Thursday, September 30, 2021

Dear Evan Hansen: A Review (Review #1535)


DEAR EVAN HANSEN

Dear Evan Hansen took a mere six years from ruling the Great White Way to its cinematic adaptation. While it took longer to go from stage to screen than another recent Broadway hit (The Prom), it is still a surprising turnaround and a sign of what newer Broadway productions have offered theatergoers. Unlike The Prom though, Dear Evan Hansen won six of its nine Tony nominations including Best Musical versus The Prom's 0 for 7 record.

If The Prom and Dear Evan Hansen are the best that contemporary Broadway can do, the American musical theater is pretty much dead. Dear Evan Hansen is a hybrid of bad and bland, monotonous and tone-deaf.

High schooler Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is struggling with anxiety issues, aggravating his generally lonely life apart from his "family friend" Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani). He pines for pretty Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever) but suffers from, to quote Morrissey "a shyness that is criminally vulgar". Her bullying goth brother Connor (Colton Ryan) does not help matters.

Under orders from his therapist, Evan writes letters to himself, but Connor gets a hold of Evan's newest letter which mentions Zoe. Enraged, Connor takes it from Evan, causing Evan more anxiety. Two days later, Connor's mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) and stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) meet with Evan. They have mistaken Evan's letter for Connor's suicide note addressed to "Dear Evan Hansen". That in a pique of haste Connor had been the only person to sign Evan's arm cast adds to the "evidence" of the Evan/Connor friendship.

While he makes somewhat of an effort to correct Connor's family's mistake, Evan is soon sucked into this beautiful lie that he and Connor were friends. This has the surprising effect of giving Evan the faux family he's always yearned for, a romantic relationship with Zoe and even a bit of popularity at school, especially after he gives a speech where he tells his fellow students You Will Be Found.

A viral hit, school activist Alana (Amandla Steinfeld) forms the Connor Project to help fellow students with suicidal thoughts. As part of the Connor Project, the orchard field that Evan and Connor so "loved" is to be renamed and restored in Connor's honor. However, little discrepancies start building up. Evan's working class mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) starts growing more irritated that Evan is pushing her away, and ultimately the truth comes out in devastating ways. Will everyone find peace?

It should be remembered that Dear Evan Hansen comes to us pretty much as it was seen on Broadway, where audiences and critics thrilled to its themes, plots and performances, with the added bonus that the Broadway Evan Hansen was recreating his Tony Award-winning performance on film. To put it in perspective, it would be as if the film version of My Fair Lady had actually cast Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle or Angela Lansbury had recreated her title role in Mame. With such a highly praised, perhaps beloved Best Musical winner now committed to film, what exactly went wrong?

I think it might be that perhaps Dear Evan Hansen was not as beloved as the production team thought it was. I grant that I am not a musical theater expert, but Dear Evan Hansen suffered from a terrible slate of musical numbers. To my ears, each song sounded exactly the same. I couldn't tell one from another, to where I could not tell whether a song sung by Evan after the truth is discovered was a new song or the continuation of Words Fail, the song the Murphys and Evan sang.

I put that to the fact that every song is sung the same way: slow and sad. A good musical, I have found, has variety in the song style. Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music could shift from the upbeat I Have Confidence to the tenderness of Edelweiss. Lerner & Lowe's My Fair Lady could shift from the slightly naughty Get Me to the Church on Time to the more wistful I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Kander & Ebb's Cabaret could shift from the decadent Willkommen to the almost mournful Maybe This Time.

Conversely, the Dear Evan Hansen songbook had no distinguishable song, let alone variety in them. The closest that Dear Evan Hansen had to an upbeat song was Sincerely, Me, but that number is simply cringe-inducing to almost horrifying. Seeing the dead Connor cheerfully "recite" the fake letters Evan and Jared write is creepy, not joyful. We the audience know that Connor has killed himself, and that Connor was at very best indifferent to Evan, so seeing this faux-happy song-and-dance is all kinds of wrong to almost grotesque.  

Add to that the gay innuendos Jared insists on throwing in add a level of noxious to the whole thing.

More curiously, You Will Be Found, the "big number" that appears to be the most well-known of the Dear Evan Hansen songbook, is surprisingly similar to, of all things, The Greatest Show from another Benj Pasek & Justin Paul musical work: The Greatest Showman. Melody-wise, at least to my ears, the phrases "You will be found" from You Will Be Found and "This is The Greatest Show" from The Greatest Showman sound alike. When you have a musical where every song sounds exactly alike, it makes things more monotonous.

As a side note, it's curious that one of my observations about The Greatest Showman was that the songs all sounded the same in that they all seemed BIG! and bombastic, while with Dear Evan Hansen the songs all sounded the same in that they all seem small and faux-intimate. It seems, judging by both The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen that the present-day version of Rogers & Hammerstein can't quite find a balance in their musicals.

Putting aside the monotonous nature of the Dear Evan Hansen songbook, the performances don't make any of it better. Platt has been roundly criticized for playing a sixteen-year-old at age 28. I was not appalled that a man played someone almost old enough to be his son, though at times one is forced to suppress chuckles at seeing Platt try to pass himself off as a decade-plus younger. It is that director Stephen Chbosky could not break Platt of a theatricality in his performance. 

Platt seemed determined to mine every tic and excessive mannerism to Evan, to make his social anxiety so massive it's a genuine surprise he can function. He can't make the awful nature of Evan's actions even slightly redeemable, and he comes across looking like both a jerk and frankly as nuts. Evan is essentially a monster, riding a lie to his own benefit, and nothing in Platt's performance makes one like Evan Hansen.

As such, why was he so acclaimed to where he won a Tony for all this?

Perhaps because he was the predominant singer in the film. I think that maybe outside Yentl no musical film has given one character the dominant role in the songs. I think that Evan sang either solo or with others all but four of the eleven songs in Dear Evan Hansen. That means Platt was either the central or co-lead to seven songs, an astonishing number that put so much focus on this one performer. 

The last song, A Little Closer, was sung by Ryan, but it speaks to the blandness of Dear Evan Hansen that is sounds like any generic pop song in so many indie films. 

No one else really does him/herself any favors acting-wise either. Dodani's Jared comes across as a nasty, bitchy friend who essentially disappears from Dear Evan Hansen after Sincerely, Me, making his role in the deception almost incidental. Adams forces herself to look pained, but I never sensed that she genuinely loved Connor, let alone mourned him. Oddly, Dear Evan Hansen seemed to almost make the awful case that most everyone was actually happy or at least relieved that Connor killed himself, a wild miscalculation that makes things more gruesome. 

Grudging credit can be given to Dever and Stenberg for their performances, though they too seemed a bit hemmed in. 

Perhaps the biggest issue one has with Dear Evan Hansen is the subject matter. Issues like social anxiety and suicide should be treated delicately, but here they seem to be mere fodder to allow a surprisingly loathsome person to be seen as almost heroic if not inspirational.

Oddly, while watching Dear Evan Hansen, I thought of all things a light romantic comedy. It looked like if someone took the plot of While You Were Sleeping and decided to make it a searing teen drama with music.

DECISION: F

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: A Review

 


THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a cinematic rarity in that it is the only screenplay written by Theodor S. Geisel, better known by his nom de plume Dr. Seuss. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, I think, would work as a subversive children's book. As a feature film, while there is a strong effort to reevaluate it as some avant-garde feature or undiscovered children's classic, I would use the word "weird".

Most of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a fever dream of little Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig). Bored and unenthusiastic about his piano lessons, he dreams that he is in a world ruled over by his mad (as in angry) piano teacher, Doctor Terwilliker (Hans Conreid). Dr. Terwilliker's piano teaching style is brutal, but for some reason Bart's mother Heloise (Mary Healy) insists Bart must continue them. Bart finds some sympathy from the plumber Mr. August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), but he can't do much for Bart.

In Bart's dream, the mad (as in bonkers) Dr. Terwilliker will force 500 boys to play a massive piano. Terwilliker has also imprisoned and hypnotized Bart's mother to be his assistant and potential wife. Zabladowski is still a plumber in this mad world, but he eventually joins forces in an effort to stop Terwilliker's plot for world domination. It is up to them to break both Terwilliker's scheme and Heloise's hypnosis so that Heloise and August can find true love.

In retrospect, I now see why footage from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was used for the opening title sequence to the Turner Network Television (TNT) late-night schlock film series 100% Weird. You really can't get much weirder than The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, as the film goes beyond surrealism into straight-up crazy. 

This may be one of the oddest musicals ever made, and certainly among the oddest musicals targeted at children. There are musical numbers that are just insane, and one watches with a mixture of disbelief and fascination that people could have been filming or participating in this and not think "is this a bit too much?".

Take for example the Dungeon Ballet. Bart, to escape the clutches of Terwilliker, manages to go into the bowels of this madhouse, where he observes a group of green-painted men playing instruments both real and fantastical. As one watches, you start imagining that this is what the Morlocks from The Time Machine would be doing before they went full-on cannibal.

The sheer lavishness and attempted grand nature of the Dungeon Ballet comes across not as whimsical or cute but as just plain weird if not downright psychotic. Very weird, like an MGM musical number on acid. I think that's a good way to describe the various musical numbers in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: what an acid trip would look like if it were turned into a musical.

There's a Hypnotic Duel between Dr. Terwilliker and Zabladowski that again comes across as just weird, these two men doing a bizarre dance-off where one tries to outdo the other in mesmerism. By the time you get to Dressing Song Do-Me-Do Duds, a song where Terwilliker is dressed by his minions for his role as Ruler of the Universe, you think everyone involved in the film is bat-guano crazy. 

I cannot think of another film where a man sings quite so merrily about what underwear he will be wearing on this most delightful day. That mostly everyone is taking this so seriously only adds an extra layer of the bizarre to the proceedings. That The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was produced by Stanley Kramer, King of the Message Pictures (High Noon, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting, On the Beach) adds yet another layer of the bizarre. 

Almost all the songs are again flat-out weird, even for something as bonkers as The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. The only real songs I thought were not as looney were Ten Happy Fingers (which I can see being used to teach piano) and Dream Stuff (a lovely, sweet lullaby that should go over well even now). Apart from that though, my sense is that more than one kid will have nightmares if shown The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T too soon in their lives.

I think I would have found the conjoined twins Judson and Whitney traumatizing. The roller-skating twins were conjoined by their shared beard, and once cut they die. There are so many questions involving the logic of twins conjoined at the beard, but seeing them die after their beard is cut and thus separating them is one of the less oddball ones.

I give wild credit to Hans Conreid, who embraced the camp looniness of Dr. Terwilliker with a deranged glee. Perhaps he knew you couldn't go over the top in something as insane as The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, so his unhinged manner, camping it up to the Nth degree looks almost normal. Sneering, flaying and completely insane, Conreid went all-in on the cray-cray.

No one else, apparently, was in on the joke (if there was one). Healy suffered the most, for she looked like she was trying to take all this seriously but knew that everything here was beyond explanation. As such, she seemed to show she knew she was too smart for all this but couldn't find a way to balance embracing the insanity and trying to make it realistic. Hayes went a little more into playing up the "children's fantasy" element, but it's hard to make a hypnotism dance-off look anywhere near logical in this or the fantasy world.

Rettig did a good job as Bart, plotting to save the world and his mother from the clutches of the mad pianist. Bless him for coming across as less crazy as he is forced to wear a beanie with a hand on top. His one solo, Because We're Kids, is surprisingly bitter about childhood and adulthood. It's not a bad song and it does capture how children can be frustrated about being ignored, but it seems an odd fit for a film sold as a light family romp.

There are some positive elements, such as the whacked-out production design full of Seussian eccentricity and equally whacked-out costumes. Some of the choreography is also good, so the film is not without some merits.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a cult film. It's just weird, just weird. Many can embrace the weird, the oddball, the pretty much bonkers manner of this movie. It's a kids film for adults, as I still think some of the elements (such as anything involving the dungeon: song or dance) would frighten children more than enchant them.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T definitely lives up to the title 100% Weird.

DECISION: C-

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Capote Tapes: A Review

 


THE CAPOTE TAPES

Truman Capote: writer, bon vivant, enfant terrible, self-destructive drunk. He was all that and so much more. The Capote Tapes, taped interviews with his friends, lovers and enemies unheard until now, gives us a glimpse into the rise and fall of one of America's most celebrated creative forces.

Using newly recorded interviews along with the audiotapes writer George Plimpton recorded shortly after Capote's death in 1984, The Capote Tapes allows those who knew Capote (or thought they knew him) speak their minds. Capote, this poor son of the South with a fantastic imagination and open homosexual lifestyle, charmed and wrote his way into the upper echelons of New York City high society.

Despite being openly gay the upper-class beauties of high society gravitated and were enraptured with Capote. He in turn gravitated and was enraptured by these women whom he dubbed his "swans". However, part of him worked to expose them. Whether it was subconscious revenge for his mother's suicide due to her failed efforts to be a society doyenne or the belief that his own genius would save him, Capote's poison pen brought him nothing but ruin. His long-gestating novel based on his swans, Answered Prayers, created an absolute scandal despite only snippets ever being published. 

The man who had brought the world the ultimate in posh grandness with the Black and White Ball, hobnobbing with the elite of the the elites, now was reduced to partying it up with virtual peasants at Studio 54, drinking and drugging through "a haze of pain" at the loss of his swans. All for a book that might not have ever existed. 

The Capote Tapes are fascinating to listen to and serve as the de facto narrative to the documentary. As various figures such as fellow writer Norman Mailer to C.Z. Guest (one of the few Swans to stay loyal to Capote) remember their friend/frenemy, we see behind Capote's persona. Another of his Swans, Slim Keith, recalls to Plimpton an incident when Capote rejected the idea that Keith "loved" him.

"People are amused by me, fascinated by me but they don't love me", he said. It's a sad confession for someone who gave people the impression he was the life of the party.

Other revelations aren't as sad. They appear instead rather malevolent. Another writer, William F. Buckley, was not impressed with Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood. "We've only had seven executions in the past five years," Buckley states, adding with a hint of venom, "and two of them were for the personal convenience of Truman Capote". Given that Buckley was not opposed to capital punishment, such a declaration is a bit surprising.

The Capote Tapes hint at Capote's arrogance towards his Swans, a contempt mixed with fascination. "I'm a writer. Did they think I was with them because I thought they were interesting?" he once observed after the scandal over the Answered Prayers excerpts were published. Whether he saw himself as the Swan's court jester or the chronicler of their sordid lives we do not know.

We also cannot know what he thought of his exile from The Land of Swans to The Land of Disco, but I can imagine that it must have been a hard blow. Despite the wild, hedonistic abandon of the club scene there is something sad about this old man shaking his groove thing when once he waltzed with duchesses and princesses. One contemporary interview recalled that he looked like "a little aged dwarf" as he shuffled about in the daylight. 

We do get a more sympathetic view from Capote's adopted daughter Kate Harrington (whose father had an affair with Capote). She recalls a hard-working writer who welcomed her into a world of literature and art, though also a gossip who wandered away from writing to indulging in worldly pleasures.

Capote fans and those who know him more by reputation will find interesting information and revelations about the writer through The Capote Tapes. Even those who have seen Infamous or Capote (or the notorious Stanley Siegel interview) will learn new details and gain greater appreciation for Truman Capote's work and legacy good and bad. 

DECISION: B-

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Jane Fonda in Five Acts: A Review

 

JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS

Few actors have been as wildly divisive as Jane Fonda. In the opening of the documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, none other than President Richard Nixon captured her best with his description of Fonda. "She's a great actress, she looks pretty, but boy she's often on the wrong track". At the then-age of 81, Fonda can look back on the highs and lows of her life and career. Jane Fonda in Five Acts hits some interesting notes but sometimes feels like a hagiography and slog to sit through.

As she reflects, Fonda divides her life into five acts: Henry, Vadim, Tom, Ted and Jane. The first is her father, Henry Fonda, and her efforts to both come out of his shadow and repair their frosty, distant relationship. Vadim goes into her first marriage to French director Roger Vadim, who essentially pushed her into becoming a sex symbol via his film, the erotic science-fiction Barbarella. Tom, which dominates the documentary, regards her second husband, activist Tom Hayden: their joint anti-Vietnam War activism, their almost strident lower-middle-class lifestyle and how her workout empire was created to fund their various causes. Ted is her stint with her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner. Jane is on her comeback to film.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts does have surprising information. I think many people would not have known that her start as a fitness queen was due to finding revenue for her and Hayden's Campaign for Economic Equality. We also find that when she filmed the striptease opening to Barbarella, not only was the final footage the second take (the first ruined by a bat that had wandered in) but that she was drunk and hungover when she filmed it. Fonda, who was interviewed for the documentary, also admits that she wasn't crazy about Monster-in-Law but knew that people would see the film because of Jennifer Lopez. Maybe by appearing with a big star like Lopez, she speculates, people would discover or rediscover Jane Fonda.

At over two hours, Jane Fonda in Five Acts is surprisingly focused on Act Three: Tom. This is when her political activism was at its zenith, and Fonda does not come across as particularly pleasant. While the infamous footage of her sitting at an anti-aircraft gun with the North Vietnamese will always damn her to some people, Fonda's radio broadcast on Radio Hanoi during the trip is not as well-known.

Act Two has a news report on her separation from Vadim. It states that at one point, he called her "Jane of Arc", a wisecrack with which she was not amused by. Added Vadim via the report that "to take on the sins of her country, she has lost her sense of humor".

Truth be told, she still comes across as a bit of self-serious figure (she was not asked about Vadim's quips). In the footage from her Vietnam-era days, Fonda appears to openly criticize former prisoners of war as brainwashed, useful idiots for Nixon. She does state that "I'm proud of most of what I did (with regards the protest movement) and I'm very sorry for some what I did". Talk show host Dick Cavett, a friend and supporter, also seems to think dimly on her actions, calling them "tactless". 

Later, when her son Troy Garity remembers how his first thirteen birthday parties were fundraisers for his parents' various causes, such details make Fonda almost unaware that her children became tools to further whatever cause du jour she embraced. Garity may find nothing wrong with that, but somehow that detail sounds a touch peculiar.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts does not delve into why her activism inspires so much ire. It is not self-reflective in that way. It is, though, on the personal, and we learn that despite being firmly feminist, for most of her life Fonda was dominated by men. There's the talented father who according to her late brother Peter "has to have the mask in order to express", an interesting way of saying Henry Fonda was emotionally lost without a script. Working with a dominating director, a firm activist and a macho persona respectively, Fonda could never balance a relationship with her own views.

In those moments, when we see Fonda evolve to being a Woman and person, we have good moments. When it comes to her career itself or her political activism, how she evolved to being a Woman of the Left, we get very little.

For better or worse, it will be difficult to nearly impossible to separate Jane Fonda the actress with Jane Fonda the activist. Jane Fonda in Five Acts is a good, albeit long, primer on her life and career as she sees it. What the final act or whole legacy will be remains to be written. 

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Corn is Green (1979): The Television Movie

 

THE CORN IS GREEN

The Corn is Green, in its brief running time, tells a rich and beautiful story so well, with such effective performances and breathtaking scenery, that it transcends its play origins and becomes the moving tale it seeks to be.

Spinster Lily Moffatt (Katharine Hepburn) comes to a Welsh town after inheriting a small estate. Along with her reformed maid Watty (Patricia Hayes) and Watty's shrewish daughter Bessie (Toyah Willcox), Miss Moffatt sets up her new residence. 

Miss Moffatt quietly and elegantly barrels through all opposition to set up a school for the community despite firm opposition from the local squire (Bill Fraser), with only her attorney Mr. Jones (Artro Morris) and another unwed woman, Miss Ronsberry (Anna Massey) to help. The local community too is a bit hesitant, but among the adults there is one who has a spark of genius buried under the coal dust.

Morgan Evans (Ian Saynor) is like the other men in the village: the mines and the pub are his life, but he also has a quiet, unique writing manner and a thirst for knowledge. Miss Moffatt soon takes him under her perhaps excessively protective wing, filling his mind with vast knowledge. It soon, however, becomes too much for him, and he has a one-night stand with Bessie. 

A chance for an Oxford education comes his way, but there are complications. First, is his own self-doubt. Second, there's his and Bessie's love child, which no one knew about before she left. Despite not loving him or the baby, Bessie demands Morgan marry her, which means sacrificing the chance for an education. It is here that Miss Moffat must rally herself to impart her most important information and save many lives.

The Corn is Green was filmed on location in Wales, and the production takes full advantage of it. The telefilm is one of the most beautiful I have seen. It is a bright, sunlight production, one where you can almost feel the breeze in the air. It is one where nothing is dirty, the closest is when we see early shots of boys going down the mineshaft. Apart from that, The Corn is Green is bathed in light, where even the interior scenes have a brightness to them. Perhaps this is metaphor for the story itself, of light coming into the life of Morgan Evans. 

The lightness and brightness extends to the performances. The Corn is Green is one of Katharine Hepburn's great autumnal works, her iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove manner played if not for laughs at least with an almost addled touch. We can see Miss Moffatt's intelligence, warmth and caring, but she is also not about to suffer fools gladly. Her evolution with the Squire, from well-earned hostility to a touch of warmth works well.

Miss Moffatt is not afraid to call him a nincompoop when he gets in her way, but she also uses the Squire's sexism and arrogance against him by playing something of a "damsel in distress" when whittling him to essentially serve as Morgan's patron. By using his ignorance and ego to her own plans, Hepburn shows a knowing, wry touch. 


When working with Saynor, she also displays in turns a motherly yet at times pushy manner, yet you immediately fall in love with Miss Moffatt. Hepburn can insult people with the nicest words, such as when she hoodwinks Miss Ronsberry to be her teacher's aide. Insisting that she might still find a man to marry (and rule over her), Miss Moffatt almost cheerfully replies, "If you're a spinster well on in her 30's, he's lost his way and he isn't coming". Hepburn enlivens Miss Moffatt into being a nice, bright light, one that wants to give people a chance to succeed when society pushes them under the ground, physically and mentally as one character observes.

She is more than matched by Saynor. He seamlessly transitions from the poor Welsh miner who appears hostile to the idea of education to the intelligent, sensitive man he has grown to be. The evolution from miner to scholar works well with Saynor, and in their scenes he and Hepburn show both the joys and struggles of the mentor/student relationship. He makes you believe that he could think "teached" is correct, and she in turn shows gently that it is "taught".

Every performance is excellent and one can see that age had not withered director George Cukor's style. He was at least 79 when he directed The Corn is Green, but there is a youthful vitality and joy in the film that belies the notion that he or the story were old. There is life in the film, a bright inspirational one, and John Barry's beautiful music enhances the production.

The Corn is Green is a story filled with light and joy on the enlightenment of one man, both intellectual and moral. With standout performances by its two leads and its bright, open space, The Corn is Green is as inspirational a tale as has been seen.

10/10

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Hacking Alert & Update

 


I am sad to say that I am one of millions whose laptop was hacked with ransomware. On Sunday, September 5, this image appeared. The major difference was that rather than $200, the hackers demanded $4000, but it was eventually negotiated to $500 via a Target gift card. At a certain point when I expressed reluctance to pay so much, rather than help as the person on the other end of the call (the "tech guy") said he would, he started what they said was a "self-destruct" on my laptop, complete with countdown. I then hurriedly said I would get the card but get it the next day.

I did not pay.

Instead, I contacted the FBI via their Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov and took my laptop to be inspected.

I am most stressed and upset about all this.  

As such, I will be essentially offline for a few days. I hope this situation is resolved soon and well, but for the moment, I am simply too anxious to concentrated on much.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Pray Away: A Review

 

PRAY AWAY

For a brief time in the 1980s and 90s, there was an "ex-gay" movement, where men and women were led to think that they could convert their sexual orientation through therapy of some kind. The documentary Pray Away looks at the former leaders and participants who now look back with regret and shame, though some still hold to the ideas they once professed.

Using a variety of archival footage and current interviews, Pray Away chronicles the once-held notion that through "reparative" or "conversion" therapy, a homosexual could be changed to heterosexuality. John Paulk, one of the interview subjects, soon became the face for the largest conversion therapy organizations, Exodus International. He claimed to have become straight, even marrying a woman who said she was now an ex-lesbian. Michael Bussee, cofounder of Exodus, saw a need for a support group for gay men who were also Christian, modeling his idea on other support groups within the Church.

Soon, however, Exodus became a center for the idea that homosexuals could transition to heterosexuality. Other groups either sprung up or became affiliated with them, such as Living Hope, where Julie Rodgers fell under the control of its founder, Ricky Chelette. Eventually, Exodus International delved into the political, faced scandal when Paulk was photographed at a gay bar, and eventually closed its doors with deep regret for the lives it hurt.

The closest thing to any kind of rebuttal is that of Jeffrey McCall, who is a "Trans for Christ". McCall says he was transgender until a religious conversion and now identifies as the male he was born as. He forms a Freedom March where a small but passionate group of believers spread the word that change is possible in their minds.

Pray Away is best when we hear from those who brought about this brave new world. Hearing how some were pushed into sharing deeply personal details is extremely upsetting. One senses that the various ex-gay groups such as Exodus sound almost like a cult: once you leave the group and embrace the homosexuality/bisexuality within yourself, you are cut off completely. We also get to see how some of the former leaders have changed into new lives; some like Rodgers have a same-sex wedding ceremony at a more progressive church (I think it was the National Cathedral). Others, like former Exodus spokesman Yvette Cantu Schneider accept they are bisexual, happily married to a man while not denying their same-sex attraction.

However, like other documentaries and films detailing the struggles between Christianity and Homosexuality (example, Boy Erased), Pray Away treats Christians not as people but as almost alien creatures, these bizarre figures who come from another world. From what I saw in Pray Away, those participating to change their orientation were sincerely looking to adopt their ideas of faith and lifestyle and were not motivated by malevolence. Bussee for example apparently merely wanted to form a support group for same-sex attracted Christians, not literally change their orientation. 

When did the shift from support to conversion take place? Was that the plan all along? Granted, those who still maintain that sexual conversion can take place, such as Paulk's former wife Anne who has her own group, Restored Hope, declined to be interviewed. However, it is hard to say that the motivations for the churchgoers who listen and support someone like McCall are wicked. We do not hear from them or from anyone who would call themselves a gay Christian. Again, while that is not the focus of Pray Away one senses that the filmmakers see Christians as a source of antagonism, an idea I can't share. 

From appearances, someone like McCall who detransitioned may be less brainwashed and a genuine desire to be male. It might even be due to a sincere religious experience. To the film's credit, McCall is allowed to share part of his story, though again one senses that it is a surface look.

As a side note, I find that both Christians and gays are too hung up on sex. It's a curious thing that those who look askance at people who believe homosexuals can change to heterosexuals sometimes fantasize that a straight person can enjoy a same-sex encounter or even themselves be converted from heterosexuality to bisexuality or even homosexuality. I would argue that sexuality is again very complex, not fitting easily for everyone. I would also argue that evangelical Christians are not the boogeyman some in the LGBT community continue insisting that they are. For whatever faults some evangelicals have, they have never advocated tossing gays off buildings, let alone done so. At least that I am aware of, but I digress.

Pray Away seems to be a surface look at complex issues revolving around sexuality, faith, and the conflict between the two. There are people who have reconciled their same-sex desires with their faith whether through seeing no conflict between the two or deciding for a celibate life for themselves. One watches and sees that perhaps we are merely skimming through things. If, for example, people put the blame on their same-sex attractions due to toxic parenting or abuse, it would be better for them to get treatment for the parenting/abuse versus putting their attractions squarely on that. For good or ill, Exodus fed a need among believers who found their attractions could not be reconciled with their ideas of faith. I am more curious as to the apparent need within some to "be cured", but Pray Away doesn't delve into that.

Some mention is given that perhaps groups like Exodus came about as a reaction against the growing AIDS crisis, where promiscuity was literally killing people, but whether the ex-gay movement really was a response to fear one does not know. Again, I was curious about such things, but again Pray Away didn't go into that.

We do not know what drove some of the ex-gay and ex-ex-gay movements. Perhaps some were to force changes in people or to cash in on therapy fees, but others appear to be genuine in their beliefs about changing. I think it would be too simplistic to say it was merely a desire to conform, and humans are too complicated to put it down to simple answers. Pray Away isn't going to dig into motivations, but it is good to hear from those both who found their journey harrowing and those who are barely starting their own. 

DECISION: B-

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A Taste of Honey: A Review (Review #1530)

 

A TASTE OF HONEY

A Taste of Honey has it all: abusive mothers, miscegenation, illegitimate births, homosexuals. An early example of "kitchen sink drama", A Taste of Honey delves into the lives of three disparate people brought together by all these elements.

Working-class schoolgirl Jo (Rita Tushingham) yearns for a better life away from her lush, tart of a mother Helen (Dora Bryan). Bouncing from flat to flat over Helen's inability to keep up with the rent, Jo is counting the days where she will be free from school and start her own life.

Her dreams are complicated by two situations: Helen's romance with the younger Peter (Robert Stephens), who makes it clear he doesn't want Jo with them, and Billy (Paul Danquath), the black sailor with whom Jo experiences her first romance and sexual encounter.

Billy sails off and Helen chooses middle-class respectability with Peter, but neither really bother Jo. She's starting a new life as a shoe salesgirl. Here, she meets Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), whom she starts a platonic friendship due to his homosexuality. Geoffrey and Jo make an odd couple, but things take a turn when Jo finds herself knocked up. As Billy is now gone, Jo opts to have the child and repeatedly declines Geoff's help and marriage offers.

Geoff contacts Helen for help, and she seems willing but Peter again pushes to keep Jo out of their lives. Jo for her part isn't eager for Mommie Dearest to be part of her or her child's life either. As Peter has found a new bit of fluff, Helen now is more able to help Jo, though it means Geoff will have to go, which he does. At the end, Jo tells Helen the child may be black, and we end A Taste of Honey on an ambiguous note, with Helen moving in, Geoff moving out and Jo unsure of what is to become of her.

I am at a bit of a loss over why for a brief time British cinema seemed wildly obsessed with chronicling the miserable lives of the British working class. Films like A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appear to suggest if not flat-out say that the British working poor led lives of loud desperation. They faced endless horrors and were perpetually unhappy, making horrible decisions, drowning their miseries in booze and broads. I'm genuinely surprised no one ever opted to make a spoof of these kinds of films, but I digress.

A Taste of Honey tackles serious subjects in a somewhat realistic manner. I say somewhat only in that Shelagh Delaney (adapting her play with the film's director, Tony Richardson) can't quite escape the theatrical setting. Many scenes, particularly when we're at Jo's loft, look like they could easily take place on a stage. The film does not totally avoid looking like a filmed play, which did make the overall effect a bit stagey.

However, these limits are offset by some of the performances. Tushingham, making her film debut, is quite strong if perhaps at times bordering on hysterical as Jo. When she isn't shouting at someone, her quiet moments allow the viewer to see Jo as frustrated by her surroundings, one who yearns for a better life and even has a bit of joy that is quickly taken from her. She can be tacky, like when she almost chipper-like asks Geoff to describe being with a man. She can also, however, be arrogant, hard-headed and lost. Despite what she feels about her mother, Jo is repeating the same mistakes Helen made. It is a strong debut performance.

I found Bryan to be the better performance. Her Helen was not just a selfish floozy but someone with a bit of a heart. Bryan made Helen a sad, tragic figure: one who did put herself first but who also, in her way, wanted something better for Jo. When she remembers Jo's father and how she ended up pregnant, you see Helen looking back not in anger but in regret. When she sees the ring Billy gave Jo, she tries to warn her daughter about men, but by now she has set such a poor example her words fall flat. Struggling to love Jo and be a mother, Helen could not truly put her daughter ahead of herself. It is a beautiful performance.

That leaves Melvin, and here is where A Taste of Honey could only go so far. While it isn't overtly stated Geoff is gay he does acknowledge it. However, Geoff's sexuality plays almost no role in the story. We never see him so much as look at another man, and it makes one wonder if Geoff's homosexuality is there more for the novelty of seeing a gay man on film than anything else. Granted, A Taste of Honey is Jo's story, not Geoff's, but seeing that he really has no purpose apart from being an early version of "the gay best friend", it seems almost pointless to bring up the subject.

A Taste of Honey is clearly an ironic title, as no one here will ever know the sweet life. The film, well-acted and directed, gives us a look into this world that more than a few people know personally. I did find it an interesting story, though again I wonder if the British working class ever had any happiness in their lives.


DECISION: B-

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Suicide Squad: A Review (Review #1529)

 

THE SUICIDE SQUAD

It's a curious thing that a sequel to part of a major franchise would have a title in which the word "The" distinguished it from its predecessor, but that's how The Suicide Squad is separate from 2016's Suicide Squad. I'm not a comic book fan, and I couldn't tell you anything about the many antiheroes The Suicide Squad has. I can say that the film is too gory, too long and frankly too dumb for me to have enjoyed.

Villainous government official/jailer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sends two groups of super-criminals and oddities officially known as Task Force X but nicknamed "the Suicide Squad" to the remote island nation of Corto Maltese. Why two? Well, one was meant as a decoy for the actual group, but that group had a couple of survivors: Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), both of whom had to be rescued at different points in time.

The main group is led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who was essentially blackmailed into this mission so that his daughter would not serve time herself. In his motley crew is Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Peacemaker is a large man who will kill to bring about world peace, Polka-Dot Man is a genetic experiment gone wrong thanks to his mother, King Shark is a dumb talking and walking shark and Ratcatcher 2 can control rats just like her father.

Their mission: to destroy the secret lab of Jotunheim and the mysterious "Project Starfish", headed by The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). The mission does not include helping a counterrevolution after military dictators overthrew the ruling family, but if it helps their mission to have joint objectives, all the better. However, there is evil at work, as some of the Suicide Squad have a more secret mission in all this, one that conflicts with the giant alien starfish destroying Corto Maltese. Not all the squad survive, but with Waller both incapacitated and blackmailed, the survivors live to fight another day.

The Suicide Squad, written and directed by James Gunn, loves to go on many tangents that may have looked flashy but made the film much, much longer than it should have been. Both rescues of Colonel Flag and Harley Quinn seemed superfluous. The opening battle and the decision to both introduce characters and reintroduce some from Suicide Squad just to kill them off within minutes is also a poor decision. One is completely justified in asking why such characters as The Detachable Kid or T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion) or Blackguard (Pete Davison) were in The Suicide Squad if they were not going to be part of the film itself.

Even if a logical answer could be found, their deaths were particularly gruesome and excessively graphic. Perhaps some people would love to see Pete Davison's face blown off, but I am not one of them. The graphic, almost gleeful nature of The Suicide Squad's violence deeply appalls me. I figure I may be in the minority on this, but the same issue I had with Mortal Kombat is the same issue I have with The Suicide Squad: the perverse pleasure they had in showing how detailed the various killings are. Even before we get to the actual opening credits we are treated to almost sadistic levels of killing, with more to come.

I have not grown that desensitized to find enjoyment in seeing such graphic beheadings, stabbings and dismemberments. 

The Suicide Squad itself is a terrible group of people to be around, and while I figure they are the anti-Avengers I still could not find any interest in any of them to care what happened to them. It's hard to empathize with a weasel who doesn't talk.

It probably isn't fair to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it's a credit to Margot Robbie's skills as an actress that she remains the highlight of the franchise. Her third turn as Harley Quinn (at least I think it's her third) shows she gets the character completely. Robbie can shift from almost innocent to murderous, sometimes in the same scene, with a smoothness and ease that is quite exceptional and skilled. 

As a side note, I would argue that Harley Quinn would know the David Lee Roth version of I'm Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody than she would Louis Prima's version. I don't know why this particular song had to play during Harley's rampage. I don't see how it fits, but there it is. I give credit to Kinnaman as Flag, about the only sane person in this crew, and Elba does well in the action moments, though less effective when trying to convince he has any sense of caring for the daughter he left behind. Their fight in the beginning of the film caused more laughter than concern.

Cena isn't an actor but a hulking machine, so why anyone found Peacemaker interesting enough to create a television spinoff for him is puzzling to me. I also credit Dastmalchian for working some kind of angst in his Polka-Dot Man, but nothing save the character from being silly. It's hard to sympathize with Melchior's Ratcatcher 2, for no matter how much she or The Suicide Squad tries, someone who controls rats is rather grotesque.

The Suicide Squad is poorly structured, with a lot of "three days earlier" and "eight minutes earlier" to interrupt big moments or cliffhangers such as Peacemaker's threat or the decoy invasion. Sadistically violent, unnecessarily cruel (jokes about characters deaths are tacky, tasteless and predictable), I know many enjoy such things, but I do not. Loud, long, dumb and with nothing to say, The Suicide Squad is not a film I would watch again. 

DECISION: F