The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

(USA 2017)

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.

Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.

From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.

With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka

Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films

Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix

Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde

105 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Sad Vacation: the Last Days of Sid and Nancy

(USA 2016)

It doesn’t get more P.R. (“punk rock”) than the final days of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, the notorious and dysfunctional so-called “Romeo and Juliet of punk”—frankly, I’ve always viewed them as not too far off from John and Yoko, but I digress. Two messy heroin junkies, they bounced around for most of 1978 after the Sex Pistols disbanded. In September, they landed in Manhattan, where they rented a room at the Chelsea Hotel and Nancy appointed herself Sid’s manager. A month later, she ended up slumped next to the toilet in their room, dead from a stab wound to the abdomen (though she had multiple shallow stabs all over). Sid was arrested and allegedly confessed to her murder. While out of prison on bail, he died of a heroin overdose—some claim accidentally administered by his mother, others claim suicide—just four months later.

Danny Garcia’s Sad Vacation, a straight-to-video release coming out almost exactly 30 years after Alex Cox’s biopic Sid and Nancy, revisits these legendary rock and roll deaths. Interviewing many a soul who was there—Steve “Roadent” Conolly, Kenny “Stinker” Gordon, Hellin Killer, Walter Lure, Howie Pyro, Cynthia Ross, Gaye Black, Phyllis Stein, and Sylvain Sylvain to name a few—Garcia presents the facts, which are conflicting and not at all clear. Although Sad Vacation covers a little history of the punk movement, Malcolm McLaren, and the Sex Pistols, the focus is assiduously on what happened at the Chelsea. Narrated by Fun Lovin’ Criminals front man Huey Morgan, Sad Vacation takes on the tone of a crime documentary, laying out evidence and showing the holes in it. Not surprisingly, Garcia reveals some of the “eight thousand or so” conspiracy theories surrounding the murder, with those who knew the couple speculating on who really killed Nancy. Many point to Rockets Redglare, a drug dealer and bodyguard who worked for them. Redglare, who went on to appear in a number of films you’ve actually seen, died in 2001 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockets_Redglare).

Sad Vacation is not essential viewing; it doesn’t uncover anything new, raise any points that haven’t been raised before, or even pick a theory to endorse. It concludes that no one will ever know what happened. Big wow. That said, Garcia succeeds in showing that Sid and Nancy were kids—flawed ones, but still. After hearing words like “mess,” “dysfunctional,” and “destructive” to describe their relationship, it’s sweet to learn that his ashes were spread on her grave because they couldn’t be buried together. Now that’s P.R.

94 minutes
Not rated

(Home via iTunes) C

https://m.facebook.com/sadvacationdocumentary/

http://www.chipbakerfilms.com

King Cobra

(USA 2016)

Well now, Justin Kelly’s King Cobra looks like a film with some serious bang: it depicts the salacious, sensational, and supposedly true story of tres popular real-life gay porn actor Sean Lockhart b/k/a Brent Corrigan’s messy entry into the porn industry. Packing loads of scandal and suspense, it comes with a denouncement of sorts from Lockhart himself (https://www.google.com/amp/www.gaystarnews.com/article/brent-corrigan-condemns-gay-drama-king-cobra-bastardising-story-life/amp/?client=safari). Oh, and the money shot: a wad of bona fide Hollywood stars all in on the action. Hot yet? Not so fast, Jack: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from many an opportunity to view gay porn, it’s that looks are deceiving and the movies rarely live up to their promise. Assessing King Cobra therefore demands some deeper probing to get to the bottom of it.

Taken from Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway’s true crime exposé Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice, Kelly’s screenplay gets into the real 2007 murder of Bryan Kocis, the owner and operator of Cobra Video, a real gay porn production company. As such, it makes sense that Kelly doesn’t focus on Corrigan as much as he does on Stephen (Christian Slater), a thinly fictionalized version of Kocis. A forty-something professional photographer turned producer of twink skin flicks, Stephen “discovers” Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) and signs him to make videos in a room of his suburban home in Dallas Township, Pennsylvania. Lockhart becomes Brent Corrigan, a name he plucks from the phone book, and proves to be an internet superstar as a bareback bottom. Things are strained—Stephen is clearly smitten with Lockhart, who moves in with him and does menial chores like yard work and scrubbing toilets around the house shirtless when he’s not shooting porn. Plus, Stephen is doughy and creepy. Lockhart realizes he’s being exploited and sees his potential to make a lot more money on his own. The shit hits the fan when he walks away from his contract with Cobra only to find that he can’t use his porn name because Stephen trademarked it.

Enter psychotic couple Harlow (Keegan Allen), a porn actor and rent boy, and his intense, overbearing boyfriend, Joe Kerekes (James Franco), owner of Viper Boyz, a smaller porn production company. Kerekes is a half million dollars in debt thanks to their ridiculously expensive lifestyle, which is starting to disintegrate. He’s got an idea for a sure moneymaker: Harlow and Corrigan together in a porn. They meet Lockhart, who wants to work with them but can’t use his lucrative name. Desperate to make it happen, they come up with a way to solve Lockhart’s dilemma: get rid of Stephen.

Although I didn’t love it, King Cobra is not terrible. In fact, it’s a noticeable improvement over Kelly’s first film, last year’s I Am Michael (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/i-am-michael/). That said, it still suffers from the same deficiencies. If anything, it feels underdeveloped. The two subplots—the storyline with Stephen and Lockhart, and the one with Joe and Harlow—take too long to intersect; when they do, King Cobra devolves into a gay slasher flick. Ho hum. Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone are okay in their roles as Stephen’s sister and Lockhart’s mother, respectively. However, their characters are superfluous and don’t fit into the story—it’s as though they’re dropped in just to give the actors a part in the film so their names can be included on the poster. Oh yeah: another film with Franco playing a gay guy, only this time he gets his butt plowed. Big wow. For a film about the gay porn industry, King Cobra is shy about nudity; it comes off as sanitized cable soft core lite. It’s not even the whole true story; Rolling Stone ran a story about the murder of Kocis in a September 2007 issue: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/death-of-a-porn-king-20070920. Kelly takes some generous artistic license, leaving out parts of what happened (and thus arousing the real Lockhart’s ire).

Kelly’s script is so overboard on gay clichés that it rings hollow. Just as he did in I Am Michael, he again gives superficial treatment to his characters here and doesn’t quite get into their heads, leaving them flat—though he does a better job with Stephen and to a somewhat lesser degree Lockhart. Kelly seems drawn to the dark side of the gays, and I won’t fault him for that. However, his way of portraying this dark side is amateurish and uninformed, recalling films like Cruising and Basic Instinct. Having seen the only two films he’s made, I have to wonder whether he knows any gay people.

I’ll end this on a positive note: Clayton is the real star of this picture. He plays Lockhart as a diva hustler, one with an agenda that no one is getting in the way of. He’s pouty, arrogant, bitchy, so stuck on himself, and unapologetic about it all. He’s brilliant! The scene where a makeup artist touches up his butt says it all.

92 minutes
Not rated

(Home via iTunes) C-

http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/king-cobra

http://gowatchit.com/microsite/4274?gwi_origin=tracking_link&gwi_origin_context=microsite#upcoming_theaters-11402

London Road

(UK 2015)

“Everyone is very, very nervous. Um. And very unsure of everything, basically.”

—The Cast

“British,” “murder,” “mystery,” “thriller,” “comedy,” and “musical” are words that might sound dubious when used together to describe the same work. These elements, though, gel nicely in the amusingly quirky London Road, Rufus Norris’s adaptation of Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s musical theatre revolving around Steve Wright, the notorious Suffolk Strangler a.k.a. Ipswich Ripper.

The subject matter of London Road certainly isn’t anything to sing about: Wright moved to a modest working class neighborhood in Ipswich for ten weeks and killed five prostitutes during Autumn 2006. The bodies started showing up, casting paranoia over the small town. Wright was arrested just before Christmas, stressing out his neighbors on London Road, where the murders occurred in his house.

London Road could accurately be called an anatomy of a community directly affected by a macabre event, as the story is not really about Wright but rather his spooked neighbors. Based on actual interviews, the story traces their reactions to the murders and the fact that they occurred so close to home. Particularly hitting is the impact of the small street’s invasion by the police and the media on the various residents’ daily lives. Flowers bring them to their ultimate redemption.

London Road features Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Nick Holder, Paul Thornley, Michael Shaeffer, and Tom Hardy, whom I didn’t even recognize in his small role as a cab driver. Norris respects the characters’ dignity, letting them each have their own voice without putting them in a negative, unsophisticated light. The mood is a bit schizo, going from tense to darkly comic before erupting into song and choreographed numbers. The songs, by the way, are droll and clever, incorporating verbal ticks into the rhythm. They’re catchy, too—I’m still singing one of them two days later. I loved one scene in which a newscaster (Shaeffer) struggles in song to explain how forensics identified Wright through DNA in his semen, a word he can’t use during daytime TV—who knew the Brits have prudish broadcasting rules just like we Americans do?

Overall, London Road is an interesting experience unlike any other film I’ve seen lately. I laughed, I was intrigued, and the music pulled me in.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B-

http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout11-london-road-film

Party Monster

(USA 2003)

“Money. Success. Fame. Glamor.”

—Michael

“Clubbing” in the late ’80s and early ’90s was about having fun, being seen, getting some attention when you could, and simply being fabulous. I was already past my clubbing days (or nights) and into raves when I read something about the horrific murder and dismemberment of a club kid in New York City in 1996. It hit home, albeit in a small way: not a club kid myself, some of my friends had been—or at least they were club kid lite—and I was familiar with the scene, which wasn’t violent. I followed the story for a little while but didn’t keep up to see what eventually happened—I was busy doing other stuff, like getting my shit together to go to law school and move somewhere else. The incident wasn’t front page news. A few years later, a friend gave me a copy of Disco Bloodbath by James St. James. I was floored to discover that it chronicled the story I started to follow. I absolutely loved the book—even with a drug fueled murder at its climax, it’s an irresistible mix of club queen adventures, flip observations, dish, dirt, and even a dash of nostalgia. Plus, it’s well written. I devoured it over a few days on the beach in Puerto Vallarta.

Party Monster is Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s film adaptation of St. James’s memoir. They take some liberties—they aren’t totally by the book and some of the music isn’t quite right—but they still manage to brilliantly capture the look and feel of those days and that scene. The cast members, known and unknown, are excellent: Seth Green, Macaulay Culkin, Dylan McDermott, Wilmer Valderrama, Wilson Cruz, Justin Hagan, Chloë Sevigny, even Marilyn Manson. John Stamos makes a cameo as a talk show host with actual club kids, including Amanda Lepore, Richie Rich, and Walt Paper (who oddly enough I knew briefly in undergrad). Green and Culkin have a natural chemistry as friends and foes—one of my favorite scenes is James (Green) showing Michael (Culkin) how to work a room at a Dunkin Donuts knockoff. The thing I love about the movie is how fun this world is—parties, costumes, Disco 2000, ordering burgers for 300 clubgoers at a fast food chain, piling into the back of a semi with a guy in a chicken suit, even doing drugs. The genius of the film is that, like the book, it makes me want to be a part of this world despite its flaws and the tragic ending.

98 minutes
Rated R

(Home via iTunes) B

The Infiltrator

(USA 2016)

Bryan Cranston has come a long way from his stint as Tim Whatley, Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist. He’s an excellent choice to play Robert “Bob” Mazur, a U.S. Customs agent who in 1985 went undercover as fictitious New Jersey money launderer Bob Musella to work his way into the trafficking network of Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar. With the assistance of fellow agents Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Mazur—to use his words—“followed the money” instead of the drugs. It led to one of the biggest drug busts in American history.

Based on Mazur’s memoir The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, director Brad Furman—whose mother, Ellen Brown Furman, wrote the script—lets Cranston go absolutely apeshit with his character. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Mazur and Breaking Bad’s Walter White; it’s glaringly obvious that both characters are essentially family guys who choose a dangerous double life that consumes them to the point of losing who they are—not to mention their lives. This plays out exquisitely in a scene where a cartel member (Simón Andreu) who knows Musella spots Mazur and his wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), having a quiet anniversary dinner at a restaurant.

The Infiltrator is a good movie. Despite occasionally feeling like an episode of Miami Vice, it nonetheless has an intensity that slowly comes to a boil, and when it finally does: BOOM! The moral dilemma of betraying the people not only who come to trust Musella but also welcome him into their lives adds a dramatic slant that movies like this tend to lack. I was riveted. Considering its subject matter, though, The Infiltrator doesn’t exactly move fast. It’s more of a low key character study fueled by what’s going on in Mazur’s head. Benjamin Bratt, Yul Vazquez, and even Olympia Dukakis turn in great performances. There are some dark, funny moments along with some really unsettling scenes—like a weird voodoo ritual, an out-of-nowhere drive-by, and murder on the dance floor. It remains to be seen how memorable The Infiltrator proves to be, though.

127 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

http://www.theinfiltrator.com

Home3

Spotlight

(USA 2015)

The Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal of the early millennium shocked even far fallen Catholics like me. I remember the skeeves I got when I heard that one of the priests from my old parish was “involved”– and some of his accusers purpordedly were former classmates of mine. And it all came to light while we were still reeling from 9/11. O tempora o mores!

Sticking to a period of about eight months with a methodical, deliberate pace that slowly bubbles to a boil, Spotlight tells all the twists, turns, obstacles, and setbacks The Boston Globe’s special investigations team faced in exposing the systemic coverup within the Boston Diocese, executed by Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). No one believed it at first– not even The Globe, which as we learn had information years before. Spotlight grabs you from the get-go and locks you in, letting bits and pieces of evidence mount. The setup is what you’d expect from a film about investigative reporting.

Spotlight is an actors’ movie: drab, colorless sets and straightforward camera work let the ensemble cast work the drama. So, what about the actors? Not a single bad performance here. Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiver, Mark Ruffalo, and Stanley Tucci particularly shine. It’s nice to see Billy Cudrup again. Jimmy LeBlanc (Patrick) is a small but wrenching role, and I swore he was a brother of Chris Evans (he’s not). Rachel McAdams and Brian d’arcy James both work their roles, but their characters are superfluous. John Slattery is amusing, as usual; but his character is essentially Roger Sterling from Mad Men. Minor flaws aside, I see some definite Oscar potential here.

Side note: this was my first visit to the brand new ArcLight Cinema at New City. Not bad, though I need to see another film there to decide whether I like it.

(ArcLight) B+

http://spotlightthefilm.com

 

A Murder in the Park

(USA 2015)

I love movies set in and about Chicago, especially since the time I moved here. I do not remember this, though: a group of Northwestern University journalism students under the direction of “advocate” Prof. David Protess reenact a 1982 murder at a South Side pool and conclude that it could not have happened the way police and the courts determined it did, persuading Gov. George Ryan to free a convicted killer (Anthony Porter), jail an innocent man (Alstroy Simon), and ultimately abolish the death penalty.

The problem is, the alleged killer was by all accounts probably guilty. Walking us through the facts, interviews with those involved, and the sloppy “investigation” of the students, filmmakers Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber demonstrate a worst-case scenario of political correctness, academic corruption, and second-guessing those charged with solving crimes. It’s an interesting and even controversial film considering the current prevailing attitude toward law enforcement.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

http://www.mipfilm.com

Cartel Land

(USA 2015)

This one threw me for a loop. I expected an expose on the Mexican cartels, but that was just the backdrop. What Cartel Land is really about is the self-proclaimed “vigilantes” fighting the cartels on both sides of the border: Jose “El Doctor” Mireles, a Mexican shit-town physician running Las Autodefensas, and Tim “Nailer” Foley, a veteran running Arizona Border Recon. Boasting some intense on-the-ground footage, it isn’t quite clear who the bad guys are by the end. Total mindfuck.

(Music Box) B-

http://cartellandmovie.com