Electra-fying: ‘American Pastoral’ and a society gone mad

AP_D27_10794.ARWI confess to having some trepidation when actors decide to become directors — especially “serious” directors. For every Eastwood or Beatty or Redford, there’s a Jerry Lewis or Sofia Coppola or DeVito (Death to Smoochy): Vanity projects doomed by ego. So when Obi-Wan Kenob… errr, Ewan McGregor, decided to make his feature film debut directing himself in an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel American Pastoral, I didn’t know whether to approach it with anticipation or dread. A somber period drama about Jewish Americans embroiled in the tumult of the 1960s, while touching on mental disorders and family discord? What would he bring to the table? An amazing amount, actually, in this powerful heartbreaker that recalls The Prince of Tides, The Deer Hunter, The Help and Roth’s own The Human Stain.

McGregor plays “Swede” Levov, the high school star athlete who marries the gentile beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, looking breathtaking) and settles into a stable middle-class life in a Newark exurb. Swede and Dawn happily rear their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning as a teenager), a sensitive girl with a stutter, in the cocoon of the American Dream. But the discord of the counter-culture revolution seems to impact Merry disproportionately; she becomes not just a disagreeable teen, but a seemingly unstable one. She rails against her parents — blandly liberal Democrats — as if they personally ordered secret bombings in Cambodia. She misbehaves, taking up with “the wrong crowd,” even though dear ol’ dad is a model of tolerant permissiveness. Something deeper is at work here; Merry seems to be an avatar of all the insanity of a generation gone berserk with racial, social and political upheaval; Swede, meanwhile, cannot accept that the unrest has deteriorated the foundations of the idyllic life he has constructed — his American pastoral existence is just an illusion.

AP_D14_05366.ARWBecause this is Philip Roth, though, the metaphors aren’t as heavy as they can sound, and as a director, McGregor navigates these traps deftly. He’s not afraid to show characters, including his own, as dense, or weak, or self-deceived, but he taps into a humanity that fully resonates. You can’t help but see his side of the equation, even as you suspect he’s making huge mistakes. The love of a parent can be blinding. The performances are uniformly excellent. Connelly, who hasn’t done a lot worth noticing since winning an Oscar 15 years ago, plays the ageing pageant queen with maternal dignity hardening into icy self-absorption with measured steps. Fanning, so infuriating as the contrarian teen, simultaneously morphs into a pitiable figure with an Electra complex. Even Uzo Aduba as the Swede’s protective business assistant brings an urgency to her few scenes.

McGregor gives all of them standout moments, but his quiet unraveling is at the heart of American Pastoral, a serious and poignant story as well as a bright revelation for McGregor’s talents. The Force is strong with this one.

Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’

JACK THE GIANT SLAYERI’ve become so inured to Hollywood’s formula about movies releasing — “good” blockbusters reserved for summer and post-Thanksgiving; crap scheduled for Labor Day weekend and early January; expensive duds set for early spring — that it sometimes feels you can guess the quality of a film by its release date. So far, 2013 has had a few exceptions: Mama was more thought-provoking than nightmare-inducing horror, and Side Effects, while not a hit, was smarter and livelier than director Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 winter release, Haywire. Add to that list Jack the Giant Slayer.

Studios have overwhelmed audiences in recent years with a new subgenre: The revisionist fair tale. From Red Riding Hood to Snow White and the Huntman (and its lesser sister, Mirror, Mirror) to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, reimagined myths have begun to wear out their welcome. (Execs smartly cast name-brand actors, like Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, to give them the gloss of respectability if not artistic cred.) That makes the one-two punch of Jack and next week’s Oz, The Great and Powerful seem likes rushes to the middle, clearing the cupboards until the “real” hits role out in May.

Not so, however, with Jack the Giant Slayer.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Arts District pairs with Dallas Film Society for Sunset Screening series

‘Waiting for Guffman’ screens Sept. 17, just in time for Dallas Pride weekend.

The AT&T Performing Arts Center and the Dallas Film Society introduce a series of Sunset Screenings at Annette Strauss Artists Square alongside the Winspear Opera House, showing movies for free monthly all summer. It starts this Saturday.

Five hundred reserved seats are available with your RSVP, with lawn seating (blankets only; no portable chairs allowed) available as well. Coolers and strollers are not permitted, but concessions will be available.

The schedule is below:

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Latin flair

MUY FUNNY | Dan Guerrero works for laughs while being gay and Latino in his one-man show.

Before he could write ‘¡Gaytino!,’ Dan Guerrero first had to find his roots

rich lopez  | Staff Writer

Growing up gay and Latino can be a tough hand to play. In a culture that revels in religion and machismo — hell, the word “machismo” is Latino — coming out poses pitfalls.

But Dan Guerrero lucked out. With some artsy upbringing by a musician dad and a not-so-practicing Catholic background, Guerrero’s closet was easy to open. In fact, it was harder for him just to be Hispanic.

“Los Angeles never made me feel like I was good enough,” he says. “I fell in love with musicals in junior high. I wanted to hear Julie Andrews in Camelot! Who gives a rat’s ass about mariachi?”

His dad might have given one. He was famed musician Lala Guerrero, the father of Chicano music who popularized the Pachuco sound in the 1940s (the beats most associated with Zoot suits and swing dancing). While Guerrero appreciated his father’s legacy, he established his own identity by moving to New York to become an actor. That didn’t work out so much, but becoming an agent did.

“It was kind of by accident, but I ended up being an agent for 15 years,” he says. “I got into producing and I loved it.”

Although he stepped away from performing, Guerrero finds himself back onstage Friday and Saturday at the Latino Cultural Center with ¡Gaytino! The autobiographical one-man show is part comedy, part cabaret, with Guerrero recounting in lyrics and punch lines his experiences growing up gay and Latino, life with father … and having to rediscover his roots after moving back to L.A.

“The main reason I did the show is, I wanted to know more about my dad and my best friend. I was already fabulous,” he laughs. “So I don’t think of this as my story. I wanted to embrace his legacy and celebrate him and our lives, but also tell of being a born-again Hispanic.”

In L.A., Guerrero rediscovered his heritage. While still working in entertainment, he noticed a lack of Latinos behind the scenes. He started a column in Dramalogue to change that, interviewing actors like Jimmy Smits and Salma Hayek and producing shows that spoke to Latin audiences.

And then came ¡Gaytino!

“Well, the word itself hit me first so I trademarked it. Then it was madness as I set about writing it,” he says.

When the show debuted in 2005, Guerrero hadn’t performed in 35 years. He was a different man, no longer a young buck with nothing to lose and untarnished optimism. He was a behind-the-scenes producer and casting agent. He was — gasp! — older.

“I remember thinking, ‘What am I gonna do? What if I forget my lines?’ I’m an old codger,” he says. “But I got onstage and it was like I had did it the day before. Performing is just part of who I am.”

With his successful day job (he once repped a young Sarah Jessica Parker), a healthy relationship (32 years this November) and irons in many other fires, why bother with the daunting task of writing a show and carrying it alone?

“It still feels like I’m breaking into show business. At least when you’ve been around as long as I have, you can get the main cheese by phone,” he answers. “But really, I had something I wanted to say and I love doing it. I’ve been lucky to stay in the game this long but it’s not by accident; it’s all been by design.”

What he loves isn’t just doing his show, but how it pushes positive gay Latino images. He’s dedicated this chapter in his life to that. Guerrero now feels parental toward the younger generation — maybe because he has no children of his own.

“I do feel a responsibility and not just to younger people, but to all,” he says. “For ¡Gaytino!, I first want them entertained, but I hope audiences will leave more educated about some Chicano culture and history and Gaytino history.”





Beginners is such a dreadfully forgettable and generic title for what is the year’s most engaging and heartfelt comedy, you feel like boycotting a review until the distributor gives it a title it deserves.

Certainly the movie itself — a quirky, humane and fantastical reverie about the nature of love and family, with Ewan McGregor as a doleful graphic artist who, six months after his mother dies, learns his 75-year-old dad (Christopher Plummer) is gay and wants to date — charts its own course (defiantly, respectfully, beautifully), navigating the minefield of relationships from lovers to parent/child with simple emotions. It’s not a movie that would presume to answer the Big Questions (when do you know you’ve met the right one? And if they aren’t, how much does that matter anyway?); it’s comfortable observing that we’re all in the same boat, and doing our best is good enough.

McGregor’s placid befuddlement over how he should react to things around him — both his father’s coming out and a flighty but delightful French actress (Melanie Laurent) who tries to pull him out of his shell — is one of the most understated and soulful performances of his career. (His relationship with Arthur, his father’s quasi-psychic Jack Russell, is winsome and winning without veering into Turner & Hooch idiocy.) But Plummer owns the film.

Plummer, best known for his blustery, villainous characters (even the heroic ones, like Capt. Von Trapp and Mike Wallace), exudes an aura of wonder and discovery as the septuagenarian with the hot younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, both exasperating as cuddly). As he learns about house music at a time when his contemporaries crave Lawrence Welk, you’re wowed by how the performance seethes with the lifeforce of someone coming out and into his own. His energy is almost shaming.

Writer/director Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical film suffers only being underlit and over too quickly. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to spend more time with these folks.

—Arnold Wayne Jones

Rating: Four and half stars
Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

The year in entertainment

Our critics run down the best of movies, music, theater, dining and pop culture in 2010

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | jones@dallasvoice.com

BEST OF THE BEST | The comedy ‘I Love You, Phillip Morris,’ left, was the year’s most entertaining film, while ‘Winter’s Bone’ was buoyed by a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence, below left.

1. I Love You, Phillip Morris. The best comedy of the year is this unlikely love story, told with open-hearted directness, about a gay conman (Jim Carrey), his boyfriend (Ewan McGregor) and their escapades in Texas during the 1990s. Think a gay version of Bonnie & Clyde with some hot sex and hysterical jokes. Only don’t. Whatever, just see it.

2. Winter’s Bone. A girl in the Ozarks must track down her meth-dealing dad or lose her home. Without sentimentality or cloying music, it tells a tale with such visual acuity and simplicity it gobsmacks you with its beauty. Hard watching, sometimes, and excellently acted by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence and veteran Dale Dickey.

3. The Social Network. David Fincher makes Aaron Sorkin’s complex screenplay about the founding of Facebook into the off-handed, slyly FX’d movie equivalent of a page turner, with terrific pacing, pantingly good acting by Jesse Eisenberg and Armie Hammer and a story of great relevance and psychological depth.


4. The King’s Speech. Hard to imagine speech lessons being cinematic, but director Tom Hooper does just that in this entrancing historical drama about King George VI (Colin Firth, who may win the Oscar denied him last year for A Single Man) as the stuttering monarch and Geoffrey Rush magnificent as a linguistic coach. We are quite amused.

5. True Grit. After the dreadful detours of Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, the Coens are back in stride with this poetic Western — not a revisionist conceit, but a straightforward character study of revenge, exceptionally well played by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who should win the Oscar.

6. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski finished the editing on this film while under house arrest, which just goes to show Polanski in the worst of circumstances is better than most directors at their best. The best film from the first half of the year, it’s a cagey political thriller than keeps you guessing.

Scott Pilgrim versus the World,’ below, was better than its box office would indicate.

7. Scott Pilgrim versus the World. Michael Cera’s charms are wearing thin, but he squeezed out the last drips in this quirky fantasy-romance that creates its own internal world of logic. Among the best elements: Kieran Culkin as Cera’s predatory gay roommate.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE | ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ above, proved to be a hit commercially and critically.

8. The Kids Are All Right. Although the story wandered down a path strewn with clichés, director Lisa Cholodenko still managed to spin it with unique and authentic moments as lesbian spouses Julianne Moore and Annette Bening contend with infidelity and a man in their lives (Mark Ruffalo, rascally and loveable) for the first time. Gay cinema has rarely been as clever and mainstream-compatible as this.

9. Life During Wartime. Todd Solondz’s uncomfortably dark but oddly funny follow-up to his art-house hit Happiness, centered on three sisters and their perversely dysfunctional family, was the most cringe-inducing comedy ever that lacked a bathroom scene or Woody Allen playing a romantic scene with a teenager.

10 . My Name Is Khan and Un Prophete (tie). Hard to chose between these largely foreign-language entries: Khan, one of the best Bollywood films ever with unexpected emotional resonance, and Un Prophete, a French-Muslim version of The Godfather that was a true epic.

The South American gay film ‘Undertow,  just missed the top 10

Runners-up: Kick-Ass, Megamind, The Secret in their Eyes, Black Swan, Undertow.

Best performances of the year —
Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter; Tommy Lee Jones, Company Men; James Franco, 127 Hours; Robert Duvall, Get Low.

Actress: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan.

Supporting actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right;
Armie Hammer, The Social Network; Christian Bale, The Fighter; Lucas Black, Get Low.

Supporting actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone; Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis, Black Swan; Melissa Leo, The Fighter.

Best non-fiction films: Inside Job; Catfish.

‘Knight and Day,’ above, was the year’s worst movie.

10 worst films of the year: Unstoppable; Shutter Island; Splice; Love and Other Drugs; The Book of Eli; Edge of Darkness; Skyline; Alice in Wonderland; How Do You Know; Knight and Day.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Meet the real Phillip Morris

Phillip Morris

In this week’s issue, I have an interview with Phillip Morris, the real-life gay guy whose life story is portrayed in a new (and terrifically funny) Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor movie, I Love You, Phillip Morris. The article doesn’t include a photo of Morris (I didn’t get it until too late), so here instead online is a recent one, taken last month at the film’s premiere.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Prisoner of love

The real Phillip Morris is a free man — but still smarting from how a bigoted Texas justice system railroaded him

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

BOYS BEHIND BARS   Ewan McGregor plays Phillip Morris, the real-life victim of an obsessive con man (played by Jim Carrey). The actual Morris loves the movie — even if his life didn’t seem so funny at the time.

4.5 stars

Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor.
Rated R. 100 mins.
Now playing at Angelika Film
Center Mockingbird Station.


An early review for the new queer romantic comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris couldn’t be more positive: “I absolutely love the movie,” gushes the review. “I think it’s wonderfully done. Very entertaining. It makes you laugh and cry and has everything. I had to separate myself from living it. I looked at it as if I wasn’t part of it.”

Yes, there really is a Phillip Morris from the title, a pixie-like gentleman with a lazy Southern drawl as sweet and sticky on the ears as molasses. “No one really knows the extent of what I went through and what Steven Russell put me through until you see it on the screen. A friend of mine [saw it] and hugged me with tears running down his face. ‘I never knew!’ he said. I said, ‘If you only knew what really happened you wouldn’t have been able to stop crying.’”

I Love You has endured a tortured journey from indie darling of Sundance in 2009 to not-with-a-10-foot-pole distribution hell. A Jim Carrey comedy should be a sure bet. But set in prison — and with a gay theme that the filmmakers don’t bat an eyelash in portraying? Adding to the discomfort factor: It’s true.

Well, sort of. Morris himself — he now lives in Arkansas, 14 years after meeting con man Steven Russell (Carrey’s role) in a Texas jail — says a lot of what happens in the film did not happen in real life. Yes, Russell sweet-talked his way into prison posing as Morris’ lawyer. Yes, Russell cheated people and businesses with the callow greed of a cat in a tunafish factory. Yes, Morris (played in the film by Ewan McGregor) was naïve and believed the lies he was told by a man he thought loved him, but whom he now perceives a merely obsessed with sociopathic tendencies. But much of it is, let’s say, “creative license.”

“Steve was not as humorous [as Carrey portrays], so I had to dig deep to realize what he did was very serious, but if you think about how he did it, it’s hilarious! I just love they way they did the comedy,” Morris says.

It would be understandable if he weren’t quite so forgiving of the liberties taken with his life story. Morris is still profoundly bitter about his incarceration, and how he felt railroaded by the Harris County D.A.’s office.

“When you’re 5-foot-3 and weigh 100 pounds with blond hair and blue eyes, prison is not a bed of roses,” he says with sudden grimness. “This movie will help shed light on what happened to me and how they screwed me in the state of Texas. It was bad enough I was lied to and used by Steven Russell, but I spend seven years in prison for what I did not do or even know about. Even though I’m not physically in prison, this is still hovering over me.”

Morris met Russell 14 years ago in county lock-up (not prison as portrayed in the movie, but he’s OK with that). They ended up spending eight months together, becoming lovers. And we’re not talking of the prison-bitch kind shown on Oz — it was deep, true, sincere affection, a fairy tale romance in leg irons (even if there were no slow dances and touching prison courtyard farewells — again, in the movie only, but that’s all right).

“I have no anger about the way it was portrayed,” he says.

What he does have anger over is how homophobia played a role, he’s certain, in how he was treated by the system.

Steven Russell forged Morris’ name, set up dummy bank accounts and bilked people out of millions, getting Morris in trouble with Texas law enforcement and landing him in prison for seven years, even as the prosecution knew he was innocent.

“Steve did what he did out of what he called love for me — if I thought for one second he did any of that with malice or intent to hurt me, I would hate the man so much it would tear me apart,” Morris says.

“But the D.A. told me the day of my trial that he knew I was innocent. But they went ahead and [pursued me] just to cover their asses. If I had been a woman — if I had been married to Steve or his girlfriend — they never would have indicted me. But you should have seen how they looked at me: They were determined to make this faggot go to prison. It was the good-ol’-buddy mentality dished out to me.” His bile rises as he recounts the story, still furious more than seven years later.

He felt abused again after Steve McVicker’s article [for the Houston Press] and eventual book portrayed him badly.

“I detest the writer of the book,” he says. “This mentality, the ignorance — that’s this writer. Although he lives in the middle of Montrose, he is one of the most homophobic idiots I’ve ever met. He misquoted me, called me a barfly even though I hate going to bars, called me a gold digger. Just lies. He is a cockroach. And you can quote me.”

The film then, even with its warm-and-fuzzy patina, finally captures the three-dimensionality of Morris. He feels like a real human being again.

“Ewan’s portrayal of me is dead-on. People who know me say they thought that was me up there! Ewan took the time to spend with me to learn my mannerisms and hear my story and the tender side of me. I’m a very sensitive and emotional person and I don’t hide that.”

As for his feelings about Russell, well — spoiler alert! — “We were as close and two human beings could possibly be. We never argued and were very affectionate and we really learned each other. But neither of us has written each other since 2008.”

Maybe one day he’ll resume communication with the man currently serving a life sentence in high security custody. If he does… well, that might make a pretty good movie, too.


The long con

I Love You, Phillip Morris rattled around for nearly two years looking for a release date (and occasionally a distributor), and it’s easy to see why: Despite being a Jim Carrey comedy, it’s one of the gayest bits of cinema this side of the porn industry — and it doesn’t apologize for it. Not one bit. What mainstream audience would want to see a romance with two guys?

The answer should be: All of them — or at least those who enjoy an excellent film, no matter what the orientation of the lovers happens to be.

I Love You is, in many ways, a traditional screwball comedy, owing as much to What’s Up, Doc? as to Brokeback Mountain. Steven Russell (Carrey) lives a normal, straight existence, but once he comes out, lives a lifestyle beyond his means. That entails scams, cons and ballsy ventures that eventually land him in jail where he meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a naive Southern boy smitten with the charismatic Russell. They plan a life together out of jail, but Russell’s sociopathic need for money and addiction to risk sets everything on a bad path.

Carrey’s performance is brave, and not because he’s playing gay: Because he throws himself into the head-over-heels love-struck mode so enthusiastically. This is still a Jim Carrey movie, but one loaded with more heart than usual.

It may not be for every taste, but there is a moment where the battle lines are drawn: When Phillip, seeing Steven moved to a new facility, runs through the prison like a starry-eyed heroine from a wartime romance. Some may dismiss it as hokum, but it’s something else really: Classic sentimentality with the twist that two men can be as in love as any hetero couple. If you allow yourself to get lost in it, you’ll buy it all. Rick and Elsa always had Paris; why shouldn’t Steven and Phillip always have Huntsville?

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’ gets release date

The Jim Carrey movie, “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” finally has a release date of Dec. 3. Release of the film has been delayed a number of times.

The story of the Texas con man who falls in love with his prison cell mate and escapes from Huntsville several times to be with him is based on a true story.

Delays in release are usually not a good sign and the book wasn’t that good. The film first screened at Sundance Film Festival in January 2009.

But it’s a gay love story and takes place in Texas, so it’ll have local appeal.

The real buzz is about Jim Carrey’s sex scene with co-star Ewan McGregor.

—  David Taffet

See an advance screening of the summer’s most promising gay film, ‘The Kids Are All Right’

Two fairly mainstream feature films with strong gay content were set to open soon: Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and I Love You Phillp Morris with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. The latter’s release date has been pushed back to October, which leaves the  former — which stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple whose children were conceived via a sperm donor — as the big gay film of the summer.

And we got yer ticket for it.

On Wednesday, Dallas Voice is sponsoring a screening of the film, which also stars Mark Ruffalo. The screening will be at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater in the West Village starting at 7:30 p.m.

You can pick up a free pass at the Whole Foods on Lomo Alto starting Saturday, June 26.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones