Film/Arts/Satire*
(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

MD on IG Review: From Mexico with Love

Director Heidi Ewing's Spanish-language romance I Carry You with Me suffers a bit from an odd final act switch from narrative drama to immigrant rights documentary. Regardless, it ultimately proves to be a bittersweet, swoon-worthy addition to the ever-growing ranks of gay-themed global cinema.

Movie Dearest Rating: 7/10

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

MD on IG Review: A Trip On the Moon

Ace animator Glen Keane's feature film directorial debut Over the Moon looks and sounds great (expect the heroine's "I want" song "Rocket to the Moon" to be an Oscar contender). Yet, despite it's strong Asian influence, it fails to overcome clunky plotting and an overreliance on such toon tropes as the dead parent and the annoying sidekick.

MD Rating: 6/10

Over the Moon is now streaming on Netflix.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

MD on IG Review: Milk

Two misfits seeking their fortune in the Oregon Territory stumble upon a money-making scheme involving absconded milk from the area's premiere bovine in First Cow. Director Kelly Reichardt goes the full Malick route (albeit with a dash of quirk here, a smidgen of queerness there), thus explaining why most critics have gone gaga over it. Alas, that is also the reason it left me mostly indifferent to this Cow's charms, and its spoilery prologue didn't help much either.

MD Rating: 6/10

First Cow is now streaming on Showtime.

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Friday, December 11, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Naughty & Nice New Christmas Movies



This perfectly horrible year is slithering to a close, thank God! Of course, the question on most children's minds this month is "Have you been naughty or nice?" We can ask the same question of some new holiday-themed movies available now via streaming services and a few theaters. Reverend watched them all and has ranked them below, with the naughtiest (in terms of content and/or production values) at the top of the list and the truly nicest at the base of this cinematic Christmas tree.


The Slutcracker (VOD 48-hour rental for $15.00 via slutcracker.com): Now in its 13th season, this racy burlesque adaptation of Tchaikovsky's famed ballet premiered in 2008 to sold out audiences at Somerville Theatre in Massachusetts. It has since been performed internationally at venues including Theatre St. Denis in Montreal in 2010. Additionally, the creators of the event were invited to the Czech Republic to record with Brno Philharmonic conductor, Mikel Toms (currently the resident conductor of the National Orchestra of India) where The Slutcracker soundtrack was recorded live. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, this year’s edition of The Slutcracker has been moved to an online streaming platform.

Choreographed and directed by Vanessa White, the production brings together ballerinas, hula hoopers, belly dancers and other performers with interests in flamenco, hip hop, pole, acting and myriad dance forms. White specializes in creating dance-theater stage shows, typically with a political/feminist bent and which embrace diversity including race, gender, genre and body type.

This is a feature-length filmed presentation of The Slutcracker's 2019 show. Compiled from several performances, the film version includes footage from 2 casts, blended together into one seamless narrative. It is an adults-only, queer-feminist, body-positive and sex-positive parody of Tchaikovsky's beloved masterpiece. The dancers' abilities vary but White's is a generally impressive vision. Scantily-clad men as well as women are on display, and nutracker-maker Drosselmyer has been conceived of as a Nee Nee Wilkes-like housewife. He employs an illuminated dildo to make the first act's central Christmas tree "grow," and there is later a giant candy cane dong that "ejaculates"! Also featured are a full-figured Sugar Plum Fairy, a stylish bondage sequence and an African-American Nutcracker in sparkly attire. It's definitely naughty, but enjoyably so.



Cup of Cheer (VOD via Tubi, Amazon Prime and Vudu): I didn't realize how much I missed the wacky, absurdist style of such comedy classics as Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun series until I watched this similarly-conceived spoof of Hallmark Christmas movies. Like those earlier films, some scenes and gags go on too long but many are downright hilarious.

Mary (a game performance by Storm Steenson) is a harried reporter living in "the Big City" who unexpectedly finds herself assigned to write a story about Christmas in her midwestern hometown, Snowy Heights. "Goodbye, ethnic diversity!" Mary cheerfully exclaims as she heads home, where she quickly – and literally – bumps into Chris (cute Canadian actor Alexander Oliver), a harried barista at Cup of Cheer, Snowy Heights' famed hot cocoa emporium. They are obviously attracted to one another even as they are required by their Hallmark predecessors to have animosity toward each other. As Mary bitchily says to Chris at one point: "I'd rather be small-town hot than low-budget-Christmas-movie-leading-man handsome."

Director and co-writer Jake Horowitz has obviously studied both the collected cinematic works of the Zucker brothers and the Hallmark holiday oeuvre. He is aided and abetted by fellow scripter Andy Lewis, as well as the festive cinematography of Daniel Everitt-Lock. True to its comedic inspirations, there are Christmas decorations to be found in odd places, an unhealthily flatulent ex-boyfriend of Mary's, a sweet but foul-mouthed old biddy and Chris's younger brother who works as Santa's elf at the local mall but doubles as a pole dancer.

There are also obvious but funny lines like "Christmas Eve? Why, that's the day before Christmas!," not to mention multiple costume and make-up changes during the same scene plus hats worn under other hats. And there's a running joke about mothers who are punished for sneezing in church. Did I mention the numerous gay and lesbian nods/mentions? There are plenty, notably a displaced 19th-century British prince, Sir Arthur, who fawns over Chris and most of the other males in the cast. He also shoots a child, amusingly so, while game hunting. Cup of Cheer is just that kind of naughty but welcome, lol movie!


The Hallmark Channel and Paramount Network have actually broken some long-overdue ground this year with their new gay-centric holiday movies, respectively, The Christmas Setup and Dashing in December. So has Hulu, which recently premiered the lesbian dramedy Happiest Season by actress turned director Clea DuVall.

Twilight Saga alumna and out bisexual Kristen Stewart heads the impressive cast as Abby, who has been dating girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) for nearly a year. As they prepare to mark their first Christmas together, it is revealed that Abby lost the holiday spirit when her parents died several years before whereas Harper is a crazy Christmas fan. Harper takes the significant step of inviting Abby to her parents' home with her this Christmas. What Harper doesn't reveal until they nearly arrive at the house is that her parents (played by always-welcome gay actor Victor Garber and Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen) are anti-LGBTQ conservatives whom she has yet to come out to!

Happiest Season is dated and clichéd in many ways, but DuVall incorporates enough offbeat touches to help offset the familiar tropes. Among these are Harper's delightfully neurotic sister Jane (the delightful Mary Holland), an overly-aggressive shopping mall security guard and a gay bar Christmas celebration dominated by singing drag queens. There is also Emmy Award winner Dan Levy of Schitt's Creek fame as Abby's gay BF. As he hilariously tells her after Abby shares her temporarily closeted condition: "There's nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves."

When it comes to LGBTQ-affirming holiday movies, I prefer the 2005 studio pic The Family Stone and Rob Williams' cute 2009 indie Make the Yuletide Gay (both of which are available for streaming). The ladies, however, will likely prefer DuVall's somewhat familiar yet undeniably sincere film.


I recently came across The Unattainably Perfect Gay Christmas while scrolling through my Amazon Prime recommendations. The title was good and it was listed as a new, 2020 release. While watching it, though, parts of it seemed familiar. A little research revealed that it is actually a 2013 production originally titled Red Lodge. I consider the movie naughty in this deceptive marketing regard, but it isn't half bad whatever it's called.

Boyfriends Jordan and Dave have been together for two years (incidentally, they are an interracial couple when such relationships were still relatively rare on the big screen). While en route to the home of Jordan's adoptive Auntie for Christmas, Jordan proposes to Dave and is disappointed when Dave rejects him. Perhaps needless to say, this sets things up for a less than ideal holiday in the otherwise picturesque town of Red Lodge (hence the film's original title).

Quirky supporting characters abound. Auntie is an alcoholic and has no physical boundaries nor verbal filter. Hilarious MADtv veteran Stephnie Weir plays a local online psychic Jordan goes to for advice. Dave, meanwhile, meets a frisky young ski instructor, Heath, and soon finds himself naked with him and Jordan in Heath's hot tub. Finally, there is Jordan's mandolin-playing sister, Lisa, with her boyfriend in tow.

The plot plays out fairly predictably and some elements are dated a mere seven years later. But lead actors Joseph Lim Kim (as Jordan) and Richard Pierre-Louis (as Dave) are appealing and Dan Steadman's direction is admirably naturalistic. God knows there are worse gay-themed, indie Christmas movies out there. I'm primarily thinking of 2012's Scrooge & Marley and previously sent a lump of coal, critically speaking, to its creators.


The downright nicest, sweetest, most Christmas-positive new movie this season is Dana Nachman's lovable documentary Dear Santa (now in theatrical release and on VOD courtesy of IFC Films). It provides a thorough and heartwarming examination of the United States Postal Service's Operation Santa. Begun in 1907, it has been processing children's annual letters to Santa Claus and responding to the most needy or worthy among them for over a century now. I had no idea.

Primarily filmed during the three weeks before Christmas of 2019, the doc crisscrosses the US and focuses on a diverse selection of children and their wish lists. Among them are an aspiring veterinarian who wants a dutch bunny (ideally 10 of them), a 12-year old boy in the Bronx who wants a limo ride for himself and his family, and children displaced by California wildfires asking for replacements for beloved toys and furniture that burned. Santa receives letters from adults too, as well as at least one cat! Most notably, and touchingly, a gay-identifying child writes Santa to ask if he supports the LGBTQ community.

In several cities, Operation Santa employs an army of "elves" to read and respond to letters. Some requests get forwarded to a number of non-profit groups dedicated to fulfilling wishes. "Adopter elves" can then choose the wishes that touch them most and provide the requested gift(s). Among these special people revealed by the film are a lesbian couple who present a rescued puppy to a family on behalf of Santa, as well as a gay man who mobilizes his friends to respond to the gay boy noted above. There is also a teacher in New Jersey who uses each year's letters to Santa to teach both reading and empathy to her elementary students before the class adopts a child. Who knew?

Dear Santa is a beautiful illustration of what Christmas should be, even in the midst of our current COVID crisis. Many of the letters read in the film serve as windows into numerous families' pre-pandemic struggles. The movie's final 20 minutes provide nothing short of sheer joy as gifts are delivered and kids are made happy. They serve as confirmation that Santa Claus does indeed exist today.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Slutcracker: B
Cup of Cheer: B+
Happiest Season: C+
The Unattainably Perfect Gay Christmas (a.k.a. Red Lodge): B
Dear Santa: A-

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

MD on IG Review: Mission Improbable

On the outset, The Mole Agent (Chile's official Oscar submission for International Film as well as a Documentary Feature contender) is a quirky, octogenarian spy caper set in a nursing home being investigated for elder abuse... not exactly a heart-warming premise. But - slowly, subtly - it morphs into a bittersweet, life-affirming celebration of human connection. A delight.

MD Rating: 8/10

The Mole Agent is now streaming on Hulu.

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Friday, December 4, 2020

MD on IG Review: My Dinner with Ennui

Who knew that in the same year we got Butt Boy, an oddity about a (straight) guy obsessed with sticking random objects in his ass, we also get Swallow, a low-key thriller about a young woman obsessed with sticking random objects in her mouth. But that's 2020 for ya, am I right?

Haley Bennett delivers strong Michelle Williams realness in a knock-out performance that makes Swallow, now streaming on Showtime, a must see for fans of the "women on the verge of a nervous breakdown" genre.

MD Rating: 8/10

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Reverend's Preview: Everyone Should Go to This Prom


 

Guys, rent your tux. Ladies, buy your dress. Or vice versa! The Prom is coming to Netflix this month, and everyone is invited!

This inclusive, visually dazzling adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical will debut on the streamer December 11th. Reverend was given a sneak peek of the movie last month as well as an opportunity to confer online with its director and all-star cast, headed by the divine Meryl Streep. I also spoke virtually with the show's three talented writers.

The Prom was inspired by real-life cases of LGBTQ high school students who were forbidden to bring same-sex dates to their senior prom by school officials. It deals seriously with this situation while weaving in a more satirical tale about struggling Broadway performers who are in need of a boost to their public image.

Indiana high schooler Emma Nolan (a terrific performance by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is heartbroken to learn that, despite the support of her principal, the PTA has banned her from attending the prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (stage actress Ariana DeBose, making an impressive film debut). Meanwhile, Dee Dee Allen (three-time Academy Award winner Streep) and Barry Glickman (talk show host and Tony Award winner James Corden) are New York City stage stars with a crisis on their hands: their expensive new Broadway show based on the lives of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt is a major flop that has suddenly flatlined their careers.

When they learn of Emma's predicament via Twitter, Dee Dee and Barry decide that it will provide the perfect cause to help resurrect their public images. They hit the road to Indiana on a Godspell tour bus with Angie (Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman) and Trent (out Tony nominee Andrew Rannells), another pair of cynical actors looking for a professional lift. When their self-absorbed celebrity activism unexpectedly backfires, the foursome finds their own lives upended as they rally to give Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.

The movie was produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, the impresario behind such hit TV series as Glee, Nip/Tuck, Pose and American Horror Story. He saw the Broadway production in January of 2019 and immediately decided he wanted to adapt it for the screen. As Murphy recounted: "There were two things I took away (from the show). First of all, I had a great time... I thought it was funny and stylish and it felt like a relief in the middle of a very dark time in our country. I also loved that when I looked around, there were families there. There were parents with their kids. There were gay people there. There were straight women there who had come in groups. It played for everybody. I just loved that people were laughing and crying. There was a great humanity and spirit to it."

But there was also a more personal aspect to The Prom for Murphy. "The girl who was denied going to the prom because of her sexuality was from Indiana. Which is something that happened to me, and I'm from Indiana," the filmmaker reflected. "I remember walking out of (the show) thinking, 'Wow, I wish there had been something like this for me to see or watch with my parents when I was younger.' But there wasn't. So, I thought, 'Well, then maybe I should make it.' So that's what I did."

He quickly went on to assemble an impressive cast for his adaptation. "I've never done this before, but on the plane ride back to LA I wrote out a list of who I've always wanted to work with, who's on my bucket list," Murphy said. "Number one on everyone's bucket list is Meryl Streep, who I knew a little bit socially but I was always so shy around her. And then James Corden, and Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington, and Keegan-Michael Key." Rannells previously worked with Murphy on the TV series The New Normal as well as Netflix's recent remake of The Boys in the Band, which Murphy produced. Washington plays against type as the antagonistic head of the school's PTA, while Key portrays not only Emma's empathetic principal but Dee Dee's unexpected love interest.

The writers of the stage and now screen musical drew from a true story. In 2010, Constance McMillen was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi. She had plans to bring her girlfriend to their senior prom and wear a tuxedo, and in response, was banned from attending by the school board. McMillen challenged the board's decision. In response, the board decided to entirely cancel that year's senior prom. McMillen and the ACLU sued her school district and a federal court found the Itawamba School District guilty of violating McMillen's First Amendment rights. However, the judge did not force the school district to re-instate the prom. Multiple celebrities including Green Day, Cat Cora and Lance Bass rallied together via social media to show their support for McMillen and agreed to help sponsor a Second-Chance prom, which McMillen and her girlfriend could attend without homophobic backlash.

Matthew Sklar, co-writer and composer of The Prom, shared some background into the production's history. "A producer by the name of Jack Viertel had this crazy idea," Sklar explained. "He was reading the newspaper in 2010 and there were some stories about kids not being able to take their same-sex partners to prom. As a theatre person he felt outrage and thought, 'Maybe we can get a bunch of people to go down and help them.' Then he realized, 'That's a terrible idea but that's a funny idea."

Viertel was working at the time with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and had just seen something that Sklar had written with his Prom collaborators Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. "We started meeting and the outline came pretty quick, but then it took a long time to get on stage," recalled Sklar. It finally opened on Broadway in 2018, where it was met with critical acclaim and was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical that year.

Nicholaw remained involved in the film version as choreographer, and he retained many of the stage production's high-energy dance numbers. Meryl Streep shared that this was her favorite aspect of making The Prom as well as the previous movie musicals she has headlined, Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods. "When you're dancing," Streep said, "the lid comes off the pressure of your life." She is predictably spectacular as the narcissistic Dee Dee, with Corden giving his best musical performance to date as her equally vain partner in crime, Barry. I envision award nominations for both of them.

I asked the writers if their Broadway characters were inspired by or modeled on any real-life performers. "Yes, yes, yes," all three answered in quick succession. "We won't name any names but it was very funny because at one point early on we were like, 'Do we just cast these people?,' said Beguelin. And then we were like, 'Oh God, no, the reason they're so funny is because they're so difficult!" According to Martin, "We actually used their names in early drafts, which nobody will ever see (laughter from all)."

During an ordinary year, one would only be able to watch such a star-studded affair as The Prom in a movie theater for its first few months. Unfortunately, many movie theaters are still closed due to COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic impacted this film just when production was nearly finished.

"The hardest scene to shoot was the big dance number at the end," said producer-director Murphy. "We shot 500 people dancing and then, a week after that, we were shut down for COVID. We had three days left to shoot and they were important scenes. We went into quarantine for two months, but we thought it was important for the movie to come out for the holidays. So, we worked with a group of epidemiologists and we came up with a back-to-shooting production plan. They helped us come up with the protocols to finish The Prom. All of these things were incredibly difficult but joyful, and it was a showbiz tale. It reminded me of old classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, where part of that DNA of those musicals is to roll up your sleeves, figure it out, and put on a show."

The timing and global availability of Murphy's film adaptation on Netflix is actually proving to be most auspicious. At the end of a grueling year featuring a death-dealing virus, a toxic political climate in the US and economies in shambles around the world, The Prom offers both sustenance and escapism. As Nicole Kidman's Fosse-loving Angie sings encouragingly to young Emma in the film, "You've gotta give it some zazz!" The Prom delivers zazz in spades and proves we do indeed need it! Sklar and Beguelin's score also features the timely religious anthem "Love Thy Neighbor," which is energetically performed by Rannells in the middle of a shopping mall.

Another journalist participating in last month's press conference with the film's cast asked, "Can art spark cultural change?" While all agreed it can, Emmy award winner Kerry Washington gave perhaps the most thoughtful answer: "I think so. I was discussing this recently with some of my friends. There's all this talk about how our culture needs healing right now. I think the best way we do that is in the dark and in the theater, whether we're watching a play or a movie. That's where we get in touch with our heart and our humanity."

The screenplay also makes mention more than once of the importance of arts education in public schools. Historically, the arts have usually been the first programs to be cut when there isn't enough money in a school's budget. Without drama programs, in particular, students lose the opportunity to grow in empathy that is naturally gained while walking in another character's/person's shoes.

Clearly, the time is right for a movie like The Prom, and Murphy's sensitive yet frequently hilarious production is pitch perfect. As the director noted: "Everyone knows what the prom is or has their own version of it, but not everyone is allowed to go and to express themselves freely. Through this film, I hope they have that experience of being a part of something and feeling a part of a community. It's something I didn’t have growing up, and it's something we were very conscious of when we were making it. I'm excited that it's going to be released at the same time all over the world. It's almost like everybody's going to the dance together all over the world. A worldwide celebration of an idea and a hope of a different kind of world."

Reverend's Rating: A-

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

Friday, November 6, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Giving Thanks for New LGBTQ Movies



Ah, November has arrived. The month of cooler temperatures, roasted turkeys and pumpkin pies is here! Unfortunately, traditional Thanksgiving gatherings will be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 prevention efforts. But November remains the start of the holiday season as well as the film industry's annual awards season.


Due to pandemic-related delays, awards season will last longer than usual this year. The current submission and screening deadline for most organizations including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is the end of February 2021, with most awards not being presented until March or April. Three new movies of gay, bi and/or queer interest that are also sparking awards buzz are therefore getting a head start by being released this month. They will play theatrically where possible but will also be available for streaming.

Uncle Frank, from Amazon Studios, is a nostalgic and often heartrending look at the life of a closeted gay man in the early 1970's. It will be available on Amazon Prime beginning November 25th. British actor Paul Bettany, best known as the heroic Vision in various Marvel Universe epics, could be an awards contender for his sensitive performance in the title role. Following his upbringing in conservative South Carolina, Frank has fled to New York City and become a revered literature professor. He also has a longtime but secret partner, Walid, who is warmly portrayed by Peter Macdissi.

Things start to get complicated for Frank when his young niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis, who made a splash as Beverly in the It movies), becomes a student on his NYU campus. She soon discovers that her beloved uncle is gay but accepts him. Things get much more complicated when they receive word of the sudden death of Frank's homophobic father, Beth’s grandfather. Frank, a recovering but vulnerable alcoholic, reluctantly returns home for the funeral with Beth in tow. They undertake a road trip to Creekville, SC, which Walid unexpectedly but eventually joins them on.

Once home, Frank learns he was excluded from his late father's will and, to make matters worse, is forced to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from. Many gay men of his generation will be able to relate to this aspect of the script, which was written by Alan Ball. Ball is the out and well-respected creator of TV's Six Feet Under and True Blood, and he won an Oscar for his original screenplay for American Beauty. He also directed Uncle Frank and served as one of its producers.

In addition to providing a great acting showcase for Bettany, the film's excellent supporting cast includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Margo Martindale plus stage and screen veteran Lois Smith, who turns 90 this month. It also features plenty of humor despite its serious subject matter, including the hilarious line: "I'll slap you so hard, your clothes will go out of style!" Uncle Frank should not be missed.


Another new queer release set in the early 1970's is Stardust, a biopic about singer David Bowie's challenging transformation into his androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. It will also be released on November 25th by IFC Films. Johnny Flynn, who also made an impression in Emma earlier this year, is eerily evocative as young Bowie. He nails the late performer's appearance, voice and mannerisms. Knowing how the Academy loves actors who play musical icons (see Renee Zellweger, who won last year for Judy, and Rami Malek's win as Freddie Mercury the previous year, among many others), Flynn could be a contender for Best Actor this year.

Stardust opens with Bowie's arrival in the United States for the first time in 1971. Although Bowie was popular in Europe, he wasn't yet a name here due to his music being, as described by his manager in the film, "too dark, too weird for the Yanks." He is surprised to discover upon his arrival that his manager failed to arrange the proper visa for him. What Bowie thought was going to be a national singing tour turned out to be a series of radio interviews in largely rural areas that proved less than welcoming.

Bowie was known early on for his gender fluidity in terms of how he dressed, and he came out as bisexual to Playboy magazine in 1976. While Stardust doesn't delve into his sexuality much apart from his open marriage at the time to Angie Barnett (played by Jena Malone), he does decry "bourgeois morality" and is shown as being anything but conventional. Costume designer Julia Patkos does a fabulous job in this regard, re-creating Bowie's outfits and the general fashions of the time.

According to the film, several of Bowie's family members suffered from schizophrenia, including his older brother. He is depicted as terrified of being diagnosed as schizophrenic himself. This fear is what ultimately drove him to develop his Ziggy Stardust persona, who Bowie could separate from himself. The move paid off, making Bowie famous both nationally and internationally. It also led to him becoming an impressive actor in movies and theatre.

Stardust provides considerable insight into Bowie, who died much too soon in 2016. His fans, general music fans, bisexual men and queer viewers will find much to appreciate in the film.


Monsoon is a modern-day story that has already been an awards contender. It will be available from Strand Releasing on November 13th. Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's reflective drama was nominated for Best Picture in 2019 at both the Athens International Film Festival and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It has been well received this year at Outfest, NewFest and other LGBTQ film festivals here in the US.

The very hot Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians fame plays Kit, a gay British-Vietnamese man. He returns to Saigon from London for the first time since he was six years old, when his family fled the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam-American war. Sadly, he has come home to lay his late mother's ashes to rest. He re-connects there with Lee, his estranged second cousin, and arranges an online date that turns into something more with Lewis (Parker Sawyers, who previously played a young Barack Obama in Southside With You). Lewis is a sexy clothing designer preparing to open his first shop in Vietnam. As Kit struggles to make sense of himself in a country he's no longer familiar with, hooking up with some other men along the way, his personal journey opens up new possibilities for friendship, love and happiness.

Khaou's perceptive screenplay tackles many issues in a generally subtle way. These include enduring conflicts between the East and West including acceptance (or not) of different sexual orientations, as well as racial and generational differences. John Cummings' striking music score also deserves mention. Monsoon emerges as an intelligent and touching film, well worth watching after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.


Although it doesn't have any LGBTQ content, the amazing Shadow in the Cloud has two other things going for it: gremlins and Chloë Grace Moretz. It is also an unquestionably feminist suspense-adventure film. I caught its North American premiere during last month's online AFI Film Festival and I am so glad I did! This New Zealand production directed by Roseanne Liang is one of the most genuinely exciting and entertaining films I've seen in several years.

Gremlins haven't been seen on movie screens since the 1984 classic bearing the mischievous creatures' name. Prior to that, they were primarily known for their memorable appearance in the original Twilight Zone TV series and its 1983 movie adaptation. But prior to that, they were to blame by World War II pilots for any mishaps that occurred with their planes during flight.

Shadow in the Cloud goes back to the source of this aviation legend. Moretz (Kick-Ass, Hugo, Greta) plays Maude Garrett, an alleged military officer with more than a few secrets who is assigned to a flight aboard the aptly-named "Fool's Errand" carrying a top-secret package. As the only female on board, the plane's crew of male chauvinists make her sit alone in one of the gun turrets.

It isn't long before Maude finds herself face to face – literally – with a human-sized, bat-like creature hellbent on tearing the plane apart. Naturally, the men above don't believe her until the gremlin starts picking them off one by one. The action becomes increasingly, deliriously over the top as Maude extricates herself and takes charge. The camera rarely leaves Moretz, and she makes Maude the fiercest movie heroine since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the Alien series! This is not hyperbole.

Written by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), Shadow in the Cloud features solid performances all around as well as terrific special effects and an awesome, retro 80's music score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper that does John Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth proud. I loooove this movie and hope it gets a US release soon!


It's hard to believe that Requiem for a Dream is 20 years old. Darren Aronofsky's horrific yet poetic adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's novel about how addiction sabotages four people's pursuit of their dreams was released last month on an anniversary-edition 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray combo pack for the first time, courtesy of Lionsgate. This hi def transfer makes the film and Matthew Libatique's cinematography that much more vivid.

For me, the heartbreaking highlight of the movie remains Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-nominated performance as Sara Goldfarb, a widowed woman yearning for recognition late in life. This leads her to first develop an addiction to television and then on "upper" diet pills. A young Jared Leto plays her heroin junkie son, with Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans in fine form as his doomed friends. It is not a pretty nor uplifting picture but talent shines throughout both on screen and behind the scenes.

New special features on this home video release include audio commentaries by Aronofsky and Libatique, an interview of Burstyn, deleted scenes and a featurette on the film's memorable music score by Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet (which sounds especially good in this transfer's Dolby Atmos sound mix). While not for the faint of heart, Requiem for a Dream endures as a cautionary classic.

Reverend's Ratings:
Uncle Frank: B
Stardust: B+
Monsoon: A-
Shadow in the Cloud: A
Requiem for a Dream (20th anniversary home video release): B+

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

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...


SCHITT'S CREEK
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


KILLING EVE
Best TV Drama


WATCHMEN
Best TV Movie or Limited Series,
Most Visually Striking Show


BAD EDUCATION
Best TV Performance - Actor: Hugh Jackman


92ND ACADEMY AWARDS
Best TV Musical Performance: Janelle Monáe & Billy Porter, Opening Number


LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER
Best Current Affairs Program


 WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Best Unsung TV Show


TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS
Campiest TV Show


DAN LEVY
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.