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 ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nice Guys

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Synopsis: A private eye investigates the apparent suicide of a fading porn star in 1970s Los Angeles and uncovers a conspiracy.

Release Date: May 20, 2016

Thoughts: Nearly twenty years since they appeared together in the Los Angeles set noir classic, L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger (who nabbed an Oscar for her work) are back on screen for another mystery set in the famed city.  Looking like a wise-ass mix of L.A. Confidential and (gulp) 2014’s Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys might be the shot of adrenaline Crowe needs after a string of badly reviewed performances/movies (his singing in Les Miserables, Winter’s Tale, Noah, and my worst film of 2015, The Water Diviner).  Teamed with the always interesting Ryan Gosling (The Big Short), Crowe looks pretty perfect for the gruff tough guy tasked with finding Basinger’s daughter whose disappearance might be related to a murder private-eye Gosling is investigating.  From Shane Black (Iron Man 3), I’m pulling for this early summer release to be dark fun in the California sun.

Movie Review ~ Magic Mike XXL

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three years after Mike bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game, he and the remaining Kings of Tampa hit the road to Myrtle Beach to put on one last blow-out performance.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Amber Heard, Adam Rodriguez, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You only need to glance at my 2/10 review of 2012’s Magic Mike to know that Steven Soderbergh’s scuzzy stripper drama wasn’t my favorite movie of that year.  An ugly looking film that tried to supplant its grim slime by tossing toned abs around with aplomb, I wasn’t distracted enough to be convinced that the movie was anything more than a last gasp effort from Soderbergh to instill some meaning into a meandering career.  Thankfully, after pounding the nail into his coffin with 2013’s dismal Side Effects Soderbergh took leave of the director’s chair, allowing us to attempt to fondly remember the director that gave us a string of dynamic films (like Erin Brockovich before petering out.

Well, while Soderbergh isn’t directing Magic Mike XXL his presence is still felt in his cinematography an editing  (both contributed under pseudonyms) and it turns out the audience is all the better for it.  Magic Mike XXL is that rare unicorn of a sequel that’s better than its predecessor in every way imaginable, leaving the original to be looked at as a curious exposition film that laid the groundwork for this superior sequel.

Picking up three years after Mike (Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) hung up his thong and tried to start his own business, we soon see that times are tough, his girl is gone, and a chance meeting with his old dancing buds rekindles a need in Mike to put some Magic back into the daily grind.  Accompanying his crew to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, FL (because, of course it’s there) with stops along the way to vogue at a gay bar, hob nob with some mature Southern Belles (including a scene stealing Andie MacDowell), and reconnect with an old employer (the dynamite Jada Pinkett Smith) Mike and his gang of booty shakers take audiences along for a road trip adventure that’s pretty damn entertaining.

Though it features less nudity (sorry ladies and gents) than the first film, there’s no shortage of seriously raunchy dancing, the kind of bump and grind action that had my preview audience squealing with delight when they weren’t laughing.  I had low expectations going into this one based off of my disdain for Mike’s first movie but almost from the get-go it was obvious this was a whole new ballgame with a roster of MVPs in the waiting.

Over the past three years Tatum has become a true blue movie star and that self-assuredness is put to good use here.  I felt the first film (and Tatum’s performance) was more arrogant than confident but here the opposite is true.  Tatum knows he has the moves, looks, and body to make this character a living breathing entity and it shows…but without that self-congratulatory glint in his eye he had last time.  This is a character that’s evolved by leaps and bounds over the years and Tatum easily shimmies and shakes his way to another star performance.

Though he’s the headliner, Tatum is more than generous with screen time for his co-stars.  Joe Manganiello (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) may have Tatum beat in the overall handsome department but what he’s lacking in dance moves he makes up with an awareness for his ability to sweep in and steal a scene or two.  His convenience store seduction of an otherwise tuned out store clerk is a highlight of the film.  Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez are given the spotlight as well but Matt Bomer edges them out for the third supporting role and that’s where the film falters a bit.  Bomer is built like a studly Ken doll and has the plastic personality to go along with it.  His scenes have a false quality to them, not helped by Bomer’s inability to truly convince us of the character he’s playing.  I kept waiting for him to reveal himself as gay but instead we’re treated to him waxing philiosopical via New Age catch phrases and singing too much, especially in the finale.

The finale.  Now here’s where the film really accomplishes something spectacular.  Once they arrive at the stripper convention (what exactly IS a stripper convention?  I sorta wanted to see the guys walking around a trade show setting looking at next-gen thongs that double as a FitBit) Mike and co. work out a five ring circus of a routine that finishes the film off with a major bang, giving each member of the group a moment in the naked spotlight to show off his special talent.  It’s a boffo extravaganza of flesh and good-natured raunch, possibly the best example yet in 2015 of a movie giving the audience exactly what they came for.

Director Gregory Jacobs (Soderbergh’s long-time assistant director) keeps things lively and appealing, and I’ll admit that Soderbergh’s cinematography is visually pleasing and very much in line with his famous style.  The soundtrack to the original film was a heinous mix of awful cover songs but the soundscape here fits right in with the breezy atmosphere.

It’s just a whole lot of fun.  Where the previous film was more concerned with showing the seedy underbelly of the world of male strip clubs, the sequel couldn’t care less about it.  I thought I’d leave Magic Mike XXL with the same bad taste in my mouth that I had after taking in the gross original but instead I felt like making it rain for Tatum and his pals…something I’m sure audiences will have no trouble doing this weekend.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic Mike XXL

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Synopsis: The continuing story of male stripper, Magic Mike.

Release Date:  July 1, 2015

Thoughts: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2012’s stripper-palooza Magic Mike, finding it to be one of director Steven Soderbergh’s (Side Effects) worst looking and worst sounding films to date.  Between the garish production design and general stupidity of the entire affair, it was just a gigantic dud in my book.  Still, Magic Mike was a perfect example of creators knowing exactly who their target audience is and going in for the kill – which is why it’s not a shocker that the further adventures of Mike (Channing Tatum, The Vow) and his crew of perfect peelers are returning with an XXL entry this summer.  Sadly, Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), the lone presence from the previous chapter that was the least bit interesting, isn’t along for the ride.  The first look at the sequel shows off some of Tatum’s moves before going, um, balls out into overstimulation mode.  Though my overall interest may be XXS, I’m have to admit some mild interest in seeing what Tatum and co. have worked up.