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

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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

‘The Glorias’ Shows Off Some Good and Some Bad Habits of Biopic Filmmaking

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Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Gloria Steinem, and Director Julie Taymor behind the scenes of “The Glorias” (CREDIT: Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Timothy Hutton, Janelle Monáe, Bella Abzug, Lorraine Toussaint, Enid Graham, Kimberly Guerrero, Monica Sanchez, Margo Moorer

Director: Julie Taymor

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Language and a Nude Image

Release Date: September 30, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

I’m of the mind that biopics – that most staid of movie genres – ought to be a little bit wacky. Or A LOT wacky. And the Julia Taymor-directed The Glorias is undoubtedly wacky. Or maybe, it’s exactly as it should be, and it’s everything else that’s askew. The subject is Gloria Steinem, one of the most famous activists in American history, so I’m sure she can appreciate an approach that breaks the mold. Taymor ditches a strictly chronological approach by having all four of the actors playing Gloria frequently interact with each other. Ryan Kiera Armstrong (young Gloria), Lulu Wilson (teen Gloria), Alicia Vikander (young adult Gloria), and Julianne Moore (older adult Gloria) are all presented as passengers on a ride heading to the promise of Steinem’s life’s work. It’s a journey that’s still ongoing as conversations between the past and present remain passionate and relevant.

Taymor fills The Glorias with occasional flights of fantastical whimsy that reminded me a fair bit of Rocketman, the most exuberant biopic in recent memory. These include a sexist interview that turns into an encounter with all four Glorias as witches, and a moment of frustration leading to Gloria running along a series of seemingly endless M.C. Escher-style roads. These moments are fascinating on their own, but they’re a bit too scattered throughout to really pack as powerful a punch as they possibly could.

The Glorias also has plenty of much more prosaic moments, and that mix of straightforward and roundabout results in a running time that clocks in thickly at nearly two and a half hours. Some of the episodes in the 1970s section, like the founding of Ms. Magazine, were also recently covered more excitingly in the FX on Hulu miniseries Mrs. America. Taymor has bitten off plenty (which is what happens when you try to cover the entire arc of someone who’s lived for nearly 90 years), and she chews as much of it as she can. When she manages to really dig in, it’s a fine fiesta to behold. You just have to deal with the messier edges if you want to find the fun.

The Glorias is Recommended If You Like: Filmmaking that’s plenty ambitious but also a little messy

Grade: 3 out of 5 Marches

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Suburbicon’ Pokes at the Myth of a Utopian America by Exposing Both Latent Criminality and Racism to Chaotic, Intermittently Thrilling, Results

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Black Bear Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Wiseguy-Style Punching, Stabbing, Explosions, and Poisoning and Some Slap-Happy Hanky-Panky

Release Date: October 27, 2017

In the perfect mid-20th Century American town of Suburbicon (basically Leave It to Beaver sprung to life), the dream of raising a family with no worries and getting along with all your neighbors has been fully, uniformly realized. Or at least, that’s how it’s being sold. Whenever a movie begins with a montage praising picture-perfect suburbia, it is clear that we are actually in for satire. In this case, it is a violently screwball riff on Double Indemnity.

The idea that a utopian town can really exist is punctured fairly immediately when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is invaded by a couple of goons intent on thievery and terrorizing. Rose ends up dying at the hands of the thieves, leaving Gardner to raise their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) with the help of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). But it soon becomes clear that Gardner and Margaret were behind Rose’s death, for the sake of paying off Gardner’s mob debts and so that they can cash in on the life insurance policy on Rose and escape to a Caribbean paradise. So this really is 100% Double Indemnity in the Cleavers’ neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, Suburbicon does not offer much new to say with its recontextualization, save for Matt Damon riding a comically undersized bicycle. Considering the talent assembled, that is notably disappointing. But it is not entirely surprising, as the array of violence involves the Coen brothers (who wrote the script along with Clooney and Grant Heslov) indulging in their most outrageous tendencies. At least Oscar Isaac livens things up quite a bit as the claims adjuster of claims adjusters, though his appearance is all too brief (somewhat necessarily so).

But wait! If that narrative disappoints you, why not check out the other fully fleshed out story existing within the very same movie? Suburbicon has just welcomed its first black family, although “welcomed” is far from the right word for many residents. It seems that this town’s ideals are false not just because it cannot keep the mob at bay but also because its lily-white identity includes a big hunk of racism.

If this sounds like two completely different movies, that it is in fact how much of it plays out. But that is also kind of the point. The racism portion gets relatively short shrift, but the idea does seem to be that Suburbicon, and in turn America, would like to pretend that this problem does not exist. That is a tricky point to make, though, and Suburbicon’s touch is not exactly delicate. Ultimately, then, the film is well-intentioned, but its tone is too all over the place for those intentions to be as clear as they need to be.

Suburbicon is Recommended If You Like: Anything and everything influenced by Double Indemnity, The Coen Brothers at their most cartoonishly violent, Two movies with starkly different focuses smooshed together

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Explosions

This Is a Movie Review: Wonderstruck

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

Todd Haynes tries his hand at crosscutting concurrent (but not contemporaneous) narratives with the lovely Wonderstruck. The 1927-set and 1977-set portions ultimately converge around the Museum of Natural History in ways that are more than just thematic and geographic. Are the mechanics that get us there smooth or perfunctory? I for one find it satisfying. The earnest performances and fastidious pastiche-y touches go a long way in that regard. I am also impressed by the communication with, between, and around the deaf characters. Here’s the big question: was I wonderstruck? Yah.

I give Wonderstruck 7 Wolf Visions out of 9 Miniatures.

This Is a Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox

The Golden Circle is just as exciting as the first Kingsman, and it features a hell of a villainous turn from Julianne Moore. Its attitude is a bit arch, and it often pretends that it isn’t, but that isn’t a huge deal when the action is assembled impressively and the humor does let loose often enough. But ultimately while these flicks are fun, I find it hard to embrace them fully. There is just something weirdly insidious about their politics (or something like politics). It may not even be intentional, but intentional or not, it does unnerve me. I could have forgiven all that if Channing had danced more. Why didn’t Channing dance more?

I give Kingsman: The Golden Circle 2 Cannibal Burgers out of 3 Butterfly Effects.

This Is A Movie Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson
When Liam Neeson entered the action star portion of his acting career, my reaction was, “Yes, of course.”  Actually, I may not really have had any reaction at all because the one-man army role suited him so well that I hardly noticed any difference.  This is partly a way of getting at the fact that Neeson’s action stardom has been more successful than the actual movies have been.  He made Taken work as well as it did by sheer force of will, but I found that movie to be too distressing and overly tidy to be able to embrace it completely.  His subsequent lone hero actioners have for the most part been variations on Taken.  No doubt about it, Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane, but I preferred it to the kidnapping thriller because it was just so insane that I might have had to lose my mind, and I was happy to.

(GENERALLY SPOILER-ISH INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT, BECAUSE I FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS MOVIE IN SPECIFIC TERMS.)  Non-Stop is filled with improbabilities right from the get-go.  Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who has turned to the bottle to deal with his daughter’s death.  The fact that Marks still gets assigned jobs despite obviously being affected by his drinking and the cause of his alcoholism being overly pat strain credulity, but it is actually purposeful to the narrative that his competence is suspect and that information about his troubles could be public knowledge.  Anyway, though, Non-Stop gets away with most or all its implausibility by being upfront about it.  A movie that crosses a classic mad-villain extortion scheme with a cat-and-mouse game at 30,000 feet is not aiming for everyday verisimilitude.

In addition to reveling in its absurdity, Non-Stop excels in its suspense by establishing just about every character as a legitimate suspect.  Julianne Moore, as Marks’ seat neighbor, is overly talkative.  Scoot McNairy, who excels at playing slimy (check him out getting into deep shit in Killing Them Softly) plays a punk who is rather inquisitive about what plane Marks will be getting on.  Certain traps and killing maneuvers suggest action in areas of the plane that only the pilots and flight attendants would have access to.  A second marshal is the only other one who should be on the cellular network that Marks is receiving the threatening texts from.  Corey Stoll is an overly aggressive New York City cop who questions why Marks doesn’t give the Muslim passenger as thorough a shakedown as he gives everyone else.  This seems like a typical moment playing on post-9/11 paranoia, but it may actually be a matter of class or profession bias, as Marks may have overlooked him because he is a doctor.

(THINGS GET EVEN MORE SPOILERY IN THIS PARAGRAPH.)  The nature of the manhunt suddenly changes in the final act when it is revealed that the killings are not just going to be those happening one by one every 20 minutes due to the revelation of a bomb, which had earlier been disguised by cocaine.  This new crisis prompts Marks, who has been backed into a corner by passengers suspicious of him, to reveal everything about his previously secretive investigation.  This sequence sets quite a benchmark for excitement that the rest of the 2014 film slate will have a tough time matching.

If you are worried that too many twists and turns have been spoiled by the promotion of this movie, don’t be.  While the trailer does include a fair amount of footage from the final act – and, admittedly, does feature as its centerpiece the most memorable shot of a pivotal struggle – there is actually a fair amount of misdirection.  The first death in particular does not go down exactly as the previews would lead you to believe.

Non-Stop falters a little bit with its ending, as the motivation for the extortion is revealed – it tries to be straightforward, which is difficult amidst all the insanity.  I did not have a problem with the spirit of the motivation itself, or how it went about being explained, so much as the fact that it was a bit too simplistic.  Still, that does not take away from all the highly pressurized excitement that precedes it. A-