Review – In the Heights, Northampton Filmhouse, 13th July 2021

In The Heights movie posterLin-Manuel Miranda’s first big musical hit the stage running on Broadway back in 2008, and there was an instant interest in making it into a film. But, as often happens, those plans stalled, and it wasn’t until after the smash success of Hamilton that work on In the Heights The Movie got going again. I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version (although I didn’t see it until 2016) and so was naturally keen to see the film – and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint at all!

Washington HeightsLike the show, the film offers a snapshot of a few days in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American area of New York (or Nuevo York, to make it clearer), and sets Usnavi at the centre of the community, running his little bodega at all hours of the day, accompanied by his smartass cousin Sonny. Stanford University undergraduate Nina arrives unexpectedly, much to the delight and concern of her father Kevin, who runs the local taxi company, and even more to the delight of Benny, the taxi controller, whose tongue hangs out (figuratively) every time Nina appears on the scene. But why has she returned? Meanwhile, Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, dreams of getting her own place, and Usnavi dreams of having a relationship with her but she’s just too beautiful for him to dare make the first move. Will they get it together? And who is the lucky winner of $96,000 in the lottery?

Usnavi and VanessaYes, there are a few plot and sequence changes from the original show; always a risky undertaking if you’re showing the film to a purist. I did like how Usnavi’s future relationship with Vanessa was left to your imagination in the stage show, whereas that’s not the case in the film; and there are a couple of times where the film’s approach to the tough reality of life is a little blander – Usnavi’s shop doesn’t get ransacked during the blackout, for example. Either way though, it’s a good story, well told.

Benny and NinaBoth the show and the film suffer from the same overload of exposition in its first half-hour or so. There’s a lot of information that is hurled at the audience right from the start, that it’s impossible to keep up with everything you’re being told – particularly when so much of it is coming via the medium of hip-hop/rap/Latin lyrics. There are big dance numbers which overwhelm the senses, and whilst they look and sound great, they can have the effect of getting in the way of the storytelling. In fact, it’s only when the music stops that you can really give yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of what’s been happening. As a result, quieter scenes such as the confrontation between Kevin and Nina concerning her Stanford career, and Usnavi’s important discussions with his accountant, stand out for their clarity. It also tends to dip into sentimentality a little more than I’d like – there’s only so many times you can watch Usnavi get misty-eyed over the four youngsters to whom he’s telling his story.

Big Dance NumberBut there’s no doubt that the dance numbers form most of the stand-out moments of the film. I particularly liked The Club scene, which felt just a hair’s breadth from West Side Story, and the Carnaval del Barrio, which genuinely shows how dance can emerge as an organic reaction to the steamy Latin conditions of life. A personal thing, but I was irritated by the occasional moments when the dance scenes moved into the surreal – such as Benny and Nina dancing on the walls of the block, or the guys on the street plucking seemingy tangible shapes out of mid-air. Those gimmicks didn’t enhance the songs or the dance. Musicals are already one step away from reality; in my humble opinion, they don’t need to be made even more impossible to believe! However, we couldn’t help but laugh at the use of Hamilton’s You’ll Be Back as holding music on the phone; they must have had a lot of fun at that idea.

Daniela and the girlsIt’s studded with excellent performances by a young company of largely impossibly beautiful people. It goes without saying that all the performers are supreme singers and dancers, bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and Christopher Scott’s empowering choreography to ebullient life. Leslie Grace is stunning (in all ways) as Nina, looking fondly on her old neighbourhood friends but with the slight distancing of someone who has been subjected to more intellectual challenges. Melissa Barrera is also fantastic as Vanessa, trying for a better life, opening the door for Usnavi to approach her. Daphne Rubin-Vega is brilliant as salon owner Daniela, challenging the neighbourhood to get a life, and young Gregory Diaz IV turns in a quirky and lovable performance as Sonny – he’s obviously going places.

Usnavi and SonnyAbuela Claudia is played by Olga Merediz who took the part on Broadway, so it seems only right that she should have the role here, but I couldn’t help but think she seemed a little young to be playing a character who dwindles away with old age before our eyes. But it’s Anthony Ramos who takes control of this film as Usnavi, perfectly conveying the character’s Everyman-type role; eminently likeable, full of empathy, with a wry sense of humour (is it just me who thinks he looks like a Puerto Rican Jon Richardson?), perfectly playing to the camera in his role as narrator. A first-rate performance.

Swimming PoolIt’s not a perfect film – at two hours, twenty minutes it felt a little long, and occasionally self-indulgent with the sentimentality; and sometimes the immense pizzazz of the whole thing obstructs the clarity of the storytelling. One of my pet hates in a musical is when its songs neither further our understanding of the characters nor push the story forward, and In the Heights is occasionally guilty of this. However, I think I’ve been more critical about this film than it truly warrants. It’s extremely enjoyable, there are huge dollops of feelgood factor, and it has that wonderful, sometimes elusive element, a happy ending!

Review – Red Joan, Northampton Filmhouse, 27th April 2019

Red JoanIs there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!

Judi Dench as JoanRed Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.

Tom Hughes and Sophie CooksonWe’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.

Sophie Cookson as Young JoanTwo additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)

Sophie Cookson and Stephen Campbell MooreThe film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?

Ben Miles, Laurence Spellman and Judi DenchComing it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!