Thursday, October 10, 2019

A look at the life of Roy Cohn

One of Trump’s so-called mentors did the groundwork for a ruthless brand of politics.
Roy Cohn remains best known as the power-crazed New York attorney who teamed with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the feverish Red Scare days of the 1950s.

Under the sway of intense anti-communism, Cohn managed to work his way into power circles that went well beyond what you might expect from a young lawyer. When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover recommended him to McCarthy, Cohn was only 24 but already had made a name for himself helping to prosecute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union. Cohn’s role in that trial is a subject for books, so I’ll move on by noting that the passage of time hasn't made him look any better.

A closeted gay man, Cohn died of AIDs in 1986. He denied having the disease. Several years after his death, Cohn appeared as a venomous character in Tony Kushner’s landmark work, Angeles in America.

For all the damage he left in his wake, Cohn probably would be slipping into obscurity were it not for one thing: his relationship with Donald J. Trump, a name with which you're probably familiar.

Thorough and essential, the documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? takes its title from an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2018. At the time, Trump reportedly was fuming about then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” asked a frustrated Trump, suggesting that he needed a high-caliber fixer to navigate Washington's choppier waters. Cohn knew how to set aside niceties and pretense, he went for the jugular.

The Cohn/Trump connection dates to the 1970s when the Justice Department accused Trump's company of housing discrimination. Handled by Cohn, the case was settled without an admission of guilt, an outcome that was considered a triumph of sorts for the Trump organization.

Don't get the wrong impression. Where's My Roy Cohn isn't entirely focused -- or even primarily focused -- on the Trump/Cohn relationship. Director Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of a young man from the Bronx who matured into a ruthless proponent of an approach that eschewed debates about the intricacies of legal opinion. Cohn knew how and to whom pressure should be applied.

If Cohn was Trump's mentor, his student seems to have mastered many of the teacher's rules of public conduct: Attack those who criticize and never apologize, among them.

Bold as he was, Cohn never admitted his homosexuality. In public, he had no qualms about expressing homophobic opinions. But rumors about his sexuality were already afloat in the 1950s, thanks to a story that emerged about Cohn and his friend G. David Schine, a young man who worked as an unpaid assistant to McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

At the time, Cohn tried to obtain an instant commission in the Army for Schine, a handsome fellow for whom Cohn purportedly had more than a friendly interest.

The documentary makes use of interviews with journalists who covered Cohn, among them Ken Auletta of The New Yorker and Mike Wallace, an interviewer who knew how to go on the attack. You’ll also hear from Roger Stone, a political operative who specializes in opposition research and who learned from Cohn.

Stone, you'll recall, was arrested In January of 2019 in connection with the Mueller investigation. If you're interested in Stone, you may want to watch Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary that will school you in Stone's approach to political maneuvering. Warning: A double-bill of Where's My Roy Cohn and Get Me Roger Stone might produce a near-toxic dose of cynicism in even the most hard-bitten viewers.

Like many before and after him, Cohn beat the loyalty drum when it served him and he found his way into social circles that ranged from tycoons (Aristotle Onassis to name one) to crime figures such as Carmine Galante and John Gotti. He counted Barbara Walters as a pal.

No review can do justice to all the details of Cohn’s 59 years. The son of a doting Jewish mother, Cohn was super-bright and well-educated; yet, his behavior seemed to run counter to anything that might be called an "intellectual" approach.

Where’s My Roy Cohn shows us a man who made no apologies, but should have spent nearly most of his adult years choking on remorse generated by actions that seemed to spring from unprincipled ambition. What Cohn helped unleash has yet to disappear from American life -- and we're all worse off for it.*

*Interest in Roy Cohn seems to be gaining momentum. Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, a documentary by Ivy Meerepol, granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, recently played The New York Film Festival. The HBO documentary is scheduled to air next year.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Phoenix gets behind the make-up in 'Joker'

Dark, violent and brooding. Is this a comic-book movie or a shrieking cry for help?

Set in a decaying, rot-infested Gotham City, the Joker attempts to show what happens when society’s “invisibles” are pushed to the breaking point. Kicking fanboy comic-book nostalgia to the curb, Joker brings us face-to-face with the madness that festers beneath the surface of a corrupted society. If Joker were to have a subtitle, it might be: Joker: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

But wait. Am I talking about Joker, the villain who Batman has been fighting for years and who previously has been played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and who now falls into the hands of Joaquin Phoenix? I am.

Joker, which marches to one of the year's most ominous drumbeats, was directed by Todd Phillips, whose resume includes such raucous comedies as Old School and the Hangover movies. Who knew that Phillips had this kind of haunting, violent and grime-encrusted effort in him?

But then Phillips never worked with Phoenix before and Phoenix, in many ways, is the movie — with everything else working to support the insanity, insecurity, and terror of an incomparable and frightening performance. I don't think it's stretching the point to say that Phoenix and Phillips have used comic book characters to create an anti-comic-book movie.

Having lost considerable weight to play the Joker — a.k.a., Arthur Fleck — Phoenix borders on the skeletal; he’s portraying a man who’s virtually disappearing. His occupation (clown for hire) puts him behind a mask that, at least initially, doesn’t liberate him but pushes him further into anonymity while also subjecting him to any number of cruel derisions.

Everything about Arthur screams misfit, including a disorder that causes him to burst into choking, maniacal fits of laughter that can appear indistinguishable from crying jags and which have no relation to anything that's happening to Arthur at the moment.

Mugged and severely beaten early on, Arthur is prey awaiting rebirth as predator. It’s not an easy transition for Arthur, who previously was institutionalized and who now lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a shabby Gotham apartment building, which he reaches by ascending a steep flight of punishing stairs.

Imprisoned in a child-like state, Arthur only escapes his loneliness when he’s violent. Arthur cares for his diminished mother, even washing her hair as he sits tubside over her nakedness. Hardly good preparation for developing mature relations with women.

I have no idea whether Phillips and Phoenix set out to make this kind of movie or whether it evolved as they began to work together. If the latter, they trusted their instincts and built everything around Phoenix's performance from Mark Friedberg's dystopian production design to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score, which emerges from the screen like a moan, the sound of a soul being crushed.

Set in dingy apartments, dirty subway cars, and littered streets, Joker becomes a vivid, night-crawler of a movie in which its comic-book roots are only half-heartedly acknowledged, and perhaps didn't need to be there at all.

The movie introduces us to young Bruce Wayne, who, of course, will grow up to be Batman. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is an imperious tycoon with contempt for the masses he proposes to save by becoming the city's mayor. He calls them "clowns."

All of this produces a movie that’s compelling in ways that challenge convention while also drawing on the movie past, most notably Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Not only has Robert De Niro, the star of King of Comedy, been cast as a talk-show host, but Arthur aspires to be a standup comedian, a pursuit for which he has no aptitude. He scrawls his idea of jokes into a notebook full of incoherent scribblings, hardly a manifesto.

Yet, when Arthur turns to violence — he shoots three drunken Wall Street types in a subway melee — his actions give rise to a social movement in which protesters don clown masks and shout down those who are rich enough to immunize themselves against the city’s rot.

The irony flows easily because Arthur has no interest in politics. He doesn’t want to change the social order; he wants to be seen, to bask in the limelight of an existence that's finally acknowledged and even celebrated. And, yes, Phoenix's performance also generates pity for this misbegotten figure.

Joker harbors one glaring false note. Arthur tries to form a relationship with a single mother (Zazie Beetz) whose attraction to Arthur challenges credibility. Arthur is too weird for this or any other relationship. Is Beetz's character's attraction to Arthur akin to the concern one might feel for an abused child? Whatever it is, it doesn’t ring true.

You probably know that Joker already has generated controversy. It won the top prize at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival but has been criticized for being too violent, for having the potential to cause violence and for encouraging facile enmity toward achievement and wealth.

On violence: Yes, the movie’s violent and, yes, it contains hints of brutal aggression toward its audience. It’s as if Phillips and Phoenix, with no small amount of defiance, want to challenge audiences to examine their love of villains and their taste for blood. They’re asking what happens if we strip away comic-book protections and show the real thing?

As a result, Joker brings its violence closer to us than most horror movies. Unlike in It Chapter Two, for example, evil isn’t something that recurs in 10-year intervals with supernatural assists; it’s lodged in the twisted psyche of the guy in the apartment next door. It's Taxi Driver's Travis Bickel reborn into a normless world.

Are the movie’s jabs at elitism and wealth justified or simplistic? Simplistic, of course, but don’t misunderstand. Joker isn’t a movie that's likely to inspire profound thoughts or discussions about its deeper meanings; it seems to want what its main character wants for himself, an inescapable and independent existence.

When Arthur fully emerges as Joker, he dances down those same steps that he climbed every day as he headed for his lonesome retreat. It’s a wild, uninhibited release of energy played against Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2 -- and it's coming from a figure in clown make-up with a blood-red rictus drawn on his gaunt face.

That moment and others like it -- particularly when Phoenix incorporates dance into Joker's repertoire -- stand as unnerving bits of performance art: frightening, dangerous and eerie. It’s mad anarchy unleashed: terrifying and, in one harrowing moment, in charge. If that doesn't rattle you, I don't know what would.

Eddie Murphy's 'Dolemite is My Name'

There's nothing particularly novel about Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy's unabashed tribute to Rudy Ray Moore, a real-life comedian in the 1970s tried to make a splash with his own version of a Blaxploitation film.

Before his foray into the film world, Moore invented a character called Dolemite, a fast-talker who dressed like a pimp, sported a globe-sized Afro wig, and used a cane as a prop.

In Moore, Murphy finds a character whose "crazy" ambition (Moore financed Dolemite with borrowed money) can't mask the fact that he’s basically a good guy. And Murphy gets laughs in ways that incorporate his fondness for the bygone era that produced such movies as Shaft and Super Fly.

Early on, Moore — who gets the idea for his act by talking to a homeless man with a gift for turning a phrase — works the Chitlin Circuit. He connects with audiences through what might be considered an early version of rap. He's finds his niche.

Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) directs as Murphy generously allows his supporting cast to share the limelight. Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Lady Reed, a woman who Moore helps discover her own comic chops. Wesley Snipes seems to be having a great time as a marginally successful Hollywood type who finds himself directing Moore’s no-budget film.

Keegan Michael-Key portrays the movie's writer, a guy who thinks he has written a socially significant screenplay. Craig Robinson and Mike Epps sign on as part of Moore's crew.

Snoop Dogg does cameo duty as Murphy walks down the pop-cultural memory lane of his youth and also reminds us that there was a time when nothing could validate a show-business career like a movie. Murphy, who hasn't made a movie in a while but whose career needs no validation, holds the screen with ease, even though Dolemite operates mostly at B-movie levels.

Dolemite opens in limited markets Oct. 4 and will be available on Netflix starting Oct. 25. I’m sorry that the movie won't be playing in theaters everywhere because Murphy has made a film that only can benefit from being seen with an audience that's looking for a good time.