Activist and writer Larry Kramer passed away yesterday at 84. Over the years, his writing was critically acclaimed and won many awards. But he’ll be remembered most for his unbridled activism. Kramer was on the frontlines when the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s. He helped to form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later the more militant ACT UP. His approach was usually abrasive and confrontational. However, that anger was necessary in order to get people in power to implement changes. I enjoyed Kramer’s book Faggots and was moved by his play TheNormalHeart. I’m also very thankful for the battle he fought and the lives that it saved.
Naomi Campbell is beyond fierce. Since the 1990s, she has defined the term supermodel. She’s landed the best magazine covers, walked in every fashion show, and was featured in George Michael’s iconic “Freedom 90” video. Her face and walk are wondrous. Plus, she has that attitude that you want from a diva. In an industry that values youth, Naomi has defied expectations well after her supposed expiration date. Today, at 50, she’s still at the top of her game.
Today would have been activist & politician Harvey Milk’s 90th birthday. In his short life, he changed the world for the better. The 1970s saw him leading the charge for LGBT rights and equality in San Francisco, earning him the title “Mayor of Castro Street”. After being defeated in two previous elections, Harvey finally won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country. While in office he helped to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a proposition that would have banned gay teachers in schools.
Sadly, Harvey was assassinated in 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. But his mission continued on with other gay activists and politicians that followed him. There was also the Oscar winning documentary about his life, The Times of Harvey Milk. Then in 2008, the biopic Milk introduced him to another generation. Harvey and his legacy will not be forgotten. “Hope will never be silent.”
How to Build a Girl is a quirky endearing coming of age movie. Set in mid-90s England, it concentrates on sixteen-year-old outcast Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), who is continually bullied at school. While her family is supportive, they are pretty unstable. Plus, the only “people” she can talk to are the pictures of famous figures on her wall that come to life in her fantasies. She’s desperately yearning for something to happen in her life and take her out of this mess. That something arrives in the form of a job at an indie rock magazine.
At first the douchey all-male staff dismisses Johanna, but she manages to win them over with her genuine writing talent. She takes it a step further by reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a brash, biting music critic. Armed with a new persona and look (shocking red hair and even louder outfits), Johanna’s star quickly rises. But she soon realizes that she doesn’t necessarily like the girl she has become.
The movie is adapted from Caitlin Moran’s memoir and her life makes for an unusual yet enjoyable story. You root for Johanna to succeed and cringe when she falls on her face. Feldstein is extremely charming in the role. She brings both heart and the humor to her character. I also thought it was great that director Coky Giedroyc wasn’t afraid to show Johanna as a sexual person. She hops from man to man, like a sexual anthropologist. Usually with plus-sized women in movies, their sexuality is downplayed or ignored. Giedroyc puts it all out there in a frank manner.
I liked the overall message of the film: being comfortable in your skin and owning who you are despite what others think. Johanna sees that she has built herself up into someone she doesn’t recognize, so she breaks it all down and rebuilds. She ultimately becomes the person she is most proud of. It’s something anyone can identify with, in your teen years and beyond.
It wasn’t until a few days after seeing Girl that I realized how much it reminded me of the 1994 comedy Muriel’s Wedding. They each feature outrageous young women that don’t fit in with the popular crowd and decide to make themselves over into someone new. Both protagonists have oddball families. Plus, music (ABBA, indie rock) is featured heavily. Feldstein’s Johanna also has a similar affable energy as Toni Collette’s Muriel. The two films would make a great double feature. Maybe at a drive-in.
Iconic musician Stevie Wonder turns 70 today. He’s definitely one of those artists who created the soundtrack to our lives. I first discovered him in the 80s with “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. The song, from the movie The Woman in Red, was everywhere in 1984. It topped several Billboard charts and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. People, including me, just love Stevie.
“Fame, I’m gonna live forever!” Or for at least 40 years. Back in the 80s, Fame gave a fresh take on the big screen musical and instantly left a mark on pop culture. The movie follows eight students (musicians, actors, dancers) at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Working from a script written by Christopher Gore, director Alan Parker captures all the highs and lows over a four-year period. Let’s remember, remember, remember, remember (yeah, I did it) Fame.
During the audition process we meet the fresh hopefuls looking to secure a spot at the prestigious PA school. Coco (Irene Cara) is a confident triple threat. Bruno (Lee Curreri) is the innovative musician. Lisa (Laura Dean) lacks confidence and direction, but still manages to get into the dance department. Shy Doris (Maureen Teefy) gets pushed into auditioning by her overbearing stage mother. She’s joined in the drama dept. by closeted Montgomery (Paul McCrane) and class clown Ralph (Barry Miller). Rounding out the group is Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), who quickly impresses with his dancing. Parker cuts between the main characters and a bunch of other wannabes, establishing the culture of the school. Everyone is striving for something.
The kids arrive for freshman year (with the thoughtful “Dogs in the Yard” playing over a montage) where they discover that PA is not an easy school. It’s especially difficult for Leroy since he’s illiterate. I could have done without the stereotypical “inner city youth who can’t read and the hard-nosed teacher (Ann Meara) who pushes him to learn” storyline. But it was 1980, so what do you expect? Doris and Montgomery become fast friends as the awkward outsiders. She worries she’s not colorful enough for this school. Whereas he is trying to blend into the background.
The big rousing number in this year is “Hot Lunch Jam”. The students dance on tables, bang on the piano, and sing about macaroni and baloney. It’s a fun song.
Hilary (Antonia Franceschi) arrives on the scene in the dance department and promptly pisses off Coco by going after her boyfriend, Leroy. Lisa is kicked out of the department by her harsh teacher. We think she’s going to jump in front of a subway train, but she just dumps her dance gear on the tracks instead. I’m glad Gore spared the audience from the usual teen suicide story. It would have been too afterschool special. Meanwhile, Montgomery comes out to his drama class. A safe space for a gay guy if there ever was one.
Bruno is reluctant to share his music with others, so his enthusiastic dad, a taxi driver, steals his tape and blasts it from his cab outside of the school. In the most over the top musical moment in the film, students rush out of their classes and start dancing in the street, or on top of cars, as “Fame” plays. Off-screen the song was huge, going to number #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Doris comes out of her shell and rebels against her bossy mother. She also falls for Ralph, leaving Montgomery out in the cold. He expresses his loneliness with “Is it Okay if I Call You Mine”, a very pretty sad ballad.
My favorite song on the soundtrack, “Out Here on My Own”, is featured in this year. Coco’s vocals and the beautiful piano accompanying her are perfect. The track became the film’s second hit single and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. It was the first time two songs from the same movie were nominated.
Ralph’s stand-up comedy career takes off, but his need to party like a Belushi after his shows hurts his personal life. Luckily, he comes down to earth before something tragic happens. Meanwhile, Hilary gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. She won’t let a baby get in the way of her ballet career. On a better note, Leroy is offered a spot in Alvin Ailey’s dance company.
In the worst moment in the movie, a sleazy producer manipulates Coco into taking off her top for a “screen test”. She’s sobbing as the camera rolls. But there’s no follow up since we don’t see her again until the end of the film. I would have liked to see more of her POV. Without that, the scene feels exploitative. Maybe that was the point, to show how terribly young women trying to break into the industry are treated. Still, it could have been handled better by Parker and Gore. That’s actually a recurring problem I have with the film. They’re constantly bouncing around from character to character. I wish there was more of a plot and time to flesh out these stories.
The finale comes with the graduation ceremony and a performance of “I Sing the Body Electric”. Lisa, Coco, and Montgomery have solos, Leroy dances; and Bruno plays the piano, finally sharing his music with the world. The lyrics talk about looking forward to the you yet to come and knowing you’ll shine brightly then. It’s appropriate for these kids with their dreams of success, yearning to shed their old skin and be reborn as stars. I also like the arrangement with the full orchestra, rock band, and choir. The song does get schmaltzy, but it’s still works for me. It’s a touching end to the movie and a great sendoff for these characters headed towards their next chapter.
On Friday, May 9, 1980, Paramount Pictures released Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. The low budget horror film about a serial killer picking off camp counselors was a surprise hit that year. It proved that a simple premise with genuine scares can go a long way. A thousand sequels followed, but none of them matched the original. Here are the five scariest moments from the movie.
5. Don’t Have Sex
The film opens at Camp Crystal Lake in the 1950s. An amorous young couple sneaks off to a storage room to get busy. They don’t count on a killer joining them. Not the kind of threesome you want. They’re cornered and quickly murdered. This is a prime example of why you shouldn’t have sex of any kind in a horror movie. But, if you do, have an escape route.
4. In the bathroom
Here’s one reason I’m not into camping: the bathroom situation. I have zero interest in walking through the woods to get to a toilet or a shower. Especially when a psycho could we hanging out in there. Marcie (Jeannie Taylor) thinks her friends are playing a trick on her, waiting to pop out from one of the shower stalls. The tension builds as we watch her pull back every curtain. But then, surprise, the killer is actually behind her and Marcie gets an ax to the face.
While Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Marcie were having sex (don’t do it!), a dead body was above them, on the top bunk, and the killer was underneath their bed. That’s a sinister sandwich. After Marcie exits, the killer drives an arrow through Jack’s throat from below. It’s disgustingly bloody. On a side note, back in the day I worked for Laura Kightlinger’s agent and got to know the actress/writer a little. Great woman. Laura worked on Will & Grace. Kevin Bacon guest starred on W&G. So that makes me two degrees away from Kevin Bacon. Kinda.
2. Kill her, Mommy, kill her
If you’ve seen Friday the 13th or the first Scream, you know that Mrs. Voorhies (Betsy Palmer) is the killer, out to avenge her son’s death. She seems like a sweet middle-aged mom when she pops up towards the end of the movie. But she quickly shows her crazy ways and it’s quite frightening, especially when she speaks in Jason’s voice. Mommy has gone around the bend. She chases Alice (Adrienne King) through the camp in a series of near misses. Alice manages to get the upper hand and chops her head off. In slow-motion.
1. Beneath the surface
After Alice has wacked Mrs. V., she decides to climb into a canoe and take a nap. Sure. She wakes up the next morning in the middle of the lake. Tranquil piano music plays as she looks at her reflection in the peaceful water. Then a deformed zombie-like Jason suddenly surfaces, dragging her into the lake. It’s one of the best last scares in a horror movie. If that doesn’t scare the bejezus out of you, you’re already lacking in bejezus.
Ryan Murphy’s latest project, Hollywood, concentrates on the infamous movie industry town in the post-WWII 1940s. But this isn’t a straight up version of what happened back then. Instead, Murphy takes a detour and imagines “what if”. What if a black woman could have been the lead in a major motion picture? What if a woman ran the studio? Or what if a gay man was able to come out and still have a career?
A variety of characters bring this vision to life. Jack Costello (David Corenswet) is an actor who dreams of making it big in the movies. Unfortunately, he can’t get work and needs to support his family. That leads him to Ernie (Dylan McDermott) a colorful character who runs a gas station that is front for a prostitution ring. The attendants are all hot guys who fulfill the needs of customers looking to go to “Dreamland”. Jack’s first client is Avis (Patti Lupone), a former actress who is neglected by her brash studio boss husband, Ace (Rob Reiner). We also meet longtime Ace Studio executives Dick (Joe Mantello) and Ellen (Holland Taylor). Then there’s black aspiring ingenue Camille (Laura Harrier), her Filipino director boyfriend Raymond (Darren Criss), and Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter. The show also includes real people from the era. Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) was an Asian actress who never got the chance to break out of the stereotypical roles Hollywood put her in. Murphy seeks to rectify that. Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) was one of the slimiest talent managers in town. He sexually abused his clients, young men who trusted him with their careers. Parsons is fantastic at playing this reptilian character. Henry’s most famous client was debonair matinee idol Rock Hudson (Jake Picking). I’m a big Hudson fan, but this particular portrayal is horrible. He’s written as a clueless buffoon, stumbling in every scene. It’s a weird choice.
After the first few episodes, the new reality begins. Ace has a heart attack and is sidelined in the hospital. This allows Avis to step in and run the studio. She greenlights Meg, a film directed by Raymond, written by Archie, and starring Camille. None of these people would have been able to reach these goals in the actual 1940s, but in Murphy’s world all of the “others” can finally win. It’s an exciting concept to push aside the old straight white men and let someone else have the power. The problem I found, though, was the execution. Murphy hits us over the head with how monumental these fictional events would have been. Think of what it would have meant to a little black girl to see Camille on the big screen. And then he cuts to that girl. The same thing is done with a black gay man and an Asian family reacting to Archie and Anna’s successes. He doesn’t just show us, but also continually puts it in the dialogue. You can only hear people go on and on about their previously unattainable dreams before it begins to sound trite. I get it, this is a big deal. The other thing is that these triumphs are reached with very little pushback. It comes too easy, eliminating any tension in the plot.
On the plus side, the production is gorgeous. Murphy and crew meticulously recreate the decade through the sets, costumes, and music. Lupone’s hats deserve their own special Emmy. The younger actors are very charismatic, particularly Costello and Pope. I also liked the inclusion of the veteran actors who get to do a lot of heavy lifting. Seeing Mantello, Holland, McDermott, and Lupone in scenes together is captivating. I only wish that the story matched the strength of the other elements in the series.
In 1990, prolific director Sidney Lumet released his latest feature film, Q&A. The plot focuses on Michael Brennan (Nick Nolte), a New York City cop who has murdered a criminal in cold blood and made it look like self-defense. A young rising district attorney, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), is assigned to what he’s told will be a simple case. As he digs deeper, he discovers Brennan’s complicated misdeeds. The veteran cop bullies and intimidates witnesses, covers his tracks with lies, and ultimately kills to keep his secrets. He’s empowered by higher ups in the system who look the other way or mobsters who provide the additional muscle he needs. But Al refuses to enable Brennan. He’s committed to upholding the law, even if it could get him killed.
During his investigation, Al encounters Bobby Texador (Armand Assante), a notorious drug boss who witnessed the murder. He’s a colorful character that just so happens to be dating Al’s ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet). Al still loves her and regrets the breakup. This is actually one problem I found with the movie. Every time Al and Nancy are on screen together the movie grinds to a halt. Nobody cares. The audience for this film didn’t come to see a stale love story. The better interactions are between Hutton and Nolte or Hutton and Assante. They are all excellent in their roles and have great chemistry.
Lumet adapted the screenplay from Edwin Torres’ novel of the same name and it’s easy to see why he was drawn to the material. The book uses themes that the director had explored before in his movies (Serpico, Prince of the City, The Verdict): corruption, abuse of power, and the little guy fighting back against it all. Lumet expertly weaves a David & Goliath story into a crime thriller, adding complexity to the gritty action. The film also touches on issues of race, class, and sexuality. The last one, specifically how the LGBT characters are treated, could have been executed better though.
Q&A didn’t perform well at the box office or get a lot of acclaim from the critics, but I find it to be an interesting film. Even though Lumet has gone down this road before he manages to cover the material from a fresh perspective. It’s still worth taking a look all these years later.
Al Pacino celebrates a milestone birthday today, turning 80 years old. Throughout his iconic career he has set a high bar for acting…and sometimes overacting. It doesn’t look like he’ll be retiring anytime soon either. Earlier this year, he received his 9th Oscar nomination for playing Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman. He also starred in the new Amazon series, Hunters. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Hoo-ah!