The new entry for “The Aisle Seat” in Anthropology News is live, huzzah. I decided to tackle Captain Marvel in less than 1000 words. I could’ve done 3000. Anyway, here’s how it starts:
Thirty-four minutes into Captain Marvel, our superhero, played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, is standing in a Los Angeles parking lot wearing an intergalactic police uniform and reading an unfolded map. A man rolls in on a motorcycle, eyes her up and down, and says, “Nice scuba suit!” She barely gives him a side-eye in response, and miffed, he says, “Lighten up, honey, huh? You gonna smile for me?” She continues to ignore him as he heads in a store. Then she lowers the map and sees his bike, which she promptly steals.
It is possible that I wrote my last review in San Diego LGBT Weekly. Stampp Corbin, who founded the paper in 2010 and who hired me as its film critic in January, 2011, has moved onto other things and as of this writing is looking to sell the paper. But it may not sell, and even if it does, I don’t know if I’ll still be the film critic.
But if it had to end, I’m glad it was Coco. You’d have to stretch to find true queer content (the gay couples folks have noticed are, I’m pretty sure, brothers and a father and son) but Coco is among my favorite animated films ever. Here was my review:
I’ve written before that I cry easily at the movies, and I’ve cried at some terrible ones. I’m still embarrassed that I cried at a screening of the wretched and sappy Jack Frost in 1998. But I’ve never been ashamed that animated Pixar movies have moved me to tears, partly because I’m joined by millions of other weepers, but mostly because the films tend to be so well written that the audience’s emotional responses feel earned rather than manipulated.
While the characters are always archetypes, they are still layered and complex; the plots tend to focus on conflicts most of us experience as young people, but the writers use innovative, often fantastical ways to tell and resolve the stories. The studio’s latest and one of the best is Coco, a film about music, love and death that uses Día de los Muertos to examine the power of memory to define family and identity. It’s stunningly beautiful, very moving and very funny.
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a Mexican boy who only wants to become a musician. Unfortunately, after his musician great-great-grandfather abandoned his great-great- grandmother Imelda and their daughter Coco, music was not allowed anywhere in the family’s shoe-making business, their sprawling home, or, it seems, even their thoughts. When they discover Miguel playing a guitar in the town plaza, his family, especially his Abuelita (Renée Victor), react as if he’d joined a violent gang – the horror! While initially he is willing to abide by the rules, on the day of Día de los Muertos he determines that his missing great-great-grandfather was none other than his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, barrel-chested 1940s matinee idol and “the greatest musician in the world.”
As people decorate gravestones with marigolds and tasty treats for the only night long-departed spirits are allowed to visit, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s mausoleum to retrieve the musician’s famous white guitar. And suddenly Miguel and his dog Dante are transported to the exquisitely garish land of the dead, where everyone is a skeleton and they are all flabbergasted that he’s there, alive, and fleshy. He needs the blessing of a family member to get home, but his bony relatives, led by Imelda (Alanna Ubach), won’t send him back unless he promises never to play music again. So, he runs off to find Ernesto with the sad sack Hector (Gael García Bernal), who is fading away as he is being forgotten back in the living world.
Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s flawless script is both a hero’s journey through the underworld and also a domestic dramedy about the ways tight-knit, multi-generational families try to resolve their oldest, most painful conflicts. And it also a mystery: Why is the film called Coco? They manage to explain the beauty and particulars of Día de los Muertos without being pedantic, and they thread in knowing jokes about Mexican families and culture without being obscure or offensive. Grandmothers wield their shoes like revolvers, the skeleton of Frida Kahlo makes several absurdist cameos, and Ernesto’s films are perfectly silly parodies of Mexican cinema of the 1930s.
The songs, written by Frozen Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, are beautiful hybrids of American pop and traditional Mariachi. I predict “Remember Me” will be omnipresent before winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It, too, does double duty. First it is a bombastic hit for Ernesto in the 1940s, and then it is sung as a heart-breaking duet. It was during the latter when I cried bittersweet tears.
Coco Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt
Marsha P. Johnson was at the Stonewall Inn when the police raided the bar June 28, 1969, and she helped start the riots that mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. She was a beloved fixture in Greenwich Village for 30 years; she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, modeled for Warhol, protested with ACT-UP and performed cabaret in a troupe of drag queens. Born Malcolm Michaels, she arrived in the Village in 1963, started going to drag balls, and took on the name Marsha; she said the Johnson was taken from Howard Johnson’s and the P was for “Pay it no mind!” Hilarious, generous, rebellious and erratic, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. The circumstances of her death were extremely suspicious, but the New York police did little to investigate, even after her friends led a march to protest their inaction.
Twenty-five years later, the remarkable Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson tells much of Marsha’s story while it follows Victoria Cruz, a trans woman working at the Anti-Violence Project in New York, as she tries to reopen the case. Directed and co-written by David France, the film also examines, in almost as much detail, the life of Marsha’s close friend Sylvia Rivera, who was also at Stonewall and co-founded STAR while becoming a legendary gay and trans rights activist.
It’s not clear why France chose to change the title of the film from Sylvia and Marsha; when he was asked about it at Outfest this summer, he didn’t explain what happened. This somewhat confusing focus is my only qualm with the film, which like France’s Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, combines rarely scene archival footage with insightful, sometimes disturbing new interviews. While it doesn’t end with the gut-wrenching reveal that Plague did, Marsha’s power also comes from the intimacy of long sequences of domesticity that France and his team suture between old news footage and video of protests. One clip shows a Marsha giddily trying on dresses in the apartment she shared for decades with Randy Wicker, while another shows a middle-aged Sylvia yelling at police trying to tear down the homeless encampment where she was living.
Cruz’s narrative connects Marsha and Sylvia’s complicated life stories to a present that is in many ways much less hostile to trans women and but in more ways still deeply trans- and homophobic. She hits road block after brick wall, but like Marsha and Sylvia, Cruz is resilient and righteous, even if her personality and methods are much more subdued. There’s a great deal that is upsetting in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, from the daily physical and psychological violence to the injustice continuously perpetrated by the police. As importantly, there is also great inspiration in their heroic and brave determination.
Though their stories have been underemphasized when not being erased, trans women, especially trans women of color, were essential to Stonewall Riots and to the dynamic, messy, shockingly successful movement that came after. After Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was rightly lambasted two years ago for focusing its story on a fictional middle-class white boy, I expressed hope that the film that would eventually become The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson would help correct the record. I think it does, becoming an essential document for our collective queer history.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson Directed by David France
Written by David France and Mark Blane
Featuring Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Victoria Cruz
When I was coming out and learning about the various LGBT people who came before me, one of the images I saw repeated the most was the last shot of the absurdist tennis match called the Battle of the Sexes, when then-closeted Billie Jean King backhanded the ball past chauvinist huckster Bobby Riggs’s right and then he jumped over the net to shake her hand. Even though the whole event was clearly a money-making publicity stunt for Riggs, the result was an iconic moment for the women’s liberation movement in general and for women’s tennis in specific, and after King became the most famous lesbian in the world, for the gay and lesbian movement, too. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ excellent, crowd-pleasing Battle of the Sexes explores the story’s historical importance, the players’ fraught emotional lives, and, yes, the ridiculousness of the whole thing.
The film starts in 1973, when Billie Jean King, played with typical depth and charisma by Emma Stone, is 29 and has already won literally more than two dozen Grand Slam events in singles and doubles. She is one of the most famous athletes in the United States of either gender. Her and other women’s matches are as well attended as any of the men’s, but women players on the tour were being paid a tiny percentage of what the men were. United States Lawn Tennis Association, represented by its wildly sexist head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), refuses to increase the winnings; she and several other players form the Women’s Tennis Association and start a new, much better paid, tour sponsored by Virginia Slims.
While this is all going on, Billie somewhat reluctantly falls in love with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who had done the WTA player’s hair for their first news conference. Of the many beautifully shot scenes is Barnett giving an agonizingly sensual haircut to King; it made me, a gay man, hot under the collar. But King is still married to Larry (Austin Stowell), and 44 years ago, lesbian athletes could not compete, let alone get endorsements. (King lost all of her endorsements when she was outed in 1981 by Barnett’s palimony lawsuit, though this is never mentioned.)
Steve Carell is perfectly cast as Bobby Riggs, one of the world’s top players of the 1940s now playing and winning on the seniors tour. A famous jokester and huckster, he has a gambling addiction, which is causing great strife in his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Watching King complain about pay and form the WTA, Riggs decides that he can make a lot of money by declaring himself a male chauvinist pig and challenging famous feminist Billie Jean King to a match. She refuses, and he challenges King’s closest competitor and noted homophobe Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Court chokes and loses terribly. Now feeling that she has no choice but to play him, King agrees to a match that becomes a circus and is eventually watched by 90 million people.
Dayton and Faris made Little Miss Sunshine, one of the great feel-good movies of the last 20 years, and they create a similar thrill with Battle of the Sexes. They are replacing a child’s beauty pageant with a sports spectacle, but they retain the humanity even on the massive canvas. With Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy’s script, they’ve crafted a film that mixes the tropes (sometimes clichés) of the standard sports movie (challenge, training, setback, thrilling conclusion) with those of a civil rights “issue” movie (injustice, fight, success) and a star-crossed love story (seduction, reluctance, resolution). We are so well trained by these tropes to love and support King that people in the audience I saw it with actually cheered during the recreation of the match – even though the result was a given. Even though Dayton, Faris and Beaufoy are working with obvious themes, they resist going too far. Riggs is not demonized; he is a struggling clown, not a supervillain. King knew this. They were close friends until he died in 1995.
Battles of the Sexes Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Andrea Riseborough
Opens at your local multiplex Sept. 29
Taylor Sheridan writes modern western thrillers with something like consciences. In Sicario, drug war on the U..S Mexico border corrupted the best of intentions. One of last year’s Best Picture nominees Hell and High Water was about two brothers who robbed a scurrilous bank that had cheated their mother out of her land. Wind River, Sheridan’s directorial debut, is a murder mystery set in a Wyoming Native American reservation both neglected and exploited. As in Sheridan’s other movies, the morality of Wind River’s central protagonist is as gray as the winter sky before a storm. And as in Sicario, the racial politics in Wind River are complicated and occasionally problematic. Sheridan’s writing is as taut and smart as ever, and his direction, from an epic use of landscapes to intense and intimate interaction between his actors, is as impressive, using his great actors, Ben Richardson’s cinematographing and Nick Cave’s music to create gorgeously sad scenes of crime and punishment.
The film opens with a young woman running through the moonlit snow, beaten and barefoot, before collapsing face first. The next day, a fish and wildlife officer hunting a cow-eating mountain lion finds the body. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) recognizes her as Natalie, the best friend of his deceased daughter. Natalie is Native American, as is Cory’s ex-wife, and they are deep inside the Wind River Reservation, a gorgeous and harsh chunk of northeastern Wyoming. Cory is clearly stricken, but he keeps much of the emotion tamped down as he deals with the tribal police, led by Ben (Grahame Greene), and the FBI agent who happened to be nearby. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is unprepared for the Wyoming cold and the reservation’s politics, conditions and understaffed police force. Though we quickly discover she’s more than prepared for the increasingly violent and murky work of catching Natalie’s killer.
Renner’s taciturn, calmly grief-stricken, tough-as-a-granite-mountain Cory is a trope right out of the classic Old West films. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say is deeply meaningful, and he can kill from either 1,000 or three yards away. The difference is that Cory is living in 2017, not 1872, and he understands how and why his ex-wife’s people are treated as they are, and he needs to find Natalie’s killer to atone for not being able to save his daughter from dying in a similar way. This makes him yet another white savior, which is certainly not a trope worth using, even if Cory is a great character. And Cory is, and Renner is remarkable, probably giving the best performance of his career.
Jane is also a white savior, and like Cory, she’s a great character. She’s a skilled, imperfect agent who is enraged by Natalie’s death and the lack of resources to figure it out. Olsen is, per usual, indelible on the screen, her big Olsen eyes fierce and wise, her quieter scenes with Renner as intense as her gun-toting action scenes.
I wish I could describe Greene’s performance as Ben with as much detail, but Sheridan decided to use him only as comic relief, a sarcastic, seen-it-all-before veteran of oppression. In the third act, Sheridan basically vanishes Ben; the white FBI agent and the white hunter solve the mystery and make the final acts of retribution. Across the film’s last image are the words, “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” It’s true, and it’s horrible. Yes, good white characters are solving the problems created by evil white characters, but the victims here are the Native Americans, and Sheridan makes them victims without agency, in need of help from the same people who created the need. Sheridan should be commended for publicizing the problem, but he could have given Native Americans a much bigger role in solving the one depicted in Wind River.
Wind River Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene
At your local multiplex