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‘Viva’ Taps Drag Stardom in Havana’s Gay Community

ENGLISH Mart 31, 2016
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Fair warning, this week’s openers won’t do much to move the needle on Hollywood’s diversity, where women, the majority of the population, are a minority in almost every capacity, on screen or behind the scenes.
 
But several movies this week qualify as “by and/or about” women and provide entertainment.
 
One of my favorites is “Viva,” a terrific tale of aspiration and transcendence, set in Havana’s gay community. Hector Medina stars as a lonely young man who ascends to stardom as a drag singer in the nightclub where he’s been toiling as a makeup artist. Medina’s character transformation is completely compelling and the milieu is extraordinarily engaging. In Spanish with subtitles. A must-see.
 
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a genre twist on Jane Austen’s classic story of family ties, love intrigues and the rigid social and economic class structure of 19th century England. Scripted and directed by Burt Steers, the film has the five Bennett girls trained by their progressive father in the art of self-defense — which comes in handy when they and Mr. Darcy must defend their rural community against zombies who’ve presumably arisen following an outbreak of black plague. The script captures the complexity and elegance of Austen’s much-admired characters and does a good job of weaving action plot, romance and social commentary. The cast, headed by Bella Heathcoate (Jane), Lily James (Elizabeth) and Sam Riley (Darcy), is superb, as are the cinematography, art direction and costumes. Even diehard Austen devotees will enjoy this take on the classic.
 
“Southbound” is a compilation of five short horror scenarios that take place along a particularly spooky stretch of isolated highway in the middle of the desert during the same time period. In each story plot-serving characters — including a group of vacationing young women who get waylaid–face the terrors of their own worst nightmares. Think “Twilight Zone,” with five episodes intertwined and bobbing between monsters, aliens, supernatural, and hallucinations. There is something here for every horror fan to scream about. Roxanne Benjamin is one of four credited directors and is among the six credited writers.
 
“Tumbledown” is a femme-centric dramedy romance starring Rebecca Hall as a woman struggling to cope with the death of her well-known musician husband. While in mourning she is effectively pursued by an assertive New York journalist (Jason Sudeikis) who gets her to confront the ambiguous circumstances of her husband’s death. In the process he winds up challenging her to get on with her life. Desiree Van Til’s screenplay, based on a story by director Sean Mewshaw, avoids emotional sap and pushes the characters to compelling emotional truths that are well delivered by Hall and Sudeikis.
 
“All Roads Lead to Rome,” directed by Ella Lemhagen and co-written by Cindy Meyers with Josh Appignanese, is a comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Maggie, a self-centered single mom and writing teacher at a New York City college, who decides it’s time to bond with her rebellious daughter (Rosie Day) by taking a vacation together — in Italy. Of course, everything goes wrong, including Maggie’s unexpected reunion with her ex-beau Luca, who turns out to be Mr. Right. This is a road trip we’ve seen before, but the scenery is pretty and there are laughs along the way.
 
Finally, here comes “Hail, Caesar!,” the latest social commentary comedy from Ethan and Joel, the Coen brothers, a film that focuses on male-centric Commie-phobic Hollywood during the 1950s. In this den of male domination, the strongest female characters are an Esther Williams-like star (Scarlett Johansson), who throws off her mermaid tail and engineers her own solution to escape the scandal of an unmarried pregnancy, and a Hedda Hopper-like set of twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) who are ready to kill each other for a scoop. The film is a hilarious spoof on Hollywood, with the scenario shaped by studio “fixer” Mannix (Josh Brolin). Set in the past, it doesn’t exactly pertain to the current flap about diversity in the film industry, but you can certainly intuit how the plot machinations could play out in the Hollywood of today.
 
Stay tuned for diversity and Oscars updates and more movie openings next week.
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