Friday, October 31, 2014

DVD Review - The Dark Place

Sean Paul Lockhart in "The Dark Place"
A few years ago, Carlos Pedraza wrote Judas Kiss (2011). JT Tepnapa directed it and Jody Wheeler co-produced it. The movie was a hit on the gay film festival circuit where it won several awards. TLA Entertainment, the leading provider of gay male films, gave it its Best Drama Award that year. One of its actors, Sean Paul Lockhart, won Best Supporting Actor from TLA as well. It also marked the on-screen debut of Belgian actor Timo Descamps who is well-known in Flemish television and with voice-over work in animated films.

This movie is a re-teaming of all these people. Pedraza and Tepnapa are this time producers. Wheeler is writer and director. Instead of quasi science-fiction or fantasy, Wheeler goes for traditional thriller. Yet, it's still rife with psychological drama. The central character in Judas Kiss was a filmmaker riddled with self-doubt who didn't believe in himself or his talent. The central character here has the almost opposite problem. He believes in himself and his talent, but everyone else around him doesn't.

Blaise Embry stars as Keegan Dark, a young man whose talent isn't filmmaking. It's a kind of hyperthymesia, which he describes as memory like a film camera or more like a digital recorder that he can access and analyze in vivid detail. Occasionally, his memories appear in front of him as if video images on a non-linear editing system. Occasionally, they appear as ghost-like projections being broadcast in front of his eyes as if by an old, VHF television signal. Keegan looks to be in his mid-twenties and at this point has control of this ability but it does at times get the better and bombards him.

Sean Paul Lockhart co-stars as Jake Bishop, the son of Adrian Bishop, a doctor who recently married Keegan's mother, Celeste Dark. Jake is Keegan's stepbrother and from their first encounter it's clear that the two will never be friends. Jake has a violent streak that's off-putting. Even when he's being nice, it's an obvious pretense for psychopathy bubbling and raging underneath. He's like if Macaulay Culkin's character from The Good Son (1993) had grown up.

Timo Descamps plays Wil Roelen, the boyfriend of Keegan who drives them to visit Celeste's wine vineyard in California. They're both surprised to find Keegan's mother has remarried. Wil is way more receptive to the new family members, whereas Keegan is closed off. Like his character in Judas Kiss, Descamps' Wil uses initials to express certain things. He's mainly struggling with Keegan over past events that Keegan refuses to discuss.

Keegan uncovers a murderous plot that threatens his family. His untold events from the past complicate the level of trust for him. Meanwhile, Lockhart plays off the sexy bad boy persona he affirmed in Rob Moretti's Truth. Embry stands out with his perfection of tortured snark. His relationship with his mother is also a focal point and Shannon Day who plays Celeste, Keegan's only remaining, biological parent, is very good in just her contrasting aura and personality of warmth.

Wheeler's direction in certain moments is a little clunky, especially in action moments. His writing is snappy though and a particular scene at the end where certain people argue over who slept with whom is especially funny. Some might find it ridiculous, but otherwise Wheeler is able to infuse a real sense of danger to give the movie proper weight. A lot of the inner-workings are quite smart.

Not having to juggle the quasi science-fiction or fantasy elements help, making this even better than Judas Kiss.

Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD on December 2nd.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Keith Hartman's Real Heroes

Keith Hartman (center) with his cast of "Real Heroes"
Keith Hartman asked if I had ever seen Mystery Men, the late 90's, Ben Stiller comedy about super heroes or crime fighters behaving like actors and dealing with agents. If you haven't seen it, Hartman says you didn't miss much. He said it had a wonderful premise that it never really played with. Hartman filed this premise to the back of his head and given the rise of reality TV in the 21st century, Hartman's latest movie, his second feature, Real Heroes, which spoofs both, seemed only inevitable.

For my review of Real Heroes, click here. After posting the review, Hartman talked to me about it by phone. This conversation also comes a few weeks after his movie's release on DVD and VOD via iTunes and Amazon. Over the phone, he reflected on the making of it, as well as his love of these hero stories in comics or otherwise.

In my review, I cited one of the accomplishments of the movie as being its writing and editing. When it comes to writing, Hartman has Joss Whedon as an idol and definite inspiration, certainly for his witty sense of humor, but particularly for his ability to switch gears tone-wise and narrative-wise.

I believed that Hartman when crafting his characters riffed on some of DC Comics' most iconic, but he clarified. This isn't a world where he's necessarily mocking Batman or Green Arrow per se. Hartman's world is one where Batman is real and he as his characters look up to the caped crusader. Batman is a role model.

His characters were designed, starting not with the intention that he was going to create a Batman or Aquaman-clone. Hartman simply thought about real people with real problems or issues, and then applied the crime-fighter-aesthetic on top of that. He instead wrote certain personalities and then worked outward ending on the super hero identity but not beginning with it.

Most of the characters' super hero identities are reminiscent of DC Comics characters, but Hartman says that's only because DC Comics are the more iconic, comic book house. Yet, he admits Spider-Man is his favorite, even though Spidey comes from Marvel Comics, the biggest rival to DC.

Earlier in the year, an entertainment story was published in which Andrew Garfield, the most recent actor to play Spider-Man in a major Hollywood production, speculated if Spider-Man could be gay. Hartman graduated from Princeton in 1988 with a degree in Economics and later went to grad school for finance. However, Hartman moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing and filmmaking based on the encouragement and guidance of his boyfriend.

Since his movie deals with same-sex relations too, I asked Hartman about LGBT representation in the media. He said television has made significant advancements. He points to a series like Torchwood, but major motion pictures are still very much behind, especially in the super hero genre, and it doesn't seem likely any improvements are in the near future.

Marvel Studios, the current purveyor of successful, comic book films, and Warner Bros., its key rival which owns the film rights to DC Comics, both revealed this month their slate of movies, specific to the super hero genre. None in their slates includes a major character who is gay or lesbian. This slate runs at least to the year 2020, which means at least another half decade or so of Hollywood sitting on its hands, even as gay rights in this country like marriage equality in so many states are rising.

Going back to the construction of Hartman's movie, the director who hails from Huntsville, Alabama, gives much credit to his editor Donna Mathewson. In one of the boldest job interviews Hartman has ever witnessed, Mathewson came into it liking Hartman's screenplay but immediately telling him how he should cut it by 30 minutes.

Hartman admits a lot of the movie succeeds because of actors like Hunter Smit who really interpreted his character in amazing and surprising ways as well as generated great relationships on screen. Yet, Mathewson was such a good editor of comedy that she bettered the film and ultimately its laughs through her building a momentum, snipping seconds here and there, cutting speaking lines and whole sequences, and allowing actors like Smit to be funny, even dialogue-free.

Hartman also gives credit to his costume designer, Andrea Davis. Hartman's next script will continue with Comic Con-inspired costumes. Tentatively titled Confessions of a Former Teen Superhero, the movie will potentially be a romantic-comedy involving two, gay sidekicks from Real Heroes and providing their back story.

Check out Real Heroes on VOD.
Check out Hartman's first feature You Should Meet My Son also on VOD.

Movie Review - Dear White People

The film focuses on a race war on a college campus. As it plays out, it very much becomes a thematic sequel to John Singleton's Higher Learning but only geared for the Millennial generation, and the group of children reaching for secondary education in the wake of President Barack Obama and the so-called post-racial world.

Writer-director Justin Simien attempts to tear down that fallacy and posit that racism still exists. It merely takes more insidious and subtle forms, and on occasion not so insidious or subtle forms. Simien's inspiration for his narrative comes from actual, real-life college parties where white students dressed up in black-face or mimicked black culture in ways not perceived as celebratory but instead in ways that embraced base and gross stereotypes.

Tessa Thompson stars as Sam White, a biracial student at Winchester University who hosts a campus radio program entitled "Dear White People." Her show is simply herself speaking into a microphone and posting clips on YouTube. Her show is meant to be informative, pointing out those insidious and subtle forms of racism. At time, her quips can come off as a comedy act, oddly reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck, if..." but through Sam as "You might be a racist, if..."

Her attacks range from superficial like how many black friends does the white person have to the more deeply ingrained like a white person's reasoning for dating a black person. Her program, however, isn't just aimed at white people. Black people are also the target of some of her jabs. Those particular black people are personified here in Simien's film.

Tyler James Williams co-stars as Lionel Higgins, an undeclared major but aspiring writer who is openly gay but is somehow not openly black, despite walking around with a massively unkempt afro. He thinks possibly that because of his enjoyment of Mumford & Sons, the bluegrass-country band, and his favorite filmmaker being Robert Altman, black people won't get him. He also thinks his sexuality might be off-putting to everyone else.

Early in the film, it's pointed out how the campus is divided into groups. The groups are distinguished largely by interest and specific activity but also by race and ethnicity. The housing on campus, and not necessarily the dorms, but actual houses on campus are similarly divided. Oddly, this is something that Sam wants to maintain, whereas powers-that-be want to break up and randomize the housing situation.

It's funny how this year marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, a landmark Supreme Court case that shot down the notion of "separate but equal." Yet, Sam wants the campus house that is predominantly African-American to stay that way. She doesn't want white people there, not necessarily because she hates white people. She herself is biracial. She's even dating an adorable, teaching assistant in her film studies class who is white, Gabe, played by Justin Dobies.

She feels that black culture is under attack. Either it's being co-opted or it's being watered-down or lost in a shuffle. She and her friends have to defend it or champion it or try to hold onto it in a strong way. Because Sam is in film studies, a lot of the defending in a meta-commentary from Simien comes in the form of analyzing and critiquing black representation in the media. Things like Tyler Perry and The Real Housewives of Atlanta make for easy targets.

At the end of the day, Simien is trying to get at this question of black identity in the Obama era or what is it to be black in the 21st century, as well as what is racism in the Obama era. There's also an interesting tale here about fathers and sons, and certain generational expectations. Troy Fairbanks, played by Brandon P. Bell, and Dean Fairbanks, played by Dennis Haysbert, are the father and son most at odds. There's also Kurt Fletcher, played by Kyle Gallner, and University President Fletcher, played by Peter Syvertsen.

It could just seem like one big thesis statement from Simien, but I think he's legitimately asking questions. Sam doesn't always have the answers. She's put in her place a couple of times. She's not all-knowing. She's very much a college student trying to figure herself out too, stumbling along the way, but she is smart and strong. Ultimately, that's what makes her beautiful.

Not all white people here are bad either. We all still have a lot to learn. However, the movie is funny, and it's not as blunt or tragic as the ending to Higher Learning.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie Review - Birdman

This is the least expansive camerawork so far for a film by Alejandro González Iñárritu. He really boxes himself into the St. James theater near Times Square in New York. He weaves his camera through the backstage maze and keeps it confined there mostly, if only because it bore a challenge, not because there was anything interesting to see. Yet, it does create a kind of claustrophobia or stifling insulation. This film seemed like an exercise in limitation, long one-takes with little cuts or hidden edits, so that the flow of action seems continuous, even though it's not. Tricks here and there allow for time progression, but even then the movement of the days and hours felt constricting. Special effects do contradict their way in, but it was never like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope where one feels like you're running to keep up. Iñárritu, after a while here, is dragging us along.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor not unlike Keaton himself who at one point was famous for doing comic book movies but now decades later doesn't have much of a career or isn't in as high demand, so he puts together a Broadway play on his own dime, as a kind of comeback.

Yet, there's nothing informative or as insightful here as there was in Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback. That series showed us the inner-workings, the heart and the humiliation, the struggle and success with a ferocity that was more effective even in its quiet moments than this film in all of its loud and bold ones.

Kudrow's humor was sharper and more biting. When the best comedy here are penis jokes from Edward Norton, something is amiss. What sets this movie adrift is the level of vitriol toward Hollywood that comes from people spewing hatred, whereas Kudrow simply dropped us in it and let us experience it for ourselves. This movie wants to tell not show. It's so hyper-focused on this play-within-the-movie, that all else is lost.

For the most part, it is just a slog through the narcissism and egotism of actors. It's all about celebrity and fame, and if that translates to relevance or importance.

Emma Stone plays Riggan's daughter Sam. Her character is rather insufferable. Her presence adds nothing but padding. Watching her flirtation with Edward Norton's character of Mike Shiner was annoying and a waste of time. I would have preferred more from Zach Galifianakis who plays Riggan's business partner Jake, probably because he's the only sane person in the piece.

The ending is ridiculous, particularly the final shot. I have no idea what it means nor do I care.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.

Movie Review - Whiplash

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He's chosen for a Jazz band led by Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons. Fletcher is brutal and harsh with his band members. He constantly emasculates them. He throws out every homophobic and curse word he can. He uses scare tactics and physical threats. The band members just sit and take it. Supposedly, they do so because Fletcher has connections, but never is a case made for him being the end-all-be-all. The minute he turned physically threatening, by way of throwing a chair, he should have been reported and possibly arrested.

When it comes to Andrew, Fletcher is highly manipulative, cruel and torturous. It's all in the name of pushing him to be the best and Andrew adopts this philosophy and starts to be cruel and torturous, mainly to himself. He sheds a lot of blood, sweat and tears all to become the best Jazz drummer ever, and he won't let anything stop him.

The question is what is the best and how does he or anyone measure it. Often, throughout this movie, I questioned if what they were doing was music or if it was just an endurance test. I don't know much about Jazz music, but I assume there is more to it than being able to play the drums fast, but all we ever see Fletcher scream is "Faster!" The front-line of a lot of Jazz bands consists of brass and reed instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone. Yet, there's only one scene involving a saxophonist or horn player, and it's brief.

Many of the most famous Jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were all horn players. A lot of other famous Jazz musicians were piano players. Most were also African-American. Yet, this movie is all about white people, and this one particular white person who's going to save Jazz from its Starbucks doldrums. The one main Jazz artist singled out in the movie was Charlie Parker who was a saxophonist. Yet, the movie also name-checks Buddy Rich, a white Jazz drummer, but I didn't get why this movie was all about the drums. Drums, as all instruments, are important in a band, but what distinguishes the drums here in this Jazz ensemble from drums in any rock band?

Fletcher hammers Andrew on his drums, more so than any other. Why isn't he hammering the saxophonists, even when one is revealed to be playing his saxophone out of tune? With all the lip-servicing veneration of Jazz, there isn't much veneration of it at all in this movie. There isn't consistency to Fletcher either. He just seems to be mostly a sadist whose target is Andrew. At one moment, Fletcher talks to a little girl and says he hopes she could be his student. My question is if Fletcher would say the vile, sexual things he says to Andrew to that girl, and if he would throw a chair at her.

It also makes Fletcher somewhat blind. It becomes evident that Andrew is so dedicated that in addition to torture, Andrew wouldn't even let a full-on, car crash stop him from being a great drummer and proving Fletcher wrong. Yet, Fletcher doesn't recognize that, even when it's plain as day and Andrew is literally bleeding on the drums. Still, Fletcher is sadistic and dismissive of Andrew's drive and talent. It makes the final sequence, though well-edited and well-acted, ultimately a drag.

I also didn't understand what about the length of that scene equated to this idea of greatness, particularly greatness in music, such as Jazz. Is their some equation that factors in endurance and being able to do something over and over for a long time? It's meant to be impressive, but it's clear narcissism and self-aggrandizing. It's also self-aggrandizing in a venue that probably caters mostly to a wealthy white audience.

It goes back to a dinner scene with Andrew and his family, or at least close members to Andrew's father, played by Paul Reiser. It's not clear if Andrew separates the idea of greatness from the idea of fame. As I said previously, the idea of well-known or famous, Jazz drummers, particularly white ones, are extremely few and incredibly far between. The average person is probably not going to be able to name off the top of his head a famous Jazz drummer, and if he does, it won't be from Andrew's generation.

Andrew has got to be aware of the music industry, so the question of greatness for Andrew has to be asked. For whom and in what circles does he want to seem great? It appears that the answer for both is Fletcher and fellow wealthy or well-off, white people, which I suppose is fine, but I don't get why Fletcher and that white crowd is seemingly the only path for Andrew.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

DVD Review - Real Heroes

It's a mockumentary, reminiscent of Finishing the Game (2007). Except, instead of making fun of Bruce Lee and his style of films, it makes fun of comic book heroes. This comedy by Keith Hartman is also a live-action version of Drawn Together, the cartoon series that satirized various animated cartoons but also satirized MTV's The Real World, which Hartman does here as well. Hartman also has the breath of all the iterations of The Real Housewives series that he's stepping atop too.

A harsh, ambitious and insane TV producer named Alan Roberts, played by Stu Hammill, is casting for this MTV meets DC Comics show. At first, it seems as if the costumed heroes are just ones who a person might find on Hollywood Boulevard, but actually the costumed heroes are real super heroes or crime fighters. Yet, it's super heroes who are more on Kathy Griffin's level in terms of celebrity.

They're on the same level of super heroes as the ones in Kick-Ass (2010) or the ones in the Hulu series The Awesomes. Hartman doesn't have the budget of a studio film nor the leeway of being an animated project. Yet, he has an interesting trick that grants him the ability to make big jumps. He inserts interstices of comic book pages or stills with very alliterative narration that allows the depiction of action scenes or any exteriors outside his one, main location.

Hartman also maintains such a quick and snappy pace to the movie that never lets up. The fast or upbeat momentum is characterized by numerous, short scenes with increased edits and rapid transitions of literal, swooshing wipes. Hartman moves his movie with quite the alacrity, cramming so many jokes and gags. All of which are successful, mainly because he doesn't linger on them. It's almost like the Robin Williams or Arrested Development-style of comedy where one just bombards people with stuff not really giving them time to think about it but at the same time forcing them to do just that.

Thankfully, it's not just Hartman throwing fart or dick jokes at us. His script is smart. He attacks stereotypes like gender and sexuality, as well as hero tropes in such an insightful way. It's all aided by the performances of the actors who sell the utter ridiculousness with such aplomb. It's instantly one of the best comedies no matter how cheaply made. In fact, it utilizes and even calls out its own threadbare nature.

It's a true ensemble where no one is more important than the other, but Melissa Jobe stars as Sable, a single mom turned crime fighter who is the Batman equivalent. Yet, she has to handle a bratty teenager. Sable's situation is exacerbated by her obsession with her work, which causes Sable to ignore or miss quality moments with her lesbian daughter, Alison aka the Vixen, played by Ilona Kulinska.

Everyone else is hilarious, including Keila Hamilton as Malibu Action Girl, a Barbie come-to-life, superficial and all about fashion and concerned more with what outfit she wears when fighting bad guys. Matt Palazzolo plays Psychic Sam, a precog who does his crime-fighting by phone. Hunter Smit plays Big Shot and Grant Landry plays Blue Arrow. Both are competing versions of Green Arrow. Lars Slind plays Water Warrior, a vapid and self-absorbed Aquaman.

There's also a funny selection of sidekicks and villains who had me cracking up as well. One can and should discover them for oneself.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 23 mins.
Available now on DVD and VOD.

Slide show of scenes from Real Heroes.

Movie Review - Finding Fela!

In 2009, the Broadway musical Fela! opened in New York. Oscar-winning, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney interviews Bill T. Jones, the choreographer and one of the creative forces who produced Fela!. Jones talks about the making of the musical, while Gibney parallels the producing of the musical to also tell the story of the musical's real-life subject, Nigeria's most famous musician, Fela Kuti, the development of his style of music, as well as his political activism.

Gibney also interviews friends and family. Thankfully, there's a lot of footage of Kuti through the 1960's and 1970's, including radio and on-camera interviews. There was even a 1982 documentary called Music is the Weapon about Fela Kuti that Gibney adds here.

Gibney puts together a well-laid analysis of Kuti's music. We see its origins. We see its religious influences. We see other influences like from soul artists and Jazz arrangements. We see his process for crafting songs, lyrically and otherwise. We see his role in ushering or inspiring this movement known as Afrobeat. Kuti compares himself though to Beethoven and Bach, but we also see allusions to Kuti being Nigeria's James Brown or Michael Jackson in terms of his perfectionism.

Yet, Fela was a polygamist who lived in a self-made commune. Most of the time, he's lounging around in nothing but his tiny and tight, underwear briefs. Normally, he's positioned with legs agape and his bulge clearly showing with numerous women all around, hanging off him. He's sexist. He's not that great a father, but he has bravado and swagger.

The other key difference is Fela's role as a political activist or political protester. Nigeria was in the midst of a brutal civil war. It's eventually revealed that a struggle over the country's oil leads to a lot of corruption, militarism and death. It doesn't seem as if Kuti is well educated on the intricacies and complexities of the issues, but he protests the corruption, militarism, poverty and death through his music.

As a result, he's arrested and abused. He was the subject of police raids. One of which ended with a close death to Kuti. A haunting moment is when Kuti shows off all his scars. Because he walks or sits around practically naked, the scars on his body aren't shocking. Also, his encounters with authorities and numerous imprisonments because of his activism held him up as second only to Nelson Mandela in terms of African figures.

There is much from the Broadway musical in this movie, but one thing it doesn't explore is Kuti's death in 1997. Jones didn't feel right including that in the stage show. If one can recognize that not all of the scars on Kuti's body aren't just from bruises, then how he died won't be surprising. What is surprising is his total ignorance or his being in total denial, given his siblings were doctors. However, his funeral proved his popularity in Africa.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.
Available on October 31st on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu, etc.
Available on November 1st on Xfinity, Time Warner, etc.

Video Clip from Finding Fela!