‘In the Heights’ Review: Washington Heights is So Hot Right Now

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In the Heights (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Noah Catala, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, Christopher Jackson

Director: Jon M. Chu

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Young Adults and Older Adults Dealing with Adult Stuff

Release Date: June 10, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

How could anyone possibly sing and dance on the streets of Manhattan as the temps creep up into the high 90s? This is the conundrum that In the Heights forces us to face. Sure, it’s a musical, and its attendant heightened reality isn’t meant to represent literal truth. But the vibe of this movie-based-on-a-Broadway-show is very much “This is what life is really like in the neighborhood of Washington Heights.” So how to explain it? Well, the heat can make people do some pretty irrational things. And you can get away with a few bouts of illogic here and there if you’re generally focused on friends and family.

So just who are these Washington Heights-ians in the midst of a heat wave and looming blackout in this movie musical based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay)? First off, there’s Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Navi for short, a young bodega owner who’s looking to buy himself a plot of land in the Dominican Republic. Then there’s his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregoy Diaz IV), who could really use some documentation to firm up his immigration status. Also hanging around the bodega is his good buddy Benny (Corey Hawkins), who really ought to make things right with Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s buckling under the pressure of being the first one in her family to make it to college. Most of that pressure is coming from her kind-of pushy dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who never met a financial pickle he wouldn’t crunch his way out of. And then strolling right through is Vanessa (Melissa Berrera), who’s keen on starting a fashion design career while also making sure that Navi isn’t too much of a dingus for the two of them to consummate their obvious feelings for each other. Finally, looking over it all with grace and a steady heart is Navi’s abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). And I cannot fail to mention that LMM is also present on screen as the local shaved ice cart pusher who has an only-in-New York rivalry with the neighborhood Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver (fellow Hamilton alum Christopher Jackson).

This story all plays out via the framing device of Navi telling the tale to a quartet of kids on the beach several years later. And that’s obviously the right sort of vibe. The older generation tells the younger generation stories of their families that happened before they were born so that they know where they came from. And I love to see it, because I am just innately fulfilled by keeping track of how people are related to each other and who’s friends with whom. In the Heights doesn’t need to have song-and-dance numbers to pull off that energy, but because it is a musical, I know that these characters’ familial, romantic, and platonic emotions are indeed larger than life.

Remember at the beginning of this review when I mentioned how senseless it is to be moving your body in the midst of the mucky Manhattan heat? Let me clarify: I’m not mad at In the Heights for that. Sometimes it makes sense to be senseless, especially when you’re in a city that’s not exactly designed to offer relief for that rising mercury AND you’re in the midst of a days-long massive power outage. Hopefully in this situation, you have enough brain cells to take care of what you need to take care of, and the thrill of In the Heights is making sure that these characters maintain the minimum number of brain cells. (Barest of Spoiler Alerts: They do.)

In the Heights is Recommended If You Like: Hamilton, Step Up 3D, Family reunions

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lottery Tickets

This Is a Movie Review: ‘A Star is Born’ is Reborn Eternally

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle

Director: Bradley Cooper

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Mumbled Profanity, Intense Alcoholism, and a Few Intimate Moments

Release Date: October 5, 2018

Bradley Cooper’s dialogue is often difficult to understand throughout A Star is Born, and I think that is part and parcel of the sort of storytelling he is presenting here in his directorial debut. This isn’t a film that is meant to be processed perfectly concretely, in which you hang on to every last word and every frame is a piece in the puzzle. Instead, it is about the overall experience, in which you let all wash over you. Logic and slavish accounting of details are beside the point. Does it make sense that someone could so suddenly become so famous and beloved on the basis of talent alone? And how come we never know how much time has passed? These are often worthwhile questions, but A Star is Born is more concerned about emotional and aesthetic truth within its improbable framework.

This is the fourth Star is Born film, with each of them telling the story of an unknown female entertainer discovered by a famous male performer who is on a bit of a decline. In this case, country-blues-rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) stumbles across Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag queen bar after one of his concerts. Immediately enthralled, he brings her onstage during his show the very next night, and thus begins a massively successful career and a whirlwind romance. This edition does not introduce anything particularly groundbreaking to the Star is Born template, but it is in the retelling that it derives its power. By emerging once again into the popular consciousness, it reaches the level of myth, as the rise-fall-endure narrative is how we continue to understand and process the fame narrative.

A myth story tends to work best when it is timeless. The fact that A Star is Born is set in the present day thus makes things a little tricky. Whenever specific markers of this day and age (Ally signing to Interscope Records, Ally performing on SNL with Alec Baldwin hosting, Halsey appearing as herself as a Grammy presenter) appear, it’s a little jarring. But these moments could be even more unsettling; instead, they go along with a dreamlike quality in which everything is woven into the timeless fabric. The details could be specific, as when Ally’s first duet with Jackson goes viral and her father (Andrew Dice Clay) marvels at how many views the video has gotten online, without ever mentioning the actual number of views. But that’s the thing about a star being born: it’s not a specific number of viewers that determine it, but when enough people are watching, you can feel that the birth has happened.

A Star is Born is Recommended If You Like: Creation and Rebirth myths, Lady Gaga as person and entertainer, Actors really flexing their directorial muscles

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Discoveries

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Monsters and Men’ Knows How to Recreate a Tough Reality, But It’s a Little Undercooked

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CREDIT: NEON

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, But Nothing Particularly Explicit Given the Subject Matter

Release Date: September 28, 2018 (Limited)

Monsters and Men, which details the fallout of a police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man in Brooklyn, is emblematic of a certain strain of realistic film that leaves you hanging but justifies its anticlimax by ensuring verisimilitude. While its lack of a firm ending – or even a firm thesis statement – may be true to life, it is not exactly a formula for great cinema. It is respectable enough and hard to get angry at, but it is entirely legitimate if, as a filmgoer, you would prefer more satisfaction. A happy ending is not necessarily what we’re looking for here, but a firmer political stance or a clearer artistic point of view would have been beneficial.

The action is divided into three vignettes centered around three young men of color in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. There’s Manny (Anthony Ramos), the boy who recorded the shooting on his phone and struggles with the potential consequences of releasing the footage; Dennis (John David Washington), a black police officer who explains the racism he has experienced to his colleagues and the officer’s perspective to his friends and relatives; and Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school baseball star being courted by the major leagues who feels drawn to activism despite his father’s fears for his safety.

Manny and Zyrick’s dilemmas are compelling but ultimately thinly sketched. Dennis’ predicament, however, could have been meaty enough to build an entire film around. Washington has already played another code-switching cop this year in the much rowdier and more effective BlacKkKlansman. That film, in attempting to explain how a black man could justify a job in law enforcement, had the benefit of digesting the past, noting for one thing the significance of breaking racial barriers. Explaining this dilemma in 2018 may be an even thornier issue; it’s a topic worth tackling by a bold film, but Monsters and Men isn’t quite bold enough.

Monsters and Men is Recommended If You Like: The long journey of racial equality, Slice-of-life short stories

Grade: 3 out of 5 Dilemmas