Purple Hearts (2022)
When Netflix’s small-scale romantic drama Purple Hearts debuted during the summer of 2022, it over-performed and proved more popular than other much more high-profile Netflix releases at that same time, namely the headline-grabbing, and very bad, 365 Days franchise. Purple Hearts styles itself as a would-be Nicholas Sparks novel dripping with sudsy sentimentality and enemies-to-lovers swoon, but it’s really more an indictment of the “both sides” false equivalency befalling our modern political discourse, and in trying to find a safe middle, the movie ends up failing to hold one character accountable at all while forcing the other to completely bend over backwards for a moral and ethical re-education.
Cassie (Sofia Carson) works at a California dive bar and dreams about being a singer. She also suffers from diabetes and cannot afford her life-saving medicine. Luke (Nicholas Galtizine) is an enlisted soldier about to leave for his first tour of duty in Iraq. They can’t stand each other and yet both agree to enter into a fraudulent relationship and get married for the military benefits. Then Luke comes home early to recover from an injury, and he and his phony wife have to play pretend to keep their benefits and keep Luke out of the cross-hairs of being dishonorably discharged. Can these two crazy kids with opposing political views actually fall in love for real?
The title isn’t just a reference to the military award given to the wounded, it’s also an indication of the movie’s attempted ideology, that this red conservative boy and this blue city gal can come together and find harmony. For the first hour, this idea is drilled into the viewer’s head, that these two are an example of the polarization of modern American politics and neither is willing to cede an inch. Except that’s not true at all, especially as the movie plays out. The premise almost sounds like a comedic farce that probably would have been more entertaining. This isn’t a story about two people butting heads and then finding common ground and learning the error of misconception. Let me give you some examples, dear reader, how Purple Hearts is not a “meet in the middle” romance and more of an unhealthy erasure of a vocal woman’s ideals.
Each person has an impetus for getting into this sham marriage. Cassie cannot afford her insulin with no health care. Luke has little money and owes an old friend/drug dealer he’s trying to leave behind. First off, these scenarios are not equal. Cassie’s is an indictment on our broken health-care system that pushes so many to the margins of desperation. It’s also an indictment on the price-gouging of insulin, which according to the Mayo Clinic costs ten times more in the United States than “any other developed nation,” and on unchecked corporate greed. Cassie’s dilemma speaks to the vulnerable underclass being ignored. Now take Luke, who vaguely owes some money for vague reasons to his former dealer. It’s a reminder of Luke’s past as an addict. However, this threatening dealer is the only reminder of his past addiction; Luke doesn’t struggle with temptation or relapsing, even after he gets seriously injured in the line of duty. His struggles are not on the same level as Cassie, and maybe that’s because the military has saved Luke. His own father was ready to disown his rebellious boy but when Cassie informs dear angry dad about his son’s enlistment, he softens and invites her inside his home to speak. By this standard, it’s even more curious why Luke is still in debt to his former friend. He’s already gone through his basic training, he’s already heading overseas, so surely he would already have some benefits of being in the military and possibly pay off his dealer (I looked up boot camp pay and it varies but it’s also pretty minimal). Also, his problem is a one-time payment away from resolve whereas hers is a lifetime of need. I’m admittedly coming at this from an outsider, but one of these people seems to have problems that are social ails, and currently dealing with a medical crisis, and the other is past his crisis and would likely be well suited to resolve his scenario.
Now let’s speak about what each of them gives up through this relationship. They take turns trading insults, Luke calling her a “snowflake” and denigrating her mother being an “illegal,” while Cassie insults Luke for being “blindly obedient,” which is kind of expected in the military. After they are sham married and go out with Luke’s squad, one of his peers makes a toast about going over to Iraq and “hunt me some Arabs.” Cassie looks appalled but says nothing. This friend of Luke’s then pointedly asks if Cassie has a problem with him, and she very reasonably says she has a problem with his racism and conflating all Arabs as one monolithic group to target, and this guy sneers and mocks her about using pronouns. After a couple more heated misogynistic comments, Luke intervenes… by asking Cassie to sit down and shut up. Excuse me? She was uncomfortable from an outburst of racism, was mocked for this, while also bearing the insult the idea of simply empathy with pronouns, and then she’s the problem? This scene is indicative of the movie’s entire approach to the political divide. It serves up easy points by playing upon stereotypes of how liberals are perceived (Cassie didn’t even know the U.S. was still in Iraq), and its lazy insults against liberals are even weaker and more strained (pronouns… really?). It all lays the foundation for what is Cassie’s transformation, for her to realize the error of her ways, and accept Luke on his own terms. Except this admission is never given to her as well. He doesn’t accept her until she starts to adopt his way of thinking, and writes songs about the brave sacrifices of those serving, a perspective I guess she never could have come to on her ignorant own.
As I was watching Purple Hearts, I kept thinking how disposable the entire first hour was, which sets up our couple, their warring viewpoints, and their marriage of convenience. It’s at the hour mark where the real movie begins, with Luke coming home injured and forcing the couple to see one another in a new light. I thought about how the movie could have opened with Cassie getting a phone call about her husband and his injury, then meeting him at the hospital and the great ironic turn that could have registered as we find out for the first time that this happy union is only transactional. This is where the drama really starts, and the proceeding hour is just back-story that could have been supplied throughout in small scenes or dialogue. The crux of the movie is how these characters are meant to change the more time they spend with one another. The first hour is about them meeting and then Luke going overseas into combat. It’s easy to keep up a ruse when the other person is half a world away. When he returns, that’s where the real challenge begins, and that’s where I feel the movie should have begun. I’m also a bit shocked how unimportant Luke’s injury is in the grand scheme of things. He recuperates fairly fast and it shockingly doesn’t force him to reconsider himself through the new physical challenge. It’s as if the injury is merely a plot device to excuse him from active combat. It’s quite disappointing that being physically disabled doesn’t allow Luke needed personal reflection, rethinking his prioritization on his strength and value as a warrior, the version of himself he remodeled to escape a life of addiction. The final hour needed to be expanded for better character development, and both sides of this romance needed introspection for it to be rewarding.
The other miss of the movie is with the absent chemistry of its leads. Carson is best known as the “other girl” from the Disney Channel tween Descendants franchise, and she ably sings throughout the movie, which feels positioned as her re-introduction to older audiences and perhaps a platform for her own songwriting. The songs that Cassie finds viral success are genuinely… fine. They all sound a bit like the same, though even when the song plays as a ballad, Carson is jumping around the stage, kicking her legs, and swinging her arms in wild whirlwinds like it’s a rocker. The tonal dissonance is unintentionally funny. Galitzine (Cinderella) really gets the short end. I’ve seen him sing convincingly, be charming, and in Purple Hearts he’s just six feet of condescension. His character is an angry glare as a person. Even when he’s re-learning to use his legs, the character doesn’t come across as humbled, only more irritated by the inconvenience. These two never develop a palpable spark, so given the insufficient characterization and lack of romantic grounding, the disinterest is instead palpable.
If you’re an easy sucker for pretty people falling in love under sunset-dabbled skies and set to gentle music, I’m sure Purple Hearts will work its would-be charms. I found the characters to be annoying, the structure to be lopsided and in need of jettisoning the first half, and the overall treatment of an outspoken woman calling out racism and misogyny as a problem needing fixing as disappointing and unfair. There are so many plot elements here that could have made this a more compelling drama, like Luke’s past with drug addiction, surely something that could have been a dangerous return with his recovery from injury necessitating pain killers. It’s a movie reportedly about sacrifice but the way I saw it only one character undergoes change to satisfy their romantic partner, and in turn the audience. Purple Hearts is a misguided romance that never goes beyond its thin stereotypes and one-sided demands.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Indian film sensation that has converted millions across the world has one new convert: me. I’ve been hearing about RRR all year and how outlandish it is, how wild and audacious this three-hour action historical musical can be, and that it’s a celebration of the exuberant possibilities of film, and to every part of that sentence I pump my fist and declare an enthusiastic yes. Think of it as a superhero movie that also happens to be a musical. RRR is set in 1920s India and follows two real-life figures central to India’s independence from Britain. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarami Raju (Ram Cgaran Teja) never met in real life, but the movie makes them not just enemies but also the best of friends. Both men are set on a collision course, with Bheem searching for his little sister who was kidnapped into the big city by the British governor (Ray Stevenson), and Raju is working his way through the ranks of the British police and searching to arrest Bheem. What might get in the way is the greatest bromance in years, as these guys don’t just like one another, they will swear their undying allegiance and love for the other. Raju helps his BFF talk to a nice British girl he is crushing on, and he even helps Bheem by leading a dance off between hilariously haughty British elites. That “Naacho Naacho” dance is a shot of pure joy and encapsulates the movie: it’s frantic, frenetic, overpowering, and purely genuine. There isn’t a hint of irony in any of the overzealous 186 minutes here. The lead characters act like super powered gods, or burst into song and dance, complete with cover-worthy poses, but at no point does the movie want you to laugh at it; it wants you to get on board and enjoy how perfectly crazy the movie is. It took me about an hour, but I was won over completely by RRR. There is a man getting whipped who moves the crowd into a revolutionary mob through the power of his song. There’s a guy throwing a leopard at another man’s head. A man kicks a running motorcycle into the air and then uses it as a projectile. It’s got spectacular action with more style than a hundred Hollywood movies. The action is so well choreographed and clear to understand that it’s immensely gratifying to watch. The extravagant wire work adds to the grandiose mythic nature of the movie. The arc that Raju has is more compelling and satisfying than many in even American indies. Not only are these gents buff as hell, and effortlessly charming, but they can and will dance circles around the competition. I won’t pretend I have a deep knowledge of Indian cinema but this seems like an excellent entry for many Western fans to explore the stylistic heights of Indian cinema. This is a wild romp with cheer-worthy heroes, a bromance for the ages, and villains you can’t wait to topple. RRR is a bit exhausting by the end but I was never bored during its different tonal shifts. It might not be the best movie of the year but it’s certainly going to be the most movie you’ll get in 2022.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)/ Pinocchio (2022)
It seems 2022 has unexpectedly become the year of Pinocchio. The 1883 fantasy novel by Carlo Collodui (1826-1890) is best known via the classic Walt Disney animated movie, the second ever for the company, and it was Disney that released a live-action remake earlier in the year on their streaming service. Now widely available on Netflix is Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio, so I wanted to review both films together but I was also presented with a unique circumstance. Both of these movies were adaptations of the same story, so the comparison is more direct, and I’ve decided to take a few cues from sports writing and break down the movies in a head-to-head competitive battle to see which has the edge in a series of five categories. Which fantastical story about a little puppet yearning to be a real boy will prove superior?
1. VISUAL PRESENTATION
The Netflix Pinocchio is a lovingly realized stop-motion marvel. It’s del Toro’s first animated movie and his style translates easily to this hand-crafted realm. There is something special about stop-motion animation for me; I love the tactile nature of it all, the knowledge that everything I’m watching is pain-stakingly crafted by artisans, and it just increases my appreciation. I fully acknowledge that any animated movie is the work of thousands of hours of labor and love, but there’s something about stop-motion animation that I just experience more viscerally. The level of detail in the Netflix Pinocchio is astounding. There is dirt under Geppetto’s fingernails, red around the eyes after crying, the folds and rolls of fabric, and the textures feel like you can walk up to the screen and run your fingers over their surfaces. I loved the character designs, their clean simplicity but able readability, especially the sister creatures of life and death with peacock feather wings, and the animation underwater made me question how they did what they did. del Toro’s imagination is not limited from animation but expanded, and there are adept camera movements that require even more arduous work to achieve and they do. I loved the life each character has, the fluidity of their movements, that they even animated characters making mistakes or losing their balance or acting so recognizably human and sprightly. There’s a depth of life here plus an added meta-textual layer about puppets telling the story about a puppet who was given life.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio is harsh on the eyes. It’s another CGI smorgasbord from writer/director Robert Zemeckis akin to his mo-cap semi-animated movies from the 2000s. The brightness levels of the outside world are blastingly white, and it eliminates so much of the detail of the landscapes. When watching actors interact, it never overcomes the reality of it being a big empty set. The CGI can also be alarming with the recreation of the many animal sidekicks of the 1940 original. Why did Zemeckis make the pet goldfish look sultry? Why did they make Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look like a Brussel sprout come to life? It might not be the dead-eyed nightmare fuel of 2004’s The Polar Express, but the visual landscape of the movie is bleached and overdone, making everything feel overly fake or overly muddy and glum. The fact that this movie looks like this with a $150 million budget is disheartening but maybe inevitable. I suppose Zemeckis had no choice but to replicate the Pinocchio character design from 1940, but it looks remarkably out of step and just worse. When we have the 1940 original to compare to, everything in the 2022 remake looks garish or ugly or just wrong. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn animation is replaced with creepy-looking CGI animal-human hybrids.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
2. FATHER/SON CHARACTERIZATION
The relationship between Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and Geppetto (David Bradley) is the heart of the Netflix Pinocchio, and I don’t mind sharing that it brought me to tears a couple of times. As much as the movie is about a young boy learning about the world, it’s also about the love of a father for a child. The opening ten minutes establish Geppetto’s tragedy with such surefooted efficiency that it reminded me of the early gut punch that was 2009’s Up. This Geppetto is constantly reminded of his loss and, during a drunken fit, he carved a replacement child that happens to come to life. This boy is very different from his last, and there is a great learning curve for both father and son about relating to one another. This is the heart of the movie, one I’ll discuss more in another section. With del Toro’s version, Geppetto is a wounded and hurting man, one where every decision is connected to character. This Pinocchio is a far more entertaining creature, a child of explosive energy, curiosity, and spitefulness. He feels like an excitable newborn exploring the way of the world. He’s so enthusiastic so quickly (“Work? I love work, papa!” “I love it, I love it!… What is it?”) that his wonder can become infectious. This Pinocchio also cannot die, and each time he comes back to life he must wait longer in a netherworld plane. It provides even more for Pinocchio to understand about loss and being human. This is a funny, whimsical, but also deftly emotive Pinocchio. He points to a crucifix and asks why everyone likes that wooden man but not him. He is an outsider learning about human emotions and morals and it’s more meaningful because of the character investment.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio treats its title character as a simpleton. The problem with a story about a child who breaks rules and learns lessons by dealing with the consequences of his actions is if you have a character that makes no mistakes then their suffering feels cruel. This Pinocchio is simply a sweet-natured wannabe performer. He means well but he doesn’t even lie until a sequence requires him to lie to successfully escape his imprisonment. The relationship with Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is strange. This kindly woodcarver is a widower who also has buried a son, but he comes across like a doddering old man who is quick to make dad jokes to nobody (I guess to his CGI cat and goldfish and multitude of Disney-tie-in cuckoo clocks). I don’t know what Hanks is doing with this daffy performance. It feels like Geppetto lost his mind and became stir crazy and this performance is the man pleading for help from the town, from the audience, from Zemeckis. It’s perplexing and it kept me from seeing this man as an actual character. He bounces from catalyst to late damsel in distress needing saving. The relationship between father and son lacks the warmth of the Netflix version. Yet again, the live-action Pinocchio is a pale imitation of its cartoon origins with either main character failing to be fleshed out or made new.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
There are a few key themes that emerge over the near two-hours of the Netflix Pinocchio, which is the longest stop-motion animated film ever. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) repeats that he “tried his best and that’s the best anyone can do,” and the parallelism makes it sound smarter than it actually is. The actual theme revolves around acceptance and the burdens of love. Geppetto cannot fully accept Pinocchio because he’s constantly comparing him to Carlo. When he can fully accept Pinocchio for who he is, the weird little kid with the big heart and unique perspective, is when he can finally begin to heal over the wound of his grief over Carlo, allowing himself to be vulnerable again and to accept his unexpected new family on their own terms. There’s plenty of available extra applications here to historically marginalized groups, and del Toro is an avowed fan of freaks and outcasts getting their due and thumbing their nose at the hypocritical moral authorities. By setting his story in 1930s Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, del Toro underlines his themes of monsters and scapegoats and moral hypocrites even better, and the change of scenery really enlivens the familiar story with extra depth and resonance. All these different people want something out of Pinocchio that he is not. Geppetto wants him to strip away his individuality and be his old son. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) wants Pinocchio to be his dancing minion and secure him fame and fortune. Podesta (Ron Perlman) wants Pinocchio as the state’s ultimate soldier, a boy who cannot die and always comes back fighting. When Pinocchio is recruited to train for war with the other young boys to better serve the fatherland’s nationalistic aims, it’s a far more affecting and unsettling experience than Pleasure Island, which is removed from this version. In the end, the movie also becomes a funny and touching exploration of mortality from a magic little child. The Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), this version of the Blue Fairy, says she only wanted to grant Geppetto joy. “But you did,” he says. “Terrible, terrible joy.” The fleeting nature of life, as well as its mixture of pain and elation, is an ongoing theme that isn’t revelatory but still feels impressively restated.
I don’t know what theme the Disney live-action movie has beyond its identity as a product launch. I suppose several years into the Disney live-action assembly line I shouldn’t be surprised that these movies are generally listless, inferior repetitions made to reignite old company IP. For a story about the gift of life, the Disney Pinocchio feels so utterly lifeless. I thought the little wooden boy was meant to learn rights and wrongs but the movie doesn’t allow Pinocchio to err. He’s an innocent simpleton who gets taken advantage of and dragged from encounter to encounter like a lost child. The Pleasure Island sequence has been tamed from the 1940s; children are no longer drinking beer or smoking cigars. They’re gathered to a carnival and then given root beer and told to break items and then punished for this entrapment. The grief Geppetto feels for his deceased loved ones is played out like a barely conceived backstory. He’s just yukking it up like nothing really matters. By the end, when he’s begging for Pinocchio to come back to life, you wonder why he cares. If you were being quite generous, you might be able to uncover themes of acceptance and understanding, but they’re so poorly developed and utilized. That stuff gets in the way of Pinocchio staring at a big pile of horse excrement on the street, which if you needed a summative visual metaphor for the adaptation, there it is.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
4. EMOTIONAL STAKES
One of these movies made me cry. The other one made me sigh in exasperation. The Netflix Pinocchio nails the characterization in a way that is universal and accessible while staying true to its roots, whereas the Disney live-action film feels like a crudely packaged remake on the assembly line of soulless live-action Disney remakes. By securing my investment early with Geppetto’s loss, I found more to relish in the layers of his relationship with Pinocchio. In trying to teach him about the world, Geppetto is relying upon what he started with his past son, and there are intriguing echoes that lead to a spiritual examination. Pinocchio is made from the tree from the pinecone that Carlo chased that lead to his death. Pinocchio hums the tune that Geppetto sang to Carlo. Is there something more here? When he visits Death for the first time, the winged creature remarks, “I feel as though you’ve been here before.” These little questions and ambiguity make the movie much more rewarding, as does del Toro’s ability to supply character arcs for every supporting player. Even the monkey sidekick of the villain gets their own character arc. Another boy desperately desires his stern father’s approval, and he’s presented as a parallel for Pinocchio, another son trying to measure up to his father’s demands. Even this kid gets meaningful character moments and an arc. With this story, nobody gets left behind when it comes to thoughtful and meaningful characterization. It makes the movie much more heartwarming and engaging, and by the end, as we get our poignant coda jumping forward in time and serving as multiple curtain calls for our many characters, I was definitely shedding a flurry of tears. Hearing Geppetto bawl, “I need you… my boy,” to the lifeless body of Pinocchio still breaks me. Under del Toro’s compassionate lens, everyone is deserving of kindness.
As should be expected by now, the Disney live-action movie is lackluster at best when it comes to any kind of emotional investment. The characters stay as archetypes but they haven’t been personalized, so they merely remain as grubby facsimiles to what we recall from the 1940 version. Jiminy Cricket is meant as Pinocchio’s conscience but he vacillates from being a nag to being a smart aleck who even breaks the fourth wall to argue with his own narration. I hated every time he called the main character “Pee-noke” and he did it quite often. He’s far more annoying than endearing. There’s also a wise-cracking seagull that is just awful. The Honest John (Keegan Michael-Key) character is obnoxious, and in a world with a talking fox who dresses in human clothing, why would a “living puppet” be such a draw? He even has a joke about Pinocchio being an “influencer.” The only addition I liked was a coworker in Stromboli’s traveling circus, a former ballerina who injured herself and now gets to live out her dancing dreams by operating a marionette puppet. However, the movie treats the puppet like it’s a living peer to Pinocchio and talks directly to the puppet rather than the human operating the puppet, and the camera treats her like she’s the brains too. Safe to say, by the end when Pinocchio magically revives for whatever reason, just as he magically reverted from being a donkey boy, I was left coldly indifferent and more so just relieved that the movie was finally over.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
This was one area where I would have assumed the Disney live-action film had an advantage. Its signature banger, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” became the de facto Disney theme song and plays over the opening title card for the company. It’s still a sweet song, and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is the best part of the movie as the Blue Fairy. It’s a shame she only appears once, which is kind of negligent considering she sets everything in motion. The Netflix Pinocchio is also a musical and the songs by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) are slight and low-key, easy to dismiss upon first listen. However, the second time I watched the movie, the simplicity as a leitmotif really stood out, and I noticed the melody was the foundation for most other songs, which created an intriguing interconnected comparison. While nothing in the Netflix Pinocchio comes close to being the instantly humable classic of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the songs are more thoughtful and emotionally felt and not just repeating the hits of yore, so in the closest of categories, I’m going to say that Netflix’s Pinocchio wins by a nose (pun intended).
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
One of these Pinocchio movies is a visual marvel, heartfelt and moving, wondrous, and one of the best films of 2022. The other is a hollow vessel for corporate profit that copies the imprint of the 1940 animated film but only more frantic, scatalogical, and confused. In the year of our lord Pinocchio Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, there is only one movie you should see, and at this point ever see as it concerns this old tale. Guillermo del Toro has harnessed magic, and we are all the better for his bayonet imagination and enormous heart for his fellow outsiders.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: A
2022 Pinocchio: C-
Elvis the movie is exactly what I would have hoped for from a Baz Luhrmann film, which is an experience that no one else can provide, a messy, chaotic, crazy, sometimes tin-eared yet audacious and immersive kaleidoscope of sight and sound that feels like a theme park ride. As with all Luhrmann films, the first 20 minutes is a rush of tones, characters, and near constant frenetic movement; it’s so much to process before the movie eventually settles down, at least marginally, or the viewer becomes better acclimated to the madcap storytelling style of this mad Aussie. I feel completely certain that people will call Elvis brilliant, and people will deem Elvis to be ridiculous and campy, and I would say it defiantly manages to be all of these identities at once. It is ridiculous, it is campy, it is emotional and sincere, it is, at points, even brilliant, and in a way, this shambolic style perfectly symbolizes Elvis himself, a performer that seems to be anything that the viewer projects onto him, a trailblazer who suffered for his art before becoming an irreplaceable industry and edifice of pop-culture obsession unto himself.
We chart the rise of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) from a young crooner in the 1950s to the best-selling solo artist in recording history. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) discovers Presley, granted after he’s been a chart-topping local hit in the South, and sees a grand opportunity. With Elvis, there is no limit to where they both can go, and so Parker becomes Elvis’ manager for over twenty years for better and worse, engineering Elvis’ tour of duty in the military to take him away from negative headlines, only for him to meet and marry Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), to locking him into a Vegas headlining gig to erase the mystery man’s heavy debts to the mob. Under Luhrmann’s guidance, you’ll experience it all and then some in the frenzied 160 minutes.
Elvis was many things for many people. He was a smooth crooner, he was an electric live performer, he was the benefactor of being a white vessel for music that was built upon the less heralded work of black performers, he was a victim, he was selfish, he was devoted to his fans and the stage, he was… America. In 2022, I would have asked if contemporary culture even cared about Elvis anymore, a man who died over 40 years ago, and whether we even have a lens to appreciate the man. Was he simply coasting off the hard work of other black performers? Did he groom his eventual bride considering her age upon their meeting? Was Elvis too old fashioned to even be anything other than a musical touchstone that other artists have surpassed? Is he just a joke? Luhrmann does a fine job of re-contextualizing Elvis, what made him unique for his era, and what made him still captivating to watch to this day. Even the archival footage the closes the movie is a reminder of the unmitigated power the man put into his singing.
It wouldn’t be a Luhrmann movie without a narrator, and this time we get the story’s main antagonist as our prism to view Elvis, marking him chiefly as victim. Tom Parker is a cartoon of a character especially as portrayed by Hanks. I love me some Tom Hanks, the man is an American treasure, and I appreciate that the man is definitely going for broke, but I don’t know at all what he was going for with this performance (the makeup does him no favors also). Hanks is fascinating because he is playing a villainous character that is constantly trying to re-frame their villainy, telling his side of the story but being careful, though not that careful, to always have an answer for an accusation. It feels like Hanks has stepped off the wacky Moulin Rouge! stage and everyone else in the movie is playing things completely straight. The entire acting troupe is all playing under one direction, and then there’s Hanks in his fat suit, who is breaking through the fourth wall, compulsively narrating our story, and acting like a loquacious Loony Tunes figure any second away from his own song and dance. His repeated use of the term “snow job” and “snowman,” which he dubbed himself as a showman, is overused to the point of being a verbal crutch, reminiscent of how often Jay Gatsby had to say some variation of “ole sport” in the 2013 movie or else he might irrevocably burst into glitter (or so I assume). It’s such a bizarre performance of wild choices that I can subjectively say it might be Hanks’ worst and yet it also feels like Hanks is giving Luhrmann exactly what he wants. It’s such a bold move to essentially cede your famous biopic to the most ridiculous character to tell from their ridiculous perspective. Imagine I, Tonya being told from Paul Walter Hauser’s character or House of Gucci being told from Jared Leto’s character, and that’s what we have here. I almost kind of love it, and in doing so, we see from the manipulator how he worked his magic to keep financial control over Elvis. Even Elvis’ later years are provided with a perspective that re-frames the man as a victim of a moneymaking machine that wouldn’t stop until it had drained every last drop of blood from this hard-working man.
I think this is smart because, on the surface, Elvis might not be the most complicated person to devote two hours to unpacking his character dimensions. He liked to sing, as it touched something deep inside him, and he wanted to be true to himself, but this framework isn’t any different from any number of famous musician biopics we’ve become more than accustomed to. He dealt with drug addiction and erratic behavior but, again, even this is musical biopic basics. Even his doomed relationship with Priscilla is familiar stuff, as she could rarely compete with the demands and the allure of the stage. I think Luhrmann and his co-writers wisely saw that the best storytelling avenue with Elvis is through the lesser-known Colonel, a bizarre and calculating figure cackling in the shadows. There are significant questions over who this proud huckster really is and what he did to bully and cajole Elvis into his favor. There’s inherent conflict there as well as an angle that I would argue most are unfamiliar with. I didn’t know much about the history of Elvis the man but I knew even less about this would-be Colonel.
The most Luhrmann of sequences is Elvis’ breakthrough live performance where it feels like every woman in attendance is catching a fever of combustible hormonal fury. The way the man shook his hips, moved his body, his gyrations that so many adults felt were dangerously subversive, were part and parcel of the younger Elvis. He really was a born performer, and even says he can’t sing if he isn’t allowed to move how he feels he must with the music. During this crazy sequence, Luhrmann’s camera is trained on the emotional response of the audience experiencing a sensation that cannot be contained, bubbling to the surface into tears, shrieks, and convulsions, and it moves through the crowd like waves. It’s such an enthusiastic experience that plays right into the stylistic and tonal wheelhouse of Luhrmann. It’s also an unsubtle reminder, not that much is subtle in a Luhrmann movie, that part of the man’s appeal was his raw sexual magnetism.
In a modern era, the condemnation of Elvis as a corrupting influence on the youth feels comically quaint, until you remember that all of this was also filtered through a very racist paranoia. Elvis was deemed a danger because he was an accessible introduction to music and culture that was associated with black people. The accusations of Elvis corrupting the youth are all tinged with racial implications about his source of inspiration, never mind that Elvis was also influenced by a religious revivalism. The movie doesn’t say that Elvis was a sham, only succeeding off the work of other esteemed yet unfairly unheralded black artists. With the many onscreen performances, he is clearly talented, and offers his own versions of others’ songs, but he’s also deferential to the people he grew up with and the music he clearly loves and wants to be a part of to the detriment of whatever Tom Parker and his handlers believe is commercially viable. B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) even remarks about Elvis’ own privilege when he thinks about bucking politicians demanding that he perform safe songs without his signature dancing (“They’ll arrest me for just crossing the street. You are a famous white boy who makes them too much money.”).
I’ve purposely delayed from discussing the best reason to go see all 160 ungainly minutes, and that is Butler’s glorious performance. The young man simply dissolves into the role and makes you forget you’re watching an actor. The way he captures the cadence, the drawl, the presence of Elvis, and not just his jerky movements, is phenomenal, and then you remember that it’s Butler doing all his own singing as well, and the spell is near complete. He is Elvis. It’s a performance guaranteed to win as many plaudits as awards season has to offer. Through Butler’s performance, a younger generation can understand what all the hubbub was about. The man brings the character to life but he especially brings Elvis the performer to startling life. Even if you hate Luhrmann’s other movies, and he is definitely divisive, and even if you couldn’t care less about Elvis in the year 2022, this movie is well worth watching for the sheer brilliance of Butler alone.
In some ways, Elvis the movie feels like a perfect assignment for director Baz Luhrmann. His unconventional stylistic approach livens up an otherwise conventional rise-and-fall tale, broadening the appeal of Elvis for an audience that might have otherwise shrugged at a movie chronicling the man’s exploits. The subject matter is also the squarest for Luhrmann, which makes it also the safest movie of his career, which is truly saying something considering some of the imaginative highs of this movie. There will be just as many people put off by the excessive, in-your-face style of the movie as drawn in by that Luhrmann razzle dazzle. Watching Elvis feels like you’re watching two movies simultaneously atop one another. Luhrmann can be exhausting even at his best but he’s also one of the few filmmakers that makes watching a movie such a textual experience, where sight and sound are layered in such meaningful and granular details to better immerse the viewer. The way even the sound designs ebbs and flows, braids musical notes and themes and older selections of influential resources as it all composes a wonderful soundscape. Few put this kind of thought into every nanosecond that Luhrmann does, himself a natural showman who cannot help himself. While plenty will wish for restraint, I say, much as others asked for restraint from Elvis’ gyrations, to let Baz be Baz, and he lets Elvis be Elvis to the giddy entertainment of the audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
I did not expect the new Cyrano to be a musical at all, though it is a reprisal of a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt. This fact made the movie even more entertaining and surprising, separating it from the pack of Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations (there is a 1970s Cyrano musical with Christopher Plummer in a Tony Award-winning role). This is an old story and this new version still taps into the potent recesses of unrequited love, social scorn, and the farcical angle that transitions into tragedy. You still understand why audiences from multiple generations come back to this story to laugh and cry anew (it began as a play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand). However, when modern filmmakers are tackling these tried-and-true stories of old, I expect, or at least hope for, something new to justify this latest cinematic addition. It could be an elevated point of view given short shrift before, allowing us new eyes into an old tale. There are plenty of earlier versions that haven’t been as considerate to minority positions. It could be updating or transposing the story to a different setting. It can be simply making it weird. Director Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation was an attempt to do something different, with the strange concept that it was taking place on a theatrical stage. I guess because the elites felt so obsessively observed? It didn’t really work, but I admire Wright’s game efforts in trying something different with an oft-told tale. With Cyrano, the story translates well into the realm of a screen musical, and one where Wright wants to work within that unique toolbox, letting the audience get caught in the sweep of the movie magic.
Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf but one of the smartest men alive in 1640 France. He’s unafraid of jousting with pompous actors, pompous aristocratic dandies, and even assassins (their pomposity is up for debate). His true challenge is telling Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. This is made even more difficult when Roxanne falls head over heels for Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.). She seeks out her good friend Cyrano’s help to inquire about the boy’s feelings being reciprocal. Christian does indeed fancy Roxanne except he’s unable to articulate his thoughts. Cyrano agrees to serve as the carrier of his words and write his feelings for him in order to better woo Roxanne. Letter by letter, flowing with poetic verse, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s soul, thinking it belongs to Christian. This is made even more complicated by a fiendish fop, De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who expects Roxanne to marry him and give herself over to him, body and soul.
The other thing you need to know is that Cyrano is a deeply un-hip musical, and its square-ness is also part of its offbeat charm. This is not 2017’s crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman. These songs are not manufactured to be pop ditties fit for radio airplay. These are songs written and composed by the members of the band The National, an alt rock band better known for their soulful dirges (the lead singer performed the mournful end credits cover of “The Rains of Castamere” for that infamous Game of Thrones episode). The songs of Cyrano by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger are not going to be the ones you clap your hands to and sing along in the car with your friends. There are no catchy anthems here, no inspirational melodies to rise to triumphant fist-pumping crescendos. These are songs that are methodical, mournful, and, at points, atonal, like twisting the words and sounds to fit an unnatural shape. However, this is the same appeal of songs by The National, how they make uniquely composed tunes that challenge and break free of standard melody conventions. For some, they will find the songs of Cyrano to be slow and low in energy, too self-serious to the point of parody. But for people willing to take the lyrics and songs on the terms presented, there is a smoldering sense of splendor to them, something unexpected, just like the character of Cyrano. Beauty found in unexpected places.
There is one song in particular that disarmed me with how affecting it was. “Wherever I Fall” isn’t even a song sung by any of the main characters. It’s the refrain of a bunch of otherwise nameless and faceless soldiers, the ones who know they will not survive a suicide march into enemy fire during the Franco-Spanish War. This is the song for the fallen and it’s heart-breaking. We take turns with each man writing one last letter and offering instructions to the carrier, which take on the form of last rites. Each man reflects on their life and their cherished loved ones that will read their letter after their inevitable demise. The entire construction of the song is heavy with emotional weight, but I was surprised how much it got to me. I was tearing up for men who weren’t even featured as characters before, or at least served as extras in other scenes that didn’t draw my attention. Bonus points for making the first soldier Glen Hansard (Once). “Someone to Say” has a sweet and lyrical melody that comes in and out as a bountiful motif, and it’s the romantic tug for our lovers. “Every Letter” and “I Need More” have a thrumming intensity of strings and heartbeat-like percussion that reminded me of the soaring 1990s/early 2000s singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Dido. As I adjusted to its somber wavelength, the music grew on me. It’s music for a rainy day made into an old-fashioned musical that isn’t trying to score points for being edgy.
Dinklage (I Care a Lot) is an excellent choice for Cyrano. While he might be the weakest singing voice of the cast, Dinklage is definitely the most accomplished actor and proves it again. His character’s inner struggle and true feelings consuming him is wonderfully portrayed by Dinklage. He has his big outbursts, where he inflicts his wit like a sharp-edged weapon, and others where it’s the total of years of frustration from being sidelined and overlooked and discounted, but it’s the quieter moments where Dinklage retreats behind his sad puppy eyes that got me the most. Bennett (The Girl on the Train) has a spark to her that reminds you why Cyrano would fall in love from a distance. Her light at the beginning of the movie threatens to be snuffed out by bad men, and it feels like a real loss. Bennett and Dinklage are also reprising their roles from the stage musical, so their natural chemistry and comfort with the roles improves the experience. Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) is a pro at playing those officious, lecherous, pathetic roles, and once again he’s on target. His creepy rendition of “What I Deserve” sounds like the skin-crawling mantra for male chauvinism writ large. It might even make you retch.
Wright’s (Darkest Hour, Hanna) direction makes fine use of the big screen space, and his penchant for long takes and sweeping camera movements for verisimilitude enhance the viewing experience by allowing us to better immerse in the world and appreciate the talents of the professionals. It’s a musical that lets you enjoy it being a movie musical, and its editing is judicious without being disorienting. The movie doesn’t feel like its trapped by its stage-bound origins. The lush setting of Italy and its pristine estates adds an extra layer of enjoyment that makes the movie more transporting.
Cyrano is a sneaky movie, one that seems old and new, serious and impish, square and traditional while still making its own stamp on classic literature. Much of your enjoyment factor will likely rest upon your assessment of the music and songs, which is a fair critical point for a musical. I found them to be romantic and gloomy and so achingly serious that I found it to be adorable. The music worked for me, as a moderate fan of The National, but if you cannot click with the songs or accept that everyone is not going to be a trained singer, then your enjoyment level will certainly dip. I found this movie to be a modestly pleasant surprise that won me over by its depressing finale.
Nate’s Grade: B+
2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.
Nate’s Grade: B+
West Side Story (2021)
Steven Spielberg, now approaching seventy-five years of age, has experienced such rarefied success as a film director that the man can do whatever he wants. It just so happens he wanted to tackle his first big screen musical, something he’s a little late on considering peers like Martin Scorsese (1977’s New York, New York) and Francis Ford Coppola (1982’s One from the Heart) beat him to the musical punch early. The question isn’t why direct a musical at this stage of his glorious career, it’s why direct a remake of 1961’s Best Picture-winning West Side Story? We already have a perfectly good and revered movie version, and there are other musicals that haven’t even gotten their first big shining moment on the silver screen, so why go back to this particular show a second time?
Once again, we’re following the two New York City street gangs, the Jets, who are made up of Italian and Irish white kids, and the Sharks, made up of Puerto Ricans. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is trying to reform his ways after spending a year in prison for gang violence. The Jets are pleading with him to get back involved, to push back against the Sharks encroaching on their territory. He meets Maria (Rachel Ziegler) at a dance and the two fall instantly in love. The problem is that Maria is Puerto Rican, her brother is the leader of the Sharks, and this relationship would be forbidden and dangerous. Tony and Maria plan to run away together and escape the conflicts of this tragic turf war.
I’ll risk musical theater heresy and admit outright that Spielberg’s West Side Story actually improves on the much-hallowed 1961 original in several ways. The most immediate and obvious is that we have Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters. No regrettable brown face including the actual Hispanic actors this time (it’s just humiliating to watch Rita Moreno, in her Oscar-winning role, have to be darkened up to be “more Puerto Rican”). That’s a pretty good improvement already, though it’s not unexpected; 1961 was also the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released with its notorious Mickey Rooney performance in jaw-dropping yellow face. Granted, jaw-dropping today, not so back then. 1961 was still only a few years removed from John Wayne taping his eyelids back to portray Genghis Khan. This was the unfortunate norm.
Another immediate improvement is the visual dynamism of 60 years of technical filmmaking advancement. I recently re-watched the 1961 original, a film I haven’t watched since probably the 1990s as a teenager, and it’s a relatively good movie but it’s also a good movie of its time, and by that I mean there are limitations to the presentation. One of the most appealing aspects of movie musicals is how they expand upon our humdrum reality, the splashes of color and synchronicity and bold imagination. I’m not saying the movie musicals of the 1960s were particularly lacking, as there are many classics and favorites, but because of filmmaking practicalities and predilections, movies could only go so far at the time. With 60 years of technological advancements, today’s movie musicals, when under the right guidance, can expand the world of song-and-dance fantasy like few of the past. You need only compare the showstopper “America” in both films, the dancing high-point of either film. The original is on a rooftop for its entire duration. The new version is all over the city block, finally culminating on a crossroads and bringing the denizens of the town out in girl power empowerment. It’s such a high-energy and celebratory sequence and the scale and variance really make it feel so much more joyous and exciting. The choreography is also an improvement. Again, not a slight against the 1961 original, but in the ensuing 60 years we’ve also advanced in the technical precision and creativity of dancers. The 2021 West Side Story is impressive top to bottom with the dancing of all the performers, and with Spielberg as director, he wants you to best appreciate their talents while also making the movie as visually dynamic as he can.
Spielberg proves an absolute natural at helming a big movie musical. Nothing against Robert Wise, the 1961 director who helmed plenty of influential Hollywood titles like The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was also the editor on Citizen Kane. The man clearly knew how to tell a big screen story across multiple genres. It’s not a shame to say his visual prowess doesn’t quite stack up to a Steven Spielberg, who just happens to be one of the most popular and versatile filmmakers of all time. Spielberg’s camera is much more active than the original movie, and he’s consistently bringing us into the scene, having characters duck in and out of frame, and circling around, always interacting with the world. It makes the movie much more visually immersive and exciting, enlivening an already lively number like the dance hall rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks where each side crowds the edges. The movie operates on a high level of visual pleasure because Spielberg knows exactly how to play to the strengths of the musical genre. Spielberg incorporates the location in each setting and has fun visual flourishes, clearly having given great thought how to visualize every line in each song. The opening of “America” involves women placing clothes on a line, and as the clothes move, it reveals our newest chorus member giving voice to the continuing song. The way the camera moves through the neighborhood to note the encroachment of gentrification. The way he frames the faces of our young lovers. The way he uses shadows as menace. The way he makes every space feel like it’s perfectly utilized for the best shots and edits. Now that Spielberg has proven so adept at handling musicals, somebody please give this man another for our collective benefit.
The top actors are not the leads but two very mesmerizing supporting players. Ariana DeBose, previously seen as one of the ensemble members in 2020’s Hamilton, is pure dynamite as Anita. She explodes with verve and personality and attitude and vibrant life, and the camera loves every second she’s on screen. She gets the bigger emotional arc than Maria. She gets the jubilant song, the aforementioned “America,” and gets her crushing moments of heartache as well. DeBose is phenomenal, and likewise so is Mike Faist (Panic) as the leader of the Jets. Like Anita, this character is brimming with anger and attitude and the movie does a much better job than the 1961 film of presenting him with a point of view that can develop some empathy. Faist is lanky yet so smooth in his movements, and he gets more dancing than just about anyone. He’s balletic in his dancing while still upholding his spiky attitude. Both of these actors are so self-assured in their roles, so vulnerable behind the surface, and so accomplished with their dancing and singing that one wishes the movie would devote more time to both of them.
As for our leads, Ziegler and Elgort (Baby Driver) are good but unexceptional as our naifs in love. Ziegler can sing beautifully and definitely has a natural innocence to her appearance. Her eyes are so large and glassy that she reminded me of an animated character at points. Elgort is solid in his singing but I can’t help but feel that he’s been lapped by his co-stars. There is a comic relief musical number, “Gee Officer Krupke,” where the various Jets have fun imitating the nay-saying adults who hastily cast judgement upon these juvenile delinquents. It’s a silly number about guys goofing around and could easily be the first on the chopping block to be cut for time. However, over the course of this fun diversion, I realized that person-to-person in the Jets crew, the same guys that just appeared as background players to fill out a scene previously, how good every person is, and how much more time I wish they had gotten than Elgort. Part of this is that the romance aspect of West Side Story has always been the weakest part of the show. It’s based upon Romeo and Juliet and tied to those tragic plot events, but when both Maria and Tony are ready to run away and marry one another after a single night, and especially after the fateful rumble where Maria is so astonishingly quick to forgiveness (and horniess), the romance plays so incredulously. As a result, the two lovers are essential to the story but also the most boring characters too.
I think the adaptation by Spielberg screenwriting stalwart Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) has smartly updated plenty of political elements, amplifying racial tensions but looking at it over a broader scope. Giving Tony a mentor figure in an older woman who runs her drug store shop, played by Moreno, is a great choice, especially as she represents a medium between the two sides as she is Puerto Rican but her deceased husband was white. It’s smart to have someone from the community and so wise to try and impart lessons to Tony, especially as he wants to change for the better. One update from Kushner didn’t quite jibe for me and felt like token-ism. The youngest member of the Jets, a prepubescent pipsqueak, has been replaced with a trans man fighting for membership. I understand the basic character arc is the same, the outsider trying to be accepted by the group, but the consideration of trans acceptance in the 1960s wasn’t exactly enlightening. The other Jets tease and question the gender identity of the trans man, but this perspective never feels well integrated into the play’s prejudicial world. I suppose more could have been done like having the Sharks harass this character, belittling them over their identity, and then the Jets feeling like one of their own had been attacked and in that they would finally be accepted. Except this inclusion would be around the degradation and potential assault of a trans person, which itself is not the best reason to include a trans character if you’re just setting them up for trauma. I don’t know. This character could have easily been removed if this was all there was.
One other aspect I found cumbersome was the creative decision to not include English subtitles during the Spanish-speaking portions of the movie. I cannot understand the artistic rationale for this at all. Sure, Spanish-speaking viewers will be fine, and I could piece enough together with context clues and my rudimentary understanding of like 75 Spanish words, but what are we accomplishing here? It just feels alienating, and it inadvertently likens the viewing experience to what the Jets are going through, feeling like they cannot fully understand their new neighbors. I doubt that Spielberg and company wanted to reinforce the perspective of xenophobia, but purposely removing a key portion of your movie from the majority audience in the U.S. seems so strange to me. If it was just scant conversations or moments, I’d excuse it, but the untitled Spanish accounts for like ten percent of the whole movie. Imagine watching any foreign movie without the subtitles on screen. How much meaning are you able to devise on your own?
West Side Story 2021 is a good time for fans of musical theater and a testament that just because something is old and beloved doesn’t mean it can’t even be improved upon with the right people and goals. Both movies are about the same length, 150 minutes, which seems the de facto standard for movies this holiday season, and you’d have a good time with either. I think the updated version adds more visual creativity, impressive choreography, and remodeled racial and political considerations to make it land better for modern audiences. It might not have been needed but I’m glad all the same we now have two West Side Story movie musicals to cheerfully tap along to.
Nate’s Grade: B+
tick… tick… BOOM! (2021)
Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! is a cause celebre that has attracted none other than the likes of Lin Manuel-Miranda. This is Miranda’s directorial debut, which Netflix won in a bidding war, and it’s filled to the brim with Broadway legends and theater titans who all want to rally to the cause of bringing alive the other show of Jonathan Larson’s tragically short career. Larson would go on to create the hit musical Rent but died before it opened to the public, succumbing to a sudden aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the tremendous success of Rent and that legacy is the emotional substance of tick, tick… BOOM!, if you happen to know about it. The story, and consequently the movie, feel like a lob to the insulated world of theater aficionados. The movie is semi-autobiographical about Larson (Andrew Garfield) on the verge of turning 30 in New York City in 1990 without achieving his big artistic dreams. He’s been toiling with a satirical sci-fi musical opus for years and is close to finishing it for a make-or-break presentation. The movie is based on Larson’s one-man show detailing his creative process and being young and hungry in New York in the early 90s. It was moderately successful and paved the way for Rent, but it was further adapted in 2001 into a three-person show, which has expanded even further with the film. The songs, written and composed by Larson, are enjoyable but none of them really stand out. I may have liked the least substantial one the best where Larson sings about his distaste at serving brunch patrons in a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George. The sequence is also wall-to-wall with Broadway cameos. I could not better emotionally connect with the movie. It hangs with looming tragedy of Larson’s surprise death, only five years away, as he wants to do something great with his life and make artistic waves. I think if you removed that added dramatic irony of tragedy, it’s watching a young artist struggle in the theater scene and hold onto his vision, integrity, and friendships, something we’ve seen but benefits with the verve of perosnality. As a story, it’s fallen into a trap where the struggles can be quite relatable to aspiring creatives and also not specific enough to greatly care about Larson as a character onscreen. Garfield sings well and is perfectly charming. Miranda proves apt with the language of film to translate from the confines of the stage. The entire project feels suffused with admiration and good intentions. tick, tick… BOOM! is a labor of love from many theater professionals. It’s an amusing but emotionally limited musical experience. Still, with this much talent, heart, and good will, it’s worth watching for no other reason to see what Miranda and his theater brethren can do together when trying to celebrate one of their own.
Nate’s Grade: B
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021)
What a jubilant, heartwarming, and celebratory musical to lift up your spirits and evoke a few happy tears, especially in the wake of trying to comprehend the mystifying ongoing appeal of another high-profile musical, Dear Evan Hansen. I wish every person chose to watch this Amazon Prime original movie versus that other musical that made me deeply uncomfortable and angry. This is based on the London stage show, and adapted and directed by the original creators, we follow the true-story of a 16-year-old Jamie (Max Harwood) who dreams of embracing his inner drag queen. His conservative father (Ralph Ineson) doesn’t approve and has left him and his working-class mum (Sarah Lancashire) behind to start a new family. Jamie is working on finding his voice and confidence. He comes under the tutelage of an aging former drag queen (Richard E. Grant) who encouraged and educates Jamie in the ways of showbiz and style (“A boy in a dress is someone that can be laughed at, but a drag queen is someone to be feared!”). Right away, I felt like this was what The Prom was aiming for, a big LGBTQ+ musical bursting with empathetic feeling and anthemic empowerment. The musical numbers are fun and frothy when they want to be, taking playful advantage of the expanded visual space of film. However, when the film wants you to feel emotions, it can hit you hard, and I was tearing up as Grant’s character poignantly sings about the heyday of 80/90s drag scene with the AIDS crisis taking its tragic toll. I don’t mean to keep harping on this, but I felt more genuine emotion in that one moment than throughout the entirety of Dear Evan Hansen. The movie is more considerate with its supporting players and finds moments of grace and compassion for just about every player, and with thrumming harmonies and feel-good lyrics. It’s a charming, funny, and definitely worth remembering. Everybody should be talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
If you’re unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen or do not consider yourself among the fandom of the Tony-wining Broadway musical, then I would highly recommend watching a 2009 movie called World’s Greatest Dad, a film I will be referring to later in this review. It’s a smaller indie starring Robin Williams and written and directed by actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait. It also has a very similar premise of a character exploiting the grief of others to try and better their own personal standing by fabricating an introspective life for a high school student who recently took their own life. The exception is that World’s Greatest Dad played its heavy content for dark comedy and stinging satire and it never excused the behavior of its lead character as he manipulated the collective sympathies of others for personal gain. As I kept watching Dear Evan Hansen, I kept feeling like someone had attempted to make World’s Greatest Dad but played straight and absent the satire, and that was a very bad decision.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school senior and has more anxiety disorders than friends. He starts the school year with cast on his arm, the result of “falling” from a tree. Evan writes motivational letters to himself as a therapeutic exercise for his counselor, but Conner (Colton Ryan) steals the paper at school and freaks out when Evan expresses interest in Conner’s younger sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Conner’s only two appearances on screen both involve him shoving, yelling, and threatening Evan. Days later, Conner has taken his life and the only letter his family has found was the “Dear Evan Hansen” paper he snatched away. Conner’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) are eager to know anything about their emotionally troubled and secretive son. They didn’t know he had any friends let alone one he would compose his suicide note for. Evan doesn’t come clean and instead plays along, happy to provide a false version of their son, one who was bristling with thoughts and compassion he could never properly express. Evan spends more and more time with Zoe, trying to share his own romantic feelings, and getting deeper into his lies.
This was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and I don’t quite understand how fans of the theater show were so moved and uplifted and, frankly, entertained. Maybe all this drama plays better on the stage, though I think many of the same issues I would have with the story would be evidently present for the stage productions as well. The main character is presented as lonely and anxious and depressed and longing to make connections, and this is meant to serve as the emotional explanation for why he leaps at a chance to insert himself into another family and manufacture a false identity about their dead son to score with the girl he’s been crushing on from afar for an indeterminate amount of time. Evan Hansen is, quite simply, a monster of a human being. Through tortured coincidence, he is believed to be Connor’s only friend, and Evan can at any point clarify this mistake and explain the truth. But he chooses instead to supply a fictional version of Connor that he feels every member of his family needs to hear to feel better about themselves. Evan justifies his actions as kind lies, as helping those in mourning by telling them what they want to hear, what he feels like they need. It’s not his place to decide what people need to better grieve, and Evan uses his newly favored position as the rare Rosetta Stone to Conner, the keeper of his secret internal life, to manipulate everyone to like him more.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable and upset the longer Dear Evan Hansen progressed with its treacly story, especially as Evan sets his sights on Zoe. It’s not as if over the course of his mounting lies that he organically grew closer to this woman who had been a stranger; he has been crushing on her and uses fake emails written by her brother to express his unrequited feelings for her in a song that DEFINITELY does not feel like it was written from a brother to a sister unless we’re talking like Game of Thrones territory (“There’s nothing like your smile / Sort of subtle and perfect and real”). Both of those scenarios are bad, but one of them is so much worse, and that’s the route Dear Evan Hansen goes. The romance is gross, and I knew that the movie was going to let Evan off the hook by the end. Once the truth, the real truth comes out, no one should want anything to do with this person. He says he meant well but he’s also the kind of guy who literally uses the fake suicide note, which all the characters believe to be legit, as an emotional cudgel to quiet and shame his biggest doubter as she starts to pick apart his lies. When that moment happened, I wanted to strongly yell at the screen, “Dear Evan Hansen, you dearly suck.”
There’s a worthy message buried somewhere in this movie about reaching out to people who are struggling in the shadows, that mental illness can affect anyone, and that often those who look like they live perfect lives on the surface might just be better at hiding their pain. This is best exemplified in the supporting character of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the school president who has a raft of anxieties that she keeps to herself. Her moments of vulnerability feel the most honest in the entire movie, and she’s trying to allow Conner’s death to reach others who might also be struggling, to inspire and save lives through their fledgling organization, The Conner Project. She’s the one who is putting in the actual work, both physical and emotional labor, and she’s the one who Evan shames with the mistaken suicide note toward the end of the movie. The tone of this movie is amiss from early on, and there’s a jaunty musical number where Evan and his one friend comically write fake emails between Evan and Conner. It’s played so light and breezy that you’ll have to recall this is Evan manufacturing the evidence of his fabrications. Why is this played so flippantly and like we’re in on the goofy gag? It’s mishandled. The good intentions Evan Hansen the movie, much like the potential good intentions of Evan Hansen the character, are clouded and ultimately sabotaged by its misguided solipsistic approach to grief.
And it’s taken me this long to talk about another key hindrance and that’s the casting of Platt in the title role. Platt originated the role on Broadway in 2015, and yes he wouldn’t be the first actor in history playing a high schooler who was clearly older, but they have made a gigantic miscalculation in trying to make Platt appear as a youthful 18-year-old (for the record, he was playing a college student almost a decade ago in 2012’s Pitch Perfect). It hit me immediately that Platt does not look right for this role. Immediately. In the awkward attempts to make him more youthful, they have made him look like a shifty undercover cop at a school (“Are you a cop, dear Evan Hansen? You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”). His pasty skin is so smoothed out as to appear like a shiny mask. His hair is oily, stringy, and looks like a terrible wig, except I have read that it is unfortunately real. Evan Hansen looks like he’s wearing a bad hair piece. Platt’s performance also left me cold. His mannered, affectless delivery gave me the impression of a sterile serial killer with every fifth line. This may sound overly harsh, but the presence of Platt and his performance dooms this movie’s bid for believability. I understand wanting to reach out to the man who left his mark on the role early, but there is a reason that Lin-Manuel Miranda played an older supporting role and not the headstrong young lead for the In the Heights movie adaptation earlier this year. Let the movie be its own thing from the stage show. Then again, there’s a rubbernecking fascination with Platt in place, magnifying all the other sins. If there was going to be a bad movie for Dear Evan Hansen, and I question if a good movie was at all possible, then why not go for broke with misapplied creative decisions that make it worse?
A lone saving grace for this movie is that the music is actually pretty solid. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the Oscar-winning team behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman, can craft some catchy melodies with soaring choruses. If you only listen to the music you might come away with a different opinion of this show and movie. However, the context of what these songs are meant to serve in the larger story besmirches the good feelings you may derive from them. I suggest casually listening to the soundtrack and forgetting the icky context of every tune. Julianne Moore, as Evan’s overworked, stressed-out mother, has a nice song toward the very end that feels more honest and pared down than much of the drama allows.
I was re-reading my review of World’s Greatest Dad, an underrated movie that managed to make my top ten of that year. It reads so closely to this movie but also how this story needs to be told: “The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity… Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste.” That sounds like the better version of Dear Evan Hansen to me, except that’s not exactly the kind of musical that people hug over and buy a T-shirt or hat to adorn on the drive home.
If you’re among the fandom for Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sure you’ll find enough to enjoy with director Stephen Chbosky’s big screen adaptation. I don’t want this to sound condescending, but you’ve likely already built the excuses for the characters and the story and made peace with whatever ethical foibles persist, so whether it’s on the stage or on the screen matters little. For those unfamiliar with the popular stage show, I don’t know what your takeaway will be but I’m positive this is not the best introduction. Again, Dear Evan Hansen is not the first musical to deal with complicated ethical scenarios and with morally compromised characters trying to do their best with the hands that fate has dealt them. Empathy is a powerful tool for storytelling, and that’s what Evan Hansen weaponizes for his own personal gain. I found this movie to be uncomfortable, misguided, and emotionally exploitative just like its hero. If the movie was critical of Evan’s bad behavior, then maybe this would be a different matter. It wants you to understand that Evan is hurting and therefore complicated. Well, Evan Hansen, there’s a lot of people in this world that are struggling with mental health issues, and suicide ideation, but they don’t manipulate and exploit those they deem are most important to them. Sorry Evan, and sorry Dear Evan Hansen, but you can stay waving behind a window for all that I care.
Nate’s Grade: D+
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