Friday, October 18, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: History Lessons

Two much-ballyhooed historical dramas from this year’s festival circuit arrive in Los Angeles and New York City theaters this week. The first, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, is the latest in a recent string of biopics about the revolutionary “Beat” writers of the 1950’s-60’s. One of their number, gay poet Allen Ginsberg, was personified just a few years ago by James Franco in Howl. In Kill Your Darlings, Daniel Radcliffe — yes, Harry Potter himself — portrays a younger, more insecure Ginsberg just starting to come to terms with his homosexuality.

The primary instigator of his coming out process is Lucien Carr (rising star Dane DeHaan, soon to be seen in Franco’s former role as Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Self-assured and seductive, Carr takes Ginsberg under his wing during the latter’s first year at Columbia University. Ginsberg becomes increasingly enamored with his new friend, going so far as to fantasize about Carr while he masturbates. Unfortunately, Carr is under the sway of much older and wealthier David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, late of Dexter), who senses a threat in Ginsberg.

In real life, Kammerer was murdered by Carr but Carr escaped serious punishment by claiming it was an “honor slaying,” i.e. a justified action to protect himself against the advances of a homosexual predator. This little-known legal strategy in New York is the most interesting aspect of Kill Your Darlings, which otherwise turns out to be a disappointingly familiar tale of unrequited gay love albeit with a literary edge (Beat icons William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac also appear courtesy of actors Ben Foster and sexy Jack Huston). Radcliffe and DeHaan are both excellent and share genuine chemistry, with the impressively maturing Radcliffe gaining bonus points for sexually-explicit fearlessness.

As director, Krokidas begins the film promisingly with an intense, attention-grabbing opening and wonderful period detail in the art direction, costumes and music. His screenplay’s similarities to Howl and On the Road become gradually apparent, however, and Krokidas seems to compensate for the story’s familiarity with increasingly over-the-top direction and editing. This reaches its zenith (nadir?) during a four-way penetration scene during which Carr stabs Kammerer, Ginsberg has sex with a man for the first time, Burroughs shoots up, and Kerouac listens to a recording made by a dying soldier friend who recounts how his body was extensively pierced by shrapnel. Two other gay viewers and I gleefully dissected this sequence following the screening we attended. We just couldn’t help ourselves.

The honor-slaying climax of the film, during which Carr essentially revokes his homosexuality (closing cards inform us he would go on to marry a woman), does potently illustrate the plight of gay men in even the most cosmopolitan US cities during the 1940’s and 50’s. Regretfully, Kill Your Darlings’ strong opening and closing don’t provide me quite enough incentive to recommend the film other than to the most ardent fans of Radcliffe and/or the Beat writers.

12 Years a Slave received rapturous responses at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and is being almost-universally anointed as a definite Best Picture contender in this year’s Academy Awards. British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) takes a typically unblinking, no-holds-barred approach to the enduringly uncomfortable subject of slavery in the United States. So horrific and unrelenting are some scenes of torture in his new film that I am tempted to compare it to the season premiere of TV’s American Horror Story, which is similarly set for the most part in Louisiana.

Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 book of the same title by screenwriter John Ridley (Three Kings, Red Tails), the film relates Northup’s own personal experience of being kidnapped as a free man in 1841 Washington, DC and being sold into more than a decade of Southern slavery without any recourse. Northup suffered under three diverse plantation owners (only two are depicted in the movie), each seemingly more brutal in their treatment of their slaves than the one before. The married father of two children was eventually freed through the intervention of a Canadian abolitionist, to whom Northup had a providential opportunity to tell his story. He subsequently pursued legal channels to punish his kidnappers but to no avail. Northup was able, though, to write a graphic (for the time) indictment of the slavery system and became renowned as a leader in the abolitionist movement before he virtually disappeared from history.

Fortunately, Northup is unknown no more thanks to McQueen, Ridley and producer Brad Pitt, who also appears briefly in the film as Northup’s savior. Laurels must also be laid at the feet of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Best known in GLBT circles for his turn as statuesque drag queen Lola in the original Kinky Boots movie, Ejiofor employs here a powerful combination of stunned resignation, abject humility, righteous indignation and graceful dignity, with more than a few nuances for good measure. His performance is also guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

The impressive “name” supporting cast in addition to Pitt includes prolific man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender (who last worked with McQueen on the memorably full-frontal Shame), Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard (sly as a slave turned plantation owner’s wife), Any Day Now’s Garret Dillahunt and out actress Sarah Paulson. Among the lesser-known actors, Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye are stunning as the most victimized of the female slaves, and both Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry from last year’s award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild make cameos.

As much as I consider 12 Years a Slave a masterful achievement and a must-see for adults, I also feel an obligation to caution potential viewers about its bleak tone and discomfiting violence. The abundance of well-liked white actors in unsavory roles and using the “N” word prodigiously is also unnerving. This movie is undeniably strong stuff that illustrates all too well how our slave history remains the most American horror story of all.

A plethora of GLBT-interest documentaries is hitting LA this weekend, and all are deserving of attention... with one notable exception. God Loves Uganda is Roger Ross Williams’ disturbing exposé of how evangelical Christians from the US have infiltrated the African nation and stirred up intense, even life-threatening, homophobia in the name of Jesus. While not as powerful as the recent Call Me Kuchu, with whom it shares several commentators, this is a valuable companion piece. Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro, meanwhile, details a more joyful 12-year journey than 12 Years a Slave: the one undertaken by Grammy-winning songwriter Desmond Child and his partner Curtis Shaw, to have children. The doc captures well (if in sometimes blandly straightforward fashion) the hopes, frustrations, sacrifices and ultimate success they experienced.

Dr. Jennifer Conrad’s The Paw Project serves as an insightful but one-sided and somewhat overwrought indictment of the growing practice of cat-declawing. I am a cat owner myself and know many others (some of whose cats have been declawed) and I’ve yet to see first-hand any of the painful, negative effects the cats shown in the film have sadly experienced. Feel free to watch and decide for yourselves. My strongest reservation among these new releases is in regard to Bridegroom, which was directed by TV queen Linda Bloodworth Thomason. Inspired by the tragic early death of a young gay man and his boyfriend’s failed effort to be recognized by the man’s conservative family, the doc has been popular on this year’s GLBT film fest circuit and will soon receive a national television broadcast (on OWN on Sunday, October 27). I am in the minority — though not alone — in considering it monotonous, self-serving and downright mawkish. True, no one should have to go through what Shane Bitney Crone has gone through to keep his late potential husband’s memory alive… but no one should have to watch it in such excruciating detail either.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Kill Your Darlings: C+
12 Years a Slave: A-
God Loves Uganda: B+
Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro: B
The Paw Project: B-
Bridegroom: C-

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


Anonymous said...

I saw Bridegroom - the good Father must have seen a different film. He should use his own website rules regarding comments to govern himself because I have never seen anyone be more, "hateful", "derogatory" or "disrespectful toward a film that has been universally acclaimed and is advancing our goal.

The Father apparently is not all he seems to be and I want EVER peruse this site again.


Anonymous said...

I saw Bridegroom at a screening in LA a few months ago, and although I was moved (and cried at the end), I agree completely with Rev. Chris. The story originally gained attention from a youtube video Shane created and posted over a year ago, entitled "It Could Happen To You." Shane's short 10-minute video was immensely more appealing and sincere than this overly sentimental and monotonous feature documentary. Linda Thomason is also known for producing talking-head political videos for the Clinton campaigns. That's what Bridegroom felt like to me.

Anonymous said...

Apparently the critic was unable to see the bigger pictures with BRIDEGROOM. It changed my life and I am grateful the film is helping us reach equality. It's a shame when a critic talks disrespectfully about a film that's clearly resonating with people. I won't be coming to this website anymore. I agree with the comment above, the critic should practice what he preaches, and apparently he preaches hate.

Reverend said...

Dear Anonymous (the critical one, not the one in agreement with me): Puh-lease. You can't have been reading this site or my reviews for long if you are accusing me of hate speech. I'm all for equality, justice and dignity, just opposed to maudlin, exploitive movies. And thank you to the other Anonymous for agreeing with me!

Anonymous said...

You're a gay man and yet you talk trash about a film that's going to help the LGBT community and help those who hate us understand us More? You are clearly a self hating gay and are unable to use your brain and see the bigger picture and embrace a film that will show that all of us experience love. You say it's mawkish but if you're a straight person who doesn't think gay people can experience that type of love you have to hit it hard. Clearly you haven't found love and you're resentful of that and want to take it out on a film that's a gay love story. I feel sorry for you and I feel sorry for Shane and the people who made the film for having to read such a disrespectful review from a reverend of all people...a GAY reverend.

Reverend said...

Dear Anonymous #1: And I thought you said you wouldn't be visiting our blog any more. ;) You clearly don't know me personally so, for the record, I would like to clarify that I have indeed "found love." My partner and I have been together for six years.

Unknown said...

(first time poster here) What's the matter Reverend? Attended a screening of Bridegroom and Shane Bitney Comb turned you down for sex? He doesn't come off as an easy guy so there's no need to trash his film in retaliation. Better luck next time.

Ted Gideonse said...

Just because you disagree with Chris's opinion on a movie doesn't justify the nasty personal insults. You all sound like teenagers on Twitter. If you disagree, why not make an argument about how the movie is not self-serving or mawkish?

Kirby Holt said...

It truly amazes me that those who claim to be so moved by "Bridegroom" are so quick to so viciously slam someone else merely because they didn't like a movie.

You claim that "Bridegroom" is "advancing our goal", "helping us reach equality" and "help(ing) the LGBT community", yet you turn around and refer to someone as "hateful", "preaches hate" and is a "self hating gay". Have you really taken the film's message of love and acceptance to heart as much as you have said it did if you are so easily able to make such vile statements as these, all over a less-then-a-paragraph review?

Do you really think that your hero, Shane Bitney Comb, would approve of the things you have said here, even to someone who gave his movie a mediocre review? I sincerely doubt it.

You all claim to have been affected positively by "Bridegroom". Then where did all this negativity come from?

Seriously, guys, grow up and accept the fact that not everyone in the world will have the same opinion as yours. That doesn't make them "hateful". It just makes them honest. Are you?

-- Kirby Holt
Creator/Editor of MOVIE DEAREST

Larry Murray said...

A review is for the writers opinion and the comments are for the reaction. But you can't fault a reviewer for having a different opinion than you would like him to have. It's one person's reaction to the film, just as each of the commentators have had. To criticize Chris for having an opinion seems rather unfair to me.

Anonymous said...

If the movie didn't seem to be put together to you, fine. But, there is no excuse for such heartless comments. Surely, there is a more tactful way to criticize it You come off as trivializing the death of a gay boy and the plight of gay couples prevented from marrying.

Anonymous said...

The movie is self-serving and that in my mind is no flaw. Shane is trying to transform his grief, trying to make a terrible senseless quirk of fate into something meaningful.

The only details that are excruciating to me involve the right wing lunacy that blinded a grieving family enough to to treat other human beings so carelessly.

If that kind of thing is just ho-hum to you, I will draw my own conclusions about you.

Anonymous said...

Loved the Movie, I would have to disagree with those that are critiquing it with such hurtful and hateful language. This happens all too often in the GLBT community and this is a story that could be told time and time again. I have witnessed this scenario several times in my life. This story could never get old because it needs telling. For those that didnt like it - well - you didnt like it - say so and move on and dont be so hateful in how you are describing the tale of so many - not just Shane and Tom.

Reverend said...

Dear Anonymous #3, 4 or 5 (I've lost count): You must be a sensitive soul indeed to consider my review & comments "hateful." I didn't hate the movie, its filmmaker or his intentions, but it does fall short as documentary cinema. I will admit to being a tad snarky in my comments about the film but I also state "no one should have to go through" what Shane did. I assure you no hate was intended nor displayed.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with the Reverend. It is a sad state of affairs that this still happens but the film totally came across as self-serving and shed no new insight or understanding of homophobia in this country. Rather redundant and just because someone is gay doesn't mean they have to like everything that is gay, sheeple.

Matt S. (OHIO) said...

Wow, reading some of these comments makes me lose faith in humanity.

The point of the film was to open people's hearts and minds. Which it's obviously doing. I am a gay man and I tend to be cynical and I wanted to not like the movie. But it was much better than I expected and it left me feeling hopeful and inspired not resentful that I haven't found love.

Being gay doesn't mean we have to support everything that's gay, but clearly we need all the help we can get to open hearts and minds and to put a face to the issue which helps those who are against us to see that we aren't any different than them.

Of course it's self serving, it's a documentary about a couples love story.

The story isn't unique...unfortunately...but it didn't feel like they were trying to make it sound unique. I think because they are young and attractive and have so much footage of themselves, like all people in their generation it makes it a very real and compelling story and film.

Everyone has the right to their own opinions. I agree. But as a gay man and as someone who hopes to have people not judge me and see me any differently just because I am gay, I am grateful for this film and after reading the thousands of comments and hundreds of great reviews, it appears to me that this film is going to impact the LGBT community in ways that we probably can't even comprehend.

It does sadden me that the only negative review about this film is on this website and again that's fine and the critic has every right to feel the way he feels, but it looks pretty pathetic when it's a negative review next to glowing reviews from The New York Times, LA Times, Variety and Hollywood Reporter. A part of me wonders if the critic on this site just wanted to be the one that stands out to go against the majority to get attention? I don't know.

Anyway. This to me isn't a film that should be critiqued because it's a real story with real people and being gay we should support projects that are helping us, it's usually impossible to change hearts and minds and Bridegroom is doing just that, even if the production value is average and it's not that sophisticated in the way it's told...but I think that was their intention. To make it a simple love story that's easy for the opposers to digest and relate to.

That's just my two cents. I'm not a critic and I am not trying to start a fight.

Unknown said...

Which comments? The comments of those who didn't care for the film or those who attacked the reviewer?

Reverend said...

Thank you, Tom & Matt, for your comments and for not being anonymous! Matt, I am not the only critic who has given "Bridegroom" a negative review. You can find others through the Rotten Tomatoes website. I had heard good things about the film before I saw it and had expected to like it so, no, I didn't intentionally give it a negative review in order to "stand out."

Anonymous said...

Lol! Bridegroom is the 4th most popular documentary released in 2013 on IMDB and has become one of the highest rated documentaries on Netflix. Maybe the critic from this website was having a bad day when he/she watched it??? If you want to know what people really feel about this film, read the Netflix reviews. The critic on this site says there are other negative reviews on rotten tomatoes, that's incorrect. I just spent 15 minutes searching for negative luck. If a critic has to point out that other people agree with their opinion and have to defend their review, then that says a lot right there. Just yes they are the only critic who gave it a negative review.

Anonymous said...

Pray, tell me Reverend: if you were to provide an input to the director of the movie, what would you change in the movie in order for you to raise your mediocre rating of C-?

I am a Catholic, and I would like to know if any LGBT movies have satisfactorily passed your movie critiquing standards. Jesus accepts everyone and even Pope Francis is showing some noticeable progress to steer away from the bigotry and hypocrisy that have been DEMONstrated by some Catholic priests.

I am just asking, and please show me an evidence, that you have rated an LGBT movie a letter grade above B.

P.S., I loved Bridegroom :)

Moniker71 said...

I saw Bridegroom a couple of times on Netflix and wept right along. I can kind of see the Father's point (to the extent that I understand it)--the tale is very simply told, it is one-sided, and it is extremely emotional. Also the pop soundtrack drove me bananas. At no time does the documentary present any possibility of a negative view of the relationship, beyond that of the Bridegroom parents.

But in a way I think that's kind of the point. One doesn't quibble about Romeo and Juliet being self-serving and mawkish--the audience accepts that the conflict in the play is just set up in this way. And as Bitney Crone's great-grandmother says in the movie, in this narrative the central couple were Romeo and Romeo.

Bitney Crone clearly seems to feel that he is doing the when-he-shall-die-take-him-and-cut-him-out-in-little-stars thing, and I don't question his sincerity at all. Could he be more discreet about his suffering? Sure. But why should he?

I would genuinely like to discuss this further.

Reverend said...

Thanks Moniker71 for your thoughtful comment. There has been plenty of discussion going on here, though little of it is intellectual/beneficial. To the latest Anonymous commenter (I really wish critical people would have the courage of the convictions and at least admit their first name): I have rated many LGBT films a B grade or higher during my 5 years of contributing reviews here. All you have to do is check out my previous "Reverend's Reviews" postings.

Moniker71 said...

I want to add this, because "mawkish" is one of my own favorite terms of dismissal: I was discussing this with my husband last night, and I told him about something that occurred to me when I was reading Bitney Crone's eulogy that he delivered at his partner's memorial service in LA. In that speech Bitney Crone describes a lot of the behaviors that he and his partner shared and uses them as evidence of how wonderful and special his partner was, and how sweet their love. And when I read that I thought, well, MY husband does a lot of those things and so do I, and I'm not going around in a haze of bliss about it.

And it occurred to me that I could stand to be a bit more "mawkish" myself: that the fault of taste/perspective is not with the story as it's presented, but with me. I'm asking: do we older viewers (I'm nearly 42) still have the appreciation and affection for our partners that we did when we were in our 20s?

Reverend said...

Dear Moniker71: Sorry its taken me a little while to get back to you here. I am all for heartfelt sentimentality, and agree that we can all probably use more of it in our relationships as we grow older and (at least sometimes) jaded. Re: my use of the word "mawkish" (not a word I usually use) in my review, I drew from Webster's definition of it as "sentimental in a weak, insipid way, so as to be sickening." A strong word/definition, I admit, but it reflected my feeling about the film at the time I reviewed it. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is just the story of a guy trying to make some sense of his true lovers death and in that these are real people I see little value in offering any sort of critique. The movies stand on its own merits as it is weakening bigotry.