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 clichรฉd 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.