Sunday, November 24, 2013

I AM DIVINE (2013)

Directed by Jeffrey Schwartz

Where & When: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles, CA. November 2, 2013 10:30PM

Long before there was RuPaul, the sleek and glamorous lady boy who has captivated audiences with her hit television show that puts competing drag queens through their paces, there was Divine. And no, I'm not referring to Bette Midler who began her career as "The Divine Miss M" around the same time. I am talking about Harris Glenn Milstead who went from an overweight, gay Midwestern kid to a vulgar, larger-than-life drag performer whose biggest claim to fame was actually eating dog feces in the John Waters' 1972 cult classic, "Pink Flamingos". In the delightful documentary, "I Am Divine", the life of this shocking, hilarious and a little scary personality is explored where there was absolutely nothing he ever considered too extreme or filthy.

Growing up in Baltimore where being different made you an easy target, the very shy Glenn was bullied mercilessly as a teenager. However, he knew deep down that he was fabulous but needed to figure out a way to make the rest of the world see it. First, he became a popular hairdresser in town before running in to fellow oddball, John Waters and his movie camera. Once he placed a fright wig on his head, slapped wildly exaggerated make-up on his face and squeezed in to a skin-tight dress, Waters renamed him "Divine" and she became the undisputed star of his films. After a number of shorts that featured a cast of actors and local eccentrics, Waters made his first feature, "Mondo Trasho", an outrageous black comedy that perfectly showcased Divine's gift of demented behavior.

Dubbed "an exercise in poor taste", "Pink Flamingos" developed a small but rabid following from the gay community due to it's insane plot, freaky characters and all of the perverted sexual acts depicted. That helped the film cross-over to attract an even larger audience at midnight screenings and soon brought John Waters world-wide notoriety and turned his muse in to a star. Despite achieving more film success (including "Polyester" that featured '60's movie heartthrob, Tab Hunter and "Odorama") and a surprising detour as a popular disco music singer, Divine wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and not always be required to perform in a dress. He got an opportunity with a small role in the little-seen Alan Rudolph film "Trouble In Mind" as a gangster but Divine was soon back in a frumpy frock for Waters in the '60's set comedy, "Hairspray". He played the mother of the pleasantly plump, Tracy Turnblad (the film debut of future talk-show host, Ricki Lake) who was determined to fight racial discrimination through dance. This critical and box-office hit brought Divine new found respectability and acclaim. A role in the television comedy "Married With Children" was created for him but sadly this never came to pass as his life was cut short in 1988.

Much of Divine's story is told by the star himself through a series of interviews given over the years but the darker side of his fascinating life is shared by many friends and co-stars who tell stories of Divine's insatiable appetites that ranged from rampant drug use, his endless search for a true love and a staggering quantity of food. Frances Milstead, Divine's mother missed out on much of his career as she was estranged from her celebrated son for many years and expresses her deep regret.

Director Jeffrey Schwartz has previously brought long overdue attention to other fringe entertainers who where not fully appreciated during their day such as Hollywood B-movie shock master, William Castle, gay film historian, Vito Russo and 70's porn star, Jack Wrangler. The doc shows this fearless performer was pushing long held boundaries of what could be shown on screen and while he wasn't waving a gay pride flag at every opportunity, Divine had no shame and was proud of who he was. But the world, at the time, was not completely ready to accept a man in a dress, no matter how talented. Divine was popular in certain circles and could make it up the ladder only so high but that didn't stop him from trying to inch up a little higher.

"I Am Divine" shines a great, big loving spotlight on this gifted, iconic performer. In the film, "Pink Flamingos, Divine's character Babs Johnson fought to keep her title as the "filthiest person alive". Divine has hung on to that well-earned crown and there has never been any serious competition from anyone to take it away.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


New York Magazine has just released an article on a collection of thirty interesting movies that most people may not have seen but should certainly go and check out. I pride myself in seeing a wide variety of films but I was surprised by the number of these that I hadn't seen nor even heard of. I guess I better get busy and start filling my Netflix queue.

Click below to see the complete list of films:

30 Great Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

Saturday, November 9, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Written by John Ridley

Directed by Steve McQueen

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 18, 2013 8:15 PM

"12 Years A Slave", a 1851 memoir by Solomon Northup tells his harrowing ordeal of being a free African-American who is abducted and sold in to slavery. This masterful but highly unsettling film is by Steve McQueen, one of the boldest visionaries working in cinema today. The British director began his career as an experimental short film artist with his work dealing with discomforting subject matter. He continued this when he moved into feature-length film with his 2008 debut, "Hunger" which starred Michael Fassbender in his first major role as Bobby Sands who lead the IRA hunger strike back in 1981. The film won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and McQueen followed that up with another critically-acclaimed work, "Shame" with Fassbender returning in the story of a sexual compulsive. Much like his previous films, McQueen holds nothing back in "12 Years" as he displays the harsh and ugly brutality of the shameful time in America when not all men where created equal.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives a comfortable life in upstate New York with his wife and two children in 1841. Making his living as a musician, Northup travels to Washington D. C. to begin a well-paying tour offered by two gentlemen (Scoot McNairy and "SNL" star, Taran Killam). After an evening of drinks and merriment, a groggy Northup wakes up to an unimaginable nightmare. He finds himself chained in a holding cell and about to be shipped off to Louisiana as a slave. When Northup protests, he's beaten savagely and soon learns that in order to survive this, he must not reveal that he is an educated free man.

After Northup arrives in New Orleans, he is sold by a merciless slave broker (Paul Giamatti) to a preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems troubled by the slavery system yet goes along with the program since his fields need to be picked by somebody. While life on this plantation is somewhat tolerable but after a violent run-in with a cretinous foreman (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to another man in order to keep him alive. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) prides himself in ruthlessly breaking in his property. If a slave doesn't pick enough cotton that day, they are punished with several lashes from a whip. One of the slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has the misfortune of capturing the lustful attention of Epps. She not only has to endure the emotional and physical abuse by her cruel master but is also tormented by his equally sadistic wife (Sarah Paulson) who is bitterly jealous of this powerless slave.

Northup realizes that in order for him to ever escape, he will have to rely on his wits and use any opportunity that comes his way which might be in the form of a Canadian carpenter played by one of the film's producers, Brad Pitt.

McQueen, along with a solid script by John Ridley and the beautifully lush visuals from the director's long-time cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt have together created some unforgettable images that are both equally mesmerizing and horrific. The film glides through in an unhurried pace, lingering on sweaty, weary faces and imposing locations for longer than it might seem necessary but it's used effectively to emphasize the isolation and hopelessness. From long days picking cotton in the unrelenting heat to the savage beatings and psychological torture to children being ripped from their mother's arms and being sold off, "12 Years A Slave" is very far removed from the romanticized version of slavery that has been portrayed in many Civil War era films, most famously in "Gone With The Wind". As we watch this terrible tale unfold, these more accurate depictions of the life of a slave may be too much for most people to bear. It's hard not to be disturbed to see that a human being has been reduced to having no more value than any livestock.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name to remember (and will need to learn to pronounce; (Chew-wee-tell Edge-gee-oh-for) as he gives one of the best performances of the year. The Brit has made an impression over the years with smaller parts in major films such as "Children of Men", "American Gangster" and "Salt", but with "12 Years", the actor has finally been given a role that rightfully places him front and center.  Mr. Ejiofor commands every moment on screen as his character struggles to maintain what's left of his dignity and sanity. Ms Nyong'o also makes quite an impression in her first film role that will leave you utterly devastated. This recent graduate from the Yale School of Drama handles her part of the tortured slave expertly as Patsey, like Northup, struggles to survive yet ultimately gives up, begging him to help her end the misery. The story may be focused on one man's experience of trying to reclaim his life but Ms Nyong'o's character represents every slave who lived every unhappy day in captivity without ever having an opportunity to make a life of their own.

The conclusion of "12 Years A Slave" may appear like a happy ending but it will leave you even more disturbed and frustrated. Although Solomon Northup may have been finally able to obtain his freedom, he still continued to be tortured and humiliated but this time by a legal system that considered him unworthy of being heard or receiving justice. "12 Years A Slave" is a difficult film to recommend. While it is a tremendously well-made film filled with extraordinary performances yet it deals with an extremely unpleasant subject matter. But like "Schindler's List", "The Pianist" and "Saving Private Ryan" (to name just a few), "12 Years A Slave" is a powerful and moving experience that I am very glad to have seen but could not, in all honesty, ever sit through again.