Monday, June 28, 2021

In the Heights: A Review (Review #1496)


Perhaps it was too much to ask that In The Heights, the film version of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, bring audiences back to physical theaters after the COVID-19 pandemic/panic. Pleasant but forgettable, In the Heights is acceptable, even cheerful, eager to please but not quite achieving the translation from stage to screen.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) recounts his story from what we think are the shores of the Dominican Republic about his years in Washington Heights. He runs the bodega on the corner, forever yearning for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a fashion designer in downtown Manhattan. 

Across from him is Rosario's Dispatch, a taxi service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). He's facing financial struggles affording his daughter Nina's (Leslie Grace) Stanford education. For her part, Nina finds Stanford impossible, not in terms of education but in terms of culture clash. She also still carries a torch for Benny (Corey Hawkins), her father's chief dispatcher with whom she had a romance.

There's also the local beauty parlor where Vanessa works along with its denizens, the whole neighborhood watched over by Abuela Claudia (Olga Meridez), the loving grandmother figure to everyone in the barrio.

Over the film's almost two-hour-and-fifteen minute running time, our two couples struggle towards each other and their various goals both pre-and-post blackout. There's the issue of Usnavi's bodega selling a winning lottery ticket and who could own that magical ticket. There's not just the metaphorical dreams of those in the Heights but literal "Dreamers" as Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is found to be undocumented, his status unclear.

Does Usnavi return to the DR? Does Vanessa achieve her fashionista dreams? Does Nina go back to Stanford, especially after Kevin sells the rest of the business to fund it? Do our couples get together?

As I think on In the Heights, I find that as a composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has a set manner. One can see the similarity between In the Height's 96,000 and Hamilton's Cabinet Battle #1. Both are more rapped than sung in a rapid-fire manner that admittedly flows well but doesn't make for hummable tunes. In a good musical you can leave with at least one song ringing in your head. I can't think of one from In the Heights that stuck with me.

I think it comes from how the songbook has one of two speeds: extremely upbeat or extremely  melancholy. You shift from the exuberance of In the Heights to the sadness of Breathe, the bombast of Carnaval del Barrio to the lovelorn nature of When the Sun Goes Down. I can imagine that on the stage, this would work great. On the film though, it sometimes feels a bit forced.

It's one thing to hear Benny and Nina duet again in When the Sun Goes Down. It may even be pseudo-magical to see them dancing horizontally on the walls of the New York City rowhouses (as far as I know it wasn't meant to be sexual). It is another to ask us to suspend disbelief when you want people already singing and dancing to suspend the laws of gravity. 

I figure this number was taken from the You're All the World to Me number in Royal Wedding where Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling. Same for 96,000 which draws from Busby Berkley musicals in its geographic spectacle. Director Jon Chu knows his musical history and draws from it. However, unlike those films there seems something slightly amiss, something slightly off.

For me, In the Heights veers close to what I call forced frivolity, that sense that we the audience are supposed to be happy because the screen presents us with seemingly happy people. 

Perhaps my slightly chilly response to In the Heights is that we have so many stories spinning that the film feels top-heavy, teetering on the edge of falling to its weight. One senses Usnavi's story spinning all over that we struggle to figure out what story he is telling. Truth be told, apart from Abuela's Pacienza y Fe, I can't say that any of the songs had any kind of impact. Conversely Piragua, the solo number allowing Miranda to showcase himself, was superfluous.

Pacienza y Fe did make me want to know more about Abuela's life, from how she and her mother came from Cuba to meeting New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to her becoming the nurturing mother hen to the neighborhood. If we ever get Abuela: The Early Years, I'd be down for it. 

Certainly better than Usnavi's story. At one point I wrote, "Ya callate, Usnavi," when he essentially ditched Vanessa and almost pushed her to dance with other men. His Hamlet-like wavering between pursuing and not pursing her grew tiresome.    

I thought the performances were fine, with Meridez's Abuela a standout. Ramos is charming as Usnavi (his character's idiocy notwithstanding). 

In the Heights was fine. Pleasant, a bit adrift when going into the immigration debate (are all of us Hispanics/Latinos either undocumented or related to those who are?) but on the whole not a bad film. A bit longer than it should be despite cutting songs from the original Broadway show, it might be better to buy the soundtrack to enjoy the music instead. 

Finally, I have a question that has yet to be answered: if everyone can speak English well, why do they insist on pronouncing "Washington" in "Washington Heights" with a strong accent (Wah-shing-TONE vs. Wah-shing-TON)?   


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Multiple Maniacs: A Review (Review #1495)



Despite his best-known film Hairspray being seen as a tween party film, John Waters has always reveled in the tawdry, tacky and flat-out weird. Multiple Maniacs gleefully bills itself as "a celluloid travesty" and is unapologetic about its idiosyncrasies and idiocies. In turns dumb and funny, Multiple Maniacs is fully aware of itself, though not exactly what I would consider great cinema.

Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion presents itself as a traveling freak show but is really just a front to rob unsuspecting rubes roped into seeing the various freaks and perverts. Headed by Lady Divine (Divine), she has developed a blood lust, itching from just robbing to killing people.

Her current lover Mr. David (David Lochary) wants out of Lady Divine's life to move into the newer, younger Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pierce). Lady Divine too is tiring of Mr. David, but their criminal life binds them together. The only thing Lady Divine cares for is her hooker daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller), with whom they are staying.

Suspecting Mr. David is fooling around, Lady Divine goes in search of them to kill them both. She however is raped by drugged-out men in dresses, leading a shocked Lady Divine to have visions of the Infant of Prague leading her to a church. Here, rather than finding salvation, she finds lesbianism in the form of Mink the Religious Whore (Mink Stole), who sodomizes Lady Divine with her rosary.

Now joining forces, they seek out Mr. David and Bonnie, a meeting that will end with many dead. Lady Divine not only cannibalizes Mr. David but ends up raped again, this time by a giant lobster named Lobstora. This sends Lady Divine into such a murderous frenzy that only the National Guard can stop her crazed destruction Godzilla-style.

Multiple Maniacs exists in a world where people can be raped by giant lobsters because, why not? In John Waters' world, giant lobsters popping out of nowhere to rape drag queens is not only logical but almost expected.

It is clear that this is a movie that is less directed by John Waters as it is shot by him. The acting is the height (or depth) of amateurish: some actors clearly flubbed their lines but managed to get through things, and in the infamous Lobstora sequence you can clearly see Divine using the shocked screams as a way to stop his wig from falling off. Some, like barmaid Edith (Edith Massey) clearly couldn't act, their failed efforts to try however become mesmerizing. It's like watching an out-of-control train skipping along the tracks but somehow managing to hold on to its path.

As Multiple Maniacs is openly too silly to believe, it frees the viewer from taking any of this seriously. We know this is campy to the extreme, so we can watch in sometimes unsuppressed laughter, sometimes in puzzlement, and sometimes in disbelief.

Take for example Lady Divine's last rampage. As Mars, the Bringer of War plays on, this gigantic glamor-than-glam force known as drag performer Divine stops in frenzied glee, aware of the lunacy of it all. Certainly the crowds fleeing in terror weren't taking this seriously, and we know logic plays no part in Multiple Maniacs. After all, how is it that the same blind beggar keeps showing up as Lady Divine storms her way across Baltimore?  

Multiple Maniacs is clearly made for people who find either humor or enjoyment in seeing Divine's naked ass thrust at you. As for the infamous sodomy-by-rosary scene, as I'm not Catholic I can't work up outrage or horror. I can imagine that for Waters, whose background is Catholic, this was a firm thumb-up-the-nose at the faith. It is tasteless, but that's Waters' forte.

Multiple Maniacs is a film put together by people who just wanted to make a film. If you see it that way, I can see why so many enjoy the trashiness of it all. It isn't a film for me, but as I did laugh at it I guess it works.    


Tell Me When: A Review


I will grant that the circumstances under which I saw Tell Me When (Dime Cuando Tu)* may have colored my views on the film, but I think I would have reached my conclusions regardless. 

Guillermo or Will (Jesus Zavala) is a Mexican-American, too busy wrapped up in his career to notice either life or his heritage. After his beloved grandfather (Jose Carlos Ruiz) drops dead, Will finds the notebook he had written for his grandson. Here, he advises Will to revisit his roots by going to Mexico City and explore the sights and sounds of the vibrant capital.

While there, Will finds that "Daniel", his grandmother's friend's grandson, is really "Danielle" (Ximena Romo), an aspiring actress who curiously mistakes being the understudy to Mexican actress Ludwika Paleta** as "making it". Fortunately, a car accident renders Paleta totally incapable of taking the stage, clearing the way for Dani. Will, encouraged by Dani's requisite gay best friend Beto (Gabriel Nuncio), attempts to form a romantic relationship with the upbeat Dani, resulting in one kiss.

However, Dani sees that they are not meant for each other, leading Will to feel inadequate and depressed. Reluctantly returning to Los Angeles, it takes a lot of work from Beto and Will's family to get him back to Dani, where he is willing to be with her be it as lover or friend.

My cousin, celebrating her birthday, insisted on having us see Tell Me When as part of an outdoor Netflix screening. It was about nine thirty and I wanted to go home, but one doesn't walk out on family. As such, I endured a movie whose plot was so painfully obvious it is a wonder that anyone could think any of this was clever, let alone good. Writer/director Gerardo Gatica Gonzalez had several sketches for a story, but never brought them together into anything worth the surprisingly lengthy 95 minutes.

Zavala's character was dull, so I cut him some slack, but Will was not interesting to begin with. Truth be told, for a movie filled with clichés (no woman apparently is without a gay best friend), his character never grew. Instead, he just hit the expected beats without earning our interest. I put it down to Gonzalez's script, which not only gives Will/Guillermo (both are translations of the other) nothing to do but never decides if he's merely sheltered or a blithering idiot.

One scene has him "mugged" by perhaps the gentlest pair of ruffians, who take his wallet after removing a pair of blinking sunglasses he literally wears both at night and while walking back to the apartment. A girlish scream is enough to make him flee in terror. I figure this is funny to Gonzalez, but it just comes across as third-rate sitcom. Another odd scene is when Will joins a mariachi group in an impromptu performance. The other restaurant patrons appear unsure if this man is merely drunk or flat-out bonkers, but once he orders drinks for everyone on him, there is a pause before they all applaud.

For a film whose message is to "find life", Tell Me When doesn't find anything. Again and again, Gonzalez flirts with ideas only to drop them, refusing to follow through. One moment a raincloud seems to fall only on him, suggesting a slightly surreal film, but that disappears quickly. Dani's former flame appears but that too doesn't add anything to the story.

Faring much better is Zapata's other costar Romo, who gives Dani something of a character (although the idea that Will's family friend would not make clear that Daniel is really a woman stretches believability). She too was hampered by Gonzalez's script, which at times shifted from making her something of an idiot (an actress would or should know being an understudy is not the same as getting the starring role) to making her a wise woman. 

To be fair, Tell Me When does have an excellent soundtrack, blending everything from Patsy Cline's Crazy to Juan Gabriel's Querida (which has the line "Dime cuando tu"). Anyone who grew up listening to Spanish-language performers like Napoleon or Daniela Romo would appreciate the music. 

Credit should also be given to some of the supporting actors like Veronica Castro as Will's grandmother and Hector Bonilla as her lifelong friend Juancho for bringing life to characters more interesting than Will or even Dani.

Makes one wish the film had focused on them instead.

I love my family, but given that my cousin and I have diametrically opposed views on politics, religion and film (which we respect, leading us to have never had a single fight between us), why she would think I would enjoy Tell Me When is puzzling. To each his/her own, but the only thing I'd ask anyone to tell me is to Tell Me When it's over. 

* While translated as Tell Me When, I would argue that "Dime Cuando" is "Tell Me When" and Dime Cuando Tu is "Tell Me When You".

** While I understand that "Paleta" is her actual Polish surname, it can also mean "Popsicle" in Spanish, which made the Polish-Mexican name "Ludwika Paleta" very curious to my younger eyes and ears. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: A Review



The transition from Imperial to modern Japan forced many changes. The role and position of women, however, was not one of them. When A Woman Ascends the Stairs chronicles the struggle and sadness behind the smiling faces of women who entertain men.

In post-war Japan the widow Keiko (Hideko Takamine) works as a bar hostess at the Lilac Bar. Mama as the other, younger hostesses call her, maintains her dignity while struggling financially despite having wealthy patrons. She wants to open her own bar, but simply has no money for such a thing.

Her former colleague Yuri (Keiko Awaji) has opened her own place, drawing customers away from the Lilac. Outwardly happy, she too is struggling financially. Keiko may entertain the men, but she won't sleep with them. She also hates going up the stairs to the bars she works at, finding that she can't fake it until she makes it.

In a shocking turn, Yuri commits suicide, though it is unclear whether she meant to or merely misjudged a fake attempt to keep her creditors at bay and accidentally killed herself. For once, Keiko can't go through the façade of the joyful geisha-like figure and berates the man who sent the bill collector to Yuri's grieving mother. Her manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), who harbors love for Keiko, insists she do her job. 

Illness, however, along with anger, prevent her, at least temporarily. After finally sleeping with a client who won't leave his wife, Keiko turns down Komatsu's proposal and ultimate ascends the stairs, presenting a happy face to new clients.

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs is a sharp critique of gender roles in Japanese society, one where women must put on a happy face to men who may or may not care for them in order to survive. The men are interested almost wholly in being catered to and entertained, but the private struggles of the women is of little importance.

Even Komatsu, perhaps the most sympathetic of the men, isn't above having sex with Junko (Reiko Dan), another bar hostess whom Keiko serves as unofficial mentor in the demimonde of neo-geisha. He sleeps with her to get information about Keiko, even though Junko sees him in a more romantic light. Naïve and upbeat, Junko wants a marriage but doesn't seem to mind being a hostess if it leads to a wealthy husband. Even a single tryst with Komatsu will make her happy.

It won't make Keiko happy though, and When A Woman Ascends the Stairs succeeds because of Hideko Takamine. Her performance is extraordinary, eliciting sympathy and strength in equal turns. Takamine does not make Keiko a victim but it also does not glorify her as a feminist. Instead, she makes Keiko a survivor, who cares about her fellow bar hostesses but who keeps a rich but private world separate from her work. Her performance is pitch-perfect, from when she denies a true story of her placing a love letter in her late husband's urn to telling off the man who drove Yuri to suicide (intentional or not).

Keiko is a strong woman, who has dreams but also private pains. You want her to succeed, but whether her last moment where she "happily" greets clients is a triumph or a fall is up to the viewer. Despite whatever life throws at her, she maintains her own honor and pride. "I love you but I prefer a husband," she tells her potential benefactor, showing she can't be bought even by what was intended as an act of kindness; when she returns his stock certificates at the train station with his wife present.  

Though a smaller role, Nakadai supports Takamine as Komatsu, the man who privately loves her but who cannot bring himself to say it out loud until it is too late. He carries this torch but also has created a false goddess, idolizing her in a way that is just as regressive as the men Keiko entertains. Reprimanding her for her behavior towards the sleazy businessman, he makes clear what her role is. "You get paid to show men a good time. If you don't like it, take off that kimono and work in an office and starve", he snaps. 

Whether he says this as a way to cover his own pain about her not seeing his ardor for her or because she in a way is business one doesn't know, but it makes Komatsu's struggle all the harder.

The film also has a surprisingly light and smooth jazz score, perhaps reflecting the outwardly upbeat but privately hard world it takes place in.

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs feels longer than it is and I wasn't big on Keiko's sporadic voiceover, but those are minor points. It's a well-acted film about how those smiles we get may not be anything more than a graceful performance, an artifice to keep body and soul together.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Fatale: A Review


It takes a certain amount of courage to try and make a clearly psychopathic murderess the heroine of a film. Fatale tries, bungles it in at times hilarious ways, but bless it for trying. 

Successful sports agent Derrick Tyler (Michael Ealy) worries his wife Tracie (Damaris Lewis) is fooling around. Therefore, it seems almost rational that he has a one-night stand in Las Vegas with Val (Hillary Swank). Val enjoys the fling to where she forces him to go another round so he can get his cell phone, which she's locked in the hotel safe.

If that already doesn't scream "psycho", I don't know what does.

So after this indiscretion Derrick attempts to work on the marriage and it looks like things are going well, until an intruder comes and nearly kills him. The lead investigator is none other than Val, displeased to find "Darren from Seattle" is neither. 

Now Derrick has to deal with both the attempt on his life and a woman scorned. As if to add to his troubles there's the fact that Tracie is indeed having an affair, with none other than Derrick's business partner Rafe (Mike Colter), a relationship Val is more than happy to reveal. Is it to warn him that Rafe and Tracie were the ones who tried to kill Derrick off? Is it to get Derrick to help her get custody of the daughter she permanently disabled when she was an alcoholic? Is it not just to help her get custody of said daughter but to get rid of her ex, District Attorney Carter Haywood (Danny Pino)? 

As bodies keep piling up and more people get involved in the myriad of crimes, Derrick has to use all his wits to save himself from being framed and from Val's increasingly whacked-out schemes.

Fatale is so close to a "so bad it's good" film, one that could have embraced its loonyness and been so much camp. It, to be fair, could also have decided to take things seriously and be the psychological thriller it aimed at.

Instead, Fatale decided to tie itself into knots by becoming totally unhinged if not irrational, not unlike Val.  David Loughry's screenplay attempted to make Val sympathetic through her efforts to get back her daughter, but trying to force Derrick to reenact a weird version of Strangers on a Train is an odd way of doing it. 

If I understand things correct, Tracie and Rafe hired a hitman to ice Derrick, but Val decided to kill them both so that Derrick could then kill Cole, thus granting her sole custody. Add to that the idea that a police detective could keep working when she has a restraining order against her from the District Attorney, who is himself embroiled in some kind of scandal. Guess if Cole's killed, his current wife has no rights to her stepdaughter against a woman who caused said daughter's paralysis and who is certifiably bonkers?

Yes, it's a bit muddled, but Fatale decides it needs to go all over the place just to go somewhere.

Fatale in many ways is an unintentional comedy. From when Derrick discovers Tracie and Rafe are humping around to when Derrick's cousin Tyrin (Tyrin Turner) and his fellow hitman Bumpy (Compton Menace) get blown away, these scenes elicited howls of laughter from me. 

Perhaps it isn't surprising how badly Fatale plays, as director Deon Taylor apparently told everyone to look bored. I generally like Ealy and Swank, but Fatale is among their worst performances. Everyone bar none looks so blank, so empty, almost forcing the words to come out with no sense of conviction or even apparently interest. No matter what happened, or what really crazy turns the plot took, everyone in Fatale acted as if they were aware how awful it all was and weren't about to bother trying to make it realistic.

In retrospect, I'm going to walk this back slightly. Pino had one mode: perpetual anger. Even when Derrick comes to try and tell him of a plan he has to catch Val in her own trap, Cole is simply too triggered by Val's name to show an inch of common sense. 

I said to myself, "Derrick, report her psycho ass to her superiors" and if he had he would have spared himself so much misery. However, you can count on people in films to do the dumbest thing possible to keep the story rolling, logic be damned.

I can't say I hated Fatale or that it isn't worth the time to see if there isn't anything else. I can say that Fatale is poorly acted and poorly written, a case of the two going together. "I don't go after something unless I know I can get it," Val tells Tracie and Derrick when she first arrives to lead the break-in investigation. Subtle Fatale is not, but in the right mood it can find a future as less psychological thriller and more camp comedy. 


Thursday, June 3, 2021

Cruella: A Review (Review #1491)


It's a battle of broads in Cruella, not exactly a prequel to One Hundred and Dalmatians but not entirely divorced from the source material either. Longer than it should be, Cruella does what a lot of modern films do nowadays: explain evil. Whether this evil needs explaining is never asked though.

Young Estella, born with black-and-white hair, struggles between being the good girl her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) wants her to be, and the bad girl inside her. After getting expelled thanks to fighting back against her school bullies, Catherine goes to "an old friend" for financial help. Estella witnesses three Dalmatians push her mother off a cliff, and she blames herself thinking the dogs were after her.

Now arriving in London, she quickly falls in with two pickpockets. Ten years go by, and Estella (Emma Stone) and her partners in crime Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Houser) continue living off their wits and petty crimes. However, Estella yearns to be a fashion designer, so Jasper finagles for Estella a job at Liberty, the chicest of chic boutiques. The job sadly isn't that of a designer but of a cleaning woman.

After drunkenly creating a fabulous window display, Estella grabs the eyes of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), Liberty's owner and the designer of all designers. The Baroness takes Estella under her wing, or at least as much as this catty self-absorbed monster can. It's not long, however, before Estella connects The Baroness with her mother's death. Vowing revenge, enter her alter ego "Cruella", punk fashion designer who upstages The Baroness at every turn. 

It's a battle royale between these two monsters, leading to a shocking connection between Estella and The Baroness and the rise of "Cruella de Vil". 

The character of Cruella de Vil is so ingrained into the popular culture that even if one has not seen either the animated or live-action version of One Hundred and One Dalmatians you recognize the character. She is only one of two animated characters to be listed in the American Film Institute's 50 Greatest Screen Villains ("Man" from Bambi being a questionable third). How else to describe someone who wants to kill puppies to make herself a coat out of them but a villainess? 

Whether Cruella sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of our attempted puppy murderess or not I can only guess at, but here is where I offer a different take on what is meant as a One Hundred and One Dalmatian prequel. Cruella isn't a prequel in my view. It's in an alternate universe altogether, and if you can divorce yourself from One Hundred and One Dalmatians altogether you may find Cruella a better fit. 

Cruella's myriad of writers (five credited with Story and Screenplay, though one suspects more hands were here) attempted to give Cruella's monstrous (future) designs on the puppies some context by having Dalmatians take her beloved mother down. Maybe they thought this was clever. Maybe they thought it gave "context" to Cruella's Dalmatian fixation. It didn't do either.

Simply put, Cruella de Vil wanted to kill the puppies because she wanted a Dalmatian fur coat, nothing more, nothing less. 

Cruella falls into a curious trend in modern storytelling where villains' motivations have to have "a reason, an explanation", some key that will rationalize why they are evil. I don't think such things are necessary: some people are evil because that brings them pleasure in some sort of way. It didn't have to be Dalmatians that did her mother in, but they were chosen because of sheer laziness, to "connect the dots" so to speak.

What Cruella really is a hodgepodge of other films, everything from Hannibal Rising to Maleficent to Oliver Twist to mostly The Devil Wears Prada (or maybe The De Vil Wears Prada). It shouldn't be a surprise given that one of the "story by" writers (Aline Brosh McKenna) wrote the screenplay to The Devil Wears Prada. In so many beats Estella/Cruella is a bizarre mix of Andrea Sachs and Miranda Priestly. For an origin story, Cruella isn't very original. 

Cruella is also drowned out by being far too long and far too bombastic. When a young Jasper asks Estella, "So, what's your story?" we could have started there rather than spend what seemed endless time getting her backstory. The constant one-upmanship goes on and on, exhausting the viewer.

There's also the constant soundtrack of 70s punk songs to set the mood. Even that is barely tolerable, but ending the film with The Rolling Stone's Sympathy for the Devil was so predictable. Sadly, either they didn't or couldn't include The Clash's London Calling anywhere, which seemed like a missed opportunity. 

Whatever positives are in the performances and overall production design. Stone (curiously struggling with her British accent) and Thompson (not struggling) devoured the scenery with total relish. Both dive in full-force in their utter cattiness, begging the question Which Witch is Witch (or something that rhymes with "witch"). Stone's various British tones make the incessant voiceover hard to bear. Thompson understood there was no character in The Baroness save for a British Miranda, so she went for an impersonation. 

Hauser was excellent as the dimwitted Jasper, and Kimberly Howell-Baptiste, sadly underused, was strong as Anita Darling, Estella's only school friend who grew to be a combination Jimmy Olsen/Lois Lane covering Cruella's rising career.

Credit should also go to the makeup, production design and especially costumes, fitting for a film centered around the fashion world. 

Cruella is long and loud, with little if no reason for being. However, if you take the dogs out of it, one could see it as mild entertainment.