, so be sure to participate from wherever you are!

If you're in the mood for some non-LGBTQ but creepy and thought-provoking sci-fi, Sputnik is newly available on demand from IFC Midnight. This Russian riff on Alien and its cinematic ilk is set in 1983 Kazakhstan while the Cold War between the USSR and US was still raging. After something goes wrong during their flight, a space capsule returns to Earth with only one survivor: the handsome commanding officer, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov). Unfortunately, Konstantin claims to have amnesia and can't remember what happened.

Dr. Tatiana Klimova, a disgraced but perceptive psychiatrist well-played by Oksana Akinshina, is brought in to assess the survivor. She diagnosis Konstantin with PTSD but also discovers he has been infected by an alien parasite or symbiote that emerges from his body at night. It falls to Tatiana and the increasingly aware Konstantin to outwit their military captors, who naturally want to weaponize the creature.

Sputnik's director, Egor Abramenko, imbues the film with both a heart and conscience in addition to its accurate evocation of Soviet-era politics, science and military. While it is a creature feature on the surface, Sputnik serves as a potent allegory for the experience of being abandoned and/or adopted. It also offers a memorable twist on what might constitute a body-invading alien's main diet. The movie is gory in spots, which will please some horror/sci-fi fans, but there's more going on here.

Returning to new gay-themed films brings me to Simon Amstell's Benjamin, which will be released August 25th on DVD and VOD by Artsploitation Films. The title character, known as "Benji" to his limited friends, is a British filmmaker with a philosophical bent. He is also gay, depressed, insecure and romantically drawn to "thin boys on stage."

It is this latter trait that initially connects Benjamin and Noah, a young French singer he meets at a party. Soon after, though, Benji is confronted with the flop of his latest movie as well as his seductive (and very attractive) co-star, Harry. Will he finally grow up and become "a real boy" not unlike Pinocchio, or will Benjamin succumb to his insecurities?

Some of these plot points have been previously covered in other, better gay films but Benjamin benefits from a self-effacing sense of humor as well as good performances. Colin Morgan, perhaps best known as star of the 2008-2012 TV series Merlin, is plenty likable and at times deeply touching in Benjamin's title role. Amstell's screenplay also provides some reflective commentary on personhood and the self. Streaming the film is nothing to feel insecure about.

Reverend's Ratings:
Cured: A-
Dramarama: B+
Dry Wind: B
No Hard Feelings: B+
Sputnik: B
Benjamin: B-

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

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: We Need a Little Christmas Now

2020 is half over and I'm not sure whether to say "oh my God" or "thank you God"! It was already a dreadful year for me personally even before the COVID-19 pandemic due to my mother's death in early January and the fallout from that. So, as Auntie Mame famously declared at the height of the Great Depression: "We need a little Christmas now!" Yes, five months early.

Filmmakers and streamers have been happy to oblige. First and foremost, Disney+ moved up its anticipated premiere of Hamilton, the filmed version of Broadway's smash musical, by more than a year and just in time for Independence Day. It doesn't contain any Yuletide elements but its premature availability is itself a great holiday gift. I was unsuccessful at seeing it on stage so I'm thrilled to have finally watched this truly fantastic edition (being referred to by fans as "Hamilfilm") culled from three performances in 2016 and starring the original New York cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's deservedly acclaimed creator.

Alexander the Great

Unless one has spent the last five years living under a rock, you should be aware that Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton through a multi-ethnic cast and decidedly modern musical approach. It won multiple 2016 Tony Awards including Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Brilliantly adapted by Miranda from Ron Chernow's straightforward biographical book, it is compelling theatre imaginatively directed by Tony winner Thomas Kail. While I'm not as enthusiastic about Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, which is hip hop-inspired but often strikes me as herky-jerky in all his projects, it is undeniably energetic.

Kail also direct the current film effectively, but one must bear in mind that this is a high-def, edited recording of a live stage performance rather than an opened-up movie. (A true "Hamilfilm" could yet happen down the road.) As such, I wish Kail and crew would have eliminated the audience's reactions. I don't like being "cued" when to applaud, laugh, sing along, etc. while watching a movie. When one is actually sitting in a Broadway theater, a viewer is an active part of the audience and participates with them as well as the performers on stage. The same dynamic simply doesn't exist while watching a recording alone from one's sofa, and it is silly to try to re-create it at home.

The Badness of King George

That being said, Hamilton on Disney+ is chock full of incredible music, dramatic moments and great performances. The entire original Broadway cast can be enjoyed here including Tony winners Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), and Daveed Diggs (Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson). Also on display is out actor Jonathan Groff's deliciously funny appearance as King George III, who had left the production before it was filmed but was invited back for this special occasion. Since my experience of Hamilton before now was limited to the cast recording, I was unprepared for Groff's dishy, non-singing involvement in "The Reynolds Pamphlet" sequence. Simply hilarious!

The production is beautifully photographed by Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, In America) and sharply edited by Jonah Moran (Fosse/Verdon, Mars). Nowhere is their artistry more apparent than during the showstopper "The Room Where It Happens." With Broadway and many theaters around the world currently closed, the opportunity to view this Hamilton is a true gift... even if one's living room is the room where it happens.

The Family Tree is a new queer movie actually set during several successive Christmas seasons. Written, directed, and even edited by indie Panamanian filmmaker Jorge Ameer (Sabor tropical, D'Agostino, Oasis), it is an unexpectedly affecting melodrama now starting to make film festival rounds. Theatrical and home video releases are also being planned.

One night before Christmas, animal rescuer Victor (played with abundant compassion by Keith Roenke) stumbles across the robbed and beaten body of a man in his neighborhood. We come to learn he is Roy, an undocumented and homeless but not unattractive American played by Michael Joseph Nelson. Victor takes him in and nurses him back to health, learning Roy's story in the meantime. Although both men are straight, Victor eventually offers to marry Roy so he can stay in Panama. Roy is initially reluctant but realizes he has no other options. They get civilly married on Christmas Eve, then ironically start falling in love with each other.

The men's relationship becomes more complicated when Roy goes to work for and eventually falls in love with Victor's female bff, Alina (Anaïs Lucia). They get engaged so Roy and Victor get divorced. Soon after their marriage, however, Roy learns that he is infertile. Alina wants to have a baby, so Roy and Alina ask Victor to father their child "naturally" with Roy present to provide romantic inspiration to Victor. Tragedy strikes in time (have Kleenex handy) but the trio's love for one another lives on.

While the performances in The Family Tree are at times amateurish and Ameer's dialogue can be simplistic, this is a heartfelt story heightened by its holiday setting. The film features warm, colorful cinematography by James Brown as well as handsome lead actors and some tasteful male nudity. Editing is Ameer's weakest skill, as this movie's slow pace and running time of 130 minutes prove. Still, The Family Tree is unique, sensitive and memorable.

If Martin Scorsese were to direct a gay-themed prison flick, it might look something like Sebastián Muñoz's The Prince (El Principe). The movie won the prestigious Queer Lion award at last year's Venice Film Festival and is newly available on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services courtesy of Artsploitation Films.

Set in a Chilean prison during the 1970's Allende era, The Prince echoes Jean Genet's sexually explicit short film Un Chant D'amour and Fassbinder's provocative Querelle in its exploration of male desire under oppressive conditions. Attractive, 20-year old Jaime ends up incarcerated after stabbing his friend to death while in a drunken, jealous rage. He is assigned to a cell with four other men including the domineering Ricardo, aka "The Stud" (although he is referred to as "The Stallion" in promo materials), plus a cat named Plato.

Ricardo takes Jaime under his wing and provides him protection in return for sexual services. While Jaime becomes attracted to another young, similarly kept inmate, he also falls truly in love with Ricardo. Some gentle romantic and comedic moments brighten the generally hellish environment and proceedings. The movie also provides a potent evocation of community, with its requisite tensions and intimacies, losses and celebrations.

The Prince serves as Muñoz's narrative feature directing debut after two decades working as an art director and production designer. His visual skills are impressive but so is his ability with actors. Juan Carlos Maldonado is sexy and sympathetic in the title role, while Alfredo Castro gives a nicely nuanced performance as the cat- and boy-loving "Stud." This is a great movie for gay men to watch while potentially feeling incarcerated at home.

I referenced Genet's infamous Un Chant D'amour above but was only recently able to watch the complete 1950 short thanks to another "Christmas in July" gift: Pink Label TV, a new, adult-oriented streaming service. It provides access to many hard-to-find independent and erotic films in numerous categories including "Boygasms", "The Feminine Porn Gaze", "POC (People of Color) Porn" and "Edu-porn."

Like Un Chant D'amour, many of the movies available on Pink Label TV have historic, sociological and/or artistic significance. This is especially true of "The Bressan Project", which spotlights new 2K digital restorations of two pre-AIDS gay features by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. The pioneering filmmaker died of AIDS complications in 1987 but not before making Buddies, the first feature film about AIDS, in 1985.

Passing Strangers (1974), available now, tells the unexpectedly romantic tale of an 18-year old man, Robert, who is struggling to come out in San Francisco. He replies to a newspaper romance ad (remember those?) from Tom, a 26-year old looking to settle down from his cruising lifestyle. They begin exchanging letters in between graphic sex scenes with other men, and eventually meet at a local gay beach.

The film is initially shot in black and white but it changes to color à la The Wizard of Oz once Tom and Robert meet in person. It is badly dubbed and features some laughably dated camera shots and techniques as well as a weird music score. However, Passing Strangers was ahead of its time in its open and honest depiction of the cruising lifestyle and the desire by some gay men for a true romance. As the older, experienced Tom writes, "I want to love someone." It's simple but somewhat groundbreaking for the time. From today's perspective, the movie gives a glimpse at a time that was at once more hedonistic yet more innocent for gay men. It is also historically significant for Bressan's inclusion of footage from the very first San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, which he shot in 1972.

Bressan's Forbidden Letters (1979) will be available in August. It becomes apparent soon after the start of this legal drama with porn interludes that the director's technique improved in the five years since Passing Strangers. Definitely worth checking out next month on Pink Label TV.

Reverend's Ratings:
Hamilton: A-
The Family Tree: B
The Prince (El Principe): B+
Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters: B

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The First Dorian TV Awards Salute the Last of Schitt's Creek

Soar of the Roses

The final season of the international sleeper hit Schitt's Creek proved to be irresistible to GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics with their inaugural Dorian TV Awards. The beloved Canadian comedy (brought to us stateside by Pop TV) landed a leading seven nominations, including Best TV Comedy and individual nods for the entire Rose family: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy.

Netflix triumphed overall with a whopping 21 total nominations, most notably six for Hollywood, Ryan Murphy's glitzy re-imagining of Tinseltown's tawdry history, including four for its cast too (Jeremy Pope, Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons) but curiously not for Best TV Movie or Limited Series. Two HBO critical darlings, Bad Education and Watchmen, did land in that category, bringing their total haul to four nominations each, including a pair of acting nominations each (Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney for the former, Regina King and Jean Smart for the latter).

"Nun for me, thank you"

Other series reaping multiple mentions are Netflix's The Crown, Dead to Me and Ozark and FX's Mrs. America and What We Do in the Shadows, as well as previous Dorian Award winners Killing Eve, RuPaul's Drag Race and the Academy Awards. See the comments section below for the complete list of nominations.

Since 2009, GALECA (of which I and fellow Movie Dearest critic Chris Carpenter are longstanding members) has bestowed the annual Dorian Awards to both movies and TV at the beginning of the year, corresponding with the yearly film award season that culminates with the Oscars. However, this year marks the first time the Dorian TV Awards will fly solo, now more closely aligning with the television industry's highest honor, the Emmy Awards, which are handed out in the fall. The winners of the first annual Dorian TV Awards will be announced August 21st.

Stay tuned.....

Friday, June 12, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Pictures for a Pandemic Pride

Happy socially-distanced Pride, everyone! Viruses, rioters and looters may be abundant nowadays but we in the LGBTQ community must do the best we can to celebrate. It is interesting to note that Pride month each year commemorates a riot, a street protest in June, 1969 that was sparked when bar patrons at New York City's Stonewall Inn, led by trans people of color, fought back against routine police violence. Over the next six days, the small band of patrons were joined by 1,000 protestors who clashed in the streets with police and energized the movement for LGBTQ equality.

Sadly, today also marks four years since the Pulse massacre in Orlando, Florida. We must take a moment to remember the 49 lives senselessly stolen at the popular gathering place for young LGBTQ people. Out today in virtual release via Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles and others is a powerful new documentary, For They Know Not What They Do, that incorporates one Pulse survivor's story. The film is Daniel Karslake's sequel to his 2007 film For the Bible Tells Me So and continues the exploration of how religion has been used to oppress many LGBTQ individuals. Thankfully, it also shines a hopeful light on the growing number of conservative Christian parents who are becoming more accepting and supportive of their "sinful" children.

Karslake provides intimate, sympathetic portraits of four US families. One is an evangelical Christian married couple who struggled with both a gay brother/brother-in-law and their own gay son, the latter of whom became involved in the "ex-gay" reparative therapy movement with tragic results. Another couple confronted the difficult reality that their daughter is transgender; she is today political activist Sarah McBride. A bi-racial Christian couple similarly struggles to accept their transgender son.

And then there is the Hispanic Catholic family with a gay son and grandson, Vico. His traditional, Puerto Rican grandmother was the more resistant to Vico's sexuality but she grows to a greater understanding after Vico survived the 2016 Pulse shooting. Tragically, several of his friends were killed or wounded that night. One can't not be moved by this family's story.

For They Know Not What They Do incorporates appearances by such anti-LGBTQ stalwarts as Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, and Exodus International. But there are also powerful, unexpected statements of support for our community from some Protestant Evangelical clergy and congregations. The film is ultimately uplifting, proving that "conversion" of hearts and minds is possible for those anti-LGBTQ folks who need it most. For more information about how to watch it, visit the First Run Features website.

Suspense writer Shirley Jackson hasn't been widely regarded as an LGBT pioneer despite the presence of some such-oriented characters in her books, notably The Haunting of Hill House. This perception is sure to change thanks to Shirley, the new biopic/psycho-drama now available on Hulu and other streaming services. Director Josephine Decker won a Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at January's Sundance Film Festival, while Elisabeth Moss gives a spellbinding performance as the neurotic author that is already gaining her end-of-the-year awards talk.

In the film, Shirley resides with her husband Stanley (played by the reliably great Michael Stuhlbarg) on the campus of the women's college at which he teaches. She already has a successful writing career but is struggling with her new work. That is, until a young married couple arrive to temporarily live with Shirley and Stanley. Fred (handsome Logan Lerman) is Stanley's new teaching assistant, and his wife Rose (a strong turn by Odessa Young) is expecting their first child.

There are obvious shades of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the hosts begin to play seductive mind games on their unsuspecting boarders. Interestingly, Fred and Rose increasingly become like Stanley and Shirley. The film also features lesbian interactions between Shirley and Rose as well as resonant feminist commentary. Decker makes it all Gothic and occasionally morbid à la Jackson's stories. Shirley is both insightful and creepily entertaining.

Darren Coyle's Chasing Sunshine offers a decidedly lighter take on not only lesbian relations but the state of modern love in general. Though made in 2018, it is newly available for streaming via Amazon and other sites. Set in San Fernando Valley and the greater Los Angeles area, this romantic comedy centers on struggling actress Darcy (a winning performance by out actress Kassie Thornton, who sports an "It Gets Better" t-shirt throughout).

When Darcy discovers a note she believes to be from her secret admirer slid under her door, she embarks on what becomes an increasingly wacky scavenger hunt. Being car-less, however, forces Darcy to recruit her best friend's boyfriend, Jack (Trevor Penick, very funny), as her driver. The enjoyably mismatched duo have discussions and debates as they drive to each new clue. They also pick up Jack's occasional Lyft clients, who provide some of the film's funniest moments.

Coyle has a good eye for offbeat SoCal locations as well as a good ear, as evidenced by David Ricard's jaunty, a cappella bebop score. Chasing Sunshine is at times perceptive, at times silly but a feel-good flick worth checking out during Pride month.

Last but not least among new movie offerings for Pride is Boys on Film 20: Heaven Can Wait. This latest assortment of gay-themed shorts from around the world is out now on VOD and DVD from Peccadillo Pictures. Of note, the Boys on Film collection is now at 20 years the world's longest-running short film series.

While the 11 shorts offered here are consistently good, two of them – Just Me and Mine – are decidedly downbeat. Another pair, Chromophobie and Manivald, are noteworthy for their unique animated takes on gay life. Don't Blame Jack serves as the 29-minute centerpiece of this 2 1/2-hour showcase. It is the sensitively-written and -performed story of a bipolar man failing to find stability, until he happens to meet an understanding (and sexy) new guy.

I really liked the visually-impressive Mankind, about a gay man, Will, who is accepted as a finalist for the first manned mission to Mars. It will be a one-way trip, however, which is unhappy news to Will's lover. And this collection's finale, The World in Your Window, is a touching must-see about an 8-year old boy struggling to console his father in the wake of his mother's death. He gets unanticipated help from a tough, tattooed neighbor.

Whether you'll be venturing out or staying in, there are numerous safe ways to celebrate Pride!

Reverend's Ratings:
For They Know Not What They Do: A-
Shirley: B+
Chasing Sunshine: B-
Boys on Film 20: Heaven Can Wait: B

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