Review: ‘The Tender Bar,’ starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd and Lily Rabe

December 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

“The Tender Bar”

Directed by George Clooney

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1972 to the mid-1980s, in Manhasset, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and New York City, the dramatic film “The Tender Bar” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a boy raised by his single mother in a working-class household is influenced by her brother to take risks in life, as the boy grows up and goes on to attend Yale University and work as a journalist for The New York Times.

Culture Audience: “The Tender Bar” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ben Affleck, director George Clooney (who does not appear in the movie) and predictable coming-of-age stories.

Lily Rabe and Daniel Ranieri in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

Even though Ben Affleck gets top billing in the dramatic film “The Tender Bar,” he’s not in the movie as much the “The Tender Bar” trailers and other marketing materials would leave audiences to believe. And the movie isn’t as compelling as it first seems. Although the acting in “The Tender Bar” is very good, ultimately the direction by George Clooney and screenwriting by William Monaghan are underwhelming, considering that Clooney and Monaghan are both Oscar-winning filmmakers. There’s a very “been there, done that” tone to this coming-of-age story that retreads a lot of familiar territory about young men who are aspiring writers.

“The Tender Bar” is based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name. It’s yet another story about someone from suburban, working-class roots who dreams of moving to a big city to achieve fame and possibly fortune in a chosen profession. In a movie like this, the eager young person predictably has a mentor who is a tough taskmaster or a mentor who is a rule-breaking free spirit. The mentor in the “The Tender Bar” is the latter stereotype.

A major problem with the movie version of “The Tender Bar” is that there are big gaps in the life that is presented of the movie’s protagonist, whose name is J.R. McGuire. A running “joke” in the movie is that J.R. keeps having to answer this question: “What does ‘J.R.’ stand for?” It’s a question he can’t really answer because, as far as he knows, J.R. is his first name on his birth certificate. In the movie, J.R. is depicted as two very different personalities (as a child and as a young adult) that are such a contrast to each other, it throws the movie off-balance, and the movie never really recovers from it.

In the first third of the movie, it’s 1972, and J.R. is a 9-year-old boy (played by Daniel Ranieri), who has moved with his single mother (played by Lily Rabe) back into her parents’ cramped house in Manhasset, New York. J.R.’s mother is having financial problems and can’t afford to live anywhere else. J.R.’s mother is embarrassed that she’s had to move back in with her parents (played by Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), who all do not have names in the movie.

J.R.’s father abandoned J.R.’s mother and J.R. when J.R. was too young to remember him. This deadbeat dad is a radio DJ named Johnny Michaels (played by Max Martini), who has the on-air nickname The Voice. Even though Johnny still lives in the area, he hasn’t been in J.R.’s life, and J.R.’s mother wants to keep it that way. However, J.R. still ardently listens to his father on the radio, which is J.R.’s way of trying to get to know his father. In the movie, J.R.’s childhood is depicted from when he was 9 to about 11 years old.

J.R. is a bubbly and inquisitive child who loves to read. From a child’s perspective, he doesn’t see the move to his grandparents’ home as depressing. Just the opposite: J.R. meets a lot of relatives (aunts, uncles and cousins), and he’s happy to feel like he’s part of this big family. An unseen, middle-aged adult J.R. (voiced by Ron Livingston) says in hindsight voiceover narration how he felt being around so many family members: “I loved it.”

J.R.’s mother, who obviously wanted to move away from her family, isn’t happy about this change in her living situation. She thinks of herself as a “failure” for having to move back in with her parents. J.R.’s mother tries to hide her sadness from J.R, but he’s too smart not to notice.

There are underlying reasons why she was so reluctant to move back in with her parents, but they are only alluded to in the movie. She hints at those reasons when she tells J.R. about her curmudgeonly father: “Grandpa resents taking care of the family.” As for J.R.’s father, she comments: “Your father has never taken care of anyone at all.”

There are a few tender family moments as J.R.’s mother and her father take some steps in mending their fractured relationship. J.R. and his grandfather also have some moments together where they strengthen their family bond. However, the movie wants to focus on another adult member of the family to be the main catalyst for what happens to J.R.

One of the family members J.R. meets during this stressful time in his mother’s life is her older brother Charlie (played by Affleck), a bachelor who owns a local pub called Dickens. Charlie is not very educated, but he knows a lot about hard knocks in life, and he ends up being J.R.’s mentor/confidant. As an adult J.R. says in a narration voiceover: “When you’re 11 years old, you want [someone like] an Uncle Charlie.”

Meanwhile, J.R.’s father Johnny tries to get to know J.R. by promising to take him to a baseball game. But those plans go awry when J.R.’s mother has Johnny arrested for non-payment of child support while Johnny is on the air at his radio job. After getting out on bail, Johnny flees the state and threatens to kill J.R.’s mother during a menacing phone call. It’s the first sign that Johnny has a very mean streak and a violent mentality.

During this turmoil, Charlie becomes closer to J.R. and becomes almost like a father figure to him. The name of the Dickens bar is inspired by author Charles Dickens, so the bar is decorated with books on shelves, just like a library. Even though he’s underage, J.R. is allowed inside the bar. He’s so fascinated with the books, J.R. asks Charlie if he can read them. Charlie says yes. And an adult J.R. says in a narrator voiceover, “In that moment, I wanted to be a writer.”

J.R.’s mother would prefer that J.R. become a lawyer. She also drills into him that she really wants J.R. to graduate from Yale University or Harvard University. The family can’t afford to pay for tuition to an elite university, so J.R. hopes to get an academic scholarship. “The Tender Bar” doesn’t bother to show J.R. doing a lot of studying because the point of the movie is that J.R. got his real childhood education about life from his uncle Charlie.

“The Tender Bar” has a meandering quality to it where nothing particularly interesting happens during Charlie’s “mentorship” of J.R. As a child, J.R. tags along with hard-drinking Charlie and some of his party pals, who have nicknames like Bobo (played by Michael Braun) and Chief (played by Max Casella), where the adults get up to mostly harmless drunken mischief. Charlie also teaches J.R. how to drive long before J.R. is legally able to do so.

Charlie, who’s also a bartender at Dickens, lets J.R. watch Charlie do his job, where J.R. observes how adults act in a bar. Charlie doesn’t treat J.R. like a silly kid who’s a nuisance but as a person who needs guidance on some of life’s realities. At one point, Johnny comes back into the picture, and he has a violent confrontation with Charlie.

The rest of the movie then abruptly switches to J.R.’s life when he was in his late teens and early 20s. It’s here where “The Tender Bar” really starts to drag. Gone is the cheerful tyke who radiated positive energy and openness. The young adult J.R. (played by Tye Sheridan) is mopey, angsty, and has lost a lot of his charming curiosity about life.

This big change in J.R.’s personality is never explained. It’s more than just the normal coming-of-age growing pains. A lot of it has to do with the casting of Sheridan as the young adult J.R., because Sheridan tends to play brooding characters. That’s not to say that J.R. should be an eternally upbeat character, but the zest for life that he had as a child seems to have dwindled by the time the movie gets to J.R.’s life in his late teens and early 20s.

J.R. is only sure about one thing in his life: He wants to be a writer. Apparently, he thinks the only way to be a good writer is to be moody and miserable. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal that J.R. gets into Yale University, because about one-third of the movie (in the middle of the film) is about his time at Yale, where he ends up graduating in 1986. During his freshman year at Yale, J.R. has two roommates—Wesley (played by Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (played by Ivan Leung)—who are bland characters that don’t add much to the story.

J.R. becomes immediately smitten with another Yale student named Sydney Lawson (played by Briana Middleton), who plays mind games with him during their entire on-again/off-again relationship. J.R. falls in love with Sydney, who treats J.R. as a “side piece,” because she always has a more serious, committed relationship with another boyfriend the entire time that she and J.R. are seeing each other. The movie wastes a lot of time on J.R. and Sydney’s topsy-turvy relationship, which ends up exactly how you think it’s going to end up.

There’s an intentionally awkward sequence where Sydney invites J.R. to meet her well-to-do and highly educated parents at the Lawson family home. (Mark Boyett plays Sydney’s father, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Sydney’s mother, who don’t have first names in the movie.) The only purpose of this section of the movie is to show that J.R. feels self-conscious about his working-class background and that Sydney used this meeting as a test to see if J.R. could really fit into her world. It’s a world where people have a tendency to look down on working-class people from single-parent households.

Where exactly is Charlie during all of this drama in J.R.’s love life? Charlie only comes back into the picture whenever J.R. goes back to Manhasset to visit. And because Charlie is not an intellectual type who can skillfully guide J.R. on his writing ambitions, Charlie’s mentorship seems to be less impactful on J.R. as an adult, compared to when J.R. was a child. During the entire story, Charlie seems incapable of having a loving and committed relationship that lasts, so he’s not exactly the best person to give advice to J.R. about J.R.’s love life.

As much as Sydney manipulates J.R. by toying with his heart, the one sincerely good influence that she has on J.R. is that Sydney is the one (not Charlie) who encourages J.R. to apply for a job at The New York Times. J.R. is a talented writer, but he’s often plagued by self-doubt over his abilities. The rest of the movie is a bit of a slog in showing J.R.’s experience as a junior-level writer at The New York Times, while he still struggles with his love for Sydney.

“The Tender Bar” had potential to be a lot more engaging if it didn’t take up so much time on J.R.’s repetitive and predictable love affair with Sydney, the person who preoccupies most of his thoughts during his young-adult life that’s shown in the movie. The relationship between J.R. and his uncle Charlie, which is being marketed as the heart of “The Tender Bar,” is too often sidelined by showing what happens when J.R. goes to Yale and gets caught up in a bad romance.

It’s also a shaky premise for this movie to even put Charlie up on a “role model” pedestal in the first place, because he certainly doesn’t emotionally mature much during the approximately 14 or 15 years that this movie takes place. When J.R. moves away to go to Yale, Charlie is a drunk who acts like he’s a party guy in his 20s. When J.R. goes back to visit, middle-aged Charlie still has essentially the same lifestyle and mindset. If Charlie has any talent at anything, the movie never reveals what it is.

And that leaves audiences wondering, “What’s so great about Charlie?” It’s nice that Charlie provided emotional support for J.R. when J.R. needed a father figure as a kid. But by the time the movie ends, it’s obvious that between Charlie and J.R., only one of them has become a “grown-up” by gaining true wisdom from life experiences and by turning a talent into a career.

Amazon Studios released “The Tender Bar” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021, with a wider release on December 22, 2021. Prime Video will premiere “The Tender Bar” on January 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Encanto,’ starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, Jon Leguizamo, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guererro, Jessica Darrow and María Cecilia Botero

November 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left to right: Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), Isabela (voiced by Diane Guererro), Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero and Olga Merediz), Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), Agustín (voiced by Wilmer Valderrama), Julieta (voiced by Angie Cepeda), Camilo (voiced by Rhenzy Feliz), Antonio (voiced by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), Pepa (voiced by Carolina Gaitan), Félix (voiced by Mauro Castillo) and Dolores (voiced by Adassa Candiani) in “Encanto”(Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Encanto” 

Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard; co-directed by Charise Castro Smith

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the animated musical film “Encanto” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl, who feels ordinary in a family blessed with magical powers, tries to find her special talent while also solving the mystery of what happened to her uncle who disappeared years earlier.

Culture Audience: “Encanto” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories that have mystical qualities but are also about life’s realities of finding one’s own identity and self-esteem.

Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) and Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) in “Encanto” (Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Disney’s “Encanto” has some unnecessary clutter in the story, and the music could be better, but this animated film has enough charm to overcome its very noticeable flaws. The story gets a little convoluted and might be confusing to some viewers (especially those who are younger than the age of 7), who could still be entertained by the dazzle of the movie’s vibrant visuals. “Encanto” ultimately has meaningful messages about family and self-confidence that make the movie worthwhile to watch and appealing to many generations of people.

“Encanto” is directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith. Castro Smith and Bush co-wrote the “Encanto” screenplay. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote eight original songs for “Encanto.” Manuel previously worked with Walt Disney Animation Studios on 2016’s “Moana.” Howard and Bush’s previous Disney film was 2016’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” which Howard directed and which Bush co-wrote and co-directed.

With all these talented filmmakers involved in “Encanto,” it’s not too surprising that the movie looks great and has a solid story concept. What is surprising is that some parts of the movie are more jumbled that they needed to be. And most of the songs, while pleasant, are somewhat forgettable. “Encanto” is not a Disney animated film that’s going to have an Oscar-winning hit song, such as “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” People watching “Encanto” might have trouble remembering at least three songs after watching the movie for the first time.

“Encanto” has a large ensemble cast of characters, and they are all introduced in a somewhat haphazard and rushed way. The characters are at least distinctive from each other, but viewers must have patience in the first 20 minutes of the movie as the characters show more of their individual personalities. There’s a big part of the story about magic and mystical spells that could have been streamlined and simplified, considering that many of this movie’s intended viewers might too young to grasp some of the movie’s concepts about which magical spells should be cast in order for certain things to happen.

In “Encanto,” which is set in Colombia, the story is centered on the Madrigal family, which lives in a magical place in the mountains called Encanto. It’s a family tradition that when each child in the family turns 5 years old, the child finds out during a ceremony what special power has been bestowed on them. The given power is revealed when a magical door opens in the house to reveal an enchanted space, where the child enters to get the power that is officially bestowed on the child. The power is then used as a gift to help people in the community.

This tradition in the Madrigal family began about 50 years earlier, when a young, married couple named Alma and Pedro Madrigal fled their home with their baby triplets, due to an invasion of their land, and Pedro tragically died while in captivity. After her husband’s death, Alma said a prayer to a mystical candle, which resulted in the miracle creation of Encanto, a safe and magical place to live. This candle is considered the key to the family’s magical powers.

Alma’s triplets (two daughters and a son) grew up in Encanto. The daughters got married to loving husbands, and they had children of their own. Meanwhile, Alma’s son became estranged from the family because he has psychic powers, and the family didn’t like his “gloom and doom” predictions. He has disappeared, so part of the movie is about discovering what happened to him.

Alma’s 15-year-old granddaughter Mirabel is the movie’s protagonist. Mirabel is energetic and kind-hearted, but she insecure about herself and how she is perceived by her family. In total, there are 12 people in the Madrigal family who are in “Encanto.” It’s a lot of characters to keep track of in the story, and it might be too much for people with short attention spans.

The 12 members of the Madrigal family featured in “Encanto” are:

  • Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero for spoken dialogue and voiced by Olga Merediz for singing) is the matriarch. She sometimes overreacts if she thinks any danger will come to her family.
  • Julieta (voiced by Angie Cepeda), one of Alma’s triplet daughters, has the power to heal.
  • Agustín (voiced by Wilmer Valderrama) is Julieta’s supportive and mild-mannered husband. Julieta and Agustín have three daughters.
  • Isabela (voiced by Diane Guererro), the eldest daughter of Julieta and Agustín, is as close to perfect as possible, in terms of her beauty and intellect. She has the power to make flowers and other plants grow.
  • Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), the middle daughter of Julieta and Agustín, is tall and muscular. Her power is super-sized strength.
  • Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), the youngest daughter of Julieta and Agustín, was not bestowed any special gift/talent/power at 5 years old, and she feels very insecure about it. Mirabel is now 15 and struggling with self-confidence issues and feeling like she doesn’t fit in with her family.
  • Pepa (voiced by Carolina Gaitan), Alma’s other triplet daughter, has the power to control the weather with her emotions.
  • Félix (voiced by Mauro Castillo) is Pepa’s goofy and fun-loving husband. Pepa and Félix have two sons and one daughter.
  • Camilo (voiced by Rhenzy Feliz) is the older son of Pepa and Félix. A natural extrovert and entertainer, Camilo has the power to shape shift.
  • Dolores (voiced by Adassa Candiani) is the daughter of Pepa and Félix. Her power is an extraordinary hearing ability, so naturally she’s become a nosy busybody who likes to find out other people’s secrets.
  • Antonio (voiced by Ravi Cabot-Conyers) is the younger son of Pepa and Félix. Antonio, who is quiet and shy, has the ability to communicate with animals.
  • Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) is Alma’s prodigal son who has the aforementioned psychic power. Bruno’s “tell it like it is” nature might be too blunt for some people, so he sometimes has a tendency to rub people the wrong way.

You know a movie might have too many characters when it has to spend so much screen time explaining who everyone is before getting to the real action in the story. It takes a while for it get going, but eventually Mirabel goes on an adventure that involves finding the long-lost Bruno, whom she has never met before. Something happens that causes her family to lose their powers, and Mirabel gets blamed for it. A great deal of the story is about how she tries to make things right and get the magical powers restored to her family.

There are also some subplots about the family dynamics. Mirabel and Isabela have a tension-filled relationship because Mirabel is jealous of Isabel being the family’s “golden child,” while Isbael acts haughty and superior to Mirabel, even though Isabel secretly resents the pressure that she feels to be “perfect.” Meanwhile, Isabela is being courted by a handsome neighbor named Mariano Guzmán (voiced by Maluma), who seems like an ideal match for her. It’s a courtship that gets the approval of Isabela’s parents and Mariano’s parents, but does Isabela really want to get married?

When Mirabel finds Bruno, she discovers he’s not the terrible person he’s been described as by some people. (It’s not spoiler information to say that Mirabel and Bruno end up meeting, since it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer.) Mirabel and Bruno bond over feeling like “outsiders” in the family. The friendship that develops between Bruno that Mirabel is one of the movie’s highlights. Bruno also has a trusty toucan, because a movie like this always seems to have at least one or two helpful animal friends that are sidekicks for the human characters.

Since “Encanto” is a musical, the score and songs are placed in the movie at a pace that flows fairly well. The original songs in “Encanto” are good, but not amazing. Except for a few standouts though (such as the ensemble tunes “We Need to Talk About Bruno” and “All of You”), most of the songs are not as memorable as people might expect them to be, considering that they were written by “Hamilton” mastermind Miranda.

The “Encanto” original songs are pleasant enough, but will they resonate with people emotionally to the point where most people will want to re-watch “Encanto,” just to see the songs performed in the musical scenes? That’s highly doubtful. “Encanto” is not a movie that is going to inspire a sing-along version, like Disney did for “Frozen.” The songs of “Encanto” are just not as interesting as the characters that perform these songs.

“Encanto” offers some stunning visuals, which are the movie’s biggest assets. The movie also has lovely homages to Colombian culture, based on how various Colombian food, clothing and customs are featured in the story. All of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, with Leguizamo and Beatriz getting most of the best lines of dialogue in the movie. Overall, “Encanto” efficiently follows the tried-and-true formula of family-oriented animated films where the protagonist starts off feeling like a misfit and goes on a life-changing journey of self-acceptance.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Encanto” in U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. Disney+ will premiere the movie at no additional cost on December 24, 2021.

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