‘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

Movie Review: ‘The Lego Movie 2’ Has Some More Valuable Lessons to Teach Us With Bright Colors and Peppy Songs

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman

Director: Mike Mitchell

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Traumatizing Lego Destruction

Release Date: February 8, 2019

Where does a sequel go after the original makes such a definitive statement? This is the conundrum facing The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. (That subtitle is infinitely unnecessary, but not indicative of the movie’s humor as a whole, and also this title would have looked rather naked without a subtitle.) 2015’s first part summed up in cinematic form the whole ethos of the iconic Danish building blocks: in a world that often favors rigidity and conformity, you cannot give up on your individuality, because everyone can be and is special. Childlike imagination and wonder are what fueled The Lego Movie to be as successful as it was. Those values will get you pretty far in life. So why do any more statements need to be made?

It turns out that while The Lego Movie offers a philosophy with wide-ranging applicability, it is not quite a grand unified theory that covers absolutely everything. It spoke to the power of a singular creative vision, but The Second Part demonstrates how collaboration is equally vital. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) and his Lego friends are now living in the wasteland Apocalypseburg, because in the human world that is controlling them, a little sister has invaded the playspace of her big brother. So Emmet, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and company head out to broker a peace with some differently designed block-creatures. This leads to permanent bachelor Batman becoming engaged to a sparkly shape-shifter voiced by Tiffany Haddish, while Superman (Channing Tatum) lives happily alongside General Zod in a Stepford-esque perfect suburb.

Sizing up the situation, Emmet believes that his mission is to free his friends from the brainwashing of strangers. But while it may seem that all is not what it seems, it turns out that that particular mystery trope is not being played as straight as you might expect. The Lego Movie taught us to be skeptical about a constantly smiling world insisting that everything is awesome, but it also taught us that awesomeness sometimes really is awesome if it has genuine feeling behind it. The candy-coated invading milieu of The Second Part initially appears to be fundamentally suspicious. But sometimes a bright, peppy outer layer is only covering a bright and rewarding core. Sometimes a catchy song that jams itself right in your head is so buoyant that you’re happy it’s stuck there. Belief in yourself is important, but don’t forget to be open-minded about everyone else.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is Recommended If You Like: The Lego Movie and its spin-offs, Playing with your siblings

Grade: 4 out of 5 Catchy Songs