Indie Focus: ‘Hamilton’ from stage to screen

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its new member invitations this week, and with the potential addition of 819 new members, it has fulfilled the goals set out in 2016 in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy to double the number of women and people from underrepresented communities in the group by 2020. Glenn Whipp and Josh Rottenberg covered the announcement.

It was an exciting group of invitees, including Choi Woo Shik, Chang Hyae Jin, Cho Yeo Jeong, Lee Jung Eun and Park So Dam from “Parasite,” Awkwafina, Tzi Ma and Lulu Wang from “The Farewell,” Olivia Wilde, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein from “Booksmart,” “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo, “Upstream Color” filmmaker and star Shane Carruth and Zack Gottsagen, star of “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”


Other new invitees included performers Zhao Tao, Brian Tyree Henry, Yalitza Aparicio, John David Washington, Adèle Haenel, Mackenzie Davis, Zazie Beetz, Natasha Lyonne, Zendaya Coleman, Florence Pugh, Ana de Armas and Udo Kier, along with filmmakers Alma Har’el, Julia Hart, Stella Meghie, Bette Gordon and Mati Diop.

This week, for New York City’s venerable Film Forum, I moderated a Q&A you can watch here with “Shirley” star and producer Elisabeth Moss and director Josephine Decker. I was more or less a bystander as the two engaged in a spirited, inspired discussion about making the film, still one of my personal favorites of the year, which is both based on the life and inspired by the works of author Shirley Jackson.

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Though originally planned for a theatrical release more than a year from now, the filmed presentation of “Hamilton,” capturing the original cast over two nights in June 2016, has come to Disney+ just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. The film is directed by Thomas Kail, who also directed the stage show, and stars writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, who would rise from obscurity to become one of the founding fathers of the United States of America.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “One of the show’s more obvious lessons is that history is a living, breathing entity, and that the cyclical rise-and-fall narratives of leaders and empires can be studied and recounted in ways that uncover bold new patterns of meaning. This film, a solid capture of a momentous work of art, illuminates those patterns in ways both sobering and thrilling. I still hesitate to call ‘Hamilton’ the film we need right now, partly because it deserves better than boilerplate hype. And partly because I suspect that, as with all reverberant history, its most significant work may still be ahead of it.”

Ashley Lee spoke to Kail and some of the other creative team behind the show about the challenge of bringing the stage show to the screen. As he said, “Theater disappears every night after the curtain call, and then you have to go and make it again. That’s the beauty of it, but that’s also the challenge. There was something about this moment where we thought, ‘No matter when this comes out, let’s honor and preserve the moment we have with this extraordinary cast, assembled all in the same place at the same time.’"

For those among us (like myself) who have not seen the show before, Ashley also wrote something of a “Hamilton” primer, an explanation of its plot and characters, noting, “It grapples with that all-too-familiar existential crisis: the attempt to build something that outlasts a lifetime, to make the most of your time on this earth with the skills you have and the opportunities before you. Your ambition can be both a blessing and a curse, your livelihood a pawn in a political game, your potential kneecapped at any moment, even by yourself. All of this is in flux and in focus, while the characters experience love and friendship and jealousy and loss, just like the rest of us.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “‘Hamilton’ is motivated, above all, by a faith in the self-correcting potential of the American experiment, by the old and noble idea that a usable past — and therefore a more perfect future — can be fashioned from a record that bristles with violence, injustice and contradiction. The optimism of this vision, filtered through a sensibility as generous as Miranda’s, is inspiring. … It’s also heartbreaking. One lesson that the past few years should have taught — or reconfirmed — is that there aren’t any good old days. We can’t go back to 1789 or 2016 or any other year to escape from the failures that plague us now. This four-year-old performance of ‘Hamilton,’ viewed without nostalgia, feels more vital, more challenging then ever.”


For The Undefeated, Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote, “So what happens now, when ‘Hamilton’ once again enters the cultural conversation, with access to it democratized by a streaming service one can purchase for less than $10? And this time, we’re in a moment in which Black people are demanding an equitable and just share of power, and their right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. What happens when the country at large, and not just a select audience of well-monied theatergoers, get swept into the passion, yearning and romance that Miranda’s songwriting makes so deliciously infectious? ... ‘Hamilton’ proffers an America in which Black and brown people hold an equitable share of power and resources. It’s a timely and relevant text for this moment of revolution.”

For Vulture, theater critic Helen Shaw and columnist Mark Harris had a conversation about the movie. As Harris said, “The ‘what is and isn’t a movie’ talk can get really tedious, but this clearly isn’t a movie in one sense, which is that you can see it and afterward still say to yourself, ‘I wonder what it would be like if somebody tried to make a movie out of ‘Hamilton.’ What I think it does exceptionally intelligently is embrace the fact that it is a stage show and then enhance it with some judicious and understated filming technique. … This was filmed in a way that goes well beyond screwing a camera down to, you know, fifth row center and just letting it happen. It is not an attempt to turn ‘Hamilton’ into something it isn’t; it’s an attempt to share with you what ‘Hamilton’ is.”

Renee Elise Goldsberry, center, performs the standout song "Satisfied" in "Hamilton."
Renée Elise Goldsberry, center, performs the standout song “Satisfied” in “Hamilton.”

‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

Directed by Dawn Porter, the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is a portrait of the longtime civil rights activist and lawmaker. The film traces Lewis’ youth from the fateful day when, as a young man, he was beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to his election to Congress to the present day. Released by Magnolia Pictures, the film is available on VOD.


For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘Good Trouble’ is a lovely tribute to Lewis, with so many moments from his story remaining urgent and relevant, especially his carefully planned, executed and sustained civil rights organizing and activism. As frosh Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib express, Lewis and others provided a blueprint for how to do this work, and in Lewis’ case especially, how to sustain it.”

I spoke about the film with Porter, who discussed Lewis’ response to ongoing nationwide protests. “This is what keeps him optimistic, is that we did not have protests against police violence in all 50 states when John Lewis was beaten. And today we do have that. So for people who say nothing has changed, that’s just not true. So I think that helps him not be as depressed about current events as other people, because he never thought that he was finished.”

For IndieWire, Eric Kohn wrote, “Of course, Lewis knows he won’t be around forever, and ‘Good Trouble’ chronicles the urgency that comes out of that realization. By pushing Trump out of the picture, Porter makes it clear that Lewis’ purpose is much grander than any single assault on democratic institutions. He’s a living testament to the value of staying in the battle as long as it rages on. Lewis was fighting for America’s future long before any recent conflicts, and the documentary makes a welcome case for keeping hope alive.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote, “By the end of ‘Good Trouble,’ one increasingly feels the weight of Lewis carrying the hopes and dreams of a people — of a nation, really — on his shoulders for six decades. … Lewis’ overwhelming optimism is ever present in ‘Good Trouble,’ and that’s a good thing. It’s one of the many reasons why he’s an American hero after all. Maybe Porter’s main achievement here, then, is that the film also highlights the human cost of being the hero who has dutifully stayed on message for decades. And you can’t help but wonder if shouldering that burden was too much to ask in the first place.”


Police officers confront protesters on Bloody Sunday in the documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble."
(Magnolia Pictures)

‘The Truth’

For “The Truth,” his first film made outside Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda has crafted a family drama starring Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, an iconic French film star. Fabienne has a troubled relationship with her daughter, Lumir, played by Juliette Binoche. Ethan Hawke plays Lumir’s husband Hank.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Filmmakers whose truest gifts translate no matter the language or trappings are special travelers indeed. And in the writer-director’s incisive, winning tale of a battle of will and wit between Catherine Deneuve’s sharp-tongued acting doyenne and her exasperated screenwriter daughter, played by Juliette Binoche, Kore-eda furthers his storied reputation as an artist humanely attuned to what transpires between those who know each other all too well.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “One of the pleasures of Kore-eda’s filmmaking is how its power sneaks up on you. His visual style is precise yet unassuming, as is his approach to narrative. In ‘The Truth,’ as elsewhere in his catalog (his last movie was ‘Shoplifters’), the story gradually emerges through an accretion of details and personal dynamics, often in families that stand in for the larger world. Things happen quietly or offscreen. The drama is measured out in sips, in gazes, gestures, silences, off-handed humor and shocks of brutality. The movie has scarcely begun when the journalist notices Fabienne’s approaching visitors. ‘It’s nothing,’ she says. ‘My daughter and her little family.’”


Catherine Deneuve, left, and Juliette Binoche in "The Truth (La Verite)."
(IFC Films)