After all the accolades afforded Lin-Manuel Miranda’s late 1700s historical hip hopera, its stage director and now movie helmer Thomas Kail scores the mic drop of best filmed play as well. If Disney’s Hall of the Presidents pulled a Night at the Museum, springing to multiethnic sung-through life on a spare set with a turntable, you’d have a beginning approximation of the experience that is Hamilton (A). This political pageant with shades of Jesus Christ Superstar and a mixtape of modern music genres depicts a new American nation engaged in a battle for its soul with its titular renaissance man (played by Miranda) making unexpected impact on the laws, lifestyle and legacy of tender through-composed territory. Themes such as the duel between independence and interdependence and the multidimensionality of a man give the proceeding a glorious gravitas. Kail’s multi-camera presentation of the live performance plunges viewers right into the ensemble, dotted with audience reactions and even a one-minute intermission helping punctuate some theatrical conventions such as Act 2 double castings. All the creative moments – from the graceful choreography to cabinet meetings staged as rap battles to fancy flashbacks with the exceptional Renée Elise Goldsberry and show stoppers like Leslie Odom Jr’s “The Room Where it Happens” roundly resonate in close-up. It’s as exciting as a document of a sassily syncopated staged play can be on screen. Plus it’s a satisfying document of a highly resonant work made even more profound as a nation still grapples with identity and destiny.
Summer finally has a superhero. Using interviews and rare archival footage, Dawn Porter’s documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble (B+) traces the titular congressman’s 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on issues ranging from civil and voting rights to healthcare and immigration reform. It’s a delight to watch the political and protest survivor witness and reflect on historical reels which feel as urgent as ever in today’s climate. The film successfully criss-crosses from modern day to moments in history, drawing rich parallels. Particularly poignant are sequences of lunch counter sit-ins and of the legendary Freedom Rides as the young gamechanger asserts his rights and showcases his resolve. Even the setbacks presented strengthen his might. What starts as a contemplative chronicle becomes a sensational summons for action.
Will the winner take it all or the loser stand small in the summer’s new cult comedy? David Dobkin’s featherweight and overlong Eurovision (B-) stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an earnest Icelandic pop music duo in a quixotic quest for the coveted championship in the iconic global song contest. Much of the film is formulaic with slogs which threaten to derail its kitschiest instincts. Ferrell, who also co-wrote the film, is basically funny just for showing up with long hair and a European accent, but the plucky McAdams is really the heart of the proceedings giving a lively and sensitive star turn. Dan Stevens is also enjoyable as a charismatic competitor in rhythm and romance, and Pierce Brosnan gets a nice bit as Ferrell’s fisherman father. The film’s stealth signature turns out to be its garish production numbers and surprisingly hummable original songs including “Volcano Man” and “Double Trouble.” There’s also a mega mix midway that helps perk things up just when the screenplay of the American idylls. It’s easy to forget moments that misfire when the overall tone is so blissful.
Sometimes DIY extends to people, and this latest twist on the Jerry Maguire archetype doesn’t give its prickly prince too far to rise to get out of his rut and assume his comic crown. Judd Apatow’s dramedy The King of Staten Island (B-) is a splendid showcase for slacker comedian Pete Davidson, who plays a 24-year-old stoner tattoo artist doing little with his life while cohabitating with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei). The millennial protagonist’s world is upended when mom gets a new boyfriend (Bill Burr), which leads to a steady climb toward clarity and consciousness. Despite Apatow’s leisurely pace and uncertain tone, Davidson shines in the role of a character ascending to independence, with a sometimes sarcastic and occasionally soulful perspective. His wide eyes, stick figure physique and zany body art make him a perfect “rejuvenile” in search of a raison d’être. Tomei is also a delight with humor to match her obtuse offspring, but Burr is kind of a nothing-burger of a character as the newfound father figure. The function of surrogate dad as a way to stimulate the film’s man-child into a new awakening is less interesting than Davidson’s sequences bantering with pothead friends, his misanthropic exploits in odd jobs and his witty interactions with kids who are largely alien to him. There are dollops of wry jokes and fun pranks, but much of the film feels like it’s on an anti-depressant with few peaks and valleys. Still, the film has heart and is often quite amusing. Prepare for another inexplicably protracted Apatow running time, and just enjoy Davidson’s sprawling new rise to reels of royalty.
Hollywood has a history of journeying down Vietnam’s rivers and through its jungles to heal the heartbreak shrouded in the ruins of war. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (B) starts innocently enough with a quartet of affable modern-day African-American veterans reuniting in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel to embark on a search for the buried bones and bullion left behind by a fallen platoon leader, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. This memory film’s twisty heist plot is also a bit of a Western, as in a commentary on Western Civilization, always urgent even if occasionally overreaching or delving into myriad detours of flourish. Delroy Lindo gives a forceful, hot-headed performance as the primary old timer, the MAGA hat wearing Paul, who like his comrades, also plays himself at an earlier age without the magic of de-aging special effects. Lindo gives an astonishing muttering monologue after a critical series of action sequences that’s career best. He’s like a land mine one step away from self-actualization, and he’s fascinating to watch in his masterclass of acting. Lee’s crisscrossing techniques through history gracefully bridge past transgressions to a tableaux of modern topics ranging from imperialism to contemporary class and racial politics. The movie comes most alive in its celebrations of brotherhood and fatherhood; Jonathan Majors is memorable and moving as Paul’s estranged college son. Terence Blanchard’s music is stirring accompaniment to action and ache, with occasional soothing echoes of Marvin Gaye. After his brilliant BlacKKKlansman, Lee’s follow-up is a bit more narratively sprawling but thematically daring. The thoughtful director’s change of venue from American soil enables no less a promised land of issues to travel and unravel.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have such spectacular comic and romantic chemistry as the central couple in Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds (B-) that they deserve a better movie next time they collaborate. It’s clear even in the cold open introductory credits that this brilliant duo possesses charisma in spades with hilarious banter and priceless reactions. The plot is super obligatory as the twosome is unintentionally embroiled in a murder mystery. As their quest to clear their names takes them from one extreme circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they, and their relationship, can survive the night. Along the way, they crib from diverse sources ranging from Wayne’s World to Eyes Wide Shut with reckless abandon. Each preposterous sequence is improved by Rae and Nanjiani’s daft delivery. It’s a breezy fun time, a comedy/action confection with modest levels of sophistication hiding in the routine madness. This comic couple is definitely one to watch.
A new HBO film throws the book at a public school scandal but takes a little while to get to its thesis. Cory Finley’s Bad Education (B-) tells the true 2002 story of a corrupt Long Island village school superintendent responsible for the sector’s largest embezzlement in U.S. history. In this central role, Hugh Jackman plays against type: an exquisitely controlled performance of a vain, dark and diabolical heart. Viewers are left wanting more insight into what drives this man, additional details about his relationship with his financial enabler (played with relish by Allison Janney in an all too brief role) and any contours about what drives a teenage journalist protagonist (impenetrable performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) who unearths the malfeasance. Finley’s compositions of bureaucratic bungling and many droll line readings are delightful, as is the jolting, percussive score by Michael Abels. But if there were an open-ended essay pop quiz every few minutes about what makes this film more distinctive than others in the genre, creative answers would be difficult to conjure. It’s an engrossing and watchable drama nonetheless, worth watching for Jackman’s performance alone. It’s now available on HBO streaming services.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
The audacity of a far-fetched plot in the latest remake of The Invisible Man (B) all but vanishes under the steady direction of Leigh Whannell and spellbinding central performance of Elisabeth Moss. The H.G. Wells story and classic films have been modernized with a strong woman at the center and a streamlined narrative about recovering from manipulation and abuse. Aldis Hodge is also fantastic as the heroine’s policeman friend; and while his role is somewhat “transparent,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes an impression in the title role, a controlling husband and Silicon Valley magnate who has invented an optical illusion suit allowing him to be fully invisible. The film is more thriller than horror film, despite the sense of dread in its first half. The stunts and visual effects are pretty nifty, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is sufficiently macabre, with ostinati aplenty. The film was a little too much like 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy at times, but the twists and turns dialed up the novelty. Moss, who is seen in virtually every scene, delivers richly here and makes the entire enterprise fresh and believable. It’s nice to see popular entertainment with a smidgen of topicality so wonderfully packaged.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.