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HIGH UP ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’

When was the last time you were immersed in a musical experience? That’s the magic In the Heights sparksan exhilarating adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. As our hero Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) awakens and goes through the familiar early-morning motions of opening his street-corner bodega we are drawn into his world and resistance is futile. The Latinx neighborhood prepares for a new day and everyone moves to the infectious rhythms of life. What a way to start a movie!

One by one we meet the other inhabitants of this vibrant community in Washington Heights. Most of them have come from the Dominican Republic—from a proud taxi dispatcher to an angelic woman who is everybody’s abuela (grandmother). There’s the girl who dreams of being a fashion designer, if someone would just give her a chance, and the super-smart student whose first semester away at college has left her disillusioned. The owner of the neighborhood salon has been forced to move even further uptown to the Bronx, but In the Heights refuses to surrender to negativity even while acknowledging such modern ills as gentrification. Corey Hawkins, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Chris Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Leslie Grace (and the rest of the cast) give wonderful and passionate performances.

The film doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a mosaic, with rapid-fire lyrics (from the man who gave us Hamilton) extolling the virtues of community and shared experiences, both good and not-so. Appealing performances from an array of screen newcomers, exciting dance numbers, and a feeling of authenticity and immediacy pulsate through the film.

Jon M. Chu was born to direct this picture. He’s proved his love for the movie musical time and again in his brief but meteoric career. (Some day people will discover Step Up 3, belittled when it came along, and give it the plaudits it deserves.) He isn’t afraid to emulate great musicals of the past—even Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight—with an open heart and not an ounce of irony.

Any movie that offers so many jubilant moments must be forgiven its flaws. Hudes’ upbeat screenplay is essentially a clothesline on which a series of musical vignettes are strung. They are the heart and soul of the film, but during transitional moments between production numbers I felt my mind wandering. Even with its rough edges sanded down to some degree, the dramatic story threads are all too familiar and can’t sustain a film that runs well over two hours.

But only a misanthrope could dismiss such an exuberant piece of entertainment. I predict that many audiences will cheer, not only for the feeling that the movie conjures up but the pleasure of enjoying it with an audience on a screen that’s larger than life in a darkened movie theater.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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