Movie Review ~ Spirited

The Facts:

Synopsis: Each Christmas Eve, the Ghost of Christmas Present selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Patrick Page, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Director: Sean Anders
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Before we journey through this Spirited review, I feel I must be transparent about a few things off the bat. That will help better frame how I came to this new musical re-telling of A Christmas Carol, one of the multitudes of versions of the Charles Dickens perennial classic. I love A Christmas Carol. I will watch a performance (or versions) of it every year and be struck by something new about the piece each time I see it. There’s a lesson to be learned from Dickens’s story of redemption, and my opinion is that the darker, the better. Let the story start from a deep, despairing place because the renewal of salvation Scrooge experiences at the end means much more; the takeaway is more impactful.

The next thing I’ll say is that I’m not generally a fan of either star of the film, Will Ferrell or Ryan Reynolds. Both actors trade in schtick, and while it has made them a boatload of money, it’s a schtick that’s beaten to death and quoted by those less talented on the delivery forever after. (“No really, I don’t need to hear that Anchorman bit again Kevin. Thank you.”) Each has occasionally struck out with work that has shown their acting chops, but to say they are comfortable with coasting along is putting it mildly. I also am not the biggest fan of Dear Evan Hansen, the multiple award-winning musical Spirited songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for Broadway and helped adapt for the bomb-tastic 2021 musical. It even took me a second viewing to appreciate their Oscar-winning songwriting for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.

There was the dilemma I faced when Spirited was staring me down the other night. Dickens=good.  Ferrell/Reynolds=iffy.  Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) being third billed tipped the scale in the right direction, and I committed to at least starting the movie but not finishing it at that late hour. It’s rare in our house not to pause for a bathroom break or other distraction, but after the two hours was up and Spirited’s charming closing credit sequence was complete, my only regret wasn’t staying up past my bedtime but that I wasn’t able to see this joyous holiday entertainment on the biggest screen possible. (It’s in limited release now but widely available on AppleTV+ on November 18.)

Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), Spirited takes the story we’re all familiar with (A Christmas Carol) and gives it a modern twist. Scrooge gets redeemed on his Christmas Eve night, but what about the next Christmas? And the one after that? And the one after that? The “haunt “business is a well-oiled machine and by the time we join the crew, Marley (Patrick Page, In the Heights) is running a tight ship. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, Evil Eye), Present (Ferrell, Holmes & Watson), and Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls, and physicalized by Loren Woods) get in, do their job, and pass their torch to the next on the schedule.

They’ve just completed their latest mission (a Karen-esque suburbanite played by a recognizable star), and are planning their next when Present suddenly turns his focus to Clint Briggs (Reynolds, Deadpool), a smarmy public relations exec that can spin any story (illustrated by Reynolds in a go-for-broke 11 o’clock musical number that comes around the 9:00 am mark). The only problem is Clint is classified as ‘Unredeemable’ and automatically excluded from the yearly haunt – but Present sees a challenge and, facing retirement, pushes Marley to take on Clint despite the warnings that their efforts will fail. Of course, they can’t know that Clint truly is as nasty as he looks and isn’t as easily rattled as the centuries of souls that came before him.

The screenplay (and songs) takes some unexpected turns, sometimes following the Dickens text but diverging enough, so you’re never sure where you’ll find yourself at given beats. That’s nice to find, especially for the experienced fans of A Christmas Carol, but also for those willing to let Ferrell and Reynolds try on a new side of themselves. Both are nicely musical and dance well, culminating in several smashing full-out dance numbers set to Pasek/Paul’s lively tunes and performed with dazzling choreography by Chloe Arnold. Sure, they start to sound the same after a while, and you won’t be turning the TV off humming them, but they’re clever and fun while you’re in it, and the old time pub song ‘Good Afternoon’ is a showstopping riot.

If the film drags its feet a little, it’s when we go down the rabbit hole of Clint’s past. That’s where we find good actors like Joe Tippett (Mr. Harrigan’s Phone), Andrea Anders (The Stepford Wives), & Jen Tullock (TV’s Severance) struggling with some saccharine dialogue (or, in Anders’s case, several bizarrely ugly wigs). So much effort is spent on the production numbers looking great, I wish more time were spent on the dramatic scenes being as tight. At least Spencer’s scenes are razor-sharp, and if you had seeing Spencer in a musical on your Christmas wish list, you could check that off now because she’s lovely in her few moments of musicality. Spencer is the epitome of the heart that Spirited is going for, so anytime she’s on screen, she has a way of centering everyone in the film.

There’s so little to offend here; I’d encourage you to block out the early negative buzz from some ‘unredeemable’ Scrooge-y critics who can’t see what the film is going for and ultimately achieves. It shows us a new way of approaching a story while at the same time illustrating the flaws we all examine in ourselves. The flaws can define us and make us embittered against the world, or we can take ownership of them and use them toward doing good. The message is clear, and sometimes, in the case of Spirited, it’s sung. This will be added to the holiday rotation in my home, no question.

Movie Review ~ Dear Evan Hansen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Evan Hansen, a high schooler with social anxiety, unintentionally gets caught up in a lie after the family of a classmate who committed suicide mistakes one of Hansen’s letters for their son’s suicide note.

Stars: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I suppose there was a certain inevitability to the failure of Dear Evan Hansen’s screen adaptation the moment Ben Platt was cast to reprise his Tony Award winning stage performance.  Platt’s work in the Broadway version (a piece he’d been with since its inception all the way back to 2014) was heralded to high heaven and there was even a glossy New York Times piece in 2017 that walked us through his daily rituals, showing us just how emotionally taxing it was to play Evan Hansen eight times a week.  This was a performer that put his all into the role, physically and emotionally.  He won all the accolades for it and has gone on to become a popular presence among fans in his age group.

So, when the time came to make the movie of Dear Evan Hansen, unlike other film adaptations where the award-winning star of the Broadway show was overlooked, the producers chose instead to go back to Platt who was more than happy to resurrect his Evan Hansen that he had since given over to a series of respectable replacements.  Now, I’m not saying with Platt’s dad (uber-producer Marc Platt) ranking high in the film’s producer list that the younger Platt had an advantage but…let’s not fool ourselves.  Platt himself has even acknowledged the film likely wouldn’t have been made without his involvement (really?) so how about we just go with Platt being the only person in consideration for the role. 

I’m not going to get into a debate about the age thing that has haunted so many a chat board ever since the first trailer was released.  There are enough hysterical memes and terrific GIFs that have been made of an aged Platt standing amongst the younger classmates but in reality, once you see the film you realize that it’s not the age difference that makes a difference.  Despite a truly tragic hair style which calls into question the creative decisions of the hair and make-up designers more than anything, Platt actually doesn’t look all that older than Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Nik Dodani (Escape Room), Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), and Colton Ryan (Uncle Frank), who are all supposed to be his classmates.  He may look a tad ganglier than the rest but certainly not the creepy adult-looking man-child early hot takes would have had you think.

The real trouble for Platt and the film version of Dear Evan Hansen is Platt’s inability to stop performing and start acting, really acting.  The actor is so tied into his stage performance and what made that work that he forgets that he’s working for the camera on a small scale and needs to dial everything back about twenty clicks.  What might have worked onstage simply doesn’t work for film and even after making a number of movies and TV series, it’s surprising Platt regresses so dramatically here.  That he’s cast alongside experienced pros only calls this out on a grander scale. 

Evan Hansen (Platt, Broken Diamonds), laced with anxiety and pent-up emotion, has been given a task by his therapist.  He’s been asked to write letters to himself as a way of encouragement to fend off the negative thoughts and feelings he has about starting another school year with no friends except for “family friend” Jared (Dodani).  Pining for Zoe Murphy (Dever) from afar, he can barely work up the courage to speak with her and after a particularly rough day he writes a letter to himself in the school library that is read by Zoe’s brother Connor (Ryan) who thinks Evan has written it to make fun of him.  Terrified Connor will use the letter against him, Evan spends the next several days in fear of retaliation until he’s called into the principal’s office to meet with Connor’s parents.  That’s where he learns Connor had taken his own life and Evan’s letter has been (incorrectly) assumed to be his suicide note.  His parents want to know if, as his only friend, Evan had any insight to offer about Connor.

Right here is where the story of Dear Evan Hansen takes a turn that loses a number of viewers because of its horrible deception, me included.  Instead of correcting them, Evan goes along with that wrong assumption that Connor and he were friends and becomes a false sense of comfort to the Murphy’s…mostly to get closer to Zoe.  He says the right things to make Cynthia (Amy Adams, The Woman in the Window) feel as if she didn’t let her son down quite so much and tells stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) how Connor appreciated their time together.  He goes one lie bigger with Zoe, creating fictious conversations between him and Connor about her that suggests whatever fracture was present in their relationship was something he wanted to fix.  Basically, he tells them what they want to hear so they feel better, and they keep him around.  It’s an advantageous situation for everyone…but it’s a lie.  As the lie gets bigger and goes inexplicably global and with the more people get involved with memorializing Connor (Stenberg’s role as a fellow student, while the best acted and sung out of all bar-none, feels as tacked on here as it does in the show), the harder it is for Evan to keep reality and fiction separate.

Interspersed throughout is the Tony Award winning score from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tunes that are hummable but not as memorable as the ones they created for The Greatest Showman (sorry, not sorry).    A new song they wrote with Stenberg for her character goes over nicely but they’ve also cut several songs and that’s an unfortunate loss because it leaves the film feeling only half like the musical it very much is.  You almost wonder if the movie would have been more successful without music all together because the entire story seems like a film we’d see released in the fall as an awards hopeful.  Something about it all doesn’t gel and you can’t blame it all on Platt or even the ho-hum direction by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

When a film is just getting by on fumes to begin with, you hope that the performances will save it.  We’ve already discussed Platt’s inability to get out of his own way, resulting in some seriously unimpressive (and often embarrassing) scenes of him over singing that you think he’s going to hurl from the force of it all.  Compare that to the work that Adams, Dever, and Pino do in the haunting “Requiem” sequence – which is just as emotional as Platt’s most harrowing songs but is restrained enough to convey just the right tone without going overboard.  Adams has had a rough go these past few years and I was sad to see one of her songs cut, but it’s a duet with Evan’s mom played by Julianne Moore (The Glorias) who, from what I gather, is a bit of a non-singer.  While Moore does have a grand 11 o’clock number that she sells up and down, left and right…I wish for Adams’s sake they could have kept the earlier song to give Adams vocally more to do.

Problematic with or without its hokey star, Dear Evan Hansen always faced an uphill battle on its way to the big screen and it’s unfortunate it was dealt so many tough blows on its way to release.  The early buzz based on images alone was negative, the first reviews from screenings wasn’t promising, and even the reaction by Platt and his team was disappointing in its “So what”-ness.  And you know what, the film isn’t even all that bad.  You can see a decently made film in there somewhere but without a central figure to truly root for and then sans an actor in that role you believe in, where’s the fun in going to the theater and finding a reason to applaud?

Movie Review ~ The Greatest Showman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya Coleman, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle

Director: Michael Gracey

Rated: PG

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: The Greatest Showman is a movie with a huge identity crisis. An old fashioned musical in structure and feel populated with modern style pop tunes and performances, it’s a bizarre film to experience firsthand but one I must admit I’ve had swirling around in my head ever since I saw it. Clever (or cunning) marketing has positioned this gigantic piece of cotton candy to be front and center whether you like it or not. Billboards, television advertisements, a live preview performance in the middle of last week’s A Christmas Story Live!, not to mention endless appearances by its stars on talk shows have all made The Greatest Showman impossible to miss. So with all the hub bub and howdoyado, does it wind up being something you want to fit into your busy holiday schedule?

I guess the answer is how far you like your patience to be tested. For me, the movie works in fits and spurts but the time between the material that lands starts to grow wider the longer this circus is in town. I walked out of the screening feeling like I was going to give this one an outright pan but like I mentioned before, I was seeking out specific songs from the soundtrack before the end of that day. Oscar winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) have a way with a hook and more than one song has the potential to become the earworm you won’t be able shake. I’ve even fallen prey; I’ve been humming the lovely power ballad “Never Enough” sung by Loren Allred (and not by actress Rebecca Ferguson who mimes the singing rather well) for days now.

As mentioned above, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too and that greed starts with the opening credits. The old 20th Century Fox logo appears but then is quickly replaced by the new one as Pasek and Paul’s opening number begins. Why the two logos? If director Michael Gracey wanted to give us a throwback musical, why not start with a bit of retro-ness and juxtapose that with his Moulin Rouge-esque filmmaking style? Or just go modern from the get-go and hit the ground running?

The story of creative entrepreneur and eventual circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum has been turned into a musical already (1980’s rarely produced but quite lovely Barnum) and at 105 minutes the movie is a sanitized Cliff Notes version of Barnum’s humble upbringing and gradual rise to legendary stardom. In fact, the second number of the movie covers several decades of his life as Barnum (Hugh Jackman, Logan) goes from being the poor boy in love with a rich girl all the way through their eventual marriage. You won’t be finished with your popcorn before Barnum and his wife (Michelle Williams, Wonderstruck) have had two kids and are struggling to make ends meet.

Through some quick thinking and creative deception, Barnum manages to secure a loan to buy a museum of stuffed oddities he eventually turns into a theater brimming with side show acts. A bearded lady, the world’s smallest man, a pink wigged trapeze artist (the lovely Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming), and more are all part of the show…and they can sing to the rafters too (so can Jackman and, to a lesser extent, Williams). Barnum’s circus draws huge crowds but doesn’t help gain him access to the cultured upper crust he so desperately wants to be a part of. Even becoming partners with a society darling (Zac Efron, The Lucky One) gets him an audience with the Queen but not the respect of his fellow New Yorkers.

While in London, Barnum becomes enamored with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson, The Snowman) who agrees to come to the states for a Barnum produced tour. Barnum sees it as his chance to go legit and distances himself from his original entertainers, betraying their trust along the way. Hints of desired infidelity can only go so far in a PG-rated family film but Lind doesn’t seem to have sailed across the sea just to sing her song and cash a check. By the time Barnum is arriving by elephant to his daughters ballet recital I was ready for it all to be over…and then it pretty much was.

Working with a by the numbers script from Jenny Bicks (Rio 2) and Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast), director Gracey never lets his camera (or editor) rest for too long. It’s imitation Baz Lurhman through and through but there’s something oddly watchable about the whole endeavor. Jackman and Efron are fine song and dance men and their number is a percussive highlight, as is Keala Settle’s knockout “This is Me” which sees Pasek and Paul going for Oscar number two. Sure, overall the music largely sounds the same and a few numbers are indistinguishable from the other (I barely remember the song Williams lilts through) but there are a few winners. It’s a strange choice not to have Ferguson do any of her own singing and I think it robs the movie of some sincerity…though to be fair it’s already strange that a world famous opera singer is singing a rafter raiser in her chest voice belt mix in the first place.

So what to do about this weird blend of current sound and throwback moviemaking? It’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this year and I find myself growing more affectionate for it even as I write this review. It’s desperation to please initially rubbed me the wrong way but the film has its heart in the right place. Would I see The Greatest Showman again? Probably. I wouldn’t run away with this circus but I wouldn’t run from it either.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)