Thoughts on In the Heights, Luca, Sweet Tooth, Hacks, Mythic Quest, Bo Burnham: Inside, and more.
In the Heights
The first word that comes to mind is “Joy.” There is an exuberance to In the Heights that is almost tangible — bursts of color and light leaping off the screen in three dimensions. Whatever the film’s flaws (and there are flaws), one thing can’t be denied: its belated arrival at the downward swing of the pandemic gives its celebratory atmosphere extra resonance. That makes it really easy, even in the cold light of day, to overlook its simplistic storytelling and pacing issues. It’s a raucous block party of a film, an overdue spotlight on the Latino diaspora,* and just a generally great time.
*Though that effort’s not above criticism, either.
Heights is perhaps best-known as “the show Lin-Manuel Miranda made before Hamilton,” earning its own armload of Tonys in 2008 (including for Best Musical). Co-developed with Quiara Alegría Hudes, Heights tells a story smaller in scale but with great cultural specificity, pulling directly from Miranda’s childhood in Washington Heights as a quartet of protagonists face gentrification, economic hardship, and divides across cultures and generations (in the film, DACA uncertainty is added to the mix). In Miranda’s energetic, Spanish-infused songs, you can hear the first drafts of the rhythms and lyrical stylings that Hamilton would eventually become — there’s a lot of talk of “legacy,” for example.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton’s Laurens/Philip) plays Usnavi the young bodega owner, the role originated by Miranda himself. When he’s not dreaming of pulling up stakes and returning to the Dominican Republic, he’s pining after Vanessa (Melissa Barerra), who herself is dying to get out of the neighborhood to pursue a career in fashion design. Usnavi’s best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), works at the taxi dispatch of his ex-girlfriend’s father (the always-welcome Jimmy Smits), but sees an opportunity to rekindle his romance with Nina (Leslie Grace) when she returns home from Stanford feeling like a failure. Then one of Usnavi’s customers wins the lottery, at some point there’s a neighborhood-wide blackout, and that’s pretty much it. You know where the film is going from the jump (though you might not expect it to take two and a half hours to get there), but for a while, at least, the energy doesn’t flag.
The cast is appealing (Ramos, especially, has a casual charisma that should make him a star), the songs are dynamically orchestrated and performed, and Jon M. Chu’s (Crazy Rich Asians) direction is Big and Widescreen — not just when marshaling hundreds of background dancers (the poolside “96,000” is an electrified Busby Berkeley homage) but in the more intimate moments, like when Benny & Nina romantically glide across buildings, or when Olga Merediz’s Abuela Claudia opens the 2022 Oscars conversation with the show-stopping “Paciencia y Fe.” Every musical sequence is distinct and surprising, and most are refreshingly not over-edited; it’s only when the singing stops that you notice how little there is holding it all together. But if ever a film was powered by vibes alone, it’s In the Heights.
Enrico Casarova’s Little Mermaid riff is a charming confection — more than a little silly, but Luca’s lightheartedness also belies its thematic complexity. Set in the sun-dappled, mid-century Italian Riviera, the film is closest to the spirit of Studio Ghibli than any other entry in the Pixar catalog. Not just in obvious ways (the central town’s name of Portorosso, for example, or the story’s folkloric inspiration), but in its warmth, tone, and smaller scale. It feels like an earnest attempt at that Miyazaki concept of “Ma“, in which a film intentionally creates moments of calm for its characters to simply be. Not too many, in this case, because this is still an American production and audiences want their jokes and hijinks, but I respect the effort.
Anyway, the titular Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a sea monster, contentedly shepherding (fisherding?) below the surface of the Mediterranean until a chance encounter with fellow sea-boy Alberto (Jack Dylan Glazer, resembling Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Sokka in voice and appearance) leads to exploration of the surface world, and a dangerous infiltration of the nearby town. Why? Because they can; because they’re boys; because they have dreams of riding a Vespa all over the world. They are able to magically appear human when out of the water, but that magic, like the best fables, has clearly defined limits: avoid fountains and rain, for example, or their “human” skin will swiftly bloom with aquatic color. While in disguise, they make a friend in fellow “underdog” Giulia (a spunky Emma Berman), ride bicycles, eat pasta, tangle with the town bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo, in an outsized performance akin to Ian Holm in Ratatouille), and find their relationship tested in more ways than one.
Yet Calamari By Your Name this isn’t, not quite. Casarova, who took inspiration from his own childhood in Genoa, says the story is deliberately set in the “pre-romantic” stage of these boys’ lives. So while the subtext is not hard to find, that’s not what Luca is about. Whether you want to view the story of two boys who have to hide their true selves in a suspicious town as an allegory for LGBTQ, or immigrants, or any other kind of different, it holds up. But you can also appreciate it as a sweet summer fable about friendship, gorgeously animated and humorously voiced by a cast that also includes Maya Rudolph (her second cartoon Mom part this year after The Mitchells vs. The Machines) Jim Gaffigan, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Luca lands somewhere around the middle of the hallowed Pixar rankings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a “lesser” film. Slight, sure, but are you going to complain about a shorter run time and a story that isn’t over-plotted? Of course not. It also doesn’t have that “go for the jugular” emotional moment that is a studio hallmark (or crutch, though I disagree), but it doesn’t need to. When I started writing this was going to be a three-star review, but the more I thought back on it and all the things that make it unique, the more staying power I think Luca will have.
Sweet Tooth (Netflix)
Sweet Tooth is a weird show. Developed by Jim Mickle (Hap & Leonard) and Beth Schwartz (Arrow), the series infuses its preposterously timely setup with both heart and dread — while still sanding down the rougher edges of Jeff Lemire’s comic series for a family audience. Normally that would have a lot of people crying foul (or, in this case, fowl), but in this case I think it was the right move. There’s a growing glut of adult fantasy series out there, and I appreciated having something I could watch with my kids that wasn’t part of a Disney franchise. Though I suppose I still have Disney to thank for it — Sweet Tooth was financed by Robert Downey, Jr., who decided to executive produce the series with his wife instead of, I guess, buying another private island with his Iron Man money.
I digress. Imagine, if you will, a global pandemic. Are you imagining it? The pilot for Sweet Tooth was filmed in New Zealand in 2019, but the real world was already intervening when Netflix gave the series the green light. You can see it in the art direction (particularly the signs about masks and social distancing), and in the staging, where COVID-19 protocols forced a more stripped-down approach that ultimately works in the series’s favor. But the pandemic is only context for the film’s central mystery: the origins of deer-boy Gus (Christian Convery), and the thousands of animal-human hybrid children inexplicably born since the outbreak began. They seem to herald the extinction of the human race altogether, and are thus feared, hunted, and experimented on in ways left to the imagination. Others, like the teenage army led by Stefania LaVie Owen, view their arrival as cosmic justice for the adults who broke the world. Did the virus cause the hybrids, or vice versa? No one can be sure, though some — like Adeel Akhtar’s Dr. Singh, who must choose between keeping his wife alive and his soul — are trying to find out.
But Gus doesn’t know anything about that at first, having lived the first decade of his life isolated in Yellowstone National Park with his father (Will Forte), who has given him both survival skills and hand-drawn adaptations of Tom Sawyer. But by the end of the first hour Gus has left the park after crossing paths with “Big Man” (Nonso Anozie), a former football player who begrudgingly agrees to help Gus get to Colorado — where he hopes to find his mother. Along the way they repeatedly get into and out of trouble, picking up allies and pursued by enemies, until the truth about Gus — and the pandemic’s origins — is finally revealed. Just when it feels like Sweet Tooth is about to really get going, it ends on multiple cliffhangers.
The writing does get clunky (James Brolin’s husky narration, specifically, is an infinity pool of platitudes). But while the series isn’t anything revolutionary, it is engaging, well-acted (Convery and Anozie make a great pair), and beautifully lensed by primary cinematographer Dave Garbett. The woodsy color palette is lovely, with New Zealand effortlessly doubling for the American Rockies. Most importantly, it balances dark whimsy with more challenging themes without being too much for my elementary schoolers to handle. So if you’re looking for a family binge that’s also a break from the usual Marvel/Star Wars fare, give Sweet Tooth a shot.
Hacks (HBO Max)
Far fresher and more endearing than its “Boomer vs. Zoomer” setup would suggest, Hacks is the best new comedy of 2021 so far. It creates a world populated by difficult people you can’t help but love and root for, while deftly critiquing the state of Comedy itself — how it’s changed, for better and for worse, since women like Deborah Vance (Jean Smart in god mode) fought for a seat at the table decades ago. Over two thousand performances into her Las Vegas residency, Vance’s career has hit an inflection point: now spending half her time hawking products on QVC, her audience has aged along with her, and while they love the jokes Vance been telling for decades, her hotel wants to replace her with (gasp) Pentatonix. When her agent (Paul W. Downs, who co-created the series with Lucia Aniello & Jen Statsky) sends her a young writer named Ava to “freshen up” her act, it seems like the final indignity.
The thing is, Ava (Hannah Einbinder, herself a standup comic) doesn’t want to be there either; she just needs to take a job, any job, until the backlash from an insensitive tweet blows over. Ava and Deborah’s working relationship begins as rockily as it possibly can; Ava has no knowledge, let alone appreciation, for Deborah’s backstory or comedic style; Deborah is not only cruelly dismissive of Ava’s ideas, she at one point literally abandons her in the Nevada desert. But whether it’s Stockholm Syndrome or a hard-won understanding between creative women at opposite ends of their careers, eventually the ice cracks, and Hacks takes flight.
Each successive episode builds in confidence, and the fantastic cast (which includes Kaitlin Olsen, Poppy Liu, and Christopher McDonald) makes every scene crackle whether it’s played broadly or surgically. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is another breakout as Marcus, Deborah’s ambitious and cool-headed assistant. Einbinder more than holds her own in an exceedingly difficult role, but this is Jean Smart’s show — perhaps, with this late-career Renaissance including turns on Mare of Easttown, Watchmen, Legion, and Fargo, Jean Smart’s medium, and we’re all just lucky to watch her work. Her Deborah is territorial, but not embittered; she’s worked hard and suffered much to get where she is, and isn’t going to reinvent herself only on the advice of someone who dresses like “Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.” Smart packs a lifetime of experience into every withering glance and wine-soaked aside, but can effortlessly command a stage, and you can’t help but laugh even when the punchlines are a bit… well, hack-y.
It’s an extraordinary performance (she even plays her own wax figure!), all the more so with the knowledge that her husband of three decades, actor Richard Gilliand, passed away with just a couple of already-emotional episodes left to shoot — and she insisted on continuing. It’s hard not to pick up on an extra electrical charge in the finale, “I Think She Will,” in which Hacks catches a few of the balls it’s tossed up but leaves others still hanging, tantalizingly. We better get a Season 2, is what I’m saying. But while I appreciate the dramatic tension, I really just want these characters to get along. They’ve earned it.
Mythic Quest, Season 2 (Apple TV+)
I came late to Mythic Quest, like I did to Ted Lasso and the rest of Apple’s offerings. At first, I was amused, but not necessarily impressed. I never found It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to be quite my taste, and I mostly checked this out because of Community alums Danny Pudi and MQ co-creator Megan Ganz, who wrote some of the former series’s best episodes. And to be fair, Mythic Quest (formerly Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet) didn’t really know what it was at first, either. Was it a crude workplace sitcom? Was it Silicon Valley, but for the gaming industry? It seemed to want to have things both ways, hanging lampshades on some characters’ toxic behavior while others impotently protested it. Was Ian Grimm (co-creator Rob McElhenney) a critique of toxic masculinity, or a shameless vehicle for it?
Yet I stuck with it through those rocky initial episodes, and ever so surely, a transformation took place. By the end of its first season Mythic Quest had begun to flesh out its crabby, myopic ensemble of programmers, executives, and “creative visionaries,” and injected something else entirely: heart. Female characters, like the brilliant (brilliant!) Charlotte Nicdao’s Poppy Li, took center stage; an entire episode was daringly devoted to a flashback of characters we’d never met before; the COVID/Zoom special, “Quarantine,” was inventive and moving and unquestionably the best of its kind from any series last year, full stop. Something had definitely changed.
Season 2, which just wrapped up this week, took things even further — beginning with the joyous “Everlight” special, a Community-esque LARP adventure about the MQ office celebrating its return to work. From there the central thrust of the season became the occasionally friendly, occasionally cutthroat rivalry between now co-creative directors Ian and Poppy as they pushed competing expansions of their flagship game. Ian has mellowed out since last season, having learned to cede (some) control — but for Poppy, power only brings out her worst impulses, and while Nicdao does outbursts of frustration better than anyone on TV, she’s even more comically abusive to her team than Ian ever was to her. This time, however, there’s no lampshading it. It’s a bold choice, but ultimately a satisfying one.
Meanwhile, the mentor/mentee relationship between fellow “sharks” Brad (Pudi) and Jo (Jessie Ennis) takes several twists and turns; testers-with-dreams Rachel (writer Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim) decide to reveal their relationship to the office, but no one cares; office manager David (writer David Hornsby) joins the cult of Brené Brown; there’s a fantastic bottle episode, “Sign Here, Please,” in which the results of an office personality assessment drive beleaguered H.R. head Carol (Naomi Ekperigin) off the deep end. But the season’s highlight is the two-parter centered on F. Murray Abraham’s boorish, self-aggrandizing writer, C.W. Longbottom — the first, “Backstory!”, a poignant flashback set during the heyday of 1960s science fiction writing; the second, “Peter,” a vicious chamber drama guest-starring William Hurt as C.W.’s old rival. Those two episodes are Mythic Quest in miniature: simultaneously an acid-tinged (and occasionally scatological) satire of people behaving horribly, and a well-observed (and occasionally moving) series that nevertheless perseveres in hoping for something better. If the characters of Always Sunny famously never learn, here growth is a prerequisite. This is taken to its logical conclusion in the finale, “TBD,” which essentially blows up the show. If Apple doesn’t renew it, we riot.
I don’t watch a lot of comedy specials, but I couldn’t stay away from Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix). Written, shot, and edited by Burnham entirely on his own over the course of our pandemic year, Inside is a wholly unique, fascinating, and crushingly funny (when it’s not just crushing) creation, depicting the slow deterioration of the comedian’s emotional well-being in a way that blurs the line of reality and performance beyond recognition. Oh, and the songs are fantastic: when he’s not self-flagellating for his early, immature work (“Problematic”), he’s deftly skewering online culture (“White Woman’s Instagram,” “Welcome to the Internet”); sarcastically celebrating Jeff Bezos; or playing through a video game of his own quarantine where his only action is to “Push A to Cry.”
Burnham, who had spent the last few years directing other comedy specials after taking a mental health break from his own (with a role in Promising Young Woman in between), demonstrates canny skill as a technician; he builds his own, lo-fi lighting rigs, using projectors and footswitches and various pieces of tech strapped to his head for the perfectly-timed effect. But the key to Burnham the Artist, however, is not his ascendence as an ironically self-absorbed YouTuber or as Millennials’ crude answer to Weird Al, but that at heart he’s just a former musical theater nerd with severe anxiety. That makes Inside‘s climax — the acoustic ballad “Goodbye”, and what follows — some of the most poignant art to come out of this past year. No matter how many imitators this special spawns, Burnham has finally figured out who he is, and that’s someone I’ll be following going forward.
- Loki, now halfway through its first (and hopefully not only) season, is easily my favorite MCU series. I love the 70s aesthetic, I love Hiddleston & Wilson, and I love the weirdness of its storytelling. More next month.
- “Part 2” of Lupin recently dropped on Netflix, with five new episodes of absurd heists and shenanigans for your subtitled pleasure. I don’t have much to add to my initial review from January except to say I was totally satisfied, and to reiterate that Omar Sy should be a massive star. My dream is to one day escape through the Paris catacombs onto a speedboat, turning back to laugh at my enemies; for now, watching Lupin will have to do.
- Top Chef: Portland wraps up next week, and it’s safe to say that this is going to be high on any fan’s list of the most satisfying seasons. Despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19, it’s been a celebration of excellence, with remarkable camaraderie among the contestants and challenges that spotlighted food cultures never before seen on the show. It’s been fantastic. I think Shota’s still my pick to win, but I’d honestly be happy for any of them.
- On something of a whim, we spent a week watching the 2019 BBC docu-series Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History. Gripping stuff, and while never claiming to be the authoritative story of the conflict, finds room for both new investigative reporting and perspectives from former IRA, English politicians, and the common people who were too often caught in the middle of sectarian violence. It’s a topic of endless fascination for me, anyway.
- First-time watches during my summer break: The Constant Gardener (good!), Cabaret (great!), Out of Sight (cool!), Nashville (masterpiece!).
Looking ahead to… Steven Soderbergh directs another star-studded heist in No Sudden Move (7/1, HBO Max)… Tim Robinson’s surreal and highly meme-able sketch show, I Think You Should Leave, returns for Season 2 (7/6 Netflix)… Pixar offers Monsters at Work, a sequel series to the 2001 film (7/7, Disney+)… Marvel’s Black Widow tries to finally bring everyone back to movie theaters (7/9)… What We Do in the Shadows spinoff, Wellington Paranormal, gets a U.S. broadcast (7/11, CW)… Ted Lasso is back, baby (Apple, 7/23).