July 2021 Round-Up

The Forever Purge(7/5/2021)

The Purge franchise might be unique among horror series in that it actually gets a lot more ambitious and political as it goes.  The first movie basically sucked but over the course of its five movie run it has expanded and become increasingly bold in its provocations… but that’s not to say any of these movies are actually great because they aren’t.  The basic premise at the center of all of them remains absolutely ridiculous and implausible and none of them are really as smart or as effective as they think they are, but they are consistently doing things with genre that I at least find interesting.  The last movie, The First Purge, was rather overly attempting to be the “Black Lives Matter” tinged Purge movie for better or worse and this latest installment, The Forever Purge, is set on the Mexican border and looks at Trump era xenophobia (it was supposed to come out before the election but got delayed by the pandemic).  In this one the actual night of “The Purge” (a “holiday” in the dystopian future of the series’ world in which all laws are suspended for a night so people can get out their murderous urges) only takes up about fifteen minutes of screen time and the rest of the movie depict the day after when (in an act of coordination and secrecy that is wildly unbelievable) a group of disaffected purgers decide to continue the purge past its legal boundaries into what is essentially a right wing populist revolution of ethnic cleansing where rich snobs and immigrants are the first ones against the wall.  With this movie the series has basically stopped being anything resembling a pure horror work and becomes more of a low budget action movie but also one that’s very interested in western iconography and the resulting movie is an interesting mashup of genres.  It is not, however, a movie with terribly interesting characters to empathize with and its individual sequences never rise too far above the level of average.  Still, I’m fascinated by just how openly mainstream horror movies have been allowed to become and admire just how boldly Blumhouse has been willing to expand on this wacky concept in order to make these movies fit the times. 
*** out of Five

No Sudden Move(7/13/2021)

Celebrities love Steven Soderbergh and he loves them… sometimes to a detriment.  Dude often assembles casts that are so packed with talent that looking at all the names on the poster gives you expectations for some of his movies that they aren’t even really trying to live up to.  To some extent that’s the case with his latest film No Sudden Move, which sure has an impressive cast but which perhaps has more modest goals than the pedigree might suggest.  On the other hand this crime film is probably more straightforward and accessible than some of his more experimental films where he seems more interested in noodling around with digital cameras than with the story at hand.  Though not based on one of his books, this definitely feels like a bit of a tribute to the works of Elmore Leonard (the source of Soderbergh’s popular Out of Sight) and concerns a crew of fallible criminals who are all plotting and scheming against each other and it does a good job of introducing a whole bunch of characters in the first half and then have them double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple-cross each other for most of the second half.  Ed Solomon screenplay doesn’t necessarily re-invent the wheel but it is certainly fun and you can appreciate its intricacy.  I also think the cast shows up for the most part and do some good work, especially David Harbour (who’s almost unrecognizable) and Amy Seimetz. 

But where I think the movie stumbles a bit is actually with Soderbergh’s direction, and especially his cinematography because I think his camera nerdery gets the best of him here.  I don’t really know enough about the intricacies of filmmaking to fully diagnose this but he seems to be using some sort of weird-ass lens to film this thing that gives the whole picture an odd curvature of sorts, especially whenever the camera pans left or right, almost like it was filmed to be viewed in VR or something.  I didn’t care for that at all and didn’t think it really fit the film’s 1950s setting.  Maybe he was going for a sort of intentional filmic anachronism à la Michael Mann’s Public Enemies but I mostly found it to be an eyesore.  Beyond that I’m just not sure Soderbergh’s heart was in this thing; you can imagine a version of this made by a younger filmmaker taking this script and trying to turn it into his calling card but Soderbergh kind of approaches it the way a guy with thirty films under his belt and ten more projects planned and you kind of get the feeling that he’s kind of bored with it beyond a couple of ideas he’s experimenting with.  That’s a feeling I got anyway, but I don’t want to over-state it too much, even a bored and disengaged Soderbergh is still a better than average filmmaker and he’s working with some good material here and the resulting movie still has quite a bit going for it in spite of itself.
***1/2 out of Five

Space Jam: A New Legacy(7/16/2021)

Space Jam: A New Legacy is not exactly a movie I had high expectations for, and were it not for the fact that it was readily available on HBO Max I almost certainly wouldn’t have seen it.  That, however, proved to be a rather appropriate medium to watch the movie as the film turns out to be something of a feature length advertisement for that streaming service.  The film in many ways feels like Warner Brothers doing everything in their power to sell themselves as a brand in the way that Disney so often sells itself, unlike the 1995 Michael Jordan vehicle this is based on in which Jordan was simply sent to “Tune World” this film sees Lebron James uploaded into a computer world based around the entirety of Warner Brothers’ intellectual property.  We see “DC World,” fly past “Harry Potter World,” “Matrix World” and in some particularly undignified moments we see the cartoon characters inserted into scenes from The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Casablanca and when the film’s central basketball game starts they’re being spectated by damn near every character from Warner Brothers history including but not limited to: Pennywise from It, the Batman and Robin version of Mr. Freeze, and of all things the Droogs from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  It’s all very Ready Player One, which has proven to be oddly influential on the films of 2021 but at least that movie had the dignity to stamp the Warner Brothers logo all over all its IP pilfering.  Of course commercialization is to be expected from a damn Space Jam sequel, the original movie was basically a feature length version of a series of Nike commercials after all, still there is something rather obscene about watching a major corporate media company suck its own dick for two hours. 

Having said all that… if you want to watch an insidious act of synergy gone wrong this one isn’t poorly made.  At the very least I think it has a lot more going for it than that old movie.  Lebron James is probably a better screen presence than Jordan was (not that I’d particularly want to see him play anyone other than himself) and Don Cheadle is plainly have a lot of fun as the film’s villain.  The film’s technical aspects will also hold up a lot better than the original films and I thought the CGI version of the “tunes” looked a lot better than they needed to.  I doubt the film will impress Looney Tunes purists I do think the film showcases those characters better than the first film did and the film’s six writers find some moments of comedy I was amused by (along with other moments that are plainly cringe). And while I can rag on the film for its shameless showing off of Warners IP I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some fun out of playing Easter Egg Where’s Waldo with some of the characters in that crowd.  Does any of this make up for the fact that this whole project is basically the world’s most expensive company picnic video?  Well, my mind says “no” but my heart says “maybe.”  Again, whatever enjoyment I got out of this thing were because of subterranean expectations but those low expectations were exceeded by quite a bit more than I expected.
**1/2 out of Five

Pig(7/17/2021)

Pig is a movie that kind of snuck up on me.  It didn’t really have much of a festival run, it was from a first time director, and while Nicholas Cage has made a lot of great movies he’s also kind of diluted his brand by making a ton of weird B-movies and you’re never sure whether you’re getting a “real” movie from him or not.  Oddly I think Neon’s marketing has largely encouraged the belief that this is one of his odd cult movies than it really is.  The film concerns a recluse who lives in a remote cabin in the woods who spends most of his days searching for truffles with a pet pig who can sniff those valuable items out.  But when people break into his home and kidnaps the swine he sets out to find the hog, which will entail an adventure through the cut-throat underworld of Portland’s farm-to-table suppliers.  The movie is not really the violent revenge film it sounds like and occasionally teases its audience into thinking it will be, which may disappoint some audiences and may lead other audiences to be pleasantly surprised to the point where they perhaps over-rate it a bit.  I do hesitate to even mention its more gentle side because on some level I think the film intends to sort of subvert expectations but priming certain audiences what to expect is sort of one of the jobs of a review.  First time writer and director Michael Sarnoski brings an impressive grasp of tone in the film and I’m interested to see where he goes from here, though I do think he still has a bit more work to do before I’m going to declare him a major voice.  The movie he has given us is solid but I feel like there’s an ingredient missing that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Its finale relies on a form of persuasion that’s interesting but which I also didn’t entirely buy and there are a couple of other points I found a bit odd, but overall this is a pretty good indie which will serve as one of the few bits of counter-programing we get in this otherwise confused summer.
***1/2 out of Five

Old(7/24/2021)

Believe me, no one wanted to see M. Night Shyamalan succeed more than me.  The dude emerged as a major filmmaker right when I was first getting into film and I believed the hype when Newsweek mused that he may be “the next Spielberg.”  But then The Village disappointed, Lady in the Water baffled, and The Happening bewildered.  I didn’t stick around for such indignities as his The Last Airbender or After Earth but I was a bit surprised when the public seemed to give him a second chance in the last few years.  Split was a surprise hit and its follow-up Glass was considered something of a major release… which surprises me because these movies, while indeed an improvements over some of the guy’s low points, still had a lot of the same oddness and miscalculations of Shyamalan’s failures.  Then when I saw the trailer to his new movie Old I must say I groaned a little.  The film, which envisions a hidden beach on an island resort that traps people and makes them suddenly age rapidly, was a premise that seemed inherently off-putting to me and the thought of Shyamalan specifically directing these adult actors to act like children seemed to have the potential for unintentional comedy.  I was bracing for this to be a disaster of The Happening proportions, but when reviews came in they were… mixed, and there was talk about there being some kind of wacky ending and at a certain point I just needed to see this thing for myself. 

This is being advertised as a horror movie but it’s not really trying to be “scary” so much as it’s trying to riff on the existential fear of aging and bodily decay, which isn’t an inherently terrible idea but its execution here is lacking.  The film offers basically no explanation for the aging phenomenon here beyond “it’s magic,” which is fine but its reasons for why tourists are showing up on this beach are kind of crazy and don’t really hold up to even the slightest scrutiny.  Additionally I think Shyamalan kind of misunderstands the kind of movie that this premise invites.  This rapid aging idea would seem to be one that would lend itself to a wildly transgressive work of body horror that would revel in the gore of bodily decay but Shyamalan instead tries to turn it into something of a mass market PG-13 movie that shies away from some of the crazier aspects of the premise.  The camera needs to shy away from things like an impromptu tumor surgery or a rapid body decay and there’s something that transpires between two of the child turned adult characters that is absolutely insane but which the movie basically glosses past instead of lingering on the ramifications.  Speaking of those child turned adult characters, the movie basically sidesteps a lot of the implications of that, the performances weren’t as painful as I was expecting but that’s partly because they just kind of stop acting like children at a certain point as if maturity is primarily rooted in brain development rather than life experience.  Beyond that, while this is nothing as embarrassing as The Happening there are still off-putting Shyamalanisms here like odd character traits and botched line readings.  I will give it this, I was never really bored watching the movie and the scenery was certainly nice, but whatever opportunity was there for something really memorable was not achieved.
** out of Five

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Zola(7/3/2021)

In 2015 a woman named Aziah “Zola” Wells King started what would become a 148 tweet thread by saying “y’all want to hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out????????,” a sentence that would become the “Call me Ishmael” of long form social media storytelling.  The ensuing story, a gonzo account of a wacky road trip a pair of strippers took to Tampa, went viral and quickly became a fixture of internet lore.  Personally, I wasn’t in the loop on this alleged phenomenon and first heard about when news broke that someone was making a movie about it, and yeah, it’s pretty compelling.  The way the story sort of escalates from moment to moment made it especially suited to the unconventional medium of a tweet storm and Zola’s writing style and unapologetic use of slang and stripper lingo is funny and keeps you reading and kind of makes you feel like you’re getting a window into a world of ratchet-ness that one would often want to avoid.  Would it make a good movie?  Wasn’t sure but I wanted to check it out.

The film begins with Zola (Taylour Paige) meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), the aforementioned “bitch” she would eventually have a falling out with, while waitressing at a Hooters-like restaurant and as they two begin talking they come to realize that both have experience working as exotic dancers.  A day or two later Stefani invites Zola along on a road trip she’s taking to dance at Tampa clubs known for high tipping and the next thing you know the two are taking a “ho trip” down to Florida along with Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and also the guy who “takes care of her,” which is to say he’s her pimp, who is described as “Z” in the tweet storm but is credited as “X” (Colman Domingo) here.  Things more or less go as planned at first, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Stefani and “X” are into some deeper illegality than Zola is expecting and things on this trip start to spiral out of control.

I went into the movie expecting it to be this wild propulsive ride through the Florida underworld along the lines of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but the final movie is perhaps a bit more relaxed than that, possibly to its detriment.  The film is not particularly shy about the fact that it’s based on a tweet storm; it announces it with a title card at the beginning and more annoyingly it frequently makes Twitter bird noises after quotes from the original tweet storm come up and other social media sound effects.  Could have done without that and I generally wasn’t a huge fan of the sound design here in general, particularly Mica Levi’s minimalist score.  I’ve liked Levi’s work in other movies but this movie really needed an energy injection more than anything and Levi’s bloopy music didn’t really do it.  I did quite like the cast though.  Taylour Paige delivers Zola’s vocal patter with aplomb and while Riley Keough doesn’t quite manage to adopt to her characters vocal patterns as effectively she does eventually settle into her character.  Colman Domingo is effectively scary as the violent pimp who causes the bulk of the film’s problem and Nicholas Braun gives a nicely comedic performance even if he is essentially recycling his naïve dope routine from the show “Succession.”

So as a stylistic exercise Zola didn’t really give me what I was hoping for but does it make up for this with substance?  Almost, or at the very least it gave me a bit to chew on.  The events of the original Tweet Storm are in many ways still somewhat mired in mystery.  Zola’s account was the most popular but in its wake the Stefani and Derrek equivalents both put out their own accounts on different social media platforms.  Stefani’s account is acknowledged by the movie and is mostly notable for how transparently untruthful it is.  Derrek’s account isn’t mentioned in the film specifically but the film does draw from it in certain spots where Zola is not a point of view character.  That account is mostly notable for how poorly written it is and there’s a reason it never went viral.  I don’t know that I find Zola to be an inherently more trustworthy person than either of the others but there were definitely parts of her account that are contradicted by police reports of the situation (and I don’t necessarily see a specific motivation for them to lie about this particular situation, but who knows).  Interestingly the film, while clearly siding with Zola on the events, does divert from all three accounts in certain places, especially in the last twenty minutes.  Buried in this project there’s a bit of a Rashomon-like lesson to be learned about how one’s ability to tell a story affects who gets believed about what and how the platform you use (twitter, reddit, facebook, or independent film) affects what people think… but I kind of feel like I’m pulling that out myself rather than having it really surfaced by the film.  If you’re not looking for that this mostly just feels like a cheeky re-enactment of an internet meme that is a bit past its expiration date, and if that’s what this is going to be I feel like the aforementioned lack of energy becomes a problem.  I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of potential in this concept that just got left on the table and the final movie mostly disappointed me.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 6/7/2021

Stowaway (5/28/2021)

Stowaway is a movie that sort of snuck up on me.  It doesn’t have big name director behind it, it hasn’t benefited from any kind of festival run, and while the film appears to have been produced independently it’s being distributed by Netflix, who have done basically nothing to hype its release and are basically treating it like a piece of disposable content to appear in the middle of April without even a token theatrical run.  Despite that it has been championed by some critics and I can see why.  It’s a film with a pretty interesting concept: a crew of three astronauts in some near but not too near future have launched into space bound for a base on Mars but soon discover there’s a fourth person on board, a technician working on the launch who had some sort of accident that left him unconscious in the ship’s crawlspace.  They can’t turn around but think they can make this work until the ship’s life support system has a malfunction and it becomes clear that there won’t be enough air on board to sustain all four of them the whole way, setting up quite the moral dilemma.  The film was made with a relatively low budget for a space movie, but it doesn’t look too cheap or like necessary corners were cut in order to make what is ultimately more of a hard sci-fi character drama than a space opera.  It also supports a reasonably impressive cast with the likes of Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, and Daniel Dae Kim making up the crew and Shamier Anderson playing the stowaway.  The movie sort of leaves you in suspense because you keep expecting it to make a goofy left turn and get stupid, but for the most part it doesn’t: the stowaway doesn’t turn out to be a spy, none of the crew turns out to be a secret psychopath, aliens don’t show up, and for the most part it doesn’t cheat or take the easy way out of the various moral quandaries that the situation entails.  I won’t spoil too much more, I don’t think this will go down as a science fiction classic or anything, it’s a bit too small and enclosed, but then I said that about Ex Machina as well and that thing has held up pretty well, maybe this will too.

***1/2 out of Five

Seaspiracy (5/29/2021)

I wasn’t really sure what Seaspiracy was about before watching it other than that it was a documentary about some sort of ocean based conspiracy and was a bit mystified when it more or less opened with its director going to the Japanese island of Taiji to unravel the “mystery” of what is happening to dolphins in a nearby cove… which was mystifying to me because that “mystery” was already solved and was the subject of the 2009 Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, so it wasn’t very clear to me why this guy was playing dumb.  Fortunately that ends up not really being the subject of the movie, which has something of a structure where it introduces something bad happening to the ocean only to then pull back and show that that’s only the tip of the iceberg and that the real problem is this other bigger thing, except actually the problem is this other even bigger thing, and so on.  The ultimate target here is the commercial fishing industry writ large, which the film views as being a completely unregulated cabal that’s openly lawless and that whatever watchdog groups there are to look after it are corrupt and worthless.  The film rejects the basic concept of sustainable fishing and instead goes full vegan and advocates for people to stop eating seafood altogether, which is kind of like the abstinence only sex-ed of environmentalism: technically correct but not taking into account actual human behavior.  The movie itself is compelling, but rather extremist and a bit agit-prop.  Director Ali Tabrizi is clearly a fan of Michael Moore and adopts a lot of that filmmaker’s more annoying habits; he constantly injects himself into narratives, pulls gotcha stunts on interview subjects that appear to operating in good faith, and draws attention to it whenever someone opts not to talk with him under the assumption that they “have something to hide.”  The film has a rather alarmist tone that I don’t find entirely believable and I also think it’s plainly obvious that the “journey” into the subject this guy is claiming to go through to be rather insincere.  But, despite that I do think the film is correct to be drawing attention to the basic subject matter and well, sometimes you have to yell if you want to be heard.  I can’t recommend this as a documentary, but it is free on Netflix and is certainly rather watchable if you are intrigued.

**1/2 out of Five

Those Who Wish Me Dead (6/1/2021)

Angelina Jolie is an actor who in some way feels like a bit of a relic of a time when “movie stars” were enough to make a movie bankable, but we now live in a time when franchises make movies rather than stars and outside of her work in the Maleficent franchise she hasn’t done much high profile acting at all in the last ten years opting instead to try directing and producing.  But apparently she was feeling nostalgic or something so she took a very traditional starring role in a very traditional star vehicle called Those Who Wish Me Dead which has resulted in rather mediocre results.  The film, which has a much cooler title than it deserves, is set in Montana and deals with a situation where a pair of assassins have been sent against a forensic accountant who has evidence against organized crime and his son and this pursuit ends up colliding with a sheriff and his wife as well as a forest fire fighter played by Jolie.  The film was directed by Taylor Sheridan, who made some fairly interesting thrillers as a screenwriter (Sicario, Hell or High Water) and as a director (Wind River), but this feels like a step backwards for him.  There’s still some clear competence behind the camera and Sheridan elicits some decent performances and brings some workable action scenes to the film, but the whole thing lacks any real vision or flair and just generally lacks anything memorable and noteworthy.  The whole thing feels like a throwback to the late 90s or maybe early 2000s.  “Die Hard in a forest” wouldn’t be a perfect analogy since there are only two villains but it kind of speaks to the era of thriller this is harkening back to.  The movie likely will provide passable enough entertainment if watched through free streaming on a Saturday afternoon or something, but temper all expectations.

**1/2 out of Five

A Glitch in the Matrix (6/3/2021)

A Glitch in the Matrix is the latest documentary from Rodney Ascher, who previously made Room 237 (about crazy interpretations of The Shining) and The Nightmare (about sleep paralysis), and generally seems to be very interested in people who have unique experiences they sort of obsess over as well as a keen interest in pop culture and how it interacts with people’s lives and his latest film certainly fits both of those interests.  The movie looks at simulation hypothesis, which is the belief that all of human experience is just a simulation we all believe in, which can either be entertained a hypothetical philosophical exercise or genuinely believed by certain individuals, and it is of course an idea that was somewhat popularized by the film The Matrix.  Most of the movie is made up of interviews with various people who have had an interest in these topics, but it’s not clear what their qualifications are.  Ascher’s last too films were also made up by interviews with nobodies, but it made more sense their because the first film was about obsessive kooks and the second was about people with a specific medical ailment but here it feels like input from actual scientists and philosophers would have been more helpful than from these people who appear to be tech bros who more than likely have very detailed thoughts on cryptocurrency.  What’s more, for whatever reason Ascher employs a technique where his interview subjects are presented not as humans but as CGI avatars.  I guess the people requested their anonymity and this was done as a fanciful way to do that but… man, it just looks stupid.  I wasn’t really feeling this, but I do sort of respect it as an extension of Ascher’s previous work and hope to see what he does in the future.

**1/2 out of Five

The Woman in the Window (6/7/2021)

If you follow the trades you likely knew that The Woman in the Window had the whiff of failure on it throughout the industry given that 20th Century Fox was basically begging Netflix to take it off their hands despite it having been directed by Academy Award adjacent filmmaker Joe Wright and starred a murderer’s row of talent including Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, and Anthony Mackie.  Some suspected this nervousness had to do with some emerging controversies surrounding the author of the book this was based on, but no, the movie really is just rather poor.  The film is a thriller which draws clear influence (bordering on ripoff) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes and looks at an agoraphobic woman who sees a murder happen in the house across from her New York brownstone.  It’s not easy to point a finger at one thing that makes this movie not work, it’s more of a death by a thousand cuts.  The central mystery in the middle of the whole thing is just not very interesting and the film’s general tone is just too over the top to be taken seriously but not over the top enough to be campy fun.  Gary Oldman is shouty and over the top in most of his scenes and characters played by Wyatt Russell and Fred Hechinger are just wildly miscalculated.  Anthony Mackie is billed third in the movie but he’s barely in it, which suggests to me that much of the sub-plot he was in got left on the cutting room floor.  I blame almost all of this on Wright, who clearly wasn’t really sure how seriously to take this material and never came close to striking the right tone.  He manages to make a couple moments here and there work but they were few and far between and the movie itself is best left forgotten.

*1/2 out of Five

F9: The Fast Saga(6/26/2021)

It’s funny, as I exited the theater where I had just seen the ninth installment of “The Fast Saga,” a movie filled to the brim with car crashes, explosions, and production value, it was a much more humble piece of pop culture that entered my mind: The Office (US version).   Obviously this wasn’t because there were many direct similarities between the two, rather, it was because of series trajectory.  That sitcom lasted nine seasons, and a lot of fans would tell you that this was probably at least two seasons too long.  Series star Steve Carrell left the show at the end of the seventh season and those last two seasons done without that central character were never really the same and many would say things would have ended more cleanly if they hadn’t happened.  On the other hand, there was at least some funny stuff to be found in those last two seasons and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that closure on a sitcom is over-rated and that it was probably better to have those last couple of seasons than not to have had them.  In a lot of ways “The Fast Saga” is in a similar place.  The seventh installment (Furious 7) was the last film in the series to feature original star Paul Walker (albeit for more tragic and unexpected reasons than the aforementioned Steve Carrell departure) and there were certain ways in which that film kind of felt like a final victory lap for the franchise that ended on a (for this series) appropriately corny note.  But this was never a series known for dignified restraint and it wasn’t long before they announced a follow-up called The F[8] of the Furious and now there’s a follow-up to the follow-up called F9 (or F9: The Fast Saga depending on what poster you’re looking at) here to make a case for even more outlandish action, soap operatic twists, and speeches about the importance of family.

F9 takes place a few years after the events of The Fate of the Furious and sees Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his wife Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) trying to take a stretch away from their usual adventures to try to raise the child that came into their lives in that last movie.  This is disrupted however when Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) roll up and let him know that they’ve retrieved an SOS transmission from their former intelligence contact Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), whose plane appears to have crashed in a (fictional) Central American country called Montecito while trying to transport the villainous Cipher (Charlize Theron), who had been captured in an off screen operation.  Much of the crew decides to go out to this crash site given their history with Cipher, but Dominic only decides to go after noticing on the transmission that the man behind the attack may have been his long lost and apparently evil brother Jakob Toretto (John Cena), a suspicion that is confirmed when he confronts Jakob in the jungles on that mission.  From there the crew needs to split up to take down Jakob, Cipher, and an Eastern European Dictator’s son (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and keep them from getting a super weapon, a mission that will take them to far flung places like Tokyo, Cologne, Edenborough, and Tbilisi.

Doing a full review of F9: The Fast Saga in many ways feels a touch unnecessary.  Here’s the TLDR version: If you liked the last three or four Fast and Furious movies and are hungry for more this movie will probably be what you’re looking for.  But I should probably at least try to go a little deeper than that.  The main thing that distinguishes this installment of the franchise from what came before is likely the John Cena character and what the emergence of this long lost brother does to put Dominic Toretto’s obsession with (chosen) family in a new light.  The film contains several flashbacks to Toretto’s youth where the two brothers are played by Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole which dramatize what caused the two siblings to had their falling out.  I might argue that these flashbacks could have been a bit briefer than they were, and I’m not sure how much anyone was really dying to learn the origins of what led Dom into a life of crime prior to the events of the first film, but there are worse directions this could have gone in a ninth installment of a franchise.  The other development this time around, as revealed by the trailer is that the character of Han has been resurrected once again through yet another retcon of what happened in the crash that supposedly killed him between the second and third acts of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  I’ve got to say, I’ve never really understood what it is about this character that makes the producers think he’s worth this much trouble; Sung Kang is a fine actor but it’s kind of a nothing character and at this point it’s really starting to seem like no one is going to be staying dead for long in this series.

So I’m not sure this is really a sequel that’s overburdened with brilliant new plot ideas but I was pleased to see that a lot of the action still felt fairly fresh.  Like all of these movies the chases here are quite silly; an early chase through a jungle has a rather dubious idea of how landmines work and there are several moments that exist in clear defiance of various laws of physics, but the movies have always been pretty shameless about that kind of stuff and later in the movie they manage to do some pretty cool stuff by rigging vehicles with high powered magnets, which I appreciated.  If anything the movie probably just needed to be trimmed a bit.  I sort of get why these movies have ballooned into being two and a half hours each what with how unwieldly that casts have become what with their refusal to let any character die and stay dead and I imagine this thing would have been even longer if backstage drama hadn’t jettisoned The Rock and Jason Statham into a spin-off.  At this point the franchise almost feels like what the MCU would be if they did Avengers movies every time instead of doing solo films in-between.   The results are stretched out movies and that’s especially felt here in the movie’s middle act when various cast members are off doing separate missions and it really slows down the pace.  The whole series is clearly pressing its luck at this point and I do hope they have it in them to just wrap up the current storyline soon and move on, but for now they haven’t quite lost their goodwill and I’m willing to give the current installment a pass.

*** out of Five

Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Greatest Hits (1960-1965)

When I last looked at the Disney’s live action output I focused in on the films they made in the 1950s like Treasure Island and Old Yeller and while the movies I looked at were something of a mixed bag I was intrigued enough to keep going with the series, at the very least so that I can keep getting my money’s worth while I’m getting Disney+ in order to watch these Superhero TV shows.  Here I’m moving into the 1960s, which was a very prolific decade for the Mouse House, so prolific in fact that I can pull five fairly famous movies out of its first half alone.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

Fun fact, the title of Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel “The Swiss Family Robinson” was not meant to imply that the family in question was named “Robinson” and was instead meant to signal that the book was part of the “Robinson” genre which was introduced by the book “Robinson Caruso.”  Nonetheless, it does live up to the “Swiss Family” part of the title and that framing of the family as central to the narrative had made the book a pretty big part of the canon of “family friendly” literature for children well into the 20th Century and thus a prime target for Disney adaptation.    That adaptation would be directed by Ken Annakin and would be shot on the island of Tobago (of “Trinidad and” fame) on a pretty big budget and was almost certainly one of the more ambitious projects by the studio.  The film is often remembered as a story of a family’s struggle to survive in the wilderness but that isn’t exactly accurate.  Once the shipwrecked family washes up on the island survival against the elements quickly proves not to be very difficult; they build an outlandishly extravagant shelter almost immediately and manage to keep most of the wildlife (the assortment of which makes no geographical sense) at bay without much trouble.  Instead the main conflict here is against a crew of wildly inept Asian pirates, some of whom appear to be played by white people in yellowface (Disney+ give this movie a “negative cultural depictions” disclaimer) who are threatening to kill them for… some reason.

Setting aside the racial stereotyping I don’t think the pirates themselves are a huge problem here, they work well enough as stock heavies and the battle scene at the end was mostly enjoyable.  But it was harder for me to jive with the fact that the film needed outside villains in large part because of its complete dismissal of the idea that being stranded on an island might be something other than a fun camping trip.  William Golding wrote “Lord of the Flies” as a challenge to these books of the time where Caucasian ingenuity immediately conquers nature and this movie decidedly does not engage with that challenge.  It instead dives head first into this notion that there’s an unbreakable bond between the American (well, on paper Swiss, but these people look and act incredibly American) nuclear family and that things will go just swimmingly for wholesome families like this when not interfered with by “bad guys.”  That all strikes me as being a bunch of bullshit, but it’s also probably the cornball outlook you should expect from a 1960 Disney produced movie, a subversive take on “Swiss Family Robinson” probably wasn’t in the cards, and as corny Disney movies go this is pretty well made.  The cast mostly achieves what they’re asked to do and the production values are definitely solid.  I totally get why families of the time lapped this thing up.
*** out of Five

The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

Like I said in my review of The Shaggy Dog, Disney is so completely associated with color photography that it feels odd when they make a movie in black and white.  In fact that movie, this one, and its sequel are pretty much the only ones of note outside of some of their really old shorts and what all three of those shorts have in common is that they star Fred MacMurray and sort of feel like sitcom episodes.  The Shaggy Dog had felt more like a “Leave it to Beaver” type sitcom while this one feels a bit more like a proto-“Bewitched” both in terms of its light science fiction gags and also because the hero is (at the beginning of the film anyway) a bachelor and kind of stands out among Disney’s non-adventure movies in not really having any child characters at all unless you want to count various college aged students.  The film would of course inspire a remake some thirty five years later in the Robin Williams vehicle Flubber which I haven’t seen in its entirety but my understanding is that the titular substance is a sort of sentient blob in that movie whereas here “flubber” is just a sort of rubber-like material that the professor invents which has an exaggerated ability to bounce really high.  In the film the professor uses flubber in two ways; he attaches it to peoples shoes to make them jump really high, which comes in handy during a central set-piece where he uses this to help the university cheat at basketball, and then he also manages to use flubber to make his car fly, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense given that it would seemingly make his vehicle bounce rather than fly and it’s also not super clear how flubber would allow him to steer said vehicle or land at will.

The film this can probably most easily be compared to is another early 60s film that would be remade in the late 90s: Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, which came along two years later.  Both movies are about bumbling and socially inept science professors who come across some sort of fantastical invention that plays out in their courtship of a love interest.  Where Jerry Lewis’ professor character is closer to what would become the “nerd” stereotype, the professor here is a bit older and fits more with the bumbling tweed jacketed professor archetype.  The professor here seems generally less self-absorbed than Julius Kelp and really just kind of bumbles his way through this whole adventure.  It’s a very silly movie in general, but charmingly silly.  The central basketball scene seems uses some cool looking wirework and as nonsensical as the flying car scenes are I was pretty amused by how far the movie took the idea during the film’s finale where the professor lackadaisically flies the damn thing to Washington D.C. and ends up freaking out the military.  Is the movie a great artistic achievement or for that matter a terribly noteworthy production, not really, but it does pass the time well and seems to have been pretty well received at the time.  It received both a sequel and also a trilogy of semi-official spin-offs set at the same Medfield College of Technology, though I’m not sure this particular brand of more overtly comedic entertainment would necessarily have the longest legacy at Disney.
*** out of Five

The Parent Trap (1961)

The Parent Trap is one of several of these Disney live action films that frankly jump out at me primarily because it was remade in the 90s.  Not that I actually saw the 1998 Lindsay Lohan adaptation, but I knew it existed and that made catching the 1961 version seem like a worthwhile title to take a look at.  The film was in many ways a follow-up to Pollyanna: both films were directed by David Swift and both were meant to be vehicles for Hayley Mills (daughter of Swiss Family Robinson star John Mills).  It is actually based on a German novel called “Lottie and Lisa” by Erich Kästner which had already been adapted three times in Germany, Japan, and the UK before Disney got its paws on it.  In it Mills plays both halves of a set of twins by using body doubles and camera tricks and tells the stories about how these estranged twins who don’t know about each other happen to meet at a summer camp and then conspire to reunite their parents.

When watching the movie it’s important to remember that this is still relatively early in the history of American divorce.  Like, I think they were still requiring people to establish residency in Nevada in order to split when this was made.  So there was still a certain level of stigma around the concept and people didn’t have a lot of experience with it… and that’s probably why the whole film is something of a guide for what not to do to children in divorce situations.  This whole scheme where one parent takes one twin while the other takes the other without either even knowing about the existence of the other is plainly a horrible idea, Solomon wouldn’t even do it, but the film presents it as an unusual but at least somewhat logical concept.  What’s more I’ve heard from certain people who were children of divorce who found the idea of the twins plan to reunite their parents to be rather harmful and offensive; that it plays off of a certain wish fulfilment that these children had that on some level it was their responsibility to deal with their parents’ differences and that if they had as much spunk as the kids here they could somehow “fix” these parents’ differences.

Set that aside and just look at it as a lighthearted fantasy and there are charms to it.  I quite liked both Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara as the twins estranged parents and the film has some nice sets for all of this to be happening against.  I’m not sure I was quite as fond of Hayley Mills in the central roles however, in part because the film doesn’t really do as much as it probably should have to make these two separated twins into more distinct personalities.  On some level there’s a realism to this, even when raised on opposite coasts there no particular reason to assume that two middle class girls to be all that different from one another, but something like this presumably exists to allow an actress to show off her chops by portraying wildly different dual roles and it kind of seems like a waste not to just do that.  I’d also say that the movie could have probably been served by some trimming around the edges.  The movie runs about 128 minutes, which isn’t a wildly unreasonable running time for your average movie but it does seem a touch long winded for a fluffy Disney movie with a goofy concept like this and it does start to feel a bit tired by the third act when they’re trying to sabotage the would be evil stepmother trying to woo the father.
*** out of Five

Babes in Toyland (1961)

It’s usually pretty obvious why Disney uses animation for certain movies and uses live action techniques for others, but there are some where it’s less obvious and their 1961 film Babes in Toyland is one of the rare cases where it’s less clear.  The film is based on a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert and it had already been given a somewhat high profile adaptation in 1934 which acted as a vehicle for, of all people, Laurel and Hardy.  Disney eventually picked the property up with the original intention of turning it into an animated film but eventually they instead opted to make it into a live action movie that sort of looks and feels like a cartoon given how wildly artificial every set and costume is as well as how inherently over the top it is.  The film is set in a sort of fantasy village where nursery rhyme characters are all real and mainly follows Tom Piper and Mary Contrary, who are engaged, but then this villainous dude named Barnaby hatches scheme to instead have his goons kidnap and kill Tom so that Barnaby can try to marry Contrary himself for the fortune she doesn’t know she’ll inherit.  But then his goons instead sell Tom to “gypsies” (who are depicted even less sensitively than you expect) and he’s given a new shot to save the day… and then everyone ends up in a place called toyland where a Toymaker is making lots of toys.

It’s just the weirdest movie, while watching it I kept saying “what the hell am I looking at?”  Everyone’s wearing an extreme costume and there are these elaborate sets everywhere.  It feels like one of those plays that children’s theater companies put on, but given a significantly larger budget to do what they do.  That’s not exactly a bad thing, it’s certainly kind of unique in it’s caffeinated vision anyway.  The 1934 version was similarly oddly artificial but that version wasn’t really able to go all the way with the idea, it’s one of the few movies that was at a pretty big disadvantage for being in black and white, this technicolor execution fits the gimmick more.  The most notable aspect of the movie, for better or worse, is almost certainly its villain played by Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) who is just the most obviously villainous villains.  I often use Snidely Whiplash as a reference when I think a villain in a movie villain seems to be a bit over the top but this dude straight up dresses like Snidely Whiplash complete with the black cape and twirled moustache and he straight up sings songs about how evil he is.  It’s a dumb character but Bolger seems to be having an absurd amount of fun playing him.  Where the movie really falls short is in the music.  The tunes here just aren’t very good, or at the very least they aren’t very memorable, which is a pretty big problem in a musical.  Beyond that, man, I think they basically achieved what they were going for with the rest of it but I was just aesthetically allergic to a lot of it.  This isn’t a family movie so much as it’s a movie for very young and very earnest children and while I think there are parts of it that are done with some clear gusto I just can’t get behind it.
**1/2 out of Five

The Incredible Journey (1963)

During the 1950s Disney branched out into making nature documentaries of dubious educational quality, a side hustle that they would pick up again in recent years but in the early 60s they were kind of getting out of that business.  Before they did, however, they would use some of the techniques they picked up trying to chronicle wild animals and used it to make a fictional film about a set of pets going on a trip through the wilderness.  That film, The Incredible Journey, was based on a book written by Sheila Burnford which told a very simple story about a Bull Terrier, a Labrador Retriever, and a Siamese cat all get left out through a series of miscommunications and rather improbably take it upon themselves to go West through the wilderness of Ontario to try to re-find their owners.  Now, that whole premise has a ring of bullshit to it: animals do not really miss their owners that much and they are not going to be able to “sense” what direction they’re supposed to be in.  You generally have to accept a lot of anthropomorphism to get much of anything out of this movie because much of its runtime sure just looks like a bunch of confused looking animals running around in the woods with a narrator attributing a bunch of thoughts to them.  I also have my suspicions about how safe the animal actors were while making it because they sure seem to have put them into a whole bunch of danger here.  The film doesn’t have the animal cruelty rumors swirling around it that other similar movies like The Adventures of Milo and Otis does but given the questionable ethics this company showed in the documentary work (complete with lemming mass murder) I wouldn’t put it past them.  Beyond that there really isn’t much to say about this, if you’re an animal lover you might get more out of it but I just found the thing painfully boring and it overstayed its welcome even at a short 80 minute runtime.
*1/2 out of Five

That Darn Cat! (1965)

I very rarely hear much of anything about the actual movie That Darn Cat! but I will say that it’s always had one of the more attention grabbing titles of any movie made by Disney or by much of anyone else.  Something about it just has a certain ring to it: the minced oath, the explanation point, the sheer annoyance at a feline it expresses… just really eye catching.  The actual movie… eh, it’s alright.  This is a teen movie, albeit one made when society was only just adjusting to the basic concept of what a “teenager” even was and before Hollywood had really solidified what a “teen movie” would be and before they could really depict the tales of sexual awakening that the genre would be associated with in the future.  They were however starting to see something of a market to be exploited and two years before this the B-movie studio AIP had had a hit with the 1963 movie Beach Party, which kicked off a whole genre of cheaply made films exploiting the emerging California surf culture which sort of doubled as movies that would give off the atmosphere of teen partying while also showing females in swimsuits.  Disney couldn’t really do that.  Those “beach blanket” movies might seem squeaky clean today but back then they were considered, not “edgy” exactly, but not exactly family friendly and I think That Darn Cat! was kind of an experiment to see what Disney could do with a now nineteen year old Haley Mills to edge into that audience without doing anything as naughty as showing a female belly-button on screen.

The cat actually isn’t as big a part of the movie as you might think given the title; he’s a plot point and a consistent background presence but not really a character.  Instead the film concerns a pair of petty criminals (one played by Frank Gorshin, the Riddler from the 1966 Batman show), who kidnap a bank employee in order to do a robbery and when a cat happens to roam over to this banker’s window she ties a watch with a message engraved on it to the cat and when the cat returns to its owner (Haley Mills) she needs to interpret it and try to call the authorities and convince them of its meaning all while also juggling usual teenage stuff.  So, not the easiest concept to quickly summarize.  Like some of the other Disney comedies of this era the film is very much about and of the suburbs but doesn’t feel quite as much like a sitcom as some of these other movies, in part because parents oddly seem to be out of the picture here.  Would I care about the movie were it not for its title?  Probably not, and I suspect this would be rather forgotten if it didn’t have a studio like Disney behind it.  It’s not really all that funny but it is rather charming movie and that charm does go a long way.  Not a movie anyone really needs to seek out, but it’s a decent enough watch as these things go.
*** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that brings us to the end of that phase.  The early 60s were a pretty good era for Disney’s world view: things were prosperous, people were optimistic, and Vietnam hadn’t escalated.  It’s that period that was essentially an extension of the 50s but with less unpleasantness like McCarthyism and the boomers were of peak childhood consumerism age.  Things would change soon though: the Kennedy assassination happened all of two days after the release of The Incredible Journey and American culture would soon be heading in a decidedly less G-rated direction.  I’ll look at how Disney responded to some of that in my next installment, but that could be a while from now as I’m kind of Disneyed-out at the moment.

In the Heights(6/12/2021)

I was pretty late in taking in the musical “Hamilton,” to the point where I didn’t take it in in any form aside from the stray song or line until the filmed version showed up on Disney+ last year.  The reasons for this are pretty much the same reasons I don’t take in any Broadway musicals: I don’t live in New York, and even if I did I doubt that the theater is where I would choose to spend my money, and even if I was so inclined I definitely wouldn’t have gone through the motions of trying to get tickets to that blockbuster.  I also had no interest whatsoever in listening to the Original Cast Recording without the visual component as that just goes against my general philosophy for taking in art, which is basically that if you’re not going to do it right just don’t do it.  That said I was not so surprisingly impressed with the musical once it was finally made available to me through that streaming service.  After all, it’s a major work of popular entertainment that combines American history with hip hop… that’s kind of something that’s tailored to appeal to my nerdy interests.  The bigger question is why it proved so wildly compelling to millions upon millions of people who didn’t have a pre-existing interest in the finer points of the Federalist Papers, and I think the fairly obvious answer to that is that it just delivered some damn catchy tunes.  It’s the kind of success that generates a surge in interest in its creator’s previous work (call it the “Angels & Demons” phenomenon) and as such expectations are raised quite a bit for In the Heights, the new film version of one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s earlier stage efforts, which has been brought to the screen by director Jon Chu.

“The Heights” of the title refers to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, which since the 60s and 70s has become something of a hub of Latin American culture in the city.  The film follows a handful of Washington Heights residents over the course of a few days but generally focuses on two parallel stories.  The first is about a bodega owner named Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was eight but has dreams of returning there to buy back his dead father’s business there and has been hatching a plan to do this now that it’s up for sale.  He is, however, conflicted about this as it would leave behind his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the woman he called “Abuela” (Olga Merediz) despite no being related by blood, and also Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), a woman currently planning to move downtown that he has a crush on.  Meanwhile, a neighbor of his named Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has returned from Stanford after having completed her first year there but is planning to drop out firstly because she feels alienated there and secondly because she doesn’t want her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) to be further burdened by tuition payments.  She’s also dating Benny (Corey Hawkins), an employee of Kevin’s and a friend of Usnavi.  Over the course of about a week all of these stories will converge in ways that will be life altering for all of them.

Obviously this musical has similar musical stylings as Hamilton but on a story level it perhaps more closely resembles the last Broadway show before that to really cross over to the general public at that level: Rent.  Both shows center on the lives of young people in a vibrant New York neighborhood while trying to use their stories to look at the issues of their time.  This can be both a strength and weakness; there’s a reason why Manuel’s show about a nationally important historical figure has managed to travel further than this show about this neighborhood in New York that 98% of the population would never have heard of were it not for this production.  Unsurprisingly the musical is very pro-Washington Heights… like, really, really, really, really pro-Washington Heights.  It’s not exactly specific about what makes the neighborhood uniquely superior to any other Latin American community in the country, but the localized patriotism is certainly palpable.  Looked at from a certain angle there’s almost something oddly conservative about the film’s outlook in this regard: it’s completely resistant to any changes that the community may encounter and views the idea that someone would want to live as being something of a tragedy.  Were it a small town in the Midwest this attitude were being expressed toward rather than an urban Latin American neighborhood it would be almost indistinguishable from one of those Hallmark movies about people discovering that everything they ever wanted was there in their home town all along.

Really though the price the film pays for all this boosterism has less to do with thematic questions and more to do with simple story structure and character motivation.  Our main characters Usnavi, Vanessa, and to some extent Nina actually have leaving the neighborhood rather than arriving at it as their goals and the movie is… rather unconvincing in trying to sell this as their motivation what with the incredible awesomeness of Washington Heights being the central theme of nearly every scene of the film.  They barely even bother to explain why moving downtown is Vanessa’s big goal (apparently it’s because she wants to be involved in fashion… but, like, commuting is a thing) and Usnavi’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic is simply mentioned in the opening song and in one conversation but it’s rarely re-iterated or elaborated on and certainly doesn’t drown out the film’s aggressive celebration of the neighborhood he’s supposedly excited to get out of.  I don’t think the arcs on this subject really make a ton of sense, everyone just kind of has their outlook change on a dime at certain points and don’t even get me started on how out of nowhere and rushed the ending feels.

Part of the problem may just be that the film has a few too many characters.  At its heart the film is supposed to be about the journeys of Usnavi and Nina but the film can’t help but also focus on a whole bunch of other side characters that don’t have a lot to do with anything.  For instance we spend an inordinate amount of time with Nina’s hairdresser and her other employees.  They have some effect on the plot, but should by all accounts be side characters but instead they have multiple musical numbers including one late in the film which drags a lot.  But those characters seem very important compared to the time the film spends focusing on a snow cone salesman and his rivalry with an ice cream truck driver, which is shamelessly ripped off from a scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and seems to only exist to give a cameo to Lin-Manuel Miranda if not for the fact that this was also in the stage musical.  The time spent with these characters kind of detracts from the amount of time the film was able to focus on other characters.  Like, there’s a scene late in the movie between Nina and her boyfriend Benny where they’re fancifully dancing on the side of a building and it’s really beautiful but it doesn’t have nearly the impact it should because we’ve barely had any time to get to know Benny and this relationship hasn’t really been developed at all and it’s not really the catharsis that it should be.  I suspect the intent here was to make a movie about a larger community rather than just individuals and if they were going to do that I almost wish they had gone all in on that idea and made a true ensemble film with no lead because as is it kind of fits awkward between being a story about a couple people and being a story about everyone.

Now, I’ve been focusing a lot on the negative so far, in part because I’m trying to work through why my response to this has been a bit muted compared to other people’s but I don’t at all want to give the impression that I didn’t like the movie at all or that people shouldn’t see it, because whatever shortcomings it has in terms of substance it probably makes up for a lot of it through sheer style and energy.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical style is meant to be a fusion between typical Broadway exuberance with modern “urban” music and in the case of this musical traditional Latin music.   For the film Jon Chu seems to be trying to do a similar thing except with very old school film musicals of the Busby Berkeley variety.  It’s not the kind of musical that tries to contextualize its songs through diegesis or to imply that the musical numbers are fantasies in someone’s head and instead goes all in on having people sing to each other and doesn’t hesitate to have sequences where dozens of extras join in to choreographed dances in the street when the main characters feel so inclined to sing to each other.  The fusion of modern culture with old Hollywood is probably most palpable in a song midway through the film called “$96,000,” which is one of the most overtly hip-hop influenced songs in the film (right down to a blatant Boogie Down Productions interpolation) but is performed at an outdoor public pool as people line-dance around the place and culminates in a recreation of Kaleidoscopic synchronized swimming sequence from The Footlight Parade.

The film’s cast is also quite good though I would say that there’s a certain plateau many of them reach without going above and beyond.  The film has opted not to cast big names in favor of people who have the musical chops.  The biggest names here are probably Jimmy Smits (who has a non-singing role) and Corey Hawkins, and beyond that most of the actors here either come from Miranda’s Broadway work (Anthony Ramos/Olga Merediz) or some other musical background (like Leslie Grace, who is a recording star in the world of Latin music).  The music itself in the film is… good.  It gets the blend of styles down right and it seems to mostly be well performed, but… there’s a reason “Hamilton” is the musical that made Lin-Manuel Miranda famous nationwide and this isn’t because the music here is a bit of a step down from that.  The music here works quite well while you’re listening to it but there isn’t really a standout track that will be stuck in your head when the movie’s over and it also lacks the dense wordplay that made “Hamilton” stand out.  In fact “not as good as Hamilton” it true of a lot about the movie outside of, well, it’s a real movie.  As of now “Hamilton” is still a stage play, albeit one that’s been officially filmed for streaming whereas this is a fully produced motion picture with some really slick visual ideas from Jon Chu.  I have some issues with the some of the core storytelling and mixed messages and feel like it has some structural issues… but it remains something pretty unique compared to most of what we’re going to get from Hollywood this year and whatever quibbles I may have with it I still think it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.

***1/2 out of Five