Movie Review: In The Heights (2021)

Title: In The Heights
Release Date: June 10, 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Production Company: 5000 Broadway Productions | Barrio Grrrl! Productions | Likely Story | SGS Pictures | Endeavor Content

In the Heights adapts a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and Moana fame) with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on her book for the musical).  The film tells the story of several people and their dreams in the Latin American enclave of Washington Heights in New York City, mainly of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds. Like most musicals, the narrative is slight but the song and dance numbers are spectacular.  The movie also features a surprising number of special effects that add to the wow factor. Put together this movie packs an emotional punch.

The main characters include:

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who doubles as the movie’s narrator, a young adult who runs a bodega and dreams to returning to the Dominican Republic where he had his happiest days as a child.

Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), who works as a hair stlyist but dreams of moving downtown and pursuing a career in fashion designer. She is also Usnavi’s crush who gradually realizes that that feelings are mutual.

Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who returns after her first year at Stanford University and feels conflicted about bearing the expectations of the community for her success while missing the community while at school and concerned that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is sacrificing too much to pay tuition.

Benny (Corey Hawkins), an ambitious young man who works as a dispatcher for Kevin’s car and limousine business. He is also a love interest for Nina.

Sonny de la Vega (Gregory Diaz IV), is Usnavi’s cousin who works in the bodega.  Usnavi wants Sonny to come with him to the Dominican Republic, but Sonny only ever remembers living in New York and wants to follow Nina’s example and go to college.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), an elderly Cuban woman who is Usnavi’s foster mother and a highly-regarded member of the community (and an amazing singer!).

The story is primarily set over the three hottest days of the summer (channeling the more cheerful parts of Do the Right Thing) leading up to a blackout.  The characters deal with the everyday struggles of love and money, while touching on bigger issues like gentrification (that’s forcing the beauty salon to move to the Bronx) and the rights of undocumented immigrants (particularly DACA). It’s an excellent movie, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  In fact it was my first cinematic experience since before the pandemic!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Title: Mary Poppins Returns
Release Date:
Director: Rob MarshDecember 19, 2018all
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Lucamar Productions |Marc Platt Production

It’s the Great Depression in London, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower with three children, is at risk of having his house repossessed by the very same bank that employed his father. His children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), have matured quickly and almost have to parent their grieving father. Even their Aunt Jane (a winsome Emily Mortimer), a labor organizer who has retained the joie de vivre of her childhood, is distraught by the potential loss of the family house.

Into this milieu steps Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt capably stepping into Julie Andrews’ shoes), who arrives to set things right by giving the children the chance to be children, help Michael recover his childlike sense of wonder, and oddly, pairing off the confident single woman Jane with a man. At least in this old-fashioned notion of forced pair bonding, Jane is matched up with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a charming lamplighter who fills the role of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert.

I’m struck by how much this sequel follows the same structure as its predecessor. Mary takes the kids on a couple of fantastical adventures – an undersea journey through the bathtub and into a ceramic bowl. They visit a relative who ends up on the ceiling, in this case Meryl Streep as Topsy. They dance with the working class laborers of London, in this case Jack and his fellow lamplighters. There is a final showdown in the bank. And the film ends with a day in the park but instead of flying kites, the characters themselves fly on magical balloons, with Angela Lansbury in a singing cameo as the Balloon Lady.

The song and dance number provide wonderful choreography and spectacle. I particularly enjoy the lamplighters’ number incorporating bicycles. This is a very bike-positive movie over all. And the animation of the ceramic bowl is very well done too. Unfortunately, none of the songs really made an impression. The music isn’t bad, there’s just nothing I remember after the fact that can stand by “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Movies made over 50 years typically do not need sequels, particularly classics like Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins Returns offers little to justify its existence. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, it just lacks the ambition to be great. Nevertheless, it does have enough whimsy and charm to fill a couple of hours should you be so inclined.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)

Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Cinderella (1950)

Title: Cinderella
Release Date: March 4, 1950
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, & Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Well, I’ve gone and done it!  I’ve watched every single Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  I saved one of the most famous for last. Cinderella essentially made the Walt Disney Company as we know it today (or as we’ve known it for most of the past 70 years because the company has changed considerably in just the past decade) inaugurating a new golden age of animated films, ventures into television, and ultimately theme parks.  Cinderella Castle towers over the Magic Kingdom in Florida to remind you of the film’s importance.

Cinderella may also be one of the best known fairy tales outside of the movies, so I figured I knew the basic plot.  What surprised me in the Disney version is that the movie is told largely from the perspective of two mice, Jaq and Gus.  The first 20 minutes of the movie is almost all about the exploits of the household mice with Cinderella as an incidental background character.  It’s both a daring storytelling choice but ultimately a bit off-putting.  I just kind of wanted the Cinderella’s story to get started already.

While I had no idea the movie so prominently featured mice, I was well aware of the Fairy Godmother and her famous song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”.  So I was surprised that the Fairy Godmother literally appears in just one scene and there’s really no explanation for her existence other than to get Cinderella to the ball.

The movie is well animated and the music is solid and the mice are cute, but something about Cinderella just feels off.  I think Sleeping Beauty, a movie considered less successful than Cinderella, did a much better job with mixing story, character, humor, and drama.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)

Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)

Title: The Muppets
Release Date: November 23, 2011
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films

After a 12-year absence, The Muppets return to the silver screen with a nostalgia-laden story seemingly formulated to tug at the heartstrings of Gen-Xers.  Nostalgia, Inc. has ruined many a good thing this way, but fortunately The Muppets strikes the proper balance between dropping in beats for fans to recognize and telling a new and original story. Ok, so it’s not exactly original since it’s the “getting the band back together” trope, but it’s done in the uniquely Muppet style.

The story focuses on two brothers, the puppet Walter (Peter Linz) and the human Gary (Jason Segel) who grow up as big fans of The Muppet Show.  Gary takes a vacation to Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and invites Walter along so he can visit the famous Muppet Studios. During the tour of the now-decrepit studio, Walter learns that an oil baron (Chris Cooper) will be demolishing the Muppet Theatre to drill for oil and the only way to stop him is for the Muppets to raise $10 million before their original “rich and famous” contract expires. Walter finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and together they bring the Muppets back together to perform a telethon.

The movie has the requisite corny gags and lots of recreations of famous Muppets moments in the telethon.  But it also has a certain gravitas of old friends putting aside some bad history to come back together again.  Segel and Adams are fine in their roles as the human characters, but they do seem extraneous.  The one big exception is the musical number “Man or Muppet” performed as a duet between Segal’s Gary and Walter which is a hilarious performance. I hadn’t watched The Muppets before, and I was skeptical that it would be good, but I’m glad I finally caught up.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Aristocats (1970)

Title: The Aristocats
Release Date: December 24, 1970
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

I thought I may have seen The Aristocats as a child, but upon watching it for this review, I think I may have only seen some scenes of the movie.  The story is basically Lady and the Tramp (with cats) crossed with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (with cats). It clearly comes from the era when Disney didn’t know what to do next with their animated films.  Dutchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens are set to be heirs to their owners fortune, leading the butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to try to get rid of them.

Stranded in the countryside, alleycat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) helps them back to Paris while wooing Duchess.  After dancing with Scat Cat’s (Scatman) jazz band, and some further hijinx, the cats are reunited with their owner and extract their revenge on Edgar.  The animation is limited for a Disney production although there is some interesting color and motion in the dance scenes.  Two floppy-eared dogs and a motorcycle play a part in some great comedic scenes.  On the downside there is a horribly racist depiction of a cat with the worst Chinese stereotypes.

Other than that, there is nothing really bad about The Aristocats, but there’s also nothing really good about the movie.  It’s just kind of is.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)

Title: Fantasia
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

When I was a kid, my family never bought prerecorded VHS tapes of movies, and yet we somehow ended up with a copy of Fantasia.  And with no urgency to return it to the rental store, it sat on the shelf unwatched for years. Still, somewhere along the way I saw portions of Fantasia elsewhere, particularly The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This was my first time watching the movie in full.

The movie features the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, performing on a backlit stage so that the various instrumentalists appear as large shadows as they perform.  This blends into the first animated segment Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which builds on the music with abstract imagery.

The remaining segments include:

  • The Nutcracker Suite – a ballet performed by various plants and animals.  Amazingly, master of ceremonies Deems Taylor introduces this piece as “rarely performed.” The Nutcracker being popularized by Disney is even more amazing than “Aquarela do Brasil” being made popular by Saludos Amigos.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the most famous segment stars Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whose attempt to use magic to avoid doing his cleaning work leads to a comic disaster.
  • Rite of Spring – a depiction of the primeval world from the first single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs.
  • The Pastoral Symphony – Unicorns, pegasus, fauns, centaurs, and cherubs frolic about in scenes from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life (albeit with more bare breasts than you’d expect from an animated movie made in 1940).  Bacchus tries to celebrate but Zeus disrupts the proceedings by throwing lightning bolts.
  • Dance of the Hours – perhaps the other most famous sequence, this is a comedic ballet featuring ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and alligators.  And then it gets weird.
  • Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – just a wild party featuring various demons, followed by a peaceful lantern-lit procession.

For what it is, an experimental combination of music, movement, color, and imagination, Fantasia is fantastic.  What it isn’t is a family movie you can watch with your kids, although individual segments may be worth watching alone if you’re introducing your kids to music appreciation.  The movie is on the long side and Deems Taylor’s lengthy introductions don’t help it move along.  Fantasia may have worked better as a shorter feature with fewer segments, or even just short films, that carried on as anthology series as Walt Disney intended.  Nevertheless, it remains a spectacular combination of sight and sound.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Camelot (1982)

Title: Camelot
Release Date: September 26, 1982
Director: Marty Callner
Production Company: Home Box Office (HBO)

The revival of the Broadway musical Camelot played at the Winter Garden Theatre (just before it was infested by Cats) in 1981-1982 and this film for HBO is a taping of a live performance.  When I was a child, this was my introduction to the musical and Arthurian legend in general.  I later saw the 1967 film adaptation of Camelot which was a bit meh, and I attended a touring company performance in the 1990s.  I enjoyed that performance although it starred Robert Goulet as King Arthur which seemed a misuse of his vocal talents.

For me this 1982 version of Camelot remains the gold standard.  It stars Richard Harris as Arthur, and I’ve forever been a fan of Richard Harris since first watching this. I’m glad I was able to find it again on the library resource Hoopla. Harris brings humanity, gravitas, and humor to his role as Arthur.  Camelot reduces it’s source material (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) down to the essential love triangle among Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot.  Meg Bussert and Richard Muenz perform and sing terrifically as Guenevere, and Lancelot.  I’m also delighted by Barrie Ingham’s hilarious performance as Pellinore.

If you like Camelot, or you’ve never seen Camelot, you owe it to yourself to watch this version.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Melody Time (1948)

TitleMelody Time
Release Date: May 27, 1948
Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

This package film from Disney is meant to be the popular and folk music companion to Fantasia.  It contains seven segments and visually they animation has a greater continuity than other package films I’ve watched.  The shifts in music and storytelling styles are jarring though.  Two of the segments are interpretations of American folk tales, while others include a children’s story, experimental film, and an outtake from The Three Caballeros.

“Once Upon a Wintertime” is a romantic postcard of a man and a woman (as well as a pair of rabbits) ice skating, with vocals from the Andrews Sisters.

“Bumble Boogie” features a swing interpretation of “Flight of the Bumblebee” as a bee finds himself trapped in swirling, surrealistic visions of flowers and musical instruments.

“The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” set the tall tales of John Chapman to music and includes the most overt religiosity I’ve ever seen in a Disney film.

“Little Toot” tells the story of a mischievous tugboat in New York Harbor who has to learn to take responsibility.

“Trees” is a visual interpretation of the Joyce Kilmer poem set to music.

“Blame it on the Samba” reunites Donald Duck with José Carioca. They attempt to dance the samba while Aracuan Bird causes mischief.  Organist Ethel Smith appears in live action and Donald does NOT lust over her at all!

“Pecos Bill” is another tall tale about a man raised by coyotes who becomes the best cowboy and falling in love with the cowgirl Slue Foot Sue.  The story is narrated by Roy Rogers and his crew with live action scenes of them gathered around the campfire.

I haven’t watched all the package films yet, but this is the most enjoyable one so far.

Rating: ***