[Screen It]


(2021) (Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace) (PG-13)

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Musical: Residents of a New York neighborhood deal with a summer heat wave and increasing gentrification that's pushing them out.

In the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, nearly 30-year-old Usnavi (ANTHONY RAMOS) runs the neighborhood bodega with his younger cousin, Sonny (GREGORY DIAZ IV), as his only employee. Usnavi immigrated to the U.S. as a kid with his now late parents, only to be raised by Abuela Claudia (OLGA MEREDIZ), a Cuban immigrant who stood in as the surrogate grandmother figure to him and others.

His fondest memories from his earlier childhood are those at his father's beach bar in the Dominican Republic, something he's considering possibly buying and reopening. Even so, he's currently interested in but can't quite act on his attraction to Vanessa (MELISSA BARRERA) who works at the local hairdressing salon for Daniela (DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA) alongside Carla (STEPHANIE BEATRIZ)) and Cuca (DASHA POLANCO) but dreams of breaking of being a fashion designer.

Increasing rents are not only affecting Daniela who's planning on moving her shop to the Bronx, but also Kevin Rosario (JIMMY SMITS) who runs a cab service but has been selling parts of that to pay for his daughter Nina's (LESLIE GRACE) college education. But with her feeling like an outsider at Stanford, she's dropped out -- but hasn't told her dad -- and returned home where she's reunited with her former boyfriend, Benny (COREY HAWKINS), who works for her dad as a dispatcher.

With a heatwave increasing, the residents go about living their lives and chasing their dreams.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

One of the TV shows my wife and I love is "Somebody Feed Phil" where the former "Everybody Love Raymond" creator and executive producer Phil Rosenthal travels around the world exploring the culinary and cultural offerings of wherever he might be in each episode. What makes the show so engaging and entertaining is that he genuinely loves the food, but is also enthusiastic and upbeat about the people making it and their entrepreneurship.

And in doing so, he encourages his viewers to go out and engage with others who might not look like them and show that such people have more similarities rather than differences with them. For instance, in one episode set in Venice, Italy, when not savoring the food, it's noted that most locals can't live there anymore due to being priced out.

Granted, that problem isn't limited to the city where the streets are made of water, and the ongoing problem of gentrification has been the focus of fiction for decades. Lin-Manuel Miranda (of later "Hamilton" fame) used that as the backdrop for his musical "In the Heights."

A love letter of sorts to the people and immigrant culture of New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, it was first conceived by Miranda while he was in college, and later debuted on stage in 2005 before making its way to Broadway a few years later. Garnering thirteen Tony Award nominations and winning four (including Best Musical), it put a new spin on the age-old musical, mixing the standard stylings with hip-hop and freestyle rap.

Like the always hungry and gregarious Phil, Miranda obviously likes the souls he's created and admires their lives, vocations, and dreams and wisely ignored ignorant calls for adding negative cultural stereotypes to "up the drama" and conflict.

The result is an entertaining musical that might not be as polished or complex or carry the historical gravitas of "Hamilton," but it's infectiously fun nonetheless. And now the movie version -- delayed a year due to Covid -- hits theaters and HBO Max just in time for the hot season in which the story is set. It's certainly the feel-good event of the summer.

A few of the musical numbers have been cut by screenwriter Quiara Alegrķa Hudes who also wrote the stage play's book (script), but the overall effect on viewers should be the same, especially with director Jon M. Chu's imaginative and creative visual flair in moving the events from the stage to the real streets of New York City.

With Miranda having essentially aged out of the main character, Usnavi, he cedes that part (and takes a minor recurring role as the shaved ice vendor) to Anthony Ramos (he played the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in "Hamilton") who takes and makes it his own.

The story revolves around the days leading up to a blackout in the city where Usnavi runs the local bodega where he employs his teenage cousin (Gregory Diaz IV) and longs for beauty salon employee Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but is too shy and awkward to act on that. At the same time -- and having been brought to America by his late parents as an 8-year-old only to be raised by his surrogate abuela, Claudia (Olga Merediz) -- he's considering buying and reopening his father's beach bar in the Dominican Republic.

While increasing rents are forcing beauty salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her shop to the Bronx, taxicab owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) is facing a different sort of money problem in that he's facing large tuition bills for his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). She's home for the summer and has yet to tell her dad she's not returning for her sophomore year, what with feeling like a cultural outsider at Stanford. At least Kevin's dispatcher, Benny (Corey Hawkins), is happy to see Nina, hoping they can rekindle their past romance.

Unlike many of the song's complex structures, the plot isn't complicated or original for that matter, but it works as a serviceable structure upon which to hang the many musical numbers. From the opening and infectious title song to "96,000" (named after the payout of an unclaimed lottery ticket) and other salsa meets hip-hop-infused songs, the offerings are a (mostly) upbeat treat to the ears. Although they might not match the songs Miranda later created for "Hamilton," many of them have the same stylings and overall feel.

If anything, the movie version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production has the same effect as "Somebody Feed Phil" in that you can feel the abundant enthusiasm and admiration that all involved have for the characters and their day to day lives and dreams "In The Heights." The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed May 15, 2021 / Posted June 11, 2021

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