Tag Archives: B-

JT LEROY

Producer: Patrick Waklsley, Julie Yorn, Thor Bradwell, Cassian Elwes, Giri Tharan, Mark Amin and Dave Hansen
Director: Justin Kelly
Writer: Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Courtney Love, James Jagger and Dave Brown
Studio: Universal Pictures

B-

Perhaps the greatest literary hoax of recent years, the creation of a pseudonymous author called JT LeRoy was the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” a few years ago. That film, however, told the tale entirely from the perspective of Laura Albert, the San Francisco woman who invented JT—supposedly an androgynous, HIV-positive teen who’d been abandoned in California by his mother, a West Virginia truck-stop prostitute, and told his own story in captivatingly artsy prose—in the 1990s, publishing “his” books, “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” in 1999. The documentary was less investigation than apologia for the woman, whose deception had been unmasked in 2006. (She was later convicted of fraud for signing legal documents as LeRoy, but settled with the plaintiffs.)

By contrast the focus of Justin Kelly’s dramatization is Savannah Knoop, the young woman who impersonated JT in public appearances from 2001 on; the movie is based on Knoop’s 2007 memoir “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy,” and Knoop, the sister of Albert’s partner Geoff, co-wrote the script.

The result is no less a partial account of the JT LeRoy affair than “Author” was, though most viewers will find it more enjoyable, largely because of the starry cast. It begins in medias res, so to speak, when Savannah (Kristen Stewart) is introduced to Laura (Laura Dern) by Geoff (Jim Sturgess). The books are already out and while Laura has up till then been handling contact duties herself—portraying LeRoy on the phone—she needs to find a way to present her creation in the flesh to press and public, and nineteen-year old Savannah looks as though she could fill the bill. Photo shoots pave the way, but before long she’s dressing as LeRoy for press conferences, book signings and other appearances; but she mostly keeps her contributions to a minimum as Albert, adopting the persona of “his” flamboyant British manager Speedie, handles the questions.

There’s an air of abandon to these scenes, as Albert and Knoop take on incredulous reporters and adoring fans, one played by Courtney Love (who was actually one of the celebrities who joined the LeRoy bandwagon). The jaunty score by Tim Kvasnosky, with lots of tooting pipes, emphasizes the feeling that the whole charade is innocent fun, though there’s an unsettling undercurrent in the impact that LeRoy, as well as the story he tells, has on many readers facing the same sorts of trials that he supposedly had.

Moreover, just as “Author” served as a means for Albert to justify what she’d done, so Kelly’s film allows Knoop to do likewise. Savannah is portrayed as a young woman struggling to find herself at a crucial moment in her development, a struggle that included questioning her sexuality. While she is acting the role of a young man, she also is a young woman developing a relationship with a nice young man named Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

But another possibility appears when Savannah and Laura travel to France and meet Eva (Diane Kruger), a European actress anxious to secure the rights to adapt a film from the LeRoy books. (The character is obviously a stand-in for Asia Argento, who would in fact direct a feature based on “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.”) Savannah is drawn to her, though the actress is interested only in the texts, not their author in a sexual sense.

Savannah’s journey of self-discovery is really the center of this film—an interesting story, but less about the entire JT LeRoy saga than about Knoop, whose life was clearly altered by her role in it, not simply in terms of her part in what became a literary scandal, but how it was a catalyst to her self-understanding. Stewart manages to convey the sense of Savannah’s personal journey in the quietly nuanced, understated fashion familiar from her previous work. It’s a subtle performance, even when Savannah takes on the admittedly unusual character of LeRoy.

By contrast Dern offers a wildly flamboyant turn as Albert, portraying her as a master manipulator whose ability to ride roughshod over others to achieve her immediate purposes defined her character: Savannah is the introvert used by the over-the-top extrovert Albert to fulfill her dream. Of course, in the process of succeeding in making people believe in the reality of JT LeRoy through Knoop’s imposture, Albert also lessened her own control of the situation—which, the films suggests, was a real irritation for her.

Sturgess and Kruger add to the film’s gallery of peculiar characters with nice supporting turns, and the crew (cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, production designer Jean-Andre Carriere, costumer Avery Plewes, editor Aaron I. Butler) work to give the picture vitality, though despite their best efforts it can get sluggish at times. And that score can be irritating.

But despite the title, this film isn’t so much about JT LeRoy: it’s as much an apologia for Savannah Knoop’s role in the con as “Author” was for Laura Albert’s. On those terms, however, it’s a moderately enjoyable account of one of the most flagrant literary hoaxes of modern times, especially because of the performances.

THE BRINK

Producer: Marie Therese Guigis and Alison Klayman
Director: Alison Klayman
Writer: 
Stars: Stephen K. Bannon
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

B-

Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the recent efforts of far-right political activist (and former Trump aide) Steve Bannon to elect candidates sympathetic to his cause and build a worldwide “populist” movement gives him ample opportunity to express his views—and to deny that they’re in any way racist or dangerous. It also shows him as a disheveled, shambling regular Joe (or at least as pretending to be one)—a guy who likes kombucha and can laugh about that seemingly odd choice in drinks, and who—like so many of us—is, largely unsuccessfully, trying to lose weight.

It’s clear, however, that “The Brink” is hardly an effort to humanize Bannon; it’s rather a not-so-subtle attempt at demonizing his program. But it raises some troubling issues. Consider its opening, in which Bannon recalls visiting Auschwitz and opines that Birkenau was more horrifying because while Auschwitz used standing structures, Birkenau was built from scratch, designed by experts in Germany who were unaware of the crimes they were abetting. Bannon marvels at the skill with which they had done their work without realizing what the end result would be. Klayman’s implication, of course, is that Bannon is also using his considerable abilities to achieve something awful. The question she leaves hanging is whether he realizes it. And, of course, a pervasive assumption is that he is in fact the master strategist he claims to be. But is he? “The Brink” may be designed to tear Bannon down; but it might actually serve to promote his grandiose self-image.

Klayman begins with Bannon’s departure from the Trump White House in August, 2017, and the events that soon soured his relationship with the administration—the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” with the shockingly blunt comments that got him fired from his old position at Breitbart News and led to long-time financial supporters abandoning him, and the electoral disappointment he suffered when Judge Roy Moore, his candidate for the Senate from Alabama, was defeated after accusations of sexual impropriety were raised.

She then follows Bannon as he turns to another hunting ground to propagate his vision of what he calls economic populism—Europe, where nationalistic, anti-immigrant parties are in the ascendant. We watch him as he works with local politicos to establish a coalition that can take control in 2019 parliamentary elections, bubbly about the possibilities of a sweeping victory but constantly disappointed in what he perceives as the ineptitude and lack of focus among his associates—and always ready to say so in furious terms. He’s equally exercised about the danger Trump faces if the Democrats take control of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterm election—and no less voluble in expressing himself about it.

There’s little doubt that Klayman is appalled by Bannon’s views, and her film is designed to show that. But as he admits, he shares with Trump the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity (although the Moore campaign might have called that premise into question); and while he’s unapologetic about his ideas, he insists that they’re not they’re not the evil white supremacist dogma that leftists (like Klayman) would claim, but perfectly acceptable traditionalist notions. By giving him the opportunity to present himself, except on a few occasions when the mask drops, as a genial, if obsessively dedicated, person with a hot temper, the film inevitably makes him seem far less of a monster than a viewer might have assumed, and his opinions less outrageous.

“The Brink” is far more likely to cement your opinion about Steve Bannon than change it. Some might actually agree with the pronouncements he makes here and become even more admiring of his pugnacity in advancing them. Others will find him a confirmation of what they find most disturbing about today’s politics, both here and abroad. But though unlikely to lead to a revision what you think of Bannon, pro or especially con, on purely objective terms it’s a solid piece of cinematic reportage that provides a more intimate, layered portrait of the man than you’ve probably had access to before, while providing him with one more forum to promote his vision. And that’s precisely where the danger lies—which is undoubtedly why Bannon agreed to give Klayman such access in the first place, and why ironically it undermines what her purpose was in making the film in the first place.

So a thumbs-up, but the digit is cautiously raised.