Archive for the Drama Category

No Sudden Move

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 28, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It feels like a lifetime ago when Steven Soderbergh first announced his arrival with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 when it won the Palme d’Or. It also revolutionized the independent film movement in the early 1990s by making significant money at the box office. The last time Steven Soderbergh directed something that felt like an event was probably Magic Mike in 2012. That was nearly a decade ago, but the auteur has been steadily turning out movies. Some are great (Side Effects) and some are not (The Laundromat).

No Sudden Move is pure Steven Soderbergh. In that sense, it’s a film noir that should delight his most ardent fans but leave everyone else in the cold. It stars past collaborators Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, Che). Curt and Ronald are two petty criminals each separately hired by Doug (Brendan Fraser) to work together. They are to kidnap low-level executive Matt (David Harbour) and force him to retrieve a document from his boss’ (Hugh Maguire) safe. You won’t know what that piece of paper is until the very end and even then it’s a perfunctory reveal that’s more likely to elicit a shrug than a gasp. That MacGuffin — by definition — was never the point.

It’s all about style and mood. Steven Soderbergh has honed his craft. This is a period piece set in Detroit, Michigan during 1954 that weaves the auto industry and organized crime into a dense account. Apparently, those two worlds have a lot in common. What begins in the rugged streets of Detroit ultimately ends up in the stately board room of a company. The idea that rich and powerful corporations have little regard for the law in their all-consuming desire for money is a most tired subject. Yet it can be the simplistic basis for a very entertaining story.

Simplicity enhances the possibility for depth. Soderbergh has a solid foundation. Unfortunately, each subsequent scene is burdened with more densely written dialogue than the next. The chronicle never gives the audience a chance to ponder what’s happening before additional layers are added. The narrative is weighed down by details. Ed Solomon’s screenplay confuses characters with excitement. Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Craig Grant, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke are all introduced as essential cogs in a complex machine. Not enough? Let’s throw in an uncredited cameo by the director’s most frequently employed actor. The Johnny Depp to his Tim Burton as it were. Soderbergh’s fans already know who I’m talking but I’ll leave his appearance as a surprise to everyone else.

The late great French director François Truffaut once pronounced that clarity is the most important quality in making a picture. No Sudden Move is a heist film. In essence, the saga is simple, but the plot twists and turns through an ever-expanding ensemble. In a tale where shifting alliances are the norm, you can’t be sure of anything. The only thing you can count on is that no one can be trusted. There’s nary a break in the conversation. Wait a minute? Who’s Frank Capelli? Is that Aldrick Watkins? These questions and many others will likely arise. Those key characters are portrayed by actors Ray Liotta and Bill Duke incidentally. Consulting a cast list will prove most helpful. If this were a live performance, I’d rely on a playbill to keep track of all the parts. This is a production that demands your undivided attention with no distractions. As such it would’ve been the perfect choice for a theatrical experience. Sorry. It bypassed theaters and was released on July 1 to HBO Max. This means you will need the right setting to enjoy this movie. I did and that’s why I’m recommending the film.

07-25-21

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on July 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This follows Fear Street Part Two: 1978

In the concluding entry, our main heroine Deena (Kiana Madeira) has a vision of the events of 1666 from the perspective of Sarah Fier herself. The woman was accused of being a witch and there are glaring parallels between her life and Deanna’s.

Don’t let my 3 stars steer you otherwise. The finale isn’t great and I’m not recommending this unless you’ve watched the other two. However, it feels more like a distinct entity and less of an homage to other, better films. The attention to period detail is still questionable but at least I wasn’t alive in 1666 so I can’t critique its recreation of the era firsthand. However I saw The Witch, a movie that detailed the same era in 2015. This suffers in comparison. It’s disgusting without being even remotely frightening. That criticism could be leveled at the entire production. The lack of scares is frustrating. This is a tawdry drama centered around 90s teens ending a historic ordeal.

Thankfully 1666 is more committed to creating a unique tale. If you’re here for shocks you’ll get that too. A preacher with his eyes gouged out is standing at an altar addressing a congregation of recently murdered kids who also have their eyes missing. A slew of piglets are shown slaughtered after they were eaten by the mother. The 17th century was a dark time apparently. Only the first half is set in 1666 before returning to 1994 to conclude the story. This is where the saga comes full circle and ultimately answers the question of how the town of Shadyside came to be cursed. To that end, it is the most satisfying and a fitting end to the trilogy.

Fear Street‘s 330 minutes would imply some sort of grand epic journey but its episodic narrative never rises above a very shallow presentation. Only in the closing installment does its excessive length seem mildly justified. Given that the distinction between TV and movies is forever being blurred, one wonders if this wouldn’t have worked better as a television series of say 8 episodes of 41 minutes each. Much easier to chew over…and then spit out.

07-19-21

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on July 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

This follows Fear Street Part One: 1994.

We begin in 1994. Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) restrain Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), Deena’s girlfriend who is possessed, and track down the mysterious C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) for help. She is the sole survivor of the 1978 Camp Nightwing massacre. Initially reluctant, Berman allows them inside her home and begins recounting the events of that fateful night. It concerns a “Ziggy” Berman (Sadie Sink) and her older sister and camp counselor Cindy Berman (Emily Rudd). The narrative then flashes back to an earlier time when teens at a summer camp unleash a witch who turns one of the campers into an ax-wielding maniac.

The only thing more single-minded than the witch is the seemingly endless mixtape of songs from the age. In Part One set in the 1990s, the soundtrack is flooded with tunes from that era: Nine Inch Nails, White Zombie, Bush, and others. Part Two relies on the same. Anyone alive in 1978 knows that the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, Donna Summer, and the Grease soundtrack completely ruled the radio airwaves that year. Their presence was inescapable. Yet instead we hear unconventional artists like The Velvet Underground, the Runaways, and the Buzzcocks. Methinks director Leigh Janiak is imposing her personal musical tastes on a group of 70s teens. This perfectly highlights how Fear Street is inconsistent in presenting authentic period detail. Nevertheless it attempts an ersatz version of the era from a 2021 mindset.

The chronicle draws significantly from Friday the 13th without forging an identity of its own. The bloodshed is graphic, even topping Part One so fans who enjoy seeing people killed will be delighted by the carnage. The ax murders include victims who are stuck in the forehead, their skulls split in half. People are chopped repeatedly, even after they are dead. Luckily no one is particularly likable, so when a character is invariably disposed of, their absence isn’t missed. This is the plot and — despite my conspicuous distaste — it’s slightly better than the first.

Next up: Fear Street Part Three: 1666

07-13-21

Fear Street Part One: 1994

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on July 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Believe it or not, I try to be selective in what I watch. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. Why would I continue to watch the sequels to a movie series that wasn’t good at the outset? “It will get better” I kept telling myself. In my defense, it did — a little. The final installment improved upon an extremely weak beginning. But I suppose the real answer is I have a slavish devotion to reviewing what the public watches. Fear Street was kind of a thing on Netflix in July of 2021. It was filmed all at once and released as 3 separate chapters over a three-week span. The trilogy is based on a collection of fictional horror books written by R. L. Stine. He’s probably best known for his kid-friendly Goosebumps novels which some call the “Stephen King of children’s literature.” More than 80 million Fear Street books have been sold so I guess it was only a matter of time before they were the subject of an adaptation.

The chronicle follows a group of teenagers in the fictionalized town of Shadyside, Ohio. They are terrorized by a history of brutal murders that have plagued the hamlet for centuries . Most believe this is the work of an ancient woman named Sarah Fier who placed a curse on the community before being executed for witchcraft in 1666. Our film opens with a massacre at a mall that has closed for the night . In the historically violent Shadyside, death is a frequent occurrence. Meanwhile, the wealthier and homicide-free Sunnyvale is set up as the very antithesis of that neighboring city. The young cast includes Deena (Kiana Madeira), her ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) who is a former Shadyside resident/current Sunnyvalist, Deena ‘s younger brother, Internet/video game nerd Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), stoner Simon (Fred Hechinger), and their mutual smart-girl pal Kate (Julia Rehwald). The young gang is trying to piece together just what is afflicting their suburb and how to fight it.

Each entry in this account seems to draw from obvious influences and then dumb it down to its lowest common denominator. Fear Street Part One: 1994 is reminiscent of Scream with a sprinkle of Stranger Things thrown in for good measure. Given that, I can’t think of one single reason why anyone should watch this over its superior inspirations. Scream wasn’t a timid film but this manages to amp up the brutality, gore, and profanity. If you crave that sort of thing then there is your reason. However, the R-rated content is presented without style or regard. In short, it isn’t scary just relentless.

Next up: Fear Street Part Two: 1978

07-06-21

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted in Drama, History, Music with tags on July 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everyone’s heard of Woodstock. It has pretty much become THE symbol of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The 3-day music festival was held August 15–18 in 1969. Its mystic significance has only grown since. Half a century later, the influential touchstone is still a historical benchmark of popular music as well as a defining moment for a generation. Michael Wadleigh’s landmark 1970 documentary cemented its status as a phenomenon.

There was another music celebration in New York that year. 100 miles away from Bethel, the Harlem Cultural Festival started earlier that summer. From June 29 to Aug. 24 on each Sunday at 3 PM in the afternoon, a concert took place in Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973). The event was hosted and promoted by Tony Lawrence, a genial and charismatic nightclub singer. The stated purpose was to celebrate African American culture. Promoting the ongoing politics of black pride was also a motivation.

A jaw-dropping assemblage of talent showed up. The 5th Dimension, Sly, and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson all took the stage at different points. Gladys Knight and the Pips also appeared. Would you believe they weren’t even considered headliners at that point? Despite the fact that their recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had been a massive hit in 1967, their legendary reputation had not been established. Gladys Knight’s performance is among my favorites and the Pips choreography is nothing less than sensational.

The actual event presented in the Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) was by all accounts a success. The series of six free shows boasted a combined attendance of nearly 300,000. Then it faded from memory. TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the exhibition on 50 reels of tape which comprised 40 hours of live footage. He tried to get somebody — anybody — interested in his document. New York’s WNEW-TV Channel 5 (now FOX 5) broadcast hour-long specials at the time but that too failed to cause much of a stir. Later Tulchin tried dubbing this as the “Black Woodstock” to generate interest. It didn’t. For the better part of 50 years, Tulchin’s film was stored away in his basement in Bronxville and largely forgotten — until now. Sadly Tulchin, who died in 2017, is not around to see its resurgence.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was shocked to discover this occurred in the summer of ’69. As the musical director for The Tonight Show and the drummer for the hip hop band the Roots, he’s a knowledgeable individual. Like the majority of us, Questlove was completely unaware of its existence. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) becomes a riveting capsule of history. In between clips, we are treated to interviews with assorted people providing historical context and comment. Some of it is a bit redundant as it hammers away at a predetermined social narrative. Its virtue is abundantly clear simply from the visual spectacle and unvarnished facts. Nevertheless, the observations are deeply fascinating. Others are amusing. Festival attendee Musa Jackson was there when he was four with his family. “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken” he fondly recalls. “It was the ultimate Black barbecue.”

One of the best things Questlove does is filming the artists today watching their appearances back then. Getting founding members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension to comment is a deeply emotional experience for them as well as the audience. They apparently are witnessing the footage simultaneously for the first time as us. The group’s lush, meticulously crafted version of “champagne soul” straddled the line between various genres. They openly discuss their concerns at the time.

Many intriguing tidbits are revealed. Contrary to some reports, the NYPD did indeed provide security. You can clearly see them at various points throughout the crowd. They kind of stick out. However, for the June 29 date featuring Sly and the Family Stone, they did refuse and it was instead provided by members of the Black Panther Party. The 3rd show literally occurred on the very same day as the Moon landing. Illuminating interviews of the attendees provide their frank and cogent opinions on the relevance of that cultural milestone versus this one.

So many wonderful highlights. Its difficult for me to convey the passion of an actual performance. When elder gospel legend Mahalia Jackson invites protege Mavis Staples to sing, it’s certainly one of the film’s most powerful moments. The torch-passing spectacle of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was a favorite of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader had been assassinated one year earlier. Another inclusion that shows how much things have changed: New York City mayor John Lindsay — a white Republican — is warmly embraced by the crowd. He takes the stage in a mutual support of the community.

Now that it has been unearthed, it will be interesting to see the effect this long-forgotten document of history has on future generations. It already won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Critical acclaim has been ubiquitous. Thanks to Questlove’s influence, he was able to secure and edit this testimony. It is an impressive directorial debut. Finally, the revolution CAN be televised….for the first time in over 50 years.

07-02-21

The Ice Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama on July 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Even a pandemic couldn’t stop Liam Neeson. After the Great Lockdown, the unemployment rate in the U.S. skyrocketed in 2020 from 3.5% — the lowest in nearly 70 years — to an all-time high of 14.8%. Yet the sexagenarian never stopped working. In the past year, he starred in the lighthearted drama Made in Italy and fronted the actioners Honest Thief and The Marksman. There’s a reason for that. He’s a dependable actor that exudes genuine sincerity. He also enjoys doing the kinds of features that the public loves. Action movies are always in demand.

His latest offering is The Ice Road. In it, he plays a truck driver named Mike McCann. He’s operating one of three vehicles and part of a team that includes four other people. Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Amber Midthunder, and Marcus Thomas round out the squad. This diverse crew could hold differing ideological views. Yet the screenplay would prefer to focus on the superficial physical characteristics that differentiate them instead. They’re on a critical mission to deliver wellheads so they can save a group of workers trapped in a mine that has collapsed. The Ice Road refers to the path they take over an ocean that has frozen to the point that they can drive on it. This is understandably quite dangerous because trucks are heavy (duh) and the ice could break.

The plot is so formulaic, it’s depressing. There’s an art of how and when to kill a character. Writer (and director) Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon) is responsible. We’re introduced to individuals to embrace only to have them randomly disposed of later. This indifference is supremely off-putting. I get that the script wants to emphasize the life-threatening qualities of the job, but the whole production is inherently silly. The narrative casually kills beloved personalities in a cheap attempt to create emotion. This happens a couple of times here and both eliminations feel like a shortcut. It doesn’t produce the solemnity desired.

The movie offers a lot of excitement in battling the natural elements though. That would have been enough to entertain on a simple level. However, the adventure also involves a bewildering conspiracy subplot concerning evil businessmen who want to stop the drivers from reaching their goals. That’s a crock of convoluted nonsense. Whenever the drama focuses on that aspect, it lost me. The dialogue is trying to make this story seem more complex than it needs to be. The chronicle should just be about truckers vs. nature but it’s truckers vs. nature vs. a corrupt mining corporation. Yeah, that’s not interesting or coherent. Keep it simple, stupid.

07-02-21

Fatherhood

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family with tags on June 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I review what people see. F9 just set a pandemic era record by making $70 million this past weekend. Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place: Part II also did well earlier this year. Given those theatrical successes, I suspect box office will become an accurate reflection of what captures the public interest at some point. With everyone’s viewing habits currently relegated to streaming, it’s been difficult to tell what the masses are watching. At 208 million subscribers, Netflix is far and away the #1 streaming service. Amazon Prime Video is a distant second. For most of 2020 (and 2021 so far), the Netflix Top 10 has been a good reflection on what’s popular. Originally scheduled as a theatrical release by Sony Pictures, Fatherhood was ultimately sold to Netflix and debuted on June 18. It immediately became their #1 movie so I decided to check it out.

This drama starring Kevin Hart is based on the biography by blogger turned author Matthew Logelin entitled Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. Logelin’s recollection is an account of grief following the unexpected death of his wife right after giving birth to the couple’s first child and then his adapting to single parenthood. I won’t negate the unimaginable real-life tragedy of losing your wife hours after becoming a father. That is a profound event from which few could ever recover. Somehow Matthew Logelin managed to channel that agony and then write about it. Kudos and respect on his accomplishment. Paul Weitz and Dana Stevens subsequently adapted Logelin’s book into a screenplay (far less successfully) that became Fatherhood.

This movie doesn’t do his thoughtful subject any justice. Fatherhood is a maudlin, overly saccharine tale that fails to introduce a single genuine emotion. The chronicle is a well-meaning but uninvolving series of hackneyed affairs that even non-parents would associate with being a father. When Maddy is a baby, plot developments include the difficulty of changing diapers and that infants cry at night. Then when she’s a toddler (Melody Hurd) the story concerns Matthews entering the dating world and Maddy’s acceptance of his choice for a mate (DeWanda Wise). The details are generic and mundane. The film is lacking an original point of view and quite frankly a pulse.

Fatherhood is a calculated effort to present a kinder, gentler version of comedian Hart. The narrative is incredibly sappy. Every time something uplifting happens, inspiring music swells to emphasize the fact and when a sad occurrence unfolds, a very somber tune overwhelms the soundtrack. Those familiar with Hart’s manic stand-up routines will be surprised to find he affects a persona here that is completely unrecognizable. I’ll give him points for going outside his comfort zone. There are occasional glimpses of humor, but this is mostly a bleak, serious affair. It’s like an pale rewrite of the 80s comedy Three Men and a Baby except with just one person and minus the laughs.

06-25-21

The Courier

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller, War on June 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you love Cold War spy films? Well then I have good news!

Greville Wynne is a mild-mannered British businessman with no connections to the government. That’s a plus. His frequent trips to Eastern Europe on business is another advantage. The two qualities make him a perfect candidate to be a spy. MI6 recruits him to be just that. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is an American CIA officer who assists. Greville is tasked with acting as a courier transporting classified information to London. His contact is Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) — a high-ranking foreign military officer providing top-secret intelligence

The fact that this is a true story makes it infinitely more interesting. The confrontation in 1962 was between John F Kennedy in the U.S. and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict. That’s the historical basis but this is a character drama first and foremost. The friendship between Greville and Oleg, two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that is affecting. Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is kept in the dark about her husband’s activities but she suspects something is amiss. At one point she mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair.

These portraits of history are fascinating. It’s all about the point of view. This unsurprisingly aligns with American and British interests. From the U.S. perspective and its allies of the Western Bloc, Penkovsky is a hero. His undercover operations helped put an end to the Missile Scare. However, to the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc, he was a traitor. How Penkovsky weighed patriotism vs. his moral compass would have been a compelling study. Although those ideas percolate underneath the surface, the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into that conversation. This is a simple movie with clearly delineated characters representing the “good” and “bad” positions.

The Courier is very much an old-school espionage thriller. They were all the rage in the 1960s: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Ipcress File, Torn Curtain, The Double Man, Ice Station Zebra. They’re something of a vanishing breed these days. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are recent examples of note. If I’m being charitable, I’d say this is less engaging. If I’m being blunt, the account is a bit stodgy and dull. It’s a decent well-acted movie with nice production values though. I’d recommend it to fans of those films.

The Courier debuted domestically back on March 19. After earning a paltry $6.6 million in theaters, it went to video on demand April 16, where it’s currently available. It got a DVD release June 1st.

In the Heights

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on June 14, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Broadway musical. A blistering heatwave is affecting the residents of Upper Manhattan, New York City. The chronicle details the days leading up to a citywide electrical blackout. Washington Heights is colloquially known as “Little Dominican Republic.” The thriving neighborhood is home to a lively population that also includes Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, and most notably Dominicans in this particular story. They call this Latino enclave home. It’s hard not to be reminded of West Side Story. Lin-Manuel Miranda has admitted the Arthur Laurents / Leonard Bernstein / Stephen Sondheim play did inspire him but he wanted to tell a different narrative. This isn’t about rival gangs but simply an uplifting tale about the vibrant community of immigrants and their pursuit of the American dream.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is an orphan and owner of a bodega in the neighborhood. He longs to return to his family’s homeland in the Caribbean. He was raised by “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), though she is not his grandmother by blood. Usnavi has a crush on the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of getting out of the barrio and moving downtown where she can pursue a career as a fashion designer. She has been friends since childhood with Nina (Leslie Grace) who moved to California to attend Stanford University. Unfortunately, Nina finds adapting to the culture at Stanford a lot harder than she thought. She is pursued by Benny (Corey Hawkins). He is a taxi dispatcher for Nina’s Father, Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Benny hopes to open his own business one day.

I am an unapologetic fan of musical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, they never left. Case in point: The past five years have given us Sing Street, La La Land, The Greatest Showman, Mary Poppins Returns, A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, even (I’ll defend it) Disney’s live-action Aladdin. I embraced them all for their sunny attitude. So how much joy can you handle? I freely admit that musicals are inherently sentimental already. Name another genre where people burst into song to clarify the way they feel. Yet even I was a bit surprised by the onslaught of joyful intensity that awaited me in this film.

The score features a mixture of hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and soul. Rarely have I seen a movie so zealous on conveying happiness and enthusiasm. The principals are all going through various trials and tribulations. They have their doubts, but you know they’re going to come around right before the finale. There’s no place like home is the underlying moral. Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to convey that feeling, so I get it. That sentiment also underscored the philosophy in The Wizard of Oz, but the sheer exuberance here makes that masterpiece look like a funeral dirge.

How about those production numbers! In the Heights is a veritable smorgasbord of one spectacle after another. There are sequences of spoken dialogue, but the lyrics are essentially conversation set to a tune. As such — and I mentioned this in my Hamilton review — the picture is best viewed with closed captions to better comprehend the rapid-fire exposition. It explains these characters. Just three minutes in, the film’s first ditty “In the Heights” debuts with Usnavi’s talk/singing to the audience. He recounts to us how he got his name. His father saw the letters “US Navy” imprinted on the ship that passed by when he entered the country. That is but one tidbit. There are so many more details dropped in this 7+ minute tune. The melody is a chaotic montage of key information and quickly edited images. No newbie could possibly take it all in one sitting. The ability to watch and rewind that performance is a luxury to be savored.

Then comes the moment that virtually justifies the movie’s existence. A winning lottery ticket has been sold at Usnavi’s store and the “96,000” prize is the subject of a spectacular exhibition at New York’s public Highbridge Pool. The chanting chorus track with synchronized swimming and 500 extras is like something out of 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid. Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams would be proud. But there are many more. How about “Carnaval Del Barrio” where Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) lifts the spirits of the block (and the audience) while the neighborhood is lounging around depressed in the sweltering heat with no electricity. Even quieter ballads like “When the Sun Goes Down” feature a little magic during an exquisite dance sequence where Nina and Benny sashay up the vertical wall of a building.

Director Jon Chu most successfully directed Crazy Rich Asians (2018) but his work on the dance movie Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and its sequel Step Up 3D (2010) lay the foundation for his stellar achievement here. The story celebrates community. The idea that family and friends often come together during difficult times is nothing new. What elevates the saga are the production numbers which are beyond compare. If you love musicals (as I do) then, In the Heights will not let you down. If not, this nearly 2 1/2 hour film might test your “Paciencia Y Fe” — but only in the most hopeful way possible.

06-10-21

Dream Horse

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on June 10, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Feel-good movies get a bad rap. How could something that uplifts the spirit ever be a negative thing? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure happiness is a feeling we enjoy. Dream Horse is a delight. It’s a cozy blanket — a warm and inviting experience that I’ve felt before but was more than willing to appreciate again.

This is the true story of a racehorse with humble beginnings. By day, Janet Vokes works as a grocery store cashier in a small town in South Wales. At night she’s a bartender at a local pub. One evening at work, Janet overhears Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a tax adviser, discussing a thoroughbred he once owned. Up until then, she had only bred whippets, rabbits, and pigeons. Howard’s words inspired her.

Janet and her husband Brian (Owen Teale) buy a mare for £1000. They then bring the mare to Kirtlington Stud in the UK so she can be bred with a racing stallion. Of course this is expensive. Jan convinces her neighbors to chip in their earnings to help out. Ultimately over 20 different people joined the ownership syndicate. The ensuing offspring is aptly named Dream Alliance. The foal is then brought to trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). The expectation is that they might raise a racehorse to compete amongst the champions of the privileged class. “Remember, there’s a less than one percent chance this horse will ever win a race,” Howard cautions. As I sat watching a film called Dream Horse, I suspected the odds were a little better.

I’ll admit the plot sounds like a piece of sentimental hokum and it would have been in lesser hands. Certainly, screenwriter Neil McKay and frequent TV director Euros Lyn deserve credit for their contributions. However, Toni Collette really must be cited for her flawless performance. The actress is simply captivating. Whether pleading for a risky medical procedure that could prolong the horse’s life or deciding whether to enter him in yet another race, she is eminently relatable. Collette radiates warmth and enthusiasm with utter sincerity. As Janet, she can be aggressively enthusiastic but also vulnerable. Few actors can convey all this with such ease. She manifests these emotions with authenticity. It never comes across like acting. The rest of the ensemble rise to her level. The coterie of working-class investors includes a lonely widow (Siân Phillips), the town drunk (Karl Johnson), and a resident know-it-all (Anthony O’Donnell). Misfits all, we truly want to champion the citizens of this Welsh village.

The British have a way with these heartfelt tales. Over the last three decades, successful comedic dramas include Enchanted April (1991), Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), Waking Ned Devine (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), and Death at a Funeral (2007). There’s a through-line in each that effectively extracts genuine emotion within a disparate cast of characters united by a common struggle or goal. Dream Horse continues that hallowed tradition. Among 2021 movies that give you hope, it’s a front-runner.

06-08-21