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by Peter Sobczynski

"Roland The Clueless History Teacher"
1 stars

Ever since it was announced that Roland Emmerich, the purveyor of such schlockbusters as "Independence Day," the bad "Godzilla" remake, "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," was going to follow up his first bid for true critical acceptance--the bizarre Shakespeare-was-a-liar-pants drama "Anonymous"--with a drama about the Stonewall riot, a 1969 uprising in New York's then-oppressed homosexual community that helped to inspire the modern gay rights movement, many observers have looked at it as a disaster waiting to happen--what the hell could the guy behind "Stargate" and "10,000 BC" have to say about that seminal moment in time? That feeling was underlined when the trailer was released a couple of months ago and many people--including that who were around the area at that time--began complaining that the minorities, lesbians and transgenders that were at the heart of the conflict wee being shunted to the side for a wholly fictionalized character who was a clean-cut white kind who appeared to have stepped right out of a boy band.

While some of this reaction might have come across as excessive--it was only a two-minute trailer--I suppose that the anger coming from those who were actual around at the time of the events is understandable. After all, the more one knows about any given subject, the less forgiving they tend to be when confronted with what appear to be inaccuracies. (I seem to even recall that after "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out, there were interviews with real-life archeologists in which they explained that what they did bore little relation to what was shown on the screen. Well, I was not a participant in the Stonewall riots--I wouldn't even be born for another two years--and all I know about it are the basic facts that I have happened to glean from books and documentaries over the years. Nevertheless, despite my lack of any real connection to the story, I can still confidently say that "Stonewall" is an awful, awful film and not just because of its historical obfuscations. No, it is an awful film for the same reasons that most films are awful--bad writing and direction, lousy performances and no real justification for its existence--and the historical flaws are merely the icing on a particularly rancid cake.

Our guide to this story is Danny (Jeremy Irvine). a blonde, baby-faced all-American hunk from the midwest whose high school football coach father (David Cubitt) suspects is going down the wrong path, even going so far as to force the school to show its students one of those old Sid David mental hygiene shorts warning of the dangers of strange men loitering in public washrooms and the like. Later on, a couple of Danny's teammates catch him in an extremely compromising position with the quarterback (Karl Glusman), who then sells him out in order to save his own hide. When Danny gets home, he finds his suitcase already back and he is off to New York, where he is due to begin at Colombia in the fall--assuming that he can get his parents to send the school some necessary documents.

Arriving at Christopher Street, Danny is a little like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz"--a metaphor that this film beats into the ground after a while--as there is hardly an inch of ground that isn't occupied by guys in drag, man making out in the streets and old queens, many of who seem to take an instant shine to the new arrival. He is rescued by flamboyant Puerto Rican drag hustler Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who takes him under his gaudy wing and shows him the lay of the land. It isn't all fun and games, of course--the cops comes by for the occasional head-crackings (Danny has barely arrived before he is beaten badly--though not badly enough to mar his looks--by a couple of thrill-happy cops) and since it was illegal at that time for gays to congregate or be served alcohol, the bars, such as the Stonewall Inn, are run by the Mob. Ray clearly falls in love with Danny at first sight but Danny will have none of it, especially after getting picked up at the Stonewall by Trevor Nichols (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a politically-oriented journalist who is trying to mobilize the locals against the discriminatory laws, the exploitation by the Mob and the brutality of the cops. It all comes to a head on June 28, 1969 when another raid by the cops goes sideways and incites a riot, the reverberations of which are still being felt to this day.

Moviegoers today are savvy enough to know that when they see a film that professes to be based on a true story, the actual record has been revised, rewritten and otherwise messed around with in order to make for a more streamlined narrative. The trick that a filmmaker has to pull off is to do it in such a way that fact and fiction wind up blending together in a harmonious manner. Take "Titanic," for example--the main characters might have been made up but by telling the story through their eyes, viewers were able to absorb an enormous amount of detail about the events of that doomed voyage that made for a moviegoing experience that was both educational and compelling. What Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz have done here is the exact opposite--they have created a fiction that coexists so uneasily with the reality of what happened that even viewers without a strong working knowledge of the events will be finding their bullshit detectors going off early and often.

The most egregious flaw by far is the way that it takes the entire story of the Stonewall Inn and the people who drove the activities the night of the right--many of them minorities, lesbians and transgenders--and shoves them into the background to focus on a hunky white guy and his few weeks of self-discovery. (Frankly, more time is devoted to worrying about getting his college application in on time, perhaps not the aspect a film of this type needs to focus on.) This is bad enough during the setup but it becomes especially ridiculous when he turns out to be the one who essentially leads the revolt by throwing the brick that galvanizes everyone into action. Not only that, we get to see real-life trans activist Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit)--who might have served as the center of a more credible telling of this story but who is largely reduced to a supporting comedy relief role here--actually hand Danny the brick and encouraging him to lead the charge instead of doing it herself. This is roughly equivalent to making a movie about the beginnings of the civil rights movement and having people being spurred into action by a white person refusing to move to the back of a bus.

As laughable as this moment is, it doesn't fatally ruin "Stonewall" because it is already dead on its feet by them. The screenplay by Baitz is simply awful with one scene after another done in by faulty plotting and ridiculously on-the-nose dialogue--early on, we are invited to mock the lame anti-gary film that Danny is forced to watch in school but it is not demonstrably worse than many of the inept moments on display here, the worst of which comes during an especially lurid pre-riot moment when Danny is essentially kidnapped by the brutish Stonewall manager (Ron Perleman) and forced to service a creepy older couple until saved in the ta-daa nick of time by Ray. For his part, Emmerich never creates a remotely convincing version of the time, place or people involved--every scene plays as if someone decided to create a hellish fusion of the worst aspects of "The Boys in the Band" and "Rent" and then decided to cut all the songs at the last second. Aside from Beauchamp, whose Ray might have been the focus of another take on this story, the performances are singularly lousy with Irvine the worst offender--it is hard to believe that so many people could be enamored/inspired by him since he comes across more like an underwear model from a lesser retail catalogue than an actual person. Even what would seem to be the raison d'ĂȘtre for the film, the actual riot, falls short because of the odd decision to telescope the several days of rioting that actually occurred into one night that abruptly ends in order to make time for Danny to return home to the Midwest to conclude his less-than-exciting arc.

If "Stonewall" had been made 30 years ago, at the time when AIDS awareness was just beginning to appear on the horizon, it would have seemed like dated gibberish from another era that spent more time pulling its punches than in addressing the issues that a competent film on the subject might have at least attempted to grapple with. Nowadays, with the great strides that have been made in regards to gay rights in the last year or so, it feels even more like a dated relic that deserves to be shoved back into the closet from which it emerged. That Roland Emmerich would throw his weight behind a project like this instead of cruising into another soulless blockbuster is commendable but to do it as badly as he does here is simply mortifying. (Perhaps even he realizes this as he is now working busily on "Independence Day 2," a movie could possibly be slightly more plausible than this one.) Emmerich has said that he wanted to do this movie to raise awareness to the plight of homeless LGBTQ youth, who make up roughly 40% of all homeless kids in America today. That is a noble sentiment but unfortunately, it also raises awareness that we need someone to make a real movie about Stonewall as soon as possible so that everyone can forget this one as quickly as possible.

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originally posted: 09/25/15 10:54:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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10/05/15 G. A tragesty. 1 stars
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  25-Sep-2015 (R)
  DVD: 19-Jan-2016


  DVD: 19-Jan-2016

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