STREAMING REVIEWS: An origin story & Lin’s original musical

Published June 15, 2021, 6:30 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

The two films today would have to be regarded as prestige projects within the realm of today’s streaming services. In a pre- or post-pandemic world, they would have enjoyed well-promoted theatrical releases, with premieres and collateral merchandise galore. Today, it’s a token theatrical release, and a lot of plugging on the streaming service. So welcome to the worlds of Cruella and In the Heights.

Cruella (Disney+) – Here’s the latest in the prequel/origin story film treatment that have become such staples of franchise films and the output of such entertainment giants as Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars – which not coincidentally, now all fall under Disney. First thing to be said is that we can be thankful they have learned from the Maleficent fiasco. Trying to make a villainess too sympathetic is just wrong to begin with – she is a villainess for a purpose. To believe every title character has to be a hero or heroine just defeats the purpose of the origin film if said character was seen & enjoyed as a reprehensible, evil figure in another film. What we’re after is why did he or she become so evil, not to go ‘Awww, they’re misunderstood’. Craig Gillespie directs, and he’s probably best known for I, Tonya – and Tonya Harding was a true to life villainess/black sheep of the ice skating world.

As for Cruella, it’s set in the world of 1970’s British fashion, the Carnaby Street scene; and dwells on oneupmanship and the frailty of egotistical ‘geniuses’. And to its credit, the film is propelled by the enthusiastic portrayals of the two Emma’s. They basically hog the limelight and we’re happy they do. Emma Stone plays Estella/Cruella, and it’s good to note how her single-minded passion for ambition and revenge makes her blind to the contributions of her confederates/grifters from the crime underworld. Emma Thompson scene steals her way through the film as The Baroness, the doyenne of fashion at the time, and one who’s ready to step on anyone’s toes or fingers if they’re in the way of her triumphant marches and tirades. Together, the two make the film more than the sum of its parts. There’s a tedious reveal that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer and one we all knew was coming; and the middle portion of the film feels like brisker editing would have helped. A little bit more meanness and sadistic streaks would have helped, but this is Disney, and we should be thankful for what we do get.

In the Heights (HBO Max) – For those who aren’t aware, In the Heights is Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony-winning musical from 2008. Yes, this is the same Lin who went on to give us Hamilton, and nothing was ever the same since for Lin. He wrote Heights with Quiara Hudes, and it’s directed by John M. Chu, who directed Crazy Rich Asians. It’s exuberant, it’s a visual splendor, it’s colorful, the music and dance shine and glimmer – but it’s also overlong, each musical number is overproduced to death, and it lacks narrative continuity. I would liken it to Chu taking a course at the Baz Luhrmann School of Directing. For many who’ve watched it, they’ve gushed and admired it, and I won’t dispute how it can hit the right buttons, but personally, I’d venture to guess it’s because 1) it’s pre-Hamilton Lin, and Lin is their God, and 2) it was staged here in Manila, directed by Bobby Garcia, so it’ll be a shot of nostalgia for those who loved the musical, and its savvy mix of salsa and hip-hop. 

I give credit to the Director for the visual flourishes, as I loved the bolts of fabric descending from the high-rises as Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) sings about her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. But the white-chalked illustrations that appear as Usnavi (Antonio Ramos) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) head to the public pools is just too cute, and overstays it’s welcome. The Busby Berkeley-inspired number in said public pools is also a highlight, but at some point, the over-producing of all the musical numbers become numbing, and we don’t differentiate one song from the other. The sense of Latino community in Washington Heights is a great theme that plays throughout the film, and I’ll applaud the multi-cultural representation that’s on display; but with a running time of over two hours twenty, the narrative is overburdened by the myriad of characters and respective stories. It’s a shame as I loved the opening thirty to forty minutes. Here’s hoping Spielberg’s West Side Story doesn’t fall into the same traps.