In the Heights

Posted on June 8, 2021 at 2:27 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 or some suggestive references and strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking, some substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2021
Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers

Love, loss, hope, dreams, family, community, hope, darkness, purpose, dancing. Very, very specific and ultimately universal. “In the Heights,” based on what will always be known as the play Lin-Manuel Miranda did before “Hamilton,” has been gently streamlined and updated into a joyous post-pandemic welcome back into the world after a year postponement due to the coronavirus. It is touching, ebullient, timely and timeless with an irresistible cast of young performers filled with screen chemistry.

It began in the dorm room of Wesleyan student Miranda, who has said if he did not see roles he could play in the theater, he would write his own. After an award-winning run off-Broadway, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it moved to Broadway itself, with Miranda in a lead role, and was awarded Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Like the original, the movie takes place over three hot summer days on and around one block of the predominantly Latino community of Washington Heights. It is a place where “You can’t walk two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans.”

There is a little bodega run by Usnavi (named after the letters his Dominican parents saw on a military ship when they first came to the United States) is played by the endlessly appealing Anthony Ramos (also seen this summer on “In Treatment”). He gets help from his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who likes to tease Navi about his crush on aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). They get a lot of support from their honorary Abuela Claudia (grandmother), played by Olga Merediz in her Tony-nominated role. Claudia is like everyone’s grandmother, doling out good food and good advice to everyone.

Also on the block is the car service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose one goal is to give his brilliant daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), a student at Stanford, every opportunity to achieve success. Nina is loved by her ex, Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher in her father’s company. She does not want anyone to know what a difficult time she has been having because she is afraid of letting them down.

Both businesses are at risk as the neighborhood is gentrified and ask their owners consider other priorities. Navi wants to return to the Dominican Republic he dreams of as an idyllic paradise. We first see him on a beach like the one he dreamed of, telling children “the story of a clock that was disappearing in a faraway land called New York.”

Kevin will make any sacrifice to keep Nina in school, even though Nina is not sure she wants to stay, and she feels guilty about taking anything more from him.

Someone, we don’t know who, has purchased a winning lottery ticket for the bodega. It is worth $96,000, enough to make any of the dreams of the characters come true, or at least come closer. And, there is a blackout. All of the power goes out.

The story is told with songs and dance that are never less than glorious, especially a number at the local pool that harks back to the days of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley, and a fair with all of the different nationalities showing off their dances. The beauty parlor estheticians form a Latina Greek chorus, and their musical number is pure delight. The vibrant energy of the film (and I do recommend seeing it in IMAX) is like a burst of sunshine.

That does not mean there aren’t struggles and losses and not all dreams come true. But that is life, and it is the life that shines through this movie that makes it one of the year’s deepest pleasures.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and references to other losses and struggles, some suggestive references, substance abuse, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What are the dreams of you and your family? What little details help you assert your dignity? How can we make sure no one feels invisible?

If you like this, try: “Hamilton” and “West Side Story”

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The Prom

Posted on December 10, 2020 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive/sexual references, and language
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
Irving Berlin was right. There’s no people like show people. And no one knows and loves show people as much as other show people, which is why “The Prom” is 20 percent sly satire and 80 percent love letter to the craziness that goes into entertaining audiences.

“The Prom” was a mildly successful Broadway musical about Broadway stars who want to restore their reputations after their new show has a disastrous opening night (a musical about Franklin and Eleonor Roosevelt). They see an injustice on Twitter. A small Indiana high school has cancelled its prom rather than allow a student to bring a same-sex date. And so, not even sure where Indiana is or what it is, they get on a bus, sure that their Broadway luster and can-do spirit will teach those people in flyover country about respect and inclusion. “This will be the biggest thing that’s happened in Indiana since..whatever the last big thing that happened in Indiana was,” one declares.

As you might guess, the Hoosiers are not impressed, even when Broadway leading lady Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) pulls out her two Tony Awards, which she apparently has on hand at all times, in case someone does not who Who She Is. The high school student at the center of the fuss is Emma (a star-making turn from Jo Ellen Pellman) has a bigger problem than the prom; the girl who would be her date is the daughter of the woman fighting to prevent same-sex couples from attending (Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene). Caught in the middle is the high school principal, Tom Hawkins, who happens to be a fan of Broadway musicals, especially those featuring Dee Dee (Keegan-Michael Key).

The story adds some unexpected sweetness and reconciliation but really the entire production is just a change to have some fun with some inside theater humor and put on a big, colorful, splashy show with a bunch of Tony and Oscar-winners. Streep has a blast as a larger-than-life personality who is only at home on stage. After letting down someone who genuinely cares for her, the only way she can apologize is to reprise one of her career’s signature numbers. Andrew Rannells (a Tony Award winner for “Book of Mormon”) has a huge musical number with local kids in a shopping mall. Nicole Kidman plays the kind of chorus line hoofer who goes from show to show but never makes it into a lead role, and James Corden is a gay man who sees Emma’s problems in very personal terms because his parents rejected him after he came out.

You don’t have to understand the relative status of a Tony vs. a Drama Desk award or remember which musical had the most performances before “Cats” to sit back and enjoy the good-hearted fun, clever lyrics (by Chad Beguelin), and the jubilant dance numbers choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. It most important message is not inclusion but about the power of art itself, especially big, splashy, energetic, colorful musical, to bring us together and heal what hurts.

Parents should know that the theme of this movie is homophobia and inclusion. It includes some sexual humor and some sexual references, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What would you say to Mrs. Greene? What’s your favorite musical?

If you like this, try: “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Footloose,” “Hairspray,” and “High School Musical”

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The Secret Garden

Posted on August 6, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen deaths of parents, illness, depression, fire
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2020

Copyright STX 2020
Most of the time I was beguiled by the gorgeously designed latest version of “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1911 story of the orphan girl named Mary Lennox sent to live with her uncle in a vast castle-like home on the moors. She discovers a locked, hidden garden — and some family secrets. But there were moments when I was as cross as Mary herself, the book version that is.

What I loved most about the book when I first read it as a child and then when I read it aloud to my own children was that Mary is that rare heroine in a classic children’s book who is unapologetically imperious, outspoken, and, until the secret garden works its magic, selfish. Anne Shirley, Pollyanna, Alice, Caddie Woodlawn, and Burnett’s unfailingly saint-like Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox had a sour disposition and yet, she was the heroine of the story. This fifth movie version begins with Mary comforting her doll. The book’s Mary would never do anything so empathetic.

So, it took me a while to let go of my version of Mary and warm to the softer version from screenwriter Jack Thorne (“Wonder”), enjoying the movie within its own conception of the story. As in the book, Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is raised in colonial-era India (here set in 1947), then sent to live with the uncle she does not remember ever having met (Colin Firth as Archibald Craven), in an enormous house called Misselthwaite Manor, on the windy, misty moors of Yorkshire.

She discovers a secret garden and two boys, one who seems to be a part of the moors, and a relative who is as removed from the natural world — even other humans — as it is possible to be. She discovers some important understanding about herself, in part through evidence that helps her reframe her past.

Sumptuously imagined and lovingly presented, this is a fine family film, and a good reminder that even being stuck at home can be an adventure.

Parents should know that this film features three children mourning lost parents and a grief-stricken father/uncle. A character has severe depression, which her daughter interprets as not caring about her. There is some mild peril and a fire.

Family discussion: Grief is expressed in many different ways in this film. What are some of them? What did Mary and Colin learn from the letters that made a difference to them? What would be in your secret garden?

If you like this, try: the book and the earlier versions of the story, especially the 1987 version directed by Agnieszka Holland.

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Cats

Posted on December 19, 2019 at 5:09 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Threats, dusting-style disappearances, portrayal of afterlife/reincarnation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Universal

I was not hoping for much from “Cats.” I knew that the record-breaking, popular-for-decades Broadway musical did not have much of a plot, just songs with lyrics from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and spectacular dancing. So that’s all I hoped for — an all-star cast singing and dancing. Some of the singing is fine, and the dancing is great, when you can see it, but the whole thing is so badly misbegotten that it does its best to keep its most entertaining elements out of sight.

I mean that literally. There’s one simple rule, going back to the days of Fred Astaire, for dance in movies: get the camera out of the way and let the audience see the dance as fully as possible. We want to see the shapes the bodies make, we want to feel the way they interact with the rhythm and with each other, and we want to see their feet. There are dance numbers in “Cats” where the camera moves away from the feet or out of beat with the rhythm. Why? They also give “Memory,” one of the most iconic songs of the last 30 years to Jennifer Hudson, one of the greatest singers of the last 30 years and have her put most of her energy into emotion instead of singing.

The movie’s credits highlight ballerina Francesca Hayward in her first film appearance, playing the young ingenue cat, Victoria. She is thrown into the garbage inside a sack at the beginning of the film, and we learn about the world of the cats as it is explained to her. The various felines introduce themselves, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) the house cat, who teaches mice and even cockroaches to sing and dance, the magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the down-at-the-paws Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), filled with regret and self-doubt, “the tap-dancing railroad yard cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), and the wicked Macavity (Idris Elba) “the Napoleon of crime.”

Presiding over everyone is the magisterial Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), who has the power to select one “jellicle” cat (a term Eliot made up) for a second chance at life. As cats comes forward to introduce themselves, it’s like a feline “Chorus Line,” everyone auditioning for that one big chance.

All of that would be fine if there was some joyful energy behind it, but it is mostly just dreary. Some of the musical numbers, especially McRae’s tap dance, could could have provided that lift if the camera would have stopped long enough to let us see what he was doing. Taylor Swift brings all of her considerable Swiftian panache (though an uncertain hold on an English accent) as Bombalurina, but the movie then sinks back into its trudgey tempo, leaving us to wonder at the furry costumes with ears and tails constantly twitching, so skin-tight it only emphasizes the human and decidedly un-feline forms and movements. It’s a close call what we get more of, silly “cat got your tongue”-style references, the word “jellicle” or Hayward’s lovely face, even in fur and whiskers, which director Tom Hooper keeps cutting back to. Not to sound catty, but it just reminds us how much less enthralled we are than she is.

Here’s a tip. “Cats” is a purely theatrical experience. You want to make a movie about it? Try making it about a theater troop putting it on, and try not have it turn unto “Noises Off.” Even if it did, it would be more entertaining than this version.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild sexual references, nuzzling, some disturbing dusting-style disappearances and death references, and sad songs.

Family discussion: What do you think “jellicle” means? Do you agree with Deuteronomy’s choice? Which was your favorite cat and why?

If you like this, try: “The Fantastcks” and “Nine”

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