Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language

Copyright Universal 2021
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.

The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.

Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.

Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.

But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.

It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.

Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?

If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director

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Respect

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, scuffles, sad death of a parent, murder of Martin Luther King
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright MGM 2021
Let’s stipulate two incontrovertible truths: First, as dazzling as Jennifer Hudson is, she is not the once-to-a-planet gift that was Aretha Franklin, whose songs are so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we cannot help but hear it in our head and accept no substitutes. Long past her prime but every inch a diva of raise-the-rafters soul singing, the clip over the credits of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to songwriter Carole King (Franklin won her own Honor 21 years before), is breathtakingly thrilling. We see her bringing King and President Obama to tears, and I expect most will see that through their own.

Second, there are a lot of movies, many fact-based, with the theme: good woman, great songs, bad, bad men. For example: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Piaf,” “Judy,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The US vs. Billie Holiday”/”Lady Sings the Blues,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “A Song is Born,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It is a challenge to make that story new, especially after the take-down of the inevitable cliches of singer biopics that is the excellent “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Despite these obstacles and a 2 1/2 hour running time, the Aretha Franklin story simply titled “Respect” is absorbing and entertaining. Hudson may not sing Aretha’s songs as well as she did, but the Oscar she got for her very first movie role in “Dreamgirls” was an accurate assessment of her acting skills and screen charisma. Director Liesel Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri have skillfully shaped a complex, even epic story to skip over many relationships and crises to focus on two key themes, the songs and their depiction of Franklin’s evolving voice, first in music, then in activism, then on her own behalf, and finally and most fulfillingly, to connect to God.

We first see her as a young girl, living with her father (Forest Whitaker), a prominent preacher, her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her sisters and brother. She is used to being awakened to sing at her father’s parties, which include prominent activists and performers. Her parents are divorced and she wishes she could spend more time with her adored mother (Audra McDonald), but overall she is happy and secure. In a wonderful scene, her mother gets her to express her feelings by singing them.

And then two cataclysmic events literally strike her silent. She is molested and gives birth to a son at age 12 and another one two years later. And her mother died.

Music is what literally gives her voice back to her. She sings, and that leads her first to tour churches with her father and then to make her first record deal, with a label that wants her to be a jazz singer. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is threatened by anyone she wants to work with and hits her. She works with Martin Luther King. And then she starts to get the hits she has wanted.

Hudson is never less than dazzling and the film manages to give a sense of the scope of the story without getting caught up in details like the husband it just skips over. The film is ultimately, yes, respectful, just as Miss Franklin hoped.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse and child molestation, sexual references and non-explicit situations, substance abuse, very strong and racist language, and some violence.

Family discussion: Who treated Aretha Franklin well? Why were hits so important to her? What made her able to start standing up for herself?

If you like this, try: “Amazing Grace,” the documentary we see being filmed at the end of this movie, the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and of course listen to Ms. Franklin’s music

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Vivo

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:55 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths including references to the death of a husband and father, some peril and scary moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021

Copyright Sony Pictures 2021
In the first of two animated musicals coming this year from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, he plays the title character, Vivo, a golden kinkajou (looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a honey-colored monkey). And because he is played by Miranda, he is a singing kinkajou, performing in a Cuban town square with his beloved partner Andrés (Juan de Marcos González). They are popular local performers. When he was a young man, Andrés sang with Marta (Gloria Estafan), and he still regrets that he never told her he loved her.

Marta has now gone on to be a big star in America. On the eve of her final performance before retiring, she writes to Andrés to invite him to join her on stage. But just after receiving the letter, Andrés dies (shown discreetly off screen). Vivo is determined to deliver the message Andrés cannot, and when the American relatives come to Cuba for the funeral, he sees his chance to get to Marta, in Miami.

He teams up with Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), an ebullient young girl with spiky purple hair, unquenchable optimism, and a tendency toward spontaneity. She is truly happy being exactly who she is, except perhaps when her mother or someone else wants her to go along with the crowd. Her widowed mother Rosa (Zoe Saldana) wants her to sell cookies with the Sand Dollar Girls, led by a bossy blonde who believes in following the rules.

The best part of the film is the short cut through the everglades, encountering some Disney-like creatures including a delightfully goofy spoonbill looking for love (Brian Tyree Henry) and a huge green snake looking for lunch (Michael Rooker). The contrast between Gabi’s improvisational approach and Vivo’s preference for planning gives some extra energy to the story, and the more abstract animated songs are vivid and imaginative.

The musical numbers reflect the varied styles from classic Cuban to hip hop to salsa, and each of the four locations has a distinct look and color palette. Gabi’s ebullient rap song “My Own Drum” is a highlight. Later, in the Everlgades, Gabi and Vivo begin to form a friendship with another percussive number, “Keep the Beat.” The mission of delivering a letter and a song from a musician who died without ever expressing his feelings to his former singing partner may not of as much interest to children as, say, a princess who can make a castle out of ice. They may wonder how, if no humans can understand Vivo’s language, he is so successful as a singer. But they will enjoy the lively heroine, colorful animation, and Manuel’s songs.

Parents should know that this movie has a sad death (discreetly handled) and references to the loss of a husband and father. There are moments of peril with a scary and very toothy snake. A little girl leaves home without her mother’s permission. There is some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Are you a planner or an improviser? How do you know?

If you like this, try: Carl Hiaasen’s YA novel Chomp and Disney’s “The Rescuers” and “The Princess and the Frog

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Trailer: Cinderella — A New Musical With Idina Menzel and Camila Cabello

Posted on August 3, 2021 at 7:35 pm

Amazon Prime has a new musical Cinderella story coming in September. Camila Cabello plays the girl with the evil stepmother (“Frozen’s” Idina Menzel) and Billy Porter is the fabulous fairy godmother. But this one has a different spin. Cinderella has ambitions that have nothing to do with marrying a prince. She is a talented dress designer who dreams of a career in fashion. Written and directed by “Pitch Perfect’s” Kay Cannon, it looks like a lot of fun. (Also, I bet there’s some romance as well as all the empowerment stuff.)

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Schmigadoon!

Posted on July 15, 2021 at 4:06 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Strong language and explicit references to anatomy
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Mild comic peril, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 16, 2021

Copyright AppleTV+ 2021
“Schmigadoon!” is a loving parody and an even more loving tribute to classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals, from “Oklahoma” to “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music,” and the musical that inspired this title, “Brigadoon.” Each of the six episodes of around 30 minutes has Broadway-level singing and dancing, with tuneful, clever songs performed by some of the biggest stars from the Great White Way. The more you love musicals, the more you will love “Schmigadoon!”

Cecily Strong (“Saturday Night Live”) and Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele,” “Keanu,” “Prom”) play surgeons who meet by a hospital candy machine and fall for each other. A few years later, their relationship is under some strain when they go on a couples hiking retreat. Lost in the rain, they happen on a cheerful 19th-century town where the citizens burst into song and elaborately choreographed dance numbers. They’re told by a magical leprechaun (Martin Short) that they cannot leave until they find true love.

The people they meet include Mayor Menlove (Alan Cummings), whose name could be a clue to his clear discomfort in a heteronormative community. Further discomfort could be the result of his dominating, judgmental wife Mildred (Kristin Chenoweth). (Compare them to Mayor Shinn and his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in “The Music Man.”) There’s the rapscallion carny Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit). (Think Billy in “Carousel.”) and the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse, who lives with her lisping little brother (similar to Marion and Winthrop Paroo in “The Music Man”). Later on, they meet a beautiful blonde countess (Jane Krakowski) (compare to the Baroness in “The Sound of Music”) and a handsome, widowed doctor (Jaime Camil, a bit of Captain von Trapp). And there’s a pappy with a shotgun that he uses to protect his nubile young (how young?) daughters, including Dove Cameron as Betsy (maybe Daisy Mae in “Li’l Abner”).

Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul are clearly the nerdiest of theater kids at heart and every bit of the series is imaginative, tuneful, thoughtful and detailed. Look behind the schoolteacher at the schedule of parent-teacher conferences on the blackboard. All the names are famous musical-creators. Some of the musical numbers are in direct conversation with classics, like Mildred’s solo, a witty riff on “Music Man’s” “Trouble.” Others are romantic or just pure fun.

Whether you are a theater nerd who can trace the history of the first act “I Want” song from “Show Boat” to “The Little Mermaid” or are just looking for a clever, warm-hearted, romantic adventure filled with supremely talented people giving their all, “Schmigadoon!” is one of 2021’s most delicious delights.

Parents should know that this movie has sexual references including out-of-wedlock pregancy and explicit language about reproduction and body parts, as well as relationship stress, strong language, and some alcohol.

Family discussion: What’s your favorite musical and why? What did Josh and Melissa learn about love?

If you like this, try: the musicals that inspired it as well as others like “My Fair Lady,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Bells are Ringing,” “West Side Story,” and “The Pajama Game”

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