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Thursday, September 23, 2021
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Kyle Smith


Annoying Teens Who Keep Bursting into Song

Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. (Universal Studios) No tear duct goes unattacked when the cutie-pie cast of Dear Evan Hansen gets to warbling. The young-adult musical Dear Evan Hansen bets everything that you will fall in love with Ben Platt in the title role. Half of the movie produced by Ben’s father, Marc, consists of close-ups of Platt singing his guts out, frequently while on the verge of tears, as he rips through one mediocre power-pop ballad after another. The songs are cliché-stuffed you-can-make-it life-affirming sludge-a-thons of the kind that cause you to switch stations whenever you hear Ariana Grande belting them on the radio. I did not fall in love with Ben Platt in the title role, because as played by Ben Platt, Evan Hansen is a cringing, blanching, slumping, groaning, self-nullifying sinkhole of anti-charisma. He sings in such a glass-shatteringly high tenor that, rather than feeling sympathy for the boy’s sad plight, I fervently wished for him to shut up forever. Also, there is not a single minute of film in which Evan Hansen comes across as heterosexual, which is a problem when the main driver of the plot is Evan’s unrequited love for a girl. Platt is a classic play-to-the-balcony creature of the Broadway theater, where he originated this role, and the movie seems mainly aimed at high-school girls who are too young to know why you shouldn’t bother developing crushes on the boys you meet while putting on Into the Woods. I didn’t buy the performance, I didn’t buy the love story, I didn’t buy the songs, and the lachrymose plot was far more interesting when it was called World’s Greatest Dad (2009) — a ripping Robin Williams satire that was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Evan is a neurotic high schooler in therapy being raised without siblings in Bethesda, Md., by a single mom (Julianne Moore) who is kind but too busy to give him the emotional support he needs. As a therapeutic exercise, Evan writes a letter to himself every day, hence the film’s title. Thanks to a chance run-in with a disturbed and angry boy at school named Connor, who commits suicide a day or two later, one of Evan’s notes to himself is mistaken as a letter Connor wrote to Evan that doubles as his last word to the world. Because Evan is smitten with Connor’s cute sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, who starred in Booksmart), and because Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) are desperate for stories about their lost son, Evan tells a little fib about a perfect day spent in an orchard with him. This lie spirals out of control: social media. But it gives Evan an opportunity to both spend time with Zoe and become a kind of substitute son to her wealthy, bereaved parents. They lavish him with the attention he never gets at home, and their mood lightens considerably each time Evan shares more heartwarming made-up stories about their son, who in reality was not at all lovable. So it’s win-win, for a while. The opportunities for a satiric breather from the moping are everywhere, but instead the movie always chooses to max out with the earnest, soppy take at every turn. You’d think, for instance, that when the class activist–environmentalist–president of all clubs Alana (Amandla Stenberg) launches a charity in Connor’s memory that the movie would at least acknowledge that she’s a classic brownnoser who probably thinks — justifiably — that “The Connor Project” is her ticket to Harvard. But no, Alana isn’t being made fun of at all. She is just a misunderstood loner, too. Harvard, she never heard of. She joined all of those high-school clubs to fill the hole in her heart, not the one in her resume. There’s a very 21st-century scene in which she and Evan bond over the list of the nerve-smoothing medications they’re on. Let’s hear it for Lexapro and Ativan. Alana reveals her true nature in one of about five factory-produced, misunderstood-loner songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that the director, Stephen Chbosky, stages in repetitive ways, with the actors doing lots of soulful wandering up and down school hallways. No number is realized with any visual flair. Often people are just sitting around when they get to the warbling. Every time someone sings, by the way, he is singing only in his own imagination, which has a weird effect, especially in the duets. Bystanders in the vicinity react merely as though being spoken to, not sung at. It’s eerie, although I suppose not as eerie as it would be if people in mourning suddenly started busting loose with high-fructose pop ballads. Apart from Platt, everyone else in the movie does fine, understanding that the weepy lyrics do most of the work and therefore do not require them to add sweetener to the heaping tub of pudding that is Steven Levenson’s script (adapted from the Broadway musical whose book he wrote). The one real standout is the only performer who is guaranteed not to get an Oscar nomination: Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe. She is a star in the making and has enough confidence in herself that she simply inhabits the role rather than making a big Broadway production out of it. Platt may be buried in accolades for the prodigious quantity of acting he does, but she’s the one you can’t stop watching. 

The Ghosts of Ingmar Bergman

Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth in Bergman Island. (IFC Films) Bergman Island plays lightly with the master’s spirit and style. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A film about people sitting around obsessing over Ingmar Bergman may sound less than scintillating, but I’d rate Bergman Island a considerable improvement over most Ingmar Bergman movies. (Exceptions: Fanny and Alexander and Smiles of a Summer Night, his two most uncharacteristic efforts.) The latest from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island — which will show at the New York Film Festival ahead of an October 15 theatrical release — is a movie-within-a-movie with a resolution that raises more questions than it answers. So: classic art-house ambiguity that leaves the audience to suss out exactly what has happened, although the possibilities … To Read the Full Story

The Tragic Hero of American Sports: Muhammad Ali in All His Glory

Muhammad Ali receives a warm reception as he travels through Louisville to participate in the opening of the 1975 Black Expo in West End, Louisville, Ky. October 16, 1975. (Keith Williams/Louisville Courier Journal - USA TODAY NETWORK) As many times as this story has been told, it will never be told better than in the enthralling eight-hour Ken Burns documentary. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘W hat’s my name?” Muhammad Ali kept asking, with his fists as well as his mouth. Here’s one to the jaw. “What’s my name?” Bam. Here’s one to the eye. “What’s my name?” Ali wanted to know, putting the question to Ernie Terrell in a gruesome February 1967 championship dismantling. Terrell, in pre-fight interviews, had insisted on calling Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali had decided that was his “slave name,” although it was really his father’s name, and before that the name of a famous Kentucky abolitionist. Ali said he would punish Terrell for deliberately misnaming him, and made good … To Read the Full Story

Norm Macdonald, the DGAF Comic

Norm Macdonald removes a pancake from a spoof “swag bag” at the 2016 Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto, Ontario, March 13, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters ) The late comedian mocked everyone and everything, and wasn’t looking for validation. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A fter Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley filed for divorce, Norm Macdonald shared the sad news on SNL’s “Weekend Update”: “According to friends, the two were never a good match. She’s more of a stay-at-home type, and he’s more of a homosexual pedophile.” Yow. Sometimes great comedy is so funny it shocks, stings, hurts. At the time, you didn’t say “Michael Jackson is a homosexual pedophile.” It was considered rude. MJ gave us “Billie Jean,” so we all gave him a pass on the molesting-little-boys thing. Norm said the unsayable, and kept saying it. Macdonald wasn’t a shtick comic (although he did … To Read the Full Story

Clint Eastwood’s Macho Mistake

Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. (Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. via IMDB) Eastwood’s latest, Cry Macho, looks at aging, regret, and redemption without much flair. Ever notice that there’s a difference between a ten-year-old and a 50-year old? Well, there’s a difference between a 50-year-old and a 90-year-old, too. Clint Eastwood does not seem to grasp this in Cry Macho, a movie in which he unwisely casts himself as Mike Milo, a washed-up former rodeo rider. I imagined the character being about 50. Eastwood is 91, and there’s a scene in which he has difficulty settling into a chair; you can practically hear his balsa-wood bones creak. He moves the way you would expect a 91-year-old man to move. Yet here are the things Eastwood’s Mike Milo does in this movie: He slugs a rough hombre of about 30, who runs away and begs for help instead of knocking down feeble Mike with the nearest twig; he breaks a mustang who can’t be tamed by anyone else; he raises the temperature of a slutty lady in the prime of life who slinks invitingly across her sheets to beg him for some action; and he inspires a kindly café owner to reorient her emotional life around him. What future can she possibly picture with a guy who’s more than a dozen years older than Joe Biden? I’m puzzled that Eastwood tapped himself to star in this movie, adapted from an N. Richard Nash novel of 1975. In the book, the old bull rider is 38, and notes ruefully that you’re an old man in his business by the time you reach voting age. Eastwood first expressed interest in starring in the movie back in 1988, when he was already 20 years too old for the part (but could still have carried it off). I kept wondering whether the movie would work if Eastwood had cast, say, his pal Bradley Cooper (46) in the main role. Maybe. As it is, I cringed, cringed some more, then cringed out. I never thought I’d cringe this much in a Clint Eastwood movie. (Though I cringed quite a lot in his 1984 S&M flick Tightrope.) A director’s first duty is to put the right people in the right parts, and you don’t cast Pee-wee Herman as Rambo. #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09cfa .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta label { font-size: 1.2rem; line-height: 1.5rem; color: #000000; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09cfa .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta p { font-size: 1.05rem; line-height: 1.45rem; color: #000000; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09cfa { background-color: #ffffff; border-width: 1px; border-color: #cccccc; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09cfa .inline-newsletter-subscribe__email-submit { border-color: #e92131; background-color: #e92131; color: #ffffff; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09ea3 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta label { font-size: 1.5rem; line-height: 1.7rem; color: #000000; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09ea3 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta p { font-size: 1.05rem; line-height: 1.45rem; color: #000000; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09ea3 { background-color: #ffffff; border-width: 1px; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09ea3 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__email-submit { border-color: #eba605; background-color: #eba605; color: #ffffff; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09f3b .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta label { font-size: 1.3rem; line-height: 1.5rem; color: #dd9933; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09f3b .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta p { font-size: 1.05rem; line-height: 1.5rem; color: #2d2d2d; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09f3b { background-color: #ffffff; border-width: 1px; border-color: #999999; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09f3b .inline-newsletter-subscribe__email-submit { border-color: #dd9933; background-color: #dd9933; color: #ffffff; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09fb7 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta label { font-size: 1.5rem; line-height: 1.7rem; color: #0f733c; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09fb7 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__cta p { font-size: 1.05rem; line-height: 1.45rem; color: #2d2d2d; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09fb7 { background-color: #ffffff; border-width: 1px; border-color: #cccccc; } #inline-newsletter-nloptin-6142275b09fb7 .inline-newsletter-subscribe__email-submit { border-color: #0f733c; background-color: #0f733c; color: #ffffff; } Eastwood already did an absolutely perfect curtain call with The Mule three years ago, a rueful and well-grounded film that acknowledged the limitations and regrets of advanced age, did not ask him to do anything more physical than drive a pickup, and didn’t pretend that finding a new girlfriend was the answer for a man born in the Hoover Administration. Kudos to him for being maybe the oldest person ever to either star in or direct a major studio picture, but Cry Macho is a weak follow-up to The Mule. The new one is essentially a low-energy road-trip/redemption movie, a bit like Logan minus the steel claws. In 1980, Mike’s rancher boss, Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), fires him for being lazy and worthless, then inexplicably entrusts him with the delicate mission of going to Mexico to retrieve his kid, Rafo Polk (Eduardo Minett), from the boy’s wild mother (Fernanda Urrejola), a vamp who lives in palatial splendor south of the border and whose various boyfriends abuse Rafo. She says Mike can take the kid, who disgusts her and whom she calls a monster, but then she sends her henchmen out to stop Mike. It’s unclear if they’re gangsters who are supposed to murder Mike, but in any case they don’t seem to be trying very hard to retrieve the kid and are easily outsmarted. It turns out that two previous guys failed to retrieve Rafo for Howard, although Mike doesn’t do anything especially wily on his turn. Instead of being a monster, the boy turns out to be a sensitive soul who just needs a little paternal attention, and he’s got a fighting rooster named Macho. This leads to Mike’s giving a climactic little sermon about how macho is overrated (though Macho turns out to be a godsend). I guess this is where the macho men in the audience are supposed to cry. I shrugged. The kid is played so annoyingly by the young Minett, who has a woe-is-me-but-aren’t-I-cute technique straight out of a 1930s film, that he never seems like anything but a cinematic cliché. If you don’t buy that these two are bonding, the film fails. The café owner (Natalia Traven) who takes a liking to Mike is charming, and there are some nicely done low-key scenes in which he abandons his race to the border and spends several weeks gradually becoming an accepted member of her family. But otherwise, the movie has very little going for it: The redemption angle isn’t especially original or well-written, and Eastwood never puts much tension into the chase. I’m all for slowing things down at the movies, but I require a bit more than atmosphere. Even from Clint Eastwood.

Gut-Check Time for New York City

A woman wearing a face mask in the Times Square subway station during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 17, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters) When Delta comes, are New Yorkers finally going to live up to our reputation for toughness, or are we going to curl into a fetal position again? NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M onday, September 13, was a landmark day for New York City: The city schools reopened, with mandatory in-person instruction, and the subways and sidewalks were the busiest they’ve been since the Before Times. Meanwhile, four of Broadway’s tentpole shows were to reopen the following day, giving fans of Hamilton, The Lion King, Wicked, and Chicago their first chance to see these offerings since March of 2020. Restaurants and bars, which by city mandate are now required to ensure that all adult patrons are vaccinated, are going strong. Real-estate salesmen tell me that, though there was a mass exodus last spring, especially … To Read the Full Story

The Non-Legacy of 9/11

A U.S. flag flies over Ground Zero before the start of ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, September 11, 2011. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters) We should be grateful that one horrible day didn’t really change the American spirit. On September 11, 2001, I stopped at a McDonald’s at 82nd and Broadway around 8:50 to treat myself to an Egg McMuffin ahead of what promised to be an exceptionally dull day downtown: my first day of jury duty. A radio playing in the restaurant (I think it was tuned to WINS-AM, New York’s 24-hour-news station) announced that “a small commuter plane” had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Like everyone familiar with the history of New York City, I immediately thought of the B-25 that had hit the Empire State Building in 1945. That tower survived, and wasn’t even that badly damaged. I wanted to believe the World Trade Center crash was just one of those crazy things that happen every day in the city: If it was a “small commuter plane,” perhaps it had been a private flight, and private pilots make lots of crazy mistakes. But the B-25 crash had taken place in thick fog. 9/11 was a spectacularly clear and bright day. How could even a novice pilot accidentally hit the tallest building in New York on a day like that? Heading down to Centre Street, where my jury duty was to take place, I got off the subway at Chambers Street, six blocks north of the Twin Towers. In the 30 minutes I’d been on the subway, the world had changed. Now both towers were giving off huge amounts of smoke. Clearly this was a coordinated attack, not a “small commuter plane” accident. I stood there gaping with hundreds of others before I walked over to Centre Street to check on my jury duty. Just as a clerk was telling me it was canceled, a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard came in from the street: all New York let out a combination of a shriek and a groan at the same awful moment. The South Tower was collapsing, in cinematic slow motion, floor by floor. Stupidly I thought that enough time had passed since the crash that the towers must have been nearly empty of people by the time of the collapse. It didn’t occur to me that there was so much smoke in both buildings that virtually no one in either impact zone or on the floors above would survive. At around the same time, my good friend Richard, who worked at Merrill Lynch in what was then the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place), had a meeting nearby in the complex and was worried about being late. Glancing up, he noticed people jumping out of the Trade Center from high floors. I was too far away to observe this. Yet he hurried on, trying to get into the building where his meeting was. A disbelieving attendant told him that everything was closed and that he should get out of there. Hours later, as he told me this story, the stupidity of his own refusal to abandon his workday had left him shaken up. Belatedly he took the doorman’s advice and got very out of there; a few months later he and his family moved to Spain, and never returned. After the second tower fell and the city mood turned from panicky to dazed, the most striking image I saw on my long walk back to Midtown, where I worked, was the line of hundreds of people waiting outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. They were gathering in a kind of hopeful solidarity to give blood to any survivors who might show up. Very few would, but the spiritedness of New Yorkers under pressure should not be overlooked. The same attitude of defiant, if completely unwarranted, hope was at its most visible when the families of the lost began desperately in the days that followed to post pictures and descriptions of their departed loved ones all over every fence and blank wall in downtown Manhattan. “HAVE YOU SEEN” and “MISSING,” the leaflets shouted and begged, as if anyone who made it out of those buildings would have neglected to report to a hospital or phone home immediately. The flyers took on the feel of unusually detailed grave markers, and — together with the sulfurous, nauseating odor that emanated from the still-steaming pile of rubble and lingered in the air for months, noticeable even six miles away where I lived — they turned all of lower Manhattan into an impromptu mortuary. There was much talk, that September, about how 9/11 would change our national character. The external effects of that day were obvious and enduring — the overseas wars, the nationalization and hardening of airline security, the rebranding of the presidency of George W. Bush. But I’m not sure there were any lasting internal effects on American culture whatsoever. At the time, some writers actually speculated that irony had died, that we would henceforth be kinder to one another, that everyone had been forced to realize that we were all joined up in the same grand, pluralistic project. Flags were pasted on every subway train. Perhaps, said some on both the left and right, we should institute a mandatory national-service program to cultivate patriotism in our young people. A year later, Gawker.com debuted, and Americans eagerly discovered a frisky new pastime: setting out to destroy one another’s reputations on the Internet. Around that time, variations on the joke, “If X, then the terrorists have won” began to appear — “If we don’t go to this cocktail party, the terrorists will have won,” “If you don’t share that meatball sub with me, the terrorists will have won,” etc. I’m glad irony survived, and I’m extremely glad that the Bush administration and Congress did not conspire to create a nightmarish national-service program that would have set fire to untold quantities of time and energy that properly belong to young individuals, not the state. America remains a rumbustious, quarrelsome, and unruly place, characterized by an especial lack of interest in collectivism, and we have retained our world-leading position in irony. I don’t think 9/11 reprogrammed our character at all. If it had, then the terrorists really would have won. PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks

Why Isn’t the Attack on Larry Elder the Biggest Story in America?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks during a campaign stop outside a restaurant in San Diego, California, September 3, 2021. (Mike Blake/Reuters) A white woman in a gorilla mask threw an egg at a black man seeking to become the first non-white governor of our largest state, and the media shrug. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D o a search for Larry Elder and gorilla on the New York Times website, and nothing comes up. CNN? Same result. Washington Post? Zilch. According to our nation’s media leaders, it’s not a story that a white person wearing a gorilla mask attacked Larry Elder, a black man seeking to become the first non-white governor of California, by hurling an egg that touched his head. If Elder were a Democrat, the attack would have been instantly and with good reason dubbed racist. It would not only be front-page news, it would be just about the only news you were hearing about … To Read the Full Story

The Media’s COVID Whiplash Syndrome

CNN host and senior media correspondent Brian Stelter speaks an event in New York, November 6, 2017. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters) Reporters alternate from terror to acceptance and back again, sometimes in the same report. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I f you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, here are some things that are more likely to happen to you than being hospitalized with a severe case of COVID: drowning, dying of electrocution, dying of fire or smoke inhalation, dying by choking on food, dying of accidental gun discharge, or dying from an injury due to a sharp object. Fully vaccinated left-wingers of the United States, who wield vast cultural influence and seem intent on leveraging their fears to forestall a return to normalcy as long as they can, should be asked sincerely: Do you ever waste a single minute of the day … To Read the Full Story

Trump’s Legacy Comes into Focus 

Then-President Donald Trump applauds U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett after she took her oath of office to serve on the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., October 26, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters) The daily dramas of that era will fade away in time; the administration’s lasting mark is elsewhere. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S hould Donald Trump’s political career be finished, what will be the takeaways from his administration? I’d argue that what reporters have many times described as a nonstop bombardment of exciting news was in fact a relatively uneventful period. Why, yes, I have heard that there’s a pandemic on. It is the major event of the Trump era, but it had very little to do with Trump. Look at our close cousins, the U.K. Does anyone seriously believe that Americans would have tolerated its level of lockdown restrictions? At several points, you could be fined $300 for leaving home “without a good reason.” … To Read the Full Story

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The Question Biden Needs to Answer

President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit as part of the United Nations General Assembly from the South Court Auditorium in the White House complex in Washington, D.C, September 22, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) There are missing pieces in the narrative concerning the lead-up to the tragic drone strike in Kabul. NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W henever something awful happens in our government, there is a kind of informal competition among columnists to be the first to write: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” It is a tedious cliché. But the matter of the Kabul drone strike in which U.S. forces killed ten innocent civilians — including an aid worker and seven children — raises precisely that question. Joe Biden as commander in chief bears some general culpability for this slaughter — but if he was leaning on his underlings to put some bodies into body bags in order to grease the … To Read the Full Story
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