Wednesday, June 9, 2021


In theaters this Friday:

In the Heights--The Lin-Manuel Miranda musical before Hamilton was this interweaving of the lives and dreams of residents of the heavily Latino upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, over a few summer days including a citywide blackout. It opened on Broadway in 2008, with the ridiculously talented lyricist and composer Miranda in the lead.

For this film version, directed by Jon M. Chu, an older Miranda has wisely given himself the relatively minor supporting role of the "Piraguero" and turned the leading man duties over to Anthony Ramos, who played Laurens in Hamilton on Broadway. Ramos plays Usnavi, who runs a bodega but dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic to open a beachside cantina. The characters around him also dream of business or artistic or academic success, and of course circumstances and relationships interfere with these.

The storylines, in themselves, are fairly conventional, and Washington Heights is presented, rosily or not, as such a paradisal place to live in this movie that it's hard to see why a person would dream of "getting out." But the numbers through which these stories unfold are thrilling in the way that only a beautifully written, well-performed, well-directed, well-edited musical can be; that is to say, about as thrilling as anything in the performing arts (with the possible exception of really well-done Shakespeare) can be.

Ramos is a delightful master of ceremonies, and he handles Miranda's peerless, slippery run-on rhymes superbly. The standout in the cast, however, is Olga Merediz, from the Broadway production, as the "Abuela," a matriarchal figure in the neighborhood. Her big number "Paciencia y Fe," about coming to the U.S. from Cuba as a kid with her mother, is a knockout; emotionally direct and potent without a trace of Broadway-style pushing or straining.  

I've heard a lot of bitching over the past year or so about how contemporary movies are either too fluffy or too horribly depressing. If you're of this mindset, In the Heights may be for you; it's in touch with the conflicts and hardships of the world, but the tone, beginning to end, is joyous.

Streaming on TubiTV:

We All Think We're Special--Charlie (Jared Blankens) is a raging alcoholic; after a particularly wild binge, his more mild-mannered drinking buddy Ed (William McGovern) suddenly decides to forcibly detox him in Charlie's rambling house (which he's about to lose, as his late mother willed it to AA!). Charlie resists but Ed is implacable, and as the hours and days go by and Charlie gets sicker and more distraught, he shrieks out a lot of invective.

At the beginning we're told that this is based on a true story, that it offers us "neither medical advice nor wisdom," and that we shouldn't "attempt substance withdrawal unless under the care of trained medical personnel." Uh, yeah. The two actors are strong, especially Blankens, and even manage to inject a little wit and warmth into the proceedings, and the direction is moody; there's no denying the movie has some power. Overall, though, it isn't much fun. But it did convince me not to ever try a DIY detox on one of my friends.

Streaming on YouTube:

Hamlet/Horatio--Director Paul Warner and screenwriter David Vando had the intriguing idea to build an adaptation of Shakespeare's masterpiece based on the intimacy between the Dane and his school friend and confidant Horatio. At times Horatio seems almost like an imaginary friend or longed-for absent lover here; the "To be or not be" speech, for instance, is a duet between the two men.

Horatio is, unquestionably, a fascinating, ambiguous character. But this stripped-down version, played in a mix of modern dress and Ren Faire costumes with a "meta" device--a baleful, chalky-skinned cameraman observing the action, played by writer Vando, who also plays the Gravedigger--suffers from uneven acting and a somber, glacial pace.

More painfully, most of Shakespeare's language has been translated into very prosaic, CliffNotes-style modern English that lands with a thud (in 1965 Rouben Mamoulian published a modern-English version of Hamlet as well, and it too has somehow failed to replace the original). Trying to improve the text of Hamlet is, I'm afraid, more madness than method.

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