Archive for 2021

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

Space Jam: A New Legacy

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Sports with tags on July 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Space Jam starred Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. Now 25 years later, Space Jam: A New Legacy stars Bugs Bunny and LeBron James. LeBron was 11 years old back in 1996 when the original came out. He was the perfect age for that movie…and this one.

While the first film was pretty zany, it’s downright calm and composed compared to this sequel. The villain here is Don Cheadle as Al-G Rhythm — a play on the word “algorithm.” The pun is appropriate because he’s the artificial intelligence inside the Warner Brothers computer server. Al-G is angry that LeBron James doesn’t respond well to his movie deal idea. In retaliation, Al-G kidnaps LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into his virtual reality. Then he has them each play on opposite sides of a computer simulation of a basketball game that includes the Looney Tunes on one side and the Goon Squad on the other. Confused? Welcome to the club.

The high point occurs about 30 minutes in when LeBron is sent to Tune World to round up a team. There he becomes a 2D cartoon version of himself. He meets Bugs Bunny and he’s flattered to find out the rabbit knows who he is. That’s amusing. So are their introductory moments that recall Bugs’ famous shorts. Ultimately they travel to different worlds based on Warner Bros properties to assemble a team of Looney Tunes (Lola Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Wile E Coyote, Road Runner, Speedy Gonzales, Daffy Duck, Taz, Elmer Fudd, Granny, Marvin the Martian, Tweety Bird, Gossamer, Sylvester, and Foghorn Leghorn). Yeah, there’s a lot of characters. Ah but we’re just getting started.

The 2D animation is indeed charming, but the feeling is short-lived. Just before the tournament begins, Al-G declares it’s time for an upgrade and turns everyone into 3D CGI versions of themselves. LeBron goes back to being himself. Then their opponents — the aforementioned Goon Squad — are introduced. They’re genetic mutations of players from the NBA and WNBA with special superpowers. There’s the Brow (Anthony Davis), Chronos (Damian Lillard), Wet-Fire (Klay Thompson), Arachnneka (Nneka Ogwumike), and White Mamba (Diana Taurasi). The spectacle grows even more incoherent.

The story is rather simple when you distill it down to its bare essence. The byzantine machinations are merely an excuse to have a big showdown on the basketball court. The thing is, this isn’t basketball. It’s a computerized imitation of the sport, so none of the rules apply. There is a court and occasionally someone dribbles an inflated rubber object, but that is where the similarities end. The battle is so chaotic and bizarre with the flying and the CGI and video game manipulations my eyes didn’t know where to look.

Also vying for your attention are the spectators watching the competition. Director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Night School) is working from a screenplay credited to a whopping SIX writers. I’d be willing to wager there were even more given the complete disarray of ideas. They’ve decided to highlight a huge crowd made up of characters from the movies of Warner Brothers past. You’ll see Batman, The Mask, the Wicked Witch of the West & a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz, Pennywise the clown from It, and hundreds of other properties that they own — but without context or emotion. It feels like a piece of corporate product designed to advertise their vast array of entertainment choices. Additionally, you’re constantly seeing these people in the background, so the bystanders take focus away from the central event. Even the violent gang from A Clockwork Orange in their bowler hats is enjoying the match. I’m so glad they were, because I wasn’t.

Last week, The Onion — the satirical online website — published an article: “6-Year-Old Debating Whether To See ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy Following Negative ‘New York Times’ Review.” Hilarious and I get it. This movie certainly wasn’t made for me. If you have kids under 12 they might enjoy all the silliness. It is colorful.

07-16-21

The Tomorrow War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix is far and away the dominant presence on the Nielsen streaming ratings. It has the most-watched programs. However, Amazon Prime Video is still a player. Recent titles include Coming to 2 America in March and Without Remorse in April but The Tomorrow War topped them all in popularity. It was digitally released on July 2 and (according to Samba TV) was seen by 2.4 million U.S. households over the 4 day holiday weekend. Just a week later, the filmmakers confirmed the sci-fi actioner would get a sequel. Yes, it’s now a thing.

Problems begin when Earth is visited in the present day by soldiers from the future year 2051. They inform the populace that the planet is under attack from alien invaders and they need recruits to help in that crusade. Chris Pratt plays an ex-Green Beret named Dan Forester who now teaches high-school chemistry. He is drafted into service without any say in the matter. Most married people with families would be unhappy by that turn of events, but he genuinely seems optimistic about this new direction in his life. His fellow trainees (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are less enthused.

So let’s start on a positive note. I like Chris Pratt and he helps the adventure coast along on the goodwill of his considerable charisma. Ok now on to the “What the hell?!” part.

You have to suspend natural disbelief in this whole operation. We learn there is a less than 30% survival rate. Even when Dan and the other draftees are sent forward in time to do battle, they are accidentally dropped high above the city. Scarcely any survive the first few seconds. C’mon! They haven’t even met the creatures yet. There are glimpses of the citizens back on Earth upset with the whole process of the draft. Dan’s wife (Betty Gilpin) and his estranged father (J. K. Simmons) are among those unhappy about it, but I think most of the world would escape into hiding before allowing themselves to be sent on this ridiculous suicide mission.

Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and screenwriter Zach Dean (Deadfall) give the public what they came for: action and aliens. Dan meets a Colonel named Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) there. We find out immediately that she’s his adult daughter. The two of them work together to fight the intruders. The story is generic and the combat scenes are chaotic. The horrific beasts– called White Spikes — are interesting though. They suggest aquatic critters with huge tentacles, but travel on land akin to a swarm of insects. However, other than Chris Pratt there’s not much to separate this from a silly B movie on the Syfy channel. The Tomorrow War is fabricated from the DNA of Terminator, Total Recall, and Independence Day. The audience-pleasing formula accounts for its clear success on TV. I found it to be a passable diversion.

07-07-21

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

F9: The Fast Saga

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on July 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’ve seen every single one of these films, but full disclosure: it’s been more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I’ve awarded three out of five stars to most of the entries. They’re solid — if not silly entertainment. Furious 7 surprised me as a high point for the franchise. Since then, the movies have been running on fumes. That’s not to say they aren’t potent fumes. The sequels continue to reunite the personalities you love, provide lots of death-defying action and offer a healthy dose of laughs as the stunts push believability to its limit.

Let’s face it. The Fast & Furious succession is a soap opera that now includes long-lost siblings and the return of people long thought dead. At the outset, the screenplay reveals that Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a brother named Jakob (John Cena). A flashback shows that their father — racecar driver Jack (J. D. Pardo) — died during a race in a fiery blaze. Dom believes his brother was responsible. Now Jakob has returned as a mercenary to steal the Aries Device. This will allow him to hack into any computer system in the world and attain global power. Additionally, the sphere is split in half making it a little harder to assemble and utilize. Dom and his team want to stop Jakob and his associate Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).

Intelligence is not your friend. The more you apply logic to this saga, the less you will enjoy it. Case in point, we’re nine chapters in and we’re only just learning NOW that Dom has a brother? F9 is bursting with characters and details. The production is constantly evolving — bending and twisting the narrative to retroactively justify continuity. The convoluted developments collapse if given even a modicum of scrutiny. Only a TV melodrama like Dallas or Dynasty in its prime would dare to advance such complicated machinations. There are a lot of flashbacks in this movie. Both Dom and Jakob get two versions of their younger selves. I find the contortions to be a hilarious hoot. However, it could cause a headache if you strive to make sense of it. My advice, don’t even try.

It’s an oft-repeated phrase here. Fast & Furious is all about family. As such, the ever-growing cast is positively Shakespearean in its size. Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, and Charlize Theron all return in bit parts. Even people thought to be dead are brought back to life. Buddies played by Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges amusingly bicker like an old married couple. Meanwhile, actors Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez strain credibility in portraying husband and wife. They ironically lack any romantic chemistry. Charlize Theron makes the most of her scattered appearances. As Cipher, the actress knows how to wink and preen as a confident villain. Her criminal mastermind is a riff on her evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman but with the haircut of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. She’s enjoyable. Furthermore, the action is nonstop and the plot coasts along on good-natured humor, so it never really gives you a chance to think. The joy lies in its awareness of how ridiculous it is. The series has embraced camp.

06-29-21

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

Luca

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on June 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pixar has its humble beginnings as part of the Lucasfilm computer division way back in 1979 before spinning off into a separate entity in 1986. Flash forward to 2006: Disney buys Pixar for $7.4 billion. I’ll admit the distinction between the two studios is a bit murky. Yet there’s still a technical difference when a cartoon feature comes from Walt Disney Studios and when branded as Pixar Animation. I think the mantle for the premier American animation studio shifted 17 years ago in 2004 when Pixar unveiled one of the greatest superhero movies ever made in The Incredibles. That same year Disney released something so forgettable that I suspect few even remember it: Home on the Range. Luca is a further reminder that Pixar is the studio that consistently creates films that touch the heart.

The setting is the beautiful city of Portorosso, a fictional town somewhere along the Italian Riviera. It takes place in the 1950s and the soundtrack incorporates Italian pop music from that era. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a teenage sea creature. His species refer to people as land monsters. Conversely, humans have a similarly negative view of them. His life changes when he meets another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). Alberto opens Luca’s eyes to their ability to transform into humans when completely dry. This is a chronicle about their adventures.

Luca is literally a fish out of water comedy. It concerns the titular hero passing for a human on land. The celebration of new experiences exalts opera music, books, telescopes, umbrellas, gelato, pasta…and most importantly Vespas. The plot revolves around competing in the Portorosso Cup (a race that involves swimming, pasta eating, and cycling). The boys hope to win the competition and use the prize money to buy one. In fact, the Italian motor scooter represents such a singular aspiration here, I started to want one. It’s like watching E.T. and craving Reese’s Pieces.

The expressive voice work is worth noting. It’s a bit all over the place though. Main characters Luca, Alberto, and Giulia (Emma Berman) – the girl that befriends them – have American accents. This often irritates me when a movie is set outside the U.S. However, the tonal quality of their voices is so inviting, it grew on me. Meanwhile most of the villagers speak with broad Italian inflections. Their intonations are so highly exaggerated, I didn’t think such stereotypes were still allowed in 2021. This includes the resident bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) and Mrs. Marsigliese (Marina Massironi) – the woman who runs the Portorosso Cup race.

Luca is the directorial feature debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa. He was born in Genoa, Italy, and draws from his childhood in creating this affectionate tale filled with authentic flair. Pixar always does an excellent job at designing landscapes. The underwater spectacle has a graceful flow and the portrait of this coastal center in Italy is exceptional as well. The tableau captures the notable allure of this quaint port city.

Oh what a charming memoir! Water is a key element. The amphibian species are human when dry but shapeshift into sea monsters when they come in contact with H2O. There is a lot of humor extracted from Luca and Alberto trying to hide their true selves from the townsfolk. I laughed at every single moment they got wet and it became an issue. Little bits like Luca using snail slime as hair gel, the image of Grandma Paguro (Sandy Martin) sleeping with her eyes open, or sea-themed swears “Holy carp!” and “Oh sharks!” only add to the charm. Of course, there is a conventional moral about accepting people that are different from yourself. Yes, we’ve seen that before but the presentation of that lesson is so stylish and unique, I embraced the idea as if I was hearing the message for the first time.

06-18-21

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