A musical love letter to a fairytale version of Los Angeles

I relatively recently became a Los Angeleno, and among the many lessons I have learned since arriving is that the movies that taught me about L.A. are mostly bold, beautiful lies. I have long known that Hollywood is in the business of pablum, artifice and mythmaking; I’m a film critic, after all. But the extent of the fiction has only become clear to me as I’ve sat in traffic long to understand why road rage murder seems justified; I’ve witnessed the suffering of the city’s garish, inhumane poverty; I’ve met the people who write and direct and enact the lies. We believe the lies because the truth is too much to bear, and we tell the lies out of self-preservation as well as masochism. It seems fitting that as the country slouches toward fascism with a man empowered by reality television that the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the next Academy Awards is La La Land, a not-that-great musical love letter to a fairytale version of Los Angeles.

The film opens with a rewrite of the opening of Fellini’s 8 ½, in which Marcello Mastroianni’s anxious director is trapped in a haunting, terrifying black and white traffic jam. In La La Land, the traffic jam is in full, glorious color, and instead of writhing in agony as Mastroianni did, the drivers pop out of their cars and giddily perform “Another Day in the Sun,” a paean to up-from-your-bootstraps success in Los Angeles: “Behind these hills / I’m reaching for the heights / And chasing all the lights that shine / And when they let you down / You’ll get up off the ground / As morning rolls around / And it’s another day of sun.” It’s thrilling and funny and adorable, and, of course, a lie, since 99 percent of people who come to L.A. to be stars fail. But that’s not what La La Land is about. The movie is about wish fulfillment smothered in the gooey hooey that we sometimes call the American Dream.

At the end of the number, we zero in on two driver-dreamers, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). After growing up on old Hollywood films like Casablanca and Bringing Up Baby, she wants to become an actress, and she’s damn good. A gifted jazz pianist, he’s obsessed with the romance of old school jazz and wants to open a club to preserve that music. They are fueled by nostalgia and pluck, and their courtship is, considering that Stone and Gosling have legendary chemistry, as endearing as any classic romance that Mia watched as a child. As they fall in love, they support each other’s ambitions, and then there are obstacles and fights, and of course song and dance.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle (of Whiplash fame) clearly followed Stephen Sondheim’s advice to hire actors who can sing, rather than singers who can act. Gosling more or less speaks his songs, and Stone dumbs down her actually good voice to match his skill level – until one song toward the end when she’s allowed to rip loose. Neither of them can dance particularly well. Their tap number is cute, but mostly because it reminds you of better dancing from the old Hollywood musicals that La La Land is repeatedly referencing. Justin Hurwitz’s songs and score are cheerful and optimistic, like the film, and they fit perfectly within Chazelle’s sun-soaked, color-saturated postcard shots of Griffith Park, Santa Monica and the Hollywood Hills.

However, with all of Chazelle’s grand aspirations and inspirations – to make something like a cross between Singing in the Rain and LA Story, I think – it’s odd how his scope narrows quickly after “Another Day in the Sun.” The cast is underpopulated, with supporting characters existing only to get Mia and Sebastian to talk when they aren’t together, and Los Angeles becomes a backdrop to a rather standard romance. Chazelle only stages two truly big numbers, the opening and the beautifully bittersweet closing, with the vast majority of the film overly intimate and seemingly muted for such a massive canvas. The film tells two lies, then: Los Angeles is a paradise of opportunity, and the movie is about Los Angeles.

La La Land
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

‘Moonlight’ is a movie that matters

Moonlight is a triptych about growing up black, gay and poor. When he is nine or 10 he is called Little, he was just that, smaller than all of the other kids his age. They pick on him mercilessly, and he is terrified enough to lock himself in a crack house, where he is found by a man named Juan who deals crack but is the closest thing he will ever have to a father. When he is 16 or 17 he is Chiron, his given name, he is gangly and tall, and he is both meek and angry, at his mother who is addicted to crack and at the boys at school who have graduated from brats to bullies. When he is in his 20s, finally he is Black, his exterior hardened by muscle and by jail and the streets and by making his living doing what Juan did. But he is still Little and still Chiron, his mother’s wounds always, already fresh, and he is still haunted by the friendship he had with the one boy who – mostly – treated him with kindness, as someone worthy of love.

The film is artful, literary, gorgeous, upsetting, moving and loving. Barry Jenkins, currently being feted by film critics around the world, has made a movie that is reminiscent at times of Boyhood, Pariah, Beautiful Thing and Boys in the Hood, and yet is wholly original. The immediately striking thing about Moonlight is how gorgeously filmed it is, with Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton using dawn, dusk, the searing midday sun of south Florida, and, of course, the grace of moonlight in compositions that are sometimes marked by hand-held naturalism and sometimes crafted like the photos of Gordon Parks, Mary-Ellen Mark and Jamel Shabazz. If it was just the imagery, Moonlight would be great, but Jenkins’s script, from a story by Tarell McCraney, structured both perfectly and schematically, is just as beautiful and skillful, creating indelible characters with economical, sometimes poetic lines, aging and maturing Chiron, his mother and his friend Kevin with strategic precision and overflowing empathy.

And then there’s the acting. Alex R. Hibbert plays Little, terrified, needy and sweet; he’s so believable, this third can feel like documentary. Chiron is played by preternaturally gifted Ashton Sanders, whose awkwardness, sadness and fury are both the literal and actual center of the film. Finally, Trevante Rhodes is Black. Rhodes looks like some sort of cross between 50 Cent and Tyson Beckford, and that bulk and beauty is perhaps too much of a transformation, but Rhodes shows the cracks in the perfect sculpture through the subtlest change in his eyes, from a confrontation with his mother to an at-long-last meeting with Kevin, now played by jokey, confident, sexy André Holland. Naomie Harris has an epic transformation as Chiron’s mother, and her talent and Jenkins’ direction prevent her from becoming the cartoon that Monique, in a similar but more explosive role, was in Precious. Meanwhile, the immensely charismatic and beautifully subtle  Mahershala Ali plays the drug dealer with a heart of gold not as some societal oddity but as an everyman doing both the right thing and the things he needs to survive.

Moonlight is an important movie, and not only because critics have tapped it to win Oscars, but because it’s deeply affecting. It matters. At the late, Tuesday night showing of when I saw it, the theater was packed with one of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever been part of. All of the people were there to see a movie about growing up gay and African American, about masculinity and poverty, about redemption. Many people were there because of Moonlight’s awards buzz, and I’m thrilled that their minds and hearts will be expanded by the experience. But most were there because it was what they wanted and what they needed to see, because it was their story or similar to their story: as gay, or black, or poor, or all three. Seeing this – seeing us, with us writ large – reflected on the screen is rare, and it’s especially rare for the reflection to be so aesthetically rich and so emotionally resonant.

Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Naomi Harris and Mahershala Ali
Rated R

Originally published in somewhat different form in LGBT Weekly

Academic rigor, journalistic ethics, and “partisan hackery”

[UPDATE: I’ve made a lot of changes below. Most are typos. Some are in response to critics of my own integrity. I’ve tried to deal with all of them . Let me know if there are other errors or changes that need to be made.]

It’s been a while since I allowed myself to get righteously indignant enough about someone wrong on the Internet to write a 708-word Facebook comment, and that was just the longest one. And now a whole blog post! But Naomi Schaefer Riley, who is a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website, wrote two blog posts — “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” and its follow-up “Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics — that are, yes, such egregious displays of arrogance and incompetence that they deserve a good screed in response. However, more importantly (and more professionally, since this new blog is meant to be less screedy than the old one), they can serve as a teaching moment. Continue…

Go see Weekend, right now.

I’ve seen the best gay movie since Brokeback Mountain and it is Weekend. Here’s the link to my published review (which includes my Footloose review, too), and here’s the whole thing:

Whenever I see a gay movie as strikingly good as Weekend, it makes me ponder gay cinema in general. The dearth of good movies about gay people is palpable. I am reminded of it every week because I review movies for a gay newspaper, and rarely do I get to write about a new movie featuring, let alone being led by, a gay, lesbian, or transgender character. This is only the fourth time this year. Two films last winter were open for a total of two weeks combined; Gregg Araki’s Kaboom was barely watchable, while Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats was stylish, brilliant, and in French, but barely anyone knew that it was even at the theater. Beginners, Mike Mills’s beautiful meditation on love and loss, featured Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of a late-to-come-out gay man that will probably win him an Oscar.

But the main plot of Beginners revolved around a heterosexual romance, and even though it was marketed towards gays and lesbians, it felt like, as Brokeback Mountain and Milk did, a movie made for straight people. This isn’t a problem, of course, but as a gay man, it would be nice – actually, it is necessary, even imperative – to see my people, to see people like me on the screen. The lesbians have recently had this experience with The Kids Are Alright, but Weekend the first movie since Brokeback Mountain that I felt a part of. And better, Weekend is not about the closet or about secrets or the 1960s; it is about what it is like to be gay and in love now. It is an immediate, intimate, and honest examination of love, sex, and longing in 2011. It’s also gorgeously shot, sensitively acted, and sexier than any gay film I can remember.

In some English city, Russell (Tom Cullen) leaves his straight best friend’s party a little early and heads to a gay bar, where he gets drunker and meets Glen (Chris New). They end up spending the weekend together, and the film follows their awkward small talk, their flirtations and revelations, their drug-fueled musings and arguments, their sex, what turns out to be burgeoning of love, and Glen’s revelation that he is moving to the United States on Sunday afternoon.

Some of the excitement of seeing all of this is that they’re both young and a bit green. What is thrilling and wrenching for them was also for me. Russell, who grew up in foster families and is timid about publicly acknowledging his sexual orientation, works as a lifeguard at a community pool, but he doesn’t seem to be passionate about it; he says his life is “fine.” Glen works at a gallery and is more experienced, a bit arrogant and quick to quip, and he’s perhaps less mature, or at least more emotionally volatile, than Russell. They have a classic introvert-extrovert attraction: What a critic usually calls chemistry – the stuff Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – is technically apparent, but the film is so naturalistic that it doesn’t seem as if Cullen and New are simply excellent, intuitive actors, but rather that Russell and Glen are falling in love.

Andrew Haigh’s sensitive direction and editing and Urszula Pontikos’s cinematography turn what is basically a two-person parlor play into an intense, almost epic work of beauty. It’s hard for me not to be hyperbolic in my love for Weekend, and in turn, I am irritated that it will be open for only one week in San Diego. Perhaps if we sell out the first weekend, Landmark Cinemas will find it in their hearts to keep the film around longer.

Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Tom Cullen and Andrew New

3 things about Adam Lambert, Part 3: The AMAs, raunch at 10:55 PM, and “I’m Not a Babysitter. I’m a Performer.”

This video, which I love in all of its derivative and hilariously over-the-top glory, is for the song that Adam sang at the American Music Awards. It’s a better as recorded than it was sung live…

While I knew that Lambert would be performing at the AMAs, I wasn’t watching the show, and I wasn’t paying much attention. Until I clicked onto my sitemeter and saw that someone found my blog by searching for “adam lambert stunk on ama.” Not that I had ever written anything like that — Google does weird things. Intrigued, I clicked around and saw that he’d closed the show, and since it was time-delayed for the West Coast, I set the Tivo so I could watch it in a couple hours. Wow: Closed the show. Some producer really wants him to get some attention, and since the album was to come out the next day (today), it was some perfect synergy. I have sense been reminded that the AMAs are produced by Dick Clark, who has become Ryan Seacrest, and Ryan is nothing if not an “Idol” booster. Rock, on, Ryan.

This is how it went:

Ryan announces that the “Favorite Artist of the Year” is Taylor Swift, which is sort of appalling, but whatever, and then he announces that Adam is going to close the show. In case the video to the left is pulled from this site, this is what happened: His name, as logo, appears on the curtains, and the lights focus on Adam, who is singing the first lines of “For Your Entertainment” slowly and only accompanied by a Liberaced piano tinkle — exactly like Lady Gaga does when she performs “Poker Face.” His hair is gelled six inches high, and he’s wearing a silver suit with spikes on his left (your right) shoulder. Then the song really starts, and the band and the dancers, dressed like horny goth space aliens, bump and grind amid strobe lights and Adam being Adam: Making out with a girl and boy (but the boy was cut from the West Coast feed), leading slave boys on leashes and then simulating oral sex with one of them (though the oral simulation was cut from the West Coast feed), running around, tripping and falling, and really letting loose on the high screamy notes that usually he uses to punctuate his performances, not completely dominate them.

I’ve been rather pissed at Adam for his behavior concerning Out over the last week (see here), so I readily said, “Wow, this is baaaad.” Now, part of the problem is that whoever was in charge of the audio mix of the show last night was incompetent, so even when Adam wasn’t overdoing the vocals, it sounded terrible. And that song, as much as I love it when I listen to the recording, probably isn’t meant to be performed live. Or maybe it is, and this was just, well, a bad performance. Rob, sitting next to me on the couch, said, “You’ve turned on him already?” And then I felt guilty. Then, I thought, “No, singing-wise, this was kinda bad. The stage production, with the sex and stuff… well, that’s kinda hilarious.”

A little later, I went online and saw that the Twitterverse had shot Adam to the top of the trending topics, and it seemed that most of the tweets were about how awful he was — awful in the “OMG! IT’S SEX AND GAY!” JoeMyGod got a post up almost instantaneously about the controversy over the sexiness, and, per usual, some of his commenters did their best to trash Adam for, ya know, not being Barry Manilow or John Mayer. But a number of commenters made the very good point that if Madonna or Britney had done worse, no one would have blinked. Okay, a few people would have blinked, but not like what has happened in the last 18 hours. The AP just reported that ABC, which ran the AMAs, had received 1500 complaints about Adam’s performance. And not for the vocals.

On the other hand, the LA Times said his performance was one of the show’s highlights, simply because it wasn’t boring:

“American Idol” sometimes get criticized for cranking out safe, digestible, inoffensive pop stars. But this year’s runner-up, Adam Lambert, did his best to break out of that rap with his ultra-lewd closing performance of “For Your Entertainment.” ABC censors had to quick-cut to an odd aerial shot of the audience when Lambert had a male backup dancer simulate oral sex on him midsong. Parents may be outraged, but thank God for that. We were thinking music was getting a little too stale.

They also had him quoted on the sexual nature of the performance.

“The energy felt good. Adrenaline is a crazy thing to feel,” Lambert said to Pop & Hiss after the show. “That’s what I love about performing. I’m hoping people were entertained. For those who weren’t, maybe I’m not their cup of tea.”

When asked if he thought the most extreme moments would be edited out of the West Coast broadcast, Lambert wasn’t shy about how he would react to such a move.

“If it’s gonna be edited, then in a way that’s discrimination. I don’t mean to get political, but Madonna, Britney and Christina weren’t edited,” Lambert said. “It’s a shame. Female entertainers have been risqué for years. Honestly, there’s a huge double standard.”

That’s Adam being very political. I wonder if he’s making up for what happened the past week with Out. Because if he was worried about alienating people by being too gay in a magazine read only by gay people, he certainly wasn’t worried about being too gay on a show watched by everyone else. And if you want to see some alienated I’m-not-a-homophobe-I-just-can’t-deal-with-male-sexuality commentary, just read the stuff after the LA Times piece.

So, I’m of two minds about Adam’s performance. Vocally, it was off. And it was too frenetic and thematically unclear. But it pissed a helluva lot of people off. And all the right ones. And it’s at least partly to blame for sending his stuff up the charts on Amazon and iTunes.

UPDATE: People have lost their minds. According to Perez Hilton, ABC has canceled Adam’s mini-concert on Good Morning America that was supposed to happen on Friday. And now #ShameOnYouABC is a trending topic on Twitter. Meanwhile, the dumb twit Elisabeth Hasselback trashed him on The View, and since she’s basically a mouthpiece for the Sarah Palin set, the thumpers must really be in a snit about him. Feministing explains why Adam Lambert scares people with a post called, ha, “It’s OK patriarchy, I understand Adam Lambert made you feel funny.” (And the comments to the post explain why many people think feminists might be sex-negative.) The Times has a wrap-up (minus Perez’s scoop), and the comments are ridiculous. Per usual. In response to all of this, Adam said to Ryan Seacrest, “I’m not a babysitter, I’m a performer.” Oh, snap.

UPDATE #2: The CBS’s The Early Show, which gets a tiny fraction of GMA’s or Today’s audience, saw an opportunity, and they invited Adam to discuss the controversy and perform — the day after GMA threw him under the bus. And Adam gave good interview. From the Times website, which is so all over Adam Lambert and the AMAs that they have a hub called “The Adam Lambert Fallout: Were You Not Entertained?“, some choice quotes:

As his performance from the American Music Awards continues to stoke controversy, even costing him a booking on “Good Morning America,” Adam Lambert acknowledged in a television interview that he “did get carried away” during his awards show appearance. But the singer declined to apologize for his act, saying that it was ultimately “up to the parents to discern what their child’s watching on television.”

Damn straight. As it were.

Mr. Lambert said in the interview that he had “no clue, no clue at all” that his routine would upset viewers. He added: “I admit I did get carried away, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I do see how people got offended, and that was not my intention. My intention was just to interpret the lyrics of my song and have a good time up there.”

The singer said that some of his sexually charged moves during the performance had not been previously rehearsed. “Those kind of came from more of an impromptu place,” he said, adding: “I think ABC was taken a little by surprise. That wasn’t my intention, I wasn’t being sneaky. It just – it got the most of me, I guess.”

This sounds great, and I want to believe it, but the guy has done a lot of live stuff. In the theater. Improv usually isn’t allowed.

Mr. Lambert said he understood why some viewers, especially parents, might have been offended by his act. “It was almost 11 o’clock,” he said, “it was a night time show. I was there in the audience full of mostly adults. Sometimes I forget, oh, there’s a camera on. I come from the theater, and I’m programmed to look at who’s in the live audience. And that’s where I come from. I was looking at the crowd and saw some of my favorite pop stars, and thought, I want to let loose.”

He’s selling authenticity. And I’m buying it.

Mr. Lambert cited similarly provocative performances given by his fellow pop stars at the American Music Awards that did not seem to generate as much outrage.

“Just to play devil’s advocate with you,” Mr. Lambert said, “Lady Gaga smashing whiskey bottles, Janet Jackson grabbed a male dancer’s crotch. Eminem talked about how Slim Shady has 17 rapes under his belt. There’s a lot of very adult material on the AMAs this year, and I know I wasn’t the only one. I’m not using it as an excuse, and I didn’t take any offense with those performers’ choices.”

And he repeated his assertion that he is the victim of a double standard in the entertainment industry. “If it had been a female pop performer doing the moves that were on the stage,” Mr. Lambert said, “I don’t think there would be nearly as much of an outrage.”

Asked if he thought he was being criticized because he was a man or because he was gay, Mr. Lambert said, “Both. I think it’s a double whammy. I think it’s because I’m a gay male, and people haven’t seen that before.”

Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately, CBS double-standarded it up in their coverage by blurring out Adams’ same-sex kiss from the AMAs perfomance while not blurring out the for-comparison image of Madonna and Britney Spears doing the same thing. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

He did not believe he needed to apologize for his American Music Awards performance. “I’m not a babysitter,” Mr. Lambert said. “I’m a performer.”

Clearly, he realized this line worked on Seacrest the day before, so he used it again. It is a great line, and it really shows up the fucktards who are screeching “What about the children?!” about a vaguely sexually charged performance of a pop singer at 10:55 PM on a school night. Or, as I wrote in a Facebook comment yesterday: “The censored reruns of Sex in the City that air at the same time in many markets are vastly more raunchy. Of course, that’s all heterosexual sex. And the shows that air on network TV at the same time, or earlier, are more explicitly violent than Lambert’s was sexual. CSI, SVU, and Criminal Minds are pornographically violent — and in-depth. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) is all blood, all of the time. Or Private Practice — on ABC — had a whole multi-episode arc about someone ripping a baby out of the belly of a major character. Lambert’s split second simulated oral sex — face in groin and that’s all — is nothing compared to what is commonplace on TV. ABC attacking him for that performance is the height of hypocrisy.”

Given the chance, Mr. Lambert said he would change one thing about that performance. “I would sing it a little bit better,” he said.

Yes, that would have been nice. Check out the video of the song at the top of this post to see how it was supposed to be done. I doubt that it could be done like that live, but whatevs.

However, if you want to see him kill it live, there are two videos of Adam singing from the morning that are pretty great. The first is him doing “Whataya Want From Me” (misnamed as “What Do You Want From Me” on the CBS website), and the second is “Music Again.” Okay, he kills it on “Whataya Want From Me.” He does “Music Again” just okay.


UPDATE #3: Sales are up! From the LA Times:

But all the chatter and debate isn’t stopping people from picking up his first post-“American Idol” release. Billboard writes that “For Your Entertainment” should sell at least 225,000 copies when it debuts on next week’s chart, and could possibly move more with post-Thanksgiving shoppers invading retailers. Lambert’s promo tour continues tonight with an appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”

Also from the LA Times, Ann Powers explains it all, and brilliantly:

Few straight white men don’t strut the way Lambert does (sadly!). Most still embody the norm in our society, because racism, sexism and homophobia still haunt us. And the norm never shows itself off. It’s just taken for granted. For all of his media-savvy and strategic approach to stardom, Adam Lambert remains a rock outsider. Though I’m his fan, I don’t think his AMAs’ turn was perfect; it would have been much more effective it his usually excellent vocals had matched the audacity of his dance moves. But I don’t agree with those who are saying his routine was just a tired attempt to shock. What he did won’t be mundane until no one in America flinches when two men kiss on the street. Or until an out gay rock star is no longer an anomaly.

However, it was Alessandra Stanley who hit the nail on the head:

There is a lot of very adult material on television all the time, and mostly it flows unchecked and unpunished, except when it comes as a surprise and hits a nerve. Community standards are mutable and vague; lots of people don’t know obscenity until someone else sees it. Ms. Jackson transgressed during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show because she exposed a nipple, which is one thing that network television normally doesn’t show. Mr. Lambert, who just released his first album, startled viewers because he did things akin to what outré rappers and female pop stars have performed onstage to get attention, only he did it as a gay man.

Mr. Lambert’s context was different, mostly because he is gay and his song “For Your Entertainment” is graphically sexual, with intimations of sadomasochism and oral sex. Straight sadomasochism is suggested all the time in music videos, and early this season Courteney Cox’s character on the ABC sitcom “Cougar Town” was coyly depicted performing oral sex on a younger man

It wasn’t the best musical performance by any means, but it wasn’t the worst display of sexual debauchery either. Mostly it was a reminder of television’s policy regarding gay men: Do tell, just don’t show.

In a similar vein, Newsweek has Julia Baird writing — and well:

It is tempting to write the whole thing off as lame and overblown, a fight over the cautious sensibilities of a middle-American TV audience against the need of a gay pop singer to garner attention, entertain, and push back on shame. But then I think of the self-loathing and destructive behavior of many young gay people coming to terms with their identity and the violence of ignorant people toward them. Homophobia isn’t an abstract debate—it can be ugly and dangerous.

I wonder if Time will wade in with something typically contrarian and offensive…


Disgustingly, ABC has now canceled Lambert’s performance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and killed his booking on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. (Here’s Michael Slezak’s lame EW story about that.) I guess it’s okay to have a running bit about fucking Ben Affleck, but not to have a split second dance move that makes people think about actual gay men having sex. Meanwhile, and oddly, ABC is letting Barbara Walters put him in her “Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009” show and perform on The View.