Tunefully tackling mental health, cancel culture and the nature of truth in the Internet age – and none of these topics with much dexterity – Stephen Chbosky’s mixed bag musical movie of Dear Evan Hansen (B-) nonetheless provides an absorbing showcase for an ensemble of female actress/singers who wave into a window of emotions more authentic than that of the film’s male lead. Call it Medicated High School Musical, and call it like it is that Ben Platt’s character translates awkwardly from the Great White Way to the silver screen. Platt is mostly crooning to the mezzanine balconies while Chbosky lenses the actor’s histrionics in awkward close-ups which reveal he is powdered in age-reducing prosthetics to reprise the lauded teenage performance he created nearly a decade ago on stage. The cinema canvas also surfaces flaws in the Broadway source material, namely that the audience is meant to sympathize with a character whose mounting lies prove to undermine his perceived good intentions. The characters breaking out into song isn’t really explained or consistent and can be confusing when one of them actually plays guitar as a plot device; and since emotion is already heightened, there’s often not much higher to go in some pedestrian presentational soliloquies. Were the YouTube fans meant to like the speech or the song? One must suspend a good bit of disbelief. However, let’s get to the good stuff, because there are many highlights in this overlong but often moving enterprise. First, the music is flawless, including two solid new songs to add to favorites such as “You Will Be Found.” The film is chock full of stunning female talent: Amandla Stenberg as an activist classmate whose tune “The Anonymous Ones” is a highlight, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever as a mother and daughter recoiling from tragedy in earnest songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us,” and Julianne Moore whose final reel “So Big/So Small” is a heartbreaker. Platt does indeed shine in many of his scenes of comedy and intense singing, even though the director should have reigned him in and clarified many aspects of the character. And Colton Ryan as a troubled classmate is so captivating in his two major sequences that it’s surprising he didn’t nab the lead role. Still, the parts of this story that work and surprise have the capacity to genuinely touch hearts and minds about the tug of war of man versus his worst instincts in a quest to belong. The film and its protagonist are often a tangled mess, but musical fans will likely grant Chbosky, Platt and company a full pardon for some of their missteps in bringing such an emotional wallop to the screen.
This film is speaking my love language. As the teenage daughter of deaf parents with her only sibling deaf as well, Ruby, played with sublime grace by Emilia Jones, seeks to be a standout in the field of choral music, which no one else in her rural New England family can actually hear, in the formulaic but feel-good dramedy of the summer, Sian Heder’s CODA (B+). Heder writes and directs the film with an admirable lack of sentiment and grounds the central family in a highly relatable milieu. The protagonist’s quest to pursue her art while also pulled into the mounting demands of the family fishing business (she’s their sole interpreter) provides ample material for conflict, but most everything comes back to love in an overall work that can best be described as heartwarming. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are outstanding as the parents, Daniel Durant charming as the brother and Eugenio Derbez is a delight as the music teacher. Ruby and her family feel real in their every interaction, and even when the story unfolds in pretty much the way a viewer would expect it to, it still does so in surprising ways because of the composition and cunning of this unconventional family. Viewers will be won over by the sweet-natured strengths of the ensemble, the unexpected representation and inclusion of the casting and the writer/director’s skills at quiet observation. Additionally the music sequences are wonderful. Far from a chore or a bore, this film is uplift from beginning to end.
Even the Queen of Soul herself can be enhanced by a judicious editor, and Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (C) would have been improved if the filmmakers had commenced to condense. Instead the film takes a fairly circuitous journey in the telling of the songstress’ life and gives cursory treatment to some significant incidents of trauma she experiences as both a child and adult. Jennifer Hudson’s singing is sublime, but there’s a hollowness to the character and portrayal, slighted and undermined by unfocused writing and narrative. Forest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans also have rather thankless roles as the controlling men in the musician’s life. There’s also a relative paucity of musical sequences, which is disappointing given the film’s ample duration. After a rather absorbing first hour, the film doesn’t trust its most creative instincts and instead resorts to paint-by-numbers behind-the-music conventions for nearly 90 more minutes. The movie imparts lots of great data points about why Aretha Franklin was a trailblazer, but Tommy’s film largely misses the mark in taking viewers beneath the surface of the legend.
A striking lived-in central performance by Mark Wahlberg as an anti-bullying crusader lifts Reinaldo Marcus Green’s frank biographical tale of Joe Bell (B-) above its sentimental R-rated afterschool special conceits. Structurally wobbly and a touch treacly, the film about a father’s road to redemption after not doing all he could to save his gay son from abuse at the hands of his high school classmates is often quite moving and revealing. Connie Britton is wonderful as well as the family matriarch, and Reid Miller gives a sensitive portrayal of the troubled teen: fragile, flamboyant and fiery. Green tinges the threadbare story with moments of realism, poignancy and heartbreaking self-reflection; it is best in its most small and intimate moments as opposed to its large gestures. The film is superb in depicting little-seen insights into the father-son bond and showcasing what it means to be strong in your own skin, and Wahlberg nails the central role. Even when the film sometimes stumbles in storytelling, it is a well-meaning summons to travel the world with head held high. It imparts lessons the world still needs to hear.
This is the film that happens after an unlikely pair Meets Cute, after the guy gets girl, after he intercepts her at the airport to go ahead and stay. Set in a gorgeously shot Athens, Greece, as a boozy sun-drenched party paradise, Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ kinetic drama Monday (C+) propels its appealing thirtysomething American expat leads into immediate lust and leaves most of the film for figuring out if they’re even remotely right for each other. Sebastian Stan is magnetic, spry and beguiling as the devil-may-care deejay and vagabond; and Denise Gough is the complete opposite as a plucky but more proper immigration lawyer who is in one of those rebound travel-the-world on a bender type situations. In chronicling this mismatched duo’s fall from an almost too metaphorical Garden of Eden (it’s a fig leaf-free beach in this case), the film plumbs the notion of how a relationship can survive on chemistry and chemicals alone and finds lots of erotic ways to determine if true love can really be skin deep. But the episodes of showing how different the wavelengths each is surfing can be painful and awkward, and the movie’s near-improvised vibe feels a touch incomplete. The filmmakers get points for examining the intoxication of obsessive love but rarely make space, momentum or structure to adequately fill in some of the emotional gaps which would elucidate why these giddy drifters choose to spend time together on any activity other than sex. Because it is set in the exotic milieu of a foreign land with characters somewhat in a toxic fog of trying to find each other, the story becomes more absorbing even as its trajectory appears clear to the audience. Fittingly, it’s all lovely to look at and drink in, but the hangover comprises most of this bittersweet story.
This film has all the narrative subtlety of a string of Reddit forum comments or one of those propaganda film strips from health class narrated by the gym coach. A message movie has to at least be competently made before a viewer can determine if its ideology rings true, but Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn‘s Roe v. Wade (F) is so glaringly misbegotten as a motion picture that its multitude of flaws eclipse its POV. The lead characters, played by Loeb and Jamie Kennedy, are doctors who perform abortions with reckless abandon and little regard for the ethics of their medical procedures, and yet somehow they are intended to be the vessels of a breakthrough conversion that what they are doing is not (capital R?) right. The tone is all over the map, and any attempt at irony to make its points is largely lost in a muddled storyline. Predominantly filmed in the color orange to imply the 1970s, the film punctuates its loosely interspersed doses of conspiracy theories and heavy-handed (capital M?) messages with a fictional recreation of aspects of the titular landmark Supreme Court trial itself. None of the proceedings achieves the gravitas its filmmakers are hoping to attain. No actor in the ensemble, not Jon Voight nor Stacey Dash, is done any favors by this meandering script. It’s telling when Joey Lawrence may give the film’s best performance as a conservative law professor, certainly “whoa” casting in anyone’s universe. Freeze frames and jaw-dropping narration, songs that would seem routine in a Borat movie if not meant to literally shock, turgid line readings, music that makes Reefer Madness look understated and a systematic sequence of bewildering choices comprise a film that doesn’t meet the minimum bar. No doubt the creators of this film intended to expose the hypocrisy of those who oppose their view, and most certainly they will decry a liberal coterie lauding films like Never Rarely Sometimes Alwaysand not giving this movie a separate but equal applause. But this film doesn’t do a great service to its agenda and certainly fails as cinema.
In a film filled with the oft-sung promise of showing “All of Me,” a meandering narrative fails to do justice to a legendary chanteuse. Newcomer actress Andra Day’s breakthrough success in the title role is inversely proportional to the failure of storytelling in Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (D). In the 1940s, Holiday is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” This premise is stretched into a misbegotten biopic that rarely finds its focus. Daniels is a director who doesn’t shy away from dark psycho-sexual, violent and drug-induced depravity; but his penchant for wallowing in the worst impulses of his subject’s life and times simply punishes his subject and audience. Trapped in this very bad movie is a “star is born” level performance by Day, a raw and honest portrait brilliantly acted and sung. She brings fearless vocal chops and searing screen presence to the occasion and is met with a zigzagging creative vision that consistently shortchanges her committed work. In breathing life into a short and tragic character, Day stands on the shoulders of giants Diana Ross and Audra McDonald who have portrayed the singer before and compares favorably with a low-key freshness. Regrettably, an unfocused and unpleasant narrative, an often dimly lit parade of loosely connected episodes, and a chaotic tone adds up to a sleepy, sloppy slog that keeps its central character at a distance. Classic jazz music and sometimes lovely production design and costumes mask a truly confused production. The men in the film, Garrett Hedlund as a one-note federal agent and Trevante Rhodes as a complex love interest, are mediocre in underwritten roles. Didn’t we just see other better films about sting operations to thwart racial progress and period pieces about making music against a backdrop of social upheaval? Expect accolades for the new Lady Day and little else about this tedious film.
There’s a compelling story seeking its sweet freedom in Kevin Macdonald’s circuitous Guantánamo Bay detention camp legal drama The Mauritanian (B-), but it takes a frustratingly obtuse approach to its subject. Jodie Foster’s defense attorney character enters the lair of Tahar Rahim’s imprisoned man in shadows as if fava beans and a nice cannibal-endorsed Chianti are on the menu, but the film subverts expectations as the incarcerated man in this case may or may not be guilty of 9/11 terrorist crimes. Rahim is the revelation here, charming and complex in his origin story and flashbacks that comprise the heart of the film, with sequences blocked like home movies compared to more procedural sequences. It’s a treat to see Foster do what she does best, serious and singleminded of purpose as she endeavors to protect the rule of law and the man she’s defending. Less successful are an underused Shaleine Woodley as her bland junior legal colleague and Benedict Cumberbatch as a boring military prosecutor with a Southern accent that seems to just be begging, “Why am I not being played by Dennis Quaid?” The film is dotted with interesting details for courtroom and cover-up fans, but little of it levels up to much of a breakthrough. Still, it’s a solid showcase for Rahim and a welcome return for Foster, which should silence the lambasters.
There’s little arguing about a two-star review for this dramatic showcase of two stars arguing, except maybe that’s too generous. Sam Lewinson’s pretentious meta two-hander Malcolm and Marie (D+) traces a contentious evening between a filmmaker fresh off a feted premiere (a confident and prickly John David Washington) and his somewhat spurned girlfriend/muse (a feisty and sometimes furious Zendaya). The two actors are basically the charged objects of a conversation story largely set during one fraught night in a modern mansion. For its entire running time, this stylish black and white film circles the drain, a trite tempest in a teacup with enough disparate theses to fill a semester of dissertations. None of it lands: not the panel on jealousy, not the discourse about film appreciation, not the seminar on appropriating loved ones into art. It’s a veritable fantasia of unpleasantness, blocked and mannered into a pulverized oblivion, blunting the skills and charms of the talented actors into becoming nearly unwatchable. The fact that Washington and Zendaya have select moments of authentic, acrobatic acting on display simply underscores that most of the film is an obtuse downer not worth the journey.
Solemn, thoughtful and prescient in its modern parallels, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (B) is a vital history lesson set in 1960s Chicago headlined by Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as car thief turned FBI informant William O’Neal, locked in an all-out battle of wills as political machinery moves to tamp down a social justice revolution. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield give mighty performances, particularly Stanfield who brings poignancy to an unsympathetic character, although the writing keeps both actors strangely at arm’s length from being as vivid or memorable as anticipated. Dominique Fishback brings a welcome emotional arch to the proceedings with her graceful demeanor; and Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen provide grotesque faces of corruption. King lenses the film gorgeously with strong period detail but doesn’t quite capture the verve to make the movie a standout. After a lull, the final act features some punch for sure. It’s a tragic American saga with profound lessons to impart and is just short of rising to epic stature.
Known more as a boy band grad who transitioned to soulful superstardom in his own right, Justin Timberlake says bye bye bye to just being a celebrity in occasional cameos and thrusts his thespian chops to a fierce forefront. Palmer (B-) by director Fisher Stevens is decent in every sense of the word, an earnest yet predictable movie about redemption and resiliency featuring JT as an ex-con with a heart of gold and child actor Ryder Allen as the gender-nonconforming boy next door who benefits from a non-judgmental father figure. The genuine goodness of the stoic single man’s burgeoning paternal qualities with the princess-loving preteen is the heart of the story and often quite affecting. Timberlake is in nearly every scene of the movie and endearing in his performance, and yet it’s still hard to connect to his past crimes and circumstances. We don’t really get much of a glimpse into his worst instincts. Allen is a revelation as his fanciful foil. But despite some seeming detours to the dark side, most of the movie sticks to formula. Alisha Wainwright is a standout with a committed performance as a teacher and love interest; but like participants in many of the plot threads, her character remains a bit underdeveloped. Still it’s a largely sunny discovery of a film and, if in case the notion were ever lost, it’s bringin’ sexy sentimentality back.
This is one of those movies in which you really need flashbacks to when the characters may have been much more interesting. Playing loving partners of twenty years in Harry Macqueen’s slog of a road trip through the British countryside, Supernova (C), Colin Firth’s pianist must come to grips with revelations from Stanley Tucci as his lover, an author battling onset dementia. Firth gives the better performance and is often quietly moving. Tucci is adequate but not particularly revelatory in an underwritten role. The sad descent is sensitively handled, and the two actors acquit themselves admirably with tender material. Alas sequences on the road have the allure of one of those calming apps that helps you sleep, and none of the stops – including a mundane family reunion and a charmless rental house – hold much appeal or allure. Aside from the fact that it’s two rather well-known actors who aren’t gay playing gay, there’s really not much to see here that hasn’t been covered in other melodramas. Cosmic metaphors and the theme that even two people living in the tight quarters of a camper van can hold secrets from one another don’t really enliven the proceedings much either. I may have liked the epilogue sequence more than I should have. This movie gets points for tackling a Big Issue from an alternative perspective but ultimately feels lost somewhere between treacly and perfunctory.