Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.

Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.

Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.

The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.

Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.

Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.

“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.

The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.

Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.

Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.

An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.

“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.

Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.

During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.

All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.

And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.

Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘Survive,’ starring Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins

April 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins in “Survive” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

“Survive”

Directed by Mark Pellington

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed remote mountain area (and briefly in Oregon), the plane-crash drama “Survive” features a predominantly white cast with some African Americans representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A pessimistic woman and an optimistic man struggle to survive and find help in a remote mountain area after they become the only survivors of a plane crash.

Culture Audience: “Survive” will appeal primarily to fans of actress Sophie Turner (a former star of “Game of Thrones”) and tearjerking, suspenseful disaster dramas.

Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins in “Survive” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

The streaming service Quibi (which launched on April 6, 2020) has set itself apart from its competitors by offering only original content, and each piece of content is 10 minutes or less. Therefore, content that Quibi has labeled a “movie” actually seems more like a limited series, since Quibi will only make the “movie” available in “chapters” that look like episodes. The compelling drama “Survive” is one of Quibi’s flagship movies that began streaming on the service on Quibi’s launch date.

“Survive” takes a simple concept—two plane-crash survivors (a man and woman with seemingly opposite personalities) try to find their way out of a remote mountain area—and turns it into a suspenseful thriller and a poignant love story at the same time. Although “Survive” might draw comparisons to the 2017 Kate Winslet/Idris Elba film “The Mountain Between Us,” which had the same concept, “Survive” is more emotionally genuine and more artistically filmed than “The Mountain Between Us.” It’s a shame that “Survive” won’t be released in theaters like “The Mountain Between Us” was, because some of the scenes in “Survive” are worthy of the biggest screen possible.

Directed by Mark Pellington and written by Richard Abate and Jeremy Ungar, “Survive” begins with female protagonist Jane (played by Sophie Turner) about to be discharged from her stay at a mental-health facility for young people (ages 14 to 22) called Life House, which is located in the woods somewhere in northern Oregon. Jane has a history of suicidal thoughts and cutting herself. She’s also haunted by the fact that suicide is not uncommon in her family. Jane’s father (played by Jo Stone-Fewings, in flashback scenes) committed suicide when she was about 7 years old, by shooting himself while she was in the next room.

Jane is still angry about the way her father died, and she’s also struggling with feelings of guilt and self-hatred over her father’s suicide. Although Jane has a very loving and supportive mother (played by Caroline Goodall), Jane tells her mother that she feels like a loser. Needless to say, Jane has a very pessimistic and cynical attitude about life.

One of the last things that Jane does before she checks out of Life House is steal a lot of medication from the facility’s pharmacy. (Jane was able to get the security code to unlock the large glass cabinet containing all the drugs.) She plans to overdose on the drugs in the bathroom of the plane that she’s taking back home to New Jersey.

While in the airport seating area, waiting to board the plane, Jane strikes up a conversation with a friendly man named Paul (played by Corey Hawkins), who is on the same flight. At first Jane is a little standoffish to Paul, but she eventually warms up to him a little bit. He’s eating a frosted snack and she nicely tells him that he’s got some frosting on the side of his mouth. They have a laugh over it.

When they board the plane—surprise, surprise—Jane and Paul find out that they are seated right next to each other. Paul has no idea that Jane is planning to commit suicide in the airplane’s bathroom. While Jane is in the bathroom, laying out all the pills and capsules that she plans to take for the overdose, the plane suddenly goes into emergency mode and ends up crashing in a snow-covered mountain area.

Jane and Paul are only slightly injured but discover to their horror that they are the only survivors of the plane crash, and they have no idea where they are. Paul thinks it’s best to try to find help (there’s no cell phone service in this area), but Jane refuses and tells Paul that she’d rather stay in whatever is left of the plane.

Paul tells Jane that people don’t know where they are and that Jane will probably die if she stays there, because it’s very likely that snow coming down the hilly embankment could bury her. Jane stubbornly tells Paul that she doesn’t care about dying and yells at him to go ahead without her. As Paul starts to walk away, Jane changes her mind and decides to go with Paul in their quest to find help.

The rest of the story chronicles Jane and Paul’s nightmarish fight for survival. There are the expected tropes that disaster movies have where people are trapped on a snowy mountain with no food and only the clothes on their backs: The torturous treks through the snow, the near-death experiences on cliffs, the scary encounters with wild animals.

During this ordeal, Jane and Paul naturally get closer to each other. Paul opens up to Jane about the emotional scars he has from his mother’s death. Just like Jane lost her father at a young age, so too did Paul lose his mother before he became a teenager. Paul later confesses to Jane that he was attracted to Jane the minute he saw her.

One of the best things about “Survive” is the cinematography from David Devlin. There are some truly majestic views as well as terrifying shots of this remote mountain area. Turner and Hawkins are utterly believable in their roles and do an excellent job of portraying the life-or-death journey of these two strangers who end up relying on and trusting each other in ways that they didn’t expect. The emotional connection that Paul and Jane have will keep viewers hooked as much as the question of whether or not they’re going to survive being trapped on this mountain.

The weakest aspect of “Survivor” is that it could have used more realism in showing how the harsh, subzero weather would have had an effect on Paul and Jane. Because they are not dressed in clothes that can withstand this type of weather over a long period of time, Paul and Jane definitely would’ve had hypothermia at some point.

And there’s no indication of what kind of food they were eating. In the middle of a snowy forest, there’s no fruit growing on trees. And there are no scenes of Paul and Jane being able to get any animals to eat. Paul and Jane are trapped on the mountain for several days, but they don’t show any signs of starvation. However, some injuries do occur, which are portrayed realistically.

Despite the flaws in “Survivor” that overlook showing realistic effects of starvation and long-term exposure to freezing temperatures, the story has a life-affirming message that will emotionally touch people and probably bring tears to some people’s eyes. “Survivor” also shows that trusting someone with your heart is all the more meaningful if you love yourself too.

Quibi premiered the first three chapters of the 12-chapter “Survive” on April 6, 2020.

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