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‘The Boys’ are back

New Netflix film reunites stellar Broadway cast

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Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer star in ‘Boys in the Band.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

A month out from the highest-stakes election of our lifetimes and with no end in sight to an ongoing global pandemic, now seems like a good time to ask ourselves (with apologies to the late Mart Crowley for the paraphrase), “Who are we?”, “Who were we?”, and “Who do we hope to be?”

LGBTQ+ viewers have a chance to do exactly that, thanks to a hotly anticipated Netflix offering that revisits a cultural touchstone from our past.

Reasserting once more its position as a heavy-hitter in the effort to bring LGBTQ stories to mainstream screens, the streaming giant’s Ryan Murphy-produced remake/reinterpretation of “The Boys in the Band” is guaranteed buzz by pedigree alone. Slick and star-studded, it brings the aforementioned Mr. Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play – by way of director Joe Mantello’s Tony-winning 2018 Broadway production, with cast intact – from stage to screen with an eye toward conveying the historical context in which this once-maligned slice-of-gay-life drama was written and takes place. For those who need a recap, “Boys” takes place in the apartment of Michael, a young-ish gay man in New York, as he throws a birthday party for his friend Harold. As the guests gather and the alcohol flows, their witty banter begins to turn bitter, with secrets, resentments, and fears bubbling to the surface – along with the deep self-loathing that comes from living as a gay man in a world that hates gay men simply for daring to exist.

In 1968, it was a bold but bleak expression of queerness, coming on the cusp of a historical breakthrough that would happen a year later at Stonewall. In 2020, it’s still pretty bleak, depicting a subculture full of damaged men tormented by a culturally induced dysfunction for which most of them still had no language to describe, but which we can now easily recognize as internalized homophobia. Borrowing from the then-and-still-influential palette of dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (both gay men, incidentally), its acidic humor and near-tragic psychodrama emerge from the memories and experiences shared by nine such men over the course of their evening, revealing the trauma that dominates all of their lives just beneath the brittle psychic armor with which they both shield and conceal themselves.

Inevitably, as the march toward Equality progressed through the 1970s and ‘80s, the characters of Crowley’s gay opus came to be seen as inconvenient, at best, and insulting, at worst. Derided as stereotypes reflecting straight expectations of normalcy, they were viewed by many within the movement as dated relics best swept aside and relegated to the dustbin of history, along with the play they inhabited. Looking back, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Forged in the middle of the fire, it’s a piece devoid of sentimentality, a kitchen sink slice of realism that lays bare the ugliness of its characters’ attitudes and behaviors and leaves it up to the audience to see through the unpleasant surfaces they present. Viewed today, despite the critical reassessment that allowed it to reclaim its rightful place as an important piece of LGBTQ+ history and ultimately led to Mantello’s hit remount, it’s still an undeniably harsh trip down a memory lane that most of us would rather forget.

Thanks to historical hindsight, though, the new film manages to find the perspective necessary to make it not only possible to give “Boys” another look, but to make it worth the effort. Driven by Mantello’s sensitive direction, the script reveals layers of subtext that may have been previously obscured for many viewers. Mantello steers his gifted dream cast with an eye toward illuminating the lines between cause and effect that make these characters tick, and while purists may quibble over efforts to cast a rosier tint over the play’s message, his spot-on instincts walk the delicate line between apologist gloss and humanistic compassion without significant missteps.

In this vision of the play, for instance, it’s possible to recognize the deep hurt that is behind Michael’s devolution into viciousness; a man for whom anxiety is such a constant companion that he’s given it a nickname (“Ix”) and who clings to the cold comfort of his Catholic faith in the hope of being redeemed for the sin of simply being who he is, it’s hard to lose sympathy for him – even at his cruelest – when the pain that fuels both these things and more is laid so bare before us. In the same way, the other problematic behaviors on display throughout – almost all of which can now be understood as symptoms of a disease in which those within a community stigmatized for its “otherness” turn against themselves and each other because they are powerless to strike back against their oppressors – evoke our empathy more than our distaste.

The talent of the players bolsters this effect immeasurably. Jim Parsons may be a bit of an acquired taste, for some, but the quirks of his persona and delivery fit like a glove on Michael, whose efforts to conceal his pain only reveal it at a level beyond words. Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins (as Larry and Hank) cut through the passive-aggressive vagueness of their characters to make them instantly recognizable and understandable as a couple grappling with the difficulties of an open relationship; Matt Bomer (Donald) once more proves he has much more to offer than his beauty, as does Charlie Carver as the fresh-off-meat-rack hustler hired as a birthday present. The authenticity of Robin de Jesus and Michael Benjamin Washington (Emory and Bernard) breathes thrilling life into roles that have sometimes been criticized for “tokenism,” and even the somewhat thankless character of Alan comes off honorably through Brian Hutchison’s performance. It’s Zachary Quinto, though, as “ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy” Harold, who claims his place as the “heart” of the piece; in his magisterial performance, he manages to find not just the hard-earned wisdom of Harold, but also the kindness that lies beneath his surgically precise knack for finding the weaknesses of whichever sparring partner he happens to be up against at the time.

With Ryan Murphy as the force behind the new film, it should go without saying that it’s a matter of taste. Like all of Murphy’s productions, it is heavy on the style and glitz; the costuming and scenic designs have that too-perfect aptness to them that often undermines the authenticity of big-budget period pieces, and there’s the predictable but questionable inclusion of “flashbacks” and full-frontal nudity that make for a more visually stimulating experience but seem gratuitous in a piece that is otherwise so true to its theatrical origins. These are all fair points.

In the end, however, these surface trappings are irrelevant to the strength and dignity of the play; that, in the hands of Mantello and his talented cast, are preserved in full. Their efforts remind us that these characters are not stereotypes, but archetypes, emblematic representations arising from a life lived in permanent fight-or-flight mode – and it’s sobering to recognize that, even 50 years later, we can all look at our circle of friends and recognize each and every one of them.

That alone makes it clear that “Boys” has still not outlived the importance of the message it carries.

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With masterful remake, Spielberg tells a whole new ‘Story’

A skillfully constructed work of art that engages emotions at every level

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The Jets and The Sharks face off in ‘West Side Story.’ (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox)

If you had reservations about the news that Steven Spielberg was remaking “West Side Story,” you aren’t alone. After all, with Hollywood’s track record for producing abysmal remakes of classic movies, it’s probably wise to be skeptical when a new one comes along.

That said, you can now rest assured that your skepticism is unfounded.

From its very first shot, in which Spielberg pays unabashed homage to the opening moments of “Citizen Kane” while establishing almost everything we need to know about the setting of the story we are about to see, “West Side Story” immediately dissipates any concern about the master director’s ability to deliver the blend of theatrical and cinematic artistry it deserves. With unparalleled fluency in the visual language of storytelling, he pulls us briskly into the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks – two teen street gangs, white and Puerto Rican, respectively, at war over territory in a Manhattan slum – and sets the stage for a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which a family feud is exchanged for racism as the basis for a tale of young love thwarted by ancient hate.

For those unfamiliar, the plot centers on the romance of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) – which is a problem because Tony is best friend to Riff (Mike Faist), leader of the Jets, and Maria is the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks. Despite the concerns of those around them – including Bernardo’s shrewd and strong-willed girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose) – the couple’s forbidden love endures even as the rival gangs plan to wipe each other out once and for all, setting into motion a tragic chain of events that will shatter the entire community.

Spielberg’s reverent remounting of the classic musical drama – conceived for Broadway in 1957 and first translated to film in an Oscar-winning classic directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise – achieves what doubters assumed would be impossible: a new rendering that succeeds in bringing a deeper, more contemporary sensibility to the material while leaving it essentially unchanged. A substantial amount of the credit for this goes to Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner, whose literate and pitch-perfect adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ stage script fills in some of the story’s blank spots and expands its scope to illuminate the complicated economic and social issues that lie at its core.

Characters are fleshed out with more detailed back stories that bestow them with greater dimension and humanity; Tony, for instance, is on parole after a stint in prison for nearly killing a rival gang member in a fight, and we find out that Riff’s dad was as much of a hoodlum as he is. Additionally, the minor role of “Anybodys,” a female Jet originally depicted as a “tomboy” who is ridiculed and excluded by her gang mates for being a girl, is here given an embellished presence, which, aided by a powerful performance from Iris Menas, leaves little doubt she is struggling with gender identity at a time when there were no words for such things.

In a similar expansion, we find out that the neighborhood is set to be demolished ahead of the construction of Lincoln Center and the high-dollar housing that surrounds it, definitively planting the film in the same period as the original work while bringing forward the impact of urban upheaval and gentrification on the low-income and marginalized communities they continually displace.

With flourishes like these, Kushner’s screenplay brings “West Side Story” into the present day without removing it from the world that gave birth to it, emphasizing the connections and parallels between the two eras and reminding us just how relevant this American classic continues to be.

Similarly, the supremely talented cast is instrumental in reframing the story for a more evolved age – and not just because all the Latino roles are played by Latino performers this time around. Each of the young stars gives a heartbreakingly authentic performance, with DeBose’s Anita a particular standout who commands the screen in every scene she’s in (as she should!), and Zegler, a screen newcomer, providing a Maria who is as bold and self-possessed as she is luminous and delicate. But perhaps the film’s most magnificent performance comes from Rita Moreno, the original movie’s Anita, who here takes on the rewritten (and re-gendered) role of a neighborhood shopkeeper who serves as Tony’s surrogate parent; she imbues the character with a combination of warmth and hard-won wisdom, and her presence brings an element of having come full circle, a touch of nostalgia that links the film to its heritage and lingers with us long after the credits roll.

The same can be said of the much-revered score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (RIP, genius), which is here preserved and performed almost completely intact. Some of the songs are reordered within the story, and some of the singing is done by different characters than the ones we’re used to, but arranger David Newman and conductor Gustavo Dudamel succeed in delivering a rousing and passionate rendering of the show’s classic music – bolstered by the outstanding vocals of its cast, none of whom required the kind of dubbing that was standard practice when “West Side Story” graced the screen the first time around.

As for Spielberg, it’s hard to imagine another director who could pull this off. He pulls from his vast sea of cinematic influences to create a larger-than-life, skillfully constructed work of visual art that handles the spectacular and the intimate with equal deftness and engages our emotions at every level. He frequently references the classic films he loves, weaving nods to them into a tapestry that acknowledges his debt to the great filmmakers who came before him yet firmly asserts his own mastery of the medium. He even asserts his self-assuredness by invoking fond memories of the classic 1961 version, from the subtle but unmistakable emulation of its color palette and lighting choices in key scenes to the more obvious echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography in the dancing – brilliantly restaged by Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck in a style that emulates the athletic movement of the original’s dance sequences while leaping to heights of its own.

Yet despite all this deference to the past, Spielberg’s rendition of “West Side Story” excels and excites because it feels so firmly rooted in the here and now. His intention is to learn from the past, not dwell in it, and he challenges us at every turn to see the story with a contemporary – and sometimes uncomfortable – perspective. Most provocative, perhaps, is his choice not to use subtitles when characters are speaking Spanish; with that one, simple touch, he aims straight at the heart of the divisive turmoil in our culture today, thereby using a 64-year-old musical written by three gay men as it was always meant to be used – as a powerful condemnation of bigotry and hatred in a world that has seen enough killing.

Spielberg’s vision honors, even celebrates the beloved original film, yet simultaneously reiterates it into something thrillingly new. Even the most rigid purist can’t ask for a more faithful adaptation than that.

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Toxic masculinity gets its comeuppance in ‘Power of the Dog’

Cumberbatch, Dunst shine in unforgettable anti-Western

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Kodi Smit-McPhee goes for a ride with Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Say what you will about the Western being a tired genre, but when it comes to tracing shifts in the American cultural identity over long stretches of time, there’s still nothing quite like it.

Take, for example, “The Power of the Dog,” the newest effort from acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, now playing in theaters (and on Netflix) and topping the best-of-the-year lists of critics across the U.S. Set against the expanse of the American frontier of a century ago, it leans into time-worn tropes that have become wrapped up in our nation’s self-image, much the same as the great classic Westerns have done since the first flickering images of cowboys began to appear on screens in the very dawn of cinema history.

Some of these tropes, of course, have come to be seen as toxic. The way that Western movies have perpetuated racism by equating “Cowboys vs. Indians” to “Good vs. Evil” is perhaps the most clear-cut example; almost as obviously “problematic” is a presentation of manhood in which physical prowess is held up as the ideal, while emotional sensitivity or intellectualism are devalued as tell-tale signs of weakness. With 2022 right around the corner, outmoded and tone-deaf assumptions such as these make it easy to understand why many people think of the Western as an out-of-touch and irrelevant form of cinematic expression that deserves to be retired, once and for all.

Yet as Campion’s visually eloquent, quietly subversive adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel reminds us, Westerns have a way of reflecting our changing attitudes. Just as “The Searchers” or “Little Big Man” challenged our stereotyped ideas about indigenous people, “The Power of the Dog” forces us to confront our acceptance of the rough-and-rugged cowboy as a paragon of masculinity and suggests he might have just been an overbearing bully, all along.

The cowboy in this case is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who along with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) owns a lucrative cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. He’s the embodiment of the “alpha” mentality, presiding over his life and business with absolute authority; when George marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home – along with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man with aspirations of becoming a surgeon – he browbeats the newcomers to his household and treats them with open contempt. He takes particular delight in tormenting Peter, whose slight build and effeminate manner make him an easy target for ridicule, but an awkward encounter in the woods sparks a change of heart; he decides to take his new nephew under his wing, hoping to turn him into a “real man” and perhaps reconnect with a tender side of his own nature he has long kept buried.

A reading of that brief synopsis is enough to make it clear that Campion’s movie plays on other tropes besides those found in Westerns. Traditional queer narratives in American culture inevitably lead us to expect an “unexpected” romance between these two initially antagonistic men, and a subsequent blossoming that will allow the hardened rancher to undergo a heartwarming transformation not unlike that of the Grinch.

But “Power of the Dog” is not that kind of queer narrative, just as it’s not the kind of Western where gunslingers resolve their conflicts with a climactic showdown on a dusty street. It leaves little doubt that romance – or some stunted, self-loathing version of it, at least – is on Phil’s mind once he hits upon the possibility of it; but it’s also keenly aware that men like Phil, who hide their own presumed desires under a mask of reflexive intolerance and are only willing to explore their secret side if they can maintain plausible deniability, are a big part of the reason why gay men – or anybody else who has been repeatedly lumped together in the category of “other” and turned into social outcasts or worse – have been subjected to so much bigotry and abuse for so very long.

To be sure, he’s a product of his time and place – but where a film from a different era might have given him the benefit of the doubt and helped him to find the redemption we’ve been conditioned to think he deserves, this one is not ready to let him get off scot-free. It doesn’t matter if he’s queer – he’s also a narcissistic tyrant who maintains his own assumed superiority by terrorizing and belittling those around him (his nickname for his brother is “Fatso,” which tells you all you need to know) to keep them submissive and docile. The days when such individuals got a pass for their bad behavior feel very much like a thing of the past in a world still reeling from the influence of Trumpism and other such movements, and Campion’s movie works its leisurely way to a conclusion that seems designed to make an example of its charismatic but unsavory central figure. Compassion is afforded, but it’s the kind of compassion that might be expressed by putting a wounded animal out of its misery.

Campion’s writing and direction of this deceptively pastoral period drama is as flawless as might be expected from a filmmaker of her caliber; she blends the awe-inspiring landscape (stunningly photographed by Ari Wegner, with New Zealand’s breathtaking natural beauty doubling for the Wyoming badlands) with the quietly jarring strains of Jonny Greenwood’s superb score to reinforce the roiling tensions below the placid surface of the story, and shrewdly trusts our own preconceptions to keep us from seeing the obvious indications of an ending that is being set up for us right in plain sight.

The cast, too, is uniformly outstanding. Cumberbatch turns in a powerhouse performance that’s as boldly unsympathetic as it is unforgettable, carrying himself with a ramrod-straight bearing that is just affected enough to suggest he’s not all that he seems but defies you to call him out on it; deservedly, he’s high on the list of likely Best Actor contenders for the next Oscars. Also award-worthy are Plemons, whose quiet underplaying of the good-hearted George helps him steal almost every scene he’s in, and Smit-McPhee, whose Peter exudes a refreshingly contemporary understanding and wisdom while retaining just enough enigma to keep us guessing about his motives. Rounding out the main ensemble, Dunst earns both our sympathy and respect in a role that might easily have been overshadowed in the hands of a lesser actress.

“Power of the Dog” is unquestionably a great film, assembled by a proven master at the peak of her powers and augmented by impressive performances – but does that mean the Western still has something to offer in a world more “woke” than it was in the heyday of the genre? For all its artistry, it tells a subtle story – and a bleak one, at that, albeit one that leaves us with a somewhat conflicted sense of satisfaction. It’s likely to leave some viewers cold – especially fans of a genre known for action, adventure, and the reinforcement of traditional values. In this way, perhaps it’s better characterized as an “anti-Western.”

Whatever label you decide put on it, it deserves your attention.

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‘Passing’ is one of the year’s best films

Brimming with intense racial and sexual tension

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A scene from 'Passing.' (Screen capture via IMDB)

You wouldn’t think a quiet, 138-minute film centered on two women’s friendship, where the joking use of a racial epithet is more shocking than a gunshot, would imprint its images and ambiguities in your head. But that’s what “Passing,” director Rebecca Hall’s debut movie of the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, does. It’s now in limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix.

“Passing,” produced and written as well as directed by Hall, takes place in 1920s Harlem. It tells the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned Black women who were childhood friends.

They haven’t seen each other for years. Clare was raised by an alcoholic father. After he died, she was sent to live with her white racist aunts. She escapes from them, passes as white and marries John (Alexander Skarsgard), a white banker. They have a daughter. John has no idea that Clare is Black or that his daughter is biracial. Clare lives well. The couple travel. Their daughter goes to a school in Switzerland. Clare is good at passing. But John hates Black people.

Irene lives in a lovely townhouse with her handsome husband Brian (Andre Holland), who is Black and a doctor, and their charming sons. A maid helps her to clean and maintain the elegance of her home. She does volunteer work for the (fictional) Negro Welfare League.

Unlike Clare, Irene doesn’t pass as white. Except, occasionally. As she does, on the warm day, when she and Clare unexpectedly encounter each other at a posh Manhattan hotel after not having seen each other since their youth.

Clare is there because John has business in New York, and Irene, hot after a day of shopping, has stopped by for a refreshing spot of tea. Irene, at this moment, is like Clare, passing as white. Because, she knows, through unwritten Jim Crow, that she would be turned away if the establishment’s staff knew she was Black.

“Passing,” which is in black and white, is luminous! Hall has said in interviews that she shot it in black and white to reflect the films of the 1920s and 1930s. Hall has succeeded brilliantly. “Passing” is visually stunning.

The racial and sexual tension in “Passing” is stunning in a different sense.

As Clare and Irene sit, sipping tea and catching up, John, Clare’s husband comes by. At first glance, he seems like a nice, if clueless, white guy. Until, not realizing Clare is Black (thinking her complexion is olive), he jokingly greets her with a racial slur.

The epithet is as jarring as an unexpected snake hiss. As a moviegoer, you’re laughing and crying inside as you watch Irene laugh at John’s racial slur until she cries.

The story in “Passing” is told from Irene’s perspective. Often, we watch Clare and Irene gaze intently at each other. It feels as if they are attracted to each other.

But, true to the spirit of the novel on which the film is based and with the time in which  “Passing” is set, whether or how they were intimate isn’t made explicit.

At times, Irene believes that Clare could be having an affair with Brian. 

Despite the ambiguity, it is clear, though, that Irene and Clare have an intense friendship.

“Passing” won the U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Award at the 33rd LGBTQ film festival New Fest, “Variety” reported. The honor is well deserved. 

It is highly likely that Thompson and Negga will receive well-earned Oscar nominations for, respectively Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Nella Larsen, an acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer, and  “Passing” languished in obscurity for decades, after the novel was published to critical acclaim. 

Hall’s film makes Larsen’s work from nearly a century ago come alive in our time on the screen. See “Passing.” It’s one of the best films of the year. 

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