Nov 13

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”: Real Writer Fakes It

The miracle is Melissa McCarthy, whose tortured portrait of disgraced celebrity author and convicted forger Lee Israel is the consummate performance of her career and the crowning achievement of her life. I have seen Can You Ever Forgive Me? twice, rubbing my eyes with astonishment and discovering something new and wonderful each time. This is my favorite film of 2018. Rex Reed, New York Observer

The thing is, film critic Rex Reed actually knew Lee Israel (1939-2014), the subject of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Below he summarizes her predicament, as presented both in her 2008 memoir subtitled Memoirs of a Literary Forger and this film:

Facing a mid-life career crisis fueled by writer’s block and the kind of boredom that drove her to a pattern of professional suicide, Lee was a drunk, a lesbian without love, and a cat lover who lived in filth without so much as a litter box for the droppings that piled up under her bed. Lonely and deeply in debt, with no tolerance for people, all of her old bridges burned behind her and no other skills to make a living, she starts going to parties to steal everything from rolls of toilet paper in the guest bathrooms to winter coats in the check room.

In addition, from Merryn Johns, Curve:

Even Israel’s own literary agent (Jane Curtin) detests her but nevertheless dispenses some sage advice at an elite Manhattan party: be nicer to people; write in your own voice—advice Israel dismisses to her own peril.

What the prickly Israel embarks on instead is a crime spree, “forging literary letters by prominent writers,” in partnership with gay friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), also an alcoholic. As Tracy E. Gilchrist (The Advocate) reports, this happened in Manhattan during the early years of an emerging health crisis in the community: “Jack, who would eventually die from AIDS-related complications in 1994, flippantly informs Lee early on in their friendship, ‘I haven’t got any friends, they’re all dead’.”

Essentially, notes Gilchrist, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is “a platonic love story between a gay man and a lesbian at a time when so many queer women answered the call to help their gay brothers.”

Many reviewers, though, emphasize the loneliness of the main characters:

Emily YoshidaVulture:

Loneliness, onscreen at least, tends to be a vibe, a #mood, a way of looking off into the distance as a certain kind of melancholy tune plays. In Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay, it’s a physical reality, a stench you live with until you are both used to it and loath to escape it.

Benjamin Lee, The Guardian:

It is rare to see a film led by two gay characters over the age of 50 and there is a specific friendship they share; both are implicitly aware of the alternate routes they have taken in life partly as a result of their sexuality and both more explicitly aware of the loneliness that now hangs over them.

Linda Holmes, NPR: “Israel is driven by a sense that the world should not treat her this way because it should not treat anyone this way, as if they are invisible, forgotten, unimportant.”

Watch the trailer below:

May 23

“The Normal Heart”: New Adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Play

If you have access to HBO, most advance reviews indicate it’s well worth checking out Sunday night’s premiere of The Normal Heart. David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, says, in fact, there are “millions” of reasons to tune in, including, “because ‘The Normal Heart’ seethes with rage, truth and love in every single performance by an A-list cast. You should watch because Larry Kramer’s play is so much more than an agitprop relic from the early years of AIDS — it is a great play that has become an even greater television film.”

There are those who disagree, however, that the TV adaptation is better than the play. David Hinckley, New York Daily News, for example:

…’The Normal Heart’ is most effective in a good stage production, because it seethes with a visceral anger best felt in the physical presence of the actors.
But this new Ryan Murphy adaptation comes close, thanks in large measure to the fury that Mark Ruffalo gives to lead character Ned Weeks…
Weeks becomes the voice of outrage, demanding friends and foes alike acknowledge the urgency of this plague.

Below Wiegand sets up the TV film’s plot, which is based on Kramer’s real-life experiences in the early 1980’s. He also introduces the main characters played by, in order of their characters’ mentions, Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, and Matt Bomer:

Ned Weeks…is an abrasive activist-slash-writer who tries to rally gay men toward awareness of the growing health crisis and lobbies in vain for the New York Times to give the issue appropriate coverage.
Soon enough, the situation is impossible for gay men to ignore, although the straight world would do its damnedest for several years. When Ned urges sexual abstinence as a way of stopping the spread of the so-called ‘gay cancer,’ he may as well be advocating a mass return to the closet by the entire gay population of New York.
He finds a powerful ally in Dr. Emma Brookner…whose childhood battle with polio has left her in a wheelchair as an adult but has also taught her that health crises demand urgent and focused response.
As Weeks steps up pressure on the Times, he meets a lifestyle writer for the paper named Felix Turner…who becomes his lover.

Critics have praised the cast as a whole, with frequent special mentions of Bomer’s performance. Other cast members include Jonathan Groff, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Denis O’Hare, and Joe Mantello.

You can watch the trailer below:


David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle:

[Murphy’s] film, with an adaptation by Kramer, captures the conflicting attitudes and emotions in the New York gay community as indifference and denial turned to panic, anger and despair, but it also recognizes that ‘The Normal Heart’ tells a human story far beyond both its subject matter and the time in which it is set…

It is emotionally raw, harrowing, and a thing of such singular horrific beauty, it will move you, exhaust you and, almost paradoxically, thrill you at the heights television drama can attain.

Brian Tallerico, “Expect tears before the end of the first half-hour. Expect anger. Expect to be emotionally exhausted.”

Chuck Barney, Mercury News: “What [Murphy] delivers is a film with piercing emotional honesty that feels rough and real, intimate and truly full of heart.”

David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: “…will keep you up for hours in an emotional churn thinking about life, love, loss, death and politics.”

Peter Knegt, Indiewire: “…(I)t’s messy and disjointed, never confident in its tone and failing to live up to its epic potential. Hopefully if Kramer and Murphy…team up for a sequel, they find a way to make it up to us (maybe by hiring someone else to direct it?).”

Jan 17

“Dallas Buyers Club”: Is It Worth Seeing? Scanning the Reviews

Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, among others. Is it worth seeing for the acting? The story? The “straight savior” angle? Or is the latter a turnoff?

The basic plot, from IMDB: “In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.”

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club was written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallick and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. According to Richard Corliss, Time, “Borten and Wallack based their script on hundreds of hours of interviews with Woodroof, then waited 20 years for the film to get made.”

After the “vocally homophobic antihero” (Peter Debruge, Variety) gets diagnosed, Woodruff proceeds to be helped by such folks as his physician (Jennifer Garner) and another AIDS patient (Jared Leto) who’s transgender.

The Main Performances

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “McConaughey is the only reason to see Dallas Buyers Club, but he’s enough of a reason to see Dallas Buyers Club.”

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine: “It’s difficult to talk about the beauty of Leto’s performance, because he just, well, is. The transformation is so complete—­physically and vocally—that it’s hard to believe he could ever be anything else. Rayon (née Raymond) is high on being Rayon, to the point where you sometimes forget that he’s dying, too.”

Woodruff as the “Straight Savior”

Peter DebrugeVarietybelieves that making Woodruff the main character in this movie “ensure[s] that no matter how uncomfortable audiences are with HIV or so-called ‘alternative lifestyles,’ they will recognize Woodroof’s knee-jerk bigotry as uncool. And thus, the film manages to educate without ever feeling didactic, and to entertain in the face of what would, to any other character, seem like a grim life sentence.”

This sentiment is echoed by Rex Reed, New York Observer: “It’s the story of a lout who finds redemption through unexpected motivation, becoming an accidental activist in the process and learning a valuable lesson in humanity about how to help others after it’s too late to help himself.”

The AIDS Crisis

I think it’s well worth noting that Mark S. King of HIV Plus Magazine gives the film high praise for its gritty depiction of the truth of AIDS.

A river of infected blood runs through it. So too does practically every other bodily fluid, along with bruises that won’t heal and purple skin lesions and flakes of dry, reddened skin. And that’s kind of beautiful. Because that’s what AIDS looked like in 1985, and it’s been ages since we have fully remembered it…

I have never seen AIDS shown this way in a film. And of all the movie portrayals of the disease, from Parting Glances to I Love You Phillip Morris, nothing else has captured the ugly physicality of AIDS like Dallas Buyers Club. Even the tearful hospital-bed goodbyes in Longtime Companion seem overly romanticized by comparison…

Jun 13

Gay Dads of Adults: “Fairyland” and the Gay Dad Project

This weekend some gay dads will be honored for Fathers Day. Among these are the out gay partners á la TV’s now-cancelled The New Normal who jointly opt for parenthood together and there are the dads who, maybe not knowing they’re gay when they start to raise kids, usually with a female mate, do eventually come out.

Following are some real-life examples of the latter circumstances as seen from the eyes of the now-adult kids of gay dads.

I. A New Memoir

It was the 1970’s. Steve Abbott relocated himself and his daughter, preschooler Alysia, from their Atlanta home to San Francisco following the death of her mom in a car accident.

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father is the new book by Alysia Abbott in which she chronicles a lifestyle that included frequent moves, a lack of structure, and an artsy father who battled drug and alcohol dependence and picked male partners who weren’t good for him. Meanwhile, Alysia believed it was her dad’s grief over the loss of her mom that had made him “turn gay.”

From the book description:

As a child Alysia views her father as a loving playmate but as she gets older Alysia wants more than anything to fit in. The world, she learns, is hostile to difference.

In her teens, Steve’s friends—several of whom she befriended—fall ill as ‘the gay plague’ starts its rampage through their community. While Alysia is studying in New York and then France, her father comes to tell her it’s time to come home; He’s sick with AIDS. She must choose, as her father once did, whether to take on the responsibility of caring for him or to continue the independent life she worked so hard to create.

The memoir is written two decades after his death.

Selected Reviews

Kirkus Reviews: “What makes this story especially successful is the meticulous way the author uses letters and her father’s cartoons and journals to reconstruct the world she and her father inhabited. As she depicts the dynamics of a unique, occasionally fraught, gay parent–straight child relationship, Abbott offers unforgettable glimpses into a community that has since left an indelible mark on both the literary and social histories of one of America’s most colorful cities.”

Publishers Weekly: “…Abbott’s narrative balances idiosyncratic flourishes with universal emotions of anger, resentment, jealousy, and guilt. Decades after the fact, it is clear she continues to struggle with her failures as daughter and caregiver. Yet, her fragile resolution is more honest than a tidy, suggesting that the most’ outlandish’ parts of our stories—our own inadequacies—prove difficult to fully accept.”

Edmund White, author: “A vivid, sensitively written account of a complex but always loving relationship. This is not only a painfully honest autobiography but also a tribute to old-fashioned bohemian values in a world that is increasingly conformist and materialistic. I couldn’t put it down!”

II. The Gay Dad Project

Erin Margolin and Amie Shea, both adult daughters of gay dads, created The Gay Dad Project, “about families where one parent comes out as LGBTQ.”

When in their teens and struggling with this issue, each woman had lacked support. Whereas Erin’s dad came out openly when she was 15, Amie figured it out without him—her dad was in the closet.

Dec 19

“How to Survive a Plague”: Silence Equalled Death

Maybe you’ve heard of it; maybe not. It’s currently in theaters, but hardly. However, it recently won Best Documentary from the Boston Society of Film Critics (2012). And How to Survive a Plague is so noteworthy it’s also made it onto film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum‘s (Entertainment Weekly) “10 Best Movies of 2012.”

Directed by David France, How to Survive a Plague tells the story of both ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), two coalitions responsible back in the day for pushing such organizations as the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, the drug companies, and the general medical establishment to do more regarding AIDS research and treatment.

Watch the trailer before reading on:

The Story Via Review Excerpts

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: The film “begins in 1987, six years into the AIDS epidemic, when the group Act Up formed in Greenwich Village and proceeded to march on New York’s City Hall in an effort to shame Mayor Ed Koch for his lack of response to what was then known as the ‘gay plague.'”

Sara Stewart, The New York Post:

Featured ACT UP leaders include writer and agitator Larry Kramer; Peter Staley, a former closeted bond trader who went on to become one of the group’s most eloquent spokesmen; and Bob Rafsky, whose angry outburst at a speech by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton evoked the now-famous phrase ‘I feel your pain.’
Video of protests, strategy meetings and the near-dead is interspersed with TV images of President George H.W. Bush merrily playing golf and Sen. Jesse Helms denouncing the ‘revolting’ victims for not keeping their ‘sodomy’-related problems to themselves. (In one of their more lighthearted actions, the group memorably unfurled a giant condom over Helms’ house.)

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

I’d have been happy to live out my life never again seeing the faces of such homophobic and generally hateful goblins as Sen. Jesse Helms and John Cardinal O’Connor, but it’s useful to remember that such people are not deeply buried in the American past and that some are with us today. While ACT UP’s ‘Stop the Church’ protests inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 no doubt struck many onlookers as shocking and disrespectful, many of the protesters involved had been raised Catholic and were reacting in outrage against a church that actively scorned them and seemed to delight in their extinction.

By the Ending…

Sara StewartThe New York Post: “France wisely waits until near the end to reveal which ACT UP members are still living, and which are not. ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ while a shaggier-structured documentary than many, is a heart-wrenching portrait of one of the saddest, most heroic chapters in American history.”

Stephen WhittyStar-Ledger: “(M)ostly the film toggles between two emotions – the high of watching brave people go to war, and the low of seeing so many of them fall, as entire communities are destroyed. (‘Will the last person alive in Chelsea,’ one man bitterly jokes, ‘please turn off the lights?’).”

Amy BiancolliSan Francisco Chronicle: “When it’s over, this documentary lingers as a testament to extraordinary human bravery. It stands as one of the most heartbreaking and suspenseful sagas of the year.”