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Encanto (2021)

2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.

Nate’s Grade: B+

In the Heights (2021)

Weeks ago, I listened to the original Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway recording for In the Heights, the first major musical by multi-hyphenate artistic virtuoso, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I had never heard the music before and I found that, over the course of a couple hours, little of it stuck with me. There were a handful of tracks where I thought it was nice but nothing grabbed me the way that Hamilton’s soundtrack did from the very start. Because of that musical dip, my expectations lowered slightly for the long-anticipated movie musical of In the Heights. Well, dear reader, let me say what a monumental world of difference seeing the songs in their proper context, with character relationships, and the able performances of the actors can do for making the music come alive. In the Heights is an exuberantly joyous experience, one brimming with energy and good vibes and a warm-hearted welcome that serves as the best argument movie theaters can have to come back and experience the pleasures of the big screen with your friends and family.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a twenty-something bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and dreaming about returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him stock the shelves and keep the family business going. We follow the many faces of the neighborhood, like Abuela (Olga Merediz), who has helped raise everyone as a sweetly matronly figure, Nina (Leslie Grace), returning home from her first year at Stanford as the “girl who made something of herself,” Benny (Corey Hawkins) who was in a relationship with Nina and is looking to work his way up as a cab dispatcher, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is moving her popular salon into another neighborhood, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of relocating into Manhattan’s fashion district. Usnavi has been nursing a crush over Vanessa for ages, but will he finally make a move before leaving the country for good to return to the Caribbean?

This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. In the Heights succeeds through how relatable and specific it comes across, lovingly showcasing the diverse population of Washington Heights and the community that feels at home here. It’s built upon the celebration of its specific, Latin-American heritage and culture but the movie is also constructed to be so accessible and welcoming to others to learn and join in. The themes and conflicts of these people have specific touchstones to their community, like the threat of deportation and the encroachment of gentrification taking away their neighborhood, but the inner conflicts like feeling the pressure to succeed and questioning whether your dreams are practical are worries that anyone regardless of ethnic background can relate to. In the Heights finds that sweet spot where it’s reverential to its own cultural background and open for anyone.

Naturally, in a musical, much of the appeal will live or die depending upon the quality of the music and the vitality of the performances. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, and if you have ears I assume you would be, it’s fun to listen to the early seeds that would become the signature sound for Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are similar salsa/merengue melodies and hip-hop-infused syncopations that will be familiar to the legions of Hamilton fans, including some rhymes (“Eyes on the horizon” among others). In many ways it’s like watching a junior thesis project of a genius. The opening number does a fantastic job of table setting as well as bringing the audience into this world and getting us excited for more. Usnavi, and Ramos especially, takes full control of our attention and command of the world with fast-paced delivery and extra charisma. There are more bouncy, humorous tunes like “No Me Diga” set in a salon replete with literal bobbing weaves, more traditional Broadway ballads like “Breathe” about a character expressing her doubts and guilt, and the Cole Porter-esque smooth jazz of our young lovers dancing and declaring their affection for one another like “When the Sun Goes Down.”

But the best moments are the ones that open up the big space and bring the whole community of Washington Heights into the mix. The electricity of the opening number is rekindled in “96,000” where a trip to the local pool turns into a jumping jamboree where everyone dreams about what they would do with a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega. It allows each character an opportunity to share their dream and what is important to them, providing each person a platform to be more defined. It also taps into that bubbling optimism that permeates the entire movie. The grand finale also has the same effect as characters sing their hearts out about lessons learned and wisdom gained and, thanks to the medium of film, it provides a happy ever after resolution that was unavailable on stage. Miranda is excellent at weaving musical themes to come back into multi-harmonic convergences and crescendos, and it all comes to a rousing and uplifting conclusion.

Another concern about big screen musicals is whether they can translate to the visual landscape of cinema, whether they can escape the trappings of the stage, and In the Heights is exactly how musicals should be filmed. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) got his filmmaking start with the Step Up dance franchise and knows, whatever the film, how to keep things moving swiftly and full of vivacious energy. Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, In the Heights doesn’t feel like it has any noticeable down time. The filmmaking choices adapt with the needs and intents of the songs, so when we have a fast-paced multi-part song and dance, the editing adopts this speed, and when we have large ensembles the cinematography widens to take in the expansive group choreography. When things need to slow down and become more intimate, Chu’s camera adopts to this and relies on longer tracking shots and close to medium shots. The pool choreography in “96,000” is splashy fun and lively and very colorful, and the quick visual cues and edits of “In the Heights” incorporates the neighborhood into the music to make New York City feel like a living participant. Chu’s direction takes full advantage of what film can offer but still makes the viewer feel the same intimacy and vibrancy of live theater.

There are two standout movie moments. The first is the song “Paciencia Y Fe” that does so much symbolic heavy lifting about the immigrant experience, discrimination, and the long struggle for personal dignity, that it made me tear up by the end for a character that, only moments before the empathetic expose, was a nominally nice old lady. The other is “When the Sun Goes Down” between Benny and Nina, which begins with them gazing out a fire escape and takes a magical turn into dancing along the walls of their building like Spider-Man. That transitional moment, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, is the only real magical realism in the show, so Chu has been saving it up for his big moment. The dance is beautiful to behold, and the perspective has an Inception-style spin that alters their balance and perspective of what is up. It’s a beautiful movie moment, captured in long takes, and reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s fanciful fantasias.

Ramos (A Star is Born) played John Laurens in the initial stage show of Hamilton, and its filmed production on Disney Plus, and now he gets his own starring vehicle. He is tremendous as Usnavi, convincingly laid back and charming while also being amusingly anxious around his crush. The awkward romantic fumbles are adorable. Ramos’ singing and skill with the flow of rap lyrics is impressive, but he’s also providing a performance first and worrying about the singing second, not that he should be worried on that front. Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) surprised me with the range of his singing, and he’s such a pleasant presence to have along. Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is hilarious at times, like when he’s adopting a macho voice to ask Vanessa adult questions, but he can also break your heart like when he reveals his own legal vulnerability. His poolside solo is also a delightful interjection about what his own rap skills comprise. Merediz (Godmothered) is the only holdover from the original stage show and she is so captivating in her signature number that it’s easy to understand why she was nominated for a Tony Award. There are so many amusing and enjoyable supporting characters populated by familiar faces, like the women of the salon (Rent’s Ruben-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) providing comic relief and a playful attitude, Jimmy Smits as the noble father giving of himself for his daughter’s future, and Miranda and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as dueling sweet treat vendors vying for summer supremacy. You’ll enjoy your time in Washington Heights thanks to these fine folks.

It’s unfair to directly compare In the Heights to Hamilton, like looking at an artist’s portfolio and complaining it isn’t quite up to the standards of Da Vinci, but one area where In the Heights does come up short is the depth of its characterization. The film exudes good vibes as it skips over topical and important political issues with an optimism that might, arguably, borderline on naivete. This feels almost like the opposite-minded compliment to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York City block one very hot day. The characters are kept at a genial level of interest that makes them enough to feel for and root for, but they’re not exactly deep portrayals with complex conflicts. All the characters have a singularly defined personal conflict that can be resolved by the end, and the lessons about learning to listen to others, appreciate family and self, and find home where you feel it are not exactly revolutionary or complex. Again, this stuff works, and I understand why the story needs characters that have lesser complexity and definition to fulfill the different levels of life. It’s just when compared to the depth of the real people of Hamilton where you realize that maybe the colorful characters of Washington Heights are held to a lesser standard and simply not as multi-dimensional.

In the Heights is a joyous experience that I think I’ll enjoy more upon re-watching and listening to the soundtrack over the summer months. I can completely understand why people fell in love with this musical upon its initial release and touring, and I can also acknowledge that it’s clearly an earlier artistic steppingstone to greater later achievements for Miranda. That’s not to take anything away from the pleasures of this particular story, these particular characters, and especially these particular songs. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Miranda. In the Heights is a great way to kick off a return to a summer season at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)

Everything might not be awesome but it’s still pretty great for this creative, heartfelt, and hyperactive family franchise that is better than it has any right to be thanks in part to returning writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It’s not quite as fresh and clever as the first go-round but it manages to better its predecessor in some key ways. Now that we know the colorful and zany antics of the animated Lego characters are also simultaneously the imaginative play of a real-world family, it provides a deeper thematic subtext with the unseen nature of siblings in conflict. I remember my own younger sister wanting to play with me and my toys, and me rebuffing her, and the film struck home some key emotional points about the inclusion of cooperative play. The different styles of play are on display as our characters are abducted by a shape-shifting space queen (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) who is determined to marry Batman and possibly rule the universe. A fantastic running joke is how transparently malevolent the queen is, which leads to an even better payoff. There are more songs and each is pretty well constructed, relevant to the story, and assuredly catchy, like “Catchy Song” used to brainwash people through pop, and a mournful version of “Everything’s Not Awesome” that becomes genuinely inspirational and uplifting by its climax. The life lessons are easily digestible and the sense of breezy fun is still alive and well. I was laughing throughout, sometimes quite hard, and the brother/sister subtext had me wondering if I owed my younger sister a decades-late apology for my behavior (sorry, Natalie). Lego Movie 2 is a worthy sequel that finds new and interesting ways to build off the irreverent original’s model. Bring on the Toy Story 3-style ending where our grown-up owner says goodbye to his childhood toys and friends. At this point, Lord and Miller can do anything and imbue it with wild wit, whimsy, and unparalleled mass entertainment (except Star Wars, I suppose).

Nate’s Grade: B+

Short Term 12 (2013)

short-term-twelveIt’s rare for a movie to be emotionally devastating while also being overwhelmingly inspirational and hopeful, but Short Term 12 achieves the nigh impossible.

Short Term 12 follows the inhabitants of a small foster care center in Middle America. Many of the kids have been taken from their biological parents because of abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or death. Many have never known a stable home life. And many will age out of the system at 18 and be trusted to make something on the outside by their lonesome. Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead counselor for the center. She’s dating a co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) and pregnant, unsure of where to go from here. As the center prepares for Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) age-out departure, they welcome Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to their abode. Jayden’s well-connected father is getting his life in order for full custody, but it also becomes clear that her home life is a danger to her well-being. Grace fights to get Jayden to open up, then she fights to keep her safe, all the while forcing Grace to deal with her own long hidden pain.

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith StanfieldIt’s so easy to get engaged in this movie. The very setting calls for plenty of drama and pain to be explored, and it will be, but that doesn’t mean that the film goes overboard with histrionics. The characters are written with such naturalistic ease, allowing an audience to understand them without judgment. These people, be they the foster kids or the counselors, feel refreshingly, exceedingly, magnificently like flesh-and-blood people. The characters feel lived in, their struggles feel real, and their responses are sincere. The foster care system in this country is grueling. A counselor needs a big heart, thick skin, and an immeasurable supply of patience. There are a lot of abused kids in the system, just hoping to find an adult who wishes to love them, to nurture them, to care. The kids don’t want pity; they are perturbed when they’re referred to as “underprivileged youth.” What they really want is respect and sincerity. Highly charged emotions are a given considering the circumstances of the characters, but what makes Short Term 12 exceptional is that they are fully earned. We don’t just feel for these kids because they’ve suffered, we feel for them because they are presented as characters instead of martyrs. I was emotionally moved throughout, tearing up several times, feeling heartbroken at turns and then brimming with buoyant hope at others. It’s a balancing act the movie masters.

Writer/director Destin Cretin (actually remaking his 2008 short film of the same name) explores these characters in gentle waves, allowing the characters to open up in ways that don’t feel forced. You learn about these characters and their history bit by bit, sometimes through creative expression where one must read between the lines. Marcus might seem to be one character, then his rap song he writes reveals an aching degree of personal pain, and then the revelation for why he wants to shave his head, which at first just seems like an average teenage compulsion, will break your heart all over again. You yearn for these kids beyond measure, wanting them to taste delayed happiness in this world, but you also understand why they’re so guarded, why the system grinds together as it does. This is no polemic overburdened with speechifying and soapboxes. It doesn’t really make any larger points about foster reform or the people who run the system. Instead Cretin gives every participant in the film complexity, empathy, and humanity. Even Grace’s supervisor, easily set up for quick blame about decision-making, is allowed empathy. You feel the man’s plight as he tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is exactly what the counselors are trying to do themselves with their charges. Cretin’s emphasis is on his characters and not necessarily on making overt political attacks. I knew within minutes that I was in for something special. You can feel it with the dialogue, how easily Cretin is shaping character without splurging on exposition. These people come alive under Cretin’s watch, and you’ll be pulled in within mere moments.

This is also fundamentally a star-making performance for Larson. The young actress has had visible roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and TV’s The United States of Tara, but nothing prepared me for the power of her performance. Larson’s character has plenty of personal pain and secrets and a gnawing sense of futility, but she pushes forward, trying to make a difference somehow in this world. You feel her intensity and determination but you also feel her setbacks and uncertainty. Larson never strays outside the emotional bounds of her character, staying true to her aims. Grace is no saintly and selfless figure. She’s paying a real price keeping her own pain bottled up, focusing completely on others so that she doesn’t have to assess her own damage, but Jayden forces her to examine her own history. Larson serves as the dependable emotional anchor of some very choppy waters. In a just world, Larson’s name would be bandied about come awards season, but the overall small, understated nature of Short Term 12 and its limited release leaves me in doubt. However, there is no doubt that Larson gives a deeply humane, gripping, heartfelt and marvelous performance.

www.indiewire.comThe character relationships are just as compelling and provide a rich texture to this world. The dynamics within the foster center are interesting, nothing as simplistic as slotting kids into staid high school types. There are divisions within the home, chiefly between Marcus and an antagonistic Luis, but it’s also invigorating when you witness the various kids come together in solidarity and community, when they look out for one another. Jayden is surly at first but won’t let on how truly hurt she is that her father missed her birthday. Marcus leads the other kids and they all make a slew of birthday cards to cheer her up, make her feel that someone out there cares. It’s a small gesture, and yet when it plays out it hits with a wallop. The relationship between Grace and Mason is sweet and frustrating, representing a romantic coupling of two people with an obvious connection but also enough baggage to derail potential long-term success. Gallagher Jr. is a nice fit for the part. I really enjoyed how Mason is developed as the film progresses. Initially he seems like a pseudo-cool authority figure, then a scruffy screw-up, then a sincere and grateful individual worried about Grace and aggravated by his inability to help her.

There are movies that feel true in a broad sense but clumsy with the fine details, and vice versa, but Short Term 12 is that rare movie that feels so authentic that it could have been a documentary. Sure there is convenient plot developments and a tidiness that life just doesn’t want to provide, but the overall impression is remarkably genuine. The characters feel like actual people, their world feels recognizable, and their struggles feel familiar and relatable and raw. Short Term 12 doesn’t glorify the counselors, nor does it demonize or sanctify the kids under their care. Here is an unblinking look at the sheer weight of the work of trying to provide for those in need. The movie is a potent drama with several heartbreaking incidents, but I don’t want to scare people off with the impression that Short Term 12 is all artsy doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film is resolutely hopeful in the face of such dire adversity. The perseverance of the counselors, as well as the kids striving for independent lives, is what I walk away with. Not the abuse, not the systematic neglect, but the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit to transcend damage and to succeed anew. This is the long-lasting impact of this superb movie. It’s not about the pain inflicted, rather the human connections forged and the optimism of recovery. Not everything will get its happy ending, but it is inspiring to watch people put it all on the line, thanklessly. Short Term 12 is the kind of movie you bug your friends until they finally watch it. Ladies and gents, commence bugging.

Nate’s Grade: A

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