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Non-Review Review: The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is not only a cinematic adaptation of a classic play, it is a cinematic adaptation of a particular staging of a classic play.

The Boys in the Band is a film designed to capture a snapshot of the 2018 Broadway run of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 off-Broadway play. It is directed by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best know for his theatre work including Wicked and the fiftieth anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that forms the basis of this filmed version. The film reunites the entire ensemble of that staging, including actors like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

Banding together.

In some ways, Hamilton feels like the obvious point of comparison here. The goal is not just to bring a beloved play to the screen, but to capture the particular energy of a particular staging of that beloved play. However, while Hamilton leaned into its attempts to recreate the Broadway experience for an audience watching at home, The Boys in the Band is a much more traditional cinematic adaptation of a theatrical staging. It is a film, but it is a film that feels particularly “stagey.” It recalls a particular brand of awards fare, like Doubt or Fences.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with this adaptation of The Boys in the Band. With the exception of a few framing scenes set outside the apartment at the beginning and the end of the story, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel like a reimagining so much as a restaging. Then again, it’s debatable to what extent this is a problem. Mantello’s approach to the material is straightforward rather than showy, putting his faith in the script – which was reworked by Crowley shortly before his death with writer Ned Martel – and in the cast, trusting them to carry the film.

Not-so-midnight-cowboy.

This largely works. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating snapshot of a cultural moment. Crowley’s play was famously one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to focus on a large a diverse cast of gay characters, arriving before the AIDS crisis and before Stonewall. While the play has remained constant in all of those years, the world around it has changed. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed, while the text seems to remain vital and relevant – it always seemed to say something to the moment, even if that something made critics uneasy.

The Boys in the Band is a welcome reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a theatrical approach to cinematic stagings of beloved plays. The Boys in the Band may not pop off the screen in the way that Hamilton does, engaging as much with the audience’s experience of the show as with the content of the show itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band serves largely as a showcase for its actors and for its source material, proof that there is a lot to be said for locking a bunch of talented cast in a confined space with a good script.

Drinking it all in…

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198. Taxi Driver – Summer of Scorsese (#107)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair and Alex Towers, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, kicking off our Summer of Scorsese season, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Raging Bull, King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Shutter Island. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through the director’s filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

Travis Bickle cannot sleep. So he splits his nights between the Times Square porno theatres and his job as a taxi driver. Bickle immerses himself in the nightlife of New York City, finding himself adrift in a world of anomie and urban decay. Thoughts begin to formulate in his head, thought he can’t articulate or express, but thoughts that push him in a horrific and unsettling direction.

At time of recording, it was ranked 107th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“You’re a Real Cowboy!” The Haunted Emptiness of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be launching a belated Summer of Scorsese this week with a look at Taxi Driver. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 classic.

Even watched today, there is something deeply unsettling about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Travis Bickle is a haunting figure, drifting through the night in what writer Paul Schrader has repeatedly described as a “metal coffin.” Of course, Taxi Driver is a film of the seventies. The New York through which Bickle moves no longer exists – the one famously (but not actually) told to “drop dead” by Gerard Ford. Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, later sequences revealing scars on his body, and even his mohawk is drawn from experiences of soldiers who served in that war. Even beyond this, the vacuous-but-wholesome politics of Palantine evoke the disillusion of the post-Watergate era.

However, there is also a timelessness to Travis Bickle. His strange isolation in a city populated by millions of people is a manifestion of Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie”, the weird loneliness that human beings can feel when trapped in confined spaces with countless anonymous neighbours. More than that, as countless observers have explained in the nearly half-century since Taxi Driver‘s release, Bickle’s murderous possessiveness towards Betsy and Iris feels eerily prescient in an era of mass shootings and manifestos by entitled angry young men.

What is most striking about Taxi Driver is the emptiness of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a young man who seems to be completely lacking in any sense of identity or self, any strong sense of who he is or what he wants. As much as Taxi Driver presents Bickle as a nightmare of urban living, he is also a reflection. He is an empty vessel that seems to have been shaped by the world around him without any deeper understanding or comprehension of what that means. Bickle isn’t a person so much as a manifestation of a culture so far in decline that it has folded into itself.

Indeed, much of how Bickle sees the world is informed and shaped by the forces around him, perhaps even unconsciously and passively. Bickle offers a glimpse of American masculinity in crisis, of decades of westerns and pulp adventures that have been digested and processed and rehashed until there is no meaning underneath it all. It’s possible to read Taxi Driver as a reiteration of The Searchers, one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of Martin Scorsese’s famous films. However, it isn’t Taxi Driver recreating The Searchers so much as Bickle himself.

There’s an uncomfortably warped sensibility to all this, a bitter meaninglessness that serves as an indictment of the world around him. Travis Bickle is a monster, but he is a monster manifested from the collective unconscious of a city (and perhaps a world) trapped in decline and decay.

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Non-Review Review: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island is very much a typical late Judd Apatow project, in the style of Funny People, This is 40 or Trainwreck.

It is a serio-comic character study that essentially tries to wed the juvenile comedic sensibility that Apatow brought to the mainstream with films like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin with the more earnest adult coming-of-age stories that were popular in the early nineties. The results are sporadically funny and affecting, often built around a single or multiple star personas. In each cause, the quality of the film largely comes down to the quality of the star anchoring it, with Trainwreck standing out due to strong turns from both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader.

“King of One of the Boroughs of New York!”

The King of Staten Island tries this approach with Pete Davidson, the stand-up comedian who is currently best known for his work on Saturday Night Live that often involved him directly addressing his own personal controversies. As with Trainwreck, the film is driven by Davidson who shares a co-writing credit and whose character is transparently modelled on Davidson himself. As such, Davidson’s star persona exerts a strange gravity on The King of Staten Island, all the more notable for the fact that this is really Davidson’s first proper starring role of itself.

The King of Staten Island is occasionally moving and engaging, but it never manages to escape from Davidson’s shadow. Simultaneously, there’s something slightly frustrating in the way that for all The King of Staten Island transparently draws from Davidson’s own experiences and history, its narrative structure is painfully generic. Its central character arc is so routine as to undermine any real sense of personality or intimacy. This is the central paradox of the film. The King of Staten Island is both unable to escape Davidson’s gravity and unable to bring itself to look directly at him.

Fighting firemen.

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Non-Review Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a profoundly odd film.

On the surface, it looks like another one of those “movies they don’t really make anymore” that tend to get a small release around awards season, like Bad Times at the El Royale or Widows. It is an old-fashioned private detective story that starts with something relatively small before pulling back to reveal a vast and insidious conspiracy at work. It is a movie that is both a genre piece and a statement, and so seems an appropriate release for this late in the calendar.

Railing against the system.

However, on closer inspection, Motherless Brooklyn is much more surreal piece of work. The film was a passion project for writer, director and star Edward Norton. Norton had been struggling to bring the film to screen for the better part of two decades. It is a period piece in more than just its fifties New York setting. It feels like a time capsule. Although Motherless Brooklyn is only Norton’s second theatrical film as director, it arguably feels much more tailored to Norton’s style and interests than his actual directorial debut Keeping the Faith.

However, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it is lost in more than just time. The film is meandering, indulgent and unfocused. It has moments of incredible beauty and surprising power, but lacks the discipline to streamline everything else around those elements. Motherless Brooklyn is not a great film, but it is a strange one.

Evil plans.

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The Defenders – The Defenders (Review)

If The Defenders is fundamentally a story about New York, then it seems inevitable that it should return to the city’s defining tragedy.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the events of 9/11 changed the course of world history. They fundamentally altered the foreign and domestic policies of the United States, the world’s strongest superpower. Inevitably, they also changed New York itself. It could reasonably be argued that the twenty-first century began with the 9/11 attacks, at least culturally; the atrocity brought an end to the global peace and stability that had defined the nineties, ushering in a new world order.

“Um, Danny? Hero shot?”

The Defenders is a story very much invested in New York City, with characters repeatedly referring to New York as “my/your/our city.” Of course, each of the four series leading into The Defenders imagines a different city. Daredevil is set against the backdrop of an early eighties version of Hell’s Kitchen, one never tamed nor gentrified. Jessica Jones unfolds in a vast and anonymous and disconnected city. Luke Cage imagines Harlem as an ideal, a cultural hub. Iron Fist treats Manhattan as the stage on which familial conflicts might play out.

The Defenders is about bringing those separate versions of New York together, of integrating them into a single story set against the backdrop of a single version of the city. Inevitably, that version of the city is the city as it was defined at the start of the twenty-first century, a city united by catastrophe and destruction. However, there is more to it than that. The Defenders embraces the 9/11 subtext seeded through the first season and plays the idea out to its logical conclusion.

“What? Am I supposed to look serious doing this?”

The season culminates in a bizarre inversion of 9/11, in which our heroes lay siege to an empty skyscraper. They decide that the only way to save Manhattan is to demolish the building. Although the episode is edited in such a way that the audience never sees the collapse of the skyscraper in question, The Defenders is still structured in a way that evokes the most uncomfortable paranoid conspiracy theories about the events of 9/11. With the structure destroyed from the inside with architectural precision, this change to the New York skyline really is “an inside job.”

It plays almost as a grotesque and uncomfortable attempt to reclaim a traumatic image, to take ownership of the atrocity. It is an attempt to construct a heroic iteration of the terrorist attacks that forever changed the city, as if that may somehow provide an opportunity for healing and reconciliation.

Take it as red.

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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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Daredevil – New York’s Finest (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

The stock comparison for the first season of Daredevil was Batman Begins. There were certainly plenty of reasons. The yellow-ish colour scheme. The non-linear superhero origin story focusing on a protagonist who subsumes his anger into something greater. The erosion of the existing organised crime framework, replaced by something altogether weirder. The ninjas who plot to smuggle a potentially dangerous (and pseudo-mystical) weapon into the heart of the city through th docklands. It was a good comparison, and it served Daredevil well.

As such, it makes sense that the second season of the show would desperately want to be The Dark Knight.

That'll make a nice logo...

That’ll make a nice logo…

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Daredevil – Bang (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Marvel Universe has a strong attachment to New York City.

There are any number of examples that might be cited, from the lighting of the Empire State Building in blue and red to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man to J. Michael Straczynski’s cringe-inducing issue of The Amazing Spider-Man where megalomaniac (and occasionally mass murdering) supervillain Doctor Doom cries in the rubble of the World Trade Centre. The company and its characters have a long and rich history that is intertwined with the city itself.

Church Devil.

Church Devil.

At the same time, certain titles and characters have stronger attachments to particular areas and eras of the city. Spider-Man will always be rooted in Manhattan. The X-Men are symbolically tied to Westchester. Daredevil might be connected with Hell’s Kitchen, but he is anchored in a very particular version of Hell’s Kitchen; the gritty version of Daredevil pioneered by Frank Miller is tied to the dangerous neighbourhood as it existed against the backdrop of the seventies and eighties. (The Punisher is similarly rooted in seventies and eighties New York.)

Of course, Hell’s Kitchen has changed in the intervening years. It is no long as run down as it once was, subject to the forces of gentrification and modernisation. The first season of Daredevil touched on this idea, using the Chitauri attack from The Avengers to explain why the neighbourhood had been set back a few decades and turned into an urban hellhole. Wilson Fisk was suggested to be plotting a gentrification that had already taken place in the real world, casting out working-class inhabitants in order to remodel the area.

In with a shot...

In with a shot…

The second season of Daredevil adopts something of a different approach, which makes sense given the transition from producer Steven DeKnight to Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez. Although there are fleeting references to “the Incident” later in the season, the invasion is no longer used to explain the urban nightmare of Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, the season adopts an approach akin to a stylistic period piece. Although Daredevil is still unfolding in the present day, the series is populated with markers that place it in an earlier context.

Bang seems to suggest that Daredevil is unfolding a version of New York anchored in the summer of 1977.

Don't leave us hanging...

Don’t leave us hanging…

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Jessica Jones – AKA Sin Bin (Review)

Kilgrave lies.

To be fair, that much should be obvious. Kilgrave is a character whose power hinges upon his ability to manipulate people using words. Of course he lies. Even his name is a lie. He lied to Jessica about the effectiveness of his powers, revealing that his decision not to control Jessica against her will wasn’t really a decision. He lies to everyone about his past, painting his concerned parents as cliché monsters. He lies to himself about his motivations, genuinely believing he is a victim in all of this.

jessicajones-sinbin19a

He also lies to the audience about his character, as AKA Sin Bin reveals Kilgrave is not a tragic and sympathetic antagonist with an explanatory childhood trauma after all. He is not the archetypal sympathetic bad guy whose actions can be explained away as the result of the horrible things that happened to him when he was a child. He is not the version of Wilson Fisk presented in Shadows in the Glass, a man who might have been a hero under other circumstances. Kilgrave is an unrepentant self-serving sociopath.

One of the joys of Jessica Jones is that the revelation that Kilgrave is unquestioning evil does not in any way make him a less complicated or compelling character.

jessicajones-sinbin3a

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