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‘Love Is Strange’: So is MPAA rating system

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER  
For 21st Century Media

“Love Is Strange” is an often touching depiction of the lives of two elderly gay men.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a devoted same sex couple, who have been together for thirty-nine years. Ben is an artist and George teaches choir at a local Roman Catholic boy’s school. The two share a comfortable, tastefully-appointed Manhattan apartment.
When New York legalizes gay marriages, Ben and George eagerly take advantage of the new legislation and get hitched. Following the ceremony, we see them back in their apartment, surrounded by family and friends, belting out Broadway show tunes. Everything seems hunky dory.
George is summoned to the office of his principal. There, George is advised that some unidentified archdiocesan official has issued a fiat to fire him. George is flabbergasted by the news. George points out that he has never hidden the fact that he is gay and lives with another man. These protestations are in vain.
With the loss of George’s income, the couple can no longer afford to keep their home. They are unable to find a place, where they can live together. They seek temporary lodgings. The couple is offered the opportunity to move into a home of one of Ben’s relatives, where they could live together. However, that would mean living in Poughkeepsie (shudders). This option is unthinkable to them. So, after decades together, the senescent lovebirds are forced to live apart.
Ben moves to the Brooklyn loft apartment occupied by his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his family. This includes Elliot’s novelist wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei) and adolescent son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Ben’s presence soon proves discomfiting. Kate is distracted by Ben’s presence, which disrupts her writing regimen. Joey is annoyed by the fact that he now has to share his room with an interloper, who is sharing his bunk bed. Kate and Joey resent the loss of the cherished privacy to which they had grown accustomed.
Meanwhile, George moves downstairs to the apartment of a pair of young gay policemen, Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). He couch surfs there. George assures them that it will only be for a month, two at the most. It doesn’t take long before George’s presence becomes an unwelcome irritant.
Our Society has made enormous strides with regard to becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. Lamentably, homophobia sometimes still rears its ugly head. Most churches remain staunchly opposed to the gay lifestyle and vociferously condemn it. In an effort to justify their prejudice, many faith leaders quote scriptural passages.
I felt compassion for the plight of the two co-protagonists. Not only they had to battle with contemporary homophobia, but in prior decades, during which it was far worse. However, I struggled to accept their failure to anticipate the knee-jerk homophobic response of the Roman Catholic church when they go married. By no means do I condone this intemperate reaction. I thought that the archdiocesan decision to fire George for getting married to a man was wrong. He is an otherwise qualified employee, who has not done anything illegal.
While the church’s action was wrong, wasn’t it totally predictable? Somehow, the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias seems to suggest that the co-protagonists were blindsided by the church’s decision. I struggled with this dramatic conceit. George works at a Roman Catholic boy’s school. Wouldn’t he be aware of the church’s publically stated stance in opposition to homosexuality? Shouldn’t he have anticipated their reaction to his same sex marriage?
For that matter, shouldn’t Ben and George have recognized that their abrupt intrusion into the homes of other people would constitute an imposition? What is the basis for their belief that their economic circumstances will change and enable them to find lodgings together? Should Ben’s family and the gay downstairs neighbors be expected to accommodate the two displaced men in cramped circumstances indefinitely?
Admittedly, I have reservations about certain plot contrivances in “Love Is Strange.” Nevertheless, I am appalled by the action of the MPAA in giving an R rating to this innocuous film. The MPAA is a trade organization, which has formulated a set of categories. These range from the ultra-mild G (for General Audiences and includes “nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children”) all the way to the harshest NC-17 (“Clearly adult. Children are not admitted”). An R rating is one level down from the dreaded NC-17. It indicates that a film has material, which is unsuitable for those under 17, but allows them to see it if they are accompanied by an adult.
To provide a frame of reference, R was attached to films like the grisly “Saw” series and the violence filled, sexually graphic “Sin City” and its sequel. Despite its staggering body count, Sylvester Stallone’s recent macho bloodbath. “The Expendables 3” was accorded a mere NC-17.
“Love Is Strange” contains a chaste peck on the cheek and a fully clothed embrace, both of which involve two men. There is absolutely no violence anywhere in the film. So-what accounts for the R rating? According to the MPAA, “Love Is Strange” received its R rating for the utterances of a few forbidden words. Of course, this is absurd.
**1/2 R (for language) 94 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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‘Starred Up’: Riveting prison drama

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

While the British prison drama, “Starred Up” is undeniably hyperviolent, it is also a carefully considered and dramatically powerful film. The title refers to the practice of transferring under-aged criminals from a Young Offender Institution to a full-fledged adult prison because they are deemed a threat.

The film’s protagonist, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is only 19-years old. However, due to his pattern of violent behavior, he has been starred up and transferred to an adult facility. On his first day at his new home, Eric demonstrates just how dangerous he is. He immediately fashions a weapon out of a prison-issued composite disposable razor/toothbrush and hides it for future use. Then, Eric attacks a fellow prisoner, which prompts a lockdown. He breaks a table in his prison cell and converts its legs into makeshift clubs. When a cadre of prison guards storm into his cell, Eric disables several of them before they can subdue him.

Although Eric is not particularly big, throughout the film, he displays a primordial instinct for fighting. In one memorable vignette, while handcuffed, Eric drops to his knees and bites through the pants of a prison guard and grips his genitals through tightly-clenched teeth. Ouch! In another scene, Eric is attacked while showering. It recalls a naked Viggo Mortenson fighting off a pair of knife-wielding assailants in “Eastern Promises.”

While young, Eric was abandoned by his father. He was subsequently taken from his mother by social services and placed in various institutions. Eric is consumed with residual feelings of anger and abandonment. As it turns out, his long-estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is a prisoner in the same facility. He exerts a lot of influence over the incarcerated population.

Their father-son relationship is fraught with mutual ambivalence. Eric remains traumatized from growing up in a parentless environment. He is hesitant to accept expressions of paternal concern from someone, who is a virtual stranger.  Meanwhile, Neville feels protective towards his son, but resents the fact that Eric is threatening the prisoners’ carefully constructed hierarchy. The lockdowns compromise the business operations run by the crafty head prisoner, Spencer (Peter Ferdinando). Neville fears that Spencer will issue an order to have Eric killed.

The storyline takes a different trajectory, when it introduces Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend). He is a preternaturally calm and empathetic volunteer, who has started an anger management program for prisoners. Oliver eventually convinces a reluctant Eric to join his group. Although Neville has long eschewed his paternal duty to Eric, he resents that another man has shown an interest in helping his son.

In the lead role, Jack O’Connell is simply phenomenal. He displays a tightly-coiled, physical formidability. His performance crackles with a quiet intensity. As the film unfolds, he begins to reveal a carefully-concealed emotional vulnerability. I eagerly await O’Connell’s lead role in the upcoming Angelina Jolie-directed film, “Unbroken.” In it, he will portray Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, who was taken prisoner by the imperial Japanese army during World War II.

Americans audiences will struggle with the thick, impenetrable accents of the prisoners. It is unlikely that they will be able to decipher the jailhouse argot. The heated dialogue of the prisoners in one of Oliver’s volatile group sessions was particularly difficult to comprehend. I could not understand what the prisoners were saying in this highly-charged scene. Nevertheless, I was totally captivated by the depiction of their dynamics.

“Starred Up” is the first screenplay by Jonathan Asser. The 50-year old writer had the benefit of a boarding school education and graduated from Exeter University. However, Asser has disclosed that he felt traumatized by being subjected to persistent bullying and the schools’ oppressive regulations. After graduating, Asser was plagued with mental health issues and struggled to fit unto society. For catharsis, Asser began doing public poetry recitations, including one at the Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute. He then became a volunteer there, teaching a poetry workshop. Eventually, he started an anger management program for youth offenders. Then, Asser was hired to work as an employee at the HM Prison Wandsworth. After taking some formal training, Asser organized the SVI (Shame/Violence: Intervention) program. It was designed to rehabilitate prisoners with extremely violent proclivities.

Although widely hailed for its efficacy, the SVI program was abruptly shut down. According to Asser, he had met with counterterrorism officials about the use of therapy to prevent the radicalization of prisoners. The following day, without any notice, Asser’s security pass was revoked and his program was decommissioned. Asser appealed the shutdown to the National Offender Management Service, albeit without success. Asser’s residual resentment is reflected in his unflattering portrayal of the prison officials as venal and corrupt.

Last year, “Starred Up” was nominated for eight British Independent Film awards. Ben Mendelsohn won for Best Supporting Actor. At the Dublin International Film Festival, Jack O’Connell won the Best Actor Award. At the London Film Festival. Jonathan Asser was cited as the Best British Newcomer. All of these accolades were richly deserved.

With a fascinating premise, well-crafted screenplay, taut direction, exceptional lead performance, interesting supporting characters, and a gritty sense of reality, “Starred Up” is a riveting prison drama.

***½  No MPAA rating 106 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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Don’t be hoodwinked by ‘Robin Hood’

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media 

Errol Flynn memorably portrayed the titular romantic swashbuckler in the 1938 Warner Brothers’ costume drama, “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” “The Last of Robin Hood” depicts the final years of Flynn (Kevin Kline) before his premature death at age 50. The film is dominated by his ill-fated relationship with an aspiring young starlet, Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning). It also explores the facilitative role of Beverly’s fame-obsessed mother, Florence (Susan Sarandon). When exposed, this sordid affair became the cynosure of sensationalized tabloid accounts.

It remains unclear whether Robin Hood was a real personage; was quasi-historical, inspired by the conflation of various real life characters; or merely an apocryphal figure, popularized by Medieval ballads. Over the centuries, his persona has evolved. Traditionally, he was identified as a yeoman. Beginning in the 19th century, certain new elements were ascribed to the formulation of the Robin Hood legend. In the reformulated version of the tale, Robin Hood became described as the erstwhile Lord of Locksley, who had been wrongfully divested of his hereditary lands. The aggrieved Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men systematically fought oppression. They robbed from the rich Norman lords and gave to the poor indigenous Saxon populace.

Whether or not Robin Hood actually existed, he is one of the great characters in popular culture. The heroic outlaw has frequently been portrayed on screen by a litany of actors. Arguably, none has captured his essence with greater panache than Errol Flynn, then a handsome twenty-nine old actor.  In the climactic, stairwell duel, he displayed consummate chivalry and athleticism before skewering his bête noire, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, ironically a skilled fencer).

Once, Flynn was a paragon of irresistible charm and virility. “The Last of Robin Hood” is set in the late ‘50s. Now, Flynn is well past his prime as a screen superstar. He has become a faded, booze besotted roué. As portrayed by Kline, Flynn has devolved into a pathetic parody of his former self. He struggles for roles, while using his one-time stature to accommodate an insatiable sexual appetite.

One day, Flynn espies a young blonde walking across the studio lot. She turns to be Beverly Aadland, an obscure member of the chorus line in a film then in production. Flynn is taken with her and sends a studio lackey to fetch her.

Under the guise of auditioning her for an upcoming play, Flynn lures Beverly to an estate where he staying. One thing leads to another. Flynn has soon added her to his long list of conquests. The portrayal of this event is unclear as to whether the sex was consensual.

Now that Flynn has had his way with her, Beverly assumes that he will lose interest in her. To Beverly’s surprise, Flynn continues to pursue her. The film offers no explanation for why Flynn is so consumed with Beverly. The young girl is not presented as being exceptionally attractive. Although Beverly is an aspiring actress, dancer, and singer, she exhibits only modest talent. What is her appeal to Flynn, who is still putatively able to still attract a wide variety of women?

There is a glitch. It turns out that Beverly is only fifteen years old. Her ambitious mother, Florence, has obtained a bogus birth certificate to make Beverly eligible to work and presented her as being eighteen. Whether or not Flynn’s initial encounter with Beverly was consensual, he becomes aware that his ongoing assignations with her constitute statutory rape.

To obfuscate the unsavory aspects of his relationship with an under-aged paramour, Flynn presents her as a protégé. To further the charade, he entices Florence to accompany them to all public outings.

Beverly’s career continues to founder. Flynn eventually had her cast as the female lead in his last film, “Cuban Rebel Girls.” It was shot with the blessing of Fidel Castro, while he was still leading the eventually successful revolution against the country’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista. However, after Castro assumed power, Flynn became disillusioned with him.

The screenplay by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who jointly co-directed the film, uses a dubious framing device. To provide a narrative structure, they employ Florence’s efforts to cash in by providing a tell-all account to a writer of her daughter’s relationship with Flynn. However, Florence is an inherently unsympathetic, self-deluded character. Is this someone, who can provide a remotely reliable perspective?

For a period drama, this vehicle is significantly underfunded. This becomes evident in its failure to capture any sense of the era’s period details. The cinematography is flat and unappealing.

The film disingenuously spurns certain salient issues. When did Flynn first realize that Beverly was not a young woman above the age of consent, but actually a girl still enrolled at Hollywood High School? The film acknowledges, but glosses over the fact that in 1943, Flynn was prosecuted on two counts of statutory rape. As Flynn was wont to brag, “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” When did Florence become aware that the relationship between her daughter and Flynn had been carnal from the outset? What were Beverly’s feelings for Flynn? Does Beverly sincerely love him or is she simply trying to exploit his voracious appetite for young flesh to advance her career? “The Last of Robin Hood” fails to offer any answers to these key questions. The film takes these extremely controversial subjects and effectively neuters them.

The title, “The Last of Robin Hood” exudes great resonance. It evokes both a classic character from folklore and a colorful actor, who portrayed him. It boasts a very strong cast. Don’t be hoodwinked, the film itself is dull, disappointing dud.

“The Last of Robin Hood”: *1/2 R (for some sexuality and language) 94 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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‘Identical’: Elvis has left the building

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media  

Elvis Presley, the transcendent star of early rock ‘n roll, had a twin brother, who was stillborn. This fact was twisted around and used as the premise for an incongruous, faith-based film, “The Identical.”

“The Identical” involves Dustin Marcellino, a first time director; a fictional protagonist and his twin brother, both portrayed by Blake Rayne, an Elvis impersonator making his screen debut; and an independent studio called City of Peace, which had never made a feature film. Their aggregate inexperience becomes evident in “The Identical.” However, the biggest problem with the film is a horrendous, cliché- ridden screenplay. It was penned by Howard Klausner (“Space Cowboys”), who isn’t a neophyte.

“The Identical” kicks off in 1935, during the depths of the Depression era. Twin boys are born to William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) and his wife Helen (Amanda Crew). The impoverished couple is struggling financially just to make ends meet.

One night, William is visiting a traveling tent show. There, an itinerant preacher, Reece Wade (Ray Liotta) is delivering an impassioned sermon. In it, he reveals that, despite their repeated efforts, he and his wife, Louise (Ashley Judd) have been unable to conceive. William rationalizes that he is financially unable to raise two children. William decides to give one of the twins to this Man of God and his wife. William extracts a promise from the minister that not to tell the boy that he is adopted until after both of his biological parents have died.

Reece names his adopted son, Ryan, and raises him to follow in his footsteps and become a minister. As he approaches adulthood in the ‘50s, Ryan (Blake Rayne) visits a honky-tonk roadhouse with his best friend, Dino (Seth Green, who just turned forty, but is nevertheless still cast as a teenager). Succumbing to his father’s persistent prodding, Ryan enters the seminary. There, he demonstrates skills at sermonizing. However, Ryan doesn’t feel the calling. Despite his father’s vehement opposition, Ryan drops out of seminary school to pursue a career in the newfangled world of rock ‘n roll.

Meanwhile, Reece’s twin brother, Drexel Hemsley (also Blake Rayne) becomes a rock ’n roll superstar. As Drexel’s face becomes plastered on album covers and he appears on nationally-televised shows, Ryan notes their striking resemblance. However, in the film’s inane screenplay, Ryan attributes this to a sheer coincidence.

Here is where the film really becomes totally bizarre. Ryan enters a contest, sponsored by a local radio station, designed to find the most convincing Drexel Hemsley impersonator. At this point, the film subjects the viewer to a litany of unconvincing and untalented Drexel wannabes. The problem is that they are all actually obvious bad Elvis impersonators. Then, Drexel launches into an excellent rendition of a Drexel hit. Adding to the confusion, Drexel shows up at the contest and tells the judges that Ryan should win. Apparently, these dunderheads couldn’t figure this out by themselves.

An ambitious agent, Tony Nash (Waylon Payne), is in the audience. He signs Ryan up as a client to perform a show in which he and a back-up band perform covers of Drexel hit songs. Ryan and the band become a moderate success, touring the state fair circuit. The screenplay throws in another twist. Ryan grows tired of doing this copy cat schtick and wants to perform his own original tunes.

During much of the film, I assumed that Drexel Hemsley was a stand-in for Elvis Presley, albeit with a revised name. There were far too many striking similarities to conclude otherwise. To begin with, the lead actor, Blake Rayne, bears an obvious resemblance to Presley. This is accentuated by the fact that the Hemsley character sports Elvis’ distinctive pompadour. He certainly wasn’t cast, based on his weak acting chops. Moreover, the plot closely parallels Elvis’ life. Drexel is born to a poor white couple in the Deep South; becomes a music superstar, replete with a controversial hip-swiveling dance style; in the early days of rock music; is drafted into the army, where he becomes a generic soldier rather than joining Special Services and doing his tour giving concerts; becomes an actor in Hollywood musical (here called “Sunrise Surfing” in lieu of “Blue Hawaii”); and then dies prematurely.

However, late in “The Identical” the film begins repeatedly and explicitly referencing Elvis. So, in the conceptual universe of the film there is Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley, a fictional character, whose career trajectory mirrors the real-life Elvis “The King” Presley. He has a twin brother, who develops a career, doing Hemsley covers. There is also the character of Presley, who had a stillborn twin brother. It is a bizarre and confusing notion

Many will be puzzled by the emphasis on Judaism within a vehicle, which is essentially designed to promulgate Christian values. Early on, “The Identical” introduces a Jewish character, Avi Hirshberg (Joe Pantoliano), who inexplicably migrated from Brooklyn to a small town in Tennessee to open a garage. I was willing to accept this as some random plot contrivance. However, subsequently the film interjects Israel’s Six Day War against its Arab neighbors in 1967.  Reverend Wade cites it in one of his sermons and describes it as one of God’s modern-day miracles. He asks his congregants to pray for Israel. He even places a menorah, a candelabra, used in the annual eight-day commemoration of the Jewish holiday, Chanukah.

To better understand this posturing, the viewer needs to be familiar with a strain of pro-Zionism that is embraced by some Christians. Starting with the Protestant Reformation, certain religious scholars scrutinized the scriptures and postulated that an essential prelude to the Second Coming of Christ was the realization of a certain Biblical prophecy. In it, Jews returned to Judea, embraced Jesus as their Savior, and rebuilt the Temple. Invoking this notion, some contemporary fundamentalist Christians espouse a strongly pro-Zionist position.

Even understanding this, there are further Jewish identity issues that made absolutely no sense from a narrative or iconographic vantage point. At some juncture, I noticed that Ryan was wearing a necklace with a symbol attached to it. It looked as if it were the Jewish Hai sign, which is the Hebrew symbol for life. However, the film presents no reason why Ryan, whose character is defined as a Christian, would be wearing a symbol, which marks the wearer as a Jew. He subsequently meets a dwarf rocker, Damon (Daniel Woodburn in a nicely turned performance). He is also coincidentally is wearing a Hai symbol. Damon recounts that he had met Elvis and the experience changed his life. He advises Ryan that Elvis’ mother was Jewish. There is no historical basis for this suggestion. Eventually, another farfetched coincidence is revealed. Ryan’s biological mother was Jewish. Since Ryan does not know that his biological mother was Jewish, it doesn’t explain why he would be wearing a Hai symbol.

This film follows several recent Christian-marketed box office successes, such as “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “Heaven is for Real.” “The Identical” includes the overt religious posturing of its predecessors, which pander to their target demographic. It also throws in the pro-Zionist theme and confounding inclusion of Jewish identity twists. Ultimately, “The Identical” emerges as an absurd doppelganger tale on steroids.

Suffice it to say, Elvis has left the building.

 “The Identical”    PG (for thematic material and smoking) 107 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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