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In the Heights takes a hint from La La Land

An overabundance of over-theatrical theatricality

In the Heights: Summer's in, pandemic's out. Time to hit the multiplex!
In the Heights: Summer's in, pandemic's out. Time to hit the multiplex!

It was to be the first image I’d seen projected since the lockdown. The trailer pronouncement landed with the jaw-splintering force of a fist enfolding a roll of quarters: “From the director of Crazy Rich Asians” (Jon Chu). What followed were clusters of energetic free verse — Andrew Lloyd Webber-style talk-singing, not cadenced Rex Harrison — an overabundance of over-theatrical theatricality, and enough strained cheer to power legions of dinner theatres. I repositioned the N-95 mask over my eyes, waiting for it to draw to a merciful end. But when it came time to tackle the feature, my subterranean expectations quickly buoyed. To my shock and delight, when it ended, the film left me feeling quite literally In the Heights.

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) is not your typical New Yorker. Not only does he discourage the work of graffiti artists, he will actually stop and give a tourist detailed directions. As for his forename, remember the woman who awoke in the maternity ward and named her newborn “Nosmo King” after the first sign she saw? Usnavi’s (pronounced: Oooze-Nah-Vee) dad christened his son after the first ship he saw upon arriving in America from the Dominican Republic. Such a paragon of virtue is he that there appears to be no alcohol for sale in the squeaky clean corner bodega he owns and operates. He does, however, sell lottery tickets, a plot device that will eventually draw the orphaned Usnavi even closer to his “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood grandmother who raised him.

Feeling guilty that her dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is gradually selling off the family cab company to finance her Stanford education, Nina (Leslie Grace’s substantial screen debut) is working up the nerve to tell him to save his money, because she’s already dropped out. Nina adores Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps. Rounding out the love interests is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a stunning prospective fashion designer who walks with a stride more powerful than that of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Not a student, Vanessa uses swatches found in the dumpster at the New York Fashion Design College as her personal branch of Mood to create haute couture. Our hero is paralyzed by her beauty, so it’s Usnavi’s wiseguy younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who acts as icebreaker.

More than the direction and screenplay, the bulk of the praise for the overall look and polish of the staging deserves to be shared by cinematographer Alice Brooks, production designer Nelson Coates, and location scouts Kendall Waldman and Matthew H. Wiesner. This is how to open up a play for the screen. Chu doesn’t simply position actors, he’s called upon to direct entire city blocks at a time. Taking a hint from La La Land, the decision to shoot on location was a wise one. No matter how enormously appealing (and inordinately attractive) the cast might be, the true star of the movie is Washington Heights.

To the filmmaker’s credit, the barrage of songs seldom bunched together, but at 143 minutes, a couple of numbers could have stood trimming. Abuela’s underground dance, the one that ended at the foot of the heavenly subway steps, was enough deification to honor her passing; the candlelight vigil that followed was unnecessary. The one number that’s destined to be talked about features a gravity-defying dance on the side of an apartment building by Benny and Nina. Alas, this wasn’t a case of constructing a moveable set so that Fred Astaire might physically tapdance along the walls and ceiling. For a film that tries so hard to ground it’s fairy tale trappings in the real world, it was a shame to see this bit of forced computer-generated terpsichore, which sucked the illusion right out of it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out compared to the upcoming remake of West Side Story. (Let’s see how much Vaseline will be used to fog Spielberg’s lens for the Dance at the Gym number.) When it was over, I glanced at my phone and wondered where the 143 minutes went. I’ve seen it twice, both times on television. That’s not enough. This one cries out for the big screen. There’s no better time than now, nor better film than this, to mark your joyous return to the movies. ★★★★

New Release and Video on Demand Roundup

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It — It’s beginning to feel a lot like television. Rather than spend 30 minutes each week watching Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) solve real-life mysteries on a fictional cable show (Curse Breakers?), New Line drops semi-annual theatrical installments from the seemingly limitless Conjuring universe. It’s 1981, and it appears as if Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin is making another haunted house call. Our demon-displacing lovebirds track Satan as he transports from an eight-year-old boy: after a dip in a waterbed for the film’s one legitimate fright, it’s time for a brief respite inside the body of Arne (Ruairi O’Connor). While in the devil’s grip, Arne stabs his landlord 22 times. This was the first case in history in which Beelzebub took the stand and demonic possession was put on trial. One has to hand it to these priests and their ability to stand, with outstretched crucifixes, in the face of the demonically high-powered wind machine that replicates the bellows of hell. But as a viewer, it’s getting pretty old. And fans of Flip WIlson will no doubt leave disappointed. Directed by Michel Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona). 2021. — S.M.

Death in Texas — A freshly paroled Billy Walker (Ronnie Gene Blevins, equal parts Tom Sizemore and Peter Sarsgaard) returns to his mother’s (Lara Flynn Boyle) home in El Paso to find her weeks away from death. Dr. Perkins (Sam Daley) informs Billy that the law prohibits him from discussing his mother’s condition before hinting that there’s a guy in Juarez who deals in replacement livers. The going black market rate for a three-pound liver is $160,000; pretty steep, but then Billy runs into an old buddy packing a wad of green that’s bigger than a Charmin Forever roll. It’s one thing to bone an old pal, just make sure the bag of loot you find on the premises doesn’t belong to Reynolds (Bruce Dern). Whatever you do, don’t take Bruce Dern’s sunshine away. His face on the poster, along with the likenesses of venerable character player Boyle and compassionate caregiver Stephen Lang (and the promise of John Ashton) was enough to lure me in. There is one gaping hole of a coincidence that I almost broke my neck tripping over, and it didn’t take much to guess what course this was going to follow after director Scott Windhauser inserted a close up of Billy’s “AB Negative” transfusion bag. But the moments when Dern was allowed to unleash his angry asides — “You’re more full of shit than a Christmas turkey!” — kept me hitting the back button to relive the grizzled venality. And brace yourself for what happens after the bus pulls up to the hospital and unloads a band of armed vaqueros in the E.R. Put this at the top of your Mother’s Day screening list, or rent it tonight on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play. 2021. — S.M. ★★★★

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In the Heights: Summer's in, pandemic's out. Time to hit the multiplex!
In the Heights: Summer's in, pandemic's out. Time to hit the multiplex!

It was to be the first image I’d seen projected since the lockdown. The trailer pronouncement landed with the jaw-splintering force of a fist enfolding a roll of quarters: “From the director of Crazy Rich Asians” (Jon Chu). What followed were clusters of energetic free verse — Andrew Lloyd Webber-style talk-singing, not cadenced Rex Harrison — an overabundance of over-theatrical theatricality, and enough strained cheer to power legions of dinner theatres. I repositioned the N-95 mask over my eyes, waiting for it to draw to a merciful end. But when it came time to tackle the feature, my subterranean expectations quickly buoyed. To my shock and delight, when it ended, the film left me feeling quite literally In the Heights.

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) is not your typical New Yorker. Not only does he discourage the work of graffiti artists, he will actually stop and give a tourist detailed directions. As for his forename, remember the woman who awoke in the maternity ward and named her newborn “Nosmo King” after the first sign she saw? Usnavi’s (pronounced: Oooze-Nah-Vee) dad christened his son after the first ship he saw upon arriving in America from the Dominican Republic. Such a paragon of virtue is he that there appears to be no alcohol for sale in the squeaky clean corner bodega he owns and operates. He does, however, sell lottery tickets, a plot device that will eventually draw the orphaned Usnavi even closer to his “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood grandmother who raised him.

Feeling guilty that her dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is gradually selling off the family cab company to finance her Stanford education, Nina (Leslie Grace’s substantial screen debut) is working up the nerve to tell him to save his money, because she’s already dropped out. Nina adores Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps. Rounding out the love interests is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a stunning prospective fashion designer who walks with a stride more powerful than that of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Not a student, Vanessa uses swatches found in the dumpster at the New York Fashion Design College as her personal branch of Mood to create haute couture. Our hero is paralyzed by her beauty, so it’s Usnavi’s wiseguy younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who acts as icebreaker.

More than the direction and screenplay, the bulk of the praise for the overall look and polish of the staging deserves to be shared by cinematographer Alice Brooks, production designer Nelson Coates, and location scouts Kendall Waldman and Matthew H. Wiesner. This is how to open up a play for the screen. Chu doesn’t simply position actors, he’s called upon to direct entire city blocks at a time. Taking a hint from La La Land, the decision to shoot on location was a wise one. No matter how enormously appealing (and inordinately attractive) the cast might be, the true star of the movie is Washington Heights.

To the filmmaker’s credit, the barrage of songs seldom bunched together, but at 143 minutes, a couple of numbers could have stood trimming. Abuela’s underground dance, the one that ended at the foot of the heavenly subway steps, was enough deification to honor her passing; the candlelight vigil that followed was unnecessary. The one number that’s destined to be talked about features a gravity-defying dance on the side of an apartment building by Benny and Nina. Alas, this wasn’t a case of constructing a moveable set so that Fred Astaire might physically tapdance along the walls and ceiling. For a film that tries so hard to ground it’s fairy tale trappings in the real world, it was a shame to see this bit of forced computer-generated terpsichore, which sucked the illusion right out of it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out compared to the upcoming remake of West Side Story. (Let’s see how much Vaseline will be used to fog Spielberg’s lens for the Dance at the Gym number.) When it was over, I glanced at my phone and wondered where the 143 minutes went. I’ve seen it twice, both times on television. That’s not enough. This one cries out for the big screen. There’s no better time than now, nor better film than this, to mark your joyous return to the movies. ★★★★

New Release and Video on Demand Roundup

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It — It’s beginning to feel a lot like television. Rather than spend 30 minutes each week watching Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) solve real-life mysteries on a fictional cable show (Curse Breakers?), New Line drops semi-annual theatrical installments from the seemingly limitless Conjuring universe. It’s 1981, and it appears as if Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin is making another haunted house call. Our demon-displacing lovebirds track Satan as he transports from an eight-year-old boy: after a dip in a waterbed for the film’s one legitimate fright, it’s time for a brief respite inside the body of Arne (Ruairi O’Connor). While in the devil’s grip, Arne stabs his landlord 22 times. This was the first case in history in which Beelzebub took the stand and demonic possession was put on trial. One has to hand it to these priests and their ability to stand, with outstretched crucifixes, in the face of the demonically high-powered wind machine that replicates the bellows of hell. But as a viewer, it’s getting pretty old. And fans of Flip WIlson will no doubt leave disappointed. Directed by Michel Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona). 2021. — S.M.

Death in Texas — A freshly paroled Billy Walker (Ronnie Gene Blevins, equal parts Tom Sizemore and Peter Sarsgaard) returns to his mother’s (Lara Flynn Boyle) home in El Paso to find her weeks away from death. Dr. Perkins (Sam Daley) informs Billy that the law prohibits him from discussing his mother’s condition before hinting that there’s a guy in Juarez who deals in replacement livers. The going black market rate for a three-pound liver is $160,000; pretty steep, but then Billy runs into an old buddy packing a wad of green that’s bigger than a Charmin Forever roll. It’s one thing to bone an old pal, just make sure the bag of loot you find on the premises doesn’t belong to Reynolds (Bruce Dern). Whatever you do, don’t take Bruce Dern’s sunshine away. His face on the poster, along with the likenesses of venerable character player Boyle and compassionate caregiver Stephen Lang (and the promise of John Ashton) was enough to lure me in. There is one gaping hole of a coincidence that I almost broke my neck tripping over, and it didn’t take much to guess what course this was going to follow after director Scott Windhauser inserted a close up of Billy’s “AB Negative” transfusion bag. But the moments when Dern was allowed to unleash his angry asides — “You’re more full of shit than a Christmas turkey!” — kept me hitting the back button to relive the grizzled venality. And brace yourself for what happens after the bus pulls up to the hospital and unloads a band of armed vaqueros in the E.R. Put this at the top of your Mother’s Day screening list, or rent it tonight on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play. 2021. — S.M. ★★★★

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