Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “Stonewall’s” Warped Gay History. Roland Emmerich’s new film “Stonewall” about the legendary Stonewall riots where a straight-acting white dude single-handedly caused gay liberation (oh yeah, and the minorities helped a little) was a critical and commercial…disappointment? Failure? It’s difficult to come up with a word that properly conveys the predictably disheartened reaction Emmerich’s deeply misjudged film was going to receive. But if anyone thought that “Stonewall” might distort the historical record for the public, The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes about how that the film is too terrible to accomplish such a feat.
“Stonewall” is hilariously poorly written, and “War Horse” veteran Jeremy Irvine is dreadfully overmatched as Danny Winters, an Indiana farmboy who is kicked out of the house by his football coach father and gets introduced to New York, including the city’s Mafia-controlled gay bars, by Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a sweet but dramatic hustler who hangs out on Christopher Street. Through an interminable series of events, Danny stumbles into the Meatpacking District, meets a cute guy at the Stonewall Inn and manages to get radicalized while also finishing off his high school degree so that he can preserve his eligibility for a Columbia University scholarship. It’s one thing to fisk the way “Stonewall” treats historical details, including how the riots after the raid started. In Emmerich’s version, the violence kicks off after a lesbian resisting arrest calls on the crowd to help her, and if Danny throws the first brick, he does so with the encouragement of his friend Cong (Vladimir Alexis, making the best of the dialogue he’s got). The movie, fortunately, gives a very funny, wily sequence to Marsha P. Johnson, the real-life activist played by Otoja Abit. The film often seems even more significantly at odds with both history and itself. There’s hardly a gay man in the movie who doesn’t come across as somewhat predatory, from Ray, who can’t let go of his crush on Danny; to Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Mattachine Society activist with a history of recruiting his boyfriends as members of the organization; to Ray and his friends’ closeted clients; to a grotesque-like Queen Tooey (Richard Jutras), a drug addict who puts the moves on Danny when he arrives in town. Those gaps between what Emmerich puts on screen and what he actually wanted to convey become sharper when we see a series of where-they-are-now frames at the end of the film, in a number of other areas. Frank Kameny, the U.S. Army Map Service astronomer who was fired because of his sexual orientation in 1957, is presented at the end of the movie as an American hero, which he undeniably was. (I covered the event at which then-Office of Personnel Management director John Berry formally apologized to Kameny on behalf of the federal government, a tremendously moving occasion). But Kameny, as written by screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Emmerich and played by Arthur Holden, is a naive voice of accommodation who advises the men at a Mattachine Society meeting to wear suits and look respectable and crushes Danny’s dreams by telling him that the federal government is unlikely to hire an openly gay man as an astronomer.
2. Female Comedians on Whether They Want to Be a Late-Night Host. Trevor Noah took over for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” last night and by all accounts performed confidently and admirably. Noah comes in to the hosting gig on a bed of some controversy, especially for a series of off-color and offensive tweets, and though he brings some racial diversity to the late night spectrum, his presence calls attention to the lack of women across the spectrum of late night. The Vulture team asks 37 female comedians about whether they want to have a late-night gig anyway.
Sara Schaefer: The answer is yes, and I even managed to make it happen one time! I had a weekly late-night show on MTV for two seasons in 2013, with my co-host and friend Nikki Glaser, called “Nikki & Sara Live.” But I kind of still can’t believe it happened! On September 27, 2004, it was announced that Conan would be taking over for Leno. At the time, I was hosting a biweekly fake late-night talk show in New York City called “Sara Schaefer Is Obsessed With You.” During the day I was working at a day job that I hated. That morning I read the article online, and I stood up dramatically and announced to my cubicle mates: “Hear me now: I will take over for Conan!” I sat down triumphantly. I had four years to figure it out. How hard could it be? At this point I had never been on TV, never worked a job in the industry, and I had only been doing comedy for three years. I barely knew how to do a joke. I laugh now thinking about it. Of course it didn’t take long for me to realize that NBC had probably already picked Conan’s successor, someone far more famous than I would ever be. Years later, however, I was beyond thrilled to get hired to run the social media platform for this far-more-famous successor, Jimmy Fallon. Okay, so I wasn’t the host, but I worked there! “The Secret” works! By this time I had gotten wise to the incredibly steep climb of show business, and had pretty much accepted the fact that I was galaxies away from ever hosting my own show. This job would do just fine. Also, at that time in my life, I felt like I couldn’t get many people in the industry to take me seriously as a comedian. But an ember of my dream to host a show still smoldered. So I started working on an idea for one. Again, mind you, I still had never really been on TV doing comedy. I quit “Late Night” for my first TV-writing job, writing questions for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — you know, the place where all late-night hosts get their start! I was just trying to keep inching forward. Despite the odds that I knew were against me, I started working on a talk-show idea. When I went over it with my managers, one of them said, “This sounds great, but every network is going to ask you, ‘Why you?'” In that moment, I blankly looked him in the eye, my heart racing, and declared, almost hissing, “Because it is what I was born to do.” Then I laughed and realized how ridiculous that sounded. Because seriously, he was right. Why me? Oftentimes I think this business requires a paradoxical mix of wild delusion and deep self-loathing. Soon after that, Nikki joined me in creating the idea, and we were both established just enough to get a couple of pitch meetings. I think we all kind of thought that this would be “practice.” A way to get our feet wet pitching a show and meeting network executives. But much to our delight, MTV took the bait! They liked our ideas and our chemistry, and even if we hadn’t followed the traditional path to TV fame, they could see we had worked hard and that we were ready. I couldn’t believe it was real. But it was, and we did it, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished. It was a funny show, and I will never forget the people who gave us the chance. Now that our MTV show is over, Nikki has a new talk show coming out on Comedy Central, and I am waiting to hear the fate of a pilot I created for IFC. It’s a news-satire show, and I really hope it goes forward. Because I can tell you, it, too, is what I was born to do.
3. Why “Sicario” Is the “Apocalypse Now” of the Drug War. Denis Villeneuve’s new film “Sicario” follows an idealistic FBI officer as she joins a special task force to take down a Mexican drug lord. Though most of the film’s reviews have been positive, it has divided critics, with some saying it’s a compelling crime thriller about how idealists are pushed out by institutional forces, and others saying it’s a superficial Hollywood take on the drug war. Grantland’s Chris Ryan explores the film and compares it to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic was, as his wife Eleanor described it in the documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” “a metaphor for a journey into self.” It followed a lone agent as he made his way up a river to find a mad soldier, Kurtz, who had gone rogue and begun to raise his own army, somewhere in the jungle. As this agent, Willard (played by Martin Sheen), ventures farther up the river, he goes deeper into himself, seemingly traveling back in time to a primitive age. The imagery gets increasingly hallucinogenic; the violence, especially at the end of the film, has mythical overtones — where murder becomes some kind of religious sacrifice. Visually, “Sicario” is similar to “Apocalypse Now” in that it uses a modern setting to paint a portrait of hell. When “Sicario” begins, it’s all stark suburban desert-scapes and harsh light — the sun, overhead fluorescents in office buildings. But as the film winds on, and the moral decay sets in as our hero becomes corrupted, cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve move to a palette of grays, oranges, reds, and purples. The desert becomes almost lunar; the world becomes otherworldly. The visuals match the arc of the story. This is a rabbit hole tale. “Sicario” is about an FBI agent who joins up with two other…agents (I use that term loosely) to hunt down a shadowy cartel chief in Mexico. That’s the logline for the script. It is hardly what the movie is about. It’s a movie about the drug war, not the war on drugs. This may not be immediately apparent to the viewer; it certainly isn’t to some of the characters in the film. In fact, it’s this discovery — for both the protagonist and the audience — that drives the film: This is a movie about revealing, about journeying into hell and finding out that it looks awfully familiar.
4. NYFF Critic’s Notebook: “Carol” and “The Assassin”. The New York Film Festival is well under way and plenty of critics are getting a chance to see some of the most acclaimed films of the year, including Todd Haynes’ new film “Carol” and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin.” We at Daily Reads like to highlight some of the best festival dispatches over the course of the festival. Over at Filmmaker Magazine, Vadim Rizov reviews “Carol” and” The Assassin.”
As in “Safe,” “Far From Heaven” and “Mildred Pierce,” the female protagonist is in an unsatisfactory marriage with a man who’s more angrily incomprehending re: his wife’s growing distance than deliberately malicious. Well-off Carol Aird’s (Cate Blanchett) ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) finds it impossible to accept his wife’s attraction towards other women, and he’s a negative force throughout: drunkenly lunging for Carol, bullying her into holiday dinner with his family, always holding the threat of a change in their custody agreement over her head. The romance between Carol and department store sales clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is predicated on accepting that there are real, non-negotiable consequences, both legal and social, for maintaining a non-hetero relationship of any kind; the film has no interest in dramatizing historical wrongs of the ’50s by offering characters opportunities to fight back, thereby vindicating present-day viewers for knowing better. How are a relationship’s opening stages negotiated when public life is a near-impossibility? How can feelings blossom under these circumstances? The answer: tersely, euphemistically (custody disputes frame the question of Carol’s fitness as a parent in terms of moral inquiry rather than homophobia), and by elision. The attraction — two eyes locking across a department store floor — is instant, undeniable and unperceived by all around them, but it’s verbally initiated through innocuous Christmas-gift-purchasing chat. In a classic (yet innocent-looking enough) flirtation gambit, Carol leaves her gloves on the counter. When repeated meetings and fleeting touches raise unavoidable questions, Therese is unsure how to proceed: “I want to ask you things, but I’m not sure you want that.” “Ask,” Carol emphatically groans, and Haynes cuts immediately to Therese’s apartment building rooftop some time later, when any actual discussion of the sexual nature of the relationship or its verboten status has already concluded. Therese pals around with a group of doofus-y but amiable enough intellectuals, the kind of affably affected young men that cluttered the pages in “The Recognitions” and the party in “Shadows.” After work, sometimes the gang goes to a movie theater where a friend’s the projectionist and watch from the booth. For one young man, their viewing of “Sunset Boulevard” is his seventh of the film, and he announces that he’s concentrating on “the correlation between what the characters say and what they really mean.” This is one of Haynes’ rare forays into overstatement, a nudge for viewers who might not be up to speed to scrutinize his narrative’s seemingly blank spaces and carefully parse character interactions.
5. Of Rats and Men: “Black Mass” vs. “The Departed.” The new Johnny Depp-vehicle “Black Mass” about notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger entered theaters to a mixed, indifferent reaction. Critics effectively said that “Black Mass” said nothing new and was mostly a retread of better gangster pictures that came before, especially Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” a film that also takes inspiration from the Bulger story. RogerEbert.com’s Niles Schwartz compares the two films and how “The Departed” approaches the Bulger character with more poetry and artistry.
James “Whitey” Bulger spent about 15 years on the lam as #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and yet “Black Mass,” the new Warner Bros. drama documenting his reign of terror over Irish Catholic South Boston, directed by Scott Cooper and headlined by Johnny Depp as Bulger, indicates he still eludes us. Guided by witnesses’ recorded testimonies, “Black Mass” is like an old chronological scrapbook from 1975 to the late 1980s reorganized for bureaucratic eyes. Yet as Cooper emphasizes objectivity, Johnny Depp’s Bulger is an unnerving anomaly — a hybrid of Nosferatu, Betelguese, Pazuzu and Gollum DNA, a horror movie presence contaminating an Irish Catholic period canvas. That a character should be reading “The Exorcist” when Depp’s Bulgerferatu knocks on the door is less period correctness than an allusion to the character’s satanic prowess. In such a thin film, Bulger evades perspective. “Black Mass” cannot make sense of Bulger. Even when he’s taken away in handcuffs, he still isn’t “there.” It’s as if he needed to be a cosmeticized special effect because Cooper finds his evil unfathomable. This is why the film against which “Black Mass” may be assessed, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006), is of interest. Written by Bostonian William Monahan (adapting Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s acclaimed Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”), “The Departed” makes Bulger, who had long evaporated before the film went into production, into aging Irish-American crime lord Frank Costello. Jack Nicholson’s borderline cartoonish gusto also makes Bulger an anomaly, a man who refuses to “lay low,” wearing purple shirts and leopard print ties in a beige and grey aquarium of sports team merch. Whereas “Black Mass” can’t decide from which direction to approach James Bulger and the period recreation of Boston becomes little more than a one-dimensional backdrop, the scrim of fiction gives Scorsese and Monahan license to have Costello, satanically underlit in the prologue by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, usher us into Boston’s nightmarish panopticon as its explicator, pointing out for us that he doesn’t want to be a product of his environment. Rather, “I want my environment to be a product of me.” “The Departed” fulfilled Scorsese’s desire to make a pulpy B-noir gangster picture, using the plot — an undercover cop and overground criminal in a race to find each other out — as a kind of meta undercover device; the real “text” of the film being its subtext. From opening documentary footage of the ’70s busing riots to Easter Egg winks to Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” to the appearance of John Ford’s parable of Irish Catholic guilt “The Informer” through name-dropping James Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne to a mid-film blue sky rooftop murder that, with its flabbergasted police radio babble, echoes the horror and confusion of 9/11, Scorsese’s apparent remake of pulp contrivances blossoms into an Information Age epic of the struggle to maintain an authentic link to historical contexts. The satanic temptation of Frank Costello is in his handing of coinage — “30 pieces of silver” if you will — to young Colin Sullivan (played by Matt Damon as an adult). Editor Thelma Schoonmaker inserts a subtle jump cut before the money hits the palm, indicating a break from history and identity. In Costello’s satanic creed of self-interest you have the freedom to leap beyond environmental impediments and choose your own destiny.
6. Actor Chris Sarandon Looks Back at “Dog Day Afternoon” 40 Years Later. Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic “Dog Day Afternoon” turns 40 years old this year. Based on a true story about a bank robbery turned hostage crisis all to help pay for a robber’s spouse’s sex reassignment surgery. Chris Sarandon played Al Pacino’s lover in the film, and The LA Times’ Susan King interviews Sarandon 40 years after his groundbreaking performance.
Q: This was 40 years ago, and this was your first film. Did people tell you playing a transgender person could hurt your career?
A: I admit to people having said that to me. But it seemed to me to be really aside the point because first of all it was a great script, a great group of people to be working with and a great part. That is the way I looked at it. I said if people are going to perceive me one way or another, I will prove them wrong some other way. I can’t pass up this chance to do this wonderful part.
Q: Did you meet and talk with members of the transgender community?
A: I had a very close friend who was gay and was in a show I had been in. We had remained friends. I said to him, “Do you know anybody in the tranny community?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Is there someway we could set up an evening where I can sit around and talk with some people that you know?” I remember it vividly. I made a spaghetti dinner at his apartment on Barrow Street with three or four [transgender people]. We sat around and ate spaghetti and talked for four hours. I asked questions like when was the first time you came out in drag? They were truly people who were in the wrong body. It was a real education for me in understanding what the whole transgender world was about.
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