Friday, April 24, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Concerned & Conflicted

The adjectives above might apply to me or they might apply to the subjects of the films I'm reviewing this week, or both. Read on to find out which!

I am personally concerned that the best movie I've seen thus far this truncated cinema year isn't getting the wide theatrical release it would have received if not for the current coronavirus pandemic. True History of the Kelly Gang (IFC Films) is now available to rent or purchase digitally, and I'm happy to report it will be playing exclusively on the big screen in the Los Angeles area for at least the next week at the Mission Tiki 4 Drive-In in Montclair.

Ned Kelly has long been celebrated in his native Australia as a folk hero. Essentially the Down Under version of Robin Hood or Jesse James, he and his devoted band of followers fought to drive the British out and restore the land to its native citizens during the 1870's. Alas, Kelly was ultimately executed for his efforts. A number of previous movies have presumed to tell his story but none have taken such an intimate, sexually-fluid approach as Justin Kurzel's impressive new production.

Adapted from the Booker Prize-winning historical novel by Peter Carey, it stars George MacKay as the title outlaw. If his lead role in last year's Oscar-nominated 1917 didn't make MacKay a star following prior impressive performances in Pride and Captain Fantastic, this movie should... so long as enough people see it. He remains charismatic but is also downright sexy here, with numerous nearly-nude scenes revealing his chiseled physique. There is no shortage of male nudity in True History of the Kelly Gang, with Nicholas Hoult and Charlie Hunnam showing off what God gave them too. There is also no shortage of men wearing women's clothing, as that was a prime tactic Kelly and his men took to throw off their male-establishment pursuers. Finally, Kelly is shown as enjoying a gay-ish relationship with his best friend as they sleep together and caress each other for warmth, maybe more.

The film's great, mostly Aussie cast also includes Essie Davis (The Babadook, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) and Oscar winner Russell Crowe, who sings in one scene much more impressively than he did in Les Misérables. I also admired director Kurzel's gender-bending approach as well as Ari Wegner's vibrant, sepia-toned cinematography and the percussive music score by Jed Kurzel. This is a movie that deserves to be seen in whatever format one can find it.

New on Netflix this week is the provocative, revealing Circus of Books. Directed by Rachel Mason, the documentary focuses on her own parents. Barry and Karen Mason were an unassuming straight married couple with three young children in 1982, when they became the owners of West Hollywood's most popular destination for gay porn until it closed just last year. Can you say "conflicted"?

The film details multiple aspects of WeHo's gay history starting with police raids on local gay bars in 1967 and subsequent protests that pre-dated 1969's Stonewall uprising. Indeed, Circus of Books was originally the New Faces gay bar, which then became Book Circus for a number of years until the Masons bought it and flipped the words around. They soon became the biggest international distributors of gay porn almost despite themselves. It wasn't long before the initially ignorant Barry and Karen found themselves at one of the epicenters of the AIDS pandemic as well as anti-obscenity persecutions under the Reagan administration.

Rachel, the documentarian, takes an admirably objective approach to their "family business" until things become more uniquely personal. It turns out that her brother Josh, one of Barry and Karen's two sons, is gay. When Josh came out to his parents during his college years, he was met with resistance from his mother, a devout Jew. Raised to believe homosexuality was "an abomination," Karen concluded "God must be punishing me for owning this business" when one of her sons turned out to be gay. She later recognized her hypocrisy and both she and Barry became involved in PFLAG.

In addition to the fascinating family history and dynamics uncovered in Circus of Books, it features entertaining new interviews with the likes of former gay porn superstar Jeff Stryker (who still looks great), longtime porn publisher Larry Flynt and current drag star Alaska, who at one point worked at the store. This is one documentary that truly has to be seen to be believed.

JUST ANNOUNCED: Outfest invites all to join a live stream Q&A with Chi Chi LaRue, Buck Angel and director Rachel Mason tonight at 7:00 pm PST as they take you on a journey discovering how LA's queer adult industry came into existence to the players who helped champion sexual, human and LGBTQ rights, as well as the many who were lost before we could recognize their efforts. Join the conversation on @Outfest's Twitter, Facebook Live and YouTube Live.

Concerned characters and conflicted feelings are at the heart of the new gay-themed Israeli film, 15 Years (available on VOD and DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures). That's how long Yoav and Dan have been partners. Despite their relationship being open, which Dan takes more advantage of, they appear happy at the story's start. Things start to change, though, when their longtime friend Alma announces she is pregnant. It gets Dan talking about he and Yoav having a child, which Yoavi declares he is absolutely opposed to due to his negative experience with his own parents. Things quickly go downhill from there for the couple.

15 Years is a mature, perceptive tale. It is sensitively written and directed by Yuval Hadadi, with fine performances by the attractive Oded Leopold and Udi Persi as Yoav and Dan, respectively. It also won the Best Narrative Feature Award at last year's Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. I found some of the characters' motivations a bit murky or confusing as the movie progressed, and the ending is particularly so. Still, its worth checking out during these "shelter in place" days.

Reverend's Ratings:
True History of the Kelly Gang: A-
Circus of Books: B+
15 Years: B

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

Dearest Review: Late Night Double Feature Picture Shows

Have you nixed Netflix? Hurled Hulu? Dissed Disney+? Seeking inspiration for your next quarantine streaming binge? Searching for something off-the-wall in these increasingly off-the-wall times? Then look no further than Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time. This new 3-part, monthly documentary series (available on demand and digital starting tomorrow) takes a deep dive into the history of films on the fringe, from Reefer Madness to The Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Room and beyond.

Each episode is divided into two sub-genres of cult films, beginning with Part 1's overview of midnight movies and "subversive cinema". Part 2 (available May 19th) shines the spotlight on horror and sci-fi faves, with Part 3 (available June 23rd) rounding up the comedy and camp classics. Each of the 47 movies selected is given a nice chunk of time, providing plenty of clips, interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits to entice you to check them out, either for the first time or as a second (or fifty-second) viewing.

Of course, as with any list of the "greatest", there are bound to be some odd inclusions (Fast Times at Ridgemont High feels more like a mainstream hit to me) and egregious omissions (where for the love of god is Mommie Dearest?!?) And the "host" sections with directors Joe Dante and John Waters and actors Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollak are superfluous but at least brief. Naturally, Waters (who has made a second career out of appearing in movie-themed documentaries like this for years now) injects some levity here, for example referring to The Human Centipede trilogy as "The Lord of the Rims".

Aside from footage from the films themselves, the meat of this series is provided by an impressive collection of filmmakers and cast members of said films, providing insightful commentary on their movies in particular and cult films in general. This all-star cast of "talking heads" includes: Barry Bostwick, Nell Campbell and Patricia Quinn (Rocky Horror's Brad, Columbia and Magenta, respectively), Jeff Bridges and John Turturro (The Big Lebowski's Dude and Jesus), Pam Grier (Coffy and Foxy Brown herself), David Patrick Kelly ("Warriors come out to play-ay"), director Rob Reiner, Fran Drescher and Michael McKean (co-stars of This Is Spinal Tap), Penelope Spheeris (director of The Decline of Western Civilization, the only documentary in this documentary), and a typically unhinged Gary Busey (pontificating on Point Break).

And that's just Part 1. Part 2 features The Evil Dead's Ash himself, Bruce Campbell, cult movie super producer Roger Corman (Death Race 2000), Jeff Goldblum (Buckaroo Banzai), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), Joe Morton (The Brother from Another Planet), monster makeup maven Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), Sean Young (Blade Runner) and directors Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Tobe Hopper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects). Rounding out the cast in part 3 are comedy legend John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Gary Cole (Office Space), cult movie icons E.G. Daily (Valley Girl), P.J. Soles (Rock 'n' High School) and Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul), Showgirls goddess Gina Gershon, Jon Heder (a.k.a. Napoleon Dynamite), John Cameron Mitchell (director/star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), The Room's Greg Sestero ("Oh hi Mark"), Best in Show scene-stealer Fred Willard and directors Peter Farrelly (Kingpin), Amy Heckerling (Fast Times) and Kevin Smith (Clerks).

For a full list of films featured in Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time, click here (how many have you seen?) And if the makers of Time Warp ever do a Part 4, they better include Mommie Dearest! Not to mention The Apple, Barbarella, Better Off Dead, Brazil, Bubba Ho-Tep, A Christmas Story, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, Donnie Darko, El Topo, Forbidden Zone, Grey Gardens, The Harder They Come, Heathers, John Dies at the End, Johnny Guitar, Kung Fu Hustle, Little Shop of Horrors (both versions), Manos: The Hand of Fate, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Phantom of the Paradise, Polyester, Repo Man, The Return of the Living Dead, Run Lola Run, They Live, The Toxic Avenger, Troll 2, Road House, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Skidoo, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Valley of the Dolls, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Women... okay, and maybe a part 5 and 6 too.

Dearest Rating: 7/10

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

Monday, April 13, 2020

Dearest Review: Anal-ize This

Prostate exams have been the butt of jokes since the first proctologist lubed up and said "bend over". They've paid the bills for stand-up comedians and comedy screenwriters for years now, but a unique new independent film (available tomorrow on demand) has taken this standard medical procedure for men of a certain age and turned it into the starting point for a wild trip, not down a rabbit hole, but up a whole other kind of hole. And the title of this surreal mix of serial killer thriller and Cronenbergian body horror? Butt Boy.

No, Butt Boy is not a lame-ass member of the X-Men or an ambient instrumentalist who specializes in music to fist by, he's just a sad sack schlub of an everyman named Chip Gutchell, played by Tyler Cornack, the film's director and co-writer (with Ryan Koch). Chip has all the makings of the kind of guy neighbors would call "normal" and "average" before saying "I didn't know he had that in him": a shrewish wife, a dead-end job and a distinct lack of purpose. But all that changes with a routine doctor visit; with just one digital penetration of his sphincter, Chip discovers the joys of anal play. And just a K-Y'ed finger won't do. Soon, the remote control is missing and the family pet is nowhere to be found. Chip is out of control, and it quickly becomes apparent that his newfound, unbridled lust for finding more and larger objects to shove up his bum will soon have a body count.

Who's Sorry now?

Cut to nine years later and Chip is a reformed self-sodomizer who covertly uses Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to squelch his rectal cravings. It is here that he crosses paths with Russell Fox (Tyler Rice, channeling Christian Bale), a burnt-out police detective with a tragic past and "seen it all" attitude. Chip becomes Russell's AA sponsor, and not a moment too soon as Chip falls off the butt-stuff wagon and right into Russell's suspicious gaze. An ill-fated "Take Your Kid to Work Day" later and Russell quickly discovers that Chip is harboring a dangerous secret in his derrière... and he'll have to enter the (literal) bowels of hell to get to the bottom of this mystery.

From the stark typeface of its opening credits to its mood-setting electronic score (also by Cornack and Koch), Butt Boy is purposefully stylized as a throwback to early-80s low budget sci-fi/horror flicks; it would have been right at home on the Blockbuster Video shelves next to such beloved schlock classics as Repo Man, Re-Animator and Basket Case. Cornack's commitment to delivering this absurd story completely with a straight face is admirable (even the film's shockingly-sole fart gag is treated as a life or death situation), although a little bathroom humor here and there wouldn't have been unwelcome in a movie called Butt Boy.

Dearest Rating: 7/10

Butt Boy available on demand from iTunes on Tuesday April 14. Watch the trailer here.

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: COVID Home Vid


Like most of my fellow Americans, I've been living under a "shelter in place" order the last few weeks thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Working primarily from home, however, has given me the opportunity to catch up on a lot of online, streaming, and backlogged home video releases. When life gives you lemons, you gotta make lemonade!

I have enjoyed a number of streaming series. My fave is Amazon Prime's Hunters, a rooted-in-fact account of a diverse group of people out to exterminate surviving World War II Nazis hiding out in America circa 1977. It boasts a terrific cast (including Al Pacino, Logan Lerman, Lena Olin, Dylan Baker in a viciously villainous turn, and the ever-delightful Carol Kane), taut plotting, and great period details plus occasional musical numbers and faux theatrical trailers or public service announcements. The plot, which includes a lesbian romance, gets increasingly strained and less rooted-in-fact by season one's end (there's a huge climactic spoiler I so want to reveal but won't). Still, Hunters proves to be a rip-roaring, occasionally – yet appropriately – harrowing, and at times deeply moving show.

My brief takes on a few other series I've binged recently:

War of the Worlds (Epix), a modern-day adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic tale of alien invasion. It is slow-building but creepily effective, even as it replaces the original story's hulking warships with diminutive, dog-like invaders. After a few episodes, you won't be able to get their mechanized walking sound out of your mind. There are a lot of intelligent twists and turns added to Wells' foundation, and the impressive international cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Lea Drucker and hunky Adel Bencherif.

Pennyworth (also on Epix) is a thoroughly enjoyable Batman prequel/spinoff that details the origins of Bruce Wayne's trusted bodyguard/butler/personal assistant more popularly known by his first name, Alfred. Set in swinging 1960's London, the title character is personified by the sexily confident Jack Bannon. He must thwart a plot to prevent a hostile takeover of Great Britain led by three great villains played by Jason Flemying, Polly Walker and a delectably funny-nasty (and sapphic) Paloma Faith. Handsomely produced and smartly written throughout.

Thanks to online chat, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix) has proven to be the water-cooler smash of the season even while we haven't been gathering at water coolers. This documentary series about several unique personalities who have run or continue to run animal sanctuaries in the United States is fascinating even though it goes on at least two hours/episodes too long (with an additional, up-to-date episode reportedly set to premiere this Sunday). Its central figure is the openly gay Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, who at one point was married to two men simultaneously and is currently serving time in federal prison for plotting to kill one of his tiger-saving adversaries, Carole Baskin. As the series reveals in exceptional detail, Joe and his cronies are an obsessive, drug-addled bunch. Baskin, meanwhile, remains under suspicion for possibly killing her second husband, who hasn't been seen or heard from since 1997.

The Politician (Netflix) is prolific gay producer Ryan Murphy's latest and focuses on the machinations of a privileged, sexually-fluid high school senior obsessed with eventually becoming president of the United States. First, however, he has to be elected student body president and he has some unexpected competition. Out, Tony Award-winning Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen fame balances intensity and vulnerability beautifully in his first lead TV series role. He is well supported by Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban as his adoptive parents, Murphy fave Jessica Lange as the deranged mother of a fellow student, and an impressive array of trans, gender non-conforming, and disabled actors. Like most of Murphy's series, the tone of The Politician veers uncomfortably between dark comedy and affecting drama but it is a strong show with plenty to say about the state of American politics pre-COVID-19.

Movie theaters remain closed as part of the unanticipated toll the pandemic is taking on our lives. This has forced film distributors to re-route their new productions from exhibition on the large screen to small screens. Such is the case with two new, similarly-titled movies: Almost Love and What Love Looks Like. Both are now available on demand, with What Love Looks Like currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime. It is set in Los Angeles and follows four heterosexual couples who meet cute plus one established couple having issues, largely thanks to the guy's cell phone addiction. Unfortunately, writer-director Alex Magana's screenplay here is simplistic and vague on character details, while his photogenic cast give amateurish performances. The film's best feature is Magana's warm, color-saturated cinematography.

Mike Doyle's more accomplished Almost Love has a comparable story structure but is set in New York City and has a longtime gay couple at its center. Adam and Marklin, together five years, have reached a pivotal point in their partnership and are contemplating whether to get married. Their friends Cammy, Haley and Elizabeth are dealing with their own relationship challenges that include, respectively, dating a homeless man, having a 17-year old student fall in love with them, and not wanting to have a child whereas their partner does want one. The movie boasts good performances, abundant angsty humor à la Woody Allen, plus an amusingly smug appearance by the great Patricia Clarkson as a renowned artist who secretly has Adam do her painting for her. There is also a jaunty music score by Dabney Morris.

I've also had time to watch some of the Blu-ray discs that were gathering dust on my bookshelf including – finally – the campy cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls! The least known and most interesting, however, is the 1959 western Warlock. I'd heard about this hard-to-find film for at least 20 years and bought it as soon as it was released on Blu-ray last year by Twilight Time. It was long acclaimed as a superior entry in its genre as well as for its not-so-subtle gay subtext.

Henry Fonda heads the cast of Warlock as Clay Blaisedell, a freelance lawman hired by the desperate citizens of the outlaw-plagued title town after their latest sheriff was run out of town. He arrives with his "partner" of 10 years, the fastidious Tom Morgan, who is soon decorating the pair's new living quarters and running the local saloon, which he and Blaisedell fancifully re-name "The French Palace." When one of the outlaws (played by Richard Widmark) decides to go legit and serve as sheriff, the repercussions threaten the carefully-manicured relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan. Made at a time when westerns were known to be inhabited by heroes wearing white and villains wearing black, filmmaker Edward Dmytryk (who was blacklisted for a time) overhauled things with intriguing shades of grey. This underseen, beautifully photographed movie is a must.

And just arrived on home video is Cats (Universal), the misbegotten film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running stage musical about, well, cats. Critics were merciless to this gloriously bizarre adaptation when it was released last Christmas but it is in the throes of becoming a new cult classic. Prior to the coronavirus shutdown of theaters, there was an increasing number of midnight screenings with attendees dressing as cats and singing along! I suspect these will resume once we can go to the movies again and that the home video release may heighten (lower?) the film's reputation.

In fairness, the cinematic Cats has been given more of a plot than the stage version including a true lead character, a true villain, and backstories for several of its felines including the downtrodden Grizabella (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson). Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is energetic, the built-to-scale sets are imaginative, and the "digital fur" costumes aren't bad; the Blu-ray contains several interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes exploring these elements. The digital makeup highlights are another story, appearing unfinished or outright grotesque at times. If one doesn't buy the key conceit of both the stage and film versions – adult humans as singing & dancing cats – one is pretty much guaranteed to laugh the movie off. Going the animated route, which producer Steven Spielberg was reportedly pursuing back in the 1990's, would likely have been a more palatable/successful approach. The 2019 result is undeniably enjoyable though, regardless whether one takes it seriously or as camp.

Reverend's Ratings:
Hunters: A-
War of the Worlds: B
Pennyworth: B+
Tiger King: B-
The Politician: B+
Almost Love: B
What Love Looks Like: C+
Warlock (1959): B+
Cats (2019): B

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