Friday, June 11, 2021

The traps of gang life

 Set in Toronto and New York, Akilla's Escape takes a big leap, beginning with Jamaican politics before jumping to urban gang life in the US and Canada. The movie wants us to make a connection. Akilla’s Escape plays on two tracks. In one we meet, Akilla, a 15-year-old whose father (Ronnie Rowe, Jr.) runs a hard-boiled gang. He also  tries to school his son in what he regards as warrior values. This part of the movie is set against a similar story about Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a Toronto teenager who also finds himself caught up in gang life.  The grown Akilla (Saul Williams) -- now moved to Toronto -- becomes involved in Sheppard’s life when their paths cross in a drug transaction. Williams gives a quietly solid performance as a man who understands Sheppard's problems. He wants out of the marijuana business, which has wearied his soul. A strong Mpumlwana plays dual roles, appearing both as Sheppard and the young Akilla. This sometimes proves disorienting but it underscores the movie's point about the continuing cycle that envelops young black men who fall into the gang-controlled drug trade. Sheppard's aunt (Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast) asks Akilla to rescue her nephew from the drug barons who are trying to locate the boy as part of their attempt to retrieve looted cash.  In trying to save Sheppard, Akilla is also trying to finds his own salvation. It's a powerful theme, even if director Charles Officer sometimes loses its thread.  Still, credit Officer for bringing a sense of tragic realism to what could have been one more thriller with nothing to say.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

'In the Heights' hits lots of high notes


     With In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda established himself as a major figure in American musical theater. Miranda followed In the Heights with Hamilton, the production that took Broadway and then the nation by storm. 
    Now In the Heights has reached the big screen where it serves as a vibrant celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood that has become a center of New York Dominican culture, broadened here to encompass a variety of Latino ethnicities living in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
    The message behind the energy that director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and a fine cast bring to the movie involves identity and assertiveness, insistence of characters on building lives in New York while keeping their culture close at hand.
   A large-scale ensemble piece, the movie nonetheless centers around Usnavi de la Vega played by Anthony Ramos in a commanding performance. Ramos narrates the story and also participates in the tale as a bodega owner who, in the movie's framing device, tells a group of youngsters how he wrestled with the idea of giving up his New York business and emigrating to the Dominican Republic to open a nightclub.
    Scenes in the bodega make good use of Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Sonny, Usnavi's teen assistant, a kid who wants to legalize his presence in the US, attend college, and make a life for himself.
    Chu introduces the movie in a way that makes it clear that he's telling the story of a neighborhood, showing us a block springing to life on a hot summer day. To underscore the challenges of big-city living, a crippling power outage looms.
    A large case keeps things lively, but a few of the performances must be highlighted.  Leslie Grace plays Nina, a young woman who has returned to the neighborhood after dropping out of Stanford, where she didn't feel accepted and where she felt she was betraying her roots. 
    Nina's father (Jimmy Smits) owns the cab company where Nina's boyfriend (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher.
    Most of the movie's themes revolve around the issue of flight, how to balance aspiration with faithfulness to heritage.
    -- Smits's character is ready to sell his business to finance Nina's tuition.
    -- Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) runs the local hair salon and is thinking about moving her business to the Grand Concourse, abandoning Manhattan for the Bronx.
    -- Melissa Barrera portrays Vanessa, a young woman who wants to abandon the Heights to establish herself in the downtown fashion world.  
     The beating heart of the neighborhood belongs to Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban-American woman who has no children but who has become a grandmother figure for the entire neighborhood.   
     Merediz sings one of the movie’s key songs, Paciencia y Fe  (Hope and Patience), which Chu stages in a New York subway station.
    Chu adds some nice graphics and effects flourishes, one involving a spinning manhole cover, another enabling Grace and Hawkins to scale the side of an apartment building as they sing a love duet. 
     Other highlights include a number at the local pool, where the characters wondering what they'd do if they had a winning lottery ticket that would pay $96,000.
    Miranda appears in the role of Piraguero, the guy who sells flavored ice from a pushcart.
    When I lived in New York, Washington Heights was known as an Irish neighborhood, a fact to which the screenplay makes glancing reference. Smits’s character bought his business from an Irish-American who was moving elsewhere.
    The movie's themes aren't exactly groundbreaking, but new voices give the entire enterprise an invigorating feeling of freshness.
     Chu and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the movie's screenplay, might have done a bit more to condense a two-hour and 23-minute run time, but In the Heights stands as a rich and spirited entertainment that brims with love for a neighborhood and the people who populate it. 
    Oh, and did I mention that it’s also a lot of fun?

Friday, June 4, 2021

A foray into a New York subculture

Manhattan can be a peculiar place, a teeming impersonal hunk of urban landscape that's conducive to the formation of what can seem like thousands of subcultures. That was true when I lived there in the '60s and '70s and it's evidently still true, at least judging by Port Authority.  Set partly in the Kiki ballroom scene, the movie features a notable performance from Lenya Bloom, a model and actress who became the first trans woman to star in a movie at a major festival when Port Authority had its debut at Cannes in 2019. Bloom portrays Wye, a trans woman who's part of the Kiki ballroom scene, which seems to consist primarily of  LGBTQ+ young people who create family structures for themselves. Paul (Fionn Whitehead) stumbles into this world after arriving in New York from Pittsburgh. He’s supposed to be met at the Port Authority Bus Terminal by his half-sister. When she doesn’t show, Paul falls in with Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who earns a meager living doing less-than-honorable work for landlords. Wye treats Paul with concern that he badly needs and romance looms. Director Danielle Lessovitz doesn't dot every "i" or cross every "t" but her story immerses us in a scene that most of us only know from documentaries about vogue dancing. The central relationship between Paul and Wye feels a bit undercooked and it takes an improbably long time for Paul to realize that Wye is transgender. But Lessovitz strikes a strong note by reminding us that people the larger society tends to marginalize often find one another, building sheltering worlds in the bargain -- in other words, Port Authority qualifies as a real New York story.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Myth and romance mingle in "Undine'

    It takes near foolhardy courage to make a contemporary romance that wraps present-day realities around a fairy-tale spine. Director Christian Petzold (Transit) takes the dare with Undine, the story of the relationship between an industrial diver (Franz Rogowski) and Undine (Paula Beer), a woman who delivers lectures about the history of Berlin.
    Oh, and by the way, Undine is a water nymph.
    Rogowski's meets Undine after she's been ditched by Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a jerk who we later learn is married and cheating on his wife. 
    Rogowski and Beer light sparks as their romance plays against a backdrop of daily life. If you know the Undine myth, you know that Undine is fated to kill any lover who's unfaithful to her. 
   Confident in his approach, Petzold makes no apologies for the movie's folkloric elements, allowing them to turn up in the midst of a story based in Berlin and the surrounding countryside. He presents the mythical without fanfare. 
   The movie’s appeal has less to do with its story or any mythology than with the charm of its two leads, with the poise Petzold brings to his filmmaking and the grace notes he sounds. 
    Watching Christoph welding underwater as he helps repair a turbine immerses us in a dark silent world of mystery. 
    Petzold's story includes elements of deceit and vengeance but also reaches for exalted levels of devotional love, the kind that you might expect to find on an opera stage.
   At its best, Undine flows and floats its way through an unconventional story that like the models of Berlin that Undine uses for her lectures knows that many layers lie beneath its contemporary surface.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

This "Spirit' need to be more untamed

 Middle-of-the-road live-action movies seldom delight. Same goes for middle-of-the-road animated features,  and that's the category in which the new movie Spirit Untamed landsA predecessor movie -- Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron -- debuted in 2002. Now comes another helping that tries to touch as many bases as possible, mixing a multicultural cast of characters with lots of action and a girl-power pep talk. A wild horse befriends Lucky Prescott, (voice by Isabela Merced), a 12-year-old girl who travels west with her aunt (Julianne Moore). Lucky is supposed-to visit her father (Jake Gyllenhaal), a decent but broken man who hasn't recovered from the loss of Lucky's mom,   a trick-rider who was killed in an accident. Lucky quickly makes friends with two girls (Mckenna Grace and Marsai Martin) in the small town where she lands. She also defies her dad, who warns her to avoid Spirit, a wild horse that winds up in the town corral. Lucky's mastery of riding goes from zero to highly skilled within an improbable few minutes. The plot takes an adventure turn when Lucky sets out to rescue Spirit from a rustler (Walton Goggins) and his dastardly gang.  Little about the animation feels particularly special. Even with some mild ecological concerns, Spirit Untamed feels like multiplex filler. In the absence of any other kid-fare, Spirit might suffice, but it's mostly a negligible hunk of family oriented entertainment.