(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Magic from the Big Apple

Aladdin has proven to be Disney's latest cash cow on Broadway, at least until Frozen begins previews next month. It is now making its Los Angeles premiere at the fabled Hollywood Pantages through March 31st. After attending opening night last week, I have no doubt this eager-to-please musical will likely be just as successful here.

If anything, the stage adaptation of the 1992 animated film is too eager to please. It pulls out all the stops, leaving a woman seated behind me to declare "I'm exhausted" at both intermission and curtain close. Thankfully, I don't share her sentiment. The show is frequently spectacular and largely enjoyable but is also, as my young friend Steve (who accompanied me to the opening) likes to say, "a little extra."

The plot, derived from the classic Arabian Nights stories, hardly needs recounting. Suffice to say the stage version retains its spirited "street rat" title character, a headstrong princess named Jasmine, and a conniving vizier named Jafar who is out to rule the kingdom if not the world. And yes, the rambunctious genie immortalized by Robin Williams' vocal talents is now flesh and blood... and African-American.

All of the Oscar-winning songs written for the film by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman have been retained, some even expanded. A handful of new songs have been added but most are forgettable. "Proud of Your Boy," the most affecting of the new tunes, was actually written for the movie but cut. Perhaps most egregiously, Aladdin's simian pal Abu has been needlessly replaced by a hapless trio of fellow thieves.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is best known for the decidedly adult-leaning The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten! His sensibilities don't fit comfortably with the more family-friendly fair so the humor in Aladdin often feels restrained. Fortunately, Nicholaw does not restrain the visual aspects of this production. Bob Crowley's scenic design is stunning, Gregg Barnes' costumes are similarly eye-popping, and the special effects involving Aladdin's magic carpet are no less than amazing.

Handsome Adam Jacobs, who originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway, is re-creating his charming performance in LA. Isabelle McCalla makes a lovely Jasmine but Jonathan Weir is pretty one-note as Jafar. However, Michael James Scott makes a fabulous, hilariously sassy, and kinda gay Genie.

Over the top and "extra" though it may be in spots, Aladdin on stage offers some truly magical sights and sounds.

As much as I have grown to love LA, Long Beach and our local theatre scene, New York still remains my favorite city in the world. I wouldn't want to be there this time of year, frigid and partly frozen as it currently is, but Spring through Fall can be glorious.

The "city that doesn't sleep" has long inspired playwrights and other artists. Adam Gwon set his 2008 musical Ordinary Days there. Gwon's heartfelt show just had its local premiere at Long Beach Playhouse as part of the Playhouse's annual Studio Collaborative. Take the Stage Long Beach serves as this production's presenter.

Ordinary Days is a sung-through one act involving four main characters, an accompanist, and a chorus of five attractive young people. While reminiscent of such popular Jason Robert Brown works as Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years, Gwon clearly has his own distinctive, generally more optimistic voice.

The musical's central quartet is Deb, an overwhelmed NYU graduate student; Warren, a lonely art admirer; and Claire and Jason, a romantically-involved couple who have just moved in together. While Jason and Claire quickly face challenges in their newly altered relationship, Deb finds herself unexpectedly drawn to the "wierdo" Warren after he finds Deb's lost dissertation notes.

That's about it in terms of plot, but Gwon and director Bethany Price mine this scenario for its emotional and comedic riches. Similarly, primary cast members Joaquin Nunez (Warren), Jason Holland (Jason), Katie Nicol (Claire) and Jessica Hayes (the vocal and comedic standout as Deb) dive into the material.

Michael Rothbart provides excellent support as the show's musical director and unobtrusive accompanist. There were a few pitch issues with one cast member during the performance I attended, but God knows I've heard worse over the years. Kyra Baklayan, Greg Bystritski, Dane Jamieson, Damian Santana and Ava Tomassini are the black-clad, multi-talented chorus members. They sometimes cleverly play pieces of furniture or modes of transportation in addition to average New Yorkers on the street.

As is the case with many plays and musicals set in Manhattan, the city is something of an omnipresent character itself. Scenic designer Jonathan Torres has provided a colorful, impressionistic backdrop of the New York skyline. For any other Southern Californians longing to visit NYC, I recommend Ordinary Days as the next best thing this time of year.

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

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

2017 GALECA Awards: Call Me Dorian

The picturesque gay coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name leads with nine nominations in the 9th Annual Dorian Awards, announced earlier today by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics*. Guillermo del Toro's aquatic love story The Shape of Water and Jordan Peele's satirical thriller Get Out followed with seven and six nominations, respectively. In the top category, Film of the Year, they are joined by the French AIDS drama BPM (Beats Per Minute) and Greta Gerwig's quirky comedy Lady Bird.

The Shape of Water and Lady Bird leading ladies Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan face off with Frances McDormand (as a grieving mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Margot Robbie (as disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya) and Chilean actress Daniela Vega (as the transgender title character of A Fantastic Woman) in the Film Performance of the Year - Actress category. Meanwhile, in Film Performance of the Year - Actor, newcomers Nahuel Perez Biscayart (BPM), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) are up against two old pros in two wildly different biopics: James Franco as cult icon Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist and Gary Oldman as the legendary Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

GALECA has added two new film categories this year to honor supporting performances. The first nominees for Supporting Film Performance of the Year - Actress are Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!), while the first nominees for Supporting Film Performance of the Year - Actor are Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and both Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg from Call Me By Your Name.

In addition to del Toro, Peele, Gerwig and Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino, Christopher Nolan (for the war epic Dunkirk) and Sean Baker (for the low budget The Florida Project) will vie for Director of the Year honors. Peele, Gerwig and del Toro (with co-writer Vanessa Taylor) are also nominated for Screenplay of the Year, along with James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name and Martin McDonagh for the polarizing drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) and A Fantastic Woman are also nominated in both the Foreign Language Film of the Year and LGBTQ Film of the Year categories. In the former they are up against Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father, the Swedish Palme d'Or winner The Square and the Norwegian lesbian thriller Thelma, while in the latter they are joined by the Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, the British romantic drama God's Own Country and Call Me By Your Name.

Women's stories dominate the nominees for Documentary of the Year with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Agnès Varda's Faces Places and Jane (as in famed primatologist Jane Goodall), along with feline fave Kedi. Dorian's Unsung Films of the Year include BPM (egregiously overlooked for Oscar's Foreign Language Film finalists), Todd Haynes' wonderful Wonderstruck and queer indies Beach Rats, God’s Own Country and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Two unique Dorian Award categories add some glitz and (tacky) glitter to the nominations, with the Visually Striking Film of the Year nominees Blade Runner 2049, Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, The Shape of Water and Wonderstruck and the Campy Film of the Year nominees Baywatch, The Disaster Artist, The Greatest Showman, I, Tonya and mother!.

On the TV side, such Movie Dearest faves as Big Little Lies, Feud: Bette and Joan and Will & Grace received multiple nominations. See the comments section below for a complete list of all the Dorian Award nominations.

The Dorian Awards are named after the classic character Dorian Gray, created by GALECA's "patron saint" Oscar Wilde. The winners will be announced on January 31.

* Movie Dearest critics Chris Carpenter and Kirby Holt are members of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Movie Dearest's Top 10 of 2017

Movie Dearest creator Kirby Holt names his favorite films of 2017.

2017 was a great year for movies, which made this annual tradition of a "10 Best" list harder than usual, but not impossible when I focused in on the films that stuck with me long after the final frame. This top 10 is made up of my own personal favorites, the movies that moved me the most and will stick with me for years to come.

1. The Shape of Water: Guillermo del Toro's breathtakingly mesmerizing tale of a love both unusual and universal was the most cinematically transformative film experience of the year.

2. Wonderstruck: Two parallel stories of loss and hope bridge the expanse of time in Todd Hayne's beautifully crafted exploration of faith and fate.

3. Baby Driver: Edgar Wright's crazy, cool caper flick with a killer soundtrack was the year's most unexpectedly fun and thrilling roller coaster ride.

4. Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman's brilliant embodiment of Winston Churchill is just the beginning of the greatness in this taut biopic of the legendary British Prime Minister.

5. Blade Runner 2049: Rich with themes of humanity and identity, this gorgeously-shot, long awaited sequel one-upped its classic predecessor with a deeper emotional core.

6. Molly's Game: The whip-crack dialogue of Aaron Sorkin as performed by the chemistry-rich duo of Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba was one of the most rewarding surprises of the year.

7. The Greatest Showman: Not everyone appreciates a good old fashioned movie musical, but I was swept away by this lavish P.T. Barnum-inspired spectacle.

8. In the Fade: A life-altering tragedy leads a grieving woman (an excellent Diane Kruger) to go to extreme lengths for justice in this gripping, shocking drama from Germany.

9. God's Own Country: Don't just dismiss this gritty, sexy man-on-man romance as the "British Brokeback Mountain"; it's a gay cinema classic-in-the-making in its own right.

10. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Following last year's equally off-kilter The Lobster, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos delivered an even more darkly twisted tale of extremes.

Of course there were far more than ten movies I loved this year, so my "Honorable Mentions" include the Disney blockbusters Beauty and the Beast, Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi; the atypical romcom The Big Sick; the bittersweet biopic Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool; the haunting-in-a-different-way A Ghost Story; the stunning superhero sagas Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman; the riveting documentary Oklahoma City; the powerful dramas Mudbound, Wind River and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and two very different foreign takes on LGBTQ characters, Thelma and Tom of Finland.

By Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

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