In Your Letter

Dear Evan Hansen

by George Wolf

It’s not that Evan himself is hard to like, even flawed and unlikeable main characters can be ambitious and welcome. The real challenge for the big screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is turning the young man’s choices into something truly hopeful and inspiring.

Evan (Ben Platt, whose Broadway performance garnered one of the musical’s many Tony awards) is a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden high school senior getting assignments from his therapist that involve writing letters to himself. Through a convoluted mixup that actually lands as plausible, one of those letters ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another troubled young man who can’t make friends.

When Connor takes his own life, his mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) read the letter and reach out to Evan, looking for comfort from someone they believe must have been their son’s best friend.

It’s a cruel and horrible lie, one that Evan ultimately indulges because it makes his own life better. Evan gains friends, he becomes close to Connor’s wealthy family while his own mother (Julianne Moore) works late to makes ends meet, and he gets alone time with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who just happens to be Evan’s longtime crush.

While the facade can’t last, it’s one that’s chock full of possibilities for another shallow YA specialness parade. But director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson do manage to craft moments of truth that help offset the manipulative atmosphere.

Chbosky’s (The Perks of being a Wallflower, Wonder) choice to have the cast sing live is a smart one, bringing a needed intimacy to the music and giving Platt the chance to really impress. But while Chbosky often maneuvers into and out of the music with style, too many of those set pieces seem tentative, with only a few of the songs (“Requiem,” “Words Fail,” “So Big, So Small”) resonating beyond the frequent and generic “I feel seen” messaging.

Platt truly has a wonderful voice, but he has trouble trading what served him so well on the stage for a more nuanced film approach to emoting. Yes, at 27 Platt is a bit too old now for the role, but that’s less of a problem than surrounding him with such authentic screen talent. As Evan becomes less of an awkward outcast, Platt’s screentime with Adams, Moore and especially Dever (who gives the film its most honest moments) only highlights a need for understatement that Platt and Chbosky don’t address.

At a robust 137 minutes, Dear Evan Hansen has plenty of time to grapple with the moral conundrum at its core, but ultimately falls just short of the more universal insight it seeks.

The film shows us teens that are stressed and over-medicated, with feelings of inadequacy compounded by social media expectations and misunderstood by families and peer groups. Then when tragedy occurs, the shock opens avenues for exploitation and personal gain. Evan takes one of them.

There are teachable moments there, and the soaring melodies of Dear Evan Hansen will put occasional lumps in your throat. But is Evan’s journey a thoughtful and cautionary parable, or a shameless exploitation in itself?

In the end, neither. Much like its flawed main character, it’s a mess of awkward and misplaced intentions, as likely to generate facepalms as it is a loving embrace.

Mighty Neighborly

The Woman in the Window

by George Wolf

The Woman in the Window is a testament to the power of “all in.”

Like if you’re spying on your neighbors, get a zoom lens, take pictures! And if you’re modernizing Hitchcock, embrace that shit from the opening minutes and don’t f-ing look back.

For director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, that’s the play as they adapt A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel. And it’s a smart one.

Psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, fantastic) has a shrink of her own these days (Letts), and plenty of prescriptions. Suffering from crippling agoraphobia, Anna will not leave her spacious Manhattan townhouse. She’s got her cat Punch and her downstairs tenant David (Wyatt Russell), but outside of occasional conversations with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie), Anna spends most of her time watching her neighbors and old movies.

Then the Russells move in across the street.

Jane (Julianne Moore) comes over for an enjoyable visit, has some wine and admits that Alistair (Gary Oldman) can be angry and controlling. A later conversation with the teenaged Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger) seconds that.

So when Anna sees Jane stabbed in her apartment, she’s sure Alistair is to blame. But with detectives (Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles) looking on, a different Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears, swearing that she’s never even met Anna before tonight.

For the entire first hour, Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour, Hanna), Letts (Pulitzer winner for writing August: Osage County) and this splendid ensemble put the hammer down on a delicious mystery ride. Putting stairwells, doors, railings and more in forced perspective, Wright intensifies our relation to Ann’s small world while Letts’s crackling script draws us into the mystery and Danny Elfman’s staccato score hammers it home.

Is any of Anna’s story even real, or is it her meds and fragile psyche talking? This question allows the direct homages to classics like Rear Window and Vertigo to be filtered through a movie-loving unreliable narrator, becoming a wonderfully organic device that feeds this intoxicating noir pot-boiler.

As events escalate and Anna’s plight becomes more overtly terrifying, the novel’s pulpy seams begin to show, and the film stumbles a bit in transition. But Adams is strong enough to keep us rooted firmly in Anna’s camp, long enough for the darker side of Hitchcock to wrestle control.

Taking a story like this from page to screen successfully requires a strong, confident vision and a committed, talented cast. The Woman in the Window is overflowing with riches on both counts, landing as immensely satisfying fun.

Gonna Shout It Everyday

The Glorias

by Hope Madden

“The path up is always a jagged line.”

Gloria Steinem always could articulate the struggle toward progress. Filmmaker Julie Taymor certainly understands that sometimes the best way forward is not straight ahead. The daring filmmaker (Across the Universe, Frida, Titus) puts four Glorias on a bus heading nowhere and everywhere to help us see Gloria Steinem, backward and forward.

The Steinem we best recognize—trailblazing feminist and human rights advocate of the 60s, 70s and onward—is played by the always excellent Julianne Moore. Wise and just a little weary, Moore’s version brings Steinem’s warm soul to the screen.

She’s joined in the role by Alicia Vikander, who plays Steinem in her 20s and 30s; Lulu Wilson as teenaged Gloria; and Ryan Kiera Armstrong, portraying Steinem as a child. Though Vikander stumbles with the flat Ohio accent, each performance establishes something that grows from one era to the next: resolve, openness, vulnerability, courage.

Timothy Hutton shines as Steinem’s father, Leo, and Bette Midler commits outright larceny in her scenes as Bella Abzug. A host of minor roles—Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) and more—fill out a picture of early feminism far more vibrant than history sometimes remembers.

Taymor’s characteristic flourishes sometimes work well to enrich a tale fit for a legend. At other times, they seem like filler in a film that’s far broader than it is deep.

It is exhilarating to watch these pioneering advocates spar and support, dodge and demand, and most of all, speak up. It’s heartbreaking, too. There’s exhausting tragedy in all that promise left unfulfilled, and real terror in the face of what we now stand to actually lose.

But a cameo from the legend herself may be enough to reaffirm anyone’s resolve. As she says, “The constitution does not begin with ‘I the President.’ It begins with ‘We the people.’”

So Much Drama in the NYC

After the Wedding

by Brandon Thomas

The adult drama has all but vanished from American multiplexes. Sure, the occasional Oscar-baity title sneaks through around the holidays, but those mom-pleasing, bring your hanky dramas of yesteryear are pretty much a thing of the past. 

Despite the presence of A+ talent and an overall intriguing story, After the Wedding isn’t the shot in the arm the genre was looking for.

A retread of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar nominee for foreign language film, After the Wedding follows Isabel (Michelle Williams), who is living a fulfilling, productive life running a small orphanage in Kolkata.

After an extremely generous donation offer is made to the orphanage, Isabel travels to New York to meet Theresa (Julianne Moore), the benefactor. Unexpectedly invited to the wedding of Theresa’s daughter, Isabel finds herself face-to-face with a man from her past (Billy Crudup), and a 20-year-old decision that will shake her to her core.

After the Wedding trips up right out of the gate by leaning so heavily into melodrama. Instead of an emotionally weighty dramatic piece anchored by an amazing cast, this film latches on to genre cliches and doesn’t let go.

Deep, dark family secrets? Check. Mystery illness? Check. Sneaky motivations? Double check. The movie is one evil twin away from being a bad episode of General Hospital.

Did I mention the amount of teary-eyed yelling? There is plenty.

The only real sense of urgency comes from the movie being in a rush to get to that next dramatic reveal. The characters, and likewise the audience, are never given the chance to dwell on what just happened. The experience feels cheap and anticlimactic.

Moore and Williams continue to show that they’re national treasures, but even they can only do so much with the material afforded them. The two actresses share multiple scenes together, but any emotional weight is often deflated by the scattershot script—co-written by director Bart Freundlich (Moore’s husband)— jumping from one unearned character beat to the next. These people feel like a blended mix of every character seen in indie dramas instead of being fully-formed individuals.

Despite reeling in a Who’s Who of a cast, After the Wedding never becomes anything more than a Who Cares.


Dancing Queen

Gloria Bell

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio released a vibrant and unapologetic look at aging and living with his magnificent Gloria. He re-images that gem with Gloria Bell, his second English language film, placing the incomparable Julianne Moore at the center of a different kind of coming of age story.

Moore is Gloria, a single fiftysomething who’s starting to feel her mortality. The film itself is a character study of the type Lelio does best. His films nearly always focus unflinchingly on the struggles of a woman trying to live freely and authentically.

As with his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, his underappreciated Disobedience, and the original Gloria, Lelio’s observational and unobtrusive direction trusts the lead to carry the weight of the film. Moore characteristically rises to the occasion.

In Moore’s hands Gloria is perhaps a tad more reserved, a little more tentative than the firebrand depicted by Paulina Garcia in the original, but she’s no less wonderful. As Gloria struggles between the freedom and the loneliness of independence, and as she comes to terms with her own mortality, Moore’s tenderness and vulnerability will melt you and her sudden bursts of ferocity will delight.

John Turturro offers impeccable support as Gloria’s love interest. The performance is slippery and unsettlingly believable. He’s joined by strong ensemble work from Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Alanna Ubach and Holland Taylor, each of whom delivers the spark of authenticity despite limited screen time.

But make no mistake, Gloria Bell is Moore’s film.

Is this just another in a string of brilliant performances, one more piece of evidence to support Moore’s position among the strongest actors of her generation? No.

Gloria Bell is a beautiful film, one that fearlessly affirms the potency of an individual woman, one that recognizes the merit of her story.

 





Wonder and Thunder

Wonderstruck

by Hope Madden

If Wonderstruck—the latest from indie god Todd Haynes—feels a bit like Scorsese’s 2011 wonder Hugo, there’s a reason for that. Both films are based on juvenile fiction created by Brian Selznick.

Selznick, who adapts his own material here for the screen, is a one-of-a-kind author whose elaborate pencil drawings fill far more pages than actual text. The resulting novels offer near-magical journeys full of sumptuous detail supplied by visuals.

In both cases, the visual majesty of Selznick’s work jumps easily to the screen—in Hugo, to Oscar-winning results by cinematographer Robert Richardson. For Wonderstruck, Haynes works with longtime collaborator Edward Lachman.

But if Selznick’s unabashedly whimsical, sentimental material felt out of character for Scorsese, it’s no more characteristic for Haynes. His films tend to tackle ideas far more subversive, and by lighting those ideas with beauty and humanity, Haynes illustrates universal ideas, often of longing and the desire to belong.

His newest film also explores the human need to belong, although there’s very little to find subversive in Wonderstruck. It’s a family film that’s likely too slow moving for most youngsters and too lightweight for most Haynes fans.

The tale follows two deaf children, each on a similar journey 50 years apart. In 1927, a period lensed in black and white with a near-silent film feel about it, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) escapes her overbearing father to run away to a Broadway theater in search of her favorite starlet (Julianne Moore).

Ben (Oakes Fegley) follows a similar path in a far more garishly colorful 1977. Having recently lost both his mother and his hearing, the boy follows a clue about his father’s whereabouts to a bookstore in Queens.

Wonderstruck is a gorgeous movie. The Seventies period detail is as delightful and the Twenties elegance is lovely. All performances—particularly those of the two young leads—compel attention. Underlying themes of loneliness and the longing for acceptance resonate in the same way they echo through all of Haynes’s work.

Unfortunately, the narrative feels more full of contrivance and convenience than wonder. In the end you’re left thinking, wow, that was really pretty. Too bad it all collapsed on itself at the end.





Whisky Dicks

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

by Matt Weiner

There was a fleeting moment early in Kingsman: The Golden Circle when I thought that the new film might be atoning for the biggest misfire in the first one. One hour and one novel use of an inside-the-body POV shot later, I realized I should have known better.

Just like first movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (again directed by Matthew Vaughn, and written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman) delights in its attempts to set up the familiar contours of a spy movie and then gleefully take the piss out of them, to hell with audience expectations.

Unfortunately, the film also doubles down on everything—the good, the bad and the truly repulsive—from the first one.

We barely have time to be reunited with Eggsy aka “Galahad” (Taron Egerton), Merlin (Mark Strong) and the rest of Kingsman before the two men find themselves all alone against a worldwide threat yet again. (This would be a good time to point out that for a super-secret highly trained spy agency, it sure seems easy to wipe them out every few years.) Following the only lifeline they’ve got, Galahad and Merlin head to America to revive a special relationship with Statesman, their booze-swilling, Southern-drawling counterparts.

The Statesman universe is an American funhouse of Kingsman, complete with a lone Q-type (Halle Berry) somehow serving the entire agency. While the Statesman introduction gets in a few digs at us bumpkins across the pond, it’s hard not to sense that the main purpose is to tease some big names for future installments. That, and also—spoiler—to explain the resurrection of Eggsy’s mentor, Harry Hart (Colin Firth).

Working together, Kingsman and Statesman cut, shoot and lasso a swath of carnage across the globe in pursuit of drug lord and big-time Elton John fan Poppy (Julianne Moore) attempting to murder hundreds of millions.

I want to like the world of Kingsman. I really do. The first film was fresh, briskly shot and gave its characters enough room and heart to make you overlook the script’s shortcomings. And despite the runtime bloat in The Golden Circle, the kinetic violence and over-the-top parody keeps the action moving.

But for a pastiche that has no reservations transcending its source material when it comes to sending up action and plotting, it’s impossible to ignore how the same can’t be said for the movie’s treatment of women.

This is, after all, a film where dogs play a more emotional role in the narrative arc than most of the female leads, and a running bit about reluctant anal sex is no longer the grossest punchline in the franchise. So congrats on that distinction, I guess.

But that’s not cheeky. It’s just dull. And it’s unforgivable in any film—but especially in one that so desperately wants to be seen as clever.





Finally Julianne

Still Alice

by Hope Madden

Unless something goes terribly amiss Julianne Moore will finally win an Oscar this year, and that’s simply good news. She probably should have won one for Savage Grace, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Far From Heaven, Safe and maybe half a dozen other films. Moore is among the most versatile and talented performers of her generation, and Still Alice represents that talent well. Too bad it’s just not that great a film.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a psychology professor at Columbia University who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s.

Perhaps the best film on Alzheimer’s is Michael Haneke’s brilliant and devastating Amour, a breathtaking journey into one couple’s struggle with the disease. By comparison, Still Alice feels under developed and tidy, particularly as the disease affects the minor characters in the piece. Alec Baldwin, in particular, is hamstrung with an underwritten role as Alice’s husband. Only Kristin Stewart manages to uncover a real character arc as Alice’s daughter, much thanks to an intriguing chemistry with Moore.

The film too often feels like a made for television tragedy, with the only really interesting choice being the decision to make the victim of the disease the point of view character. In Amour as well as Away From Her and other films treading similar ground, our vehicle into the medical tragedy is a loved one. Still Alice wants to give us the first hand sense of what it is like to watch yourself disappear.

It’s a risky choice, but thanks to Moore’s impeccable, understated handling of the role, Still Alice avoids a maudlin, self-congratulatory or sentimental fate. She’s more than up to the challenge.

Moore establishes a character that is more than the irony and heart tugging on the page. Characteristically nuanced and honest, it’s a performance that makes up for many of the weaknesses in the rest of the film.

Moore’s understatement keeps the film from melodrama, but unfortunately, everything else about the movie needed a bit more drama. It’s a superficial tale with contrived bits of tension that end in uninspired resolutions. The lack of insight into the marriage itself is probably the film’s most noticeable failing, but aside from Moore’s ability to show us how the disease ravages a once sharp mind, we don’t get to know Alice – her relationships, her past, her passions – well enough to really understand what she’s losing.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 





Five More Remakes in Need of an All Female Cast

Rumors of an all-female Ghostbusting team got us A) excited for the reboot, and B) thinking of other movies we’d love to see reimagined with women in the lead. Here are the 5 films we think could benefit from some gender-retooling, along with our dream casts.

Jaws

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 great white classic benefitted from one of the best buddy trios in cinema with Roy Scheider’s reluctant shipmate Sheriff Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s on-board scientist, and salty sea dog Quint played to perfection by Robert Shaw.

Who has the gravy to run nails down a chalkboard, frighten the locals and bark that she’ll find the shark for $3000, but “catch him, and kill him, for 10”? Nobody but Jessica Lange. We’d flank her with Anne Hathaway as the transplanted cop who wants a bigger boat and Emily Blunt as the oceanographer willing to take the risk when the cage goes in the water.

Easy Rider

How fun would this be? Let’s rework the classic American outlaw motorcycle ride! Who’s the laid back badass looking for an unsoiled America? We’d put the great Viola Davis in Peter Fonda’s role. For the thoughtful square up for an adventure, we swap Amy Adams in for Jack Nicholson. And who could fill legendary wacko Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle boots? We want Melissa McCarthy. (Come to think of it, she’d give Blue Velvet an interesting new take as well.)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Who on this earth could take the place of Alec Baldwin with perhaps the greatest venomous monologue in film history? Jennifer Lawrence – can you see it? We really, really want to see a movie with JLaw chewing up and spitting out this much perfectly penned hatred.

“Put that coffee down!”

And at whom should she spew? The wondrous Meryl Streep should take Jack Lemmon’s spot as loser Shelley Levine. We’d put Kate Winslet in Pacino’s slick winner Ricky Roma role and Kristin Scott Thomas in Ed Harris’s shadowy Dave Moss spot. Then we’d pull it all together with the magnificent Tilda Swinton in the weasely role worn so well by Kevin Spacey.

Predator

We knew we needed an action film, but who could be the new Schwarzenegger? Our vote: Michelle Rodriguez. We then put the ever formidable Helen Mirren in the Carl Weathers boss role. Obviously. The ragtag group of soldiers sent to, one by one, to be skinned alive? Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Gina Carano. Done.

Reservoir Dogs

Picture it:

Ms. Orange (Tim Roth): Rosamund Pike

Ms. White (Harvey Keitel): Julianne Moore

Ms. Blond (Michael Madsen): Charlize Theron (Cannot wait to see her get her crazy on.)

Ms. Pink (Steve Buscemi): Lupita Nyongo

Ms. Brown (Tarantino): Shailene Woodley

Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn): Cate Blanchett

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney): Kathy Bates

 

All right, Hollywood. We’ve done the hard part. Now get on it! All we ask is executive producer status and points on the back end.





Rebel Rebel

The  Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

by Hope Madden

What makes the Hunger Games franchise so much stronger than the rest of the adolescent lit series out there? Perhaps more than anything – more than a compelling hero’s quest, more than the peril and drama, more than director Francis Lawrence’s eye for action and sense of pacing – it’s that each new film expands the profound talent in this pool of actors.

The great Julianne Moore joins ranks that include 2-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, consummate bad guy Donald Sutherland, genius character actors Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, and the greatest actor of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And who can forget the lead – a performer with an Oscar and two additional nominations under her belt at the ripe old age of 24? Let’s be honest, these humans could elevate any script that fell into their collective grasp. They could make a decent film out of Fifty Shades of Grey, for God’s sake.

Lucky for us, instead they collaborate on the third of four episodes in the program, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Reluctant hero Katniss, having destroyed the games and been rescued by rebel forces, agrees to be the face of the rebellion in return for the rescue of her beloved friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Gone is the Battle Royale nightmare and excitement of the games themselves, replaced with the broiling drama of a budding revolution. Gone, too, are the writers that mined Suzanne Collins’s novel Catching Fire for its underlying political maneuverings. They are replaced by Collins herself, who adapts her novel, as well as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (The Butler). Their treatment lacks much of the excitement of earlier installments, spending more time with the brooding, dramatic Katniss than with the arrow-wielding badass.

They don’t write down to their audience, though, touching upon the helplessness and compromise of political manipulations, finding similarities between the behavior of the rebellion and that of the dread Capitol.

Credit Lawrence (the director) for keeping a quick pace though saddled with more exposition and fewer action sequences, more heavy drama and less bloodshed. But honestly, the magic of the film is in Stanley Tucci’s disingenuous TV interviews, in Moore’s subtle evolution, in Hoffman’s every bemused chuckle, and in Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to transform into a skulking, unlikeable, single minded teen who happens to carry a revolution on her shoulders.

Verdict-3-5-Stars