A ‘woke’ Cinderella out to be
a dress designer; a wholesome
‘Heights’ neighborhood

Diverse, upbeat musicals you’re sure to enjoy

Cinderella official poster

Credit: Amazon Prime Video/YouTube


Cast: Camila Cabello, Idina Menzel, Nicholas Galitzine
Written and directed by Kay Cannon

Fairytale purists won’t be happy with this latest version of Cinderella. In this iteration bankrolled by Sony Pictures and written and directed by Kay Cannon, the words “woke” and “diversity” are the names of the game. This means Cinderella (as played by Cuban-born singer Camila Cabello) isn’t about to wait for Prince Charming to rescue her from the evil stepmother. She’s hoping to be a successful dress designer.

Like Whitney Houston’s version (based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical), the cast is multi-racial. And in this new incarnation, the fairy godmother is flamboyantly played by Billy Porter. Correction: He plays Cinderella’s Fabulous Godmother.

It’s an eyebrow-raising production, but this Cinderella is actually entertaining.  It may not be the finest version, but I daresay it’s superior to any of the recent Disney movie musical remakes, and that includes Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and even the 2015 non-musical Cinderella remake by Kenneth Brannagh.

Kay Cannon, who gave us the successful Pitch Perfect movies, provides a flippant attitude towards both the original source material and the movie’s attempt to be woke. Rest assured the irreverence is only up to a certain point. Cannon does underscore the plight of women in those medieval times, when they could have only dreams that were wishes their hearts made. Her Cinderella may be empowered, but not in the way the joyless Charlie’s Angels movie of Elizabeth Banks was. Cannon’s film isn’t about man-hating. It doesn’t shove its social message down our throats.

Cannon just wants her viewers and her girls to have fun, and she delivers. Her fairytale movie plays like a dream sequence in one of her Pitch Perfect movies, which means viewers are in for a treat of several original rap songs and classic pop hits. The huge production numbers are expertly staged, though the quick editing and busy camera work dilute the effect. Viewers are deprived of the spectacular moves the dancers make.

Idina Menzel out-divas all the actresses who’ve ever played the stepmother

Idina Menzel nearly steals the show when she does her hilarious show-stopping cover of Madonna’s Material Girl.  With that number alone, Menzel out-divas all the actresses who’ve ever played the stepmother.  She can also easily win over the skeptics and purists.

Camila Cabello is pretty and talented. She doesn’t overdo it when she’s playing the victim or when she yearns to be the first Cosmo girl of her village. Even when stepmother is in a rampaging mood, Cabello’s nuanced reaction tells us that this isn’t going to go on forever. Nevertheless, despite the spunk she injects into her Cinderella, she maintains audience sympathy.

Most of the characters speak like any American youth today, sans the expletives. British accents are reserved for the actors who play royalty, and the actors who voice the mice. There are more scenes between the prince (gamely played by Nicholas Galitzine) and the king (Pierce Brosnan), and they show as much spark as the romantic scenes with Cinderella.

As the queen, Minnie Driver isn’t asked to do much, which is keeping in tune with what the women had to deal with in those times. She does get one of the film’s bigger laughs. It’s when Pierce Brosnan attempts to revive the romance in their marriage. He gets down from his horse and on one knee, calls out for her. Her majesty the queen deadpans, “Oh no. He’s going to sing.”

Cinderella is on Amazon Prime

In the Heights

Cast:  Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace
Adapted for the screen by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Jon M. Chu

In the Heights official poster

Credit: HBO Max/YouTube

Based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that ran on Broadway during the early 2000s, In the Heights is a pleasant and happy movie. In the tradition of The Sound of Music, it’s a mostly wholesome musical presented in a contemporary package. That’s a rare combination.

The “Heights” mentioned in the title is Washington Heights, that major neighborhood in New York City. Much of the story happens around a few blocks populated mostly by immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Hence, the lead protagonists are struggling young Latinos who dream of a better life. There’s Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos), who owns a bodega but dreams of owing a beach resort in the Dominican Republic.  Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to open her own fashion boutique.  Nina (Leslie Grace) drops out of Stanford University because her father (played by Jimmy Smits of L.A. Law) intends to sell his limousine business to pay for the tuition.

Of course, there are barriers to hurdle and it would seem that at one point, they won’t be able to realize their respective ambitions. Meanwhile, the story introduces us to their neighbors and relatives through family reunions and salsa nights. These occasions offer an opportunity for the cast to display their remarkable singing and dancing abilities.

Being a contemporary musical, the songs are mostly rap and Latin, penned by Lin Manuel Miranda.  Even if you’re not into rap, you’ll enjoy the performances, since the lyrics tend to be witty, upbeat, and performed with élan. Some of the ballads have a spiritual feel, while the rest make you want to get up and dance.

The streets they walk on look so happy, we expect to see Big Bird make a special guest appearance

In the Heights, however, is one movie musical that begs to be seen on stage. As filmed, the musical numbers suffers from what seems to be an aversion to big production numbers. As with Cinderella, those wonderful moves the dancers make are never seen completely. The camera quickly moves to another group of dancers or to another angle. This dizzying style of editing, jumpstarted by Baz Luhrman in Moulin Rouge, is a disservice to the choreographer and the hoofers. I can’t imagine any director or editor doing the same with the likes of Ann Reinking, Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, or even Ryan Gosling.

Still, the movie offers some standout numbers.  There’s $96,000, which is the prize money for the upcoming lotto draw. In a public swimming pool, everyone in the place starts singing about how they would use the money if they won it. This huge number harks back to the days Busby Berkley produced such elaborate musical extravaganzas. No Me Dega, performed in a beauty salon, is a sprightly, funny song. It’s sung by the salon’s proprietress Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and supported by her chorus of beauticians and customers. It plays like I Feel Pretty in West Side Story, but this one is about gossiping and not about feeling beautiful.

The haunting Paciencia y Fe is sung by Uznavi’s abuela, who raised him after his parents passed away. Played by Olga Merediz, the abuela has just one solo song, but she makes it count. Sung on her death bed, she reminisces on the time she fled from Cuba to New York and the difficulties she endured to get to where she is now. Merediz is so moving she makes the movie worth seeing.

Both the abuela and Daniela (the owner of the beauty salon) should have been made the leads instead.  They both give the movie its soul and passion. They’ve been there and done that, and they do have some compelling stories to tell.

The actors who play the three young leads have tons of charisma and talent, yet they fail to make viewers root for them. It so happens that the people they play don’t have a true villain to go up against. Everyone is perky, smiling, and relatively free of any grit or hardships. Any form of struggle they might have had seems somewhat trite and shallow. The streets they walk on look so happy, we expect to see Big Bird make a special guest appearance.

Overall, the movie is still worth your time because it does have an uproarious opening number that rivals that of La La Land. We don’t get that kind of movie every day, so we’ll take what we can get.

In the Heights  ran on HBO Max. 

Read more:

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Sandra Oh owns ‘The Chair,’ and Paolo Contis the ‘Faraway Land’

The Good Doctor—the Korean original and Hollywood remake go separate ways

Trese—where stars come and go faster than Voltes V

‘Friends’—the sexy Gen-Xers in my living room every week

Cruella: Like an expensive Hollywood tribute to Joey Gosiengfao’s epics

You want an escape? Not this year’s Oscar movies

Give Glenn Close the award—Oscar hopefuls you can watch now

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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