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Josh Reviews In the Heights

I watched In the Heights on HBO Max and I loved it!  The film was directed by John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), based on the musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I’ve never seen the musical on stage, and I have been very excited to see this film version ever since it was announced.  It did not disappoint!

In the Heights follows a momentous handful of days in the lives of many denizens, young and old, of the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.  Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, steps into the starring role here as Usnavi de la Vega, a young man dreaming of returning to the spot in the Dominican Republic from where his family originated.  I loved Mr. Ramos in Hamilton, of course, but he blew me away with his fantastic work as the lead here.  Mr. Ramos effortlessly carries the audience through the story of the film.  He’s a remarkably engaging performer, and I immediately connected with Usnavi’s “who am I?” dilemma.

Shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Ramos stand two fantastic young women.  Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, who works in the neighborhood salon but dreams of becoming a designer on her own.  It’s immediately clear that Usnavi has a huge crush on Vanessa; with a little help from young Sonny, Usnavi asks Vanessa out on a date.  But how can they start a relationship when Usnavi is planning on leaving the country?  Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario; seen as a neighborhood success story, Nina is returning after her first semester at Stamford University, but Nina is embarrassed to admit she felt like an outsider at Stamford and doesn’t want to go back.  Both women turn in star-making performances here.  That’s something of a misnomer, actually, since both women have already had lengthy careers.  But I expect/hope that their work in this film will take them to new heights.  Both Ms. Barrera and Ms. Grace are fantastic singers and dancers, but more importantly they both imbue their characters with tremendous soul and depth.

Those three characters form the central trio of the film, but one of my favorite aspects of In the Heights was how large and well-developed the main ensemble was.  I love that the film explores the stories of many different people within the neighborhood, at different stages of their lives.  Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) is fantastic as Usnavi’s best friend Benny, who was in a relationship with Nina before she left town to go to school.  Mr. Hawkins has a gorgeous singing voice, and I really enjoyed his character.  Olga Merediz is fantastic as Abuela Claudia, the … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Song Exploder’s Spotlight on Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Wait for It”

Song Exploder, created by Hrishikesh Hirway, began as a podcast.  Each episode focuses on the development of a specific song/piece of music.  It’s now also become a half-hour TV show on Netflix.  The first batch of four episodes launched in September.  The next four arrive in December.  So far I’ve only seen one episode, an exploration of the Burr’s show-stopping song “Wait For It” from Hamilton.  But that one episode was so good I wanted to post about it!

The spine of the episode is a conversation between Mr. Hirway and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire (who was the Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor for Hamilton).  There’s also an extensive interview with Thomas Kail, who directed Hamilton.

As the episode unfolds, we hear the three men chart the development of that specific song.  They discuss the development of the lyrics and the music.  Mr. Hirway goes carefully through the song, selecting specific elements to discuss with Mr. Miranda & co., allowing them to share details on how the many pieces of the song came together.  The conversation feels intimate, and it’s packed full of all sorts of incredible details and asides.  There was a lot of musical jargon that went way over my head but that I suspect musicians will eat up.  (And none of that prevented me from enjoying the conversation.)

The show utilizes some simple but fun animation to accompany the audio recordings that are utilized throughout the episode.  It’s a clever way to bring some visual life to what could have been boring moments of people just listening to music.

My favorite moment in the episode comes after Mr. Miranda describes the subway ride to a friend’s party, on which he first came up with some key elements of the song.  Walking around on the street, he recorded a voice memo to himself with the music that had just come into his head.  The episode then allows us to actually hear that recording!  It’s wild.

For all the music lovers out there, I suspect there’s a lot in this series for you to enjoy!  Check it out.

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Josh Reviews His Dark Materials Season One

Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials was originally published between 1995-2000.  The first book, The Golden Compass, had previously been adapted into a mediocre movie back in 2007.  Now, the BBC and HBO have adapted that first book, The Golden Compass, into an eight-episode TV series.  I recently read the His Dark Materials novels for the first time and was interested to see HBO’s adaptation.  I enjoyed it!

I must confess, first off, that while I enjoyed reading the His Dark Materials novels, I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan.  There was a lot that I liked about the books.  I loved the complexity of the world-building.  I enjoyed the strongly-formed characters.  I appreciated that Mr. Pullman had a lot to critique about organized religion, though I do not nearly share what seems like his deep dislike/mistrust of all religion.  Additionally, I sometimes felt those criticisms of religion, and what felt like an atheistic worldview, got in the way of the story for me.  I also sometimes felt the books were a bit too complicated for their own good, with characters coming and going at rapid speed, whereas I would have enjoyed spending more time with them and getting to know them better.  But I loved what an original and unique series this was, and I was surprised how adult in tone it was.  I was certainly excited to see what this might look like translated on screen.

HBO has clearly spared no expense with their production of His Dark Materials.  (I’d imagine that HBO is quite eager to find their next Game of Thrones…)  This series looks incredible.  There are a huge number of different locations in the series, and each one is beautifully realized.  I never felt claustrophobic or that I was watching actors on cheap sets.  No, this world felt huge and immersive.  This is the epic canvas this story deserves.  There’s all sorts of epic action — fighting armored bears, flying zombie-things called Cliff Ghasts, witches, and more — and it all looks great.  (The character animation on the bears, in particular, is magnificent.)

And then there are the daemons.  One of the hardest aspects of bringing this story to life on screen must surely have been the daemons that every character in Lyra’s world possesses; an animal bonded to each human being.  These talking animals, each with a distinct personality of their own, could only be brought to life through top-notch (and surely expensive) visual effects.  I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it was to create and realize all of the many different daemons seen throughout this first season.  I’d suspected the show would try to find ways to avoid showing … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mary Poppins Returns

Set twenty-five years after the original Mary Poppins, the new film Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, now all grown up.  Michael has three children, but his wife has recently passed away.  Jane has basically moved in with him, but still they are having trouble raising the kids and making enough money to make ends meet.  As the film opens, we learn that the bank is about to repossess their family home.  And so the time is ripe for the return of Mary Poppins, who reappears to help bring life and love back to the Banks family.

It requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make a sequel to a film as beloved and iconic as Mary Poppins.  (With 54 years having passed since the release of the original film, is this the longest gap between sequels in film history?)  When I first heard of plans for this sequel, it seemed like a pure cash grab.  I’m impressed, though, by the skill and love that has gone into the making of this new film.  It has elements that work and elements that don’t, but it seems to have been made by people, on both sides of the camera, who wanted to respect and honor the original film.

The best part of this new film is Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect (in every way) performance as Mary Poppins.  This film would have crashed and burned if they had not been able to find someone who could successfully step into Julie Andrew’s iconic shoes.  Being able to recreate this memorable character while also allowing her to live and breathe again as a true character allowed to be new and different, rather than just a slavish imitation, is a fiendishly difficult task.  Ms. Blunt makes it look effortless.  (I am sure it was the opposite!)  I have been a fan of Ms. Blunt’s ever since Charlie Wilson’s War, and she has been extraordinary in film after film since then (Edge of Tomorrow, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Sicario). This might be her toughest role and her greatest accomplishment.  Her singing voice is gorgeous, and she beautifully carries a number of new songs in the film.  More importantly, she captures Mary Poppins’ dignity and her humor, her sternness and the ever-present twinkle in her eye.

I was excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in the film.  I thought it was ingenious to cast him to step into a similar character-type as that so memorably portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.  Mr. Miranda plays Jack, a London lamplighter and former apprentice of the chimney-sweep Bert played by Mr. Van Dyke … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season Nine!

I thought for sure that we’d seen the end of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but after a hiatus of six years, the longest break in the series’ history (and the longest break I can think of in between series of a show that was not officially cancelled), lo and behold, we got a ninth season of Curb this year!

I thought seasons seven (which gave us a Seinfeld reunion) and eight (with such all-time classics as “Palestinian Chicken”) were among the show’s best.  Sadly I can’t say the same about season nine.  I know some critics have really trashed this season, which I don’t think is warranted.  I still got a lot of enjoyment out of watching each episode of the misanthropic Larry David’s misadventures.  But things were noticeably uneven this year.

Each episode was jammed full of a TON of wonderful ideas.  It’s as if Larry David had been keeping an enormous notebook of ideas for all the years the show was away, and decided to pack several seasons’ worth of ideas into this one season.  But the problem this created was that most episodes felt overstuffed, with great ideas that weren’t given the room to breathe and so were then tossed away too quickly, without having the time needed to build to a proper comedic punchline.

This season’s episodes were, mostly, longer than usual.  Most clocked in at around 35 minutes in length.  But I still felt that the episodes were overstuffed and, at that length, started to feel shaggy.  In a connected problem, for the most part the multiple storylines in each episode didn’t all tie together at the end, as had long been the hallmark of this show (and Seinfeld before it).  And so lots of great jokes or bits would up feeling like throw-away ideas that went nowhere, rather than the way all of the show’s comedic ideas used to weave together by the end of an episode.

Still, this season was packed with so many classic comedic ideas: The “accidental text on purpose”; Larry’s representing himself in court (and “yoo-hoo”ing a judge); “patient-doctor confidentiality”; Larry’s offending an Uber driver having a catastrophic effect on his uber rating (not to mention the whole idea of ranking one’s datability by an Uber-style rating); Larry’s refusal to say “thank you for your service” to a veteran like everyone else automatically does; pants with a short fly; a deep analysis of the face made by a restaurant chef after a patron requests a change to the way a dish is prepared; men’s obsession with opening jars; Larry’s advising a prostitute on her wardrobe; “foisting” a terrible employee on an unsuspecting friend; Larry’s distaste at public displays of affection… and … [continued]