Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.
Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.
Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.
Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua
Okay, so hear me out. I was going to watch some of those Oscar winners and nominees- but hey, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to cry-watch “The Father” just yet you know? So instead I watched whatever looked interesting in the last few weeks, including my very first Silent Film! I bet you can’t guess what it is without scrolling down to see the poster. There’s even a re-watch in here because the first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” I wasn’t into it- but now about a decade later, I know the inspirational films that Jim Jarmusch drew from, namely Jean Pierre-Melville’s French Crime thrillers, particularly that of “Le Samouraï”. Anyways, it’s a strange brew of films, and a motley one at that! Here’s hoping you find something to enjoy, I sure did!
The Hustler (1961)
Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, and directed by Rossen, “The Hustler” is an adaption of the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. This is a film about an obsessively competitive pool hall player nicknamed “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in one of his breakout roles in the early 1960’s. This one was fascinating. I was drawn in by the superb cast of that era, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott- but the film itself and how it handles the nature of competition, morality, winning and losing; it all comes together beautifully across tone, shots, character inflections, and more. The long and short of the plot is fairly simple, a skilled young up and comer “Fast” Eddie works up the ranks of the pool hall community until he runs up against a longtime pool hall champion in “Minnesota Fats”, played exquisitely by Jackie Gleason. The match between the two goes on for hours, days even, it’s expertly shot and the blocking is *Chef’s kiss* perfection. After a difficult loss Eddie gets caught up with some loan sharks and experiences some brutal life lessons like, don’t humiliate the wrong loan shark or they might break something you need. It’s a great film, and an outright classic, though admittedly I did not know that this film had a sequel years later. While looking up a few things on this film, I found out that this sequel was one I had heard of, but never watched. It had Paul Newman returning as Eddie Felson mentoring a new young punk played by Tom Cruise… and directed by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea how I have missed “The Color of Money” entirely, but you can bet money on me watching and writing about it VERY soon. Obviously, “The Hustler” comes highly recommended.
Dragnet Girl (1933)
Written by Tadao Ikeda and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, “Dragnet Girl” is a silent crime film heavily influenced by the American Crime movies of that era. I found something cheerfully ironic about “The Most Japanese Film Director” doing a riff on American style Noir with his own nuances added into the mix. There were only a few recognizable moments that could clue you into this being a film made by Ozu. Some of his most prominent shot compositions from his later films appear here sporadically, like the direct mid-shot confessional for example, but the part that truly made it apparent that this was an Ozu film was the places he was willing to take his actors emotionally. There’s a few beats here where the performances of the actors run roughshod over films a century out from this release. It’s really quite something. Oh and one thing I immediately noticed was how much more attention you have to pay while watching a silent film. Everything is story information in silent films. Every shot could tell you a pivotal character beat or plot point and god help you if you look at your phone for even a second! This was a truly economical film in that way. Also, when comparing this to his later films, holy hell! There’s SO MUCH camera movement it’s mind-blowing! It’s amazing to see the difference in Ozu’s later pieces, everything in his post-WW2 era films would have you believe he’s never moved his camera for more than a few feet in low sweeps or gentle inserts down a hallway. Granted, for a crime drama, you kinda need the movement. I doubt you could do much of a noir without a sense of kinetic danger looming behind the character actions and choices, if anyone would have done such a thing, I would have expected Ozu above all else to do so. The plot is a fairly generic tale about small time crooks, but the depth of care that Ozu and Ikeda imbue these characters with is worth the price of admission. If you have the curiosity and the patience, I would highly encourage you to give this one a watch! Check out the Criterion Collection to find a way to watch, through physical media or their streaming service, the Criterion Channel.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the reboot of an earlier adapted work (Directed by Sidney Lumet!), both of which were based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie. This may be the film I have the least to say about out of this bunch. As I had not read or seen the other versions of this story, I didn’t know who the killer was, and I got the most excitement out of it that way. As a single location Whodunnit?, it was quite entertaining watching Branagh’s Detective Hercule Poirot, self described as The Greatest Detective in the World, question the passengers and unravel the mystery. He may very well have earned that title by the film’s end. Since I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s version of the story I can’t compare the two, though I doubt I’d be off in saying that Lumet’s film was probably the better of the two. This version is perfectly “fine”. Huge well known cast, lots of money onscreen with the train and interesting camera choices at times, it all adds up to a slick product straight off the Hollywood presses, but it doesn’t feel like art, no soul there. That may seem harsh, but when watching so many older films, you begin to compare new releases against the backdrop of cinema as a whole, and the world’s cinema of the last century can be hard to live up to at times. I won’t give away the secret of how it all unfolds, but it strikes me as a tale best told… in print perhaps? Moderately recommended.
Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” is a film that revels in the cinematic tradition of weaving tales involving crime and those who partake in such acts for various reasons. The first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” I thought it was a slow and overly self-serious example of genre minimalism that didn’t grab my attention all that well. That was roughly seven years ago and my taste in films has changed quite a bit in that time, I also appreciate the slow-burn approach far more now. After so many explosion filled blockbusters over the years (which I do enjoy) I’ve come to value different and more abstract methods of storytelling, with an ear for quieter films in-between all the adrenaline fueled ones. This is one of those films, and I’ve come to admire all of its’ nuances since that first watch. The atmosphere and aesthetic, derived from my favorite French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies, is particularly noteworthy. Much like in “Le Samouraï” our lead has taken on the mindset and philosophy of The Samurai, merging the retainer status and ideology of ancient Samurai warriors with the precision and stealth of modern day contract killers. Though while both movies have texts they use to reinforce their themes and mentality, Melville’s is attributed to the Bushido book of the Samurai- when in reality Melville wrote the piece, while Jarmusch actually quotes the Hagakure, the real Book of The Samurai. There’s another difference in that while Melville’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) more accurately reflects the masterless Ronin type of Samurai tale, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) favors a more historically accurate style with masters and retainers, honor and respect. One part of the film I really admired this time around was all of its’ charm. Like Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the French speaking ice cream truck salesman who banters with Ghost Dog regularly, even though there is a language barrier between them, they have an established connection and seem to perfectly understand each other despite this rift. There’s also Pearline (Camille Winbush), the little girl that Ghost Dog trades books with, giving her the Hagakure near the end of the film. With a soundtrack by RZA, influence from French crime capers from the 1960s & ’70s, and some fun mafia tuff guy stuff that feels like it’s ripped straight from either David Lynch or Martin Scorsese; this is a truly unique indie film, and I quite enjoy it! Highly recommended.
An American Pickle (2020)
Written by Simon Rich, and directed by Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” is an adaption of the short play by the same name, also written by Simon Rich. This one surprised me, I’ll admit. I’ve generally enjoyed Seth Rogen’s films, not all have worked for me, but enough of them have worked that I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt more often than not. The film takes an admittedly goofy time travel premise and uses that to explore the American Immigrant tale, tradition, family, religion, and even love. The story explores these themes and ideas far more in-depth than I had expected, while maintaining an indie charm and utilizing lead actor Seth Rogen in a unique way by having him perform as both lead characters, Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel and his wife Sarah lived in eastern Europe in 1919 and witnessed their town’s destruction by Russian ‘Cossacks’. Because of this, they immigrate to Brooklyn, America where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory with dreams of being able to purchase seltzer water and grave plots. That is, until one day when Herschel falls into a vat of pickles right when the factory is shut down resulting in him being pickled for one-hundred years and revived in 2019 Brooklyn with one living relative in Ben Greenbaum, a freelance app developer bachelor whose the same age as Herschel and looks exactly like him, sans beard. While there are some good jokes here and there, the film takes itself, and it’s characters, seriously. This is a more mature film than what we normally get with Rogen, which his comedies have their place, no shame there- but this was an unexpected delight. These revelations are weighted more in the third act, but all of the character actions and motivations are rooted in places of real emotional truth. Herschel and Ben obviously don’t relate to each other initially, and there’s a lot of good humor and conflict that comes from that gulf between them. For example, when they go to visit Herschel’s wife Sarah’s grave, there’s a highway and a billboard blotting out the sun and killing all of the grass in the graveyard, but the last straw that broke Herschel was the billboard’s message; an ad for Vanilla flavored Vodka. To which Herschel immediately makes the connection…. Cossacks. Honestly, this is a great little film, about an hour and a half, and it’s HBO Max’s first original film they’ve released. Definitely recommended!