Category Archives: Male Bonding

DVD Reissue: The Boys in the Band ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Boys in the Band – Paramount DVD

William Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play has made its belated DVD debut in 2008. A group of gay friends gather to celebrate a birthday, and as the booze starts to flow, the fur begins to fly. It may not seem as “bold” or “daring” as it was to viewers nearly 40 years ago, but the hard truths about human nature revealed  here remain universal and timeless.

It’s one of the best American dramas of the 1970s; a wickedly acidic verbal jousting match delivered by a crackerjack acting ensemble so finely tuned that you could set a metronome to the performances. The film is also unique for enlisting the entire original stage cast to recreate their roles onscreen.

The DVD features an enlightening commentary track from the always-chatty Friedkin, plus three featurettes including interviews with two surviving cast members (sadly, we learn all principal actors save for three have since passed away). Warning: Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” will be playing in your head for days on end.

Stalking tall: Big Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)

Limited goals: Oswalt and Corrigan in Big Fan.

There are sports fans, and there are sports fans. And then there is Paul Aufiero, the protagonist of writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s new film, Big Fan. To say that Paul (Patton Oswalt) is an uber-fan of the N.Y. Giants football team is a vast understatement. The Giants are his raison d’être. Every night before he goes to bed, he doesn’t say his prayers. Instead, he religiously breaks out his dog-eared yellow-ruled tablet and furiously scrawls out a litany of devotion to his team, which he then delivers like a well-rehearsed sermon in his nightly call to a popular local sports talk radio program.

Occasionally, he is compelled to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to his arch-nemesis, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who calls into the same show for the express purpose of antagonizing the Giants fans.

Paul (a cross between Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty Piletti and John Kennedy Toole’s literary creation, Ignatius J. Reilly) has a lot of spare time to devote to defending the honor of his team against evil radio trolls, because he doesn’t have too many other distractions in his life.

A 30-something bachelor who still lives with his mother, he works an undemanding job as a parking lot attendant and has virtually no social life (if this sounds like it’s shaping up to be one of those depressing character studies about empty lives of quiet desperation, I am here to tell you… you’re right.) Well, Paul does have one friend named Sal (played by indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan) who shares his undying love for the team;  and he doesn’t date much, either.

One night, while Paul and Sal are out and about enjoying a bit of the Staten Island nightlife, they happen to spot one of their beloved team’s star players (Jonathan Hamm) getting into a limousine at a local gas station. The two pals, walking on air and feeling beside themselves with fan boy giddiness, decide to surreptitiously tail the player and his entourage, to see how the other half lives.

Eventually, they find themselves at a pricey strip joint in Manhattan, where Paul screws up enough courage to make a beeline for his hero’s booth, in hopes of a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the evening (and  Paul’s life) goes sideways from that point forward.

The film is an odd mix of broad social satire and brooding character study; but for the most part, it works.  Partially, it’s about the cult of celebrity, especially as it applies to the tendency Americans have to turn a blind eye to the sociopathic tendencies displayed by some multimillionaire athletes. The film takes a few unexpected twists and turns that reminded me of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, another quirky indie character study that keeps you on your toes by challenging your expectations right up to the end.

Oswalt is impressive, giving a fearless performance in this decidedly unflattering role (you are most likely to be familiar with him from his work as a standup and the myriad of quirky supporting characters he’s played on TV shows like Reno 911). Corrigan is excellent, as always (when is somebody going to give this perennial second banana a starring role?). Michael Rapaport is suitably obnoxious as Paul’s radio tormentor, “Philadelphia Phil”. Gino Cafarelli is good as Paul’s brother, an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer, and  Serafina Fiore is a hoot as his wife, an orange-tanned, big-haired, high-maintenance East coast princess straight out of Soprano world.

This is the directorial debut for Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated  sports dramaThe Wrestler. There are enough parallels (dark character study, sports backdrop, blue-collar East Coast milieu) to suggest that there may be a certain theme running through his work. Or perhaps it’s too early to judge, based on two films. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do next.

Flowers of bromance: I Love You, Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2009)

Oh, bloody hell…not another Rush tribute band.

Matt Groening once observed: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?” On the other hand,  Roger Ebert once lamented about “a trend in which Hollywood buys French comedies and experiments on them to see if they can be made into English with all the humor taken out.” I generally concur with both those sentiments, but I think I have found the exception to Groening’s and Ebert’s rules- in the guise of a smart, funny and warm French comedy that has inspired an equally smart, funny and warm American remake.

Okay, so Patrice Leconte’s Mon Meilleur Ami  (my review) was not a “sex” comedy, nor was it a huge hit with critics or audiences (I caught flak from some readers for including it in my Top 10 films list for 2007). I’m not gloating here-but obviously, someone felt Leconte’s film to be worthy of a Hollywood makeover, and the latest vehicle for Paul Rudd.  I Love You, Man is all that (and a large orange soda).

Rudd is Peter Klaven, a  good-natured L.A. real estate agent who has decided to pop the question to his ladylove, Zooey (Rashida Jones). Zooey immediately phones up a bevy of close girlfriends to share the happy news. When she asks her fiancé why he isn’t jumping on the horn to tell all his pals, he mumbles some vague excuse and tries to change the subject. It turns out that while Peter is adept at meeting women, he is more diffident when it comes to interacting with the dudes; he can’t readily cough up a candidate for his Best Man. Someone is going to have to come up with an Action Plan.

Desperate to find a good bud on such short notice, Peter seeks assistance from his gay brother (SNL’s Andy Samberg), who encourages him to go on a few “man dates”. Zooey pitches in. brokering a “poker night” invite for Peter from her best friend’s reluctant husband (a skulking Jon Favreau, hilariously effective here playing a supreme dick weed). Most of these intros and invites end in embarrassment and/or some form of social disaster. Just when all seems lost, a Dude ex Machina arrives in a free-spirited man child named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Teach me to dance, Zorba.

In its best moments , I was reminded of Barry Levinson’s Diner, which I consider the granddaddy of all modern “bromantic” comedies, as well as one of the most keenly perceptive observations about male friendship ever put on screen. I think it’s interesting to note that screenwriter Larry Levin (who co-scripted with director John Hamburg) also wrote a classic 2-part Seinfeld episode called “The Boyfriend”, in which Jerry develops a “man crush” on one of the N.Y. Mets (this film could be seen as an extrapolation on that theme).

In its worst moments, the film threatens to lean on that tiresome crutch of cheap gross-out humor that has put me off contemporary “comedies”, but thankfully, the reins are judiciously pulled in (Woody Allen has managed to make tons of funny films over a 40 year period without one scene involving projectile vomiting-so why can’t the current crop of comedy directors take lessons from this?).

Rudd and Segel (who previously teamed up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) play off each other extremely well, and are obviously developing a solid comedy duo franchise (I think it would be a real kick to see them remake one of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies-or perhaps that’s just me).

Rudd continues to perfect an onscreen persona as the modern comic Everyman. Segel’s performance recalls Donal Logue’s slovenly yet endearing self-styled hipster saint in The Tao of Steve. Thomas Lennon (best known as “Lieutenant Dangle” from the wonderfully twisted comedy series, Reno 911) is a riot as a love struck stalker (no spoilers, please). Lou Ferrigno (as himself) is an unexpected delight, unveiling some previously hidden comic chops, and air guitar geeks will swoon at the cameo appearance by the Holy Trinity of Canadian prog-rock. And if you have to ask who that is-you ain’t my bro, man!

The Tao of duct tape: Gran Torino ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 10, 2009)

Which one of you punks knocked over my John McCain sign?!

Clint Eastwood certainly knows his core audience. Just when you thought that he had ceded his screen persona as one of the iconic tough guys for the more respectable mantle of a sage lion who makes prestige films, Clint Classic is back with a vengeance in Gran Torino, armed with an M-1, a cherry 1970s muscle car and a handy catchphrase (“Get off my lawn!”).

Oh, don’t panic- Clint the Sage Director is still at the helm, and Clint the Actor is smart enough to keep it real and “play his age”. This isn’t Dirty Harry with a walker; it’s more like The Visitor…with an attitude. There’s also a Socially Relevant Message, an Important Theme, and even Redemption (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Look in the dictionary under “cantankerous”, and you’ll see a picture of Walt Kowalski (wait a minute-a 1970s muscle car and a protagonist named Kowalski…Vanishing Point reference?) Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Michigan auto worker and Korean War vet who has recently buried his wife, and along with her, any remaining semblance of social grace or desire for human interaction.

When he is not spurning “sympathy visits” from his adult son (Brian Haley) or his late wife’s priest (Christopher Carley) he skulks about his Highland Park house, quaffing beers whilst scowling and grousing to himself about the Southeast Asians moving into “his” neighborhood. He is particularly chagrined about the Hmong family next door; the terms that Kowalski uses to describe them are derogatory racist epithets, which I am loathe to repeat here.

He doesn’t mince words when he reacts to his son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to pump him for his thoughts on estate planning, nor when the tenacious young priest begins sniffing around for dibs on his soul; he informs all the circling vultures that he would prefer they fuck off so he can return to puttering around the house, muttering to himself and fussing over his beloved ’72 Gran Torino.

Kowalski’s mistrust of his neighbors appears to be justified when he surprises a prowler in his garage, and it turns out to be Thao (Bee Vang) the teenage boy from the Hmong family next door. Initially unbeknownst to Kowalski, the otherwise straight-arrow Thao has been pressured by his n’er do well older cousin, a Hmong youth gang leader, into attempting to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite.

After Kowalski inadvertently saves Thao from the gang’s retaliation by chasing them off his property with his trusty service rifle (insert catch phrase here) his porch is festooned daily by an unwanted barrage of gifts, food and flowers, which is the Hmong family’s way of informing him that they are forever indebted for his act of “kindness” (to Kowalski’s abject horror).

In further keeping with cultural tradition, Thao is ordered by the family elders to make amends for the attempted theft by offering his services to Kowalski as a handyman for the summer. Thanks to some cultural bridging and good will on the part of Thao’s sister (Ahney Her), Kowalski slowly warms to the family and becomes a father figure/mentor to Thao, teaching him how to “stand his ground” while still retaining a sense of responsibility for his actions.

There is a bit of a “wax on, wax off” vibe that recalls The Karate Kid, but screenwriter Nick Schenk (who adapted from a story he developed with Dave Johannson) delves deeper into the heart of darkness with his variation on the theme. Whereas the aforementioned film was about overcoming the fear of failure, Gran Torino deals with a veritable litany of primal fears, namely fear of The Other, fear of death, and the fear of losing one’s soul.

There is still a surprising amount of levity in Schenk’s screenplay, allowing Eastwood can stretch his proclivity (as an actor) for deadpan comedy. One scene in particular that stands out in this regard involves a parting of wisdom positing that any logistical hurdle you may encounter in your journey can be defeated with a “…pair of Vise-Grips, a roll of duct tape and some WD-40.”

The film’s only flaw (and this could be a major distraction for some) is the casting of non-professional actors in most of the Hmong roles. For secondary or background characters, this is not so much of an issue, but concerning two more prominent (and very crucial) roles, I did find some of the amateurish line deliveries to be a distraction.

Eastwood’s direction is assured, but I think the main reason to see this film is for his work in front of the camera; I would consider this one of his career-best performances and certainly his most well fleshed-out characterization since Unforgiven. All I know is-I should be so lucky to be as convincing as a bad-ass when I’m pushing 80.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be a Boschian nightmare: In Bruges ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2008)

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Pulp Fiction was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So what can we glean from this  factoid? What hath Tarantino wrought? For one thing, the genre tag “hit man comedy” is now officially part of the cinematic lexicon. And, by the looks of things, (love it or loathe it) it is here to stay.

The latest example is a film that reportedly, er, knocked ‘em dead at Sundance  and is currently n theaters-Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. A pair of Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low and await judgment on their cock-up from their piqued Dublin employer (Ray Fiennes).

Ken is enamored by the “fairy tale” ambience of Bruges, with its intricate canals and well-preserved medieval architecture, and decides to play tourist. The ADD-afflicted Ray, on the other hand, fails to see the appeal of “old buildings” and would just as soon plant himself in front of a pint for the duration of his purgatory.

Initially, Ken lures the reluctant Ray into joining him for sightseeing with the promise of pub time afterwards. However, it becomes evident that Ray lacks any discernible social filter, displaying a general disregard for local mores and folkways. Ken decides that the best way to stay low profile would be to let Ray pass time as he wishes.

In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate, other than to say that Ray wanders off and finds himself a love interest and enjoys escapades like a coke binge with a “racist dwarf” while Ken is thrust into a moral and ethical dilemma that fuels the dramatic turn of the film’s final third. Toss some heaping tablespoons of raging Catholic guilt, existentialism 101 and winking Hieronymus Bosch references into the mix, and voila! (The Sundance crowd swoons…)

So what exactly has McDonagh cooked up here? Well, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s “an original dish”, I’d have to call it more of a “sampler plate” featuring a generous wedge of Tarantino and tidbits of Guy Ritchie, sprinkled with a taste of Brendan Behan.

If you’re a fan of dark (very dark) Irish humor, you’ll likely get a few decent chuckles out of playwright McDonagh’s brash and brassy dialog (and marvel at his creative use of “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective).

Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fold so well into the mix with the generous dollops of dramatic bathos and queasy violence. Also, some of the more decidedly un-PC jokes fall terribly flat (I realize that nothing is sacred in comedy, but referring to obese people as “elephants” and a dwarf as a “short-arse” is not what I consider groundbreaking, cutting-edge humor).

That said, there are some strong performances, almost in spite of the film’s uneven tone. Gleeson and Farrell vibe a Laurel and Hardy dynamic together that works very well; you almost expect the doughy, exasperated Gleeson to exclaim “Well, it’s another fine mess you’ve got us into this time!” every time Farrell throws gas on the fire with a Tourette’s-like outburst.

Farrell has not previously impressed me as a nuanced performer, but in this film he proves to be quite deft at navigating the tricky waters of black comedy.

Gleeson, a world-class actor, is superb as always. Fiennes, who seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (by way of Michael Caine) goes way over the top with his archetypal caricature of a “hard” Cockney gangster, but he appears to be having a grand old time just the same.

I had an “OK” time on my little Belgian excursion with Ray and Ken; and the location filming does make for a great travelogue, as Bruges truly is a beautiful city-but In Bruges may not be the ideal cinematic getaway for all tastes. A guarded recommendation.

SIFF 2007: Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2007)

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In French director Patrice Leconte latest film, Mon Meilleur Ami (“My Best Friend”), we are introduced to glum-faced antique dealer Francois Coste (Daneil Auteil) as he attends a funeral. After the service, Francois approaches the grieving widow and mutters a few perfunctory condolences. She doesn’t seem to recognize him; he explains that her husband was a client, then after pausing a beat, asks her if it would still be okay to stop by and take a look at a piece of furniture he had arranged to appraise for him before his unexpected demise. His faux pas (and the look she shoots him) tell us everything we need to know about our protagonist’s complete and utter lack of charm.

Later, at a dinner with clients, Francois tells his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) about the sad lack of attendees at the funeral, an image he can’t shake. Imagine leading such a pathetic, friendless existence that no one shows up at your funeral! Catherine seizes this moment to confront Francois about his own inability to connect with people, which he naturally denies. Flustered and humiliated, Francois accepts her challenge to produce a “best friend” within the week. Francois has his work cut out for him.

Serendipity leads Francois to the perfect mark-Bruno Bouley (Dany Boon) an outgoing cab driver who seems to have an effortless manner of ingratiating himself to strangers. As we get a closer look at Bruno, he seems an unlikely mentor; he is divorced, takes anti-depressants, lives alone in a tiny apartment next door to his elderly parents, where he spends all his spare time cutting out newspaper articles and memorizing trivial facts in hopes of someday winning a fortune on a quiz show.

Initially, Francois takes an anthropological approach; he observes Bruno with the same sort of bemused detachment that Alan Bates studied Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. What is Bruno’s secret to connecting to people…to Life? In spite of his ulterior motives, Francois begins to develop a genuine bond with Bruno, leading to some ironic twists and complications. Uh-oh, you’re thinking-we’re going to learn Life Lessons about the value of True Friendship, aren’t we? (Cue the ABC After School Special theme…)

I was reminded a wee bit of another French film, Francis Veber’s 1999 social satire The Dinner Game, in which a group of snobs, for their amusement, challenge each other to feign friendship with an “idiot” and invite him to a special dinner night, competing to see who can produce the “biggest idiot”. And of course, the “idiot” gets the last laugh, and Lessons are Learned. (Apparently, the French adore “comedies” steeped in discomfiture.)

In his previous films, Leconte has displayed a knack for delivering compelling character studies that are wistful, brooding, darkly humorous yet simultaneously uplifting and life-affirming (his 2002 masterpiece The Man on the Train resonated with me in such a deeply profound manner that I have become emotionally attached to it). I wish I could say the same for Mon Meilleur Ami.

It is certainly not a “bad” film (even lesser Laconte stands head and shoulder above most Hollywood grist) but there is a bit too much contrivance in the third act that mixes uneasily with what has preceded. I would still recommend this film, especially for the wonderful performances. Auteil, one of France’s top actors, is always worth watching, and Boon delivers nary a false note with a funny and touching performance as the ebullient yet mentally fragile Bruno.