Monday, September 27, 2021

Dear Evan Hansen


I can imagine that this worked really well on stage as the actors can feed off of the audience's emotions and the immediacy of the theater brings everyone together. That feeling is hard to replicate in a film. Movies have an influence on the audience but the energy level does not change from each showing. The emotions can only flow in one direction, and the somewhat static nature of a film , even one that is dynamic, does not provoke in the same manner. The difficulty this movie will have is less due to the material and more to the medium.

One of the problems that I have with modern musicals is that the tunes are not distinctive and the lyrics don't lend themselves to singing along. So much of this film is made up of dialogue that is sung and could easily have just been spoken. There are not any extravagant show stopping moments. The closest you get to something that you would describe as a production number is a sequence that takes advantage of social media as a way to advance the song and character. It's as if this movie is the anti- "In the Heights".  That movie was all about the wild color and flourishes of a musical, this film is all internal self directed mediation where the songs are basically happening in a persons heads more than anywhere else (there are a couple of exceptions).

The story has it's heart in the right place. The perspective of someone suffering from social anxiety, depression and ADD, is handled with a great deal of sympathy.. In my discussion of the film on the podcast this week, we had a brief debate about whether the lead character of Evan Hansen is the victim or the antagonist in the story. We all agreed he had the best intentions but we also acknowledge that old saying about the road to hell being paved by those kinds of intentions. For my part, I always try to see the context of events to try and judge actions. Evan's deception takes place in circumstances where being honest would be hurtful to others, and he can't bring himself to do that. The pain of the family of Connor is impossible not to empathize with. Connor was troubled, his sister at one point calls him a monster. He was certainly horrible to many others, but that seems to stem from biological and chemical issues more than anything else. The fantasy that Evan concocts would have been fine if he had not crossed a certain line and if Connor's Mother could just accept the story on it's face. Like every sitcom over the last fifty years, one complication has to lead to another and in this situation the result is tragic rather than humorous. 

I have heard some criticism of the decision to stick with Ben Platt as the lead for the movie. He is the Tony Award winning actor who originated the role, but he has aged enough that playing a high school senior may be a reach. I did not really have a problem with that, since I have been conditioned by years of watching movies with thirty year old's playing teens. His voice is superlative for the way the songs are arranged and presented. I may not be a big fan of that style but I can recognize the talent it takes to pull it off. The other actors are also capable in the singing department. Amy Adams is known for having those talents but Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever have not been singers in the past, at least not that I am aware of, they both meet the needs of their parts.

This movie was going to be a hard sell from the get go. In spite of it's credentials on the Broadway Stage, is is not a very appealing subject to most audiences. In the past we have had a successful holocaust comedy and a semi successful teen terminal cancer love story, so why not a musical about depression and teen suicide? The answer is that people go to the movies for different reasons than they go to the theater. The earnestness of your stories intentions don't always translate into a warm audience embrace. We can be manipulated emotionally, but we have to be open to that manipulation to let it have an impact on us. Movie audiences are very fussy about what they will let themselves accept. My guess is that most of the film audience, in these times, will not be receptive to this sort of storytelling. 

Friday, September 24, 2021



I did something today that is always fun, and sometimes pays off. I spun the wheel on what to see and went in blind to watch Copshop, the latest from director Joe Carnahan and actor producer Gerard Butler. I have seen a few of Carnahan's films, my favorite of his is "The Grey", the Liam Neeson Wolfpunching story from 2011. Butler has become the King of the "B" movie in the last few years, and he does in fact rule. I had no idea what the story involved, I'd not seen the trailer or read a review. I chose the film entirely based on the combination of these two talents. Boy am I glad I did. This is a tasty bit of nastiness that borrows heavily from the 1970s, and that is my jam.

When the credits start at the beginning of the film, I could swear I knew the music that was being played. It reminded me of a gritty 70s film like "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3". It sounded like a Dirty Harry score. Imagine my delight when I sat thru the end credits and confirmed that the theme music from this movie was basically "Magnum Force", by Lalo Schifrin. There are a couple more music cues in the film that harking to the early seventies. The film does finally get to a contemporary pace and style in the climax, but first we are treated to a slow burn set up that reminded me of so many films from that earlier era that I love. We end up with two guys confined in a space and wonder how and why that are facing off. The ambiguity feels very much like some of those cop films of the dirty New York era but this is set in Nevada. 

This is a cross between "Report to the Commissioner" and "Assault on Precinct 13". The two leads, Butler and Frank Grillo, are not good guys by any stretch of the imagination. Their showdown results in so much collateral damage that it will inspire books and movies for years if it really happened. It's not the sort of John Wick violence where there are as many bodies as there are bullets, the dead do have some weight to them and so it feels a little more engaging from a story point of view, without the style of the modern shoot em ups that we have had in the last few years.  The best hook in the film however, is the third billed Alexis Louder, who is the real star of the film and I think is making a breakthrough with this part. She plays the cop in the middle, who adheres to a code of ethics and has the skills to fight back when needed. I thought her persona jumped off the screen from the first moment she appeared. 

It would not be fair to the supporting actors not to mention the good work they are doing in what is likely a film that most people will see as disposable. Ryan O'Nan, who will be familiar from several TV projects, is a feckless cop with corruption in his back pocket.   It is Toby Huss however who steals the show for villainy in the piece. I literally saw him in an episode of CSI just last night, but this character was very different. If the psychotic contact killer can be classified as the comic relief in a movie, than I will say that is the part that Huss plays. Anthony Lamb (not really subtle) is a competing killer, injected into the mix to add some spice, and boy does he. 

The film is not great, it has plot holes and unbelievable recoveries from gunshots that undermine any credibility. You won't care however because it is entertaining as hell for those who like the plot to play out over the course of the film and not have everything handed to them is a series of fast cuts designed to get the adrenaline jumping. Butler does very limited action duty, and Grillo is not attempting any martial arts moves. This is a shootout at the end of a psychological puzzle, and it satisfied me completely. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Citizen Kane 80th Anniversary Fathom/TCM Event


There is probably no more discussed, written about, argued over and idolized film than "Citizen Kane". What is amazing is that it has remained near the top of so many lists of the greatest films of all time, 80 years after it first appeared. The reasons are straightforward, "Kane" created the template that so many films that came after it also follow. The visuals are creative, the movie is shot from non-traditional perspectives in most of the scenes. The Edits are integrated into the story, they are not simply stopping places before the next scene. Film Noir owes a deep debt of gratitude to Gregg Toland who shot "Citizen Kane" like it was a noir story. The film also gave us Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to create unforgettable scores for a dozen iconic films.

Far be it from me to commit to trying a new take on the classic, this will simply be a few random observations that I made at my screening. To begin, if you were seeing this for the first time and watched the opening five minutes, you would think this was a horror film. It is possible that some could classify it that way, but most of us get past those trappings as the story plays out, although by the time of the conclusion, you may revert back to that original impression very easily. 

The characters in the story appear at different ages and in various degrees of warmth or aggravation with the title character. The one exception that I noticed was Everett Sloane's Mr. Bernstein, who somehow managed to roll with every mood that Charles Foster Kane went through, and still remained loyal to him. Maybe that would classify him as a sycophant, but after everything plays out, I thought he was the one character in the story who you could always feel sympathetic towards. Joseph Cotten's Jed Leland becomes a self righteous hypocrite,  in spite of the fact that he is basically correct about his friend Kane. I hope that I hold no grudges so long that I could not reach out to a former friend near the end of their life and provide a small amount of solace by giving them a phone call. 

When I went to the list of credits on the IMDB page, I was amazed at the number of actors listed as having participated in this film. They are uncredited in the film but the list is as long as your arm, it includes dancers, singers, reporters, and pedestrians. Everybody got to be a part of history. Ben Mankiewicz, the TCM Host who is also the grandson of the screenwriter, provided a brief introduction and coda for the Fathom presentation of the film. There was nothing particularly new in anything he had to say, but it did include a reference at one point to the David Fincher film from last year, with the notation that the film about the making of the film got twice as many Oscars as the film that inspired it.

Orson Wells accomplishment with this film was something incredible for the level of film experience that he had, which was basically none. Regardless of the controversies over the screenplay, the author of the film is pretty clear and you can see his imprint on every frame of the movie. "Citizen Kane" does not need me to recommend it, my only purpose is to remind you that it is out there, waiting for you to discover for the first time, or rediscover for your thirtieth time. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Cry Macho


Long in the tooth and slow in the gait, Clint Eastwood still has enough star power to wipe most other performers off the screen. This 91 year old national treasure keeps working and making the cinema world a better place as a result. While "Cry Macho" may not be up to the standards of his greatest films, it is certainly entertaining enough and it speaks to issues that seem contemporary, even though the film is set forty years ago. 

Many Eastwood films have featured him in the role of mentor to a younger character. "Gran Torino" was all about a cross cultural lampooning and deconstruction of supposed "toxic masculinity", so it is not really a surprise that this film treads familiar ground. Clint's character Mike Milo, is a used up man, without much to look forward to except release from this world. When his estranged friend and former employer played by Dwight Yoakam enlists him to go to Mexico City and essentially kidnap his 13 year old son from the Mother that he has divorced, Mike sees red flags but also a chance to find some purpose to his continued existence.  

There are a couple obvious problems that I want to discuss early and get out of the way. The dialogue in the two set up scenes is not good and the performances by the two leads live down to that quality. The film starts to feel like it is just conveniently setting up the road trip for us without bothering to make the characters that inspire it feel believable. The "antagonists" in the movie are the kid's Mother and her boyfriends and entourage. They are also not very believable, in fact there is one moment that may cause a spit take from the audience. But...once Clint and the kid connect, the picture is on much steadier grounds and the characters begin to feel more as if this is a story worth telling. Young Eduardo Minett is a slightly more natural actor than his counterpart in "Gran Torino" was, but both performances feel a little amateurish. The character of Rafo does start to grow on us, in spite of some adolescent faults that are irritating early on. 

The connection between the man and the boy is of course the main point of the story, but there are some surprising detours along the way, including some time spent in a small Mexican town and the people of that town. In particular, the two fugitives, find a stronger familial bond then they have experienced in a long time. This interlude is the strongest part of the story and will make you want to forget what has been set up and instead settle down with the possibilities that are now presented to the man and boy.  Eastwood's directing style which has always focused more on character than cinematic flamboyance, seems a perfect match for this section of the movie. There is some gentle humor and only a little tension during these sequences. Once they hit the road again, there is an opportunity for Clint to do some basic action that is still acceptable for his age.  The tension in his film "The Mule" from a couple of years ago was mirrored almost exactly when a couple of federal Mexican police pull over the two and we get some sly dialogue that apes the earlier film.

Admittedly, Clint may be a decade past where he could pull this off without difficulty. Still I think his performance here works. The romantic elements of the picture have little to do with sexual attraction and instead focus on the sorts of qualities that people really should be looking for in one another. There is a conundrum built into the mission when we get a plot point revel later in the story. Mike will not be able to resolve it, but he has prepared young Rafo well enough to be able to figure his way out of the issue when it comes up, sometime after our movie ends.

The film will have to make due with an older audience because the things that draw in the typical movie crowd these days are largely missing from this. No real gunfights, barely any fisticuffs, no action scenes per se and a romantic relationship between characters that could be their grandparents. This may be a film that works with Warner's HBO Max/Day and date simultaneous release. I hope older audiences will go out to see the movie, but if you can't bring yourself to do that, click the watch button and enjoy an efficient little drama that starts off shaky but finishes well. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Jungle Cruise


A year ago when this was originally due, I was really looking forward to it. Somehow the extra year weaned me off of anticipation, the exact opposite of "Dune" and "No Time to Die". So this movie, which has been out for six weeks was almost gone from my radar, but then I noticed that it seemed to be hanging around for a lot more time than most new releases. I had a blank spot in my afternoon and going to a movie is my default action. When I saw this was still playing and it was available as a matinee, I found the requisite enthusiasm to venture out. I am really glad I did, it was a completely enjoyable experience. 

Most of the time, Dwayne Johnson has not let me down. There are not stars that can guarantee a movie opening, not anymore. The closest we have are Tom Cruise and the former "Rock", so maybe there is still a little hope for Hollywood in the star system. Julia Roberts was once one of those actors who could open even a bad movie, for me, Emily Blunt is the female star most likely to get me into a theater. It is not the combination of the two stars however that make this film a "want to see", it is the premise. Disney has had varying degrees of success turning theme park attractions into film franchises.  We are still getting "Pirates" movies, but no one is clamoring for another "Country Bears". "Jungle Cruise" just feels like it out to be a Saturday adventure film. The Disney ride at the park is inspired by "The African Queen" and "King Solomon's Mine". It always felt like a live action Tarzan film. Translating it to a theatrical film is mostly successful but you have to keep the context in mind. This is a Saturday Seial brought to life, it should not be looked at as anything else. 

As I was watching it, a dozen other films came to mind. I mentioned "The African Queen", the boat in the ride and this feature is based on the boat from that film. The search for a lost treasure of course brings up a lot of films, but "Jungle Cruise" feels very much like the Brendan Frasier "Mummy" movies of the 1990s. There are moments cribbed from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" which itself cribbed from a thousand other films. When the cursed conquistadors showed up, I caught Disney stealing from their own theme park movie series and I began to wonder if Johnny Depp was going to show up. He doesn't, but a half dozen similar ideas crop up. Dwayne Johnson plays Captain Frank Wolff, who is full of scams to keep his business going. The opening section includes a tourist cruise that gives the Rock a chance to do the kinds of puns that fill the tour at Disneyland. If I'd ever wanted to work at the Magic Kingdom, it would have been as one of the boat captains on the Jungle Cruise attraction. The corny quips are not as frequent in the rest of the film but there is a nice call back at the conclusion of the film.

The adventure is mostly light hearted but there are some deaths that occur that might bother the little kids. Nothing is too graphic but some sympathetic characters get sacrificed to elevate a sense of danger. My only film making criticism is that the movie does feel a little long. The story could have been tightened and maybe a couple of the big CGI scenes could be shortened substantially. As a live action cartoon style adventure however, I think it hits the right notes. There are a couple of places where the modern sensibilities wisely sidestep some of the cultural land mines that were present in the old ride, but only one thing seemed to be particularly woke, and it is so subtle that most kids won't notice it.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has done several films I have enjoyed, including, the Liam Neeson trifecta of "Unknown", "Non-Stop", and "Run All Night". My favorite of his films however is the Jaws inspired "The Shallows".  He is currently finishing up another Dwayne Johnson picture "Black Adam", It's a DCEU film which is scary, but it does stem from the "Shazam" stories so maybe it will work, we will see. Meanwhile, Jungle Cruise is still sailing, so hop on board, but be sure to bring a big bag of popcorn, because that is the only nutrition you'll get on the expedition, most of this is the cotton candy that you crave in the summertime. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone 20th Anniversary

 It's hard for me to believe that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is 20 years old. In that time frame we got a total of 10 films in the Harry Potter universe most of which were completed within a 12 year period . There had never been anything attempted  like this before, the MCEU came along later with its three and four phases. Harry Potter however is something that is special for most kids because it's a Gateway film into the fantasy universe. Kids who saw these films growing up have their own version of The Wizard of Oz, the Ten Commandments, and Star Wars. 

The first film in the series had to try and get everything right. Director Christopher Columbus was sometimes accused of going soft on the storytelling but that ignores the fact that this was indeed a children's story to begin with. It's only after the third or fourth film that it really becomes much more a coming-of-age film series and much more dramatic. The Sorcerer's Stone had to work for the audience at this time, in order to set everything else up. The visualization of the story is it strongest component. Privet Drive, Diagon Alley, and Hogwarts are perfectly presented to us in almost exactly the way most of us thought in our Mind's Eye. The casting of the characters was also very successful, especially the young leads, who would have to carry this film series for a decade. The one choice that seemed obvious at the time was Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, but it seems to me in retrospect to be the weakest link in the film. Not because Harris was bad or didn't look like the Dumbledore  we wanted but his advanced age ,which was later clear because of his death, made him seem more frail than any of us probably imagined. But Harris's voice and facial expressions do setup the criteria for the character. 

Today I got a chance to see the original film on the big screen and once again it impresses. John William's Charming score featuring The Beautiful Hedwig's theme, set the grounds for the music in the rest of the film series. The CGI only looks clunky in a couple of places and everything of course got much better as the series went along. Most of the things that were essential in the book, got put into the movie ,which may have made the film a little long but probably delighted it's youthful audience, and me too.

Had I known that the movie was playing with  what is billed as Magic Movie Mode, I would have made plans to stay and watch it the second time through. The Magic Movie Mode basically includes inserts of director's commentary,and  bubble screens with details about props and makeup and scenery, as well is having a little bit of a game for kids to follow along ,where they count appearances the golden snitch. But since the film is almost 3 hours to begin with a second 3 hours seemed a little daunting. The problem with watching this film is that I immediately I want to watch the other films in the series right away.

My own kids experienced this film at just the right age they were 13 and 15 when the movie came out and, as such, could easily relate the main characters in the story. The night we first saw this was the last time we also saw our friends Kathy, James, and Rebecca. Something had upset Kathy and much like she had done 6 years earlier she ghosted us and we never figured out what her problem was. I feel a little bad because the two kids were friends with our kids and they were the children of my best friend who had passed away. I have never let the negative experience interfere with my memory of the first time we saw this film. It Still Remains a glorious children's film that sets up an astonishingly mature set of films that follow it. If you get a chance, make some time and remember what it felt like the 20 years younger and anticipating the Wonder.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


I don't know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don't have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don't have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It's simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.

Moving into Phase Four of Marvel's Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it's own out of context, it is pretty darn great. 

There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result. 

I'm not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man's foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character's stern demeanor and family traditions. 

Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first "Iron Man". So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It's great when a movie is so much more than you expected, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is one of those.