[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

Sleepless (2017)

Director: Baran bo Odar

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Gabrielle Union, Scoot McNairy

Screenplay: Andrea Berloff

95 mins. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout.

 

Sleepless is the story of Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained, Baby Driver), a corrupt cop who steals a cocaine shipment from Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Dirty Grandpa). When Rubino’s men assault Vincent and kidnap his son, the crooked cop needs to retrieve the coke and return it. Matters are further complicated by Internal Affairs agents Bryant (Michelle Monaghan, Source Code, Mission: Impossible III) and Dennison (David Harbour, Suicide Squad, TV’s Stranger Things). Now, time is not on Vincent’s side as he navigates the city in order to save his son and keep his cover from being blown.

It’s hard to defend a movie when its star can’t even find good in it. Jamie Foxx has come out numerous times refusing to give any merit to Sleepless, and he’s right. There isn’t anything good here, including Foxx’s performance. He is one-note, unlikable, and uninteresting.

That’s not all. I didn’t really like anyone in the film. Mulroney and Scoot McNairy (12 Years a Slave, TV’s Halt and Catch Fire) are both flat villains, not given enough room to play. The Internal Affairs agents are both fools for not being able to put together that Vincent has been crooked. There just isn’t anything good in this remake of the foreign language Sleepless Night.

Director Baran bo Odar (Who Am I, The Silence) has delivered a hollow husk of a thriller that is neither thrilling nor redeemable. The screenplay, from Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton, Blood Father) trips over itself, falling into cliché. The final twist does nothing to the plot or the characters worth speaking about.

Sleepless is, not surprisingly, bad. It starts with a premise not all that good and underwhelms sluggishly to its end. This is a forgettable experience. I’d certainly like to forget it.

 

1/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

[Early Review] Detroit (2017)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie

Screenplay: Mark Boal

143 mins. Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.

 

Folks, I just saw Detroit the other night, and I have to talk about it.

Detroit is the newest film from acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and her frequent screenwriter Mark Boal. It offers snapshots into the Detroit Riots of 1967, specifically the events that took place at the Algiers Motel over the course of a very dangerous and bloody evening. Security Guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Circle) simply attempts to offer coffee to his fellow armed forces, but he is quickly forced into a situation where he does not know the right call to make, or if he is even able to make it. Racially-charged officer Philip Krauss (The Revenant, War Machine) finds himself taking multiple people hostage at the Algiers Motel, including singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith, Earth to Echo, Let It Shine), whose night quickly turns from dream to nightmare.

While the events of the Detroit riots are known to this writer, I wasn’t particularly aware of the Algiers Motel incident until just recently, and Kathryn Bigelow expertly handles the story in a respectful but unforgiving manner. This is not an easy movie to watch, but I found myself unable to look away when I was exposed to the atrocities committed. At the screening I attended, an elderly African American woman frequently sobbed during the disturbing altercations between the white cops and their hostages.

John Boyega’s turn as Dismukes is amazing, and the way his character handles the situation with careful attention is shocking and difficult to witness. His scenes with Poulter are definitely powerful, as Poulter steals the screen with every scene. But it is Algee Smith, who plays Larry, who has the most compelling story of the film. The heartbreaking and nuanced performance Smith gives is unforgettable and should garner him some attention come award season.

I cannot say anything bad about the performances in this movie, and I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t recognize the great work from Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island), John Krasinski (TV’s The Office, 13 Hours), and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War, All the Way) in supporting roles. The film is just that good. It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time, even with the lengthy runtime.

The only true flaw in the film is the reliance on shaky-cam cinematography, something that Bigelow has notably used in her most recent films, and it does tend to distract at times here. Overall, this isn’t a film-killing amount of shaky, but it does detract.

Detroit is in many ways like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, also released this year, in that it chooses to take a major event and boil it down to the characters, the people, that lived it. This isn’t grandiose filmmaking but personal storytelling. Bigelow’s film shows heroes and villains on both sides of the racially poignant film. Detroit is indeed a film you need to see, but it isn’t one you will necessarily want to see again.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Director: F. Gary Gray

Cast: Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren

Screenplay: Chris Morgan

136 mins. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggested content, and language.

 

Trust me, you need to understand what kind of film you are about to see.

Dom (Vin Diesel, Guardians of the Galaxy, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage) and new wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, Avatar, The Assignment) are enjoying their honeymoon in Cuba when a mysterious woman shows up and tells Dom that he is going to work for her. When Dom is on a mission with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, Moana, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and the rest of the crew, he turns on them, showing allegiance to the mystery woman called Cipher (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Kubo and the Two Strings) and in the process, shattering his familial bonds. Now, Hobbs, aided by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, The Hateful Eight, Deepwater Horizon) and forced to join up with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, The Transporter, Spy), must track Dom and Cipher in an effort to save their fallen brother or take him out.

As I’ve stated before, the important thing to remember about this franchise is that it is very unique. Action spectacles are no new thing in Hollywood, The Fast and the Furious, as a franchise, is a B-Movie franchise with an ever-expanding budget. That sort of thing just doesn’t really happen. What sets it apart from others is the focus on a recurring theme (family) and the set pieces that aren’t focused on realism in the slightest but instead, these action beats are asking the question: How can we make this more ridiculous? And that’s what works here.

The cast does admirable work here as the likable family members while newcomers Scott Eastwood (Gran Torino, Snowden) as Mr. Nobody’s new recruit and Charlize Theron as Cipher. There is a notable exclusion made by the absence of Brian O’Connor (played by the late Paul Walker) but I completely understand what happened and I still feel like his character is honored here in a pretty touching albeit predictable way.

Incoming director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton), fresh off his recent success with the NWA biopic, teams up with previous collaborators in Diesel, Johnson, Theron, and Statham creates a kinetic energy that runs rampant through this film, creating some of the darkest plot threads of the series while also some of the most hilarious action scenes too. Gray’s direction results in a unique experience without pushing too far.

Through it all, though, there are times when The Fate of the Furious feels unusually restrained (hear me out), as if the film itself is trying to top the craziness from the superior Fast Five and Furious 7 but just can’t quite get there. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something felt off at times throughout, and perhaps that’s due to Diesel’s character being tied up with Cipher rather than the crew we all find him more enjoyable with. I was very happy to discover that the unusual plot line of betrayal actually kind of makes sense within the larger scope of The Fast and the Furious franchise (I had been very worried when I saw the initial trailer).

I was very impressed with The Fate of the Furious. This entry in the series isn’t the best one to come along, but it definitely rest higher on the ranking. This is a franchise that isn’t trying to win over new fans (though it doesn’t seem to need that), and this newest installment only proves that this is a franchise for the fans. I enjoyed it and the numerous surprises that this film has in store. I highly suggest an opening weekend viewing.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, click here.

For my review of Philip G. Atwell’s Turbo Charged Prelude, click here.

For my review of John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, click here.

For my review of Vin Diesel’s Los Bandoleros, click here.

For my review of Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious, click here.

For my review of James Wan’s Furious 7, click here.

For my review of F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, click here.

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Duan Sanderson, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins

111 mins. Rated R for sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Acheivement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievment in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

 

Don’t get upset. Moonlight won Best Picture and La La Land did not. Don’t be angry. I foresaw the win (but not the controversy) but needed to see the film before making my own judgment call. I needed to see for myself what the hubbub was all about. I’ve now seen Moonlight several times, and it’s one of the best and most important films you will ever see.

Moonlight’s storytelling technique is a little complex, so I’ll explain. Moonlight is in three pieces, each showcasing a different period in the life of Chiron. In each of the three key pieces, Chiron is played by a different actor of course. There is Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders, Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) and Black (Trevante Rhodes, The Night is Young, Open Windows). The narrative explores Chiron’s upbringing, his relationship with drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, TV’s House of Cards, Free State of Jones) and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, Skyfall, Collateral Beauty), and the themes of sexuality and identity that run through Chiron’s blood. It is an elegant and powerful tale.

The strength of Moonlight comes from the incredible ensemble both in front and behind the camera. The performances from Ali and Harris first spring to mind, but all three actors playing Chiron are just incredible.

Director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) put together a great team from a technical standpoint, bathing each stage of Chiron’s life in a different color tone. The film is gorgeously shot and expertly edited into a tight runtime that leaves little out of place. In fact, each piece of the story has its own musical cues and moments to play with. It almost feels like you could watch any one part of the story as a short film and be quite satisfied, but in the grander scheme, Chiron’s life comes into full view.

Moonlight is damn impressive, and very deserving of the Best Picture Oscar it took back from La La Land. I love both films, but I think Moonlight is exactly what it sets out to be and narrowly edges out La La Land. This is impressive filmmaking at its core, and I highly recommend you see it immediately.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Trailer for Tupac Biopic All Eyez on Me Drops; This Writer Does a Double Take

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So, the first official teaser for All Eyez on Me, the upcoming Tupac Biopic, is here, and it came out of nowhere.

The teaser trailer is just that; it barely scratches the surface of enough to really audit the film and its merits. We here a voice-over of what appears to be Tupac’s mother, a lot of people cheering and shots of the character without showing his face, and then you realize why.

Now, I’ve seen Straight Outta Compton and I thought the actor cast to play the famous rapper, Marcc Rose, looked just like Tupac. But the star of All Eyez on Me, Demetrius Shipp Jr, looks just like Tupac!

But, of course, I must mention that even if you have the look, you have to have the chops. Shipp looks like Tupac, but can he be Tupac? I would rather have acting over looks any day, so hopefully our lead is ready to play.

All Eyez on Me is still filming apparently and is set for release on November 11.

So what do you think? Are you excited for All Eyez on Me? What’s your favorite musical biopic? Let me know!

 

-Kyle A. Goethe

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