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Splashy Musical, Ohio Portraits & Scares in Cinemas

George Wolf George Wolf Splashy Musical, Ohio Portraits & Scares in Cinemas
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It’s big summer movie season -what? We almost forgot there was such a thing, but this week offers several excellent reasons to venture forth into the theater and share that cinematic experience. Maybe it’s the sheer joy of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s new musical, or the chance to celebrate an authentic Ohio voice making it big, or maybe you just want to watch something else scary. Whatever the case, at least you know the theaters are air-conditioned.

In the Heights

In theaters.

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.

Grade: A-

 

Holler

At Gateway Film Center and Drexel Theatre.

by Hope Madden

It is incredibly rare to see a worthwhile film that deals with American poverty. Nomadland certainly broke through, and recent movies including Winter’s Bone, Frozen River and Little Woods also made the case that resilience and poverty need not condescend or patronize.

Hillbilly Elegy missed that memo.

Holler, the feature debut from filmmaker and Ohio native Nicole Riegel, sugarcoats nothing, patronizes no one, and does not need a Mamaw to explain the facts of life.

Instead, Ruth (a bristlingly confident Jessica Barden) figures things out on her own. A high school senior who spends most of her time collecting scrap metal with her brother – both just one step away from eviction – Ruth has very little time for contemplation, though.

Riegel’s Rust Belt winter offers a malevolent backdrop for Ruth’s coming of age, and the illegal scrapping—the tearing down of the disused industries that once kept Ruth’s family and town afloat—is eerily fitting.

Barden gives the film a grainy bleakness, Ruth’s red hat and her brother Blaze’s (Gus Halper) pickup the only bursts of color in the dreary Southern Ohio grey. Compelling and authentic, it all often feels mainly like a showcase for Barden’s talent.

That’s not to say that the film is in any way weak, simply that Barden’s performance is that strong. Willful and bursting with anger, her Ruth is a force—destructive, sure, but strong and powerfully determined.  

Barden’s not alone. Her supporting ensemble delivers nuance and grit in equal measure, from Halper to Austin Amelio’s sketchy scrap metal entrepreneur to a remarkably humane turn from Becky Ann Baker. Riegel’s script, dreary though the vision can be, hints at forgiveness and hope in nearly every scene.

If you seek an antidote to Hillbilly Elegy, Riegel has what you’re looking for.

Grade: A-

Censor

At Gateway Film Center.

by Hope Madden

     Catch catch a horror taxi

     I fell in love with my video nasty

            –The Damned

Damned, indeed.

Stern, driven Enid (Niamh Algar) takes her responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately for her, they come at a high price. Enid is a film censor in the most punishing time and place for such an endeavor: Thatcher’s England. It’s 1985, an era when controversial films hoping to make their way to screens big and small found themselves more butchered than their characters.

Co-writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond takes inspiration from this notion in her feature debut, Censor—an immersive era-specific horror. It is especially immersive for Enid.

She spends long hours deliberating on exactly where the line is between danger and acceptability: rewinding, examining frame by frame, if necessary, regardless of the nonchalance and casual derision of her co-workers. Enid is convinced it is her duty to protect people from these images.

As she herself drowns in repeated viewings of the most violent and depraved material, you have to wonder whether she might be better off protecting herself.

Bailey-Bond has other questions in mind, like why is it that Enid is so preoccupied with this job, how might it feed her own darkness, and what happens when her worlds blend together?

Censor is a descent into madness film—nothing new in the genre. And moments of Censor can’t help but call to mind fellow Brit Peter Stickland’s 2012 treasure Berberian Sound Studio. But Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher evoke such a timestamp with this film, not just in the look and style, but with the social preoccupation.

As coincidences pile up – a definitive family decision, a horror movie-style murder spree, a film that hits too close to home — Enid seems to suspect that her real motive has been to censor her own thinking.

When she stops doing that, look out.

Algar’s prim and sympathetic, deliberate and brittle. It’s clear from the opening frame that Enid will break. But between Algar’s skill and Bailey-Bond’s cinematic vision, the journey toward that break is a wild ride.

Grade: B+

 

Awake

On Netflix.

by Hope Madden

There are so few things I enjoy more in this life than sleeping. Sleeping is the best. I love sleeping. This is one of the reasons director Mark Raso’s apocalyptic Awake got under my skin.

But it’s supposed to, after all. It’s not a comedy. It’s a spare, clever idea about some kind of celestial happening that throws off our hard wiring enough that we lose the ability to fall asleep. This power surge affects more than just our own circadian rhythms, though. It also shuts down all electric power, including car engines.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) was tired already. She just finished the late shift as security at a local hospital when she picked her kids up for their day together—her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) goes more reluctantly than her young daughter Mathilda (Ariana Greenblatt). By the time Jill understands what’s happening, she realizes the kind of danger her daughter is in—from religious zealots as well as government officials—because Mathilda can sleep.

So, there you have it. There’s a fight against the clock (the film outlines in great detail exactly how this will disorient and then eventually kill you) for this mother to figure out how her daughter will 1) survive the apocalypse and 2) continue to survive once everyone else is dead.

Rodriguez drives the film with a believable mix of savvy, grit and growing brain dysfunction. Several of the population-gone-mad set pieces are eerie and smart, although others are underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

Raso, working from a script he co-wrote with brother Joseph as well as Gregory Poirier, picks at one or two modern-day concerns but truly breaks new ground only rarely. Moments from The Mist, War of the Worlds, and just about every outbreak movie make their way into Jill’s family adventure. Borrowed as much of this is, it still comes together in a way that feels fairly fresh.

Support work from Barry Pepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher and Shamier Anderson offers the adventure shape and character while Rodriguez gives it a pulse. And some really heavy eyelids.

Grade: B-

 

La Dosis

At Gateway Film Center.

by Brandon Thomas

It’s harder to think of a more respected profession than nursing. This notion might be even more widely shared now, after the past year. Nurses are there during the worst emergencies, and they’re also there to help with recovery. We put a lot of trust and responsibility in them during our weakest moments. Writer/director Martin Kraut’s thriller La Dosis (translation: The Dose) examines what happens when that trust is breached in the worst possible way.

Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) is a confident and experienced nurse with more than 20 years under his belt. His professionalism and thoroughness make him well respected in his department. Marcos has a secret though. For certain terminal patients, he uses the cover of night to administer enough medication to allow them to peacefully slip away. For Marcos, this is a way to preserve their dignity even if it goes against the ethical nature of working in medicine.

When Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers), a new young nurse arrives, Marcos finds himself threatened by the handsome man. As Marcos’s coworkers and superiors fall under Gabriel’s charming spell, the elder nurse begins to suspect that Gabriel might harbor his own homicidal tendencies.

If there’s one word I’d use to describe La Dosis, it would be deliberate. The film mirrors Marcos’s steady, pragmatic personality by slowly, and methodically, introducing us to the characters and setting. It’s the type of no-frills opening that makes Marcos’s first act of homicide all the more surprising while still seemingly mundane.

Things begin to heat up and get weirder once the character of Gabriel is introduced. Is Marcos’s distrust of the young nurse simply sour grapes or is there a more sinister reason? That’s the question the film plays with momentarily until it’s quickly answered. The suspense of toying with Gabriel’s true intentions is cast aside rather quickly.

La Dosis frustrates more than it captivates. The back and forth between Marcos and Gabriel has all the trappings of an exciting rivalry, except the film refuses to let it happen. Marcos yo-yos between being Gabriel’s adversary and his friend. The film tries to explain this away with tepid sexual tension between the two, but it’s never explored on more than a surface level. 

Portaluppi is the film’s bright spot. There’s an inviting casual sadness to the character that never strays into pity. Even when the script falters with Marcos’s questionable behavior and choices, Portaluppi does his all to make it work. 

There’s also a level of dark comedy at play that the film never truly capitalizes on. The story is ripe for this kind of approach, yet the filmmakers continue to pull their punches. The hesitancy to go full dark comedy or even full medical thriller hobbles the film in the end. 

La Dosis tantalizes with interesting character beats and odd tonal shifts, but in the end, doesn’t quite reach a satisfying conclusion.

Grade: B-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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