‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’ Film Review: Teen Detective Returns in Mostly Empowering 21st Century Version

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The character of Nancy Drew, a teenaged girl detective, was first introduced in a series of books in 1930, and she was played on screen in that era by Bonita Granville in B-movies that coarsened and diluted the dynamic force that Nancy had on the page. Many prominent women who grew up in the mid-20th century have said that Nancy was an inspiration to them because she was ultra-confident, smart, and very active; she is often shown holding a flashlight on the cover of the books and looking bold and un-afraid.

The Drew books were written by a variety of ghostwriters under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, and of course there have been adjustments made over time to bring her up to date, not always for the better. In the 1980s, Drew was sometimes drawn on the book covers in a sexualized way, and she became more interested in boys while she was solving crimes.

Andrew Fleming made a “Nancy Drew” film in 2007 that starred Emma Roberts, but its mixed reception meant that there were no sequels to it. And now there’s “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” which goes back to the original source material, “The Hidden Staircase,” the second volume in the series in 1930 and the reported favorite of Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the first series of books.

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Redheaded star Sophia Lillis, who made an impression in “It,” is holding a flashlight on the poster for this film, a sign that the creators are interested in returning to the forcefulness of the original character. (Ellen DeGeneres is one of the film’s producers.) Lillis’ Nancy is first seen skateboarding in slight slow motion under the credits, gracefully moving through her town to a song on the soundtrack that has the insistent refrain, “I’m more than just a girl.” This sequence is smoothly edited by Richard Nord (“The Fugitive”) and composed by cinematographer Edd Lukas (“David Crosby: Remember My Name”), but shots later in the film involving several people in the frame together can sometimes look a little unbalanced.

Director Katt Shea, who helmed the camp classic Drew Barrymore vehicle “Poison Ivy,” and writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) position this Nancy as very social media-savvy and loyal to her female friends. When Bess (Mackenzie Graham) is humiliated online by a boy named Derek (Evan Castelloe, “Sharp Objects”), Nancy takes revenge on him by putting dye in the shower where he works out, turning his skin blue.

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This instinct for vengeance on Nancy’s part is discouraged by her father Carson Drew (Sam Trammell), a very decent, crusading lawyer and recent widower. Most of the early Nancy Drew books had her losing her mother at a fairly young age, but this picture makes her grief recent. The theme of female vengeance for male wrongdoing is successfully developed throughout “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” and this feels persuasive and very of-the-moment.

More questionable is the sex-positive feminism here. Linda Lavin plays the juicy role of Flora, an older woman whose house might be haunted. “I have stared down communism, and my choice of cocktail is none of your business!” Flora cries to a law enforcement officer who is skeptical about her claims that ghosts inhabit her house. This odd back-story non sequitur is one of the things that leads Nancy to befriend Flora, who used to be a burlesque dancer named Strawberry Deville. When Flora wonders if she has had too many lovers recently, Nancy winningly cries, “Never!”

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But Bess, who loves chemistry, is pushed to put on make-up, style her hair, and wear tight and revealing clothing all so that she can feel “empowered,” and this is more difficult to take. Does a girl’s confidence always have to depend on feeling attractive and sexy as a foundation? Couldn’t Bess find happiness and personal fulfillment without this makeover?

“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is clearly made by people who have thought through the material and tried to make it enjoyable and palatable, but the set-up at the end for further sequels feels a little too hopeful. Nancy Drew has always been popular in book form, but she has never quite had staying power whenever she has been put on screen. The reasons for this are far from clear, but it’s notable that this Nancy has to be given a flashlight by a hunky police officer who always has her back, whereas the Nancy Drew who inspired so many women is someone who wouldn’t and shouldn’t need that kind of help.



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‘Adam’ Film Review: LGBT Comedy Struggles to Balance Sexy Wit and Serious Intent

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“Adam,” the directorial debut of Rhys Ernst, a producer on Amazon’s “Transparent,” has a lot of first-film problems. It’s overly ambitious, it has too many characters, and it tries to do too much. But there is also a lot here that feels fresh and original, particularly in the first half, which takes in a lot of new territory — both thematic and geographic — with a pleasing light touch.

Most films set in Manhattan don’t capture the flavor and intensity of the city, but “Adam” is an exception. In spite of any budgetary limitations he may have had, Ernst makes sure that this coming-of-age story is alive with specific places and references that fix it in the year 2006.

That’s when 18-year-old virgin Adam (Nicholas Alexander) goes to visit his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley, “Novitiate”), who lives communal-style in Manhattan, where she goes to school. The posters on the walls of their living space tell us who these kids are: “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” is a touchstone for both Casey and Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez, “I Love Dick”), a young beauty known for having taken a girl to her prom in a rural Oklahoma town.

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When Adam sees Gillian at a party, he is immediately smitten, and she is also quite taken with him, but there’s a catch: Because he has been hanging around exclusively with Casey’s friends, all of whom are gay, trans, and as gender-queer as they like, Gillian assumes that Adam is a trans man. He tells her that he’s older than he is, and that he goes to school at Berkeley, but he is able to drop those lies fairly quickly. What he can’t seem to do is admit to her that he is a cisgender male.

Alexander and Menuez both have very open faces, and they react and interact with each other in a pleasingly natural, unguarded way. Their mutual openness makes them ideal for all the scenes here where Ernst leads them (and us) into spaces we don’t usually get to see in movies. There’s a lively camaraderie captured in the group scene where Casey and her friends all sit and watch “The L Word” together, a sense that we are seeing a social group behaving as they would if unobserved by a camera.

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“Adam” is a nostalgic period piece — these kids are all on flip phones and rarely go on the Internet. When they want to socialize, they have to go out, and they go out to some pretty raunchy places. Ernst takes his camera into a legendary lesbian bar in the East Village called The Hole, which features thumping music, graffiti-ed walls and horny clientele. There’s a very funny character portrait here of a 30-year-old female poet who confesses, “Can I tell you a secret? I want to be a star!” before taking Adam into the restroom for some action that he isn’t ready for.

Ernst also matter-of-factly takes us and Adam on a tour of a lesbian S&M bar, where Adam is afraid of being caught out. He puts a leather hood on to disguise himself before asking Gillian to go after he sees his sister Casey having sex on stage. His reason? He tells Gillian he finds the very wild club “boring,” which is exactly what this kid would say to get himself out of there and still seem cool.

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“Adam” often feels like it wants to bloom into an all-out farce, but Ernst is much too cautious for that. His framing is very centered and orderly, to a nearly Wes Anderson degree, and his intentions are earnest. He wants to make an enjoyable film with a novel social backdrop, but he also wants to make a statement on trans lives, and the lightmess of the comedy-drama gradually starts to collapse under the weight of this intention.

The relationship between Adam and Gillian is complicated and new enough to sustain interest for the length of a film, but Ernst and his screenwriter Ariel Schrag, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, begin to pile on characters and conflicts and speeches and confrontations, and rather than rise organically out of the material, they feel shoehorned in. Before that happens, however, “Adam” feels like a very original take on a romantic gender situation that could be described as Shakespearean, if Shakespeare had written crucial scenes involving strap-ons.

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‘Replicas’ Film Review: Keanu Reeves’ Robo-Clone Thriller Flirts With Unintentional Laughs

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Keanu Reeves plays a doctor at an experimental research facility in the amusingly unconvincing “Replicas,” which is set in a Puerto Rico that looks like it has sustained no damage at all from Hurricane Maria, a visual decision that suits the totally unrealistic movie.

Reeves’ Will Foster is first seen waiting for a donated brain that is being brought to him via helicopter, and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (“Traitor”) cross-cuts between Reeves anxiously staring at his watch and the brain being rushed into the facility. During an operation to place this brain into a robot body, Dr. Foster is asked, “Do you concur?” by a colleague and Reeves cries, “I concur!” in that ineffably stilted but enthusiastic Keanu-ish way.

Dr. Foster plays Dr. Frankenstein with this robot, urging it to relax once its brain has been turned on; the robot freaks out and tears itself apart, but nevertheless, Foster is encouraged. “This one spoke!” he cries optimistically before going home to his picture-perfect blonde wife Mona (Alice Eve) and their three rambunctious children. Mona has been given one line of dialogue here about being a doctor, but she looks and behaves like a personal trainer.

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It’s obvious that this “fill-in-the-blank” family is doomed from the moment they get in a car, even before it starts to rain and they have a near-miss collision with another car and then a tree quickly smashes through their windshield. This sequence of events is so rushed and careless that when Foster arranges the corpses of his family very neatly out on a road, it feels like he is just raking some leaves in his backyard.

Foster calls his work colleague and friend Ed (Thomas Middleditch), and when Ed sees the dead bodies he asks, “What the hell happened, man?” in such an un-excited, deadpan stoner way that it seems like the filmmakers might have been going for an intentional laugh here at the expense of their would-be narrative.

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In no time at all, Reeves’ Foster is taking the corpses home and urging Ed to help him clone them. “I’m not a freakin’ genie here,” Ed says in his usual detached way while Reeves cries things like, “Boot the mapping sequence in!” and speaks of the “neurofibrillary tangles” of memory. Foster sits down and processes the memories of his children and wife in a virtual-reality setting, but all we see are red veins flowing along while we hear innocuous meal-time-like shouts and murmurs.

Foster feigns illness to stay at home and work on his clone family, even though his boss Jones (John Ortiz) is demanding results for their robot-brain project. “I have to watch the pods!” Foster exclaims on the phone to Ed, just one of many line readings from Reeves that might earn an unintentional laugh from those who enjoy unintentional laughs.

The plotting of “Replicas” is so chaotic and overstuffed that a subplot where Foster continues text-message conversations for his dead children is swiftly introduced and then dropped, even though it has potential as an idea. The clone family is kept in water, and Ed warns Foster that they will age rapidly if they are not released soon. When clone Mona wakes up and things seem fine with her, Ed mutters, “We’re talkin’ Nobel Prize, right?” in his usual non-committed style.

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There are two instances in “Replicas” when a needle is plunged directly into an eye on screen, and this ocular violence seems wholly unnecessary and nasty given the “we couldn’t care less” vibe of all the other scenes. When Jones is turned into a villain who wants to monetize Foster’s findings, his dialogue is so ineptly would-be suave that it comes close to sounding surreal.

The chief distinction of “Replicas” is how detached it often is from the expected sense of words and images. There is a single shot of Reeves bolting down a hallway of his home in half-silhouette that carries a sense of urgency, and this shot sticks out because practically every other shot in the movie is so perfunctory.

Towards the end of “Replicas,” it is revealed that Foster deleted one of his three children out of scientific necessity, but this doesn’t seem to matter to anyone as much as the consistently silly delivery of lines like “Upload my neural map!” The neural map of “Replicas” is so lacking in meaningful activity that it might have been made by robots.



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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Film Review: Barry Jenkins Grapples With James Baldwin’s Prose in Powerful Drama

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Faith in a very pure romantic attraction between two people was the dramatic core of Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” and that same faith is the animating principle of his much-anticipated follow-up “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a rich but very unwieldy adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.

“Moonlight” originated in a story from the gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Jenkins was able to make the narrative of that sensitive film his own by applying a poetic kind of stealth to the subjective visuals. But the Baldwin of “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes for a much more demanding and intimidating authorial basis for a movie.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, “Race”) have known each other since they were children. Jenkins’s film, like Baldwin’s novel, is told from Tish’s point of view and moves backward and forward in time in a way that suggests puzzle pieces scattered out on a table.

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Tish is 19 years old and Fonny 22 when they first begin to love each other in a romantic, adult, and sexual fashion, and Jenkins begins his movie with a shot of them walking together. They stare into each other’s eyes and seem to get lost there, but that process is abruptly halted when we learn that Fonny has been put in jail for a crime he did not commit. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says on the soundtrack. We see her meeting with Fonny in prison and telling him that she is pregnant with his child.

There is a formality to the language here and to the heightened, rather torturously plotted dramatic situations, and so Jenkins wisely tries to put everything across visually as simply as possible. This is not a director’s performance type of movie as “Moonlight” was but more like a test of skill and imagination. What needs to really be stressed in any assessment of “If Beale Street Could Talk” is just how difficult Baldwin’s source material is to translate into a film.

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Toward the beginning of this movie, there is an outsized, Shakespearean confrontation scene between Tish and her parents and Fonny’s family, which is dominated by his very religious mother Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Tish tells us on the soundtrack that Mrs. Hunt both disapproves of her as a mate for her son and also sometimes thinks that Fonny deserves her as a kind of punishment. This sort of deep-dish psychological observation sounds very literary, and when we hear it as narration and then see how Mrs. Hunt behaves, the effect feels somehow unbalanced, or top-heavy.

There is a sense sometimes in “If Beale Street Could Talk” that Tish’s narration competes with the imagery rather than deepening it. There are worse problems a film can have than overly brilliant writing, of course, but it is Baldwin’s lyric talent that puts over the tangled plot he chose, and Jenkins might have had an easier time if he had simplified this plot somewhat and cut down on the novelistic sprawl.

Fonny has been falsely accused of rape by Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a Latinx woman who has fled to Puerto Rico after picking Fonny out in a line-up. It is made clear that Fonny has been railroaded by a white cop who has it in for him, and it is also made clear that Victoria has been raped, just not by Fonny. But a narrative that revolves around a false rape charge has unfortunate resonances in this particular American moment.

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“If Beale Street Could Talk” contains some indelible moments, none more so than a brief scene involving Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), who goes down to Puerto Rico to try to convince Victoria to save Fonny. When she gets to her hotel room, Sharon tries on a wig that she brought for the occasion, and then she slowly takes it off. Sharon is tired of the falseness of this wig, and King gets across how deep this tiredness goes.

And so it feels tragic when the next scene shows Sharon wearing the wig, which has the unintended consequence of making her look too slickly armored and insincere to the man she has come to see about Victoria. (In Baldwin’s novel, Sharon covers her head with a shawl, and Jenkins’s use of a wig instead really adds something emotional and profound to the drama.)

In this sequence in Puerto Rico, and in other scenes of attempted connection and disconnection between people, Jenkins shows some of the talent he displayed in “Moonlight.” This is a film worth grappling with, even if Baldwin’s own talent has a diva-like way of pulling the focus back to his book and away from what we are seeing on the screen.



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‘The Marriage’ Film Review: Kosovo’s Oscar Entry Spins a Tale of Gay Love in Wartime

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The problem with “The Marriage,” a well-meaning but structurally lopsided first feature from Yugoslavian director Blerta Zeqiri, is that the marriage plot of the title is so much less interesting than the love plot at its core.

This is a film that takes place in a cold, snowy climate, and the main male character Bekim (Alban Ukaj) and his fiancée Anita (Adriana Matoshi) are bundled up in the first scene as they wait outside a center for missing persons. (Anita’s parents have been missing for over 15 years.) When Bekim and Anita enter the center, we see people placing long-stemmed flowers down on numbered segments that carry the found bones of their loved ones.

The Kosovo War of the late 1990s hangs over this narrative, because any story set in Yugoslavia has to deal with it in some way. But the character of Anita in “The Marriage” does not seem affected in any way by the trauma of that war or the loss of her parents. She is somewhat bland and superficial and an easy laugher, and we spend an inordinate amount of time with her as she picks out her wedding dress.

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We also spend a long time with Anita as she hangs out with Bekim and his old friend Nol (Genc Salihu) at the bar that Bekim runs. Nol went to live in Paris and he has become a musician of some renown, and he keeps hinting that he is in love and that it is a “Romeo and Juliet” sort of situation. “Is Juliet a Serb?” Anita asks, in her slightly ditzy way. She tells a long joke about a copulating couple that either loses something in the subtitle translation or is supposed to be aimless and bad.

This scene in the bar is very flat, as is a flashback scene where we see Anita hanging out with her female friends and meeting Bekim for the first time. (Apparently all of her former boyfriends have been “jug-eared” and so her girlfriends think that Bekim is just right for her.) Bekim and Anita arm-wrestle on this first meeting, which is not generally the sort of thing men do with women they are attracted to. But Anita remains eternally clueless here.

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Back in the present, Bekim turns down two guys who want to throw a party at his bar for “the LGBT community,” and Ukaj makes certain that we see how much of Bekim’s anger is based on repression and a feeling of helplessness. Up until this point, Anita has been an innocuous character, but she edges her way into very unsympathetic territory when she sends Bekim a text message of a pregnancy test that she downloaded from the Internet just to scare him.

“The Marriage” suddenly comes to life in the present-day scene where Bekim makes love to Nol after Nol is gay-bashed. (The thugs who beat Nol up say they must “exterminate” him, and they talk about Hitler.) When Bekim takes Nol home from the police station after this assault, they immediately have to go to bed together. The beautiful thing here is that Nol has to be treated very gently at first because of the wounds on his back, but once they get going it seems as if the physical damage Nol has suffered disappears for him because he loves having sex with Bekim so much.

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There is a super-charged flashback to when Bekim and Nol first knew each other during the war, when Nol was a tenant in a house run by Bekim’s mother. We see them singing “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” together, and Bekim is like a totally different person here: wearing an ornate red shirt, happy and relaxed, and even doing a loving imitation of Louis Armstrong. Later that night, Bekim and Nol laugh about the fact that the war has given them a cover for their romance, and they would like the war to continue so that they can go on loving each other.

In these two scenes, where Ukaj and Salihu display a great deal of chemistry, it becomes clear that “The Marriage” should have been about the love between Bekim and Nol in wartime followed by a brief coda where Bekim forces himself to get married. Nothing having to do with either Anita or the marriage itself is as compelling as the love affair between these two men.

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‘Amazing Grace’ Film Review: Aretha Franklin Lives in This Resplendent Gospel Concert Film

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Aretha Franklin was at the peak of her career and her creative powers when her gospel album “Amazing Grace” was released in 1972. (It sold more than two million copies and became her best-selling record.) Director Sydney Pollack was hired by Warner Brothers to make a film of Franklin’s recording session for this album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, but Pollack didn’t use a clapperboard to synchronize picture and sound at the beginning of each take, and so he was unable to complete the movie, which sat in storage for 38 years.

The footage was handed over to producer Alan Elliott in 2008, and Elliott managed to salvage the project, but then Franklin sued him and prevented him from showing the movie at various film festivals. After Franklin’s death this year, Elliott was given the go-ahead by her estate to finally show “Amazing Grace” in theaters, and if anything was worth such a long wait, this movie would be it.

“Amazing Grace,” the album, runs an hour and a half, which is close to the running time of this film. (There is a complete version of the concert, recorded over two nights, that was released in 1999 and runs two-and-a-half hours.) We get to hear most of the songs on the original album, but the thrill here is that we get to see Franklin in action in that church. We get to be in the room where this happened, and that’s enough to make “Amazing Grace” the film event of the year.

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“Amazing Grace” opens with title cards that explain the “technical reasons” why it wasn’t released 46 years ago. We see Pollack trying to figure out how to film at the church, and it becomes apparent later on in this movie that he was in over his head. It looks like he didn’t have adequate time to prepare; late in the film we see him pointing frantically to a cameraman to get the shot he wants. But the gospel personalities on display in “Amazing Grace” are so powerful, so charismatic, so formidable, that many other directors might have been intimidated and lost in their midst.

The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church is not a modern mega-church. It is small and plain, but the congregants provide all the flair and drama that anyone might wish for. It is a privilege to be in this space with the Rev. James Cleveland, who leads the concert and is Franklin’s real director and co-star here.

Cleveland is a church showman of the old school, and he is highly conscious of the camera. At one point he stops playing for Franklin when she is singing “Amazing Grace” and goes to sit down and weep. Clearly his emotion is genuine, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of using it for effect as a part of the performance.

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Franklin herself is very private and armored when she isn’t singing, as if she doesn’t want to be seen. There is sometimes fear and apprehension in her eyes during non-musical moments, and she often closes her eyes when she sings. Franklin has the hauteur of a queen when she walks up and down the aisles of the church. She is set apart from others by her gift, and she knows it. What comes across most strongly is how hard she has to try to protect herself and protect the gift she has been given.

Mick Jagger is seen clapping along in the back of the church on the second night, and on this second night Cleveland introduces the great gospel singer Clara Ward (who influenced Franklin’s style) and Franklin’s father C.L. Franklin, a small but kingly man she regards with adoration. C.L. addresses the congregation and says that his daughter “synthesized” the styles of Ward and Mahalia Jackson, and it is clear that he viewed Franklin very objectively.

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Every moment of this movie is extraordinarily pleasurable, but the clear highlight from a dramatic standpoint is Franklin’s rendition of “Never Grow Old,” a gospel standard that she had recorded for her first album when she was a teenager. As she accompanies herself on the piano, C.L. gets up and lovingly wipes the sweat off of his daughter’s face, and when he sits down next to Ward, they both beam with pride and reverence at Franklin.

It’s one thing to hear Franklin sing “Never Grow Old” on the “Amazing Grace” album, but it is an otherworldly experience to see her sing it and to watch her father and Ward react to it. Ward starts to cry, but she covers her face. Ward’s mother is so overcome as Franklin sings “Never Grow Old” that she rises up and tries to get to Franklin, and she has to be restrained by others. Cleveland playfully throws a handkerchief at Pollack’s camera as this is going on, and the feeling of ecstatic community steadily intensifies until it seems as if all this could and should go on forever.

“Amazing Grace” is a movie worth seeing and re-seeing and re-seeing again, a testament to the Queen of Soul at the height of her powers, live, in full color, in rich sound, resplendent.



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‘Boy Erased’ Film Review: Gay Conversion Drama Has Powerful Moments But Also Rote Ones

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“Boy Erased,” which is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, is comprised of some strong scenes, some flashy scenes, and some scenes that are just scenes. It makes its argument against gay conversion therapy — a form of torture usually rooted in the self-loathing of the so-called therapist — persuasively. And it is dramatically impressive most of the time, but it is also very messy and uneven.

“Boy Erased” is packed with well-known performers, and this can be distracting. Pop star Troye Sivan and Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan play two of the inmates at a detention center called Love in Action, which is where our teenaged protagonist Jared (Lucas Hedges) is sent by his Baptist minister father (Russell Crowe) after he confesses to homosexual feelings. While Sivan and Dolan will likely bring some attention to this film from their respective fan bases, their presence on screen only emphasizes the public-service-message aspect of this production.

The best performance in the movie comes from Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and directed “Boy Erased.” As the fearsome Victor Sykes, who runs Love in Action with an iron hand, the Australian Edgerton does a convincing Southern accent, and he makes his character into a frightening antagonist. Edgerton exactly captures the forced jocular humor of this sort of man and also the willfulness and the cruelty. Whenever Edgerton’s Sykes is on screen, it always feels as if something very bad could happen at any moment, and this well-intentioned movie needs that jolt of danger.

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Most of “Boy Erased” takes place at the Love in Action center, with some flashbacks to Jared’s past revealed at strategic points. Plenty of disturbing things happen at the center, yet the film’s most upsetting scene is the one where Jared’s desire for a fellow student leads to his rape and then a tearful plea from his rapist to both hear a religious confession and keep what happened secret. Edgerton films the attack in a punishing long take, and then he separates the two boys visually as Jared tries to process what has just happened to him and what is being asked of him afterward.

Hedges has a very difficult job here. He has to play a character who is basically passive and often beaten down in various ways, and there are several points in the narrative where a vise seems to be closing around Jared that he might have real difficulty escaping. Edgerton has filled the Love in Action center with formidable gatekeepers, particularly the mean-minded Michael (David Joseph Craig, “The Gift”), who purveys a very particular sort of iron-jawed Southern boy nastiness.

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As depicted in the film, Love in Action is a place run by men who are clearly repressed themselves, and emotional annihilation is only one of the weapons they brandish at the kids who are in their power. There is a sickening scene where a boy named Cameron (Britton Sear) is beaten with a Bible by his own family members, one of whom appears to be his little sister, who shows a notable reluctance to hurt her older brother but is nonetheless forced to hit him.

In the early scenes of “Boy Erased,” Jared’s mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is shown waiting for him at a hotel and talking to him when he leaves the center for the day. At first it seems inevitable that Nancy will stick up for her son and get him out of there, but Edgerton tightens the screws just enough in the mid-section of the film that we begin to wonder how hard this might eventually be for her.

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“Boy Erased” tends to hit every one of its dramatic beats very hard, but this is effective in the mid-section, because we begin to feel some dread that Jared might be stuck at this place for a year or more and have to forgo college, which is what Mr. Sykes recommends. There is a scene where the inmates hear a father telling off Sykes in the parking lot of the center and yelling at Sykes for “humiliating” his son, and this has power precisely because we never learn what Sykes did to the boy.

Nancy’s essential glamour comes naturally to Kidman, one of the few present-day actresses who can reliably conjure this quality, and the pay-off scene where Nancy stands up for her son is everything we might expect, but the two last scenes that Jared shares with his father don’t feel like life but like written points that need to be made. Nevertheless, what lingers in “Boy Erased” is the sense of malignancy at this conversion center, which Edgerton manages to create as both an actor and a director. This malignancy will hopefully be easier to identify and rectify because this movie exists.



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‘Viper Club’ Film Review: Susan Sarandon Spy Drama Packs a Punch

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The poster and trailer for “Viper Club” makes it look like a hard-driving thriller about a mother (Susan Sarandon) doing anything she can to free her journalist son (Julian Morris, “Man in an Orange Shirt’) from terrorists in Syria. That’s understandable from a marketing standpoint, but “Viper Club” is actually a low-key, elegantly structured drama about the price you need to pay in order to save people’s lives or ease their suffering.

Director Maryam Keshavarz (“Circumstance”), along with co-writer Jonathan Mastro, begins her film with a title that dedicates it to conflict journalists and human aid workers in war zones, and that same earnestness has gone into the film itself, which takes it time to set up Sarandon’s lead character, Helen, who works as an emergency-room nurse.

When the film begins, Helen’s son Andy has been missing for two and a half months. She is meeting with the FBI and trying to go through official channels to free Andy, and the Feds have told her not to speak about her son to anyone. This adds to the pressure at her very demanding job, where none of her co-workers know what Helen is dealing with. The so-called “viper club” of the title is a group of freelance journalists who share information about the war zones they are covering, and Helen has to eventually deal with them when she keeps getting nowhere with her government contacts.

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If another actor were playing Helen, there might be a lot more tension and fear and barely suppressed dramatics, but Sarandon has built her career on an image of laid-back, “I can handle anything” toughness, and Keshavarz has tailored this role so that it plays to all of Sarandon’s strengths, particularly in her extensive scenes at the hospital. Sarandon is a good listener on screen, and that works very well here because so many of her scenes involve her listening to what someone is telling her and taking it in.

Sarandon has always been very believable as someone who works for a living at a rough job where she needs to roll with the punches, and Keshavarz expertly dramatizes the two sides of this story so that Helen’s hospital life and her life on the outside, where she is trying to free her son, increasingly start to correspond and comment on each other.

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There is a carefulness to the way the narrative of “Viper Club” is set up, so that certain elements that are planted in the first hour start to pay off in the second. At one point we see Helen staring longingly up at the ceiling of an ornate church, and so we’re led to wonder if she is religious or once had some kind of religious faith. It’s just a moment that isn’t lingered over, but we have been prepared for the later sequence where Helen finally does go to church to pray for her son. And if we know that Sarandon herself is a lapsed Catholic — she has spoken about this in interviews for many years — this scene has an extra resonance.

Keshavarz exhibits the same layered sort of sensitivity when it comes to the scenes that Helen shares with Charlotte (Edie Falco), a very wealthy woman who got her own son out of captivity by raising large amounts of money. “Can I ask you a personal question?” Charlotte says as she sits with Helen at a fancy restaurant, and Sarandon’s Helen takes a definite and weighty pause before answering, “Sure.” The impact of that pause is an example of the wariness of both Sarandon herself as a performer and Keshavarz as a director.

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There are times in “Viper Club” when the same patience that Keshavarz brings to so many of the scenes can feel slightly dawdling. It’s admirable in many ways that this movie refuses to behave as a conventional thriller, but there are moments when a little conventional dramatic tightening might have put the story over in a more gripping way.

“Viper Club” is partly about how Helen has to stop being so guarded and show her emotions when she is forced to make a video directly addressing the terrorists who are holding her son. The full impact of this open expression of emotion and what it costs Helen doesn’t quite come across the way it needs to or could, but the ending is so gracefully shaped and delivered that this can be forgiven. This is a slow-burning movie, but its stealth and intelligence eventually packs an emotional punch.



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‘The Happy Prince’ Film Review: Rupert Everett Gets Under Oscar Wilde’s Skin

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Dramatizations of the life of playwright Oscar Wilde usually dwell on his sentence to prison with hard labor for homosexuality. The films “Oscar Wilde” and “The Trials of Oscar Wilde,” both of which came out in 1960, put the emphasis on his downfall, as did the biopic “Wilde” from 1997 and numerous theatrical productions, such as “Gross Indecency.”

Rupert Everett played Wilde in a revival of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss” in 2012 in London, and now he returns to the role in “The Happy Prince,” which he also wrote and directed. Everett shows little sense of how to structure his material, or how to shoot it, or even sometimes how to act it, but he does have one key element that sees him through: keen insight into Wilde’s world and character. And this insight gets him pretty far here.

“The Happy Prince” begins with title cards explaining who Wilde was and his success as a witty playwright, and also his trial and prison sentence. We see Everett’s Wilde telling a fairy tale to his two young sons in a hushed voice, and then the narrative jumps forward 10 years to a post-prison Wilde in Paris accepting a small sum of money from a female fan whose husband hurls verbal abuse at him.

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Everett’s Wilde puts rouge on his face to go out for the evening in Paris, where he meets up with a pair of brothers, one young and one of age, and he pays to sleep with the older one. As Wilde basks in post-coital bliss afterward, he seems to be relishing the mixture of sordidness and beauty in his surroundings, the bug that runs along the surface of the bed and the way the light makes his naked trick look like a marble statue. Everett understands that Wilde is fully capable of happiness in his reduced circumstances, and he convincingly projects this stolen joy and also a formidable playfulness.

Everett first came to prominence as a male beauty in 1980s British period films like “Another Country” and “Dance With a Stranger,” and he was particularly dashing as the object of desire in the Harold Pinter-scripted “The Comfort of Strangers.” After his success in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in 1997, Everett was publicly out of the closet long before it was seen as safe or viable for an actor. He became known as a public wit and provocateur who spoke with candor even about his own deficiencies as an actor.

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Everett can do Wilde’s wit and his anger, and he can just about approximate his sorrow, too. But the real value of “The Happy Prince” lies in the way that Everett understands the codes and humor of Wilde and his social circle. There is a moment in this movie where Wilde’s long-suffering friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) calls Wilde a “professional masochist,” and Everett does a delightfully old-school gay reaction to this by widening his eyes in a way that signals, “You’ve hit a nerve!” and “How dare you!” and “I love it!” all at once. This way of relating between gay men is on the verge of extinction, and so it’s worth preserving in a story about this most famous of gay martyrs.

As Wilde’s wife Constance, Emily Watson is able to get across her character’s pain and stodginess all in just a few telling moments, and Colin Morgan (“Humans”), who plays Wilde’s hateful lover Bosie, has the kind of cheekbones worth throwing your life away for. When Wilde tells the loyal Robbie that Robbie is not “grand enough or rough enough” to really hold his attention romantically as Bosie does, Everett reveals his full understanding of what drives this man.

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Everett makes clear in “The Happy Prince” that Wilde is a pariah not just within heterosexual society but also within groups of gay youths who jeer at him out of spite and self-hatred. There is nothing sentimental here or self-consciously gloomy, as there is in other films about Wilde. It finally matters very little that “The Happy Prince” is haphazardly written and awkwardly directed because Everett is an intelligent man who has a deep imaginative connection to Wilde and his wit and his cruising and his whole worldview.

“I’ve spent all my ready cash on youth and beauty,” Everett’s Wilde announces languidly towards the end of “The Happy Prince.” It is a measure of Everett’s toughness that he says this in a way that lets us know that Wilde enjoyed doing this, and he would gladly do it again.



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‘Studio 54’ Film Review: Disco Doc Skims the Surface Like Club Owners Skimming Profits

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The nightclub Studio 54 sought to be a disco paradise in the 1970s, a utopia made up of sex, drugs, dancing, and celebrity display. Many gay men of a certain age in Manhattan still claim to have been one of the shirtless waiters in tight shorts at Studio 54, and like so much else about that club, these claims are hard to verify.

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”) sits down with the two surviving co-owners of the club, Ian Schrager and Jack Dushey (the latter functioned as a silent partner), and tries to get them to reveal the tale behind its rise and fall, but this often proves difficult for him. Steve Rubell, the exuberant public face of Studio 54, died of AIDS-related complications in 1989, and so he isn’t around to tell his part of the story. The feeling persists in “Studio 54” that we are very far from hearing what really happened there.

Tyrnauer centers his movie around interviews with Schrager, who is a very guarded guy. It comes out mid-way through the film that Schrager’s father was an associate of gangster Meyer Lansky who was nicknamed “Max the Jew,” and Schrager is cagy about how much he wants to reveal about himself and his background to Tyrnauer. The heterosexual Schrager was best friends from college on with Rubell, a gay guy who was closeted when he needed to be. At Rubell’s funeral, we are told that Rubell’s mother asked, “Why didn’t Steve ever get married?”

Watch Video: Director Matt Tyrnauer on the Untold Story of ‘Studio 54’

It was Rubell’s mother who did the bookkeeping for Studio 54, which self-destructed around three years after its flashy opening in 1977 when Feds discovered enormous amounts of money and some drugs hidden on the premises. As one federal agent says here, if you’re going to skim money off the top, you should do 10 percent, whereas the owners of Studio 54 were skimming closer to 80 percent. This thievery was so blatant that the word “skim” was actually found on their balance sheets.

“Studio 54” emphasizes the long and painful legal downfall of the club rather than the spirit of fun that it was advertising. We see only glimpses of celebrated hedonistic images like Bianca Jagger on a horse at the club on her birthday, and black-and-white stills mixed with some grainy color footage can only give us a suggestion of what Studio 54 was like.

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Schrager says they wanted to make the “ultimate nightclub” and “dent the universe,” and they did manage to do that. One of the former workers at Studio 54 says that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards didn’t have to pay to get in but the other Rolling Stones did. This was symptomatic of the hierarchy of the club, which bred resentment for all the people who were denied entry and forced to stare like “one of the damned trying to get into paradise,” as writer Anthony Haden-Guest puts it here.

We get the expected photos of Liza Minnelli and fashion designer Halston, and there’s a tantalizing shot of Minnelli dirty dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov that is one of the few images in “Studio 54” that really catches the flavor of this milieu. Even old-time stars like Cary Grant and (surprisingly) Ginger Rogers are seen wanting to get a feel, so to speak, for what all the fuss was about.

It seems clear that the focus of “Studio 54” should have been on the unusual and very close relationship between Rubell and Schrager — who eventually went to prison together and remained so close after their release that they purchased a joint vacation home — but there are many unanswered questions here. Did Rubell ever express romantic feelings for Schrager at any point through the years? (After all, this was a very druggy “anything goes” period.) Was their relationship platonic from both sides, or just from Schrager’s side?

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Maybe Tyrnauer did ask these questions but was unable to get satisfactory answers from Schrager, who does eventually confirm that both he and Rubell were stoolies in prison, ratting out other nightclub owners for skimming off the top as they did.

The most emotional moment in “Studio 54” comes when Schrager says that his father would not have been pleased that they incriminated others in order to get out of prison early. He and Rubell both went against the code of “honor among thieves,” but we don’t know if Rubell himself was as aware of this as Schrager is.

“Studio 54” is a case of a documentary attempting to tell a story that obviously cannot be fully or satisfyingly told at this juncture. As such, it has value only insofar as it suggests how much that era cannot quite be re-captured.



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‘Making Montgomery Clift’ Film Review: Ebullient Doc Liberates Screen Icon from His Gloomy Reputation

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Montgomery Clift has been viewed as a tragic case since at least the publication of Patricia Bosworth’s 1978 biography, where his image became set as an innovative and very beautiful gay or bisexual actor who destroyed himself due to the external pressures of society.

But his nephew Robert Clift seeks to give a more nuanced portrait of his uncle in “Making Montgomery Clift,” a very revealing documentary that is based around a collection of audio tapes and other memorabilia kept by Robert’s father Brooks, who was Clift’s older brother. The Clift remembered here is not the doomed victim of so many mythologizing books and TV programs but a highly intelligent, mordantly funny man who successfully fought to keep his creative and sexual integrity intact.

“Making Montgomery Clift” is a provocative title that Clift himself might have enjoyed because it has a double meaning; to “make” someone, in old-fashioned slang, is to sleep with them, but this is also a movie about the making of Clift’s posthumous image, and Robert Clift very carefully separates fact from fiction or misrepresentation here, clearing away most of the sub-Freudian interpretation of his uncle’s life that seemed reasonable or fashionable 40 years ago. Clift fans will likely want to see this movie twice because it contains so much rare material.

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We hear audio recordings of Clift’s mother Sunny speaking to Brooks about the first biography of her son, which was written by Robert LaGuardia and published in 1977. Her voice is angry, anguished, and very precise and lofty as she urges Brooks to correct the “untruths” in this book, and we also hear her say that anything he could write would be “superior,” a hint of the high opinion she had of herself and her family.

What we learn of Sunny in “Making Montgomery Clift” doesn’t necessarily contradict the books that depicted her as a domineering parent, but we do hear a precious bit of audio between Sunny and Monty that lets us understand the way he dealt with her — with humor. The film makes it apparent that the screen legend was a very funny guy and that people felt lucky to know him.

Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the 1950s “Superman” TV series, talks about the first time he met Clift and how Clift very directly and unexpectedly grabbed the back of his head and kissed him. “As a person, he was nearer to Jerry Lewis on screen than he was to Montgomery Clift on screen,” Larson says. “He was one of the most affectionate people I have ever known, and he was affectionate in public.”

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Clift’s friend and lover Lorenzo James declined to appear on camera, but he tells a similar tale on the soundtrack. “Monty’s personal life didn’t bother him as much as people thought it did,” says James. Clift didn’t marry a woman for protection like Rock Hudson, and he was as open as he could be about his sexuality in the 1950s; yet from the late 1970s to today, the myth of the “tragic gay star” has been used to define him. What Larson and James rightly insist on is the private Clift they both knew, who we see in lots of home-movie footage cavorting on beaches and acting lovably silly for the camera.

As early as 1958, Clift was being confronted by interviewers about his supposed urge toward self-destruction, and he deflected this with humor, saying to one of them that he “enjoyed jokes” too much to kill himself. “I have, I would say offhand, a rather large capacity for life,” Clift says. But no one has wanted to shine a light on his capacity for life, joy, and fun, for sex and silliness, because that doesn’t sell books or fit the often-homophobic image that was painted of him.

“Making Montgomery Clift,” which was co-directed with Robert Clift’s wife Hillary Demmon, takes pains to flesh out the actor’s creative integrity, too, putting up his script pages with his notes so that we can see just how much of his own dialogue he edited and re-wrote himself for movies like “The Search” and “From Here to Eternity.”

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We also see photos he took during his early theater days of stars he worked with, like Tallulah Bankhead and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and a portrait emerges of Clift here as the complete actor as artist. “One does direct oneself under certain circumstances, let’s face it,” he says in a TV interview.

Robert Clift appears on screen in “Making Montgomery Clift” as he goes through his father’s archive and interviews survivors, and he has that distinctive Clift look: the very dramatic hair, the blade of a nose, the inquisitive eyes, and even the somewhat throaty speaking tones. And so it is fitting that he ends this movie at the cemetery where Montgomery Clift is buried — in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is not open to the public — and shows us that Monty is next to his brother Brooks, who was such a key ally both in life and after his death.

There has not yet been a narrative biopic on his life, but if there ever is, “Making Montgomery Clift” should be consulted as a more realistic picture of this committed, very loving and sophisticated artist who was forced to make very few compromises.



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‘Hot to Trot’ Film Review: Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing Doc Has Two Left Feet

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Competitive ballroom dancing is a somewhat small and circumscribed world, and so of course the world of competitive same-sex ballroom dancing — as viewed in Gail Freedman’s uncertain and meandering documentary “Hot to Trot” — is even smaller and more circumscribed.

Freedman follows several dancers here as they compete in the April Follies, an LGBT ballroom dance competition that has been running in Oakland, Calif., since 2003, and the Gay Games, which happens every four years. Most of her footage was shot in 2012 and 2013, and so she attempts to build a narrative out of the changes in her protagonists’ lives over time.

Ernesto Palma is a dancer from Costa Rica, and he is first shown rehearsing and competing with Robbie Tristan, a dancer from Hungary. Tristan says that they are both viewed as divas, but Palma is the one who has trouble getting to rehearsal on time and following through on instructions.

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There’s a cute moment here where Palma is down on the floor and Tristan is massaging his lower back, and Palma says, “That is so tight,” which cracks both of them up. The wellspring of their partnership is the sexual tension between them, which gives some shape to their attempts at sultry tangos.

Tristan is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he goes back to his native Hungary in order to avoid high medical costs and to be with his family. And so Palma gets himself another partner, Nikolai Shpakov, who emerges as the de facto star of the film through sheer physical charisma and authority.

Shpakov is from Russia, and he married a woman when he was in his 20s in order to fit in and to placate his family. After having danced competitively with female partners, Shpakov is not sure at first if he wants to dance with Palma, who sometimes likes to wear dresses.

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“Hot to Trot” brings up some intriguing differences between straight and gay ballroom dancing without ever quite exploring them in depth. In gay ballroom dancing, the partners take turns leading, and so Shpakov finds it difficult to give up his own male dominance and to let Palma lead. “It’s Fred and Fred and Ginger and Ginger,” says one of the judges, and that can be difficult to arrange, dance-wise.

Freedman also follows a pair of lesbian dancers, Kieren Jameson and Emily Coles, and a great deal of time is spent discussing Coles’ struggle with diabetes, which feels tangential to the rest of the film. Freedman often has her subjects speaking about themselves in voiceover while they stand at attention for her camera, stiffly and awkwardly, as if they don’t know what to do, and this only emphasizes the aimless quality of so much of the film.

“Hot to Trot” only really comes to life when Shpakov is dancing. The difference between a good dancer and a great dancer is that little bit of extra physical expressiveness in their movements, and Shpakov is always doing exciting and unexpected things with his thick, powerfully built body. The surprise of his dancing comes in the speed with which he shakes his hips and the stylish abandon of his arm movements, which are so beautiful and stimulating precisely because his torso is so strong and solid and immovable.

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Freedman kept filming her subjects for so long that she saw their relationships break up and new relationships get started, and she observes all of this without ever being able to make it mean anything. When her dancers go to the Gay Games, which should be a climax for the film, Freedman has the Pointer Sisters’s 1982 hit “I’m So Excited” on the soundtrack, which is such a tired-out song cue by this point that it signals not excitement but existential dread.

“Hot to Trot” shows far too little actual dancing and devotes far too much time to verbal exposition. Surely Freedman might have found a focus for her film if she had narrowed it down to a study of Shpakov, who has the smile of a movie star and the dynamic dance moves that seem to spring up so naturally in his native country.



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‘We the Animals’ Film Review: Haunting Childhood Tale Earns Comparisons to Terence Malick

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Justin Torres’ autobiographical debut novel “We the Animals” is told at first in the first person plural, and this film adaptation directed by Jeremiah Zagar uses this conceit for its narration.

“Look at us,” says our young narrator Jonah (Evan Rosado) on the soundtrack, as we see him playing with his two brothers. “When we were brothers, we wanted more… more volume, more muscles… us three… us kings… us brothers.” This narration gets largely abandoned as “We the Animals” goes on, which mimics what happens in Torres’s book when Jonah starts to separate himself from his brothers and his parents, and refers to them as “they.”

Zagar has smartly decided to tell this very subjective story of childhood with an expressionist visual style that favors saturated colors, and he often leans on an unusually suggestive and potent sound design that sometimes leads us seamlessly from one memory to the next. When Jonah’s father, known only as Paps (Raúl Castillo, “Looking”), throws him into the water to force him to learn how to swim, the sound of his panic as he sinks slowly downward blends into the sound of the car taking him home.

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Paps and Ma (Sheila Vand, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) met when they were in high school in Brooklyn, and they went to upstate New York to look for work. Ma works in a bottle factory and Paps does security work, and it doesn’t seem like they have any friends or family. The three boys are isolated with their young parents in a house that feels closed-off from everything else around it, and so things get Freudian very quickly in their little family world.

The prototype for this kind of modern memory film is Terrence Malick’s great “The Tree of Life,” and that’s a high bar to try to clear for a director making his first narrative movie, but Zagar shows talent here, even if the shots at times feel overly showy. (There’s a POV composition from the inside of a toilet that the boys are staring into that feels like those silly shots in 1940s movies where the camera stares out from inside a fireplace.)

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Zagar diligently searches for the core of the material, and this often proves tricky. Paps has a temper, and he gives Ma a split lip after a fight, yet we don’t see him hit her and we do see her physically attack him when he brings home a truck with no seatbelts. Jonah is sometimes mystified by their relationship, and that’s understandable, because he’s nine years old. But the movie itself often doesn’t seem to fully understand their relationship either.

Paps and Ma are both fairly soft-hearted, even when they try to act tough, and they still have a sexual need for each other, but they keep directing too much of their emotion onto their sons, particularly Jonah. Paps is Puerto Rican, and Ma is white, and this is made much of as a division between them. When Paps has music on, he tells Jonah, “You shake it like you’re white, like your Ma… shake it like you’re Puerto Rican!”

When Ma makes an attempt to run away with the boys, she tells them that maybe they can go to Spain, where all the guys would look like them. And there is a particularly ugly moment when Paps’s boss addresses the boys and says, “At least you’re only half as ugly as your Daddy is.”

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But this difference is at the core of Jonah’s attraction to a young blond teenage boy that he befriends and longs for. The boy compares his own pale skin to Jonah’s darker skin, and this only makes Jonah fetishize the boy even more as they watch porno tapes together.

In most conventional movies of this sort, Paps would be far more of an abusive figure and the blond boy would likely be abusive in some way too, and that’s what we wait for. But “We the Animals” is told from the point of view of a fast-maturing boy who begins to revel in his distance from his family members after being far too close to them. And so Jonah is not the victimized protagonist but the tough observer, who is strong enough to push his needy mother away when her emotional demands are too insistent.

“We the Animals” was a book that announced the talent of its author, and so “We the Animals” the film functions in a similar way for its director, who mainly passes his Terrence Malick imagery test. This movie version sometimes feels evasive or incomplete, partly because you can describe some things in a book that you cannot show on a screen, but it is in most ways an admirable adaptation that does look and sound like memories of a particular childhood.



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‘Ideal Home’ Film Review: Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan Become Unlikely Dads, Hilariously

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Writer-director Andrew Fleming is one of the best and most underrated makers of comedies today, and his new film “Ideal Home” is delightful in spite of a premise that sounds un-promising.

Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd play Erasmus and Paul, a gay couple who are saddled with Erasmus’s grandson (Jack Gore, “Billions”) after Erasmus’ ne’er-do-well son Beau (Jake McDorman, the upcoming “Murphy Brown” reboot) is arrested. Trying to evade the police in the first scene, Beau gets stuck in a window, and Fleming lingers on a shot of his behind in tighty-whities in a way that somehow feels more kindly than lecherous; certainly there are worse ways to enliven a basically expository sequence.

Erasmus is a popular and snobby TV food show host based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Paul is his producer; they have been together for ten years and they bicker near-constantly. “Part of me wants to stick around just to watch him die,” Paul tells one of their crew, a remark that is so over-the-top in its viciousness that it shows just how much Paul is in love with Erasmus.

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The tone of “Ideal Home” can be very sharp, and some of the satirical scenes have real bite. Fleming’s writing is at its best here when he is sending up the exaggerated sensitivity of liberals when they are dealing with a minority and not sure what might offend them.

Erasmus’ grandson was named Angel by his parents, but the boy wants to be called Bill, and this is permitted by his new gay guardians. At a party for Bill, a mother looks at Erasmus and Paul drinking the beer she gave them and says, “Would you rather have white wine?” in a very panicked voice, as if she might have caused them some major kind of offense, and it is the exaggerated scale of her panic that puts over this acute social observation.

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In dealing with the fights between Erasmus and Paul, Fleming displays a similar kind of edge and insight. Paul wears a beard and has tattoos on his arms, and he is a somewhat self-consciously masculine gay guy, and so of course he really explodes with anger when Erasmus makes fun of him for trying to sound butch. Coogan is particularly good in this moment, making a wide-eyed, childlike face as if he knows that he has really managed to hurt Rudd’s Paul.

Fleming goes against the grain of modern comedies because he never tries to get laughs with free-floating vulgarities or bathroom humor, and he gets away with his bolder jokes because there is always a sense of hard-earned warmth underneath them. It’s a sensibility that stretches all the way back to his melancholy and sexy second feature film “Threesome” and cult favorites like “Dick” and “Hamlet 2.”

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Most unusual of all, Fleming is a comedy director who constructs his films visually to give pleasure, however modestly. Every shot in one of his movies is composed to give a sense of balance and to emphasize the shapeliness of interiors, and his eye is alive to beauty, whether it is the beauty of a pair of lamps or a doorframe or the rear end of the convict father in his underwear. And maybe that shot of Beau stuck in the window does have a purpose, in that he is a notably unsympathetic character; perhaps Fleming is saying, “This guy is a jerk, but at least there’s this in his favor.”

“Ideal Home” contains some big laughs, especially a sex scene between Erasmus and Paul that ends with Erasmus crying, “Oh, ‘Dances with Wolves’!” (It makes sense only in context.) And Rudd brings real cant-deflating style to a moment where Beau priggishly says that he is sober and Paul responds, “So am I. Unlike you, however, I’m going to do something about it.” On the debit side, Bill only wants to eat at Taco Bell, and all of Fleming’s talent can’t make this any more than a blatant commercial.

At 85 or so minutes, “Ideal Home” does not overstay its welcome, like so many lengthy Judd Apatow (and Judd Apatow-influenced) productions, and surely Fleming should be making a feature comedy every year.



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‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Film Review: Dinos Return in a Sequel Drained of Suspense

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The major problem with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” — the fifth installment in this dinosaur series, and the second of a prospective trilogy — is that the makers treat the action and suspense sequences in the way most of us go to the dentist.

Director J. A. Bayona (“A Monster Calls”) goes through the motions of these scenes, even staging a “hiding from dinosaurs” set piece that was the most memorable section of Steven Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park” movie from 1993. But what was exciting and scary then feels expected and very hackneyed now.

This new “Jurassic” begins with a tedious sequence set during a nighttime rainstorm where one of the dinosaurs wakes from its slumber to scare some men. This is shot and edited in such a sluggish way that it comes close to feeling inept, but mainly it suffers from lack of enthusiasm. (How hard is it to make running away from a rampaging dinosaur look at least a little exciting?)

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The real story here begins with some exposition about the end of the first “Jurassic World” movie delivered by a female BBC reporter, who fills us in on the struggles of animal-rights activists who are working to save dinosaurs. We then see Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role from the first two films, addressing a committee. He tells them that he thinks the dinosaurs “should be taken out by the volcano” on an island that houses them, and Goldblum works hard to give this further plot exposition some urgency.

One of the dinosaur rights activists is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who did a lot of fleeing in the previous “Jurassic World.” She goes to meet wealthy old Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and is met at the door of his house by a servant played by the great Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie and star of Carlos Saura’s “Cría Cuervos,” one of the best and most politically pointed films ever made. (She worked previously with Bayona in “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible.”)

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Anyone who is aware of who Chaplin is and what she represents might be taken aback by the cutting between her very soulful, watchful visage and Howard’s beautiful, dutiful face. Howard does nothing in this movie but widen her eyes slightly and look blankly credulous. Chaplin stands very erect in all of her shots and looks like she is keeping a particularly juicy secret. Every time the camera cuts to her, she stops this movie cold and looks like she could lead us into another sort of story, a Gothic horror picture, maybe.

But Chaplin has been hired here for her gravitas and nothing else, even though a subplot pairs her with a young girl named Maisie (Isabella Sermon) and several promising moments between them seem to portend something else entirely; in “Cría Cuervos,” the main dynamic is between Chaplin and a very intense little girl played by Ana Torrent. (Couldn’t the third movie in this trilogy be a kind of “Cría Jurassic Cuervos”?)

Alas, we have to get back to the plot of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” instead, which hinges, as so many large studio movies do, on the evil of villainous capitalists who have no shame or moral scruples. These villains are poaching the dinosaurs and looking to sell them off for millions of dollars, and there’s also a plan to weaponize them for warfare, and so forth.

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Chris Pratt returns as the leading man of this series, and everything he says tends to sound like a double entendre. “If I don’t make it back, remember, you’re the one who made me come,” Pratt tells Howard at one point, and he pauses just enough to get a laugh. When Howard is on top of a dinosaur and needs to sedate it with a needle, Pratt cries, “You’re going to have to jam it in there!” Pratt is a charismatic, good-looking, funny guy, and he might be a real star if he could only get one or two good roles and sever himself from lucrative formula junk like this.

The suspense scenes get particularly lazy toward the end of “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom.” Young Maisie is being chased by a dinosaur, and she climbs into what looks like a dumbwaiter, but then she waits for the dinosaur to run down the hall at her and only closes the dumbwaiter when this creature is seconds away from biting her. The only reason she seems to be waiting so long to close the door is so that she (and the camera) can watch the dinosaur run down the hall.

At the end, Goldblum returns to sell us on the idea of a “Jurassic World,” but this very dull entry in the series doesn’t make this sound like an enticing prospect.



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‘A Kid Like Jake’ Film Review: Claire Danes’ and Jim Parsons’ Parental Problems Push the Kid Offstage

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The problem with “A Kid Like Jake,” which is about a four-year-old boy who enjoys taking on female roles whenever he plays, is that we see so little of the title character.

The film opens with some fairly random shots of New York buildings, and then there are handheld camera shots of Jake (Leo James Davis) running around at home. But we mainly just hear about Jake after this brief sequence, and this signifies the theatrical origin of this material, which was adapted by writer Daniel Pearle from his own play.

We first see Jake’s parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) in bed together. Danes works hard to seem relaxed and happy, but the effort shows too much, and this could be a character choice, for it seems clear from the beginning that Alex and Greg are somehow at odds with each other or mismatched.

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Greg is a therapist, and we watch him at work with one female patient throughout the film in aimless scenes that add very little to the main drama. Alex is a stay-at-home mother, and her own very overbearing mother Catherine (Ann Dowd) constantly derides her daughter’s choice. “Thank God for the women’s movement,” Catherine says ironically as she watches Alex with her child.

Alex is very close to Jake, and she happily lets her son play Cinderella and other female characters until this is brought to her attention by Judy (Octavia Spencer), a friend who is trying to get Jake into a private school. The interesting thing about the character of Judy in her first scenes in “A Kid Like Jake” is that she seems misguided and opportunistic. In trying to make Jake’s female role-playing a kind of selling point to get him into an exclusive school, Judy exposes the fault lines in the marriage of Alex and Greg.

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By the mid-section of this movie, “A Kid Like Jake” has become the sort of marital study where all we do is observe Danes’s Alex say cruel things to her husband. When she initially starts to needle and verbally attack him, it feels as if Alex is inevitably reacting to all of the aggressive verbal taunts she has to endure from her mother.

But as the film goes on and Alex keeps on deriding Greg, the narrative doesn’t expand but contracts, and this isn’t helped by the nervous, peremptory editing of all the confrontation scenes, which seeks to create a tense atmosphere for the actors rather than letting them take care of that themselves.

Alex realizes that she is pregnant again, and she is scared because she had miscarried a previous child. Jake starts getting bullied at his pre-school, and so Alex feels that she needs to try harder to get Jake into that private school because he might be bullied more in a public school with lots of kids.

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“Why can’t I be Rapunzel?” little Jake asks, but Alex tries to steer him to a male Halloween costume. When Alex attempts to tell Catherine about the situation, Pearle does give this abrasive character a pretty sharp laugh line: “No need to explain,” Catherine says. “I read The New York Times.”

Spencer’s character Judy tells her friends that they are lucky to be dealing with this situation in 2018 and not 50 or even 20 years ago, but Alex is not as liberal as she thought she was when it comes to her own son. By the time Alex is blaming Greg for not ever taking Jake to a park or “throwing a ball” with him, Danes has managed to make her character into a woman just as unlikable as her mother.

The writing in “A Kid Like Jake” feels more like playwriting than like screenwriting because we are told things in dialogue about Jake but barely ever get to see him behaving. Clearly this is a choice on the part of the creators, but doesn’t it signal the same kind of avoidance or fear that the movie itself is supposed to be about?



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‘That Summer’ Film Review: Little Edie at Grey Gardens, Before ‘Grey Gardens’

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“Grey Gardens,” the 1975 documentary about “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, two reclusive relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy, has become an uneasy sort of classic, spawning both a 2006 Broadway musical and a 2009 TV movie.

Albert and David Maysles, who directed “Grey Gardens,” had originally been hired as technicians by Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, who sought to make a film about memories of her father, “Black Jack” Bouvier. Radziwill wanted to interview Big Edie and Little Edie about Bouvier, and they shot four reels of footage before the project was abandoned and the Maysles brothers took over.

“That Summer” unearths or exhumes that original footage, and it is padded out by a prologue and conclusion with the artist Peter Beard, who had accompanied Radziwill on her initial trips to Grey Gardens, the crumbling estate that Big and Little Edie had occupied in isolation for 25 years.

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We hear Beard’s voice in 2016 as he flips through old photographs of people like Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Jackie Kennedy. “She wanted to have a photo lesson, so she got it,” Beard says of Jackie. We then hear Radziwill’s voice on the soundtrack describing the summer she met Beard (this recent audio of Radziwill was provided by Sofia Coppola). Radziwill raves about Beard and says he was “super-looking and had the body of a Greek god.” Given how competitive Kennedy and Radziwill were throughout their lives, it’s hard not to wonder just who got farther with Beard.

This early Beard-related section of “That Summer” is fairly inane and only of interest to those people who are still transfixed by anything that has to do with Jackie Kennedy. But once the film turns itself over to the footage of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, this movie comes into its own as a fascinating companion piece and prequel to the Maysles Brothers film.

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Big Edie and Little Edie are great talkers, as anyone who has seen “Grey Gardens” knows, and they have all kinds of things to say to the camera in this footage from 1972. Little Edie slumps in a chair and talks about how she bought it a long time ago and nobody ever sits in it but her. She calls it “the Disappointed Chair,” but her sense of humor is often cut with her pain and her rage at her mother.

Big Edie emerges in this earlier footage as more of a tyrant with her daughter, and with practically everyone else except Radziwill. “I don’t hate you as much as I did,” Big Edie blithely tells a nurse before crying, “Ah, don’t be presumptuous!” in a fluty tone that is either a parody of a demanding upper-class voice or the real thing itself or some odd combination of the two.

“Grey Gardens” is about Big and Little Edie and their fights with each other and their desperate dependency on each other, while “That Summer” is about them trying out their personas for the camera and dealing often with Radziwill, who changes their whole dynamic. Little Edie is cagey around Radziwill, even if she does boast here about having “yelled” at Jackie over the phone.

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Radziwill herself is a very tricky camera subject. Everything about her suggests poise and social ease, and she has real glamour; even her crooked teeth somehow look glamorous. At first, she seems genuinely concerned about her aunt and her cousin, her face a picture of loving distress as she speaks to some men about disposing of some of their most decrepit furniture.

But in her interactions with Big Edie, it seems clear that Radziwill is someone who is chiefly concerned with appearances and with creating a pleasing performance of herself. Her finishing-school voice and immaculate clothes make such a telling contrast to the mental and physical disarray of both Big Edie and Little Edie that her persona feels like an example of what those two women have rejected by making themselves into shut-ins who live as they like.

To Radziwill’s credit, she does seem to partially understand and appreciate their rebellion, even if she uses the nice word “eccentric” to describe her relatives when some tougher words might have been justifiably used. And there is something poignant about the fact that the impeccably dressed Radziwill is now audibly an old lady herself on the soundtrack, devoted to the past just as her aunt and cousin were.

There is a disturbing moment in “That Summer” when Big Edie is talking about vermin in her house and how their numerous cats dispose of it, and then she says to her daughter, “The only vermin is you, Edie.” Big Edie very quickly retreats from this lethally direct statement and says she was merely trying to “spice the conversation with interest.” But this cruel remark is a key to the hate that is the flip side of the love and need that these two women felt for each other, and that hate often animates this prequel, which is essential viewing for “Grey Gardens” fans.



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‘The Seagull’ Film Review: All-Star Cast Flourishes in Chekhov Adaptation

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Every part in a Chekhov play, no matter how small, is a great part and filled with potential, and Elisabeth Moss proves that in this new screen version of “The Seagull,” which has been adapted by the playwright Stephen Karam.

Moss plays Masha, which is a small role in relation to the lead roles of the famous actress Arkadina and the ambitious ingénue Nina. At the start of “The Seagull,” Masha famously says, “I’m in mourning for my life,” but Karam cleverly begins his screenplay with the set-up of the last scene in the play and then flashes back to the beginning, when there still seems to be some hope for everyone.

Moss reads that well-known line about being in mourning for her life in a way that exactly catches the tone of Chekhov: deeply anguished yet also somehow comic. Chekhov considered “The Seagull” a comedy and called it that in his text, even though it is filled to the brim with the sadness of what can happen between people who love unrequitedly and compete with each other.

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There have been other films of “The Seagull,” and many different contemporary stage productions. Sidney Lumet directed a movie adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave as Nina in 1968, and the 1975 Williamstown production was filmed for PBS with Blythe Danner as a very spontaneous, in-the-moment, and heartbreaking Nina. And anyone who saw Meryl Streep play Arkadina in “The Seagull” in Central Park in 2001 will remember her in it, especially the way she did an expert cartwheel on stage.

Arkadina is played by Annette Bening here, and her celebrated literary lover Trigorin is played by Corey Stoll. In the first scenes, which are presented as a flashback, Arkadina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle, “On Chesil Beach”) has prepared an avant-garde play starring his girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan), and Arkadina keeps interrupting the performance with rude remarks. Bening plays Arkadina in a much crueler way than she is usually portrayed in this scene; she is very cutting, and yet Bening is believable later when Arkadina wonders, “Why did I hurt him?”

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As played by Bening, Arkadina is a vain woman and a ruthless winner who is disgusted by her son’s weakness and pretentiousness and jealousy. In the big scene where Arkadina dresses Konstantin’s head wound after he has attempted suicide, Bening smiles at Howle more like a girlfriend than a mother. Bening’s Arkadina is a woman without a shred of maternal feeling, and this makes her very different from Streep’s Arkadina, who was angry with her son but still tied to him.

Stoll is an extremely sexy Trigorin, especially when he looks at Ronan’s Nina with bedroom eyes as he takes her on a boat ride and rows her along, but the tone of his voice sounds jaded and cruel, and this matches what we have seen and heard of Arkadina. (Never has Bening’s throaty voice sounded more deadly and more heartless than it does here.)

When Bening plays her second big scene, in which Arkadina has to do anything she can think of to hold on to Trigorin, director Michael Mayer keeps the camera steadily on her face as she flatters Trigorin out of his urge to leave her for the younger Nina. After Arkadina has won, Stoll’s Trigorin sits back and says, “I am weak and spineless…is that what women want?” This is a very funny line as delivered here, and it hits just the right tragic-comic note.

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“The Seagull” has been “opened up” so that some scenes play outdoors, and that works well because these characters are supposed to be amidst nature on a country estate. This mobility helps keep the material fluid, as does the very hard-working score by Nico Muhly and Anton Sanko, which becomes particularly ominous before Konstantin’s attempted suicide (what sounds like a mixed male and female chorus starts to shriek on the soundtrack). But the most impressive thing about this film of “The Seagull” is that every role has been ideally cast.

Moss somehow manages to dominate the whole film and stay most in the memory in spite of limited footage, but Bening plays her last moment here extraordinarily well, and this closing scene with Arkadina generally gives actresses trouble. (Streep didn’t seem to know how to play it, as if it were a puzzle that she couldn’t figure out.)

Bening is physically fluttery throughout most of the film, which expresses Arkadina’s desperate need to never face the facts. But in our last view of this woman, Bening decides to keep very still, her eyes glassy and fixed on some distant point, and the effect is like a surprisingly bold move in an otherwise circumspect poker game. The PBS version of “The Seagull” with Blythe Danner is still the best film adaptation of this play, but this movie has much to recommend it.



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‘Fourth Estate’ Review: Inside Look at NY Times Reveals Low-Level Dread During Trump WH

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The American press, or the “The Fourth Estate,” is under steady attack throughout the first episode in this documentary series for Showtime. Director Liz Garbus takes us inside the newsroom of the New York Times during the first months of the scandal-ridden Trump administration, and she reveals the challenges that the reporters face on a daily basis.

A lot of what we see here in the first scenes looks like impotent wheel-spinning, as the journalists try to figure out how to cover a president who is openly hostile to them. We see them patting themselves on the back a lot, and this expresses the insecurity of their position. The New York Times is in competition with the Washington Post, and we watch how they try to beat each other on stories, but there is little genuine excitement in what we see these reporters doing; there is instead a constant low-level sense of dread.

The conversation we hear is peppered with the qualifying words and phrases that have crept into and degraded our American vernacular language: “kind of” and “sort of” turn up all the time in meetings. And the man who became president doesn’t qualify anything, unless he’s trying out one of his ludicrous verbal evasions that are reliant on conspiracy theories or worse.

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Journalist Maggie Haberman is heavily relied on in this newsroom as a source for Trump information and Trump character analysis because she has been covering him since she worked at New York tabloids in the 1980s. He used to give her quotes to “juice” her articles then, and it is clear that she is beyond tired of having to deal with him.

Haberman often openly admits to being drained of energy, and she is stuck in a disbelieving, defensive persona. What she really wants to do is get back to her children, and she talks about how she thought her coverage on the Trump beat would finally end when he lost.

Garbus shows Haberman having to take a call from one of her children while she tries to do an interview for a podcast, and the way Haberman crouches on the floor of the office while she attempts to reassure her child is an image of helplessness that epitomizes what most of the people in this movie are feeling.

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If there is a star in “The Fourth Estate,” it has to be Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, a very tough, skeptical journalist who knows how to separate what is important from what isn’t, which turns out to be a particularly crucial skill for covering this particular nightmare we are all living in. There’s an exciting scene where Bumiller reacts incredulously when she sees that her lede has been watered down, and we see her defiantly trying to get some of her original intent back into it.

It says something about this administration that the scandals covered in “The Fourth Estate” feel like they happened in an already distant past even though they occurred just a little over a year ago. There is the start of the scandal about Russian interference with the election, and then the turn-overs and resignations of officials close to Trump, and the reporters write about these things in all seriousness and with all due diligence.

It is made clear that the New York Times needs money, and that Facebook and Google are eating into their business. “We’re not driven by clicks,” says Time publisher A. G. Sulzberger. “We think in decades.” But there is the very uneasy sense that the foundation of newspapers like the Times is fragile, especially when we see Trump attacking the press as any dictator would.

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Trump himself is seen giving speeches throughout, and we hear him on the phone with Haberman, who has to listen to his off-the-record profane anger. The thing that makes Trump so hard to fight is that he is such a comic figure on the surface. His face often takes on the supercilious look of a grand female dowager like Margaret Dumont before it folds back into the cartoonish grin of a minor level fat cat capitalist. Haberman says that Trump’s greatest dream is to be taken seriously, and she says that he is searching above all for respectability.

“The Fourth Estate” ends on a cliffhanger that is supposed to whet our appetite for future episodes, but surely most of us are waiting for this whole thing to be finished. Everyone in this movie seems to be wondering how long we have to wait for the end of this publicity stunt gone wrong. But if we are in for a long haul, it feels as if Bumiller is the one who can best lead us through it.

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‘The Rachel Divide’ Film Review: Rachel Dolezal Doc Is Non-Illuminating Clickbait

‘The Rachel Divide’ Film Review: Rachel Dolezal Doc Is Non-Illuminating Clickbait

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Documentary filmmaker Laura Brownson has chosen to make a film about Rachel Dolezal, the former president of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who was outed as white and formerly blonde-haired by a news reporter in 2015. The vague title that Brownson has chosen is “The Rachel Divide,” which would suggest that there might be something to debate in Dolezal’s story. This most certainly is not the case.

Dolezal wears her hair in elaborate dreadlocks most of the time in this film (which premieres April 27 on Netflix) and sometimes sports a curly wig. Her hairdos are so over-the-top that they look like they were meant to attract attention, and attention is clearly something that Dolezal craves, whatever she might say to the contrary. She refuses to give up her hairdos, which have become her trademark. What we are dealing with here seems to be a pathology where Dolezal is seeking negative attention and abuse. If she doesn’t get that negative attention or abuse, Dolezal is not above fabricating it.

“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” Dolezal asks at one point, in her thin, nagging, disembodied voice. We see her raising her two teenaged male sons, who have to deal with the trouble she brings wherever they go. And when the expected sob story of her past finally emerges, it proves to be just as thin as her speaking voice.

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Dolezal was raised by white parents who were very religious and who favored her older brother. Dolezal’s parents adopted four other children, all of whom were African-American, and they lived in a very white area of Montana. Dolezal’s adopted sister Esther is the only family member we see much of in the film. (Her parents are only seen via interviews from television news sources.) Esther shows us scars from beatings she claims to have gotten from her adoptive parents, and she says that she was sexually abused by Dolezal’s older brother. Esther brought a court case against this brother that Dolezal herself was participating in, but this fell apart after Dolezal was exposed in 2015.

If Brownson was so set upon making a film about Dolezal, surely she should have pressed more into this family history and pressed Dolezal herself about it. We do see Dolezal attacked and pressed throughout this movie, but by journalists, college students, and former colleagues at the NAACP, and their verbal attacks are increasingly scathing and un-answerable.

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Dolezal desperately tries to align herself with absurd terms like “trans racial” in order to try to find some way of making her way of life acceptable, but she always comes up short, and it is impossible to have any sympathy for her because she is so transparently a manipulator and a guilt-tripper. Dolezal gives herself away particularly here in the moment when she says that the negative response she got in the wake of her public outing made her think of her abusive parents.

It seems clear that Dolezal is seeking condemnation, and that she likely wanted to be exposed because only that would give her the twisted form of attention she is seeking. But all of this is a subject only for a psychologist, and it’s not even a particularly interesting subject. Dolezal’s story has nothing to do with race or racial perceptions beyond the racial performance element in her self-presentation that calls up all kinds of ugly memories of white entertainers performing in blackface.

The mark of a successful documentary, and a worthy subject for a documentary, is how much it can make us think about and consider various issues and various complications. There is nothing complicated about Rachel Dolezal’s story. It turns out to be small and far too specific to have any bearing on anything beyond the sickness of one highly unpleasant and repellent individual.

Watch Video: Rachel Dolezal Blames ‘White Media’ for Her Troubles

So why did Brownson choose to extend Dolezal’s 15 minutes of fame with this movie rather than celebrate or tell the story of an actual living African-American woman? The answer is that Dolezal is basically outrage clickbait in human form, and so Brownson is using Dolezal’s negative attention seeking to get attention for herself as a filmmaker. Nothing beyond that has been accomplished here.

Brownson winds things up with a montage of photos from Dolezal’s youth where we can see that as a teenager she dressed up several times in Asian garb, and so she seems to have had an Asian period as well. Whatever other racial identities Dolezal decides to try out in the future will hopefully be performed in obscurity.



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‘Mapplethorpe’ Film Review: Matt Smith Brings the Controversial Photographer to Vivid Life

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The major thing that “Mapplethorpe” has in its favor is that the film is afraid of neither the life nor the work of the notorious photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Documentary director Ondi Timoner (“We Live in Public”), making her narrative debut, has ensured that this movie acknowledges the many hard edges and unattractive qualities of this man while also celebrating and not looking away from his most explicit and scariest photographs, many of which rather surprisingly appear on screen.

Most mainstream films are afraid of showing the male penis, or anything having to do with sadomasochism, but Timoner’s attitude here seems to be, “Bring it on!” (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this film is basically wall-to-wall male genitalia, both on actors in the narrative sections and in the photos themselves.) Timoner’s gutsiness is shared (and then some) by her star Matt Smith, a British actor who very convincingly played another gay male icon, writer Christopher Isherwood, in a TV movie of Isherwood’s memoir “Christopher and His Kind” in 2011.

Also Read: ‘Mapplethorpe,’ 10 Other Projects Chosen for Tribeca All Access

Smith’s Mapplethorpe is first seen staring at himself in a mirror, and right away we can see that this guy is very much narcissistically alone in the world. He thinks only of himself and of becoming a famous artist, and he is up-front about that with everyone he meets, to an absurd degree. Mapplethorpe wasn’t afraid to be something of an idiot and more than something of a jerk in order to achieve what he wanted to achieve, and Smith never softens him.

Timoner was working with a limited budget and shooting schedule, and so she is unable to really suggest the 1960s and 1970s visually, though she does catch the essence of the sterile 1980s once Mapplethorpe ages into that period. She only sketches the bond between Mapplethorpe and punk icon Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), which was described so touchingly in Smith’s 2010 memoir “Just Kids.” Nobody mythologizes Patti Smith quite like Patti Smith herself, and Rendón is just too cute and too nice to really capture the harsh essence of Smith here.

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As Mapplethorpe’s lover and financial supporter Sam Wagstaff, John Benjamin Hickey is handicapped by the fact that he doesn’t really look much like Wagstaff, but he acts the part very well and creates a chemistry with Smith, who really comes boyishly alive in his scenes with Hickey. Smith’s Mapplethorpe is at his most appealing with Wagstaff because he needs the older man’s love and money so desperately, and he makes no bones about that. Whatever else might be said of Mapplethorpe, he was always direct.

Timoner also doesn’t shy away from the very ugly side of Mapplethorpe’s relationship with the vulnerable Milton (McKinley Belcher III, “Ozark”), an African-American male who is swept up into being Mapplethorpe’s lover and favorite subject almost against his will. Mapplethorpe’s ruthlessness as a man and as an artist is seen at its worst here, and Smith throws himself into this as he does everything else in this movie: volubly and very physically.

Also Read: Ondi Timoner Didn’t Want to Make Documentaries Anymore – Then Came ‘Jungletown’

Mapplethorpe was raised Catholic in Floral Park in Queens, and he took the concept of evil very seriously. This is a man who hung a painting of the word “Evil” over his bed, where Timoner shows him sleeping off an orgy with some of his photographic subjects, and there was no irony or camp in this for him. In many ways, Mapplethorpe was like a visitor from the 19th century who used 20th century means to promote himself and, of course, this is why he was so well matched with the past-revering Patti Smith.

Even if budgetary restraints sometimes keep Timoner from fully capturing the time she is re-creating, nothing holds Smith back from making Mapplethorpe come alive again, in every sense. Smith’s New York accent is impeccable, and he often looks like he is having the time of his life in this movie, mainly because it must have been great fun to play someone so confident.

Smith gives Mapplethorpe the patter and the darting eyes of a street hustler, which is basically what he was. He was also a Charles Baudelaire-style romantic who gathered up all the flowers of evil he could before being wiped out by AIDS, the disease that took down so many significant gay men of his generation.

“Mapplethorpe” is a commemoration of this man’s work, and Mapplethorpe himself is allowed to stare out from photographs that sometimes upstage Smith’s best attempts to re-incarnate him. Mapplethorpe wanted to be beautiful and deadly and very seductive, and he still is in the photographs we see here, those photographs that he knew would outlive him.

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