‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Made Me Feel a Lot of Very Different Emotions, and I Can Think of Worse Ways to Spend an Evening

Leave a comment

Dear Evan Hansen (CREDIT: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material Involving Suicide and Mental Health Struggles

Release Date: September 24, 2021 (Theaters)

My brain is so frazzled by Dear Evan Hansen, and I just don’t know what to say. Part of that is due to the movie itself, which offers an occasionally offbeat and fairly frightening mix of tones. And it’s also certainly a matter of the mocking buzz I encountered in the buildup to the film’s release. Sure, the trailer can be seen as too-earnest-for-its-own-good inspirational fluff. And yes, the hairstyling makes 27-year-old Ben Platt look ten years older instead of ten years younger. But I wanted to wait it out to discover what I actually thought about it myself. Maybe I would be won over by the earnestness! Or maybe I would find it just as ridiculous as it loudest naysayers. Or perhaps I could enjoy that ridiculousness in a campy fashion. So now that I’ve actually seen the movie itself … it hasn’t really cleared things up.

It does have a premise designed to keep plenty of audiences on edge, after all. Based on the 2015 stage musical of the same name, it’s about the anxiety-stricken teenage title character (Platt) who is given the therapy assignment of writing a letter to himself, which then gets mistaken as the suicide note of Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate he barely knows. From there, the lie just keeps snowballing as Evan lets everyone believe that Connor was his best friend, and their story becomes a viral sensation that anyone who’s ever had mental health struggles can take solace in. I’m most impressed by DEH when it leans into its inherent discomfort. A waking nightmare threatens to envelop us all as Evan tries to explain the truth but Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) practically begs him to stick with the version of the story she so desperately wants to believe. This movie could have made us feel just as anxious as Evan does all the time if it had wanted to. Instead, it only does that occasionally, while also making us bawl up and heartily chuckle and just let everyone know that they’re not alone.

There were definitely parts of this flick that fully worked on me. The rendition of the signature song, “You Will Be Found,” had me unabashedly bawling. And Nik Dodani, who plays Evan’s “family friend” Jared, is making quite a name for himself as a mischievous little scamp. But I would’ve liked it if we had seen a bigger fallout from the truth finally coming out. And when it comes to movies about a lie regarding someone’s death spinning out of control, I must say that I much prefer the bracing dark comedy of the Robin Williams-starring World’s Greatest Dad. Anyway, my friend who I saw DEH with was won over completely, so it’s definitely for somebody. And in truth, parts of it are for parts of me.

So let’s get to the One Million Dollar Question: would I want Evan Hansen to write a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter to me? I think that would be fun! But only if we could tell the truth (the whole truth!) from the get-go. Anything else would be too stressful.

Dear Evan Hansen is Recommended If: You Think You’re Going to Love It, But Also If You Think You’re Going to Hate It, Because Our Opinions Will Be Found

Grade: 3 out of 5 Letters

‘Blue Bayou’ Tells a Tender and Painful Tale of Deportation Limbo

1 Comment

Blue Bayou (CREDIT: Focus Features)

Starring: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen

Director: Justin Chon

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R for Adult Language and Up-Close Violence

Release Date: September 17, 2021 (Theaters)

Blue Bayou should spur many people to a very specific action: if you were born outside the United States and adopted by an American family, check your citizenship status as soon as you can! I doubt that you’re in as much danger as tattoo artist Atonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon, also the writer and director), but that’s not a risk worth taking.

As a message delivery system, Blue Bayou is clear and effective. But how does it work as an experience to be viewed and digested for a couple of hours? Well, that’s what I’m here to write about, isn’t it? I can tell you this for sure: Chon is a compelling screen presence. He’s been doing his thing on movies and TV for about a decade and a half, but I’m pretty sure this is my first time encountering him (save for a guest spot on an episode of New Girl, apparently). And it’s not hard to care about Antonio’s predicament, considering how blatantly unfair it is. He was adopted from Korea when he was three years old, making Louisiana very much the only home he’s ever known. But because of a quirk in American law, he’s not actually a citizen, and that combined with his criminal record suddenly makes him a target for deportation, thereby threatening to tear him apart from his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and beloved stepdaughter Jesse (Sydney Kowalske).

A lot of Blue Bayou is powerfully painful, as Antonio is tortured not just by a racist bureaucracy, but also by the scars of his abusive foster childhood. Then there are also the other everyday stressors like a mother-in-law who thinks he’s too much of a burden for her daughter, as well as Sydney’s police officer dad Ace (Mark O’Brien), who’s trying to sneak his way back into the picture against everyone’s wishes. And on top of all that is Ace’s violently unpredictable partner Denny (Emory Cohen), who may just be the biggest threat of all.

Amidst all the instability (and humidity), some moments of the random beauty of everyday life manage to shine through. That’s certainly clear in Antonio’s tender relationship with Jesse, which is filled with motorcycle rides and traversing swampland. But what ultimately sets Blue Bayou apart as something truly unique are Antonio’s encounters with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a woman dying of cancer who becomes an unlikely customer and confidant. She comes from a family of Vietnam War refugees, and she has plenty to teach Antonio about accepting his fate by virtue of simply being her openhearted self. To sum it all up, there’s a lot of empathy being generated by this movie, and that makes for a fulfilling viewing experience.

Blue Bayou is Recommended If You Like: The personal meeting the political

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Tattoos

English Village High School Goes Drag When ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’

Leave a comment

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (CREDIT: Amazon)

Starring: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson, Sharon Horgan, Richard E. Grant, Adeel Akhtar, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Cruel Words and a Few Dustups

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Select Theaters)/September 17, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Drag is huge nowadays. But it wasn’t that long ago when playing around with gender expression in many public spaces was totally verboten. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is coming out in 2021, the same year as RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13, but the stage musical it’s based on premiered in England four years ago, and the TV documentary that inspired it aired back in 2011, way before Drag Race broke into the mainstream. That is all to say, the story of 16-Year-Old Prom Drag Queen Jamie New (Max Harwood) is an Instant Period Piece. I don’t come anywhere close to batting my eye when I hear that a boy in an English village revealed in front of his whole school his propensity for dressing and performing in traditionally femnine garb, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But not everyone is currently that open-minded, but nevertheless we know that Jamie is going to find his allies by movie’s end.

Since there’s not much need for worry, Jamie’s story will be satisfying so long as it’s compelling and features interesting characters. (And of course, also, if the tunes are catchy … which they are, if you’re into the whole modern rock opera sort of thing.) So we see him hanging out with his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel), who’s always there to encourage him, just so long as it doesn’t get in the way of her Life Plan too much. And then there’s his mom Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and her best friend Ray (Shobna Gulati), who are his biggest, most undying supporters. Meanwhile, Jamie’s trying to reach out to the dad that abandoned him (Ralph Ineson) while also dealing with some bullies and a teacher (Sharon Horgan) who simply must insist on always doing everything the proper way. This is, as I’m sure many viewers will recognize, a fairly typical teenage experience. These moments all feel like the biggest deals in the world when they’re happening, and prom feels like the massive culmination of all that. But really, this is a time when your mortal enemy could easily become your friend, and prom is mostly just an occasion to hang out with all your buds.

What’s not so typical of this tale is Loco Chanel, the veteran drag queen brought to dramatic, achingly heartfelt life by Richard E. Grant. Jamie is profoundly fortunate to encounter someone like this, and so are we. The mentorship Loco provides is invaluable. We should all be so lucky to be able to know someone who immediately encourages us to be our truest selves while also lavishly explaining the world that we’re about to enter into. So many kids today are excited to enter the world of drag, and watching Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a perfectly decent way to get a sense of what that might be all about.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is Recommended If You Like: Well-timed Bianca Del Rio cameos, Modern Rock-Style Musicals, Rebelling against the stuffy English school system

Grade: 3 out of 5 High Heels

Thank You, ‘Malignant,’ for Being Malignant

Leave a comment

Malignant (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Marina Mazepa, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie, Christian Clemenson, McKenna Grace, Ingrid Bisu, Amir AboulEla

Director: James Wan

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

I’ve never seen anything quite like Malignant. This is the type of movie that’s best to go in completely unspoiled on, so I’m going to be careful with how I choose my words. And after all, I like to keep it brief when reviewing something that’s already fully released, so I won’t say much more. But I will say this: when I heard that this movie was called “Malignant,” I wondered why it was so generic. Then I watched it and realized that it was actually the most perfect title.

One more bit before I go: one thing I like to do when reviewing is ask myself if the movie I’m reviewing makes me want to do/be the thing in the title. So… does Malignant make me want to be Malignant? Honestly, I’m tempted. I can’t deny how cool it would be. The vicarious thrills I experienced while watching were wildly energizing enough on their own. But it would probably lead to a lot of gore, and I have a history of getting lightheaded at the sight of blood, so better to keep things benevolent and benign.

Grade: 1999 Malignants

One Weird Thing About ‘Jungle Cruise’

Leave a comment

Jungle Cruise (CREDIT: Walt Disney Studios/Screenshot)

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Running Time: 127 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: July 30, 2021 (Theaters and Disney+)

About midway through watching Jungle Cruise, I was trying to remember what trailer I had recently seen with Édgar Ramírez in it. I knew it was very recent, but I also knew that it wasn’t any of the trailers that I saw with Jungle Cruise (Addams Family 2, Sing 2, Dune, Encanto, and Shang-Chi, for the record). I was certain the trailer in question must have been from the past week. I considered the possibility that it was for a TV show, but that couldn’t have been right. Édgar Ramírez wasn’t showing up on any TV show anytime soon as far as I knew, and I’m pretty sure that’s the sort of thing I would know about. So what could it be?

Then perhaps a half hour later, Ramírez showed up as some immortal explorer, and I realized that what I half-remembered as a trailer was actually the prologue of the movie that I was currently watching. I was actually kind of impressed that his reappearance could come across as such an unexpected surprise. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say about Jungle Cruise.

Grade: 3 Jaumes out of 5 Collet-Serras

Shang-Chi and Legend of the Review of ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

Leave a comment

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (CREDIT: Marvel Entertainment/Screenshot)

Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen, Ben Kingsley, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: September 3, 2021 (Theaters)

Most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have me feeling some variation of “That was okay, I guess I enjoyed that.” But with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it was a little different. I saw it with my dad, who asked me multiple times how familiar I was with the character, which made me realize that I don’t think I’ve ever read a single comic book issue that featured Shang-Chi in any capacity. That freshness didn’t necessarily translate into meaning that Legend of the Ten Rings was any better than other recent MCU movies; rather, it just felt like less of a chore. And in fact, despite the presence of MCU vets like Benedict Wong and Ben Kingsley, it reminded me more of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than anything Marvel-certified. Although I should note that I’ve never actually seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it did have such a huge impact on the culture that it kinda feels like I at least absorbed it. Will Shang-Chi have a similarly huge cultural impact? Probably not, but at least everyone appeared to be having a good time.

Grade: 7 Souls out of 10 Soul-Stealing Dragons

‘The Card Counter’ Has a Lot More On Its Itinerary Than Gambling

1 Comment

The Card Counter (CREDIT: Focus Features)

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

Director: Paul Schrader

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for A Hotel Rendezvous and Hellish Scenes of Explicit Torture

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Theaters)

The Card Counter stars the darkly handsome Oscar Isaac as numerically blessed gambler William Tell. He drifts from casino to casino, careful to keep his winnings modest so as not to attract too much attention, all the while letting us in on his methods via voiceover narration. Then Tiffany Haddish shows up as La Linda, a scout who would like to recruit him onto the World Series of Poker circuit. These are two distinct acting flavors, but I have a suspicion that they’re going to go great together, so I’m happy to be on board, no matter where this story ends up going. And it certainly must be emphasized that this affair is written and directed by Paul Schrader, who’s known for his morally probing character studies when collaborating with Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and when busting out on his own (First Reformed). It’s always essential to have a variety of voices collaborating on a movie set, and The Card Counter is mighty fine evidence of that.

Just when we’re ready to settle into this movie’s groove of gambling games and existential reflection, it lets you know that there’s actually a whole lot more going on. It turns out that this isn’t Paul Schrader’s Poker Movie, but rather, Paul Schrader’s Guantanamo Boy Movie. In a past life that isn’t so past, William Tell was a big deal military interrogator stationed at that notoriously torture-filled base. And now he’s on a mission to confront that past. His plan goes in unexpected directions when he meets up with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk*, who has his own personal connection to William’s former boss, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). (*That’s “Cirk,” like “Kirk.” When he introduced himself as “Cirk with a C,” I wondered if that “C” came at the beginning or end of his name.)

It’s worth noting that I find the milieu of most gambling establishments to be terribly oppressive. Luckily, though, The Card Counter makes things a little more bearable with its uniformly compelling, as well as some genuinely goofy moments, like the flag-clad poker players chanting “USA! USA!” Those moments of levity, as well as the positively steamy chemistry between Isaac and Haddish, are essential for getting through the absolute muck that is the Guantanamo portion of the story. I’m not really sure what William or Cirk’s plan is, or if they even have a plan but are instead just cool and collected enough to give off the illusion that they have it all together. Maybe counting cards is just a way to find some order in a profoundly disordered world. If that means we’ve got a movie that’s half tightly coiled, half messy beyond all comprehension, then that sounds like a deal worth going in on.

The Card Counter is Recommended If You Like: First Reformed, Fisheye lens detours, Sour insides wrapped up in a savory exterior

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Flops

Modern Jukebox Musical Update of ‘Cinderella’ is Here to Sweep You Off Your Feet

1 Comment

Cinderella (2021) (CREDIT: Kerry Brown/Amazon)

Starring: Camila Cabello, Nicholas Galitzine, Idina Menzel, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, Tallulah Greive, Billy Porter, Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer

Director: Kay Cannon

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Slightly Off-Color Dialogue

Release Date: September 3, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video and Limited Theaters)

How can it ever be allowed that movies don’t first open in the theater? Look, I know we’re in a precarious situation right now in which theatrical releases don’t always look like a safe or financially viable option, but there are certain flicks that just demand to be seen on the big screen. Personally, I believe that’s true of all films, but it’s especially in the case of this jukebox musical version of Cinderella, written and directed by Pitch Perfect vet Kay Cannon. This is exactly the sort of movie that should have people getting up and singing and dancing in the aisles! Sure, you can also do that in your living room, but we know that’s not the same as losing yourself in a dark room full of strangers. This is a piece of art that begins with a mashup of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be,” and I’m sorry, but if that’s the message you’re delivering, then you can’t keep me confined to non-theatrical viewing options.

So here’s the journey that Cinderella 2021 took to finally arrive in front of our eyeballs: in pre-pandemic days, Sony scheduled it for a February 2019 theatrical release, but then in May 2021, they cut a deal with Amazon to have it go straight to Prime Video. May of this year! A time when things looked promising! Anyway, I suppose that Cinderella can still be enjoyed at home. I enjoyed it that way, after all! Just gather around the kids and a bunch of your friends and maybe make a party out of it. It’s the rare modern retelling of a classic story that’s neither too surface-level nor too overly specific. The setting is still “Generic Medieval English Village,” but the dialogue is a close-enough facsimile to the 21st century to have enough upside.

The message boils down to the fairly straightforward “Maybe we don’t have to fulfill the roles that society has prescribed to us,” but the details are well-considered. Camila Cabello is the plucky Ella (the “Cinder” nickname comes from her stepsisters associating her with cinder blocks), who doesn’t just want to wear pretty dresses and marry a prince – she wants to run her own dressmaking business and marry that prince only if he’ll support her career aspirations. And she’s not the only character who’s granted a thoughtful reconsideration. Her stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) isn’t cruel because she’s evil, but rather because her own dashed dreams have driven her towards cynicism.

We also get to know more about Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) and his family: the King who’s boxed in by tradition (Pierce Brosnan), the Queen who’s wondering where the passion in her marriage went (Minnie Driver), and the Princess who just wants to be taken seriously (Tallulah Grieve). And of course we can’t forget Fab G, the fairy godparent brought to typically fabulous life by Billy Porter. If anybody can be anything, why wouldn’t that character be played by one of the most effervescent entertainers alive today? Similarly, whenever Cinderella 2021 operates by the logic of “If a new Cinderella can be whatever we want, then let’s do whatever we want,” it just transports you away.

Cinderella 2021 is Recommended If You Like: Galavant, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Billy Porter Realness, The delightful TBS sitcom Miracle Workers

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dresses

The New ‘Candyman’ Asks, ‘What if Candyman Now … and Forever?’

1 Comment

Candyman (2021) (CREDIT: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures)

Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Vanessa Estelle Williams, Rebecca Spence, Brian King, Tony Todd

Director: Nia DaCosta

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for The Bloodiest of Hook-Based Violence

Release Date: August 27, 2021 (Theaters)

What’s the DEAL with decades-later horror sequels having the exact same title as the original?! Halloween did it just a few years ago, and now Candyman is getting on the reboot-but-actually-it’s-a-continuation action. I’m not a fan of this trend, and it strikes me as especially dangerous in the case of Candyman. We need some extra words in there so that we don’t accidentally say his name five times in a row! But there’s actually something apt in this case about just recycling the title. Candyman may be overwhelmingly deadly when he appears, but he exists as a whisper and a shadow the rest of the time. So it makes sense that a new generation would be discovering him completely fresh thirty years after his cinematic debut. I would maybe tack on a “The New Generation” subtitle, but the idea behind the repetition is justifiable.

So this may sound a little weird, but just go with me here: the movie that Candyman 2021 most reminds me of is … The Force Awakens. They share a certain kinship in the way that they go about examining their predecessors. These stories have become legends within their universes, and the new characters are fans of the original adventurers who are psyched to meet them. In Candyman Land, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a visual artist who’s been struggling to find inspiration but suddenly becomes full-to-bursting with ideas when he hears tell of a man with a hook who slices and dices his victims after they summon him in a mirror. He’s also soon spending much of his free time listening to the recordings left behind by Helen Lyle, the graduate student who was researching the Candyman in the first film. When you go this deep into the story, you become a part of that story, and oh boy, does Anthony become an integral cog in this tale.

By focusing so squarely on the original, Candyman 2021 is occasionally a little too myopic in its approach. For horror freaks like myself, there’s something bizarrely enjoyable about the unhinged world-building that’s typical of so many spooky sequels but less common in these reboot-style sequels. Writer-director Nia DaCosta’s approach is decidedly laser-focused, which is a good thing insofar as she knows exactly what she’s trying to accomplish and she reminds those of us who loved the original why we loved it so much. But it’s a less-than-good thing insofar as it keeps her movie perhaps too much in check. I haven’t seen either of the first two Candyman sequels that were released in the 90s; as far as I know, neither is highly regarded, but wouldn’t it be cool if DaCosta somehow found a way to incorporate elements of them into her outing? I think so. (Although maybe there are some Easter eggs that I missed… It didn’t feel like that was the case, though.)

All the ducks are in order here: the set pieces are thrilling, the music is chilling, the acting strikes the right range of tones. To sum it all up, I appreciate the lens that New-Candyman focuses on Candyman Original Flavor, but I also believe that it would have benefitted from expanding that lens a bit.

Candyman 2021 is Recommended If You Like: The Force Awakens in terms of the self-awareness, People saying “No! No! No!” right before someone summons something evil, Fun with production logos

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bees

Reminiscing About the Time I Saw ‘Reminiscence’

Leave a comment

Reminiscence (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Angela Sarafyan

Director: Lisa Joy

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: August 20, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

I went to see Reminiscence at the Regal Essex Crossing on opening night (or opening night of opening day, as it were, i.e., not a Thursday night preview showing). I had a relatively small dinner of leftover pizza beforehand, so I decided to buy some foodThe concession stand didn’t have any pretzels in stock, so I opted for mozzarella sticks instead. I paired them with a margarita since this theater is licensed to serve alcohol. Spoiler alert: they didn’t pair very well. It also didn’t help that I’d really already had my fill of cheese just a couple hours earlier.

Anyway, as for the movie itself, it was hard not to think about Inception, what with Reminiscence also having a mind-bending premise, a beachside overrun-by-waves urban setting, and characters waking up from a dream state in water. Not to mention that it’s the directorial debut of Lisa Joy, who’s married to Chris Nolan’s brother Jonathan and is probably most famous for her work alongside her husband on Westworld. Also, Reminiscence star Hugh Jackman played a similarly obsessive protagonist in the Nolan-directed The Prestige.

But ultimately my biggest takeaway is that I wish that Angela Sarafyan had played the femme fatale lead instead of Rebecca Ferguson. That’s nothing against Ferguson (whom I generally enjoy!), it’s just praise for Sarafyan. She’s ready to be a star, so I say this to the people who are in a position to give her a starring role: let’s make it happen!

Grade: Could’ve Been Wetter

Older Entries