Thursday, September 24, 2015

'Stonewall' shortchanges realty

Roland Emmerich makes a film about the birth of the gay rights movement.

The Stonewall riots of 1969 are credited with having ignited America's gay rights movement. The riots were triggered by an early morning police raid of The Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village bar that was patronized by transgender people, homeless gays, gay prostitutes, a portion of the lesbian community, as well as by gays simply looking for a place to meet.

The riots, which extended over several nights, are the ostensible subject of director Roland Emmerich's Stonewall, a movie misguidedly built around a fictional clean-cut Midwesterner who arrives in New York for what's made to look like a crash-course in gay life.

About now, you may be asking, "Emmerich? The director known for mega-movies such as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C., and White House Down? That Roland Emmerich?"

The answer is yes, and although Emmerich deserves credit for changing his disaster-movie pace, the resultant film is hampered by a decision to build its drama around Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a gay Indiana kid whose football-coach father (David Cubitt) banishes him.

Danny's small-town downfall culminates when he's caught having sex with the team's quarterback (Karl Glusman), an ambivalent young man who falsely insists that Danny got him drunk and seduced him.

A heartbroken Danny heads to New York City in hopes that he can enroll at Columbia University, where he has a scholarship waiting -- providing his parents send in the necessary papers.

Danny quickly falls in with a scruffy crowd on Christopher Street, characters who introduce Danny to the unforgiving rigors of street life, which for many of them involves prostitution.

Principal among these street waifs is Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a Puerto Rican kid who falls for Danny. Ray fantasizes about making a home with Danny, but he's stuck in a life in which dreams never come true.

Ron Perlman shows up as Ed Murphy, the guy who operated the Stonewall. Murphy, the movie tells us, also pimped defenseless young men to wealthy homosexuals.

Danny eventually finds himself torn between a sexy but stalwart member of the organized gay community (Jonathan Rhys Myers) and the street kids represented by Ray. Tension develops between those who want to legitimize protest and those who wind up throwing bricks.

Emmerich may have wanted to give the movie a main character with whom mainstream audiences more easily could identify. But by turning Stonewall into Danny's story (complete with flashbacks to Danny's stifling high school days), Emmerich shortchanges the political cauldron out of which the gay rights movement arose.

Moreover, John Robin Baitz's overly schematic screenplay tends to squeeze the humanity out of most of the characters surrounding Danny.

Emmerich captures some of the turbulence of the '60s, a period in which life could feel as if it were coming apart at the seams, but there's a faux quality to Stonewall, perhaps because its drawn in such emphatic strokes that it can feel almost cartoonish.

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