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‘Evan Hansen’ is better than you think – and that’s too bad

Platt’s artificiality, film’s tokenism hard to get past

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Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

It’s always a let down when a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Take, for example, “Dear Evan Hansen,” Steven Chbosky’s new film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that made stars of its lead actor (Ben Platt) and songwriters (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Based on the less-than-favorable buzz – especially around the choice to let Platt reprise a role for which he was now a decade older – that dominated online conversation around it in the weeks before its release, I walked into the theater fully expecting to see an appallingly terrible movie.

To my deep disappointment, it was not. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a great one, either. It just wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good disaster I was looking forward to hating.

If you’re unfamiliar, “Evan Hansen” is the tale of a teenager (Platt) returning to school for his senior year after a traumatic summer experience. Struggling with severe social anxiety, he lives with a divorced mother (Julianne Moore) who works extra shifts to make ends meet. Assigned by his therapist to write himself encouraging letters every day, his life turns upside down when a classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan) intercepts one such letter and takes it from him. When Connor takes his own life a few days later, his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) find the letter in his pocket and mistakenly think it was written by their son to a secret friend; they reach out to Evan, hoping to hear stories about a happier Connor than the angry loner they knew at home. Though he tries at first to correct their misunderstanding, his desire to ease their grief soon has him inventing a friendship that never existed. It’s a well-intentioned lie that soon snowballs on the internet, making Evan a viral sensation and putting him at the center of an online awareness-raising movement called The Connor Project – not to mention gaining him the attention of Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who has been his longtime crush from afar. When things inevitably begin to spiral out of his control, he is forced to recognize that building a new life for himself on a falsehood might have consequences he never had in mind – but can he muster the courage to come clean and expose himself to the world as a fraud before it’s too late to reverse the damage he’s already done?

The stage original was a hit on Broadway in 2015, but despite its popularity and accolades, it was not without its detractors. Critics and audiences alike found numerous reasons to be uncomfortable with its premise – not the least of which involved the questionable ethics at its core. The movie, which was adapted by Steven Levenson from his original book for the show, corrects for some of those criticisms, boosting the story’s diversity with a few minor character revisions and expanding the ending to allow a more complete redemption arc for its leading character. It also doubles down on the show’s youth appeal by building up some of the original content around the show’s younger characters – including a substantially expanded role for Evan’s overachieving schoolmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) – and cutting some from around the adults. For the most part, these changes strengthen and deepen the narrative; likewise, the very nature of the cinematic medium gives it an obvious advantage in exploring the story’s underlying concern with the power of the internet over our cultural and social lives. 

Yet despite these improvements, “Evan Hansen” on film still falls short of being excellent. It’s not because of weak direction; Chbosky has a gift for conveying the complex and conflicting emotions of teenage experience with nuance and insight, something that goes a long way toward keeping “Evan Hansen” from becoming trite. Nor is it the cast; the film’s talented ensemble of players is more than up to the challenge of jumping from realistic scene work into the full conceit of a musical number and finding just the right balance to make it work. In particular, the always-luminous Moore is pitch-perfect as Evan’s mom, as is Adams as her grieving counterpart; and Dever is unequivocally superb as Zoe, quietly providing the heartbreaking honesty necessary to make her character’s journey come clearly and authentically to life – something absolutely needed if we are to believe in her relationship with Evan.

And that brings us to the problem: Evan himself is a hard sell. On one hand, he is grappling with mental health issues, not to mention an absent father and an overextended mother, and therefore draws our sympathies; yet on the other, he deceives and manipulates people to gain the things he is missing in his life – the attention of his classmates, a girlfriend, a substitute family – and justifies it with the belief that he is benefitting a higher cause. Platt’s performance on Broadway helped make it work through the raw power of his emotion and his prowess as a singer.

But the world has changed in the years since “Evan Hansen” landed on Broadway. During a cultural crisis born (among other things) of the ease by which “alternative facts” can disrupt our lives, it’s grown more difficult to find such a character appealing, no matter how soulfully he delivers Pasek and Paul’s heart-tugging pop-flavored showtunes. And while Platt may deliver a faithful rendering of his acclaimed stage performance, next to the elegant self-assurance of the rest of the film’s cast he seems over-the-top, a bundle of performative tics and mannerisms that distract us from the reality of Evan’s struggles and make him come off as disingenuous.

As for the controversy around his age, it should be noted that all the movie’s teen characters are played by actors in their 20s, a common practice in Hollywood movies. Still, in spite of the sometimes painfully obvious efforts made to “youthen” him for the camera, Platt is still noticeably older-looking than his co-stars, something that (for obvious reasons) is particularly troubling in his scenes with Dever, who is much more convincing as a 17-year old than he.

Still, it’s not the age problem alone that keeps “Evan Hansen” from winning us over. It’s the combination of all the artificiality he brings with him – which includes our knowledge that his father, Marc C. Platt, co-produced the film. It has the counter-productive result of tainting the sincerity of everything we see on the screen, even to the point of giving the movie’s nods to diversity and inclusion an unpleasant odor of tokenism, and it ensures that we are not quite as eager to bestow forgiveness on the title character as the story wants us to be.

That’s why it’s a disappointment that “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t terrible. It might have been one of the great Hollywood debacles, a monumental flop to be revered by generations of audiences who loved to make fun of it. It could have been a camp classic.

Instead, it’s just another promising project sunk by Hollywood hubris, a mediocre misfire with a few good moments that never really had the chance at being more than that, but certainly could have been so much less.

That, at least, would have made it memorable.

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SAG Award slate points to a not-very-queer Oscar night

‘Power of the Dog’ snubbed in Best Cast category

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Can Lady Gaga turn a SAG nomination into Oscar gold? (Photo courtesy of United Artists Releasing)

It’s mid-January, and pandemic or not, Hollywood’s “awards season” has kicked off in earnest.

The announcement last week of nominations for the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards means that it’s now time for armchair pundits, bookmakers, and film journalists to start compiling their predictions for the Oscars, which everyone knows are the main event when it comes to Hollywood awards.

This should be a good-natured exercise in fun, driven by a love for the movies and a genuine appreciation of the artistry of the people who make them – but at a time when the film industry is under deep scrutiny for diversity and inclusion, things can get complicated. 

Since they are decided by members of a union that also makes up a substantial portion of the Academy’s voting body, the SAG Awards are considered a reliable bellwether for the Oscars race, though with fewer categories than the Academy, not to mention the complex interplay of personal loyalties and working relationships that undoubtedly influence their choices, they still leave room for a lot of speculation. Still, their record for aligning with the Academy’s eventual choices makes it worth factoring them in as we attempt to assess the chances for our favorite contenders to earn Oscar gold.

For Blade readers, of course, the key question is likely to be about which of the year’s LGBTQ movies are going to snag wins. Unfortunately, the answer to that question might be pretty bleak.

Of the 22 titles nominated within the SAG Awards’ six film categories, only one – “The Power of the Dog” – could be said to have any significant queer content. Others, like “West Side Story”, “tick, tick… BOOM!”, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, “Being the Ricardos”, or “House of Gucci”, have either LGBTQ-relevant elements in their narratives or obvious LGBTQ appeal in their subject matter, and some have both. But there is no “Moonlight” or “Call Me By Your Name” on which to hang the hope of a definitively queer winner in any category.

In the Best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture race – which is essentially the SAG Awards’ equivalent of Best Picture – the biggest surprise is the omission of “Power of the Dog.” Filmmaker Jane Campion’s dark and subtle western about the toxic relationship between a domineering older rancher and his effeminate new nephew has been a fixture in the top categories at awards ceremonies so far, but despite earning nods in other categories, it was shut out of the competition for this one. That leaves little in the way of LGBTQ inclusion among the five nominees (“Belfast”, “CODA”, “Don’t Look Up”, “House of Gucci”, “King Richard”), but it doesn’t keep “Power” from being a front-runner at the Oscars, where the Best Picture category can include up to 10 contenders. Even if all five of the SAG choices make it into the Academy’s race, Campion’s movie is almost certainly going to be there, too. The same can probably be said of “West Side Story”, another presumptive front-runner, but given its track record of wins so far, “Power” still stands as our favorite to take the honor on Oscar night.

For Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Motion Picture, the lineup includes several films of LGBTQ interest. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which earned a nod for star Jessica Chastain, is a biopic that takes time to address its real-life protagonist’s surprising legacy as a queer ally; “Being the Ricardos,” though it contains no directly LGBTQ material, has the obvious appeal of focusing on Lucille Ball, a show biz icon beloved for decades by the gay community, who is portrayed with delicacy and respect by nominee Nicole Kidman; Jennifer Hudson’s star turn as Aretha Franklin – another legendary diva with queer appeal – snagged her a nomination for “Respect”; and finally, Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” grabbed another nod here for Lady Gaga, the only out member of the LGBTQ community in the running. It would be great to see Mother Monster take home this prize, but she’s got stiff competition; based on honors given out so far, she stands as a frontrunner, but with Hudson and Kidman in the mix, not to mention awards darling Olivia Colman (nominated for “The Lost Daughter”), it feels like anybody’s race. Win or lose at the SAGs, Gaga still has a strong chance of being included in Oscar’s Best Actress category – as does out actress Kristin Stewart, whose performance as Lady Diana in “Spencer” puts her solidly on the Oscar shortlist, despite being snubbed here.

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Motion Picture might also be wide open. A few weeks ago, Benedict Cumberbatch would likely be the clear favorite to win for his towering performance as the closeted rancher in “Power of the Dog”, but after fellow nominee Will Smith’s win at the Golden Globes for “King Richard” his chances seem less sure. It’s a category that includes two Black actors – Smith and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) – and on a slate that is otherwise dominated by white nominees it’s one of the few opportunities for the SAGs to diversify its winners’ circle. It’s also worth mentioning that Andrew Garfield, nominated for “tick, tick… BOOM!”, won the Globes prize for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, which combined with widespread acclaim for his performance makes him a strong contender to pull off an upset from either of the two frontrunners – a scenario likely to be repeated at the Academy Awards. In any case, Washington and Javier Bardem (nominated for playing Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos”) are probably the dark horses here.

In the supporting categories, things look even less promising for LGBTQ inclusion. Nominated for “West Side Story” is Ariana DeBose, who is the clear favorite to win as Female Actor, though Kirsten Dunst’s quietly devastating performance in “Power of the Dog” has been accumulating considerable buzz, too. Both will likely be included at the Oscars as well. On the Male Actor side, the most clearly queer-friendly choice is Kodi Smit-McPhee, also for “Power of the Dog”; it’s a wild card category, skewed by the presence of big names (Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper, nominated for “The Tender Bar” and “Licorice Pizza”, respectively) who might gain votes on the basis of star status alone, but Smit-McPhee has made a consistently strong showing throughout the awards race so far – and frankly, deserves to win just for his ability to hold his own opposite the charismatic Cumberbatch. He’s our favorite in the category not just here, but also on Oscar night.

The SAG Awards, of course, also present awards for television. Those don’t have much bearing on the Oscars, but it’s worth mentioning that the nominees there include LGBTQ-relevant favorites like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Succession”, “Hacks”, “The White Lotus”, and “Halston.” We’ll take a closer look at those when the Screen Actors Guild makes their presentation, which will air live on TNT and TBS, on Sunday, Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, it’s time to start working on those Oscar predictions. Ready, set… GO!

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With masterful remake, Spielberg tells a whole new ‘Story’

A skillfully constructed work of art that engages emotions at every level

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The Jets and The Sharks face off in ‘West Side Story.’ (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox)

If you had reservations about the news that Steven Spielberg was remaking “West Side Story,” you aren’t alone. After all, with Hollywood’s track record for producing abysmal remakes of classic movies, it’s probably wise to be skeptical when a new one comes along.

That said, you can now rest assured that your skepticism is unfounded.

From its very first shot, in which Spielberg pays unabashed homage to the opening moments of “Citizen Kane” while establishing almost everything we need to know about the setting of the story we are about to see, “West Side Story” immediately dissipates any concern about the master director’s ability to deliver the blend of theatrical and cinematic artistry it deserves. With unparalleled fluency in the visual language of storytelling, he pulls us briskly into the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks – two teen street gangs, white and Puerto Rican, respectively, at war over territory in a Manhattan slum – and sets the stage for a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which a family feud is exchanged for racism as the basis for a tale of young love thwarted by ancient hate.

For those unfamiliar, the plot centers on the romance of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) – which is a problem because Tony is best friend to Riff (Mike Faist), leader of the Jets, and Maria is the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks. Despite the concerns of those around them – including Bernardo’s shrewd and strong-willed girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose) – the couple’s forbidden love endures even as the rival gangs plan to wipe each other out once and for all, setting into motion a tragic chain of events that will shatter the entire community.

Spielberg’s reverent remounting of the classic musical drama – conceived for Broadway in 1957 and first translated to film in an Oscar-winning classic directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise – achieves what doubters assumed would be impossible: a new rendering that succeeds in bringing a deeper, more contemporary sensibility to the material while leaving it essentially unchanged. A substantial amount of the credit for this goes to Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner, whose literate and pitch-perfect adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ stage script fills in some of the story’s blank spots and expands its scope to illuminate the complicated economic and social issues that lie at its core.

Characters are fleshed out with more detailed back stories that bestow them with greater dimension and humanity; Tony, for instance, is on parole after a stint in prison for nearly killing a rival gang member in a fight, and we find out that Riff’s dad was as much of a hoodlum as he is. Additionally, the minor role of “Anybodys,” a female Jet originally depicted as a “tomboy” who is ridiculed and excluded by her gang mates for being a girl, is here given an embellished presence, which, aided by a powerful performance from Iris Menas, leaves little doubt she is struggling with gender identity at a time when there were no words for such things.

In a similar expansion, we find out that the neighborhood is set to be demolished ahead of the construction of Lincoln Center and the high-dollar housing that surrounds it, definitively planting the film in the same period as the original work while bringing forward the impact of urban upheaval and gentrification on the low-income and marginalized communities they continually displace.

With flourishes like these, Kushner’s screenplay brings “West Side Story” into the present day without removing it from the world that gave birth to it, emphasizing the connections and parallels between the two eras and reminding us just how relevant this American classic continues to be.

Similarly, the supremely talented cast is instrumental in reframing the story for a more evolved age – and not just because all the Latino roles are played by Latino performers this time around. Each of the young stars gives a heartbreakingly authentic performance, with DeBose’s Anita a particular standout who commands the screen in every scene she’s in (as she should!), and Zegler, a screen newcomer, providing a Maria who is as bold and self-possessed as she is luminous and delicate. But perhaps the film’s most magnificent performance comes from Rita Moreno, the original movie’s Anita, who here takes on the rewritten (and re-gendered) role of a neighborhood shopkeeper who serves as Tony’s surrogate parent; she imbues the character with a combination of warmth and hard-won wisdom, and her presence brings an element of having come full circle, a touch of nostalgia that links the film to its heritage and lingers with us long after the credits roll.

The same can be said of the much-revered score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (RIP, genius), which is here preserved and performed almost completely intact. Some of the songs are reordered within the story, and some of the singing is done by different characters than the ones we’re used to, but arranger David Newman and conductor Gustavo Dudamel succeed in delivering a rousing and passionate rendering of the show’s classic music – bolstered by the outstanding vocals of its cast, none of whom required the kind of dubbing that was standard practice when “West Side Story” graced the screen the first time around.

As for Spielberg, it’s hard to imagine another director who could pull this off. He pulls from his vast sea of cinematic influences to create a larger-than-life, skillfully constructed work of visual art that handles the spectacular and the intimate with equal deftness and engages our emotions at every level. He frequently references the classic films he loves, weaving nods to them into a tapestry that acknowledges his debt to the great filmmakers who came before him yet firmly asserts his own mastery of the medium. He even asserts his self-assuredness by invoking fond memories of the classic 1961 version, from the subtle but unmistakable emulation of its color palette and lighting choices in key scenes to the more obvious echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography in the dancing – brilliantly restaged by Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck in a style that emulates the athletic movement of the original’s dance sequences while leaping to heights of its own.

Yet despite all this deference to the past, Spielberg’s rendition of “West Side Story” excels and excites because it feels so firmly rooted in the here and now. His intention is to learn from the past, not dwell in it, and he challenges us at every turn to see the story with a contemporary – and sometimes uncomfortable – perspective. Most provocative, perhaps, is his choice not to use subtitles when characters are speaking Spanish; with that one, simple touch, he aims straight at the heart of the divisive turmoil in our culture today, thereby using a 64-year-old musical written by three gay men as it was always meant to be used – as a powerful condemnation of bigotry and hatred in a world that has seen enough killing.

Spielberg’s vision honors, even celebrates the beloved original film, yet simultaneously reiterates it into something thrillingly new. Even the most rigid purist can’t ask for a more faithful adaptation than that.

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Toxic masculinity gets its comeuppance in ‘Power of the Dog’

Cumberbatch, Dunst shine in unforgettable anti-Western

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Kodi Smit-McPhee goes for a ride with Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Say what you will about the Western being a tired genre, but when it comes to tracing shifts in the American cultural identity over long stretches of time, there’s still nothing quite like it.

Take, for example, “The Power of the Dog,” the newest effort from acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, now playing in theaters (and on Netflix) and topping the best-of-the-year lists of critics across the U.S. Set against the expanse of the American frontier of a century ago, it leans into time-worn tropes that have become wrapped up in our nation’s self-image, much the same as the great classic Westerns have done since the first flickering images of cowboys began to appear on screens in the very dawn of cinema history.

Some of these tropes, of course, have come to be seen as toxic. The way that Western movies have perpetuated racism by equating “Cowboys vs. Indians” to “Good vs. Evil” is perhaps the most clear-cut example; almost as obviously “problematic” is a presentation of manhood in which physical prowess is held up as the ideal, while emotional sensitivity or intellectualism are devalued as tell-tale signs of weakness. With 2022 right around the corner, outmoded and tone-deaf assumptions such as these make it easy to understand why many people think of the Western as an out-of-touch and irrelevant form of cinematic expression that deserves to be retired, once and for all.

Yet as Campion’s visually eloquent, quietly subversive adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel reminds us, Westerns have a way of reflecting our changing attitudes. Just as “The Searchers” or “Little Big Man” challenged our stereotyped ideas about indigenous people, “The Power of the Dog” forces us to confront our acceptance of the rough-and-rugged cowboy as a paragon of masculinity and suggests he might have just been an overbearing bully, all along.

The cowboy in this case is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who along with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) owns a lucrative cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. He’s the embodiment of the “alpha” mentality, presiding over his life and business with absolute authority; when George marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home – along with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man with aspirations of becoming a surgeon – he browbeats the newcomers to his household and treats them with open contempt. He takes particular delight in tormenting Peter, whose slight build and effeminate manner make him an easy target for ridicule, but an awkward encounter in the woods sparks a change of heart; he decides to take his new nephew under his wing, hoping to turn him into a “real man” and perhaps reconnect with a tender side of his own nature he has long kept buried.

A reading of that brief synopsis is enough to make it clear that Campion’s movie plays on other tropes besides those found in Westerns. Traditional queer narratives in American culture inevitably lead us to expect an “unexpected” romance between these two initially antagonistic men, and a subsequent blossoming that will allow the hardened rancher to undergo a heartwarming transformation not unlike that of the Grinch.

But “Power of the Dog” is not that kind of queer narrative, just as it’s not the kind of Western where gunslingers resolve their conflicts with a climactic showdown on a dusty street. It leaves little doubt that romance – or some stunted, self-loathing version of it, at least – is on Phil’s mind once he hits upon the possibility of it; but it’s also keenly aware that men like Phil, who hide their own presumed desires under a mask of reflexive intolerance and are only willing to explore their secret side if they can maintain plausible deniability, are a big part of the reason why gay men – or anybody else who has been repeatedly lumped together in the category of “other” and turned into social outcasts or worse – have been subjected to so much bigotry and abuse for so very long.

To be sure, he’s a product of his time and place – but where a film from a different era might have given him the benefit of the doubt and helped him to find the redemption we’ve been conditioned to think he deserves, this one is not ready to let him get off scot-free. It doesn’t matter if he’s queer – he’s also a narcissistic tyrant who maintains his own assumed superiority by terrorizing and belittling those around him (his nickname for his brother is “Fatso,” which tells you all you need to know) to keep them submissive and docile. The days when such individuals got a pass for their bad behavior feel very much like a thing of the past in a world still reeling from the influence of Trumpism and other such movements, and Campion’s movie works its leisurely way to a conclusion that seems designed to make an example of its charismatic but unsavory central figure. Compassion is afforded, but it’s the kind of compassion that might be expressed by putting a wounded animal out of its misery.

Campion’s writing and direction of this deceptively pastoral period drama is as flawless as might be expected from a filmmaker of her caliber; she blends the awe-inspiring landscape (stunningly photographed by Ari Wegner, with New Zealand’s breathtaking natural beauty doubling for the Wyoming badlands) with the quietly jarring strains of Jonny Greenwood’s superb score to reinforce the roiling tensions below the placid surface of the story, and shrewdly trusts our own preconceptions to keep us from seeing the obvious indications of an ending that is being set up for us right in plain sight.

The cast, too, is uniformly outstanding. Cumberbatch turns in a powerhouse performance that’s as boldly unsympathetic as it is unforgettable, carrying himself with a ramrod-straight bearing that is just affected enough to suggest he’s not all that he seems but defies you to call him out on it; deservedly, he’s high on the list of likely Best Actor contenders for the next Oscars. Also award-worthy are Plemons, whose quiet underplaying of the good-hearted George helps him steal almost every scene he’s in, and Smit-McPhee, whose Peter exudes a refreshingly contemporary understanding and wisdom while retaining just enough enigma to keep us guessing about his motives. Rounding out the main ensemble, Dunst earns both our sympathy and respect in a role that might easily have been overshadowed in the hands of a lesser actress.

“Power of the Dog” is unquestionably a great film, assembled by a proven master at the peak of her powers and augmented by impressive performances – but does that mean the Western still has something to offer in a world more “woke” than it was in the heyday of the genre? For all its artistry, it tells a subtle story – and a bleak one, at that, albeit one that leaves us with a somewhat conflicted sense of satisfaction. It’s likely to leave some viewers cold – especially fans of a genre known for action, adventure, and the reinforcement of traditional values. In this way, perhaps it’s better characterized as an “anti-Western.”

Whatever label you decide put on it, it deserves your attention.

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