Friday, September 25, 2015


A bunch of openings this weekend:

StonewallThe June 1969 riots at the title gay bar in Greenwich Village, credited with goosing the LGBT Liberation Movement into action, are wrapped in a fictitious coming-of-age story. High school senior Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who looks like Troy Donahue’s prettier little brother, flees the Midwest when his dad finds out he’s gay. Landing in New York (he has a scholarship to Columbia), he promptly falls in with the tricking, shoplifting riff raff on Christopher Street.

Danny finds acceptance from this racially and ethnically mixed rabble—especially from the nurturing, flamboyant Puerto Rican hustler Ray (the likable Jonny Beauchamp), who loves him unrequitedly—that he never got at home, but he also learns what it’s like to turn tricks and to get the crap beaten out of him by the cops. He falls for a Mattachine Society activist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Ray suffers, and they’re all in the mix at the mobbed-up club that fateful night in June, a few days after the death of Judy Garland.

Directed by Roland Emmerich, this very old-fashioned movie has taken a lot of shit from LGBT commentators for the whitebread nature of the leading man, and the corniness of his story. Fair enough, maybe, but the script—credited to no less than Jon Robin Baitz, though there are thuddingly self-conscious lines that it’s hard to believe he wrote—is structurally very similar to a low-budget indie effort of the same title from 1995 (I reviewed it for Phoenix New Times), and that movie had the same gushy sentimentalities.

Emmerich’s not a director I would normally go to the wall defending, but there’s a simple energy to his work here, and the cast is lively, with the youngsters abetted by enjoyable turns from vets like Matt Craven, Patrick Garrow and Ron Perlman. Above all, the significance of the event—the startling awareness it gave to the mainstream (not to mention other gay people) that, pushed far enough, that community could fight back like any other downtrodden minority—gives the climax a charge. The movie’s very conventionality is cheering, in a way—it’s shaped to offer the protesters as heroes to a mainstream audience, and who, back in 1969, would have predicted that?

Pawn SacrificeAnother historical episode, from just three years later: Tobey Maguire plays chess master Bobby Fisher in Edward Zwick’s intriguing chronicle, focusing on his legendary 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Russian master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). I well remember what an improbably iconic figure Fisher was at that time even in the rural America where I grew up, because he was able to beat the Soviets in a field for which they particularly prided themselves. 

What most of us didn’t know at the time was the degree to which Fisher was not just a little eccentric but a full-blown, tinfoil-on-the-skull paranoid megalomaniac, bristling with ugly vitriol against communists and Jews (though he was Jewish himself) and certain he was being conspired against. He was also deeply sensitive to his environment, finding it hard to play without absolute quiet. The title, perhaps, is meant to suggest that Fisher was the pawn, his obvious mental health needs sacrificed by the U.S. for a Cold War win. 

If the script, by Steven Knight, and Maguire’s performance is to be believed, Fisher’s nuttiness didn’t quite excuse him from also being an insufferably arrogant, exasperating bastard. His chess genius apparently did, however—the people close to him, including his coach, the chess master and Catholic priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), seemed capable of forgiving him anything, and going to any lengths to accommodate him.

It’s to Maguire’s credit that, without softening Fisher, he makes him a poignant and haunted and also comic figure as well as an infuriating one. The supporting cast helps too, especially Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg as the shady, possibly covert-intelligence-connected tournament promoter, and Schrieber. Spassky isn’t a large role, but Schrieber brings it a warm, indolent virility, like a self-possessed old tomcat, yet with the suggestion that he may have his own, less virulent streak of paranoia

 A Brilliant Young MindThough he’s far less abrasive than Maguire’s Bobby Fisher, the main character of this Brit drama suffers some of the same miseries. Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is a mathematical genius. He’s also, thanks to some degree of autism but also to a horrifying childhood trauma, a social disconnected misfit, unable to show affection even to his desperately deprived mother (Sally Hawkins).

Under the dryly sardonic tutelage of a teacher (Rafe Spall), himself a “maths” whiz as a kid but now a multiple sclerosis-afflicted pill-popper, Nathan prepares to compete for a spot in the International Mathematics Olympiad. His quest takes him to Taiwan, where a girl from the Chinese team (Jo Yang) takes a shine to him.

The movie, titled X + Y in the UK, is fiction derived from a documentary called Beautiful Young Minds by the same director, Morgan Matthews. For a while it seems like one more variation on the sports movie, sort of a Rocky for people with Asperger’s. And that would be entertaining enough as far as it went, but A Brilliant Young Mind takes a turn in its homestretch that I must admit I wasn’t expecting, and which carries it beyond the simple triumph of the underdog climax toward which it seems to be building to something far more emotionally satisfying. I don’t know how it squares with the clinical realities of this sort of condition, but dramatically it works. 

Sally Hawkins is especially fine in these last minutes, but the whole cast is strong. Spall was my favorite, but Eddie Marsan is also peppery and funny as the UK coach, and Yang is a delight as the unapologetically infatuated love interest. Butterfield (Ender in Ender’s Game) is a touching presence at the center of the movie, and a charismatic one, too—it’s believable that girls might fall for him, not in spite of his strangeness but because of it.

The InternThis heavy-handed message comedy may do well enough at the box office, but something tells me it won’t get a ton of serious critical sympathy. It’s about as soft-edged and undemanding as movies get, with almost all of the story’s conflict kept on the margins, while the center is filled with platitudes and pleasantries. But I can’t claim I wasn’t engaged by it from start to finish.

First of all, said message—that old people are a resource society ought not to squander—is one I find myself agreeing with more heartily every year. Writer-director Nancy Meyers dramatizes this, not very urgently, by sending bored, affluent retired Brooklyn widower Ben (Robert DeNiro) to work as an unpaid intern at an exploding online shopping business founded by Jules (Anne Hathaway). In part because of strained relations with her mother, Jules is uncomfortable with older people, but Ben’s unassuming diligence and discretion quickly break through her defenses, and they bond.

That, I guess, is the second thing I liked about The Intern. Ben isn’t the father Jules always needed; the two bond as friends and colleagues. I think the third and biggest reason I liked The Intern, though, was just because of the chance to see DeNiro in a light, relaxed, funny vein. Though his character is underwritten and preposterously flawless, DeNiro himself is good company here.

Much of Hathaway’s role consists of admiring Ben’s old-school style. Jules, and presumably Meyers speaking through her, seems to regard as the biggest fault of the younger generation of men in this country their failure to wear suits and ties to work, and to carry a hankie with them in case a nearby woman needs a good cry. Strictly from an aesthetic point of view, I entirely agree, but it’s worth remembering the power structure that style symbolized. Whether Jules, or Meyers, would have enjoyed trying to build a career in the suit-and-tie world of Ben’s prime is a point The Intern doesn’t raise.


  1. Clear, focused and to the point. Wonderful, helpful reviews. Thanks Mark