film

Review: In The Heights

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

film

Review: Kong Skull Island, or “Hold onto your butts… again!”

As the second entry in Legendary’s newly established Monsterverse, “Kong: Skull Island” revives one of cinema’s oldest icons in a colossal way. The film begins with two pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on the beaches of Skull Island near the end of World War Two. They fight, chase, and scrap their way into the jungle and are quickly met by the giant ape himself. Fast Forward to 1973, just as the Vietnam war is coming to a close, and we’re met with an introduction to the Monarch corporation as it tries to secure funding for one last venture into the mists of the unknown, a journey to the fabled Skull Island. “A place where God never finished creation” is how John Goodman’s Bill Randa explains it in his pitch, however it’s his associate Houston Brooks, played by Corey Hawkins, that sells the idea to the gatekeeper by suggesting that the Russians and Chinese will have the same data they do soon enough, and if there is something to benefit from, shouldn’t America be the first ones there?

“Kong: Skull Island” quickly introduces us to the remaining heavy hitters in the cast’s lineup. There’s former British SAS tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) who’s recruited after showcasing his barroom brawling skills, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver as the anti-war Vietnam photographer, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard- a discouraged Vietnam Army officer that leads the military helicopter escort to the island. Once assembled they fly into the storm forever swirling around the eponymous island. Once there they quickly begin dropping bombs to survey the land and retrieve the seismic data. This immediately triggers the first large scale set piece wherein Kong smashes the entire fleet of helicopters like the annoying gnats they are to him.

So let’s talk about what the film does right. From my perspective, this film adequately does what a giant monster movie should do. It focuses on the monsters. It keeps the pace breezy and yet tense. The film gets its tone right. Most importantly though, Kong is a constant force throughout the film. Kong’s motivation was also clearer than that of say, Godzilla in Gareth Edwards 2014 iteration. Kong is the protector of the island, he respects nature and those who care for it, and he chooses peace over violence unless provoked. In Godzilla’s case, it seemed to simply be his need to challenge and reign supreme over the M.U.T.O.s? Or to align some monster’s code of balance?

Anyhow, back to Kong. I loved Sam Jackson’s revenge storyline with Kong, he went full Ahab and Kong was his white whale. Though admittedly I never tire of Jackson’s Shtick, it just works for me. John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, was also incredibly noteworthy. He gets the most complete storyline, and while he provides some comic relief, he never wanders into any zany or out-of-place performances. His character retains the heart of the flick, and it shows in palpable ways throughout the runtime. He’s also the connection to the natives of the island, which were represented not as savage tribesmen, but as a small peaceful community trying to survive in this hellish environment.

Speaking of the cast, I know the film has been steamrolled at times for “wasting” such a talented cast. However I don’t think they were wasted in the least to be honest. It’s a giant monster movie with “B-genre” aspects throughout it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect any Oscar nominations to come from a King Kong movie, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the most fleshed out and layered monster movie-Godzilla certainly wasn’t with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character, not to mention that film actually wasted Bryan Cranston. To that end, story and background information can be told in ways other than dialogue. The sets, locations, subtle acting, and even over-the-top acting all combine to tell a story. Sometimes it feels as though people simply watch films to point out as many problems and issues with a performance or story as possible, and that’s a shame. When did we all become so consistently cynical? Honestly, if you don’t love something, that’s okay-not everyone has to enjoy everything.

In the end I had a ton of fun with “Kong: Skull Island”. I loved the shameless “Apocalypse Now” influences. I thoroughly enjoyed the chaos, the variety of monsters, the fight sequences, and of course the king himself, Kong.

Final Score: Two Kong-sized thumbs up