Tag Archives: movie musicals

Block Party

In the Heights

by George Wolf

I know there’s still plenty of bad out there, but it’s summer, people are getting out in the heat, and it feels like maybe we deserve a few minutes to celebrate.

How about 143 minutes? In the Heights makes them all count, with a summer celebration practically bursting with joyful exuberance.

It’s been 13 years since the stage production won 4 Tony Awards – including Best Musical, on top of Best Original Score and Best Actor for Lin-Manuel Miranda. Since then, Miranda conquered the world with Hamilton (maybe you’ve heard it), so now what seems like a follow up is really a return to his roots.

Miranda’s aged out of the starring role, so Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, A Star Is Born) answers the bell with a breakout turn as Usnavi – the Washington Heights, New York storekeeper with a dream.

As the days until a blackout wind down and the temperature ramps up, Usnavi’s block is buzzing with welcome arrivals, planned departures, and romance in the air.

Nina (Leslie Grace) is home from Stanford with major news to break to her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) while she reconnects with Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher at Kevin’s neighborhood car service.

For his part, Usnavi has finally scored a date with his crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but it might be too late – she has her sights set on leaving the block behind with a new apartment uptown.

So while the gossip is raging at the hair salon, and the piraqua guy (Miranda) tries to compete with Mister Softee (Hamilton‘s Chris Jackson, who played Benny in the stage version) as the king of cool treats, fate intervenes. Usnavi discovers his bodega has sold a winning lottery ticket – a stroke of luck worth 96 G’s – and then the lights go out.

Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) proves a worthy choice to move the project from stage to screen with magic intact. The most accomplished of directors (see Attenborough and Eastwood) have fallen hard trying to make musical numbers pop on film, but Chu gives Christopher Scott’s choreography the space to be graceful and the intimacy to be gritty.

Miranda’s music meshes irresistibly with the sounds of the street, and from swimming pools to rooftops, more than a few of Chu’s grandly-staged set pieces nearly soar off the screen. And it won’t be just fans of this show who will be giddy, as the Wicked faithful will find plenty of reason to be excited Chu is already in pre-production on that long-awaited film adaptation.

Source writer Quiara Alegría Hudes pens the screenplay here as well, with a heartfelt, character-driven ode to cultural strength and sacrifice. Bookended by Usnavi telling the story of his block to a cute group of youngsters, the tale of Washington Heights is layered with respect for immigrant families just fighting for a place to belong.

And while they may be fighting against gentrification and bigotry, the film’s heart remains unquestionably hopeful, so downright wholesome that even the lack of sweat-stained bodies in the 100-degree heat feels like part of the movie magic.

In the Heights has been saving that magic for the big screen experience, and now that it’s here it is indeed worthy of celebrating – in a theater, with a crowd.

Are we really “back to normal?” Can the American dream still be alive?

For 143 minutes, it sure feels like it.

Like the Beat from a Tambourine

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

by Hope Madden

You may be asking yourself, is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again just 90 minutes of second-rate, b-side Abba songs? All those weird songs that no sensible story about unplanned pregnancy could call for? Songs like Waterloo?

Nope. It is nearly two full hours of it.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) wants to open her mother’s crumbling Greek hotel as an upscale island resort. She’s so terribly angsty about it! Will anyone come to the grand opening? Will her mom be proud of her? Can she handle the pressure if her husband’s traveling and two of her three dads can’t make it?

Transition to a simpler time, a time when her mom Donna was young (played by Lily James), bohemian and striking out on her own. She has chutzpah. She has friends who love her. She has great hair.

The majority of the sequel to Phillida Lloyd’s 2008 smash looks back on the romantic voyage that created the three dad business of the first film.

James is a fresh and interesting a young version of the character Meryl Streep brought to life in the original. Likewise, Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies make wonderful younger selves for Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).

The three dads have young counterparts as well, though only Harry (Colin Firth/Hugh Skinner) lands a memorable characterization. Firth is reliably adorable while Skinner’s socially awkward young man is as embarrassing and earnest as we might have imagined.

Also, Cher.

Expect an awful lot of needless angst and long stretches without humor. Whether present-time or flashback, the film desperately misses the funny friends. Desperately. But when they are onscreen, Here We Go Again cannot help but charm and entertain.

The story is weaker, although there is a reason for that. While the original gift-wrapped an origin story to plumb, the plumbing is slow going when you still have to abide by the Abba songtacular gimmick.

The sequel’s musical numbers rely too heavily on slow tunes and stretch too far to make the odder Abba songs work, but in a way, that is, in fact, the movie’s magic.

Your best bet is to abandon yourself to the sheer ridiculousness of it. There is literally no other way to enjoy it.





Smells Fishy

The Lure

by Hope Madden

Who’s up for Polish vampire mermaids?

You do not have to ask me twice!

Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.

The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as bizarre a combination as you might thing.

The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.

The biggest differences between Bolesto’s story and Andersen’s: 80s synth pop, striptease and teeth. At its heart, The Lure is a story about Poland – its self-determination and identity in the Eighties. That’s where Andersen’s work is so poignantly fitting.

Not that you’ll spend too much time in the history books. The context serves the purpose of grounding the wildly imaginative mix of seediness, hope and danger on display.

The film opens with a trio of musicians enjoying themselves on a Warsaw waterfront before hearing a siren song. Cut to screaming, and then to a deeply bizarre nightclub where a kind of Eastern European burlesque show welcomes its two newest performers – mermaids.

From there we explore a changing Warsaw from the perspective of a very fringe family. Mystical creatures play nice – and sometimes not-so-nice – among the city’s thrill seekers and the finned sisters need to decide whether they want to belong or whether they are who they are.

But that’s really too tidy a description for a film that wriggles in disorienting directions every few minutes. There are slyly feminist observations made about objectification, but that’s never the point. Expect other lurid side turns, fetishistic explorations, dissonant musical numbers and a host of other vaguely defined sea creatures to color the fable.

In fact, Olszanska’s film is strongest when it veers away from its fairy tale roots and indulges in its own weirdness.

Whatever its faults, The Lure will hook you immediately and change the way you think of mermaids.

Verdict-4-0-Stars