Tag Archives: 60s

The Boys in the Band

1 Oct

‘The Boys in the Band’: Having a gay old time, from the stage to Netflix in over a half-century

By Tom Meek

It seems that 1968 is all the rage in 2020. Last week we had Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” about those held responsible for the 1968 Democratic Convention riots; over at the Roxbury International Film Festival there’s “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show,” a documentary about NBC’s socially minded response to race riots in the late 1960s. Now there’s this cinematic adaptation of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band,” a play weaving in and out of a gay birthday party in a New York City flat that’s thrown into chaos when a straight man shows up. The revisit is not so much fond nostalgia, but a dialogue about where we are now: divided, having seemingly made little progress.

Learning of the Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) produced project, I wasn’t quite sure another film version of Crowley’s honest and open look at gay culture pressure-cooked by social judgment was necessary. The 1970 adaptation directed by Willam Friedkin (who would go on to do “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist” and “Cruising”) was a tight, clustered affair driven by anger and revelation. That’s somewhat less true here. There’s more bounce and ebullition before the sour turn of confronting one’s past and hard truths. The play was resurrected on Broadway in 2018 for its 50th anniversary, and the stage director there (Joe Mantello) and entire cast boot up for this Netflix production – with better sets, multiple takes and a bigger platform.

The cast is excellent, especially Jim Parsons as party host Michael, who inadvertently invites an old college friend, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who’s straight (is he?). Michael’s got a lot of catty sass – “Just because I wear expensive clothes doesn’t mean they’re paid for” – which peels away when Alan shows up and strikes another party member in the face for using female pronouns for men and being a “pansy.” And the guest of honor hasn’t arrived. From there the boozy evening spirals inward and downward, not so much because of Alan, but because of global self-hating that’s in frame from scene one. These are deeply carved characters that have been known and lived in. The masks get pulled off and you’re in, in deep.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

27 Sep

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’: They’re on the stand for taking a stand, and ’68 isn’t so far from 2020

By Tom Meek

Aaron Sorkin knows his way around a courtroom, as evidenced by his play “A Few Good Men” and its 1992 cinematic adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. The tightly controlled dialogue between the two A-listers bristled with personality and ideology, and that’s even more true in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a dramatization of the trial of a diverse lot of famed counterculture leaders – student movement activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, Black Panther Bobbie Seale and hippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin among them – charged under Nixon AG John Mitchell for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. At the epicenter of the riots and trial are issues of inequality, racism and police brutality; what’s old is new again, and timely in its arrival (now at the Landmark Theatre Kendall Square, and coming to Netflix in mid-October).

Sorkin, nominated for an Academy Award for “Moneyball” (2011) and “Molly’s Game” (2017), winner for his script on the biting take on Facebook’s ignominious Harvard origins (“The Social Network,” 2010) and the creative force behind “The West Wing,” takes on double duty here as director as he did on “Molly’s Game,” in which Jessica Chastain was a high-stakes poker host. He’s blessed with an impressive cast here, with Eddie Redmayne as the all-American Hayden, Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat,” 2006) as the punchily comedic Hoffman, Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies,” 2015) as defense attorney William Kunstler and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”), commanding and powerful as Seale, who was implicated in a murder in New Haven, Connecticut, around the same time. On the other side of the courtroom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a deeply nuanced performance as conflicted chief prosecutor Richard Schultz, and Frank Langella is the specter of everything wrong with our justice system as control-minded Judge Hoffman. He and Baron Cohen’s crack-firing prankster own the screen while in frame – one makes you smile and raise your fist in the air, while the other makes you fume.

How the trial all works out is a matter of record. The contemporary relevance is haunting – leading to the bigger question of why we haven’t learned from the past. The film, with most of the drama unfolding in court (the riots is in flashbacks), is a lean, mean sizzler, taut at every turn. Given this spare, strange year, there’s a lot of Oscar timber here all around: Gordon-Levitt for one, the film and Sorkin on both ends, and three, if not four, supporting nods.

Ford v Ferrari

13 Nov

‘Ford v Ferrari’: Keen to outrace the Italians, team’s truer enemy is signing their paychecks

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Friendship and faith abound in this take on the fast and furious arms race between an automotive giant and chic auto boutique on the boot of Italy. Back in the late ’50s, Carroll Shelby won the grueling Le Mans 24-hour auto race, something few Americans up to that point had ever done, as the race had long been dominated by Team Ferrari. After winning Le Mans, Shelby (Matt Damon) is informed of a cardiovascular condition that will prevent him from racing while Ford, the mega conglomerate, is looking for ideas to jump-start the brand. The automaker’s upper echelon, painted as a collection of stiff, square suits, has recently kicked off the Mustang line – thanks to Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal – but wants to appeal hipper to the blossoming Boomer generation by taking down the glamorous and glorious Ferrari team at the French-hosted, daylong drive fest. For the cause, and for a lean and efficient approach, Ford taps the maverick Shelby to build car and team.

Based on true events, “Ford v Ferrari” revs across the finish line mostly because of the yin and yang relationship between the affable Shelby and his driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and the external pressures put on them by Ford. Ken’s a hothead and a family man, and both he and Shelby face crushing financial pressures – over at shop Shelby, the renowned race car driver sells the same sleek collector’s item to multiple buyers on the same given day, with the mantra “Get the check but don’t let them drive away with it.” Extreme auto wonks Shelby and Miles go about their work with innate knowhow, lightening and quickening the car – Ford loads the initial GT with a clunky computer for diagnostics, which Miles unceremoniously rips out and opts for scotch tape and yarn to determine drag. As it turns out, it’s Ford that’s the film’s biggest villain with higher-up Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, nailing the smarminess) a creepy control freak sharking around who wants Miles out (he’s not a Ford man) and Shelby to bow to him on every decision. Even more telling is Ford’s botched acquisition of Ferrari (viva la Fiat!) and the overbearing, near Trumpian portrait of Beebe’s boss, CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts).

Directed serviceably by James Mangold (“Logan” and “Girl, Interrupted”) “Ford v Ferrari” marks one of the better (not that there’s a bevy) of recent racing flicks. It’s akin to Ron Howard’s surprising “Rush” back in 2013 as it careens along the roadway of friendship and rivalry at top speed. The race scenes and era are recreated impeccably, but “Ford v Ferrari” goes on a bit too long (two and a half hours) for its own good. Damon’s game thinker and Bale’s mercurial Brit carry the film from start to finish with a juicy contribution from Letts (the scene in which Shelby takes Ford II for a spin in the GT40 is priceless, though a bit over the top) and a more somber and uplifting turn from Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife, Mollie. Bernthal’s Iacocca, however, feels a bit lost as the film seems to wrestle with the icon’s legacy and complicity in Ford II’s tyrannical leadership. I’m sure the scion’s family and the current corporate brass at the automaker may have different takes; as told, the division from within proves the biggest obstacle to job No. 1.

 

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale

 

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Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

28 Jul

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’: Alcoholic cartoonist was hell on wheels

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The films of Gus Van Sant, be they the good (“To Die For” or “Drugstore Cowboy”), the total miscue (“Psycho” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”) or even a crowd-pleasingly mainliner (“Good Will Hunting” or “Milk”) have always been embossed by a gritty, streetwise authenticity. That’s Van Sant’s gift – plus, by skill, proximity or both, educing some of the great performances of the past 20 or 30 years from actors the likes of Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, Robin Williams, Matt Damon and River Phoenix, to name a few. Here he’s re-teamed with River’s brother Joaquin, who played one of Kidman’s teen lovers-turned-hubby snuffers in “To Die For” (1995).

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” isn’t a topical grabber; it’s a biopic about an esoteric satirist/sketch artist by the name of John Callahan who died in 2010 after spending most of his adult life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident involving a drunken driver. The terrible catch there being that the car was Callahan’s, driven by another (Jack Black) because Callahan was too drunken to drive.

“Don’t Worry,” however, isn’t so much about overcoming physical difficulties and beating the odds, but about confronting one’s demons. As the film has it, Callahan has an angry closet full of ’em. A raging alcoholic from the minute we catch up with him to the alcohol rocket of an evening that ends with Callahan’s VW Bug wrapped around a cement post, the slacker handyman out for the next good time seemingly has little prospects beyond his shaggy good looks and winning smile – and then that too seemingly gets taken from him. Strapped to a hospital gurney in the cold, sterile aftermath, Callahan flirts with his physical therapist (Rooney Mara, impeccable and fetching in the small role) and when peppering his counselor (Rebecca Field) about the functionality of his equipment, she suggests with grave seriousness that he ask the night nurse to sit on his face. Callahan flashes his old smile and accepts the challenge gleefully. Out on his own. Callahan returns to the bottle with self-pitying vehemence. It seems a fast downward spiral, but he also starts drawing acerbic political doodles that get published (“the place that publishes Gary Larson just called”) and elicit strong public reaction. He also checks into an AA group led by Jonah Hill’s ultra-rich gay swami, Donnie, who presides over the flock with the smarmy, manipulative charm of a cocksure charlatan. Callahan takes to Donnie, but keeps boozing on the side with angry-man swagger. All of which makes for a gonzo 12-step ride.

It might be treasonous to say, but Phoenix and Hill don’t have great chemistry. They’re fantastic, mind you, but not in the way Bogie and Bacall or Newman and Redford were, or even Damon and Affleck’s bros in Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting.” When the two are on screen together the film is undeniably intoxicating in its own quirky right; if you were at a bar with this duo, you’d find it hard to close out your tab before closing time. But they’re just not pouring the same stuff. And sans the bravura performances – self-righteous Hill and self-hating Phoenix – I’m not sure “Don’t Worry” would be that interesting of a film. Cultural icons Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Carrie Brownstein have small bits and feel plugged in but not necessarily engaged in the presence of the immersed leads. Gordon, best known for her work as a member of edgy ’90s rock band Sonic Youth, also had a small role in Van Sant’s “Last Days” (2006) the last chapter in the filmmaker’s Death Trilogy that reimagined Kurt Cobain’s demise. The other films in that series, “Gerry” (2002) and “Elephant” (2003), a repainting of the Columbine massacre, are similarly fact-based and likewise riveting. “To Die For” (1995) and “Paranoid Park” (2007) too might make apt bookends, and if you added in “Don’t Worry,” an individual alone in a country cabin for a weekend with the ability to stream such a double-triple program might emerge on Sunday depressed, enlightened and oddly invigorated. The most telling and frightening aspect of “Don’t Worry,” however, is its raw and honest depiction of addiction and the grip it has on the ensnared – and the ends they will go to in spinning a false narrative even as the knees of reality betray them.

Hidden Figures

7 Jan

One of the best films of 2016 (yes, it opened in New York City and Los Angeles a few weeks ago as part of awards season’s annual bait-and-switch shenanigans) happens to be a sentimental crowdpleaser that, for all its potential schmaltz and didactic pitfalls, maintains an incredibly poignant balance especially when it comes to matters of race – and there’s plenty of them; “Hidden Figures” is about three African-American women employed as engineers and mathematicians by NASA during the first space launch, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic push for Civil Rights was gaining its groundswell.

It’s not a widely known bit of history, but Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, successfully doubling up as an actor) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, killer good) toiled for NASA during the Mercury space program as engineers and computers – mathematicians doing the technical legwork before Big Blue dropped its first mainframe – and proved critical in getting John Glenn up and into orbit. One of the film’s most telling – and touching – moments comes when Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Johnson during a technical assembly of scientists and mucky-mucks where she’s not only the only woman or person of color in the room, but the only one able to solve complicated flight variables mathematically. Later, when there’s a snag in the mission and the reentry point needs recalculating, he asks for her aid, referring to her simply as the “the smart one.” Continue reading