Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Reverend's Interview: Hitting the Road with Joe Bell

Growing up as an LGBTQ teenager is not without its traumatic moments. Most of us weather them but, sadly, some have endured so much bullying that suicide is the only option they can see to have some peace.

Such was the case for Jadin Bell, a 15-year old Oregon boy who took his own life in 2013 after months of abuse from his schoolmates. He was bullied for being gay both in person and online. Though tragic, his death subsequently raised the national profile of youth bullying and gay victimization. This has led to greater precautions against these in schools and society.

Jadin's death also motivated his grieving father, Joe, to take a dramatic step to honor his son's memory. Joe Bell embarked on a walk across America in April, 2013. He intended it to last two years as he would speak about his late son's experience to whomever would listen to him. Joe's life would also end prematurely in October, 2013, when he was struck and killed in Colorado by a semi driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Jadin and his father are being commemorated this month with the release of a major motion picture. Titled Joe Bell, it tells each of their stories in deeply moving yet ultimately inspiring fashion. Notably, the screenplay was written by Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. The film will be released in theaters this Friday, July 23rd, having had its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Joe Bell garnered rave reviews, both for the film as a whole and for the lead performances by Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg as Joe and young Reid Miller as Jadin.

As Wahlberg states in the movie's press notes: "With movie theaters reopening, we are excited to partner with exhibitors to bring the extraordinary story of Joe Bell and his son Jadin to audiences around the country." Additionally, the film's producers note: "Joe Bell has always been a labor of love and a story that we feel is necessary and resonant, not only first and foremost for the LGBTQ+ community but universally for parents and caretakers at large."

Co-star Reid Miller, who is now 21 years old, has previously appeared in such TV series as Play by Play, You, The Fosters and Training Day. He played the lead role in the campy holiday-horror film, Santa Jaws, and has also written and directed several short films. Miller recently spoke with Reverend about this powerful new entry in the LGBTQ film genre.

REV: I've been researching you and you are a very talented young man. Congratulations on your success thus far!
RM: Thank you so much!

REV: Had you heard about Jadin and Joe Bell prior to this project? What was your reaction to the script when you first read it?
RM: I actually hadn't (heard about them). I remember hearing little things from my friends about Jadin taking his own life but no real details. When I read the script it was a visceral reaction, which feels like an understatement. I grew up in a small Texas town and endured isolation and bullying at that age. No one should have to go through that. It was hard reading about what Jadin went through to lead him to do what he did. It makes me mad at the people who made him feel that way. He was such a light in his family and in the community.

REV: What was the casting process like for you? Did you have to audition and do callbacks?
RM: Oh yeah. Auditions and callbacks. There was so much pressure to get the casting right. They initially wanted a name actor in the role, but Jadin was young and had a very specific look. Plus, I felt I understood what Jadin went through, at least parts of it. The process was pretty rigorous. I did an audition tape in early 2019 and got a callback right away. But then there was a change of directors (from Cary Fukunaga, who moved on to the new James Bond adventure No Time to Die, to Reinaldo Marcus Green) and I didn't hear anything for months. When I finally did, there was a series of meetings with the director and Mark Wahlberg at Mark's house. I felt like things were going well but didn't know for sure. Finally, Reinaldo said "You're the guy!"

REV: Speaking of Mark Wahlberg, you have great father-son chemistry on screen. How was your experience working with him?
RM: It was great. He's a very talented guy, a very nice guy. He also created a very safe environment where I felt safe to be put on the spot since I really had to express my own woundedness while playing Jadin.

REV: How have viewers responded to the film and your performance thus far?
RM: It's always been very powerful reactions, sometimes very visceral and emotional. Some have said how they feel I brought Jadin back to life, which is great to hear but especially from members of his family.

REV: What do you hope viewers take away from the movie or the Bells' story?
RM: I say this a lot but I hope people gain a greater sense of empathy and acceptance. There is so much hate right now, especially online where there is a lot of bullying. I wish people would just take a step back and say "It's not all about me." Empathy is so important.

REV: There is a lot of debate going on in LGBTQ circles about whether only LGBTQ actors should play LGBTQ roles. As an actor, what do you think?
RM: I've heard this a lot, especially in my circles because of my age. I think it all comes down to who is the best person for the role and the story. We're living in an intense time right now and everyone is so sensitive!

REV: I agree completely. So, what are you working on now? What are some of your goals as an actor and filmmaker?
RM: I have some stuff coming up, now that we're finally at a point where people are getting vaccinated and auditions and things are opening up again. I just finished a short film that I directed and wrote that I want to develop as a feature. I'm all about action! I want to be Tom Cruise! Or his son. Can't he have a kid in one of his movies? Can't he be a father for once? (laughs.)

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

Sunday, July 11, 2021

MD Review: Along Came a Spider

After a much too long (in more ways than one) journey to her own solo adventure, the first lady of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanoff, is finally front and center in Black Widow. And, as trite as it may sound, it was well worth the wait. From Russia with love and filled with femme fatales, non-corny humor (rare for the MCU) and a tatted-up David Harbour squeezed into a tight super-Soviet suit, star Scarlett Johansson and director Cate Shortland deliver a globe-trotting, high stakes espionage thriller to rival the best of Bond.

MD Rating: 8/10

Black Widow is now playing in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premiere Access.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Reverend's Reviews: Pride Goes On with New Movie Offerings

Another Pride month has come and gone. Thankfully, this was a more in-person celebratory Pride than last year's Pandemic Pride nightmare. It also allowed for some of the LGBTQ and other film festivals that were either cancelled or strictly virtual last year to stage combo in-person/online hybrid comebacks!

Most prominent among these was New York's Tribeca Film Festival. Co-founded by Robert DeNiro, the fest celebrated its 20th anniversary June 9th-20th. Longtime DeNiro friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese offered himself as Executive Producer of a major LGBTQ-interest documentary that celebrated its world premiere. Building a Bridge focuses on Fr. James Martin, a Catholic priest who has made an international name for himself in recent years by daring to reach out publicly to LGBTQ Catholics.

As related in the film, Fr. Martin was inspired by the tragic 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the apparent apathy of his peers to pen a book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The book's publication and Martin's subsequent appearances on outlets from Colbert to Fox News made him a celebrity, beloved by many but denounced by many others who claim he's a heretic or worse.

Directed by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post, their documentary follows the outspoken but good-humored Martin (who belongs to the more progressive Society of Jesus, i.e. Jesuits) as he speaks to packed houses across the US, often inundated by protestors. He also consoles queer youth and struggling parents, and ultimately journeyed to Rome. With the election of Pope Francis (a fellow Jesuit) in 2013 and his famous "Who am I to judge?" comment, it appeared the Roman Catholic church was finally beginning to accept the LGBTQ+ community. However, a Vatican statement issued on March 15th of this year barring priests from blessing same-sex unions has made Martin's mission more critical than ever. Paradoxically, he publicized in just the last two weeks a letter of support for his ministry from Pope Francis himself. Confusing, no?

As an openly gay Catholic priest (though no longer Roman) myself, I sympathize with Fr. Martin and appreciate his outreach to those LGBTQ members who are struggling to remain in the church. That being said, I realized while watching Building a Bridge that there is something disingenuous about the film and Fr. Martin's ministry. He has never publicly outed himself but I suspect he is gay. The best witness Martin could provide would be to come out publicly. Now more than ever, representation matters in all social settings. Fr. Bryan Massengale, a priest and theologian interviewed in the documentary, came out as gay in recent years and apparently suffered no disciplinary action. It also doesn't help Fr. Martin's credibility that he is forbidden from publicly endorsing same-sex marriage. He gives an uncomfortably coy response when asked about his personal stance on this topic.

The most interesting character in the film is actually Michael Voris, head of the right-wing conservative Catholic group Church Militant. Billed as "the American society for the defense of tradition," Church Militant is comprised of numerous dysfunctional individuals and families dedicated to countering "the legitimization of sodomy." Here's the thing: Voris is a "former" gay man and son of a bipolar mother. He has blamed the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests as the result of "the homosexual infiltration of the church." He actually threatened to out Fr. Martin at one point. The reformed/"recovered" queen doth protest too much!

I did find Building a Bridge to be inspiring but also frustrating. There's no doubt, though, that many LGBTQ Roman Catholics eager for acceptance by church representatives will appreciate this documentary.

A number of LGBTQ film festivals in the US made at least partially in-person comebacks during Pride month. Reverend was able to view several selections offered at two of them, NYC's NewFest and Connecticut's OutFilm CT. Here's my rundown of the best:

Boy Meets Boy: Kind of a gay version of Before Sunrise, writer-director Daniel Sanchez Lopez details the whirlwind, 15-hour romance between cute Berliner Johannes, a dancer, and the hot Harry, a tourist from the UK. They meet at a dance club and embark on a date that Harry describes as "my first time on a date without Tinder or Grindr." They have conversations about such wide-ranging topics as religion, modern relationships, and how "everyone's a cheese." Much of their dialogue seems improvised, to the film's benefit. Also similar to Andrew Haigh's 2011 Weekend, it is romantic and sexy, with a climactic edge of suitable melancholy.

Beyto: A Turkish twist on the familiar coming out story. The title character is a competitive swimmer in Switzerland, played by the very appealing Burak Ates. Originally from Turkey, Beyto falls in love with another male teammate. However, he remains closeted from his conservative parents. After one of his mother's friends spots Beyto at a Pride parade, his parents trick him into returning to Turkey and force him to marry a longtime female friend. The movie plays like a 1950's melodrama but it is sadly contemporary. Fortunately, love wins out in the end for all concerned. Interestingly, Beyto is directed and co-written by Gitta Gsell, a Swiss woman filmmaker. Her sensitive, respectful approach is a plus.

Potato Dreams of America: This is a 99% autobiographical saga according to its writer-director, Wes Hurley. Precocious 12- year old Vasili, affectionately nicknamed Potato, lives with his grandmother (a terrific, largely serious turn by Lea DeLaria) and prison-doctor mother in the USSR circa 1985. His near-religious devotion to American movies is hilariously personified by a movie-loving Jesus Christ. Potato and his mother are eventually brought to the US by an American man with whom his mother has had a correspondence. Once in 1990's NYC, Potato begins to define his homosexuality with the help of repeat viewings of Gregg Araki's indie gay classic The Living End. It's a funny, lovable flick and even features the occasional musical number!

Swan Song: Easily the best film on the current film fest circuit, and scheduled for theatrical release next month. Cult fave Udo Kier stars as "Mr. Pat" Pitsenbarger (a real person) in this lovely dramedy by Todd Stephens of Another Gay Movie, Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83 fame. He is a retired, unapologetically gay hairdresser living in a Sandusky, Ohio nursing home following a stroke. Mr. Pat leaves against medical advice after he receives a $25,000 request to do a newly-deceased client's hair and makeup before her funeral viewing. We follow him across town as he collects necessary supplies, visits his old haunts, and re-connects with other former clients as well as a protege-turned-rival played by the one and only Jennifer Coolidge. Other standouts in the cast are Linda Evans (yes, Dynasty's Crystal Carrington) as his deceased former client and Michael Urie as her grandson. But this is the 77-year-old Kier's show and he gives an excellent, unglamorous yet dignified performance somewhat reminiscent of Terence Stamp's in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I expect he'll be remembered come awards season.

Be on the lookout for all these gems in the coming months!

Reverend's Ratings:
Building a Bridge: B
Boy Meets Boy: B+
Beyto: B+
Potato Dreams of America: B+
Swan Song: A-

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