Friday, September 24, 2021


In theaters today:

Dear Evan Hansen--Evan himself wrote the letter from which comes the title. Intended as a morale-boosting exercise for the alienated, socially anxious high school kid (Ben Platt), the missive is found on the person of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a seriously disturbed classmate who has taken his own life. Connor's devastated parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) jump to the conclusion that he wrote it to Evan, and that the two were close friends.

Evan plays along with the mistake, initially because he feels sorry for Connor's Mom, and also because it gives him proximity to Connor's sister Zoey (Kaitlyn Dever), on whom he has long had a crush. He continues the charade because the affluent, welcoming Murphys offer him a family dynamic he doesn't get from his always-working single Mom (Julianne Moore). Gradually his supposed friendship with Connor brings him social media celebrity, and things get out of hand.

Directed by Stephen Chbosky, this is an adaptation of the stage musical, which opened on Broadway in 2016. The show was an uneven piece of work, an uneasy combination of farcical plot contrivances and complications mixed with bitterly sad subject matter. The score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, was also uneven musically; three or four strong songs plus a lot of forgettable warbling.

Most likely what made Dear Evan Hansen a hit in the theatre, above all, was the (Tony Award winning) performance of Ben Platt in the title role. Platt's voice is a marvel, an impossibly angelic falsetto that transcends the technical; there's an idiosyncratic, self-deprecating diffidence to his phrasing that gives it personality and wit. As powerful as songs like "Waving Through a Window" and "For Forever" are, it's Platt's singing--and acting--that elevates them to the level of breathtaking.

Chbosky uses the banal suburban high school settings ingeniously, and screenwriter Steven Levenson, who wrote the book of the musical, does a creditable job of weeding out many of the filler songs and making Platt the focus. Even so, the movie drags a bit in its second half, and its creepy side can't be completely shaken.

I'm told, though, that the biggest objection to the movie is that Platt, now 28, looks too old to play Evan. I have to say that he didn't strike me that way at all; if I was told that the guy we see in the film, with his limp curls and miserable shirts and slumped shoulders, was a sad sack high school senior, I don't think it would occur to me to doubt it.

In any case, even if Platt were balding and gray at the temples and had crow's feet and a paunch, I wouldn't want to hear anyone else perform this music. Dear Evan Hansen has flaws, but the star isn't one of them; he's what makes the movie worth seeing despite its flaws.

Monday, September 20, 2021


Now in theaters:

Blue Bayou--Antonio LeBlanc is a motorcycle-riding tattoo artist in New Orleans. His inked-up badass look belies a gentle, loving nature, and his name and accent belie his background; he was adopted from Korea. A couple of abusive foster homes later, he's struggling to help support his wife Kathy and an adoring stepdaughter, and they have a baby on the way.

A bad encounter with the cops gets Antonio arrested, and then, insanely, his case is transferred to ICE, and he finds himself facing deportation. "I was adopted by white people," he says plaintively, sure that this should count for something.

Written and directed by Justin Chon, who also movingly plays Antonio, this social melodrama in the grand '30s-era Warner Brothers tradition dramatizes a real and baffling immigration outrage. Certain foreign adoptees, especially Koreans who turned 18 before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, have been deported, others are facing deportation, often after living decades, essentially their whole lives, in the U.S. The story here, fictitious in its details, is amalgamated from true events.

If this movie did nothing more than shine a light on this addition to the list of U.S. immigration policy's cruelties, it would be commendable. But it's also a potent, absorbing weeper. Along with Chon's impressive turn as Antonio, Alicia Vikander has lovely tenderness as Kathy, as does Linh Dan Pham as a Vietnamese immigrant who befriends Antonio. Young Sydney Kowalske (could she be a descendant of famed New Orleans residents Stanley and Stella?) is a find as Kathy's daughter.

There's a certain drawn-out heaviness to the pace and the groaning music and the gauzy imagery of Blue Bayou, but the vitality of the actors more than overcomes it, even brings it some humor. And the subject matter kept me engaged. And enraged.

Friday, September 17, 2021


Opening in theaters this weekend:

The Eyes of Tammy Faye--One day in 2001, I spent about an hour with Tammy Faye. She was Tammy Faye Messner by that time, not Tammy Faye Bakker. We chowed down together while I interviewed her at the food court at an outdoor swap meet in east Mesa where she was signing her memoir Tammy: Telling It My Way. The copy I bought from her that day is still on my bookshelf; she signed it "God bless you Mark--Love, Tammy Faye."

For those who may not remember: Tammy Faye was a star of evangelical TV in the 60s, '70s and '80s. Growing up poor in International Falls, Minnesota, she married aspiring preacher Jim Bakker, who she met at Bible college and who believed that God wanted us--especially him--to be prosperous. They had a traveling Christian puppet show with which they broke into TV through Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (Jim was the original host of The 700 Club). Then they struck out on their own, founding the enormously lucrative PTL Satellite Network and other ventures such as the theme park Heritage USA. She was the life of the party on their show, and they lived in conspicuous and kitschy luxury funded by viewer donations.

Financial improprieties and sex scandals deflated the PTL enterprise in the late '80s; Jim Bakker went to federal prison for years. Tammy Faye divorced him, remarried to developer Roe Messner, and then, well, she had lunch with me. Did I mention that?

By the time I met her, Tammy Faye was on a roll thanks, in part, to a feature documentary of 2000 by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato called The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Probably initiated to mock its subject, this film helped her rehabilitate her image into a lovable media personality and pop-culture icon, particularly for the gay community; sort of an honorary drag queen. Now the same title has been given to a dramatized version of the story, directed by Michael Showalter from a script by Bailey and Barbato, and starring Jessica Chastain in the title role.

Based on my single brief meeting, I have to say that Chastain disappears into the part; this is the woman I met back in 2001. To what extent either that interview or this performance represents the whole person can be known only to those who knew her better than either Chastain or I did--Tammy Faye passed on, from cancer, in 2007 at the age of 65. But as far as her public persona, Chastain nails it. She also gives us notes of the humor, the bold vivacity, the restlessness, the impatience, the lack of wifely subservience that made her a handful in the evangelical world of the time, and, more striking still, a sense of genuine spiritual exaltation that alienated her from the thievery and sanctimony. Chastain will probably get award buzz, and it won't be undeserved.

Andrew Garfield plays Jim Bakker, and his excellence would be easy to overlook; there's poignancy in his dim, queasy realizations of his carefully self-justified avarice, and his guilty resentment of his wife's popularity. Cherry Jones is terrific as Tammy Faye's hard-assed, no-nonsense mother, who smells trouble the first time Jim comes into the house. Frederic Lehne makes his presence felt as her more easygoing and affectionate stepfather, and in the smallish role of Jerry Falwell, Vincent D'Onofrio has fun imitating the way the preacher would clamp his lips down on terminal consonants: "JiMM."

Aside from the superb acting and the flawless period flavor, this Eyes of Tammy Faye is pretty good; not quite great. Bailey and Barbato simplify and streamline Tammy Faye's life, and maybe whitewash it a bit, too. At one point, as things are falling apart, Jim screams at Tammy that he did what he did to satisfy her greed, but while she's clearly shown enjoying the glitz, we don't really see her ask him for anything other than conjugal relations (which he neglects). It's unclear whether the movie's position is that she was greedy, or that he used her as an excuse for his own rapacity. The movie also gets a little shapeless in its final act; Bailey, Barbato and Showalter can't seem to quite figure out how to wrap it up, though Chastain is powerful in her closing scene.

Those who don't remember Tammy Faye on TV may well think that these performances are caricatures, as many thought about the Coen Brothers' masterpiece Fargo, another movie with a dauntless, cheerful Minnesotan heroine. But those who watched The PTL Club back then, or even those from an equivalent religious or cultural or even geographical background, will realize that this isn't an exaggeration at all.

Sunday, September 12, 2021


 On Amazon Prime:

Death Drop Gorgeous--Meat grinder meets glory hole.

That's right, meat grinder meets glory hole. This may be a cinematic first; in any case it should tell you everything you need to know about this low-budget slasher comedy set in the drag club scene of Providence, Rhode Island. Between this and Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie, Providence may soon become a mecca for microbudget horror.

You know how some horror pictures use suggestion and understatement to create mood? Not so much in Death Drop Gorgeous.  Blood gushes and flies in this over-the-top yarn, written and directed by Michael J. Ahern, Christopher Dalpe and Brandon Perras, all of whom are also in the cast. Not only is the gore extreme, the acting has a brash, over-the-top exuberance.

The movie plays like a hybrid of Friday the 13th, The Hunger and pretty much any John Waters movie before Hairspray. On its own terms, it's well shot and edited, and the splatter effects are capably done. It's not for everybody, obviously, and certainly isn't subtle. But it also isn't dull.

Monday, September 6, 2021


Now playing in theaters and on Amazon Prime Video:

Cinderella--This is a "sassy" new musical version of the venerable yarn. Written and directed by Kay Cannon of the Pitch Perfect flicks, it takes place in a racially and ethnically diverse storybook kingdom, and our heroine (Camila Cabello) wants a career in fashion design more than she wants a boy. Indeed, the incognito Prince (Nicholas Galitzine) gets her to accept his invitation to the ball not by romantically sweeping her off her feet but by promising to introduce her to potential customers.

Neat idea, and while I'm not sure the retelling is as radical as the filmmakers think it is, there's plenty to enjoy, as well as some cringe-inducing moments. The score has a few original tunes, but is mostly comprised of familiar pop numbers; songs from Madonna to Queen to Earth, Wind and Fire to Salt-N-Pepa to Ed Sheeran, among others, get reinterpreted here by the likes of the potent Idina Menzel as the not-quite-completely-wicked Stepmother to Billy Porter as the "Fabulous Godmother" to Minnie Driver as the Prince's Mom. After his Mamma Mia! experience, Pierce Brosnan, as the Prince's stuffy Dad, is mercifully spared any serious singing.

Along with these vets, the youthful leads carry the picture with assurance; the Cuban Cabello has a lovely delicacy, and the stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer) seem like rather fun company, really. And Galitzine manages not to be dull and featureless as the Prince, an achievement all by itself.

Make no mistake, this is a lot of belting in the American Idol manner, and the pushiness can get a little embarrassing at times. But this Cinderella, reportedly conceived by James Corden, who produced--and who plays one of the mice/footmen, with two other excellent Brits--has a tone of built-in self-mockery that takes the edge off this. Overall, the cheesy but irresistible exhilaration of its musical form is infectious.

Friday, September 3, 2021


Now in theaters:

PAW Patrol: The Movie--Created by Keith Chapman of Bob the Builder fame, the Canadian TV cartoon PAW Patrol has been around for almost a decade. It's a boy-and-his-dog story, or rather, a boy-and-his-half-dozen-dogs story.  The boy, Ryder, leads a pack of six puppies, each of whom specializes in some branch of public safety, and who, like the Peanuts kids, never seem to age.

Chase, a German Shepherd, does police work; Marshall, a Dalmatian, fights fires. Zuma, a Lab, handles water rescues. Schnauzer Rocky runs a recycling truck and manages the team's environmental concerns, while Rubble the bulldog does construction. The only female member of the initial team, cockapoo Skye, flies the rescue helicopter. They dash around the town of Adventure Bay in souped-up, high-tech emergency vehicles, deploying gadgetry, and generally making themselves useful. And merchandisable.

In this inevitable movie version, the gang moves from bucolic Adventure Bay to the sprawling nearby metropolis of Adventure City, in anticipation of trouble now that their villainous nemesis Humdinger has managed to get himself elected Mayor. Humdinger is a vain, boastful, self-promoting buffoon who's more than willing to endanger the city if it helps his image.

Trouble, it need hardly be said, ensues. In the course of the story, which involves Humdinger's attempts to manipulate the weather so that it doesn't interfere with his public events, we learn that Chase was an abandoned pup in the streets, and he stills suffers PTSD symptoms when he's in the city. The team also gets an assist from an aspiring new member--another female--a dachshund named Liberty.

Look, I'm certainly not suggesting there's an earthly reason for you to go see this thing if you don't have a five-year-old fanatic who demands it. I saw it at a regular commercial showing, not a critics screening, and I'll admit I felt like a weirdo sitting there by myself on a Sunday evening. But if you do end up going, you might be surprised at how relatively painless it is to sit through. The animation is deft and speedy, and there are flickers of mild wit here and there throughout the dialogue, including a good-natured self-deprecating joke about how the team finances its palatial headquarters and equipment.

The cast includes the same sort of generic-sounding kid voices heard on the show as the puppies. But a few celebrities lend their pipes as well, including Jimmy Kimmel, Tyler Perry; even Kim Kardashian. Marsai Martin from the TV show Black-ish vigorously voices the dachshund Liberty.

It should be noted that in the ongoing war between cats and dogs, PAW Patrol: The Movie plants its flag firmly on the side of the dogs, not only because of the canine character of its heroes, but because the villainous Humdinger is attended by an entourage of noxious cats. It's a little surprising that the Feline Anti-Defamation League hasn't complained yet.