‘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: Be Wary of the Spectacle of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ Stay for the Characters

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC

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

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Tan Kheng Hua, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Nico Santos, Jimmy O. Yang, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Excessive Partying and a Nasty Message Written in Blood

Release Date: August 15, 2018

Ever since I have noticed the buzz building for Crazy Rich Asians, the title has had me worried that I wouldn’t able to relate. I’m not talking about the “Asian” part (and I’m certainly not talking about the “crazy” part). No, what I’m talking about is that four-letter word right in the middle. Sure, it would be nice to have enough money to pay off all my debts, but amassing a fortune into the billions feels plainly excessive. And Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel does nothing to dissuade me from that notion. When we enter the film’s first Singaporean mansion, I am immediately overwhelmed by the real estate per person. And then we learn that this dwelling is actually modest by this country’s standards, and I guess I’ll have to say the Serenity Prayer a few more times. But the good news is that Crazy Rich Asians wants us to be skeptical of insane wealth to an extent.

The biggest takeaway to be had from this big-hearted rom-com is the danger of making assumptions, a problem that can befall anyone, no matter their net worth. Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) assumes that her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) is a man of modest means. That is hardly the most damaging assumption, but it does mean that she is in for plenty of surprises when he flies her into Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and she learns that he is in fact a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. Far more consequential are the assumptions made about Rachel, especially from Nick’s domineering but also impressive (and frankly, occasionally likeable) mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She objects to Rachel as a potential daughter-in-law, not because she is an outsider, but because of what type of outsider she is, assuming that as an American, personal fulfillment is more important to her than building a family. Accordingly, the requisite final act misunderstanding is not some phony moment between Rachel and Nick, who are far too honest with each other to not be able to work things out. Instead, it is a background check that drives a wedge of emotional manipulation that can only be cured by selflessness on all sides.

Ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians does not win me over to the lavish lifestyle, but it does successfully convey the traditions that lead to creating a familial empire. Judging by the reactions of the largely Asian crowd at the screening I attended, this is an accurate and resonant portrayal. There was plenty of whooping and laughing that indicated intimate recognition of a pan-Asian exchange of culture, the immigrant experience, and (presumably) key moments from the book. We may not need a billion dollars to be happy, but I now see the potential value in learning how to play mahjong or attending a wedding in which the aisle is flooded with water.

Crazy Rich Asians is Recommended If You Like: Rom-Coms with an unapologetic cultural flavor

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Jade Rings