Tuesday, September 21, 2021

REVIEW: In The Heights




Long before "Hamilton" become a Broadway phenomenon, multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda began his theater career with a contemporary musical by the name of "In the Heights". That production went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and the rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to 2021 and that debut musical is now a splashy feature film directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. But although Miranda takes a more backseat role in this adaptation, his imprint is all over this rousing story about Latin pride.

"In the Heights" derives its title from the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It is home to a primarily Dominican population, including Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a local bodega. Like many in his community, Usnavi longs for a better life. But while others have their eyes set on the American Dream, he is determined to return to his native Dominican Republic and revive his father's seaside business. As the time draws near, Usnavi enjoys an eventful summer, filled with romance, dancing, precious moments with family and friends and a blackout for good measure. At the end of it all, Usnavi comes to realize the immeasurable value of what he would be leaving behind.

Indeed, the vibrancy of the Washington Heights community shines through in "In The Heights" as Chu delivers the best of both worlds (i.e. theater and film). From a visual perspective, the film features radiant cinematography enlivened by immersive camerawork that weaves in, out and around the talented ensemble. Furthermore, visual effects wizardry is imaginatively used to express the inner desires of the various characters. Meanwhile, Miranda's trademark musicality is evident through catchy songs and inspired choreography that honors its Latin roots.

"In the Heights" is truly a festive experience, with Anthony Ramos leading the way with his innate star power. In fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, with each major character getting their time in the sun. Audiences will surely relish the warmth of Olga Merediz as the community's matriarch, Corey Hawkins' silky-smooth voice in the role of Benny and the indefatigable spirit of Daphne Rubin-Vega's Daniela. 

The film is more than just a big "carnaval del barrio" (as referenced in one show-stopping number) however. It also examines the struggles of Latin immigrants in achieving their potential, especially those who are undocumented. In doing so, "In The Heights' is ultimately a film about perspective, pitting its characters against each other in an ideological tug of war between those who see the metaphorical glass as half full or half empty. In the end, there's no denying that the filmmakers stand firmly on the side of optimism. And through their efforts and the entire creative team, "In the Heights" triumphs as the feel-good movie of the year so far.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

REVIEW: Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry




In one particularly noteworthy scene in R.J. Cutler's revelatory documentary "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry", a roundtable of journalists interview the film's titular wunderkind about her craft. When they comment on the dark undertones of her music, she replies "I'm never feeling happy so why would I write about things I don't know about?" Eilish's response is hardly surprising for anyone familiar with the stylistic choices surrounding her music, fashion and overall persona. But throughout this impressive 2 hours 20 minute journey through her blossoming career thus far, Cutler deftly reveals far more than what is immediately perceptible from her carefully curated public image.

The film opens with Eilish explaining the source of her creativity, acknowledging the great influence of her artistically minded parents' who guided her and her brother to explore their musical interests. This proves to be an ideal starting point, as the parental duo - Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell - are shown to be a grounding, supportive presence as Eilish lives out her dreams on the road and in the studio. As she experiences highs and lows on her journey to historic multi-Grammy winning success, "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry" unveils a fascinating cinematic portrait of an extraordinary young woman.

Indeed, if you weren't a fan before, "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry" should surely pique your interest. The film's intimacy gives us an up close and personal look at her creative process (primarily with her producer brother in the humble confines of her own childhood home and bedroom) and the incredible impact of her music on fans worldwide. As with many similarly famous artists, the pressure is evidently overwhelming, exacerbated by the increased visibility and scrutiny of social media. 

In addition to Cutler's discerning direction, "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry" also benefits from Eilish's own candid honesty about her inner feelings and outlook. Through her revealing interviews, the film stands out as a truly contemporary work, exploring her concerns surrounding ever-changing political correctness and the associated fears of disappointing her fans in the future. As she expresses these and other feelings of insecurity and self-doubt - verbally and through her body language - the film captures the vulnerabilities that inform the more depressive aspects of her personality.

During the aforementioned journalist roundtable hints towards her experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts. But while Eilish claims that she's "never happy", Cutler paints a more complex picture of this uncommonly self-possessed teenager. From her exuberant on-stage performances, to her heartwarming adoration of Justin Bieber, to her obvious passion for life, friends and music, there's a beautifully humanizing quality to this biographical documentary. In showcasing Billie Eilish's talent and the many facets of her character, it's the type of illuminating music documentary that I would highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top 10 TV Programs of 2020-2021
















Is it film, TV or something else entirely? This ongoing debate reached a fever pitch in the past year, as streamed content continued to blur the lines of the various filmed mediums. Indeed, the most recent awards season saw programs like "Hamilton" and "Small Axe" earn recognition within film and TV circles alike. As I reflect on my own personal favorites of this Emmy cycle, my picks similarly reflected this evolution of television as we once knew it. Whether you agree that they fit the rightful definition of TV, there's no denying that they provided satisfying entertainment from the comfort of our quarantined homes. Here are my Top 10 TV Programs of 2020-2021:

1. Hamilton (Disney+)
2. David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO)
3. I May Destroy You (HBO)
4. Small Axe (Amazon Prime Video)
5. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
6. Black Is King (Disney+)
7. P-Valley (Starz)
8. The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
9. WandaVision (Disney+)
10. The Crown (Netflix)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2020-2021 TV
















If there was still any doubt that "the small screen" is delivering some of the greatest performances across all content platforms, then this year's TV actors should put that debate to rest. From Black freedom fighters in Britain, to abuse survivors dealing with trauma, these performers knocked it out of the park. With such an embarrassment of riches, some of these incredible thespians will inevitably be snubbed by Emmy voters. But they'll always hold a special place in my heart. Here are my picks for the Top 10 TV Performances of the 2020-2021 TV Season:

1. Shaun Parkes, Small Axe 
2. Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You 
3. Letitia Wright, Small Axe 
4. Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird 
5. Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown 
6. Paapa Essiedu, I May Destroy You 
7. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale 
8. Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant 
9. Gillian Anderson, The Crown 
10. Weruche Opia, I May Destroy You

Honorable Mention: The cast of Hamilton

Saturday, May 1, 2021

AWARDS ROUNDUP: Oscar, Indie Spirit, BAFTA & SAG Winners

OSCARS

Best Picture: Nomadland
Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-jung, Minari



INDIE SPIRITS

Best Feature: Nomadland
Best Director: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Best Female Lead: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Best Male Lead: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Best Supporting Female: Yuh-jung Youn, Minari
Best Supporting Male: Paul Raci, Sound of Metal



BAFTAS

Best Film: Nomadland
Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-jung, Minari



SAG

BEST CAST: The Trial of the Chicago 7
BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
BEST ACTRESS: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Youn Yuh-Jung, Minari

Saturday, March 13, 2021

AWARDS ROUNDUP: AAFCA, Critics Choice & Golden Globe Winners

 


AAFCA

Best Picture: Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Director: Regina King, One Night In Miami
Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 
Best Actress: Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Dominique Fishback, Judas and the Black Messiah 
Best Screenplay: Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami
Best Ensemble: One Night In Miami
Best Foreign Film: Night of the Kings
Best Documentary: All In: The Fight For Democracy 
Best Animation: Soul 
Breakout Performance: Radha Blank
Breakout Director: Shaka King


Critics Choice

BEST PICTURE: Nomadland 
BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland  
BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
BEST ACTRESS: Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 



Golden Globe

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA: Nomadland
BEST PICTURE - COMEDY/MUSICAL: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
BEST DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
BEST ACTOR - DRAMA: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
BEST ACTRESS - DRAMA: Andra Day, United States vs Billie Holliday
BEST ACTOR - COMEDY/MUSICAL: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
BEST ACTRESS - COMEDY/MUSICAL: Rosamund Pike, I Care A Lot
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jodie Foster, The Mauritanian

Full list at Awards Radar

Thursday, February 25, 2021

AWARDS ROUNDUP: Indie Spirit, Golden Globe, SAG & Critics Choice Nominations

 

Independent Spirit

Best Feature
First Cow
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Minari
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Nomadland

Best Director
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Female Lead
Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Male Lead
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Adarsh Gourav, The White Tiger
Rob Morgan, Bull
Steven Yeun, Minari

Best Supporting Female
Alexis Chikaeze, Miss Juneteenth
Yeri Han, Minari
Valerie Mahaffey, French Exit
Talia Ryder, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Yuh-jung Youn, Minari

Best Supporting Male
Colman Domingo, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Orion Lee, First Cow
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Benedict Wong, Nine Days


Golden Globe

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA
The Father
Mank
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST PICTURE - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Borat
Hamilton
Music
Palm Springs
The Prom

BEST DIRECTOR
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
David Fincher, Mank
Regina King, One Night in Miami
Aaron Sorkin, the Trial of the Chicago 7
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

BEST ACTOR - DRAMA
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Tahar Rahim, The Mauritanian

BEST ACTRESS - DRAMA
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Andra Day, United States vs Billie Holliday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

BEST ACTOR - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
James Corden, The Prom
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Dev Patel, Personal History of David Copperfield
Andy Samberg, Palm Springs

BEST ACTRESS - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Maria Bakalova, Subsequent Moviefilm
Kate Hudson, Music
Michelle Pfeiffer, French Exit
Rosamund Pike, I Care A Lot
Anya Taylor-Joy, Emma.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Sacha Baron Cohen, Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Jared Leto, The Little Things
Bill Murray, On the Rocks
Leslie Odom Jr, One Night in Miami

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Jodie Foster, The Mauritanian
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Helena Zengel, News of the World

Full list at Awards Radar


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Sundance 2021: Wrapping up the Festival

As a film festival enthusiast, the Sundance Film Festival has been on my bucket list for a number of years. But for a humble critic from the Caribbean, the cost and climate always seemed intimidating. If there's a silver lining to the pandemic, however, it's that many of the top festivals have become more accessible to audiences by going online. 

With the generous support of the festival's Press Inclusion Initiative, my Sundance dream therefore became a reality in 2021. Over the course of 7 days, I screened 20 films across 7 programmed sections and wrote articles for 3 outlets - Awards Radar, The Spool and That Shelf. Looking back on the past week, it was certainly a demanding experience but was ultimately rewarding. 

As always, the documentaries were among the best of the Sundance lineup this year, with three distinctly compelling non-fiction films emerging as my favorites. In Questlove's "Summer of Soul," the musician makes an exhilarating directorial debut as he uncovers the untold story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a vibrant celebration of Black music in the 1960s. From a more contemporary perspective, Camilla Nielsson's "President" turns an unflinching eye towards Zimbabwe's troubled democracy in the aftermath of Mugabe's ousting. And in Jonas Poher Rasmussen's extraordinary animation hybrid "Flee", the past and present converge as a gay Afghan man reflects on his experiences as a refugee. All three films deservedly won awards during Tuesday night's ceremony and will surely be heavily discussed upon general release. 

There were memorable moments from the narrative features too, including the black-and-white elegance of Rebecca Hall's "Passing," the gut-punch chamber piece that is "Mass" and the riveting performances that fuel Shaka King's Oscar contender "Judas and the Black Messiah". Nearly every film I watched contained something to recommend. Though I may not have gotten the full experience of the Park City atmosphere, the films certainly delivered the fresh, innovative visions that Sundance is known for.

Sundance Top 10:

  1. Flee
  2. President
  3. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  4. Mass
  5. In the Same Breath
  6. Prime Time
  7. Judas and the Black Messiah
  8. Writing With Fire
  9. Jockey
  10. The Pink Cloud
Best of the Fest:

Best Film: Flee
Best Director: Rebecca Hall, Passing
Best Screenplay: Mass
Best Performance: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Best of 2020: Top 10 Films of the Year

There's a common notion that audiences naturally gravitate towards more optimistic movies during challenging times. But as I reflect on 2020's best films, the stories that stood out were ones which reflected our contemporary lives in a myriad of ways. Indeed, rather than turning to escapism, I was compelled by documentaries, true stories and naturalistic films that felt like real life. As the world looks to a post-COVID-19, post-Trump future, I believe these fine works of cinematic art will stand the test of time, acting as time capsules for one of the most significant years in our collective memories. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Films of 2020.

Honorable Mentions: Athlete A, Boys State, Premature and Wolfwalkers

Best of 2020: Top 10 Foreign Language Films


In the now iconic words of Bong Joon-ho, once you overcome the barrier one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. And in 2020, that statement continued to be true with a slate of extraordinary cinematic works from around the world. From wartime dramas to forbidden romances, world cinema made us laugh, cry and open our eyes to fresh perspectives. With the bountiful array of international films produced in the past year, this list is hardly exhaustive. But from what I’ve seen, here are my picks for the Top 10 Non-English Language Films of 2020. 

Honorable Mention: Night of the Kings 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Best of 2020: Top 20 Acting Performances


In true Norma Desmond fashion, 2020 was marked by small films with big performances. Indeed, while most of the year's best acting was unfortunately confined to our humble screens at home, they shone with talent and charisma. From new takes on the damsel in distress, to sensational interpretations of historical figures, here are my picks for the Top 20 Acting Performances of 2020:

Best of 2020: Top 10 Documentaries


Documentary aficionados perhaps make this claim every year, but 2020 truly felt like a standout year for non-fiction filmmaking. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters worldwide and the blockbuster films that pack them, documentaries were able to shine brighter than ever before. And in this historic year of social and political change, documentaries complimented the news cycle brilliantly. Indeed, the year’s best documentaries tapped into the zeitgeist, exploring topics surrounding the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, sexual abuse and existential reflections on the meaning of life. These outstanding works of non-fiction storytelling are presented below in our Top 10 Documentaries of 2020.