Reviews

Misconceived romcom may appeal to Wham! fans

Last Christmas
Things start looking up for Kate (Emilia Clarke) after she meets Tom (Henry Golding) in Last Christmas. (Universal Studios)

By Richard Ades

Take the trappings of a romcom, add a dash of A Christmas Carol, set the tale in a festively lit-up London and fill the soundtrack with a whole bunch of George Michael songs. What you end up with is a holiday movie that’s guaranteed to appeal to—well, George Michael fans.

It’s hard to see who else would be attracted to the gauzy, glittery confection known as Last Christmas. Especially after the flick throws in a last-minute twist that is likely to please no one.

Co-written and produced by Emma Thompson, the story centers on Kate (the lovable Emilia Clarke), a young woman who is spiraling downward for no reason that is immediately apparent.

Maybe it’s because she works as an “elf” in a Christmas-themed store but really wants to be an actor. Or maybe it’s because she can’t stand being around her mother (Thompson), who insists on singing downbeat songs from their native Yugoslavia.

Then again, the store is run by a Chinese immigrant named Santa (Michelle Yeoh) who is supportive and patient even when Kate screws up. And her mother is a kind woman whose main fault is doting on her wayward daughter. So what is Kate’s problem?

Eventually, it comes out that her doldrums began after a health crisis that would have killed her if she hadn’t received a heart transplant. But again, it’s not quite clear why the ordeal has left her feeling depressed rather than lucky to be alive.

No matter. Things start looking up after Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), a buoyant stranger who encourages her, literally, to start looking up—the better to discover overhead surprises she otherwise would have missed. She quickly grows to love this mysterious stranger who seems too good to be true.

Uh-oh. If you’re a romcom fan, you’ll know that can only mean their relationship is about to hit a snag, though it’s probably not the kind you envisioned.

Last Christmas is directed by Paul Feig, who helmed 2011’s entertaining Bridesmaids and 2016’s disappointing Ghostbusters. Here, he compounds the script’s problems by turning London into a sparkling wonderland where even homelessness is a joyful experience. He also stops the action frequently for perky music video-style montages. None of this helps us to understand miserable Kate or her need for a savior like Tom.

London, of course, was the setting for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the classic tale of a miser who finally learns that the purpose of life is to help others. Last Christmas tries to teach a similar lesson, but it mostly gets buried under the glut of glitz, jollity and George Michael tunes.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Last Christmas (PG-13) opens Nov. 8 at theaters nationwide.

Quirky tale of a boy and his führer

Jojo Rabbit
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, right) shares a run with his friend Adolf (Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit. (20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Those who hate war, prejudice and mass murder rightly view Adolf Hitler as one of history’s foremost villains. So it comes as a shock when a seemingly kind-hearted version of the dictator serves as a German boy’s imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit.

Set in the chaotic final months of World War II, the dark comedy centers on the struggles of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) following the disappearance of his soldier/father under mysterious circumstances.

Jojo is a true believer in the Nazi cause and is looking forward to attending a government-run training camp for youths as the story opens. Once there, however, the 10-year-old balks at a demand that he prove his combat readiness by killing a defenseless rabbit. His refusal turns him into an object of ridicule by the instructors and everyone else.

Everyone that is, except the supportive friend that only he can see. Hitler (Taika Waititi) assures Jojo that he did the right thing and says he will be a better soldier than all the others if he learns to emulate rabbits’ survival instincts. “Be the rabbit,” he counsels the boy.

Directed by Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), who adapted the story from Christine Leunens’s novel, Jojo Rabbit often functions as a satirical reflection on authoritarianism and prejudice. When the imagined Hitler isn’t soothing Jojo’s spirits, he’s parroting the party line on the supposedly horned and subhuman creatures known as Jews. It’s something Jojo and his real-life friend Yorki (Archie Yates) have long heard and mostly accept, even though it doesn’t always jibe with what they’ve witnessed for themselves.

Then Jojo happens to venture into an upstairs room while his mother is out and is horrified to learn she’s been hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As a loyal Nazi, he feels obligated to turn her in, but Elsa warns him that doing so will land his mother in trouble with the authorities. Elsa also thwarts his attempt to overpower her by deftly snatching away his party-issued knife. She’s like a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens,” Hitler later comments, sharing the boy’s indecision over how to handle the situation.

The resulting stalemate between Jojo and Elsa gradually becomes the central core of the story, taking it in new and emotionally charged directions thanks to sincere portrayals by actors Davis and McKenzie. Most of the other cast members also give carefully gauged performances, including Sam Rockwell as an eccentric German officer and Rebel Wilson as the gung-ho Fraulein Rahm. The one exception is Johansson, who never quite comes to life as Jojo’s secretive mother.

As for Waititi, he does fine in the on-screen portion of his triple contribution, making the imaginary Hitler humorously boyish without ignoring the danger he represents. As the screenwriter and director, he allows occasional sections of the film to fall flat, but he’s on target more often than not.

Given that its subject is the prime evil of the 20th century, it’s likely that not everyone will be comfortable with this quirky tale. But for those who can get into the spirit, it’s a subversive experience with an unexpectedly effective payoff.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Jojo Rabbit (PG-13) opens Oct. 31 in Columbus at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Crosswoods Cinema.

Musicalized high school comedy deserves a passing grade

Mean Girls
Cady (Danielle Wade, left) gets to know Regina (Mariah Rose Faith, second from right) and her fellow “Plastics” in the first national tour of Mean Girls. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Tina Fey’s satirical wit comes across in everything she does, whether it’s Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock or the clever 2004 flick she wrote and co-starred in, Mean Girls. It also comes across in the musical version of the flick, now holding forth at the Ohio Theatre.

It comes across eventually, that is. The stage show is encumbered by several songs and dances that seem to be copied from the Broadway playbook, especially in the early scenes. But by the time the darkly comic plot kicks into gear, Fey’s distinctive voice is clearly heard.

Mean Girls is the story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), an American teen who was born and raised in Kenya but must move to the U.S. when her mother’s job is relocated. Since Cady has been homeschooled all her life, she feels doubly out of place when she stumbles into her first day at a Chicago high school.

Luckily for her, outcasts Damien and Janis (Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey) take it on themselves to lead her through the school’s minefield of a social scene. They describe each clique in detail, but they save their sternest caution for the “Plastics,” a trio of divas led by Regina (Mariah Rose Faith), an alpha female whose beauty and viciousness make her a figure of both envy and fear.

Despite their warnings, Cady lets herself be courted by the haughty group, which also includes the needy Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and the hilariously dense Karen (Jonalyn Saxer). She soon learns the hard way that Regina is just as evil as she’s been told. She also learns, too late, that the Plastics’ shallow, self-centered lifestyle is dangerously addictive.

What makes Cady such a perfect guide into Fey’s version of high school purgatory is that she’s a tabula rasa. Raised in a land of beast-filled savannahs and star-filled skies, she knows nothing of a society where friends and social media “likes” are touted as signs of popularity. She also knows nothing about boys or the lengths to which girls will go to capture their attention, including downplaying their own intelligence. Most of all, she knows nothing of the cutthroat competition girls sometimes wage with each other out of insecurity and jealousy.

All of this comes across in the musical just as it did on the big screen, though not quite as succinctly. Jeff Richmond’s music, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography sometimes create numbers that seem to be straight out of Broadway Musical 101. The most self-conscious is “Stop,” the tap number that opens Act 2. Though entertainingly performed by Huffman’s Damien and a group of backup dancers, it seems too old-hat to belong in a modern high school.

More up to date, even though it does little to advance the plot, is the hip-hop-inspired “Whose House Is This?” And more creative is the Act 1 number “Where Do You Belong?”—which is fun despite “choreography” that largely consists of pushing tables and chairs around a lunchroom.

Best of all are the numbers that encapsulate the message of Fey’s cautionary tale. Among them are Janis and Cady’s “Apex Predator,” with its James Bond-like blares, and the uplifting finale, “I See Stars.”

Mean Girls has arrived in Columbus remarkably fast: It opened on Broadway only a year and a half ago and began its first national tour just last month. Despite the speed, the show at the Ohio is technologically polished. Director Nicholaw, scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and others have joined forces to create a production that changes times and locales both colorfully and instantaneously.

More importantly, the cast is nearly perfect from both an acting and singing standpoint. Huffman is an early standout as Damian, despite playing a character that is little more than a gay stereotype. Among those making an impression in smaller roles are Adante Carter as Cady’s math-class crush and Gaelen Gilliland as her supportive teacher.

As for the leads, Wade makes us believe the huge metamorphoses Cady undergoes in the course of the show, while Faith actually leaves us feeling sorry for Regina after her fortunes change.

Well, just a little. It’s still nice to see at least one “mean girl” get a taste of her own medicine.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Mean Girls through Oct. 27 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$139+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Teenage angst, loneliness at center of ingenious musical

Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hanse. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Stephen Christopher Anderson (center) plays the title role in the first North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

The first thing you see when you arrive at the Ohio Theatre to see Dear Evan Hansen is a wall filled with scrolling images of social media. It’s a sign that the story takes place in an era—namely now—when young people do much of their communicating via the internet.

One might be tempted to speculate that this reliance on virtual communication is the reason the title character is so terrified of face-to-face interaction. That theory dissolves, however, as soon as Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony) opens his mouth.

The high school senior clearly suffers from an awkwardness and lack of self-confidence that would be debilitating in any era. For example, he has a huge crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) but is afraid to even talk to her. So serious is Evan’s problem that his concerned mom, Heidi (Jane Pfitsch), has sent him to counseling and coaxes him to follow his therapist’s advice by writing a daily letter to himself in an attempt to get in touch with his feelings.

It’s one of those letters that not only gives the musical its name but drives the plot, as it falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently mistaken for a farewell note left behind by Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith). When Evan is assumed to be Connor’s best and only friend—after all, the letter is addressed to him—he initially goes along with the misunderstanding in an attempt to comfort Zoe and her parents. But he soon finds himself trapped in an elaborate fiction that perversely elevates his standing in a school that previously ignored him.

Since opening on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen has won six Tonys (including Best Musical) and become an enduring hit. No doubt it owes much of its early success to Ben Platt’s acclaimed portrayal of Evan in the original cast, but its continued popularity reflects the universal appeal of Steven Levenson’s ingenious book and Benji Pasek and Justin Paul’s score and lyrics.

Evan’s plight can be understood by anyone who ever felt insecure and unpopular in high school (that is, pretty much all of us). And any parent who ever felt unequal to the task of parenting will relate to Heidi, as well as to Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar, but replaced by John Hemphill at Tuesday’s performance), as their son was a source of pain long before his premature departure.

Heidi and Cynthia are given a chance to express their worry in the show’s first musical number, “Anybody Have a Map?” It and the hopeful “You Will Be Found”—performed under a sparkling kaleidoscope of lighting and scenic images—serve as strong bookends to the engrossing first act.

I must admit that my interest waned slightly during the second act and that neither I nor my companion found it as emotionally compelling as those who could be heard sniffling around us. This may be partly due to some of the acting choices made under the direction of Michael Greif.

In particular, while Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe properly emphasize the humorous side of their respective teenage characters, Jared and Alana, it would be nice if they threw in a little vulnerability to help us understand why Evan’s deception is so eagerly accepted by his classmates.

Such a change might help Anthony plumb even more depth from the lead role he took over this week. Meanwhile, the actor expertly navigates Evan’s fast-talking nervousness and largely conquers the tricky tunes and frequent forays into falsetto that Pasek and Paul have given him. His rendition of one of the show’s best-known numbers, “For Forever,” is a triumph. (Sam Primack takes over the role for the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Speaking of the music, my only real problem with the show itself is that many of the songs are less than memorable. Those mentioned above are tuneful and moving, but several others are devoid of recognizable melodies.

The saving grace is that none of the songs seems superfluous, as the lyrics always serve to carry the plot forward. And the plot is both timely and timeless enough to make Dear Evan Hansen a musical theater classic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dear Evan Hansen through Sunday (Sept. 22) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets (standard and verified resale) are $70 and up. Enter a drawing for the chance to win $25 tickets at luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Affection for a musical trailblazer

Ronstadt
Photos courtesy of Zachary Martin (Greenwich)

By Richard Ades

Linda Ronstadt was the first female singer to attain the kind of arena-filling star power previously achieved only by males. As a result, the now-73-year-old legend still has plenty of fans, even though Parkinson’s disease has in recent years deprived us of her beautiful voice.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seem to have counted on those fans’ interest when they put together Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Rather than trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with a preview of what Ronstadt achieved, the film biography assumes they already know all that. Instead, it starts at the beginning—or even before the beginning—of her career, allowing the singer to conjecture on how her future was shaped by a father who invented the electric stove and a grandfather who sang Mexican folk songs.

Epstein and Friedman then recount Ronstadt’s career in more or less chronological order. This approach, combined with an account that is long on admiration and short on drama, requires viewers to have a good bit of patience. But Ronstadt’s fans probably won’t mind, especially since they’re given the chance to relive many high points of her musical history courtesy of old concert footage.

The main point the doc puts across is the groundbreaking nature of Ronstadt’s award-winning career. Thanks to a string of hit singles such as 1973’s “Desperado” and hit albums such as 1974’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” she was able to crash the former boys’ club of rock stardom. Astoundingly, not being a songwriter herself, she did it solely on the strength of her vocal instincts and ability.

Ronstadt singing

The second point that comes across is Ronstadt’s fearlessness in the face of new challenges. She periodically insisted on breaking out of her well-paid comfort zone by, for instance, taking a stage role in a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera. Later, in perhaps her boldest move, she honored her family’s heritage by recording traditional Mexican songs in Spanish, though she didn’t actually speak the language.

If anyone ever makes a scripted biopic out of Ronstadt’s life, they’ll probably try to dramatize her inevitable clashes with music executives who wanted her to skip such adventures and stick to what had earned money in the past. Or maybe the flick will seek drama in her brief experiences with diet pills and other drugs, or her romances with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and celebs such as California Gov. Jerry Brown, filmmaker George Lucas and comedian Jim Carrey.

For its part, the doc treats such subjects in an underplayed, matter-of-fact fashion. The executives wanted Ronstadt to stick to what she knew; she said no. She did drugs; then she stopped. She and Souther were together; then they weren’t. (Souther himself says he can’t remember why they broke up but suggests they were too independent and career-oriented to be tied down.)

In general, the film comes off more as a love letter rather than a documentary. Presumably, Ronstadt’s fans won’t mind, especially since that love letter is accompanied by wonderful music.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (PG-13) opens Sept. 13 at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Mystical Mexican tale pits kids against drug gang

Tigers Are Not Afraid Estrella Shine
Estrella (Paola Lara) comforts Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) in a scene from Tigers Are Not Afraid.

By Richard Ades

In most horror films, ghosts or other supernatural entities endanger the lives of ordinary people. In Tigers Are Not Afraid, there are supernatural entities galore, but the real danger comes from human beings.

The tale takes place in a Mexican city where the ongoing drug war has left many children to fend for themselves after their parents have been killed or have simply disappeared. Imaginatively written and directed by Issa Lopez, it’s scary and sad, but also mystical and inspirational.

We meet our adolescent heroine, Estrella (Paola Lara), in a classroom where her teacher assigns the students to write stories incorporating magical figures such as princes and, at one child’s suggestion, tigers. We then are engulfed in Estrella’s story, in which a boy steals a gang thug’s phone and pistol and contemplates shooting him but can’t—because, the narrator decides, he’s forgotten how to be a prince.

Suddenly, we’re dragged back into the classroom, where the sound of gunfire has forced the students to hit the floor. In the aftermath, the school is closed, and Estrella returns home to learn her mother has joined the ranks of missing parents. Hungry and destitute, she throws herself on the mercy of a ragtag group of orphaned boys led by the gruffly macho Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez).

Tigers Are Not Afraid Boys
Shine’s gang of homeless orphans

Shine, it turns out, has recently stolen a gang thug’s phone and pistol. From this point on, Estrella’s life seems to merge with her unfinished tale. She also has entered a state of reality in which ghostly figures and portentous streams of blood intrude on the already-terrifying everyday world.

One of film’s most compelling storylines is the evolving relationship between Estrella and Shine’s followers. She quickly takes a maternal interest in the youngest boy, Morrito (Nery Arredondo), who clings for comfort to his little stuffed tiger. But others see girls as bad luck, and Estrella is ordered to prove her worth by killing the owner of the stolen phone, a gang member named Caco (Ianis Guerrero). When she uses a magical wish in an attempt to avoid the task, it backfires, putting all of them in the crosshairs of ruthless drug kingpin Chino (Tenoch Huerta Mejia).

As the plucky heroine, Lara sometimes underplays Estrella, perhaps suggesting that the girl is in shock or sleepwalking through the nightmarish predicament in which she’s been thrust. Leading the wonderful supporting cast, Lopez makes Shine a boyishly insecure leader who’s tormented by his fears, failures and losses.

Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography unobtrusively melds the supernatural with the natural, turning the film into a prime example of Latin American “magical realism.” Vince Pope’s musical score provides the final complement to Lopez’s drama of children forced to live in a dangerous world not of their own making.

Seeing this fantasy-laden take on the real-life suffering of children is a devastating experience. But, as a morality tale and an innovative work of cinema, it’s also uplifting and unforgettable.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Tigers Are Not Afraid (originally titled Vuelven) opens Sept. 13 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus. The film is unrated but contains rough language and violence.

Thrown-together fugitives become huckleberry friends

Peanut Butter Falcon
Tyler, Eleanor and Zak (Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zack Gottsagen, from left) wander through the waves in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

By Richard Ades

The name “Mark Twain” comes up in an early scene of The Peanut Butter Falcon. It happens when a nursing-home attendant runs into an unemployed fisherman named Tyler and asks if he’s seen the runaway she’s seeking. Rather than give her a straight answer, Tyler coyly suggests the escapee may be off on the kind of adventure Twain might have thought up.

That pretty much describes this warmhearted tale, which in many ways resembles an updated version of Huckleberry Finn.

To be sure, there are key differences. Rather than being a motherless boy and a runaway slave, the heroes are Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who’s lost both his job and his brother, and Zak (Zach Gottsagen), a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome. Like their literary counterparts, though, they’re on a trek in search of freedom and happiness. At one point, they even commandeer a raft.

We first meet Zak when he’s living in a North Carolina facility for senior citizens—the only place the state could find for him after he was abandoned by his family. Sharing a room with the sympathetic Carl (Bruce Dern), he spends his evenings watching old wrestling videotapes and dreaming of becoming a wrestler himself. If only he can escape, he plans to learn grappling moves by enrolling in the school run by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Despite the efforts of friendly attendant Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak does escape and soon runs into Tyler, who is on the lam himself. Frustrated at his inability to obtain a crab-fishing license following his brother’s untimely death, Tyler has resorted to stealing from other fishermen’s traps. Beaten up for his efforts, he then retaliates by starting a fire that turns out to be more destructive than planned. He takes off in his boat, with two revenge-seeking fishermen in fierce pursuit.

It’s at this point that Tyler realizes Zak—a short, chubby man clad only in underwear—has been hiding on his boat. Thus begins a reluctant collaboration that eventually grows into a close friendship.

Co-writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz tell the tale with warmth and wit. With help from a down-home musical score, they also do a good job of capturing the time (roughly the 1990s, judging from one character’s flip phone) and place (the coastal Carolinas and Georgia). The perfectly cast actors do the rest.

Despite playing a shotgun-toting character who’s down and out, LaBeouf projects grit and an undercurrent of decency. Whether he’s gruffly laying down the rules to his traveling companion or flirting with a woman who seems out of his league, you know he’s essentially a good guy.

As Eleanor, whose job requires her to track down Zak and bring him back to the nursing home whether he wants to go or not, Johnson combines a sense of duty with genuine caring.

But it’s Gottsagen’s portrayal of Zak that gives the film its soul. In fact, according to a producer who spoke at a preview screening, the whole film was built around the actor’s talents. As a mentally challenged man who’s determined to live the life he wants, not the one others have proscribed for him, Gottsagen paints an indelible portrait of naïve faith and brave determination.

Surprisingly, he’s also funny, with help from a script that knows how to laugh at someone’s foibles without ridiculing their challenges. In its respectful but non-pandering treatment of a person with disabilities, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a model of sensitivity.

Most of all, though, it’s a delightful and entertaining adventure—one that I’m already looking forward to seeing again.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The Peanut Butter Falcon (PG-13) opens Aug. 23 at theaters nationwide.