(*homocinematically inclined)

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.

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