April 30, 2016

"Green Room" Asks the Question: How Will Today's 20-Somethings Fare in a Horror Movie Crisis?

Green Room is an abysmal new horror-thriller from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) about a punk-metal band trapped inside a dive-bar by a bunch of white supremacists. The movie recalls, loosely, the exploitation shockers from the 70s like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, but Green Room never builds to the fever pitch of Last House or other similar films that, as reprehensible as most of them are, at least had the courage to embrace total insanity. Green Room certainly embraces its own gruesome and unpleasant nature, but this movie never loses control, never just goes full-on crazy. If it did, perhaps it would be better. Green Room is too calculated for that, like a sociopath who just wants you to think he’s bonkers. And the movie never develops the kind of loose energy that great exploitation movies need: it’s all fits and starts (the attackers attack, the victims fight back, things settle down, they heat up again, and so on). Furthermore, Saulnier weighs the movie down with too much inane dialogue between his characters. Saulnier rightly wants to give his audience little breaks from the tension, but his dopey characters utter their lines with such bland disinterest that they might as well be filming their Behind-the-Music documentary when they’re not fending off machetes and attack dogs.

Here’s the setup: At a dive-bar somewhere in Southern Oregon, Patrick (Anton Yelchin), a guitarist in a punk-metal band witnesses a murder and tries to call 911 before one of the killers wrests the phone from him and he and his band-mates are locked inside the green room. Inside with Patrick are Reece (Joe Cole), Sam (Alia Shawkat), and Tiger (Callum Turner), along with one of the white supremacist’s girlfriends, Amber (Imogen Poots), and keeping watch is one of the Neo-Nazis, a big bear of a man named Justin, who pretty successfully takes on three of the skinny 20-somethings with ease, until one of them gets him in a death grip and holds him there until the others can snatch his gun.

But it doesn’t matter: these white supremacists are well-organized. They stage a fake stabbing in order to lose the police, and then summon Darcy, their icy, calculating neo-Nazi leader (Patrick Stewart), to figure out what to do with the band-mates. Instead of quickly dispatching with their prisoners, Darcy and his men wage a relentless, strategic, escalating attack against four skinny middle-class 20-something who may be the least resourceful smart kids I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Perhaps this is a cautionary tale about how millenials will fare in a crisis: They argue about who has to hold the gun, they make too much noise when they try to escape, and Patrick has to trick himself that it’s all a game in order to fight back. (This is after he nearly loses his hand in a particularly grueling scene.)

But, in their defense, the band-mates do have a few tricks up their sleeves: They use microphones and speakers to create feedback in the monitors, which makes the attack dogs whimper and retreat. Sam makes effective use of a fire extinguisher; other band members use any makeshift weapon they can find, from a mic stand to one of those long, glow-stick-like fluorescent light bulbs.

Patrick emerges as the film’s unlikely hero, although he’s aided by the surprisingly funny and strong-willed Neo-Nazi girl Amber. At the beginning of the movie, we hear Patrick waxing on about the beauty of live performance as the only true way to experience music. But in the green room, none of his eloquent theories about art matter. He’s reduced to his own instincts and physical strength, and initially he cowers. But Patrick is the one who finally psyches himself up enough to fight back, by imagining it’s all just a game, that he doesn’t have to worry about death. He can never fully embrace the reality of the situation. “This is a nightmare,” he says. “Shouldn’t we be panicking?” Except for his reaction to the aforementioned injury, Patrick’s emotions do not fluctuate; he’s never truly affected by anything, not even the deaths of people he cares about.

Those little quips like “shouldn’t we be panicking?” are uttered in mockery of the situation, and they amount to decidedly lackluster attempts at levity. Green Room may be too self-serious to start making light of things in the first place. Saulnier wants to horrify us with his images, like when he cuts to a close-up of a character’s mangled neck: he’s just been ferociously mauled by a hell-hound, Baskerville style. Saulnier establishes a lame running joke too: Early in the film, when the band-mates are being interviewed for some underground radio show, the host asks each of them what band they’d want to listen to if stranded on a desert island. As perhaps another cynical jab at 20-somethings, Saulnier lets the band-mates agonize over their choices, as though the scenario might one day present itself for real, and they’d be really sorry if they accidentally picked the Ramones over the Sex Pistols (but secretly really wanted Madonna).

Near the end of the movie, Patrick, who has been unable to think of an answer, says, “I figured out my desert island band.” Amber, the white supremacist chick who’s been thrust into their world as a fellow prisoner, retorts, “find somebody who gives a shit.” The joke works beautifully, thanks to Amber’s droll delivery. (Poots is really the stand-out in this movie.) Anton Yelchin, who brandishes his husky voice like a velvety cutlass, is a strong performer, and he’s able to carry Green Room in spite of its many short-comings. (And of course, Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the Neo-Nazi Father, running the show, keeping dangerously calm throughout.)

But no one saves Green Room from being irritating and unpleasant. Gore hounds may enjoy this movie, although it’s not really that gory. It has a few hard-to-watch scenes. More than anything, Green Room is about survival, about being stripped of the BS that we normally carry around as armor, when we realize none of it will keep us safe in the face of a truly surreal crisis. But this idea wasn’t enough to make me care about the movie. I felt a lot like Amber did. 

April 27, 2016

Why I Love Going to the Movies

Last night, Jacksonville’s independent cinema darling, the Sun-Ray, ran a double feature of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). I adore Alien (and enjoy Aliens quite a bit), but I almost didn’t go. Having seen it a number times on DVD (and before that, on cable, which rendered an already dark, at times murky-looking film almost indiscernible), I figured it wouldn’t be worth going out on a school night and shelling out eight bucks. Nevertheless, I found myself standing in line at 6:55, suddenly cursing myself for arriving five minutes before show time. The theater was packed. This annoyed me, because it meant potential difficulty in finding a good seat; but it also delighted me, because it means that my city’s little theater has built up enough of a reputation over the past three-plus years to get us out in droves on a Tuesday night for a 37-year-old movie.

But don’t let those 37 years fool you. (Why should they? American movies were at their peak in the 70s.) Alien is sheer, terrifying cinematic pleasure from start to finish. I found myself recoiling in horror at scenes I fully knew were coming; seeing it in that dark theater packed with fellow movie-loving strangers, Alien was suddenly at its most powerful. I’ve never been particularly scared by movies like this. (It’s the true crime thrillers that give me the shivers.) Seeing Alien on the big screen felt like a happy regression from desensitized horror junkie to unsuspecting scaredy cat, and I relished it. I knew when Cain (John Hurt) bent down to get a closer look into that enormous lumpy grey egg that some other-worldly creature was going to jump out at him. It didn’t matter. I jumped too. When the thing sneaked up behind Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the spaceship’s infirmary, I jumped again. When the thing burst from the long-suffering Cain’s chest, my jaw dropped in horror, as though I had never witnessed this infamous scene before.

How does seeing a movie on a massive scale have such an effect on someone who’s seen it before, perhaps a dozen or more times?

Now more than ever, we need to see our movies big. There are too many distractions getting between me and movies at home: my phone, social media, work, the fact that any random question I have can and must be immediately answered by an Internet search. I stand here guilty of being utterly distractible, even though I love movies and want to disappear inside them. The darkened theater is the place where we can do just that. All these new ways to watch movies are terrific, and sometimes invaluable. (All of my friends with young children have basically bid farewell to going to the movies for the foreseeable future; I’m happy they can rent movies from Redbox or stream them online.) But the movie theater remains unrivaled in what it has to offer. In the theater, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, the expected suddenly surprising. On a TV, or even via my projector, movies somehow aren’t as commanding. They don’t dominate the entire screen. I’m not bound by social rules to keep quiet and stay seated and keep my phone turned off and tucked away. In the dark theater, Alien becomes truly terrifying. The subtle yet sinister, tense yet gorgeous music by Jerry Goldsmith washes over us, fills us with dread and wonder. It’s not just background music: It’s the audial language of a movie that’s relatively scant on dialogue. The space art, wondrous and magnificent, becomes a valentine to 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And, for cinephiles, a high-grade rip-off of a Mario Bava sci-fi thriller from 1965 called Planet of the Vampires.)

In the crowded theater, the humor pops just as much as the scares. I had forgotten how many funny lines Parker (Yaphet Kotto) has: he and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are the two repairmen who feel disenfranchised by the others, and their friendship, as well as their adversarial relationship with some of the other crew, breeds amusing tension in the first half of the movie. I had also never quite noticed the tenderness Ripley displays toward other characters in the movie; Not just for the adorable cat Jones, but for Dallas (Tom Skerrit), the captain of the ship, and Cain, the first victim of the alien. In the crowded theater, all that spacecraft lingo feels important and real: when the crew of the Nostromo is disembarking from the main ship in order to explore an ominous planet, we hear the voice of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) counting down from 20. Somehow, in Cartwright’s delightfully kooky voice, we feel unspeakable tension and dread.

I tried to imagine what it was like to see Alien in theaters back in 1979, when audience members had no idea what they were in for. This made the experience all the more thrilling. It’s like going to the symphony, when you close your eyes and go wherever the music takes you. Seeing Alien at the movies was transportive. I’ve never needed to be convinced that movie theaters are the best way to watch movies, but as a child of the VCR age, I grew up owning movies, collecting them. I grew up in a world where you could watch movies you liked over and over again. This kind of obsessive return to what we’ve already experienced is wonderful in its own way, and yet it also robs us of a fuller experience. Things become too familiar, and we take them for granted; the old scares and jokes and emotions dry out. On the television screen, so many movies really do lose their power. (On the other hand, there are movies that improve on TV, bolstered by the effect of lowered expectations, or perhaps by gratitude, when you’re somewhere you don’t want to be and grateful for any diversion.)

Say what you want about the state of movies today. They’re in an equally weak and strong place, I suppose. So many of them feel utterly, shamefully debauched by mediocrity and the spinelessness of studio executives who just want to make money. Simultaneously, we’ve reached a new age of nostalgia for certain classics, which can be regressive in its own way. But as long as we’re able to see great movies writ large, there is hope for us yet.

April 25, 2016

'Miles Ahead' Never Quite Captures the Heart and Soul of the Music Behind the Troubled Man

I discovered Miles Davis in college. A group of us were sitting in one of the student buildings at the University of Central Florida talking about music among other things, when a classmate of mine mentioned Miles Davis’s landmark album Kind of Blue. I had never heard of Miles Davis before, nor had I listened to Kind of Blue. A few weeks later, I was back home visiting my parents, and there in my old bedroom was a beat-up copy of Kind of Blue. My dad had found it in the backseat of a repossessed car at his workplace, and thought I might be interested.

It’s not clear in my mind when I first played the record. What is clear, what comes back to me every time I listen to Kind of Blue, are memories of reading novels in the university library (like any good English major) into the wee hours of the morning with the soulful, melancholy, deliriously cool music of Miles Davis providing the soundtrack via headphones. Miles Davis did more to mature my music taste than practically any other musician, and I still love to disappear into his music, which comes alive at night in a dimly lit room with a glass of wine and good conversation. It speaks without words, and that is the most powerful music there is.

In Miles Ahead, director-star Don Cheadle delves into that vortex of madness that so often accompanies artistic genius. Miles Davis was plagued with his share of demons, and the film wants to expose those demons with vivid ferocity. The movie jostles between the Miles Davis of 1980—forlorn, haggard, loopy, reclusive—and the Miles Davis of the 1960s, still eccentric but much more productive and hopeful about his career. 

In one scene circa 1980, Davis is listening to a radio retrospective of his music, and the moment is punctuated by the nagging fear that he no longer resembles the legend being lauded on the airwaves. Plagued with anxieties and suspicions, addicted to drugs, unable to perform, Davis is no longer the person they’re talking about. He’s worse than dead. A Columbia Records flunky even quips, “He’s more profitable dead than alive.” But Miles cannot wrap his brain around all this sound and fury. He’s still riffing in his mind on some endless jazz trip, and feebly trying to figure out the calculating world around him.

Much of the film involves a Rolling Stone interview conducted by a music writer named Dave Braden (played by Ewan McGregor), a particularly sleazy and opportunistic cad who’ll do just about anything to get at Davis. When we meet Braden, he’s sporting a shiner from his ex-wife’s boyfriend only to be clocked again by Davis himself, who resents being hounded by the press. Braden finagles his way inside Miles’s New York apartment anyway, is chased at gunpoint, and finally establishes some trust with Davis by offering to score him some really good coke. (That’s after they make quite a scene at Columbia, with the raspy Davis waving a gun at various music executives while one sly suit tries to pacify him with boxing tickets and money.)

Miles Ahead is well-made. Cheadle fancies little devices to help him switch between present-day (1980) Davis and past (1960s) Davis. We see shards of a romance between Miles and Frances (played with guts by Emayatzy Corinealdi), one of the loves of his life. (The film makes no mention of Davis’s equally long relationship with actress Cicely Tyson, who pulled him into sobriety.) But Cheadle gets caught up in this idea of Miles Davis the mad genius, spouting nonsensical poetry as he’s being swindled and coddled and patronized by various people, including his fair-weather Rolling Stone chum Dave Braden. (I’ve never detested Ewan McGregor before; but everything about this guy, from his stringy hair to his Scottish brogue oozes with calculation and hucksterism.) 

As for Don Cheadle, there’s something labored about his performance (as good as it is) and his movie, as though we’re being forced to suffer through the worst of Miles Davis so we can have a deeper appreciation for the best of him. Sure, I can accept that Miles Davis was crazy at times, and he was apparently abusive to his wife, who finally walked out on him. But Miles Ahead drifts by like a fever dream, never fully grasping the weight of either Davis’s talent or his tortured life. Cheadle works so hard to imitate the raspy whisky voice and the mindless pap about “social music” that he loses something in the process: the fact that when you listen to Kind of Blue (and number of other Davis records), you’re transported, you’re lifted to some kind of other-worldly cocktail party in the sky.

When we hear the music, it’s no longer about the man and his demons. The movie makes it clear that in the middle of recording sessions Davis was probably drinking or getting high or beating up on his devoted wife. He’s no saint. But we don’t necessarily need to know this. What matters about jazz, about Miles Davis, is the mood the music creates, and that mood runs deep and eternal, like moonlight or like a long-remembered dream. Miles Ahead feels almost airily insignificant in its texture: It mistakes its own obsession with the musician’s tortured existence for an appreciation of the depth and beauty of the music itself. But Cheadle doesn’t revel in this music, or he doesn’t appear to anyway. He appears to be conducting an acting experiment, a test of his own skills, rather than an exploration of that magical concoction being created in-between flights of madness and self-destruction. 

Like Tennessee Williams, who extinguished himself as fast as he could with booze and pills and bad relationships, Miles Davis was too much to last for too long: but what he gave us is alive and pulsating and vervy and thrilling. This is a decent biopic, but I don’t think it’s the one Miles Davis deserves. Movies are like jazz in their own way, and there’s something self-defeating about a biopic applied to someone like Miles Davis, like trying to write down the notes of a song and memorize them, so you can play them the same way every time. That was never the point with Miles Davis, or with jazz.

April 24, 2016

"Everybody Wants Some!!" is a Charming Slice-of-Life from Richard Linklater

Everybody Wants Some!!
117 minutes, Rated R.

Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

Featuring: Blake Jenner (Jake), Ryan Guzman (Kenny), Tyler Hoechlin (Glen), Glen Powell (Finn), Wyatt Russell (Willoughby), Quinton Johnson (Dale), Temple Baker (Plummer), Zoey Deutch (Beverly), Tanner Kalina (Brumley), and Will Brittain (Billy Autrey).

Everybody Wants Some!! is the latest film from writer-director Richard Linklater, in some ways a follow-up to his breakthrough film, 1993’s Dazed and Confused. Both movies are set in Texas, Linklater’s home state: Dazed and Confused on the last day of school in 1976, Everybody Wants Some!! in 1980, the weekend before the Fall semester begins at the fictional Southeast Texas University. When the movie opens, we meet Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman baseball player, cruising through the small college town with his windows open and The Knack’s “My Sharona” blaring from his radio. He’s heading to his new home, the house where all his teammates have been situated. Everybody Wants Some!! is the cinematic equivalent of “My Sharona”: it’s fast, catchy and utterly charming, but it goes on a little too long. Maybe it was the hot theater (the air wasn’t running and the theater was nearly full), but about an hour into the film I began feeling restless. Everybody Wants Some!! is joyfully conflict-free, and as such could stand to lose about 20 minutes’ worth of its two hour running time. (Aimless movies are better short.) But it’s a terrific movie on many levels, even though it’s man-centric, arguably to a fault.

Perhaps we’ve had too many movies about male friendship that completely excluded women, and perhaps there have been enough Linklater movies with excellent roles for women, that film critic Amy Nicholson is justified in her outrage by Linklater’s latest film. In her review, Nicholson scolded Linklater for making a movie so myopically focused on the guys that it forgot to have any well-defined female characters (save one, Zoey Deutch’s character “Beverly,” Jake’s love interest). Nicholson sees Everybody Wants Some!! as Linklater’s regression into an 18-year-old boy filmmaker. And she has a point: the movie is amped up on testosterone, and the guys strut around like puffed up roosters trying to win over the demure hens. (Only, the demure hens are mud wrestling in their underwear.)

But I feel torn about this film’s politics, partly because movies, like everything else, need to exist in a "both-and" world rather than an "either-or" one. I'm okay with filmmakers focusing on guys, I just want there to be as many movies about women. And furthermore, Linklater fashions such a vivid and dynamic world for us, it's hard to reject it on these grounds. When Jake arrives, he’s immediately dismissed by two of the senior baseball players who see him as a threat to their own chances at being noticed by potential scouts. His roommate, a country boy named Billy Autrey, is always on the phone talking to his high school sweetheart. “If you want to find Autrey, just follow the chord,” jokes Dale (J. Quenton Johnson), another teammate. The freshmen are essentially on a probationary period, where the older guys talk down to them when they want, and play various dumb pranks on them (like the “Impossible Situp,” which did cause me to role my eyes). But sometimes, the walls come down—usually when they’re out at the Sound Machine (a local disco) or wandering around the town looking for something to do. At other times, their relationships seem defined by mindless competition: We see one of them explode when Jake beats him at ping pong and he hurls the racket in Jake’s direction, while the other guys watch in mock horror, laughing at his outburst. Beneath the goofiness is a layer of genuine masculine aggression that’s tempered by the short memories of innocent young minds.

And when the guys are preening in the mirror, admiring their own muscle-bound frames and asses framed in their tight-fitting clothes, it feels like Linklater has actually tapped into this world in order to lovingly critique it: The guys are no less vain, no less concerned with achieving the right fashion sense, than the women they dismiss as vapid sex objects. Their ignorance is charming too, because it’s so innocent: To some degree, these guys haven’t moved past Tom Sawyer and his buddies playing pirates on the Mississippi. They just have more developed sexual appetites.

We have to look at this movie the way we look at Tom Sawyer: It’s about the nature of male homo-social activity in all its dumb, goofy weirdness, its sweaty heat, its immature, hard-headed, soft-hearted confusion. If Linklater has regressed as a filmmaker, at least he’s giving us a tale well-told, full of terrific performances: Blake Jenner, like the lead in Boyhood is the least charismatic of the bunch, only this time it’s mostly because he’s forced to be, essentially playing the straight man. Jake is a convenient character for Linklater (something Nicholson points out in her review). He’s everything Linklater needs him to be: smart, cute, talented, thoughtful, less of an ape than the rest of the guys. But Jenner’s performance is good: he’s likable, and he doesn’t put on a show like the other guys do.

Everybody Wants Some!! wouldn’t be half as good without its cast. All of them look so familiar, yet almost none of them are famous: Jenner appeared on Glee (he looks a little bit like a young Matt Dillon); J. Quenton Johnson has enough personality for three actors; I kept feeling I’d seen Wyatt Russell before (his character Willoughby is the one who introduces the other guys to grass and hippie ideas about astrology and mind-reading), only to discover he’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn; Temple Baker, playing another one of the freshman, might be the younger brother of Chris Pine. Baker plays the likably dumb one: he speaks with the authority of a philosopher yet has no sense. Glen Powell, playing Finn, also talks philosophy, but only to get laid. He smokes a pipe and reads Jack Kerouac (like the annoying guys in my creative writing classes), but he knows how to adapt in order to better his chances of scoring. When he learns one girl prefers quiet men, he clams up, and she jumps him.

Perhaps Amy Nicholson’s scolding is deserved. The women in this movie operate exactly as the men expect them to, but it’s possible to read this too as part of Linklater’s critique. He’s showing us fantasy rather than reality. But I agree: We do need more juicy, well-drawn roles for women. All you need to do is watch All About Eve and see what kind of movie you’ll get with three or four excellent parts for actresses.

April 11, 2016

Human Middle Finger Melissa McCarthy Cannot Save 'The Boss' From Itself

In The Boss, Melissa McCarthy is like a human-size middle finger capped with a sprig of too-perfectly coiffed red hair. She dominates every scene she’s in, but like the moronic Tammy, holding the beleaguered fast food restaurant employees hostage, she does so by force. You will laugh at me, McCarthy seems to be screaming. And many do, despite the fact that The Boss is an almost total embarrassment, save for a few well-constructed scenes. McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, celebrity CEO. The first time we see Michelle, she’s headlining some swanky financial self-help conference, where she emerges onto a glittering stage like a rock star, accompanied by dancers and belting out some wretched hip hop song. The rapping is just about as painful as all those pratfalls McCarthy stages in her pandering attempt to make us love her comedy.

Michelle is someone who’s earned the freedom to be obnoxious thanks to her immense wealth. The movie opens with scenes of young Michelle being dropped off at the orphanage, repeatedly, by various families who, like the kidnappers in “The Ransom of Red Chief,” soon regret choosing that kid. She’s that kid alright. We get three of these scenes, but nothing about them changes except the song playing in the car as Michelle is dumped back on the steps of the orphanage, the final time waving her middle finger and shouting obscenities as the rejecting parents speed off. That’s Melissa McCarthy’s lot in life: She must always play the women nobody wants, then spend the rest of the movie convincing us that her ugliness and selfishness are attractive, appealing, charmingly offbeat.

But even though the movie wants to revel in Michelle’s character flaws--The Boss relies heavily upon the conflict created by a hostile word or deed--it also wants to reform them. We can count on two things in McCarthy’s worst movies: A) That she will be almost unbearably nasty and B) that she will have to change for the better by the end.

Why this Victorian need to reform Michelle? The set-up is so obvious that we know Michelle’s problem from the start: She cannot let herself get close to others because she’s been rejected so many times. Thus, when Michelle is busted for insider trading and completely ruined, she’s forced to live with her put-upon ex-assistant Claire (played by Kristen Bell), who has a daughter named Rachel. We know why all this is happening: So that Michelle can learn THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY. Yes, family is so beautiful, if only you can find the right family; and you shouldn’t let your horrible family poison your image of the ideal family, because, FAMILY!

For a movie this bawdy (full of raucous jeers and profane outbursts and cartoonish violence) to embrace such treacly sentiments feels like a cop-out. As a writer, McCarthy doesn't seem to understand her own merits. This is the second time McCarthy deserves the blame for coughing up a bad movie vehicle. The wretched Tammy provided us with the first inklings that McCathy works better with other people’s material. She and husband Ben Falcone worked out the script for both Tammy and The Boss, and Falcone directed them both. They start with the premise that McCarthy embodies a certain brand of offensive chaos and they run with it.

McCarthy is at her best under the direction of Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy), who knows how to unleash her like a stick of dynamite with great comic effect. Even when they’re falling down or saying something outrageous, the characters McCarthy plays in Bridesmaids and Spy keep their dignity. They're capable women, and they aren't merely the butt of someone else's joke. And even though there's something effortlessly wicked and amusing about that look Melissa McCarthy gets on her face when she's whispering horrible threats while forcing a deadly smile, in The Boss she never overcomes the obnoxiousness of her character. 

The story of Michelle’s attempts to restore her financial greatness is promising, but it's executed poorly. Michelle creates a sort-of Girl Scouts for Profit, where the girls actually get to keep a percentage of the brownies they sell. But, when she gets too close to Claire (whose brownie recipe is responsible for the company’s success) and Rachel, Michelle sells the business to a rival CEO (and former lover) played by Peter Dinklage. She screws over her business partner all because of her pathological fear of connection and rejection. The act feels tired and meaningless, especially when we can already predict the outcome. 

The Boss
fails because it doesn’t have the nerve to go all the way: It can be brassy and offensive up to a point, but only because it will self-correct in the end. The final 20 minutes, in which Michelle, Claire, and Claire’s banal love interest try to steal a contract to save their business, are a total misfire, riddled with missed opportunities and yawn-inducing clichés. It fails too because McCarthy and Falcone do not want to create a more complex character: Why can’t Michelle be both offensive and charming? Why do Michelle’s flaws have to be so easily diagnosed? When Barbara Stanwyck doesn’t reform in The Lady Eve, it’s because she’s exactly how she wants to be, and she’s managed to win her man to boot, without compromising her criminal values. The Boss demands so much from us: it shouldn’t demand that we swallow its Hallmark ending too.

With Annie Mumulo, Kristen Schaal, and Kathy Bates (who plays Michelle's mentor/sworn enemy, and adds some texture to her three minutes of screen time).

April 04, 2016

The Birdcage

The Birdcage is the 1996 remake of the French comedy La Cage aux Folles, from 1978, given 1990s Hollywood comedy treatment, and directed by Mike Nichols with middling results. The film is about two gay men named Armand and Albert (Robin Williams and Nathane Lane) who run a popular night club in South Beach, and their son, Val (Dan Futterman), the product of Williams’s singular attempt at heterosexuality. His real mom (Christine Baranski) has kept her distance from him, so the flamboyant Albert (whose popular drag persona “Starina” is a regular feature of the night club) is more like a mother to him. The film is about the mad comic hi-jinks that ensue when a gay couple tries to act straight for their son’s future in-laws, a Conservative senator (played by Gene Hackman) and his wife (Dianne Wiest).

Mike Nichols often botched comedy. Working Girl, which is touted as a classic of the 80s, never really catches fire. The Birdcage gets quite funny late in the game, but not before a series of drawn-out scenes of Armand and Albert essentially breaking up and getting back together repeatedly. (Albert becomes such a cliché that he’s totally irritating until the final act, when he steals the show.) Nichols has done good work, but his comedies have never really worked. Nichols, perhaps because he began his career with “important” films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, never found that lightness of touch that seemed a second language to the great comedy directors like Preston Sturges. Nichols’s conception of comedy is to go grandiose: Working Girl is a yuppie Cinderella. Postcards from the Edge comes closest to this lightness of touch, but it never stops straining for prestige long enough to be fun and relaxed. Even Nichols’s greatest film, The Graduate, never worked as a comedy for me: it always felt too wistful and tinged with longing and regret to be taken as a joke, no matter how hip it might have been in 1967.

The Birdcage isn’t wistful or tinged with longing, nor is it particularly hip: It’s desperately trying to be, but its conception of gay people is narrow and dated now: They’re all flamboyant emotional time bombs. Robin Williams’ character is the most reserved of the bunch (he has surprisingly few Robin Williams-y moments, and they’re short enough that they amuse rather than pander to us), and it’s strange to see him underplaying here, although it’s admittedly refreshing.

Where The Birdcage both falters and succeeds is in its casting. The cast is so good—not just Williams and Lane but Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azzaria as the sassy, aged-out but still tight Guatemalan houseboy, and Christine Baranski—that Nichols basically coasts on their talent. He doesn’t bother to shape the scenes, and thus the movie lies there like a wilted mint leaf under the draining Florida sun.

Some of the film’s brightest moments involve senator Hackman’s attempts to cover up his colleague’s scandalous death: The two of them served on some high-minded morality committee, but his colleague has just dropped dead in a hotel room where he was spending the night with an under-age black prostitute. The film is perceptive about hypocritical moral values and how they prevent people from really seeing each other with compassion and humanity.

Finally, in the last act, The Birdcage picks up steam. Albert, who’s been asked not to attend the dinner of the two families because of his gayness, emerges in full drag pretending to be Armand’s wife, and fools everyone. It’s a tour de force performance and this extended scene almost achieves the comic lunacy of the great screwball comedies The Birdcage partly imitates.