Dear Evan Hansen

I can imagine that this worked really well on stage as the actors can feed off of the audience’s emotions and the immediacy of the theater brings everyone together. That feeling is hard to replicate in a film. Movies have an influence on the audience but the energy level does not change from each showing. The emotions can only flow in one direction, and the somewhat static nature of a film , even one that is dynamic, does not provoke in the same manner. The difficulty this movie will have is less due to the material and more to the medium.

One of the problems that I have with modern musicals is that the tunes are not distinctive and the lyrics don’t lend themselves to singing along. So much of this film is made up of dialogue that is sung and could easily have just been spoken. There are not any extravagant show stopping moments. The closest you get to something that you would describe as a production number is a sequence that takes advantage of social media as a way to advance the song and character. It’s as if this movie is the anti- “In the Heights”.  That movie was all about the wild color and flourishes of a musical, this film is all internal self directed mediation where the songs are basically happening in a persons heads more than anywhere else (there are a couple of exceptions).

The story has it’s heart in the right place. The perspective of someone suffering from social anxiety, depression and ADD, is handled with a great deal of sympathy.. In my discussion of the film on the podcast this week, we had a brief debate about whether the lead character of Evan Hansen is the victim or the antagonist in the story. We all agreed he had the best intentions but we also acknowledge that old saying about the road to hell being paved by those kinds of intentions. For my part, I always try to see the context of events to try and judge actions. Evan’s deception takes place in circumstances where being honest would be hurtful to others, and he can’t bring himself to do that. The pain of the family of Connor is impossible not to empathize with. Connor was troubled, his sister at one point calls him a monster. He was certainly horrible to many others, but that seems to stem from biological and chemical issues more than anything else. The fantasy that Evan concocts would have been fine if he had not crossed a certain line and if Connor’s Mother could just accept the story on it’s face. Like every sitcom over the last fifty years, one complication has to lead to another and in this situation the result is tragic rather than humorous. 

I have heard some criticism of the decision to stick with Ben Platt as the lead for the movie. He is the Tony Award winning actor who originated the role, but he has aged enough that playing a high school senior may be a reach. I did not really have a problem with that, since I have been conditioned by years of watching movies with thirty year old’s playing teens. His voice is superlative for the way the songs are arranged and presented. I may not be a big fan of that style but I can recognize the talent it takes to pull it off. The other actors are also capable in the singing department. Amy Adams is known for having those talents but Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever have not been singers in the past, at least not that I am aware of, they both meet the needs of their parts.

This movie was going to be a hard sell from the get go. In spite of it’s credentials on the Broadway Stage, is is not a very appealing subject to most audiences. In the past we have had a successful holocaust comedy and a semi successful teen terminal cancer love story, so why not a musical about depression and teen suicide? The answer is that people go to the movies for different reasons than they go to the theater. The earnestness of your stories intentions don’t always translate into a warm audience embrace. We can be manipulated emotionally, but we have to be open to that manipulation to let it have an impact on us. Movie audiences are very fussy about what they will let themselves accept. My guess is that most of the film audience, in these times, will not be receptive to this sort of storytelling. 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of “Kingsman:The Secret Service“. I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, “The Golden Circle” enters this year’s movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. “The Golden Circle” is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In “The Secret Service” there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It’s just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain’s plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy’s so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

 

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and Firth’s Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong’s character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum’s character “Tequila”.  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal’s “Whiskey” has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn’s signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John’s scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can’t quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. “The Golden Circle” however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don’t know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

Seventh Son

Fifty or sixty years ago, this movie would have featured the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhaussen. It would have been made with elegant sets made on a limited budget and it would feature actors not entirely familiar to American audiences. Times have clearly changed. This movie is packed with CGI creatures and sets, it has a cast headed by well known Academy Award winners and nominees. Marketing and production priorities have clearly evolved. There is one thing though that has not altered in all the time passed between “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Seventh Son”, fantasy adventure movies still work based on simple story premises and the right attitude by the film makers. The people behind this movie have exactly the right attitude.

This film is a throwback to weekend afternoon matinees and more innocent adventure films of the past. This is not a reinvention of a well know story like “Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters” from a couple of years ago. That film turned CGI into the main reason for seeing a film. It was loaded with violent destruction and blood delivered in 3D. “Seventh Son” also features the destruction of witches, but not by decapitation or Rube Goldberg weapons. This is old fashioned hero magic against the dark forces of the world. With the exception of relatively mild conflagration of witches, the violence here is on the PG level. You could safely take a couple of bright eight to twelve year olds and not have to worry about nightmares or turning them into gore hounds.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock on the movie because it is far from it. This is a recommendation for people who are looking for a movie with tradition adventure elements featuring monsters and brave men fighting the odds, but can do without the viscera flying off the screen in their faces. There are five or six witches featured in the story and they all turn into some kind of monster. All of those monsters are of the 50s flavor, they are inventive, dangerous and unlikely to rip people into small pieces just for fun. The sensibility of this picture is light and fun in spite of the dark themes and characters.  Julianne Moore is a witch who turns into a dragon but was caged and banished for many years by a knight with special gifts. That knight must be the seventh son of a seventh son, who becomes what is referred to as a spook, a wandering hero who tames all sorts of dark magic and evil in the world. Jeff Bridges is Master Gregory, the knight who contained her and he is training an apprentice to take over his job. When she finally manages to escape, complications arise and we get a another young hero emerging from the shadow of an older master, the hero with a thousand faces has returned. The Lebowski reunion of Moore and Bridges has none of the knowing self satisfaction of that Coen classic. This movie plays all the characters straight.

When I first saw the teaser for this movie it was almost two years ago. Jeff Bridges had made a similar film that was pretty sad called R.I.P.D., where he is mentor to a dead Ryan Reynolds. I did not hold out much hope for this movie, it looked like just another CGI crapfest that would be as disposable as this morning’s diapers. Imagine my surprise when it turns out to be a simple popcorn story with a fun sensibility that could have been written five decades ago. The look of the monsters is fun rather than gross and the story is pretty easy to follow and includes a little romance, a little revenge and a few secrets along the way.

The very first thing that grabbed my attention and made me have hope for the film was the score by Marco Beltrami. The sound is swashbuckling light at the start. It does not try to overwhelm us with brooding power. Instead it builds the characters and sets a tone that suggests something fun rather than something solemn. While there is a lot of CGI, it did not feel like it was constantly used just to make us gasp, rather it brings the world of the story to life but never ignores the characters. The work is also stylized enough to make it seem like a movie rather than absolutely real. That may sound like another criticism but fantasy films need to be a bit unreal at times to help us suspend our disbelief in the right way. There are nearly a billion people living in India, and from the credits, nearly half of them worked on the special effects for this movie.

seventh_son_ver10If I have negatives they are limited. Bridges is channeling the same character voice he used in R.I.P.D and it sounds too garbled at times. Young star Ben Barnes has a haircut straight from 2015, which seems at odds with the dark ages settings and costumes. Other than those minor quibbles, I found this to be a delightful surprise. What could have been a total waste of time turned out to be a fun time at the movies. If your kids are too old for Sponge Bob, this is the one to take them to this month.