Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Don't Call Me By Your Name -- I'll Call YOU!

The smart money in this year’s Oscar race seems to be on either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s hard to say which has the better chance, but my guess is that voters of a more cynical bent will opt for Martin McDonagh’s bitter (yet fascinating) story of loss and retribution, while the optimists in the Academy will prefer Guillermo del Toro’s uplifting (yet bizarre) otherworldly love story. In del Toro’s telling, the love of a human woman and a sea creature certainly has an ethereal side. He deftly balances this, however, with a lot of real-world squalor and Cold War anxiety. That’s my problem with another of this year’s contenders. It’s so gorgeous, so swoon-worthy, that it doesn’t seem part of real life at all. 

I’m talking, of course, about Call Me By Your Name, a film that’s all-aquiver with the intensity of its lovers’ passion. I remember hearing about this film after last year’s Sundance: from the start it was seen as an awards contender. And perhaps in a different year it would be at the top of the heap, at least in part to make up for the fact that in 2006 the Academy denied a Best Picture Oscar to another gay love story, Brokeback Mountain. I was fascinated by the inarticulate cowboys in that film. And I can’t deny that the actors in Call Me By Your Name are both attractive and convincing. Timothée Chalamet, the youngest man in many years to be up for a Best Actor Oscar, is a powerful presence, one whose emotional highs and lows seem to leap off the screen. (It’s completely irrelevant, but I’m enthralled by the fact that his mother’s brother, director Rodman Flender, was a colleague of mine at Concorde Pictures. I always thought Rodman had a distinctive look and manner, and now I see it runs in the family.)

Still, I must say I found this film hard to take, for reasons that have nothing to do with moral outrage. Under the guidance of Italian director Luca Guadagnino, it’s so slow, so limpid, so sensitive. Yes, the photography is beautiful: it captures lives that are so blissfully sensuous that they seem to have nothing to do with the world as I know it. It’s the height of summer in a small Italian town. The Perlman family are ensconced in their 17th century villa, where they have no obligation to do anything but read books, play music, swim in the river, and think deep thoughts. The father (well played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned scholar of archaeology, so he occasionally waxes poetic about the alluring beauty of Greek statuary, but he seems to have no pressing duties. Seventeen-year-old son Elio (Chalamet) rides around town on a bicycle, half-heartedly experiments with sex with a local girl, and then cuddles on a sofa with his parents while his mother reads aloud from a German novel she translates on the spot. (The Perlmans have the maddening habit of switching from English to French to Italian in casual conversation.) Then a hunky grad student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, and Elio is totally smitten. 

Soon amid all those perfect al fresco meals and smoothies made by the maid from perfect peaches plucked from a perfect backyard orchard, Oliver and Elio are taking tentative steps to acknowledge what they feel for one another. And the world’s most understanding parents are quietly cheering them on. Actually, Oliver – though pretty -- was for me pretty much a blank. I suspect Timothée Chalamet’s Elio can do much better.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Stowaway: A Story Disney Would Not Have Told

A few weeks ago, newspapers everywhere reported the passing of Doreen Tracey, best remembered as one of the fresh-face youngsters who sang and danced their hearts out on The Mickey Mouse Club. I remember Doreen well. Like all the girls my age (and maybe the boys too) I had my special favorites. I liked Darlene, Annette, and Bobby. That left my little sister with Karen, Cubby, and Doreen. Neither of us was too crazy about Sharon, despite her outstanding dance skills. But all of those squeaky-clean kids served as role-models for us mere mortals. How we longed to be in their tap shoes! (Who knew that years later spunky Darlene would be sentenced to prison, along with her third husband, for a check-kiting scheme?)

One daily feature of the Mickey Mouse Club, aside from those frolicking Mouseketeers, was a live-action serial in which young people did brave and exciting things, usually in the great outdoors. Like racing horses, fighting off rustlers, and solving crimes. Remember, for instance, “Corky and White Shadow”? And “The Adventures of Spin and Marty”? 

When I look back at the programming of that era, I realize one thing that never occurred to me in the 1950s. Not only was everyone on-screen white, but it was rare to see any performer or character who strayed into ethnic terrain of any sort. No Jews, of course, needed to apply. There was much comment, even back in the day, that Annette Funicello was the single most popular Mouseketeer, even though she (given her name and appearance) was overtly Italian-American. Everyone else, though, had WASP surnames like Burgess and Pendleton and Burke, or the occasional O’Brien and Gillespie. Original Mouseketeer Don Grady, whom I knew slightly in later years, was born Don Agrati, but his Italian last name disappeared when he started his showbiz career. 

I bring this up because my colleague, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has just published a rollicking true tale of derring-do. It’s called The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. And it’s all about a seventeen-year-old lad who in 1928 persistently stowed away on sea-going vessels, until he could finally fulfill his dream of joining Admiral Byrd on his historic trip to the bottom of the world. It’s a thrilling story, but not one that Disney would have pursued back in the Mickey Mouse Club days. An essential fact about this young stowaway, Billy Gawronski, was that he was Polish-American, the son of immigrants, and had a deep cultural connection to the land of his parents’ birth. When Shapiro stumbled upon his story, it appealed to her partially because she too (a product of New York’s Lower East Side) knew what it was like to come from immigrant stock: the pride, the parental expectations, the urge to prove oneself in the wider world.

One of the fascinating details I learned from Shapiro’s book was that at the outset of the voyage to Antarctica from Hoboken’s harbor, there were no fewer than three stowaways. The one who managed to remain undetected the longest was an African-American named Bob Lanier. Though for a time Lanier was accepted onboard as a crew member, racism reared its ugly head and he was eventually sent back home, long before reaching his dream destination. Despite several attempts, he never managed to walk on Antarctica. It took another 12 years, until 1940, for a young navy man named George Gibbs to be the first African American to visit Little America.  

That’s one more story that Walt Disney and The Mickey Mouse Club of my youth would never have chosen to tell.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life for Wonder Woman and her Peers

As I write this, I don’t yet know what films have been nominated for 2018 Oscars, which are due to be presented on March 4. But it’s a safe bet that the word “Wonder” will appear somewhere in the list of nominees. In one of those curious coincidences that Hollywood is known for, there are five major movies from 2017 whose titles are literally wonder-ful. First of all there’s Wonder, based on a schmaltzy children’s novel about a boy with a grotesquely misshapen face. For the much-lauded film version, adorable Jacob Tremblay (from Room) underwent hours of elaborate makeup, including prosthetics, in order to portray the central character, with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his concerned but loving parents.

This year’s inevitable Woody Allen project, set at Coney Island in 1950s, is called Wonder Wheel, with the title of course referring to the amusement park’s iconic Ferris wheel. This is solemn, sensitive Woody at work: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, and Justin Timberlake are featured in what sounds like a mawkish story of love, loss, and the woes of the downtrodden.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see Wonderstruck, but it has a marvelous pedigree: the director is Todd Haynes; lead actors include Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams; the music is supplied by the always interesting Carter Burwell (the Coen Brothers favorite who has gotten major attention this year for his  gripping Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri score). Writer Brian Selznick, whose 2007 work was adapted into Martin Scorsese’s genuinely wondrous Hugo, wrote the screenplay based on his own novel. The story rotates between two separate quest narratives involving children. The one set in 1927 is shot in black & white, using a number of silent film techniques. Sounds amazing—why was this not in theatres longer?

Then of course there’s the international blockbuster, Wonder Woman, which I finally chanced to see. As I understand it, the sex goddess of the DC Comics universe had a long route to her big-screen debut. Back in the 1970s, of course, she was played by the zaftig Lynda Carter in a kitschy TV show I never bothered to watch. More recently, a number of famous filmmakers (Joel Silver and Joss Whedon among them) wanted to bring her to the big screen. Sandra Bullock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and others were considered for the lead, but no one could seem to decide if a Wonder Woman movie should be action-comedy or drama, set in a fantasy world, the historic past, or the present day. What’s fascinating about the current Patty Jenkins production is that it contains a bit of everything—and somehow it works. The opening scenes set in the island nation of the Amazons looks like an upscale version of a Roger Corman barbarian-queen flick. Then suddenly we’re in the middle of a World War I movie, played somewhat realistically until we find ourselves in the presence of a super-villain with mythological credentials There’s some sexy banter, some fish-out-of-water humor, and a poignant lost love. And throughout it all, star Gal Gadot retains her dignity and her charm while deflecting bullets  Brava!

But this was also the year of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, purporting to be a real-life origin-story for the Wonder Woman comic character. Who knew that a psychology professor who significantly contributed to the development of the polygraph also came up with the idea of a female superhero? And who knew that he was inspired by the wife and the mistress with whom he lived in a polyamorous relationship? Now that’s a movie I need to see.

Not so wonder-ful update; poor Wonder Woman was left out in the cold (in a very skimpy costume). The only “wonder” on the Oscar nomination list was a nod for Hair and Makeup on the film Wonder.