Ragtime (1981)

s-l1600Today’s cinema adventure is “Ragtime,” a 1981 film based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow. Featuring a mix of real-life historical figures and fictional characters, it’s a kaleidoscopic look at American culture through a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century filter; but it’s really about how we, as a people, react in the face of social inequality – perpetuated by a cultural hierarchy based on income, fame, class, and (most of all) race – and about how, despite the changes on the surface – things are really much the same roughly a century later.

When it was originally released, this movie was highly anticipated; after all, it was the screen adaptation of a monumentally successful book, featuring the return to the screen of no less than film legend James Cagney after 20 years of retirement.  It was directed by Milos Forman, still one of the industry’s heavy-hitters after his multi-Oscar-winning triumph of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and enacting its sprawling story of an affluent, white American family – swept into the tide of cultural change by their involvement with a black man whose struggle for justice escalates into violent insurrection – was an ensemble cast of then-up-and-coming talents (including Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and even author Norman Mailer).  Alongside these were revered veterans (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Donald O’Connor) and a number of yet-to-be stars (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson) in small but unforgettable roles. It was nominated for 8 Oscars (though it ultimately won none of them) and received mostly positive reviews – but it was a disappointment at the all-important box office.  People were, perhaps, not ready for the harsh look in the mirror that faced them in the story of Coalhouse Walker’s doomed and desperate quest for justice.

I dare say that in 2018, they are even less ready for it.

As for myself, as a blossoming cinephile, I loved this movie when I saw it in my youth – though as a whole, looking at it objectively, I can see that its fragmented approach to a sprawling and complex story (a quality shared by the original book, by the way) might leave many viewers feeling detached and unsatisfied.  For me, even when I was young, I appreciated the opportunity to pick up on the things between the lines on my own; so many years later, watching it again, that subtext emerged for me as even richer and more profound than I could ever have imagined as a teen.

Now, this once-prominent movie seems almost forgotten.  More people probably remember the Broadway Musical that came later (which was excellent, but also financially unsuccessful – though that was perhaps more due to its elaborate and expensive-to-maintain production values).  This is surprising in some ways, especially considering that it was directed by the great Milos Forman, whose immigrant eye captured the spirit of America with the clarity of an outsider and permitted a more honest portrait of its cultural life than any native might have done.

But on another level, it’s not so surprising. America loves itself, and “Ragtime” uses the lure of quaint nostalgia to offer a devastating glimpse at the not-so-lovable things that exist in the core of its identity. It gives us hope, perhaps, by showing the infinitesimally slow evolution that takes place amidst the turmoil, but it does not give us easy moral answers, and it does not give us a happy ending. In the end, it’s a snapshot of who we are (not who we were, despite the Gilded Age setting), nothing more nor less, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will.  For Americans of any era – but perhaps especially of this one – that’s not a pleasant prospect, so it’s no wonder this great film molders on the shelves of obscurity.

The good news is that, upon revisiting this classic, I found my youthful memories of its richness all held true; I could still revel in its sets and costumes, its exquisite cinematography, the perfect musical score – complete with authentic-sounding songs – by Randy Newman, and its wonderful acting.  As for the latter, Steenburgen and Patinkin stood out for me, then and now; James Olson’s quiet turn as a the head of the story’s anonymous family, who struggles to do the right thing even as he clings to the comfortable privilege of his role in a deeply patriarchal society, is unexpectedly sympathetic; and the remarkable Howard Rollins Jr. is breathtaking in the role of Coalhouse – which should have made him a much bigger star than he was to become before his tragic death from AIDS a little over a decade later.  Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from the great Cagney; delivering far more than just a stunt cameo, he is marvelously subtle and layered in his all-too-brief role as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo).

As I allowed myself to revel once more, after nearly 4 decades, in its luminous, analog glory, my reflections were flavored by both the maturity I’ve gained in the intervening years and the context of current affairs in which I live now.  There was an increased respect for the understatement in the performances, which allowed volumes of subtext to resonate all the louder for being unspoken, and a more sophisticated understanding of the social strictures that dictate every event which transpires in the story as surely as if it were preordained by the heavens.  There was also a sense of history repeating:  the tabloid scandal of Stanford White’s dalliance with Evelyn Nesbit; the escapist distractions of Harry Houdini; most of all, the struggle of women, immigrants,  and people of color to rise above the profoundly unequal station allowed them in a culture still built upon sexism, racism, classism, and (perhaps above all) white male dominion – all these things, woven into the narrative of “Ragtime,” evoked for me deep echoes within our modern culture.  The faces, the names, and the headlines may have changed, but the failure of American society to live up to the promise of its idealistic values remains at the core of daily life in our nation.

It’s a disheartening observation, the key to the very purpose of both Doctorow’s book and Forman’s film, and it is almost certainly more so in an era when the resurgence of white nationalism and rampant capitalism have exerted a vice grip upon the cultural consciousness.

Yet woven into this cynical portrait is a thread of hope.  Ever so slightly, in tiny increments, humanity moves forward; a man of color stands firm in his demand for respect, a young man searching for place and meaning feels the call to activism, a woman finds her voice and asserts her will – for better or for worse, all these things work their way through the engines of fate that drive “Ragtime,” and it’s no coincidence that the film’s final, emotional denouement involves a car full of diverse, ethnically mixed people driving away into a new and happier life.  They have freed themselves from the chains that have bound them, and in so doing they become avatars for all those who would see our nation move away from the systems of the past that have so long kept it from realizing its own dream of itself.

That image in itself is reason enough to revisit “Ragtime” in this difficult day and age, and to have hope that this still-important American film will never be completely forgotten.

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The Little Foxes (1941)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure is William Wyler’s Hollywood adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play about a scheming family of Southerners manipulating their way to financial domination of their small town, which was was made in 1941 and provided a vehicle for Bette Davis (already a double Oscar-winner) at the peak of her star power. She was reluctant to take the part – Talullah Bankhead had played it onstage, and Davis felt she had captured it perfectly – but she ultimately relented, and in Regina Giddens, the ambitious sister in a trio of ruthless siblings who is bent on beating her brothers at their own game, she found a role that seemed to perfectly match the intelligence, strength, and temperament of her persona. However, she plays the role with so much bile that she comes off as a selfish woman of no compassion, despite the strong subtext that suggests a character desperate to escape the stifling oppression of a life she has been locked into since childhood – a theme which extends to the story’s other female characters, Birdie (the faded southern belle married for her land and her social standing and now relegated to a life of irrelevance and misery by an abusive husband – played with heartbreaking perfection by Patricia Collinge) and Alexandra (Regina’s teen-aged daughter, slowly awakening to the ugly reality of her family’s predatory nature – played with believable idealistic zeal by a young and fresh Teresa Wright). Playwright Hellman famously disliked Bette’s performance, preferring Elizabeth Taylor’s more vulnerable approach in the much-later stage remount of the play to the outright villainy with which Davis infused the role; but Davis, in her defense, claimed to have been compelled into taking a different direction than Bankhead’s original, emphasizing Regina’s cold and steely resolve over a more empathetic interpretation. In any case, it seems clear that Davis, well-known to be a woman who held her own in a man’s world, was channeling her own steely determination into Regina – a character to whom she must have related, in that way – and it’s a treat to watch her work, whether or not her choices were in keeping with the integrity of the playwright’s intentions.

The rest of the cast – a staunch roster of supporting players, the best that an A-list studio “prestige” picture could hope to offer – are every bit up to the standard set by their leading lady (Charles Dingle, as Regina’s mendacious older brother, is particularly delicious), and director William Wyler, one of the great masters of the old studio system and a filmmaker capable of building a movie that could not only contain Davis but complement her over-the-top splendor (though on this project, they famously clashed over everything from her subtext to her makeup), ensures that the movie never comes off as a filmed play, but a confident piece of old-school cinema in its own right. He’s helped in that by the screenplay, which was penned (mostly, although there was additional dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, among others) by the playwright herself; Hellman seamlessly opened up the action to other locations to avoid a stage-bound feel, and managed to keep the film’s perfunctory romance (added at the studio’s insistence, no doubt) from detracting from the weight of the story by creating a new character in the form of a progressive young newsman (played by a handsome and lively Richard Carlson) who could not only provide a love interest for Wright but give voice to her own socialist sentiments.

In fact, it’s those political ideals that give “The Little Foxes” a weight and resonance today that make it hold up better than some of the other classics of its era. In this turn-of-the-century tale of greedy capitalists pursuing private gain by exploiting not only the community in which they live but also the people who are foolish enough to love them, it’s pretty obvious to see a direct thread running all the way from the era of slavery, through the carpetbagging of the post-Civil War South and the industrialist expansion of the late 19th Century into the dangerously fascist-leaning pre-WWII era which gave rise to both the play and the film – and by extension, into our own age of kleptocracy and corporate profiteering. Hellman was a fierce fighter against the commodification of humanity, and it’s no mere plot device that, in this piece, she made the Hubbard clan’s scheme dependent on the exploitation of workers – it’s central to everything she was trying to say. Because of this, even the dated, now-embarassing portrayal of the film’s many black characters (the descendents of slaves, still serving the children of their former masters) plays a subtle part in reinforcing the underlying radicalism of the theme; the cultural politics of their interactions with the white characters, presented without comment or irony, speak volumes, and while no doubt the studio (and most audiences) were oblivious to this undercurrent, it’s impossible to believe that Hellman and some of the other more socially aware members of the creative team were blind to it, or that it was not, in fact, an important piece of intentional messaging.

If, when watching “The Little Foxes,” one has any illusion that it is meant only as a “Dynasty”-style bitch-fest (an interpretation embraced and perhaps preferred by a generation of Bette-worshipers who want only to see their idol as an emblem of personal power claimed in the face of a hostile culture which denies it to those deemed “other”), the title alone should be a clue that there was much more on the mind of it’s creator. It’s a reference to a verse in the Bible, Solomon 2:15, which reads “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” In other words, it’s a story about corruption, and how those who exploit the natural wealth of the world for their own benefit subvert and inhibit its growth. Seen this way, it’s hard to find any sympathy for Regina (especially the way Davis plays her), who is as complicit in the technically-legal-but-inherently-immoral machinations of her family as her brothers – no matter what her motivation or good intentions may be. In this light, she is fully deserving to be left at the end, as she is, utterly alone – with only the coldness of her wealth to comfort her against the prospect of a lifetime spent maneuvering to protect it from those as ruthless as she.

“The Little Foxes” was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them. Also, although it was a box office hit, thanks to the high percentage received by producer Samuel Goldwyn, its distrubutor (RKO Pictures) lost money on it. A few years later, Hellman wrote a “prequel” play, “Another Part of the Forest,” which chronicled the rise of the Hubbard clan and went on be made into another critically-acclaimed film in 1948, starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. Although the characters from “Little Foxes” all appeared as their younger selves, actor Dan Duryea (who played ne’er-do-well nephew Leo in the earlier film) was the only cast member who returned – this time portraying his previous character’s father, Oscar (played in “Foxes” by Carl Benton Reid).

Wonderstruck (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Todd Haynes has a lot of his own history to live up to.

After establishing himself as an audacious talent with “Superstar” (which used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter), he became a pioneer of the “new queer cinema” with “Poison,” and broke through to the mainstream by reinventing the glossy Hollywood melodrama in “Far from Heaven.”  He has pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative form, subverted cinematic tropes to challenge definitions of gay culture imposed by heteronormative society, and given voice to “otherness” through a medium in which it has historically been repressed.

With a pedigree like that, it may come as a surprise that, for his latest work, he has chosen to make what is essentially a feel-good family film.

Such a pairing of director to material might seem unlikely, at first; but once the film starts rolling, it doesn’t take long to realize that Haynes and “Wonderstruck” are a match made in movie heaven.

Through two interwoven stories, taking place 50 years apart, its the saga of two young runaways.  In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who has recently lost his mother to a traffic accident – embarks on a quest to find his father, whom he has never known; in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees her tyrannical father and goes to New York to seek out her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  As their tales proceed, it becomes clear that the parallels between these two children are more than just a similarity of detail, and that they are somehow linked across time by the answers they pursue.

The conceit is inherently both literary and “gimmicky,” but the director – along with author Brian Selznick, who adapted the thoughtful screenplay from his own 2011 novel of the same name – has turned both those qualities into building blocks for pure cinema.  Known for appropriating vintage techniques in his work, Haynes takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore two widely different periods in a single film.  Each story is framed in the visual language of its era, utilizing the gritty milieu and unmistakable color palette of seventies cinema for Ben’s segments and the richly evocative black-and-white grandeur of the silent screen for Rose’s.  Both affectations, as executed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, are exquisitely realized, making “Wonderstruck,” perhaps above all else, a bewitching treat for the eyes.

Likewise, Haynes’ musical choices are canny reflections of each period.   His oft-noted love for seventies “outre” rock finds expression in Ben’s timeline through astute selections by David Bowie, Fripp and Eno, and Sweet; for Rose’s silent world, the near-constant orchestral accompaniment (by Haynes regular Carter Burwell) eloquently provides the emotional cues made necessary by the lack of spoken dialogue.

Equally on target are the film’s performances.  The ever-luminous Moore, a longtime muse for the director, proves yet again that she is one of her generation’s most gifted actresses with her virtually wordless performance.  Michelle Williams, as Ben’s doomed mother, strikes a perfect balance of warmth and melancholy.

Superb as these seasoned veterans are, the film rightly belongs to the trio of younger actors around whom its plot revolves.

Fegley and Simmonds both give mature, fleshed-out portrayals that engage our empathy for the duration of the film; and the winning Jaden Michael is a joy as Jaime, the lonely and sensitive boy who befriends Ben, providing an emotional ground in the here-and-now for a story which otherwise deals in unrequited connections between past and future.

It is the man behind the camera, however, who is the real star of “Wonderstruck.”  Though this heart-tugging fable about the enduring power of love might, in other hands, seem sappy and manipulative, Haynes – as much chameleon as auteur – embraces its sentimental qualities and deploys them with unflinching sincerity within the framework of his own distinctive style.  Informed by his fascination with semiotics, he explores its themes through layers of meaning intricately woven throughout its recurring motifs.  His use of the film’s preoccupation with architecture and museums is by itself worthy of extensive commentary – but the riches of this “cabinet of wonders” are best left to experience first-hand.

As a side note, Haynes is an “out” film director who has reached a place of prominence in the industry, and as such carries the hopes and expectations of an entire community on his shoulders.  Although “Wonderstruck” is a “non-queer” story, it is told with unmistakably queer sensibilities.  As always, Haynes gives us a film about societal “outliers” trying to find their place in a world that has no room for them – something that goes right to the heart of the LGBTQ experience, yet speaks to the yearnings of a broader audience as well.

This universal appeal means that most viewers will likely fall in love with “Wonderstruck.”  Not only is it Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is one of those rare films that truly deserves to be called “magical.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.

 

 

 

Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

Trumbo (2015)

mv5bmjm1mdc2otq3nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0njq1nje-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

When most younger Americans hear the phrase “Cold War,” it likely conjures vague impressions of backyard bomb shelters and spy vs. spy intrigue in far-flung corners of the world; but when confronted with the acronym “HUAC,” odds are good that many of them will be able to come up with nothing more than a blank stare.  That’s a pity, because in today’s political climate, the history of the House Un-American Activity Committee should be an essential cornerstone of our cultural knowledge.  For that reason alone, “Trumbo,” director Jay Roach’s new biopic about the most prominent member of the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” is a must-see.

I won’t go into detail about the anti-Communist hysteria in post-WWII America- after all, this is a film review, not a history lesson.  Suffice to say that Dalton Trumbo was a prominent Hollywood screenwriter, called before congress to answer questions about his affiliations to the American Communist Party.  Standing on his constitutional rights, he refused to cooperate; not only was he convicted of contempt, political pressure on the Hollywood establishment resulted in a blacklist which prevented the hiring of film artists who would not testify before the congressional committee, and he was left with no means to make a living despite being one of the most lauded scribes in the industry.  “Trumbo,” recounts this history, and goes on from there to detail the story of the writer’s determined climb out of the ashes.

John McNamara’s screenplay focuses its attention on the man himself, giving us a whirlwind tour of his 13-year struggle, and intertwining the political with the personal through an emphasis on private scenes- as well as some healthy dashes of humor along the way.  Through the periphery of Trumbo’s story, we are given glimpses of careers destroyed, lives ruined, and good people forced to betray their friends and their ideals.  The result is a film that delivers a timely socio-political warning about governmental overreach, disguised as a safe, middle-of-the-road narrative.

Some might argue that the story of this dark chapter in Hollywood history might be better told by a less “Hollywood” movie.  Even through its darkest moments, we know that the hero will triumph and the powers that oppress him will be vanquished.  Most were not so lucky; their careers were permanently derailed, and the few survivors still had to wait years after the blacklist fell before getting work.  In addition, though it strives to convey the complex ethics of the situation, it paints at least one character (notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) as a clear target for the audience’s moral outrage without offering any satisfactory insight into the motivations which may have driven her.  It should also be said that “Trumbo” “re-arranges” facts for smoother story-telling- standard movie-making procedure, perhaps, but regrettable, nonetheless.

Such quibbling aside, the film delivers a solid, honorable account of a determined man’s journey through darkness.  Contributing to that is a meticulous recreation of the mid-century period, achieved through set and costume designs that convey the passage of time by reflecting subtle changes in the prevailing styles.  More important, though, are the strong performances, provided by an ensemble ranging from familiar Oscar-winners to relative unknowns.  A few standouts: Michael Stuhlberg, portraying actor Edward G. Robinson through suggestion rather than impersonation; John Goodman, hilarious as the no-nonsense producer who employed Trumbo during the blacklist; and Helen Mirren as Hopper, who reveals the tough-as-nails power-player masquerading as a blowsy busybody while still managing to give us glimmers of her humanity- despite the script’s failure to do so.

The impressive cast, however, rightly takes a back seat to Bryan Cranston, who displays his astonishing range with every subtle shift of expression.  He completely inhabits the larger-than-life Trumbo with an authenticity that never makes him seem affected.  He’s a delight to watch- the image of him doggedly typing away in the bathtub is bound to become iconic- but never afraid to show us Trumbo’s ugly side; and despite his exceptional work throughout, he saves the best for his final, moving recreation of a late-in-life speech that and leaves us with a powerful impression of Trumbo’s integrity.

That integrity, of course, is a given from the beginning of the film; but “Trumbo” is not meant to surprise.  It is meant, rather, to retell of a story that should always be retold.  As its postscript reminds us, the Communist witch hunt affected people in all segments of the population, not just members of the Hollywood elite.  Though set in a time gone by, the film is chillingly contemporary; and if paranoia and political opportunism can combine to persecute a wealthy white man, then who is really safe?  It’s easy to point out that none of us are Trumbo- but his story serves as a reminder that he could be any one of us.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

The Revenant (2015)

 

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

With a title like “The Revenant,” one might expect the newest work by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to be a horror movie.  Indeed, though its name is meant only as a metaphoric reference to the central character’s experience, many viewers may find themselves horrified by much of its content and imagery.  This is not a criticism; rather, it’s a warning to viewers who might otherwise be unprepared for the level of intensity attempted- and achieved- by Iñárritu as he tells this story of determination and survival within the terrifying beauty of the natural world.

The screenplay, by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, is based “in part” on a novel by Michael Punke, which was itself based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman, he was part of an 1823 fur trading expedition in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; abandoned and left for dead by his comrades after sustaining severe injuries on the trail, he managed to crawl 200 miles to the nearest settlement- despite his grave condition, the harsh weather, and the danger from hostile Arikara war parties in the region.  The real Glass became something of a legend, to be sure; through the combined dramatic embellishments of Parke’s novel and the movie’s script, that legend is transformed into a classical revenge tragedy exploring the contrast between the savagery and nobility of man.

To go into any more detail about the plot would be difficult, not so much for fear of giving away the twists and turns of the story as for the sake of preserving the revelatory power of the film’s key moments.  Iñárritu uses a fluid camera to immerse his audience, creating an effect which is less like watching a series of events take place than it is like being in the midst of them as they arise and recede.  It’s disorienting and overwhelming; the vast scope of the wilderness setting, the camera’s restless focus, the hyper-reality of the natural light and the meticulously crafted soundscape- all these combine to form an atmosphere pregnant with surprises, both wondrous and terrible.  When those surprises come, the film commands a visceral response that rises beyond mere involvement in its narrative and connects you with that primal corner of your psyche that still sends prickles up your spine whenever you hear an animal howling in the darkness of night.  Iñárritu, far from rehearsing yet another big-screen tale that could easily have been lifted from a samurai epic or “spaghetti” western, seeks to provide his audience with a concrete experience of unthinkable occurrences.

It may have been the director’s audacious vision to bring such remarkable things to the screen, but an expert team was necessary to realize it.  The film’s roving camerawork, though carefully plotted by Iñárritu, was executed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also managed to give every shot a surreal and luminous beauty that haunts the memory long after the film is over.  Accompanying the stunning visuals is the ethereal score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (in collaboration with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which contributes its own sense of stark detachment and otherworldly grace to the action.  In front of the lens, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a raw performance, possibly his best to date, as Glass; he communicates a profound range of humanity with a minimal amount of dialogue, in spite (or perhaps because) of the sheer physical ordeal of filming the role.  No less effective is Tom Hardy as the darker half of the story’s human conflict, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man who has become hardened into the personification of self-serving indifference.

“The Revenant” certainly feels unprecedented, but it does not completely escape its very “Hollywood” roots.  It retains many of the familiar tropes found throughout decades of frontier adventure movies, and it yields to the temptation of rewriting history in order to provide the kind of satisfying climactic showdown expected in such fare.  Nevertheless, Iñárritu, who is Mexican, brings an outsider’s perspective to this inherently American milieu and transcends its form to offer something beyond expectation.  Even as he charts the inexorable force of will that drives the drama, he confronts us with the breathtaking enormity of Nature and thereby forces us to contemplate our own irrelevance in the face of its awesome power.  He took well-documented pains to do so- going over budget and behind schedule in order to shoot his film in sequence with natural light, under grueling and dangerous conditions which sometimes endangered his cast and crew- but the payoff is visible in every extraordinary frame.  “The Revenant” shows us a kind of cold, profound beauty that is rarely seen in a mainstream American film, and that is a precious reward for those who have the stamina to endure it.

 

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, is a horror movie which asks us to suspend our modern-day disbelief in order to accept that witchcraft, black magic, and Satanic possession are as much a part of the real world as its family of 17th Century protagonists considers them to be.  Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” and based on the lore of a region and era in which widespread hysteria over such matters infamously culminated in the Salem witch trials, it informs us that much of its dialogue is taken directly from official transcripts of first-hand accounts from the period.  It strives to convince us of its authenticity, seeming to insist that our ability to accept the literal truth of what it shows us is crucial to our understanding of the story.

Set in New England of the early 1600s, it follows a family of settlers who have been cast out of their Puritan community for their preaching their own strictly conservative beliefs.  They establish a farm on the edge of the wilderness, where father William rules the family with a firm but loving hand; he daily performs the hard work required to maintain their home with the help of his eldest, daughter Thomasin, and her brother, Caleb; mother Kate tends to her newest baby, while the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, spend their days playing with the goats in the stable.  For a time, they seem to thrive, living an austere but tranquil life.  Their fortunes take a turn, however, when baby Samuel, while under the watch of Thomasin, suddenly disappears from their midst.  Though William insists the infant was taken by a wolf, it soon becomes apparent that another sinister presence from the woods is responsible, and as its mysterious grip tightens around the isolated family they find themselves terrorized by events that challenge not only their deeply-held faith in God, but their faith in each other, as well.

In the hands of many directors, this plot would undoubtedly be the framework for a host of lurid thrills and cheap shocks.  Indeed, throughout The Witch, horror buffs may find themselves repeatedly expecting the requisite “surprise” pop-up frights, and waiting for the slow build to explode into a progression of ever-grislier mutilation and carnage.

Eggers, however, has a different experience in mind; through both his screenplay and his meticulous staging of the film, he avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on maintaining and reinforcing the kind of realism more reminiscent of a subtle period drama than an over-the-top fright flick.  Not only are the costumes and the settings simple and historically accurate, the language of the dialogue is written and spoken with the ring of period authenticity.  The cinematography (elegantly executed by Jarin Blaschke) uses mostly natural and available light to remain firmly rooted in the real world while still using plenty of shadow to evoke the implied darkness lurking in the heart of the story, and Eggers artfully frames his shots to create painterly images that are nevertheless tangibly naturalistic.

Perhaps most critically, the actors are uniformly superb, a true ensemble cast.  Each member of the family is portrayed with the kind of absolute honesty that reveals complex and unexpected layers of humanity; even the youngest children are remarkably believable, a fact which enhances the overall effect of the film’s horror immeasurably.  All deserve equal credit.  .

It is the film’s well-crafted realism, though, that may prove its fatal flaw, for some audiences.  Everything about it, from its title to its haunting score (composed by Mark Korven), tells you that it is a horror film, but- on the surface at least- it doesn’t play like one.  The pace is slow, and the implied menace is rarely shown.  Even the title character herself barely appears onscreen, though we are emphatically expected to believe in her.

The brilliance of Eggers’ movie, of course, is that it never really does expect us to do that.  The movie hinges on the certainty that we will question the reality of this family’s experience and analyze it on a deeper level.  This is no cautionary tale about danger in the literal woods; rather, it’s a warning about what happens when we isolate ourselves within our beliefs- at odds with our communities, our loved ones, and our own true nature.  The interpersonal drama of the little family we are shown gives us plenty of clues about the real evil that is tearing them apart, and it comes from within, not from without.  It is this sly and subversive subtext running through its center that makes The Witch stand apart within its genre.  It may not terrify, but it provokes, and that is what will linger in your memory.

Well, that, and a certain black goat…