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In the Heights

And oh, what heights we'll hit...on with the show, this is it!
I first heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda when his "Hamilton" made a splash. I was surprised to learn that he had written another musical a few years earlier. Well, the movie adaptation of "In the Heights" is here. What a show! Basically, it's a look at the efforts to preserve the spirit of one's neighborhood amid pressure to change both from inside and out. The musical numbers are like nothing that you've ever seen. I'll be eager to see Miranda's next production.

Great one.

The Little Hours

a cult genre played for laughs
One of the genres of cult movies is called nunsploitation. It focuses on nuns - usually in a medieval or Renaissance setting - and their sexual repression. Jeff Baena's oddball movie "The Little Hours" takes this genre and turns it into a black comedy. The setting is a convent in 1347 Italy, and the main focus is three nuns who see their vows challenged when a man gets hired in the convent.

This is definitely NOT a movie for everyone. The slow pace and understated humor is guaranteed to turn a lot of viewers off. To be certain, nothing about the movie is intended as serious. Far from the sorts of movies wherein every medieval character has an English accent, most of the nuns here talk like valley girls!

Anyway, it's a weird but funny depiction of cloistered life in the Late Middle Ages. I think that you should check it out, even if you end up not liking it. The cast includes Alison Brie (Ruth on "GLOW"), Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Molly Shannon and Fred Armisen.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

if humor isn't shocking, it isn't humor
Everyone knows "Animal House" and the "Vacation" movies. You might remember that they carried the National Lampoon header. What you might not have known was that this header came from a cutting-edge magazine popular in the early '70s. "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon" looks at National Lampoon magazine, and how it influenced humor for the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War and Watergate. Not surprisingly, many of the people involved in the magazine starred on "Saturday Night Live".

The documentary features interviews with Chevy Chase, Michael O'Donoghue, and other people involved with the magazine. In the process, we learn a lot about Doug Kenney; he helped launch the magazine and appeared as Stork in "Animal House" (What the hell we s'posta do, ya mo-ron?). Unfortunately, he met an ignoble end in Hawaii in 1980.

Anyway, this is one documentary that you're sure to enjoy. The magazine's transgressive material was a real pleasure; those guys set out to offend everyone. Definitely check it out.


an important part of the slave trade was Africa's strength
You've probably heard about the slave trade. However, a common misconception about it is that the European powers trafficked people because Africa was weak. Roger Gnoan M'Bala's "Adanggaman" makes clear that this was not the case. Plenty of the groups of people across the continent exerted considerable economic strength, to the point where the Europeans had to trade on the Africans' terms. Indeed, the slave trade wouldn't have been possible without the complicity of Africans.

Anyway, excellent movie. Both a look at the slave trade, as well as a focus on the lives of the Bambara.

But I'm a Cheerleader

you are you
In the 21st century, reports of so-called gay conversion therapy have come up a lot. That makes Jamie Babbitt's "But I'm a Cheerleader" all the more relevant. Natasha Lyonne plays a high school girl whose conservative parents suspect her of lesbianism and send her to gay conversion therapy.

Mind you, this movie is a comedy. Part of the humor derives from the sheer tackiness of the conversion house. Everything is either pink or blue to emphasize the owner's insistence on gender stereotypes to "cure" homosexuality. But there's also the owner's son. Looking as manly as can be, he's a gay man's fantasy.

I understand that some critics called this movie a clone of John Waters movies. There's that element, but the movie manages to be its own movie. It exposes the complete hypocrisy of these religious fundamentalists who act as if they're doing something holy when in reality, they're teaching people to hate themselves.

It's not a masterpiece, but you're sure to enjoy it, not least because of Cathy Moriarty's performance as the tight-ass owner of the conversion house. Similar movies that I recommend are "Boy Erased" and "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" (there's also a musical called "Pray the Gay Away").

Enola Holmes

it goes to Eleven
I should start by noting that I've never read any of the books depicting Sherlock Holmes's younger sister. In fact, I've never read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's original novels. Coming into "Enola Holmes" completely unaware of its background, I was pleased. The point is to be entertaining, and the movie is just that. In a role quite different from Eleven on "Stranger Things", Millie Bobby Brown plays Enola as a vivacious girl out to challenge the Victorian era's gender norms while solving a mystery. It's nothing spectacular, but will be enjoyable if you have nothing else to watch.


the images of our time
Having directed "Chronos" and "Baraka", Ron Fricke created a trilogy with "Samsara". Like the previous two, the documentary contains no dialogue or narration, just images contrasting the natural world with the artificial one. The images of the forests, rivers, etc, are a stark contrast to the factories and office buildings.

The speed at which the documentary brings the images - ranging from Buddhist monks creating a mandala to a man at a desk using his head as an art project - is dizzying. Nonetheless, it adds up to a fine documentary that forces us to think about what kind of a world we have. I recommend it.

Mare of Easttown

in small town Pennsylvania, things will come out (especially when portrayed so masterfully)
We're not even halfway through the year, but "Mare of Easttown" is one of the best miniseries of the year. Kate Winslet's unglamorous appearance and adoption of a rough accent, combined with her character's personal problems as she investigates a murder, make this a show that you have to see. And boy is it an intense one! No description can do it justice. You have to see it to believe it.

I now hope to see Jean Smart's miniseries "Hacks".

The Tempest

Julie Taymor directs the bard a second time
Having directed a number of stage productions over the years - notably "The Lion King" - Julie Taymor made her big-screen directorial debut with 1999's "Titus", based on one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays. Taymor went on to direct "Frida" (about Frida Kahlo) and "Across the Universe" (a Beatles jukebox musical) before returning to Shakespeare with "The Tempest".

I should note that I've never seen a production of the play. I understand that the main character was originally a man, with the movie gender-swapped. Here we have Helen Mirren as Prospera, a sorceress who is the rightful heir to Milan, and seeking revenge on those who wronged her.

Having never seen any other movie versions of the play, I can't compare this one to those either. What I can say is that the cast puts on fine performances. It was especially surprising to see Chris Cooper play one of the roles. If you've only seen him in John Sayles's politically charged movies, this will be a shocker (ditto Sayles's other cast member David Strathairn).

Overall, it's not a masterpiece. The Early Modern English can feel unwieldy at times, and some of the CGI makes the movie seem silly. Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable production with fine performances from the cast, topped by Sandy Powell's Academy Award-nominated costumes.

(500) Days of Summer

ideals vs reality
It's easy to simply call Marc Webb's "(500) Days of Summer" a romantic comedy. In reality, this focus on an on-again off-again relationship addresses the issue of expectations vs reality. The protagonist is not any sort of role model in his hope of what sort of person his love interest is. The movie makes clear that, yes, sometimes you will have your heart broken.

The non-linear storytelling creates a surreal feeling. While there's the occasional cliched scene, the outstanding performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel more than make up for that (as do the references to Ringo Starr). I recommend the movie. A fine antidote to the treacly rom-coms that we often see.


sometimes it's a good idea to wait a few years before watching a movie
In the past few years, Greta Gerwig has become one of the most renowned people in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. That made it all the more of a pleasant surprise that I happened to watch this movie from several years ago and see that she starred in it. The Duplass brothers' "Baghead" is an entry in the mumblecore genre, filmed documentary-style. Of course, its clever plot is the main thing. It shows the Duplass brothers to be talented directors. I recommend it. I hope to see more of the Duplasses' movies, and I'm eager to see Greta Gerwig's next movie; from what I've seen of her work, she can do no wrong.


How often do we get to see Luxembourg?
"Capitani" is nothing great. Interesting but not a masterpiece. What really caught my eye was the setting. When was the last time that you saw Luxembourg depicted?* I mean, what's it known for except castles and banking?

Anyway, the series is OK if you have nothing else to do.

*For the record, I recently saw "Quiet Days in Clichy", which featured a scene set in Luxembourg.

The Woman in the Window

not great but worth seeing
"The Woman in the Window" is not a remake of "Rear Window". It deals more with questioning one's sanity (whether or not this involves gaslighting). Not a masterpiece, but worth seeing.

A Quiet Place Part II

things are about to get a lot more unpleasant
John Krasinski's sequel to his 2018 horror flick saw its release delayed due to a certain pandemic. It's finally here and it's to die for; in fact, it's the first movie that I've seen in the theater since you-know-what engulfed the world (the last one was the most recent Star Wars movie).

"A Quiet Place Part II" picks up where the first one left off - with an intro showing how the crisis started - and shows how the family has to press forward. With this movie and the first one, Emily Blunt shows her versatility; I mean, if you know her from the likes of "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mary Poppins Returns", you're in for a pleasant surprise from her gritty performance.

It's not a masterpiece, but it's a good one. You can cut the tension with a knife. Definitely see it.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Eli Roth takes a different turn
So far we've known Eli Roth as the director of gruesome horror flicks (as a good friend of Quentin Tarantino, Roth also appeared in "Inglourious Basterds" as the character who takes special pleasure in bashing in the heads of Nazis). He took a different turn with "The House with a Clock in Its Walls", about a boy in the 1950s who discovers that his uncle is a warlock. Jack Black as the uncle and Cate Blanchett as the uncle's friend have a lot of fun with their roles.

The movie was pretty much what I expected, although there were some surprises. It's not anything spectacular, but they give Cate Blanchett some cool lines (when does she not have cool lines?). If you have nothing better to do, the movie will be some nice, silly fun.


sing 'em high
I had never heard of Farinelli before the movie got released. I only now got around to seeing it. On the one hand, you gotta admire the sheer passion that they put into the movie: the performances, the music, and the sumptuous production design. On the other hand, it sounds as though the movie took a number of creative liberties, as much of Farinelli's personal life remains a mystery.

Either way, I do recommend "Farinelli" as a look at the world of 18th-century opera. Not any sort of masterpiece, but impressive nonetheless.


John Hammond directs Tim, as well as Hannibal Lecter, Stephen Falken, and (does Debra Winger have a defined famous role?)
If you've heard of C. S. Lewis, you probably know him as the author of the Narnia books (I've never read any of them, just seen a stage production of the most famous one). It turns out that he had a romance with a woman from the United States. Richard Attenborough's Academy Award-nominated "Shadowlands" focuses on Lewis's love for poet Joy Gresham.

This is the first time that I had ever heard of Joy Gresham. What I've heard about Lewis makes him sound sketchy (i.e., a religious fundamentalist). But the events here make him question his faith. Sure happens a lot, doesn't it?

Anyway, it's not a masterpiece, but a good story. Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger put their all into the roles, as do the other cast members. As it happens, Julian Fellowes (Desmond) later won an Oscar for writing the "Gosford Park" screenplay, and went on to create "Downton Abbey".

Worth seeing. I'd like to see a movie about Joy Gresham and how her political views changed over the years.


we are all one people
Having participated in the production of "Koyaanisqatsi" and then directed the similar "Chronos", Ron Fricke made "Baraka", another wordless documentary consisting entirely of assorted images of the world. We see cultures compared and contrasted, and also the natural world contrasted with city life. There's all sorts of diversity on the planet that we call home.

It's a testament to Fricke's talent that he accomplished all this without even a syllable of narration. He and his crew traveled to every continent except Antarctica to show these things, as well as the threats to the natural world.

Basically, it's a documentary that you just have to see. An absolutely impressive production. Having seen this one and his previous work, I'm now eager to see his "Samsara".

Two Distant Strangers

this had to get released
With the protests that swept the United States over police brutality in 2020, it was fitting that "Two Distant Strangers" would get released and win an Academy Award. The short has a plot similar to "Groundhog Day" and "Russian Doll", but obviously focuses on racism. Derek Chauvin may have gotten convicted of murdering George Floyd, but police brutality remains a problem.

Definitely see it.

The Nevers

we're not that alike, you and me
"The Nevers" is nothing special, but impressive nevertheless. This story of people with unusual abilities having to navigate Victorian London has a lot of surprises in store. Having just watched the first segment (comprising six episodes), I'm eager to finish the first season.


indigenous life in Guatemala
Jayro Bustamante's "Ixcanul" - Kaqchikel for volcano - looks at the challenges faced by Guatemala's indigenous population, especially the women (namely machismo). Starring non-professional actors and spoken mostly in Kaqchikel, it tells the story of a girl who has never been outside her community...until an unexpected event changes things.

This movie is not for those who expect nonstop action. The plot is deliberately slow-moving, with scenes often lasting minutes at a time. When you focus on a culture that the world doesn't usually see, it makes sense to have slow-moving action. All in all, it's a movie that you should see. How often do we get to see the day-to-day lives of Latin America's indigenous people?

A Brief History of Time

a brief history of Stephen Hawking
Anyone who knows anything about Stephen Hawking knows that he wrote "A Brief History of Time" and devoted his life to uncovering the universe's secrets (and of his suffering from ALS). We learned about this from the Oscar-winning "Theory of Everything", starring Eddie Redmayne as the renowned physicist.

Errol Morris's documentary "A Brief History of Time" looks at Hawking's life and work, featuring interviews with his acquaintances and relatives. Noticeably absent is Hawking's then-wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"), but that doesn't subtract from the documentary. This is truly one for the ages, affirming that Hawking will remain one of the greatest minds in history. I read the documentary to everyone.


Mia in Wonderland
I have a vague memory of having seen Woody Allen's "Alice" when I was little. Of course, at that age I didn't understand the plot; I only picked up on the invisibility scenes and saw a correlation to "Alice in Wonderland" (and of course only knew Disney's animated version).

Anyway, now that I'm old enough to understand the movie, I can see that Woody Allen was shifting into the phase of his career where he focused a lot on neurotic rich people. At least this movie had a comedic - even fantasy - element to it.

Now comes the unpleasant aspect. Co-starring in the movie is Dylan Farrow. Do I even need to elaborate on the allegations against Woody Allen? At this point, watching any of his movies is unpleasant, clever though the movies may be.

Overall, it's a good movie. Not Allen's best by any measure, but certainly fun. In addition to Farrow, the cast includes Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Keye Luke (best known for the Charlie Chan movies, but also played Mogwai's owner in the Gremlins movies), Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd, Joe Mantegna and Julie Kavner (that means that Marge Simpson and Fat Tony co-starred outside "The Simpsons"!).


there is no running away from a harrowing experience
David Jones's "Jacknife" basically looks at how war messes people up. Megs (Robert DeNiro) and Davey (Ed Harris) try to push forward with their lives, but their experience in Vietnam will color their existence forever. This becomes all too apparent with the incident during the prom.

I understand that this movie is based on a play. I've never seen the play, so I can't compare it. What I can say is that DeNiro and Harris put on intense performances, as does Kathy Baker. This is the sort of movie that hits you like a brick in the face. It's not a masterpiece, but worth seeing as a look at what had become of the Vietnam vets in the US. To this day, we still haven't gotten over that war (and we're nowhere near getting over any of the wars launched amid the so-called war on terrorism).

Watch for an early appearance of Charles S. Dutton, and a young Jessalyn Gilsig (Terri on "Glee").

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

no one wants to be famous for this
I had loosely heard about Madeleine McCann prior to watching "The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann". The miniseries looks at the disappearance, the investigation, and the various theories that arose. What I can say is that this is one shocking story, and I can't imagine what Madeleine's parents have gone through over the past 14 years.

It's not the greatest series ever, but I still recommend it, just to hear about the intricacies and and sheer mystery of the case.

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