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Indie Focus: A neighborhood comes alive ‘In the Heights’

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

This week the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative came out with a study on the marginalization of Muslims in Hollywood. The study found that Muslims accounted for just 1.6% of speaking roles across 200 films from 2017 to 2019, while accounting for 24% of the world population.

Recent Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed was part of the group who commissioned the study. They also created $25,000 fellowships for Muslim storytellers.

“The cost of this lack of representation is measured in lost potential in terms of storytellers and artists in their careers and what they can contribute, lost audiences in terms of people switching off, and over a billion Muslims around the world who don’t get to connect to these stories,” Ahmed said in an interview with The Times’ Anousha Sakoui. “This failure of representation is experienced by Muslims as pain, physical pain, in terms of being attacked, in terms of countries being invaded, in terms of discriminatory legislation.”

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I wrote about this year’s Tribeca Festival, which began on Wednesday and runs through the 20th, including a tipsheet of titles to look out for in months ahead, including new films from Steven Soderbergh, Dave Chappelle and more. Although there is a virtual component to the event, as festival director Cara Cusumano said, “It was really important to us to have an in-person event. We felt that virtual festivals are amazing and we wanted to have that be a part of what we did, but the thing that people were really missing was that in-person community. So that was really the priority.”

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‘In the Heights’

Directed by John M. Chu from a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “In the Heights” is an adaptation of the stage musical co-written by Hudes and pre-“Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the film, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) tells the story of his New York City neighborhood in Washington Heights, where he runs a small corner store and intersects with Nina (Leslie Grace), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). The film is now in theaters and on HBO Max.

Times culture writers Suzy Exposito, Carolina A. Miranda and Daniel Hernandez wrote about Latino cultural references in the film and what the movie means more broadly to the Latino creative community. As their introduction explains, “Now ‘In the Heights’ is set to do for the movies what it did on Broadway: bring the stories of present-day, everyday Latinos to life. And not a moment too soon. A lot has changed in Hollywood, it might seem, since #OscarsSoWhite in 2016. Black films and filmmakers were pushed to the fore and scored box office and critical success with films like ‘Get Out’ and ‘Black Panther.’ Asian and Asian American filmmakers also bounded into the mainstream with Oscar-winning films like ‘Parasite’ and ‘Nomadland.’ Latinos, with rare exceptions — think: Disney’s animated hit ‘Coco’ or Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ — remain far from a semblance of parity.”

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “At nearly two-and-a-half hours and with a terrific ensemble of actors singing, rapping, dancing and practically bursting out of the frame, ‘In the Heights’ is a brash and invigorating entertainment, a movie of tender, delicate moments that nonetheless revels unabashedly in its own size and scale. … As a musical valentine to a close-knit Latino community, an inspired swirl of hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other musical idioms, its pleasures are often glorious, even transporting. It summons — and for the most part sustains — the kind of visual and musical energy that might help give the movies the resurgent jab-in-the-arm summer they’ve been waiting for.”

Ashley Lee wrote about five major changes from the stage musical to its screen adaptation. As director John M. Chu said, “To adapt the story into a film, “we didn’t want to go external with the conflict, as if there’s some big bad landlord behind all the gentrification. Instead, we went deeper into what drives each of these characters, and made their dreams and hopes and struggles as big as any movie you’ve ever seen. Because there’s no such thing as a small story.”

For the Atlantic, Carlos Aguilar wrote about the character of Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, and how she is the emotional center of the film, noting, “The classic peril of assimilation in America is that a perceived greater belonging demands a partial loss of self. What ‘In the Heights’ endearingly suggests, through Abuela Claudia, is that you can become who you want to be by being who you already are.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The director, Jon M. Chu (‘Crazy Rich Asians’), draws on the anti-realist traditions of Hollywood song-and-dance spectacle to vault the characters (and the audience) into exalted realms of feeling and magic. … At the same time, this multistranded, intergenerational story about family, community and upward mobility is rooted in the real-world soil of hard work and sacrifice. The modest dreams of Usnavi and his neighbors and friends are reflections of a very big dream — the American one, which the film celebrates without irony even as it takes note of certain contradictions.”

For Polygon, Joshua Rivera wrote, “‘In the Heights’ does its best to speak to its people without conceding too much to an imagined mainstream/majority audience. The lyrics and dialogue are full of Spanglish, only subtitled when absolutely necessary. Latinx heroes like Celia Cruz are name-checked, but not explained. And pots full of carne guisada y pasteles get nice close-up shots, but zero exposition. This is how ‘In the Heights’ won me over. Because in spite of its flaws … it’s ultimately a work of affection for both its subject and its medium. It’s a celebration of the never-ending struggle that ties immigrant communities together, even for people who come from different islands with different dances and different slang. It conveys the feeling of living here while always thinking about the warmth of the sun Over There.”

An explosion of dance on a pool deck in “In the Heights.”
It’s time to sing and dance in “In the Heights.” At center are Dascha Polanco, from left, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Stephanie Beatriz.
(Warner Bros.)

‘Holler’

Written and directed by Nicole Riegel, “Holler” stars Jessica Barden as Ruth, a young woman in an economically depressed Ohio town torn between her dreams of getting out and going to college and obligations to her brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), her mother (Pamela Adlon) and watchful neighbor Linda (Becky Ann Baker). The film is in select theaters and on digital platforms.

For The Times, Katie Walsh called the film “an unflinching autobiographical work about what it takes to lift oneself out of this marginalized life. It’s not just the merits of intelligence or hard work for someone like Ruth, but a willingness to sacrifice the only things she has, everything she’s known. … In ‘Holler,’ [Barden] gives herself over completely to this world, melding into its rhythms and textures, becoming as authentic as the experiences it’s based on. She becomes the vessel to express Riegel’s quiet cri de coeur, which is not just yearning to escape one’s own circumstances but the absolute necessity of it.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, “Riegel isn’t interested in big, cinematic twists, and Ruth’s college acceptance doesn’t set off a feel-good chain of events that end with movie-ready endings. The big trick: it all feels honest and real, but it’s never depressing, just credible and absorbing as a result. ... Who can blame Riegel for staying so dedicated to Barden and her Ruth, when her work is stellar enough to push the film into such engaging, compelling spaces? ‘Holler’ may mark Riegel’s feature debut and the latest of Barden’s impressive leading roles, but they make for a pair worth shouting about.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Jourdain Searles compared the film to “Winter’s Bone” and other recent depictions of working-class life, writing, “Barden does her best with the material, displaying spirit and charm. But her delivery of the dialogue feels a bit too studied; there’s something stagey about her interactions onscreen, lacking the lived-in quality that the performance requires. Perhaps this is the intention of the film, setting Ruth apart in order to remind us that she doesn’t really belong there. ‘Holler’ gives us the impression that a college-bound working-class person has a different sensibility than those who live near their families and work a nine-to-five. And yet by showing how much help Ruth receives from Linda and Blaze, the film disproves its own thesis. The only thing that sets Ruth apart from the people around her is luck.”

A young woman and a young man in a pickup cab.
Jessica Barden as Ruth and Gus Halper as her brother, Blaze, in Nicole Riegel’s “Holler.”
(IFC Films)

‘Censor’

Directed and co-written by Prano Bailey-Bond, “Censor” returns to the world of early-’80s “video nasties,” low-budget horror movies of a particularly sleazy ilk, as a young, committed film censor (Niamh Algar) finds her sense of reality and fantasy slipping as one movie in particular brings up difficult memories. The film is now in limited theatrical release and on VOD June 18.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “Collaborating with cinematographer Annika Summerson, Bailey-Bond utilizes familiar horror aesthetics, contrasting Enid’s drab and foreboding office atmosphere with more colorful, giallo-inspired choices as the film progresses. Gorgeous, moody lighting bathes the subjects in reds, pinks, cool blues and sickly greens, rendering the mundane horrific and the horrific melodramatic. TV static and shifting aspect ratios serve as transitional tools, trapping us within the square limits of a VHS format. ‘Censor’ is a bold artistic statement, inspired by the history of its own genre, though it’s not an uncritical assertion, posing complicated questions about media effects without offering easy answers.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin wrote, “Steeped in the gory look, grimy feel and transgressive spirit of the so-called ‘video nasties’ from the 1980s, British meta-minded horror movie ‘Censor’ offers an admirable pastiche, spiked with black humor. … The many in-jokes and allusions to vintage shockers should amuse fans with long memories and substantial home entertainment collections. That said, at times it’s not easy to tell if the sometimes stilted performances from the peripheral cast and bordering-on-cliché narrative moves are part of the homage or just regular weak technique. It’s possible there’s a little of both column A and column B at work here.”

For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “Censor returns us to an era when dodgy material that was under the counter could stay hidden. Explicit movies could exist in a shadowy world, where they were just a rumour, a culture that existed below the stratum of respectability, and even finding out about mainstream movies was difficult. Now digital technology and searchable databases have rendered the counter transparent and almost everything can be seen. Bailey-Bond reconstructs the uncanny, almost occult world of film itself, and, using her budget cleverly, projects the 80s from claustrophobic closeups on period detail.”

A woman in a dark hallway looks back over her shoulder.
Niamh Algar in the movie “Censor.”
(Maria Lax / Magnet Releasing
)


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