‘In the Heights’

Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references. Opens in theaters on June 11 and also available on HBO Max.

“Hamilton” transformed Lin-Manuel Miranda into a Broadway legend, but even before that musical made history and dominated pop culture, he’d already established himself as a creative force with his first production.

“In the Heights,” a tribute to Miranda’s New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights and its residents, won the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 2008 and Miranda used the clout he earned from “Hamilton” and his collaborations with Disney to finally get the film adaptation off the ground.

Thanks to his musical brilliance, a strong screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes and director Jon M. Chu’s astonishing eye for staging, the movie version of “In the Heights” is a joyous event that seems poised to launch its charismatic stars into Hollywood’s upper echelon.

The story features several endearing characters, but at the center of it all is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams returning to his birthplace in the Dominican Republic to revitalize his late father’s bar.

In the summer leading up to his departure, Usnavi’s friends and neighbors (played by Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz and many more) experience their own victories and heartbreaks, weaving in and out of each other’s stories. Of course, since this is a musical, their emotions are expressed through powerful songs and stunning dance numbers.

While I had a few minor quibbles with “In the Heights” (it’s about 20 minutes too long and some of the characters don’t warrant as much screen time as more interesting ones), it’s a joyous experience. In addition to the great music and dynamic visual elements, the cast is incredible.

“Hamilton” fans are already familiar with Ramos’ magnetic presence, but he’s on a whole different level here. He carries the entire film on his shoulders and makes it look effortless. His costars are equally terrific, but the standouts are Hawkins and Barrera, who radiate warmth and charm in every scene.

Fans of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” might also be surprised by a practically unrecognizable Stephanie Beatriz, playing a flamboyant beauty salon character who’s about as far from deadpan cop Rosa Diaz as it gets.

Though it wasn’t their original plan, Miranda and Chu have crafted a perfect movie to welcome audiences back to theaters. It should be experienced on a giant screen, with loud speakers, in a room with a bunch of other (vaccinated) people. While the film is debuting simultaneously on HBO Max, I strongly recommend getting out of the house instead. This one’s something special.

Grade: B+


Rated TV-14. New episodes available every Wednesday on Disney Plus.

Marvel Studios’ third Disney Plus series (following “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”) finally gives one of the MCU’s most beloved antiheroes his turn in the spotlight.

Although Loki (Tom Hiddleston), god of mischief and Thor’s brother, met his demise in the opening moments of “Avengers: Infinity War,” this procedural-style thriller focuses on the 2012 version of the character audiences saw in “Avengers: Endgame.” You know, the one who steals the Tesseract from the time-traveling heroes trying to repair Thanos’ universe-destroying snap.

Clearly, “Loki” is not the best place for casual viewers to jump onboard the MCU. Disney sent me the first two episodes (out of six) and, while tremendously entertaining, they’re exposition-heavy affairs that assume the audience is already caught up on Loki’s dense backstory and are ready for things to get even more convoluted.

Because these early hours are devoted to setting the table for future adventures, it’s a bit too soon to assess the overall quality of “Loki.”

That being said, series creator Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron (working, as usual, from Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige’s overarching creative vision) have done a terrific job establishing the world of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), its labyrinthine directives and its delightfully weird employees.

Chief among those is Agent Mobius, played by Owen Wilson with a twinkle in his eye and utilizing the laconic delivery and fun tics that viewers have come to associate with the actor. The blueprint of “Loki” is a cop show, so Mobius could’ve been a stern, no-nonsense boss who butts heads with our chaotic protagonist.

Instead, the character takes a shine to Loki, believing — against the urging of his more traditional colleagues (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku) — the disgraced god could help the TVA take down a larger threat.

Wilson’s chemistry with Hiddleston is evident from the start. The latter, excellent as always in his star-making role, has been playing Loki off-and-on for a decade and possesses an intricate knowledge of what makes the character work.

That might’ve easily steamrolled a character that viewers just met, but Waldron makes the brilliant choice to have Mobius be someone who sees through Loki’s usual tricks and is far more interested in learning about the real person hiding behind all that ego and speechifying. As such, their initial scenes play more like therapy sessions than a superhero saga.

Once the rules and stakes of “Loki” are established, the characters evolve into a more traditional buddy cop duo, one that engages in witty banter as they time-travel and solve mysteries. Episode two ends on a fun cliffhanger that left me both smiling at the audacity of the series’ stakes and frustrated that I have to wait two weeks to see where the story goes. Mission accomplished — I’m in for the long haul.

Grade: B+

Home Video Spotlight: ‘Flashback’

Rated R for drug content, language throughout, brief sexual material and nudity. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.

In this mind-bending thriller, Dylan O’Brien plays a young man living his best life — until he starts having terrifying visions of a girl (Maika Monroe) who vanished in high school. He reaches out to former friends with whom he used to take a mystery drug known as Mercury, which makes him realize the only way to stop the visions is to embark on a journey through his memories to learn the truth.

Special features include a director’s commentary, deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

‘The Courier’

Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout. Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Based on a true story, this entertaining spy thriller focuses on Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an everyday British businessman who is recruited by operatives from MI-6 (Angus Wright) and the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan) to forge a partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) at the height of the Cold War. Through their covert efforts, the duo provides crucial info needed to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Blu-ray and DVD include a making-of featurette.

Twitter: @IAmJoshSewell