Review: “In The Heights” (2021) Warner Bros.

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We all go to the movies for various reasons. Some love the fear and horror, some love thrillers or animation, and then there is the sheer joy of seeing a movie that just makes you smile and want to dance and “IN THE HEIGHTS” is that movie. With it’s joyful incredible large-scaled choreographed dancing and singing, Heights is a cinematic treat for your eyes and ears as well. There has never been a more perfect time to release this film until now in the Summer! baby! Summer! On the serious side, this is an important film for all and it is what we all need as well in our lives, a bit of music, dance, joy and a story about life and a dream.

Starting us off in the way up the A train line in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights lives twenty-something Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a dreamer whose pursuit of that dream is to go beyond the corner bodega store he owns and works at, and head back to the Dominican Republic to re-open the bar his dad once owned. The barrio portrayed here is chock full of colorful characters from all parts of life and the world. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the always-wise, all-knowing, grandmotherly figure of the barrio; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), is a young, beautiful, vibrant and optimistic woman with a strong desire to become a fashion designer, along with nail salon owner and queen of neighborhood gossip circle Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Lastly is Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who has ambitions beyond his somewhat slacker style as behind it all, is a quick, highly intelligent young man. And of course there is Benny (Corey Hawkins), best friend to Usnavi, and dispatcher at the local neighborhood service run by the neighborhood’s oldest business owner, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Benny meanwhile is thinking he might be promoted and is working towards opening his own business as well. Returning home on that one hot, sweltering July morning is Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s dropped out of Stanford despite the neighborhood’s awe of her being the only one to get away. Her father has been finagling the finances at the cab company to keep Nina at the college, though there are deeper underlying issues that soon surface.

The adaptation, as one would assume, had to alter from the stage production but that job is done by none other than Quiara Alegria Hudes, who penned the musical’s book. Three-time Emmy nominee Christopher Scott really brings the musical numbers to life through such exquisite choreography that you can get lost in. At one point realizing just the enormity of this production and how many people are involved in some of the larger dance scenes left me in awe. In the director’s chair is Jon M. Chu, and his skills shine in this enchanting tale of unity, community and following your dreams, wherever and however they might end up. The music supervisor here is none other than Steve Gizicki, an old personal friend of some 20+ years and he does a fantastic job here.

It’s the little things of ‘In The Heights’ as well. If you’ve ever had a true neighborhood Abuelas’ food then you understand how here, you can almost smell and taste her cooking straight from the film. Or the dancing ~ you feel as though you are there doing the cha cha salsa dancing with them, and trust me, it is no easy feat to dance like that, most especially the ladies part. And if you didn’t feel right at home in the nail salon, well then you my friends, are going to the wrong nail salon. While one or two musical numbers might have stretched and went a bit too long, and it’s also possible the second act feels like it drags a bit here and there in comparison to the first and third acts, these things are minor nit picking as all in all, it’s just truly a very entertaining watch. Lengthy as it is, it’s truly a 2 hour 24 minutes love story. But not just a love story in the traditional sense, but a love story about a city, a place, a time and about it’s people. The senses of it all you can taste, feel and smell – all through the music and dance.

The acting and dancing is out of this world, though I did NOT know Jimmy Smits was a singer! While everyone is shooing Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera and Gregory Diaz IV as the new faces to follow, to put Anthony Ramos as being in that category as well is just a bit on the incorrect side, as he has been putting in the good work since Monsters and Men in 2018, and can we say A Star Is Born co-star anyone? But enough with the young stars as they have wonderful careers ahead of them and were all sensational here. But a standout here that many seem to overlook is our Abuela herself, Olga Merediz, as she is simply wonderful here in her supporting role and I truly hope she is not forgotten about during supporting nomination time, just because she didn’t sing and dance up a storm, she held this group together like a true neighborhood Abuela.

No matter the tiny criticisms, there’s something truly radiating about the film’s vibrancy and joyful enthusiasm – which is, frankly, what we all need right now. And do yourself one last favour before you leave, stay for the post-credit scene.

B+

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Review Screening: Monday, January 7, 2021 ~ Courtesy of Warner Bros.

IN THE HEIGHTS” OPENS IN THEATERS NATIONWIDE AND ON HBO MAX ON FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021

REVIEW: “THE IRISHMAN” (2019) Netflix

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“THE IRISHMAN”  is both a period piece and an almost historical type piece as you need to know a little history to understand the direction of the narrative and flow of this epic film. The movie, while following Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as our designated main character, revolves around Teamsters union boss James “Jimmy” Riddle Hoffa (Al Pacino). Fortunately Frank goes to great lengths to narrate the story for the audience and provides a healthy dose of context for those of us not from the Kennedy era. The main thing you need to know going in is that Jimmy Hoffa had mob ties, and that he vanished in 1975 and was presumed murdered by mob bosses for being “uncooperative”. While I’m sure a few ‘liberties’ have been taken by the film, it does make you go ‘hmmmm’ more than once after viewing.  It’s good to note as well, that it is based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, who’s legal career cannot be disputed. Once you do see the movie, you will understand how perfectly rich that title is.

The movie unfolds over four acts, told over several decades by Frank Sheeran. In act one, Frank is introduced as a WWII veteran who is stuck driving food delivery trucks in and around Philadelphia. He has the bright idea to steal some of the steaks that he’s delivering, and sell them to local mobster Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Eventually his brazen willingness to break the law catches the eye of Italian mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who happens to be a mobster on a national level, a man who might be commonly be referred to as an ‘underboss’ in the mafia levels structure. His calm demeanor is both comical yet terrifying. A soon to be classic line encompasses Bufalino perfectly: “You might be demonstrating a failure to show appreciation.” Under his mentor-ship, Frank becomes a ruthless action/hit man for the Italian mob and explains with rather entertaining dispassion how he does his job properly. In act two, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the outspoken and fearless president of the National Teamsters Union. Their relationship grows and Hoffa becomes Frank’s second mentor. Together they use intimidation and bribery to gain influence until the election of John Kennedy, who subsequently appoints his brother Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General and he immediately goes after Hoffa.

The first two and a half hours are the most fun, and in particular the end of act three is some of the most tense and dramatic storytelling that I have had the pleasure of seeing in recent memory. At a dinner celebration for Frank (who eventually becomes a Teamster boss himself), tensions between Hoffa, Bufalino and the other mobsters reaches a breaking point, and the decision is made to make Hoffa disappear. But in a gut wrenching twist that you had a feeling just might be, Frank is the one tasked to do the job. In a beautiful display of cinematography over a thirty-minute buildup, Scorsese forces the viewer to the edge of their seats with the dread of what’s about to happen. Robert De Niro’s performance in these moments is master class; the inner conflict is all the more apparent thanks to all of the time we spent watching Frank being groomed by Bufalino and Hoffa in equal measure.

Getting away from the plot a bit, the movie is actually surprisingly funny. In one particular scene, someone insults an older Bufalino at a dinner reception. He and Frank exchange glances, and the frame suddenly cuts to a hotel bed covered in guns. Frank then narrates with excess detail and hilarious dispassion the ideal weapon for a public assassination. Moments like these are thrown throughout the film and keep it from getting too bogged down in it’s violence. It’s impressive how quickly jokes fly, given the disproportionate amount of people getting shot point blank in the head.

The heart of the movie is definitely Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. De Niro was de-aged apparently with some really good CGI, as he is supposed to be younger than both Pacino and Pesci. While it’s fairly obvious, it was never too distracting to not enjoy what was unfolding onscreen.  Al Pacino is a an absolute over-the-top riot as Hoffa, and is certainly one of the best roles that Pacino has bit into and played in awhile.  While De Niro on the other hand, goes for the more understated, it as if he is the ying to Pacino’s yang that makes this pairing so wonderful to watch together. Pesci as Bufalino is chilling, and it’s fun to seem him as the boss in this gangster movie after being a junior-level mobster in ‘Goodfellas’ so many years ago. The mentor-ship between De Niro’s character and both Pacino and Pesci is amazingly entertaining. Mention must be made of the flawless ensemble cast which backs up these principals, including the amazing women, who play such important, but background roles in the film is the cushion that rounds out these characters and nuances of story line. Kathrine NarducciRay Romano, Anna Paquin and Aleksa Palladino to name just a few, and while not always front and center, they add so much into the texture of their scenes.

The only thing keeping me from calling this movie perfect is it’s length. The almost three and a half hour run time is a very long one, and while occurring infrequently, the movie does drag a bit. This is most apparent in the fourth act where Frank introspects during his final years, and attempts to achieve reconciliation for all the murders he’s committed. It doesn’t really offer any closure or seem necessary to wrapping up the narrative.

Ultimately that doesn’t even come close to making me not recommend seeing “The Irishman” at all. There’s a reason Martin Scorsese will forever be known for his gangster movies. Combining comedy, violence, brotherhood and drama, he has created a formula that continues to work. The fact that he continues to still make such excellent movies after all these years, well it says a lot about the man himself.  Well done Mr. Scorsese, well done.

Grade: A-

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Media Review Screening: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 ~ Courtesy of LAFTV Meetup

“THE IRISHMAN” NOW PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS // ON NETFLIX NOVEMBER 27, 2019

REVIEW: “JOY” (2015) 20th Century Fox

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With narration told by her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), the only person who believes in and encourages young Joy’s as her story begins at Rudy’s Bus and Truck metal shop, where being an imaginative creative girl, she entertains herself through paper models of forests and castles.

Based on a true story, the film depicts the rise of female inventor and entrepreneur Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), who rises to fame by hawking her Miracle Mop on QVC. The story is much more than about business success, for Joy is a 1970’s housewife who supports four generations in her house, including her ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez) and father Rudy (Robert De Niro).
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Director David O. Russell struggles here, a bit unsuccessfully I might add, to portray a harrowing the path to the mop. Joy deals with a houseful of kids, only a few of them children by actual age. The motley crew she calls family all crammed in her small house are not on Joy’s side. She is the breadwinner, the adult, the rock whose imagination is a liability to those overly dependent on her. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) a soap-opera viewing addict, who watches made-for-this-film, unfunny soap opera segments that seem unmotivated with there being no implication as to why we are pointing to the off-TV characters. It’s goes on to become a paint-by-numbers affair from there – familial jealousy from sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), dirty financial dealings, the nightmare of the age-old saying, “Do not do business with your family.”
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After all, Joy manages to build a mop prototype. She brings it to QVC where the initial sale segment bombs. With Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), the slick head honcho of newly formed shopping network QVC behind her, he takes a chance and allows Joy to showcase the mop herself. Bingo! The mop sells out. Success? Nope. The parts supplier is screwing Joy, every sale of the mop loses money, and the family wants their money back. Financial ruin follows. Then Grandma passes. But Joy decides she’s been walked all over enough and ‘womans up’ to settle all scores financial and emotional. You would think Hooray! right? If only the story wasn’t so average and been done so many times before would it be all that and more.

The acting is nothing notable as De Niro is no stranger to playing a conflicted father with a big heart, though there is something a bit off-kilter here even for him on this. We all know Lawrence & Cooper play well off each other and they do that again here. It’s Edgar Ramirez, who after falling so flat in Point Break, really stands up and dazzles amongst this all-star cast.
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So let me just do a quick sum up for you in one sentence. ‘Down and out mother thinks up an invention, brings it to market, and becomes rich after some pitfalls that, in reality, is all fought and done with lawyers in the end’. In lieu of dramatizing a woman overcoming, Russell instead created a often unfunny comedy.

While the real life, inventive Joy deserves kudos, the bottom line is this is a feature film about the creator of a better mop and offers little on the path to an unsatisfying end where Joy makes it big and helps others succeed.
With all the heavy-hitters in film coming out these last 2 weeks of the year, it’s doubtful JOY will stand out amongst them.

Grade: C
@pegsatthemovies

Review Screening: Monday, December 21, 2015 ~ Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios
Nationwide release: Friday, December 25, 2015