Movie Review ~ The Boys in the Band (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.

Stars: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins

Director: Joe Mantello

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s a curious thing to watch a movie that began life as a play starring it’s original cast that performed it onstage.  It’s an even stranger experience to watch a movie that’s a remake of that earlier filmed version of a play…that also began life as a play…that also stars the original cast who appeared onstage. If you’re struggling to wrap your head around that, let me break it down for you.  Mart Crowley originally wrote the landmark play The Boys in the Band in 1968 and it played off-Broadway for a healthy run of over 1,000 performances.  When it came time for the play to make the leap to the silver screen, a pre-Oscar winning William Friedkin brought it to life with the entire original cast.  In 2018, the play was revived, this time on Broadway with an all-star cast for a strictly limited run that became a smash summer hit.  Produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Joe Mantello, this entire cast was brought back for a filmed version now premiering on Netflix.

A landmark of gay culture both on stage and on screen, The Boys in the Band is an interesting time capsule to watch today because it captures a piece of history almost impossible to get back.  Taking place in the pre-AIDS era, both the film and the play make no mention of the “gay cancer” that is felling the community or gathers its doom and gloom from the shadow of illness that countless projects would take advantage of once HIV enters the picture throughout the next decade.  It would be almost unheard of to not mention AIDS or HIV at a certain point and to not have that factor at all into the mix here is both a startling reminder of a time before an entire generation of men were lost to the disease and a welcome relief to be able to watch a movie about gay men that isn’t going to end with a hospital bed or a graveside emotional breakthrough.

That’s not to say The Boys in the Band arrives in 2020 without some heavy emotional baggage of another sort, though, because the same themes of self-hate and acceptance it grappled with in 1968 are still front and center.  Longtime Ryan Murphy collaborator Ned Martel has trimmed Crowley’s two-act play down (more on that later) to a more streamlined machine built for the attention and vocabulary of modern audiences and it’s mostly successful in maintaining Crowley’s message even if it loses key reference points that gay cards were earned off of.  The resulting two hour film is both a faithful adaptation of a fifty year old work and a fresh look at the lives of gay men who struggled then with a number of the same personal issues that are still prevalent today.

As it opens, it feels like returning director Mantello is going to be opening up the film past its one location setting as we are introduced to “the boys” throughout New York City.  Tightly wired Michael (Jim Parsons, Wish I Was Here) is preparing for the birthday party of his best frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek) who is already doing his pre-party work in front of the mirror to hide his pock-marked face that becomes an easy target for some of his image obsessed friends.  Larry (Andrew Rannells, The Intern) is on his way to meet lover Hank (Tuc Watkins) to pick up loud and proud Emory (Robin de Jesús)…if only that other guy he bumps into on the street wasn’t such a distraction, so he might be a little late.  Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) might be seen to some as the token black friend of the group but as the ‘60s are drawing to a close he’s starting to see the ‘70s as a time of change for all.  The three semi-outsiders to the group that night are Michael’s friend Donald (Matt Bomer, The Magnificent Seven) in town for the evening after being stood up, a gigolo Cowboy (Charlie Carver) meant to serve as Harold’s birthday gift from Emory, and Alan (Brian Hutchinson, Winter’s Tale) a college friend from Michael’s past that arrives unexpectedly needing his help for reasons that are unclear at the outset.

Fairly quickly, it becomes obvious there’s just no way around the material coming off like a stage show and while Judy Becker’s (American Hustle) expertly designed production is filmed handsomely by Bill Pope (2019’s Charlie’s Angels), it just all feels so bound to a different medium than film will allow.  To be fair, that’s the same issue the original film had but while that might be the kiss of death for some projects, it winds up benefitting The Boys in the Band because this is material that feeds off of the intimacy that is generated from the stage.  While Mantello makes some nice moves in finding brief moments (via flashbacks) to get out of the apartment, I was surprised at how alive the whole movie felt even though it was essentially locked in one space for the duration.

Looking at pictures from the 2018 revival, it appears the costume and set design have been tailored back to the original design from the 1968/1970 productions and I think that’s the right choice.  The new production felt a little too luxe and, at least from the visuals, made it look campier than I think was intended.  Now, the performances feel like they can come to the forefront and that gives the actors a chance to really show off some new sides to what we’ve seen them do so far.  I’ve always been far on the opposing side of the fence on Parsons but admit that he won me over here with his take on a difficult role, one he is arguably very right for.  Same goes for Quinto who almost, almost, manages to make you forget how good the original Harold Leonard Frey was in the role.  Parsons and Quinto have a lot of verbal sparring that has to be delivered with razor sharp precision that can’t be fixed by mere editing and both play these scenes to the hilt – you can’t ever quite tell if they love to poke at each other with the friendly back and forth or if they actually derive some sick pleasure in cutting down their friend in a public forum.

The rest of the cast all get their moment in the spotlight, as is the way in these well-written, long lasting plays.  There’s a reason this show is often done in community theaters (open-minded community theaters, that is) and it’s because each role has a showcase moment any actor worth their salt would love to sink their teeth into.  Obviously, the showiest role is Emory and de Jesús recreates his Tony-nominated role with the same energy and heart that has gotten him good notices throughout his career.  I also quite liked Washington’s Bernard who, in a harrowing sequence, walks us through a first love and is eventually pushed by Michael into being the first member of the group to play a game that exposes a number of raw nerves within the friends.  The other actors all have their requisite turns to be the focus but more or less play on their existing strengths we’ve seen before.

As a fan of the play and the original 1970 film, I have to say that I enjoyed this remake (revival?) quite a lot and would recommend it with the request that you make sure you do your homework and compare it to Friedkin’s earlier film.  A number of the trims make sense, I suppose, in terms of keeping the momentum moving forward and not simply re-doing The Boys in the Band as a museum piece.  What they’ve excised isn’t a dealbreaker because what’s there still reminds us of the landmark achievement it remains and how far we’ve come since it first premiered.

Movie Review ~ Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


The Facts
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Synopsis: Follows chef Yotam on his quest to bring the sumptuous art and decadence of Versailles to life in cake form at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Stars: Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Janice Wong

Director: Laura Gabbert

Rated: NR

Running Length: 75 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Flip on any of the numerous cable channels devoted to food and you’re likely to land on a show that celebrates the sweet and the decadent.  The cakes tend to take the cake when it comes to what is popular with viewers and programs that feature wars of the cupcake variety and the tales of the bosses of cakes regularly find themselves with massive followings.  Who can make the best and most elaborate sponge, butter, or biscuit is always changing and everyone from amateur to pro has thrown their hat into the mix.  There is truly something for everyone.

The new documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles literally raises cake-making to high art by following five pastry chefs from around the globe as they bring to life their own interpretation of Versailles through dessert.  Curated by famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s 2018 summer event The Feast of Versailles, director Laura Gabbert follows the chef as he prepares for the event alongside museum administrators and the colorful artists he selects for their diverse talents.  The results were surely tasty for those in attendance but less satisfying for those of us at home that can only go so far in the overall experience of the fête.

The inherent problem with Gabbert’s film is best illustrated by a scene halfway through where one chef struggles with a recipe that worked well at home but isn’t coming together so well in The Met’s kitchens.  The Met’s head chef tells her that her ingredients lack a fat, a bonding agent, to hold everything together and that’s what’s missing in Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles as well.  Though Ottolenghi is the through line that Gabbert constructs her narrative around, he’s not a strong enough central figure to hold the entire film up.  To be fair, it appears that aside from the recipe drama and a brief electrical issue that threatened to stymie one of the elaborate displays, there isn’t much in the way of suspense to be mined so it appears Gabbert worked with what she had.  I wonder what this could have been if it were a chapter in a longer film that either focused solely on Ottolenghi, the chefs being featured, or as part of a larger look at The Met and its history.  This appears to be such a specific piece of a larger puzzle that’s been removed from a bigger idea.  While the material has moments of interest, I found myself wanting to know more about Ottolenghi or the various people that worked at The Met more than the singular event being highlighted.  That speaks to some disconnect between storytelling and subject.

Even at 75 minutes, this feels like it strains to hit feature length and plays more as a long episode of a show you’d see on the Food Network.  The history of Versailles has been covered in greater detail before and reconstructed in its full glory for big budget films in the past so the mini staged conversations between Ottolenghi and historical experts feels a bit like a forced refresher course added for padding.  That being said, when Gabbert turns her lens on the food and the art created from the layers of decadence it’s hard not to feel your cheeks start to swell and your taste buds long for a bite.  Would that the rest of Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles have been as sumptuously stimulating.

Movie Review ~ LX 2048


The Facts
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Synopsis: A fatally ill man tries to secure the future of his family in a world where the toxicity of the sun forces people to stay inside during the daytime.

Stars: James D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Juliet Aubrey, Linc Hand

Director: Guy Moshe

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s easy to look back in hindsight now and say that many of the films released since the beginning of the pandemic have had uncanny timing but you have to admit that stepping back it is odd that in the last half year audiences confined to their homes from danger outside have had so many movies with claustrophobic narratives to keep them entertained.  Titles like The Rental, The Owners, Relic, 1BR, Vivarium, and the upcoming 2067 have either held the message to “Get Out” or “Stay In” and the directive can be confusing, especially if you just want that simple escapism to take your mind off of the creeping virus we learn more about from day to day.  What might have originally been produced with the intention of being a slick twist to a stifled genre now comes with the burden of being another ominous harbinger of even more danger to fear in an already precipitous time.

You can add the futuristic LX 2048 to that mix of films that have arrived at an odd moment in history.  Written and directed by Israel-born Guy Moshe, it joins a long list of movies set years from now where our way of living has become unstable, forcing the Earth’s population to come up with a different solution to continue our existence.  With the sun’s light turning lethal, people have to stay indoors during the day, venturing out only in heavy Hazmat suits to protect them from exposure to toxic levels of radiation that will kill them.  Most have opted to live in a virtual state, interacting through a digital platform and being replaced by clones once their human form has ceased to exist.  There is next to no human interaction and those that do choose to go into the office or continue to lead their physical existence do so at their own peril and often without the presence of their loved ones who have moved into what basically the Cloud.

This brings us up to date when we meet Adam Bird (James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas), a man that has resisted the transition away from humanity and wants to keep his connections with his wife Reena (Anna Brewster) and children.  The trouble is they have moved on without him and Reena especially resents him for his unwillingness to join in on the next stage of evolution.  They’re heading for a divorce when Adam discovers he is dying and seeks to make final amends before his time runs out and he’s substituted by a replicant with upgrades in personality and physicality designed by his wife. Working against a timeline he can’t control in an uncertain future, Adam attempts to seek alternate options for his finality that would suggest he has more control over his fate than he was originally led to believe.

Moshe introduces a wealth of interesting concepts in the film at the outset, ably laying the groundwork for what could have been a nice blend of questions of morality and mortality set in a future world where time is of the essence and the possibilities of imagination are endless.  The trouble is that the characters, all of them and I do mean all of them, are so intensely unlikable from the start that as a viewer you find yourself literally leaning away from the screen the longer the film goes on.  Though the visuals are well rendered for the most part, there is a particular ugliness in the character qualities of Adam’s resolutely passive aggressive mealiness and Reena’s selfish manipulation that it’s hard to find any warmth to relate to.  As a viewer, I simply didn’t care what decisions were being made, by whom, or why.  That’s a fairly large hurdle for a director to put in your way.

Unfortunately, though D’Arcy is a strong actor and can handle this type of material, that character likability factor becomes a major problem in the final act when it essentially becomes a one (well, two…kinda) man show.  It becomes, frankly, an interminable watch and at 103 minutes feels like a self-indulgent screenwriting experiment that needed editing down.  Even the presence of the normally engaging Delroy Lindo (Point Break) as the reclusive scientist behind the technology that has provided the advancements to essentially save the human race does little to spice up Moshe’s drab, overly talky sci-fi drama.  It doesn’t help matters that it’s a hard to follow narrative at times as well, with timelines jumping and converging at odd moments that don’t always line up.  Usually, there are better connections and visual cues that assist viewers in putting the pieces together…at least at some point.

Before eventually becoming a tedious meditation on one’s own existence, the film already has lost its way in the wilderness between two plots and one ill-advised side tangent involving a sex-doll come to life.  There’s more than a little overlap between this and Blade Runner 2049…but only in concept, not in the intelligent execution.  It isn’t required to have likable characters for a movie to succeed but you do need to provide some reason for them to exist and Moshe hasn’t given his creations (or viewers) in LX 2048 much hope for the future.

Movie Review ~ Kajillionaire


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf

Director: Miranda July

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that.  The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize.  Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior.  I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.

Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting.  If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences.  Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together.  Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery.  For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.

There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished.  Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire.  Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.

A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes.  Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit.  Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it.  How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.

When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold.  Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own.  Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.

Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure.  It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault.  Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another.  You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously.  Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer.   With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under.  A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.

Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from.  These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for.  I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie.  It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.