Wednesday, 27 March 2013

I am Divine (2013)

Once upon a time in suburban Baltimore there lived an overweight, slightly effeminate, and bullied teenager called Harris Glenn Milstead. He tried to fit in with the high school crowd and even had a long-term sort-of girlfriend. Then one day they went to a costume party together and his leanings became evident when he dressed up as one of his idols -- a rather reasonable facsimile of Elizabeth Taylor. Things were about to change for young Glenn as down the street lived a wannabe filmmaker called John Waters, who was also obsessed with trashy movies -- the combined works of Jayne Mansfield and Russ Meyer. Together with other local gay hipsters and 'freaks' they began a guerilla film-making career and Waters christened his new pal Divine. First was "Eat Your Makeup" (1967) with Divine as Jackie Kennedy in a re-enactment of the Dallas assassination. This was followed by "Mondo Trasho" (1969) where his star's busty blonde persona trashed the town and "Multiple Maniacs" (1970) where Divine's homicidal psychopath ends up raped by a giant lobster (!).  What fun they had and what a way to strike back at the establishment that had rejected him.

Divine's trademark look of shaved forehead and massive eyebrows was created for him by the San Francisco drag troupe, The Cockettes, and this strange persona finally entered the public consciousness when he starred in Waters' "Pink Flamingos" (1972) with its infamous doggy-poop eating scene. Their next joint feature was 1974's "Female Trouble" and the pair's fame began to attract straight fans as well.  Divine wanted even more and appeared on the New York stage in two drag extravaganzas, before morphing into a disco diva, issuing a series of dance singles and touring the world with his outrageous persona. Lady Gaga is an over-dressed schoolgirl in comparison. However, constant money problems created by his continuous and generous overspending and health problems created by his continuous overeating as his weight ballooned, began to take their toll.  He and Waters reunited for "Polyester" (1981) where he starred alongside one of his teenaged crushes, the now slightly has-been Tab Hunter. "How do you feel about kissing a 300-pound transvestite?" the actor was asked, but they got along famously and reunited for l985's "Lust in the Dust".  

Divine's final collaboration with Waters "Hairspray" introduced him to the mainstream and Glenn was never happier, even making amends with the family who had previously disowned him. However the fairy tale (no pun intended) did not have a happy ending. Divine never thought of himself as a drag queen but as a male character actor who excelled in over-the-top female roles, and he really craved legitimacy an actor. He did appear in one film as a man, "Out of the Dark" (1988), where he played a slightly camp police detective. His agent had managed to secure him a recurring role in the hit TV series "Married...with Children" and he was over the moon. Filming was to begin on a Monday morning and Divine celebrated at a local Los Angeles hotel, ready for his new triumph, when he died of a massive heart attack, aged 42. What a loss for what might have been.

The director of this documentary Jeffrey Schwarz previously directed "Vito", a biography of Vito Russo, a leading light in the gay liberation movement. Here he has brought together a wide variety of talking heads (of all stripes) who shed light on the phenomenon that was Divine -- a man who proved to the world that you can be whatever you want to be, a man who transcended conventional notions of beauty and taste. The end credits of the film list name after name of persons thanked for the production, since apparently Schwarz partially financed the film via a website where fans were urged to contribute. He eventually raised $38,574 of the budgeted $100,000 cost by this means (I have no idea where the balance of the funds came from) and the 844 donors are credited as Criminals ($5), Shitkickers ($10), Perverts ($25), Maniacs ($50), Jezebels ($100), Hairhoppers ($250), and Chubbychasers ($1000). There were categories for larger contributions which included Chicken Queen, Miss Thing, Glamorpuss, Filthmonger, and finally God, but none of these were subscribed.

Schwarz is to be commended for bringing the life of this now unsung hero of gay fulfillment to a new generation who did not grow up with him and for reminding those of us who remember him well what a remarkable personality he was. The director is currently working on a documentary of co-star Tab Hunter, who was rumoured to be one of Hollywood's then-hidden gays, and that should be another documentary well worth seeking out if "I am Divine" is an example of his informative, enjoyable, and ultimately moving approach.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Paperboy (2012)

Maybe I should start believing the Financial Times' film critic who gave the above movie nought out of a possible five stars and suggested it should be avoided at all costs. Or maybe I should just stop going to see Nicole Kidman flicks where she is attempting to 'stretch' her acting chops. It is sheer coincidence that I saw her in this film and "Stoker" within a fortnight, but I must remember to give any of her forthcoming roles a very wide berth, despite the fact that she was award-nominated by the Golden Globes folk and others for her trashy performance here -- not, let me add, deserved in any way, shape, or form.

Based on a well-respected novel by Pete Dexter which admittedly I've not read, I gather that the film does not do it justice, despite his having a hand in the screenplay with writer-director Lee Daniels. On the strength of Daniels' previous film "Precious" (a hard-going but ultimately worthwhile movie about an overweight and abused black teenager), the film was selected to compete for the Palme d'or at Cannes last year, where it was nearly booed out of existence. Subsequent critics have been no more kind and I can well understand why, despite the movie having its vociferous defenders on the IMDb boards. In the end, it is a very bad film on so many levels: badly constructed, indifferently shot, wildly miscast, and at times almost impossible to understand through the thick regional accidents adopted by most of the actors. The action is picture-framed and narrated by a black maid, Macy Gray, who worked in the family's house at the time of the action -- a post-segregation South but still a widely prejudiced one. If a film is dependent on a narrator as a facilitator of the events, it does help for the character to be able to speak intelligibly!

The story is a hothouse stew of Southern Gothic, but it is no Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. Hotshot Miami newshound Matthew McConaughey returns to his swampland hometown with his black English 'writing partner' David Oyelowo, to investigate a supposed miscarriage of justice. One lowlife criminal Hillary van Wetter, played by John Cusack in a wildly atypical role, is on death row for the murder of the local redneck sheriff, and the reporters with prison groupie Kidman in tow are out to prove his innocence. She has been sending him sex-laden loveletters and is determined to marry him on his release. The scene where the three of them confront van Wetter (what a pompous name for scum on two legs) in the prison visiting room is such an embarrassment of barely repressed sexuality that I  didn't know which way to look. Teen heart-throb Zac Efron plays McConaughey's younger brother, a former high school swimming champion who has been thrown out of college for vandalism and is working as the eponymous paperboy of the title. He spends most of the film prancing about in spanking white underpants setting off his well-toned body, and drives his brother around, developing a deep crush on the white trash Kidman in the process. They begin to bond in the now notorious scene where she fights to be the one to pee all over him when he is badly stung by jellyfish. What fun! He is ultimately rewarded with one token 'bonk' but her heart belongs to the abominable Cusack. Incidentally it is well nigh impossible to believe that the two male leads are really brothers, the unlikely offspring of Scott Glenn and a runaway mother, as they don't look or sound remotely alike

Further revelations include the confirmation of one's suspicions that McConaughey is a far-from-closeted homosexual, who Oyelowo has serviced in exchange for favors, and the hotshot reporter ends up in hospital after being badly beaten and blinded in one eye by some gaybashers. Oyelowo succeeds in writing the expose that gets van Wetter pardoned, but admits that he has only been pretending to be English -- a ploy for a black man to forge a career in the still bigoted South. Mind you, his character and surprisingly enough Efron's were the only two I had no difficulty understanding. I shall avoid spoilers by not revealing where all of this steamy action leads, but you can assume that it is as nasty as it is unexpected. If this makes the film sound like some kind of perverted 'fun' or even a guilty pleasure, take it from me it isn't. It's just bad!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Robot and Frank (2012)

There have been a surprising number of films looking at the problems of aging and incipient Alzheimer's in particular, but none that you could really classify as a 'feel-good' movie. Let's face it, there is nothing particularly noble or uplifting about the deterioration or death that comes for all of us in the end. I first considered seeing the above film when it was featured in last autumn's London Film Festival, since the premise suggested that it might be the one movie that treated the aging process with a light and comedic hand -- the reverse of "Amour" on current release. However, I was misled; while it is a charming and at times amusing film, the end result is just as sad and moving.

Set in the very near future, Frank Langella plays the eponymous Frank, an aging ex-cat burglar, living alone and fretted about by his two adult children, James Marsden (the goofy crown prince from "Enchanted") and the flighty Liv Tyler (still something of a one-note actress). To save his having to make a five-hour round-trip every weekend to reluctantly look after his dear old Dad (and we later discover that he can barely stand him on many levels), the successful Marsden buys him a health-care robot to look after his needs -- to tidy up the squalor in which he lives, to provide healthy meals, and to try to keep his mind active and alert. These early scenes are among the film's best, as the grouchy Frank resents Robot's (he never does give it a name) bossiness and do-good programming. However he gradually realises that the machine possesses the agility at lock-picking that he is beginning to lose and trains the initially reluctant Robot to become his accomplice in a series of increasingly major thefts; the machine has only been programmed to look after Frank and has not been given any moral sense of right and wrong. This gives Frank a new enthusiasm for life and he begins to look at Robot as his best friend, despite the machine's continually reminding his ward that he is not a human being. I should mention here that Robot is voiced by Peter Saarsgaard who gives it a wonderfully passive-aggressive tone.

Langella has been a favourite of mine for many years, since I first noticed him when he was still young and beautiful in 1970's "Diary of a Mad Housewife", where his louche seducer took blithe advantage of hard-done hausfrau Carrie Snodgrass. He was then the sexiest Dracula ever in the 1979 film, a replay of his earlier smash-hit appearance on Broadway as the Count. However, over the years his film appearances have become both smaller and less frequent, as he pursued his first love of stage. "Frost/Nixon" and "Good Night and Good Luck" put him back in the cinema spotlight and he really shines again in this rare leading role. He manages to be both the abrasive old codger as well as the unrepentent crook for whom we root, especially when one of the local yuppies who has closed down the local library, replacing it with new appliances which make the 'written-word' obsolete, is the object of Frank's most daring jewels heist and ultimately his would-be nemesis, attempting to bring the full weight of the law down on poor old Frank's head.

There is also a wonderfully warm role for Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, with whom Frank vigorously flirts, without realising that she is a bigger part of his past life than his deteriorating mind can recall. In the end Frank is forced to chose between his freedom and his BFF Robot. He finds himself in one of the much-dreaded care homes that he has resisted and we are shown evidence of his continual mental decline. In many ways this is as depressing an ending as any, although in its last minutes the skillfully-written film manages to suggest that Frank perhaps does have more of his wits about him than the casual observer might realise.

Despite the relatively downbeat and moving ending, the film -- a first feature from director Jake Schreier -- is both sharp and entertaining, and in so many ways more enjoyable than geriatric 'romps' like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or "Quartet", largely thanks to Langella's thoughtful and winning performance.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Stoker (2013)

Until I actually sit down to write this weekly blog, I'm never 100% certain which of the several many films I've watched during the week will take center stage. Contenders for today's slot included "Three Crowns of the Sailor" (a long listed 'must see' early work from Chilean exile Raul Ruiz -- frankly a long and generally incomprehensible avant garde ramble, now thankfully crossed off), "Panic in Year Zero" (a 1962 directorial debut from actor Ray Milland at the stage when his career was beginning to slide and a not uninteresting stab at the period's communist paranoia), and recent Cannes prizewinner "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" (an overpraised and leisurely policier set in rural Turkey).

Any one of these three might have made an interesting column, although I have some doubts about the first, but finally I decided to opt for the above new release since it arrived with some impeccable credentials and some glowing reviews. However shortly before leaving for the cinema I read a two sentence review from the Financial Times' film critic which more or less said that it was not worth the time or effort or the cost of a ticket. Being the bolshy PPP that I am, I ignored his rant and went to see for myself. The film is the first feature in the English language from Korean director Chan-wook Park, a fest fave for his stylish 'vengeance trilogy' which includes cult classic "Oldboy". Also responsible for the more recent "Thirst" with its priest turned vampire, the viewer is aware of his blood-soaked and oddball propensities, and I for one approached this movie with hopeful anticipation. For that reason alone it was something of a disappointment as he introduced us to the deep dark secrets of the Stoker family -- an interesting choice of surname, even if its vampiric resonance is only tangentially relevant here.

The center of the action is Mia Wasikowska playing the puzzling and sullen India, whose 18th birthday is marred by the sudden death of her beloved father in an inexplicable car accident. Unlike her strong previous roles as Alice and Jane Eyre, where one could sense a precocious intelligence, here she is something of a mystery and not a particularly interesting one. She is slightly estranged from her flighty mother played by the elegant but empty Nicole Kidman. (Parenthetically it is a little peculiar to watch her forty-something character played with the botoxed and filled face of a 21-year old.) Into the household arrives Uncle Charlie, a relation India never knew she had -- her father's younger brother. This immediately creates expectations of an updated version of Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", where the youngster's original delight in her new uncle morphs into fear as his murderous past unveils itself. However, this is far from the case here, Park makes us wait until well past the half-way mark to discover where the plot will take us. The film's first half is a puzzling combination of estrangement, time shifting backflashes, and various versions of the same scenario, to the extent that we wonder what is real and what is not. When the 'big reveal' comes we discover that not only is Uncle Charlie a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but that his murderous tendencies are embraced by young India as well. Her hormonal teenage angst is mainly a cover for latent sociopathic behaviour, as if killer genes are hereditary.

Charlie is played by British actor Matthew Goode, most recently seen here in the five-part "Dancing on the Edge", and I am not convinced his bland and fairly expressionless demeanor make him the right face for the role. As he casually sexually or mentally seduces both mother and daughter -- his piano duet with India verges on paedophilia -- we grow more and more uneasy, not knowing how to empathize with three blatantly unsympathetic characters. I must add that I think it strange to portray a suburban American family by employing two Australians and a Brit, as well as another Australian in the role of the quickly-dispatched visiting Aunt Jane. This is not to say that the acting left much to be desired, but the three are all playing such mysterious ciphers, that it is impossible to believe in them or root for them. Wasikowska probably did a damn good portrayal of the deeply confused India, but her character is ultimately too weird and hollow to comprehend. 

Park brought along his regular Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung who has photographed this farrago with undeserved skill and beauty. Some of the images like India's brushing Kidman's hair which then morphs into long wild grass are striking -- too striking for the nasty nest of the Stoker's secrets. While I can't conclude that the FT's critic had it right, the film was certainly a come-down from the director's Korean best.