Tag Archives: B

IN THE HEIGHTS

Producers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Scott Sanders, Anthony Bregman and Mara Jacobs   Director: Jon M. Chu   Screenplay: Quiara Alegria Hudes   Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patrick Page, Noah Catala, Marc Anthony and Christopher Jackson   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B+

Before “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” the first musical with a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which he began writing in college.  Three years after he graduated, the show, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, had a tryout in Connecticut, and two years later it arrived off-Broadway.  In 2008 it transferred to Broadway, with Miranda himself in the lead, and though it wasn’t the cultural phenomenon “Hamilton” would later become, it ran for nearly three years, winning four Tonys, including those for Best Musical and Best Score.

Now unlike “Hamilton,” which thus far has hit the screen only in the form of a slick filming of the Broadway production that premiered on Disney+, “Heights” has gotten the full cinematic treatment, and it emerges as an exuberant, if somewhat diffuse, love letter to a neighborhood threatened by gentrification and the immigrant residents struggling to hold onto their cultural identity.

The place is Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the time three sweltering days in the July of an undisclosed year, during an electrical blackout.  The residents are predominantly Latinix, from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.  They express their closeness and unity in the rousing opening number, a street ensemble exhilaratingly staged by choreographer Christopher Scott, who here, as elsewhere (a swimming-pool sequence that evokes a Busby Berkeley routine, a climbing-the-walls duo that’s a homage to Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance in “Royal Wedding”) happily nods to past classics. 

It’s the terpsichorean elements, in fact, that are the best parts of this adaptation, for which Hudes has fiddled with her original book (postponing, for example, to the very end a revelation that originally came much earlier) while remaining faithful to its overall message.  Of course, the dances wouldn’t have half the impact if it weren’t for Miranda’s infectious score, a piquant blend of mostly Latin pop styles that sends one’s toes tapping, though it wouldn’t be advisable to get up and start gyrating in the aisle.  (Of course if you’re at home watching on HBO Max, where the film is available for a month from the day of its theatrical premiere—another of this year’s Warner Bros. simul-releases from the studio—the impulse may prove irresistible.

The lyrics are less impressive, especially in the more plot-centered numbers, largely because they’re wedded to Hudes’ screenplay, which, with its proclivity to jump from one to another of a large array of characters, lacks focus. 

The dominant figure, though, is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, in the part originated by Miranda on Broadway), who runs a modest bodega.  He also serves as narrator, explaining the neighborhood ethos to four kids while apparently on a beach.  One of the questions that runs through the picture is whether he’ll sell the store and return to the Dominican Republic, where he dreams of rebuilding his father’s now-dilapidated bar.  The other is whether he’ll ever get up the courage to reveal his love to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who harbors the hope of becoming a fashion designer with an apartment in the Village. 

But that’s not the only potential romance that’s up in the air.  Benny (Corey Hawkins), a cab dispatcher, is in love with Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of his boss (Kevin Rosario), who’s sold half of his business and may have to sell the other to meet the cost of his daughter’s tuition at Stanford.  She’s home for vacation, and can’t tell her dad that she doesn’t want to go back to California for personal reasons, since he’s sacrificed so much to get her there.  And, of course, he’d have a hard time accepting Benny, a non-Latino, as a son-in-law. 

Four lovers would be more than enough major characters for most movies, but that’s only the start here.  There’s not only Kevin but Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who’s the virtual godmother to everyone.  And Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (scene-stealing Gregory Diaz IV), who works for him at the bodega and prods him to make his intentions clear to Vanessa.  And Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who’s being forced to move the salon she’s run for years (where Vanessa works) to Brooklyn, and is none too happy about it.

Add to these, among others, the piragua-selling guy (Miranda) whose snow-cone push-cart business is being threatened by Mr. Softee (Christopher Jackson) and his truck, and Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala).  Clusters of others hover in the background and occasionally take the spotlight, too.

This is an awfully large ensemble to juggle, but director Jon M. Chu, though coming from a different experience himself, does so with obvious affection and skill, and the cast respond with ebullient turns across the board, with Ramos and Merediz in particular standing out.  The picture looks great, with Nelson Coates’s production design and Mitchell Travers’ costumes—as well as the Washington Heights locations—providing colorful subjects for Alice Brooks’s lush cinematography.  Myron Kerstein’s editing keeps the multiple narrative threads running smoothly, which cannot have been an easy job, and helps to give punch to those great dance sequences.            

“In the Heights” might always be thought of as a promising precursor to “Hamilton” rather than its equal.  But this is a show that conveys the joy and warmth of family and community for everyone to savor, and while not without flaws, its charm is hard to resist.  So why try?  

OSLO

Producers: Gary Michael Walters, Michael Litvak, Svetlana Metkina and Mark Taylor    Director: Bartlett Sher    Screenplay: J.T. Rogers   Cast: Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Itzik Cohen, Salim Daw, Sasson Gabay, Dov Glickman, Rotem Keinan, Igal Noor, Jeff Wilbusch, Waleed Zuaiter, Tobias Zilliacus, Karel Dobry and Geraldine Alexander   Distributor: HBO Films

Grade: B-

J.T. Rogers has whittled down his award-winning 2016 play about the secret talks between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israeli negotiators that culminated in the 1993 Oslo accord to manageable TV-film length, and Bartlett Sher, the director of the original New York production, has—in collaboration with production designer Michael Carlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Jay Rabinowitz—“opened up” the stagebound original to some extent for the screen.

Of course, you can move a play from stage to screen, but however skillfully it’s done, never entirely eliminate a stagey feel; and despite the addition of flashbacks to street confrontations in Gaza, shots of cars speeding through lovely Norwegian landscapes, and conversations transposed to snowy forest trails, “Oslo” remains basically a talk piece situated largely in the conference rooms and parlors of the mansion in which the negotiations occur.  Happily, the dialogue is mostly good, and it’s well delivered in this adaptation.

The thrust of the plot is to transfer credit for the success of the effort to reach an initial agreement between the warring parties. culminating in the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September, 1993, from the “official” negotiations that were getting nowhere to clandestine talks set up by a Norwegian couple acting in a purely personal capacity.  Terje Rød-Larsen, the head of a sociological research institute, and his wife Mona Juul, a junior figure in the Norwegian foreign ministry, determined that only direct talks between Israelis and officials of the PLO could break the impasse, but Israeli policy forbade such negotiations with those considered terrorists.

As shown here, Rød-Larsen and Juul (Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson, both excellent) were nonetheless able to get under-the-table approval from Yossi Beilin (Itzik Cohen), the then Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, to try to set up an initial contact, though his superiors, Prime Minister Rabin and his immediate boss Minister Shimon Peres, were unaware of the process. 

It resulted first in a preliminary meeting between Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw), the PLO’s Finance Minister, and Israeli economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Dov Glickman). The numbers are then increased, as the negotiations move to an isolated estate in Norway, by the addition of Qurei’s stern colleague Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter) and, on the Israeli team, of Hirschfeld’s fellow professor Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan) and, as the talks bear fruit, by the Israel Director General of Foreign Affairs Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch) and the Ministry’s detail-obsessed legal adviser Joel Singer (Igal Naor).  At the very end Peres himself (Sasson Gabay) must get involved to work out final details by phone with Arafat, who is never seen apart from the newsreel footage periodically inserted into the narrative.  And Juul’s bosses (Jan Egeland and Johan Jørgen Holst) must eventually be informed of what’s happening as well.  

The thrust of the narrative is that solutions to the seemingly intractable issues dividing the parties cannot be imposed from outside—a conclusion some of the interlocutors in the recent documentary “The Human Factor,” about American diplomacy over the years, also reach—but must be reached by the two sides themselves.  The corollary is that a way must be found to offer them the space and time to get to know one another and gradually break down the barriers between them in an environment that’s not a public pressure cooker.  That’s what Rød-Larsen and Juul were committed to providing, acting only as facilitators rather than prodders (though as depicted here they occasionally slip from that purpose), and it was a plan that worked. 

As dramatized her it’s interesting, and often amusing, to watch the negotiators, nicely played across the board, gradually mellow in their attitudes as they share jokes and personal anecdotes.  One bit of business, about how the meals prepared by motherly cook Toril (Geraldine Alexander)—especially her secret-recipe dessert waffles—soothes tempers when they are about to erupt, comes across as overly cute.  But this is drama, of course, not documentary—otherwise the specific issues under debate would be explicated far more fully than they are—and one has to forgive the shorthand Rogers employs.

The film has been expertly fashioned, with Carlin’s elegant production design shot in beautifully burnished tones by Kaminski, the regular cinematographer of Steven Spielberg (one of the executive producers) and the plotline kept reasonably clear by editor Rabinowitz, who also skillfully incorporates the historical footage.  And understated score by Jeff Russo and Zoë Keating contributes to the film’s mood of promise.

But it was, of course, a promise that was fulfilled but proved sadly temporary.  As is so often the case, the film identifies the cause of the ultimate failure to extend the Oslo accords into a lasting peace as the assassination of Rabin and the attitude of the Israeli governments that followed.  But as “The Human Factor” suggested, the accords might have been fatally flawed by a decision to put off too many details for later agreement. 

Whatever one’s thoughts on such matters, however, “Oslo” provides an engrossing, if partial and popularized, glimpse into a brief moment when the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed within reach.  Recent events have once again shown the awful human cost of the failure of a noble effort to achieve that end.