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 ~ A Simple Favor


The Facts
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Synopsis: A mommy blogger seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Bouncing back nicely from the unfortunate misfire of the Ghostbusters reboot, director Paul Feig wisely cleared his stable of familiar players and cast Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3) and Blake Lively (The Shallows) in this supremely fun adaptation of Darcey Bell’s mystery novel.  It’s a darker, edgier film for Feig and one that doesn’t rely on silly humor for its amusement.

Kendrick is a do-it-all divorced single parent befriended by Lively’s chic married professional.  The two become fast friends over afternoon drinks during their kids playdates and while Kendrick’s character is a bit of a wet blanket at first, Lively gives her some good advice on how to get what you want by speaking  up.  When Lively disappears and doesn’t seem likely to return, a national search is enacted by her husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) and Kendrick who grow closer the longer she is away.  There are twists aplenty as dead bodies are found and skeletons in closets are uncovered, leading to a solution to the mystery that’s intriguing and competently executed by Feig and company.

Apart from keeping the movie floating along with ease, Feig has filled the film with a great color palate and wonderful supporting characters (Jean Smart is a riot in a small but pivotal role), not to mention snazzy costumes for all.  Kendrick leans into the complexities her character is given but it’s Lively who has the most interesting material to work with.  To say more might tip you off as to what transpires in the second half of the movie but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s happening a new wrinkle is tossed in to throw you off balance.  This was one of the most fun movies I saw in 2018 – a highlight to be sure.

Movie Review ~ The Intern

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intern

The Facts:

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway,Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Andrew Rannells,Linda Lavin, Christina Scherer, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner,Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Nat Wolff

Director: Nancy Meyers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Let’s start this review off by going the full disclosure route and saying that I’m not a huge fan of the movies that Nancy Meyers started to make after splitting with her husband, Charles Shyer.  Together, the two were responsible for films like Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Irreconcilable Differences, and the remake of Father of the Bride and its sequel (let’s skip over their clunker I Love Trouble).  As a standalone writer/director, Meyers has been responsible for a trio of films often described as white-women fantasies: The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, and, most recently, It’s Complicated.  All three of these have had dynamite casts with strong female leads…but they all seemed to take place in an alternate universe where every surface is spotless, every arm is covered in taupe cashmere, and no problem can’t be solved over a glass of white whine, oops…wine.  It’s escapist entertainment, I get it, but they’re carb-free meals for this critic that craves some starch.

So I came to The Intern with some pre-conceived notions of how it would all play out.  In all honesty the film came at the right time for me and caught me in the perfect mood, it’s a guilt free bit of whimsy that wasn’t as interminable as previous Meyers outings.  Bouncing around in development hell for quite some time, it was originally imagined as a vehicle for Tina Fey and though the high-powered career woman intended for her has had a few years shaved off, it’s not hard to see how Fey would have fit into the central character now played by Anne Hathaway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Opening with the kind of “let me bring you up to speed” monologue that Meyers excels in, Robert De Niro’s (Silver Linings Playbook) Ben details how he came to be applying for a senior internship at About the Fit.   A widower, after 40 years in working his 9-5 job the retired Ben has traveled the world, doted on his grandkids, learned a few new languages, and now doesn’t quite know what to do next.  A chance glance at an ad tacked outside his local grocery gets him in the door at the fashion start-up.

Clearly overqualified for the job, he’s matched with none other than the founder (Hathaway) of the company who, in true Driving Miss Daisy fashion, tells him he’s not needed or really wanted.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the two will be at odds on the outset before becoming a cohesive unit so let’s focus more on where the film turns up some unexpected delights.

The good news starts at the top with De Niro and Hathaway (Interstellar) clocking in surprisingly charming performances.  De Niro doesn’t seem to be very discerning in his role selections as of late but he’s a good fit with the kindly elder who isn’t merely there to offer sage advice but to lend a hand as well as a shoulder to his young boss.  Hathaway too is downright delightful as Jules (because, of course that’s her name) and I couldn’t help but feel like the character was a more seasoned version of the one she played in The Devil Wears Prada.

Echoing Baby Boom, the main question The Intern seems to be asking is ‘Can women have it all?’  Can they have the high paying job, can they run a business, can they stand on their own two feet and still manage to keep a stable family life?  Jules’ husband (Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad, parenting their girl while his wife is working and Meyers illustrates often the sacrifices both are making to keep up with the daily grind.

The problem is that the question doesn’t seem to be as relevant as it was back in the late 80s and for a film set in the new millennium it feels a bit backward in its thinking.  Yes, we know that wage equality between males and females still has a long way to go and that the roles of wives and husbands have had some fluidity in the past decade.  But are we really saying that women have to choose between the two?  Alarmingly, Meyers puts her female lead to that test several times and it’s proof of Hathaway’s charisma that she’s able to overcome that dinosaur of a notion and still maintain some semblance of professionalism.

Making our way down the cast list, things get a bit rocky.  Rene Russo (Nightcrawler) is always a welcome presence and since Meyers can’t clothe Hathaway in her favorite cream colors, Russo is the model for an array of perfectly ivory and billowy beige ensembles.  She’s the company masseuse that takes a liking to De Niro and while that relationship is only explored when the movie remembers to do so, it’s a welcome reminder that age-appropriate couplings are alive and well in Meyers’ world.

It’s never quite clear what Andrew Rannells (Bachelorette) actually does at the company (is he a co-founder? is he co-owner?) but he disappears halfway through the film so it’s quite possible he was Jules’s imaginary friend.  Linda Lavin, looking positively mummified, pops up all too briefly to try and get De Niro in the sack and a trio of bro-ish, dumb-ish, co-workers of De Niro (lead by the always annoying Adam DeVine, Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) seem to have been crafted for an ill-advised foray into slapstick comedy that occupies a labored fifteen minutes in the middle of the film.  Holm strikes out big time as the benign husband that may not be quite as content to play second fiddle as he appears to be.  Reading his lines as if he’s making fun of their supposed sincerity, he’s the one thundercloud in an otherwise sunny film.

I’ll admit that even though it has its faults, The Intern was more pleasant than it had any right to be.  It’s lead by two strong performances and, while Meyers doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the state of affairs in business, she has produced a crisp apple of a film, tart when it has to be and juicy when called for.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Intern

intern

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Release Date: September 25, 2015

Thoughts: I resisted doing a write-up of The Intern for several months now because my parents always told me if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all.  Then I remembered that this blog was designed to cast a critical eye on all things film so why not just go for it?  Ok? Here we go.

I do not like Nancy Meyers.  I don’t like her directing and I don’t like her writing.  “But Joe”, you say, “what about The HolidaySomething’s Gotta GiveIt’s Complicated?”  I’ve seen them, I’ve enjoyed them…but I don’t feel good about it afterward because Meyers seems only able to represent the privileged white woman’s point of view. Her films are awash in taupe and cream…the same color as the skin of all of her characters.  The lack of diversity in her films is shocking and it’s baffling to me no one has called her on it in a public form yet.

So I approach her new film with a great deal of angst.  It looks like another white-washed affair full of life lessons and jokes only a Wellesley grad would appreciate and one that should be watched while sipping white wine and munching on celery stalks.  Taking on a role once occupied by Tina Fey and then Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway (Interstellar) seems right at home, as does Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) who hasn’t made a truly discerning film decision in almost a decade.

I’ll see it…but Nancy Meyers…I’ve got your number.