Jon M Chu

In the Heights

18/06/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning stage musical makes a successful transition to the big screen, with Jon M Chu’s direction really capturing the community spirit at the heart of the piece. Washington Heights is a Manhattan suburb, home to a diverse range of Latin-American people. The film is a raucous celebration of Latinx culture, and – although it touches briefly on issues of poverty, racism and immigration – it’s essentially joyful: a sweet love story; “there’s no place like home.”

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a corner store/bodega, who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s beach bar. He’s got a bit of a thing for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a nail salon, although she really wants to be a fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has come back home from Stanford University for the summer, and – though the whole-neighbourhood’s in awe of her achievements – she’s decided not to return. The grass isn’t always greener, and she misses belonging. At Stanford, she will always be an outsider.

Christopher Scott’s choreography is sublime: it’s vibrant and sexy and sometimes dizzyingly gorgeous. The huge ensemble cast are expertly utilised. There’s a scene on the fire escape that almost literally takes my breath away, and the Busby Berkeley-esque synchronised swimming provides another unexpected delight. The cinematography (by Chu and Alice Brooks) is also spectacular: you can feel the heat rising from every shot, shimmering and crackling, and – during the blackout – it’s genuinely oppressive. The neighbourhood is fully realised, and captured with love.

The film is long; some might say too long. Even though it’s bursting with energy and sparky, likeable characters, it does start to flag at around the eighty-minute mark, and there’s still more than an hour to go. A little tightening wouldn’t go amiss, but – in spite of this – watching In the Heights is, on the whole, a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Although I’m captivated, I sadly find myself at odds with the film’s underlying message, which seems to be an exhortation to appreciate what you have and stay put. I love the community pride that is feted so exuberantly here, but I’m also perturbed by the ‘don’t try anything new’ connotation, which literally nobody gets to challenge. It feels right for Usnavi to realise that home is where the heart is, that he already has exactly what he needs, but the same doesn’t ring true for Vanessa – or Nina. I wish there was more nuance here.

I’d probably like a bit more grit too, if I’m honest. The racism Nina encounters at Stanford is delivered almost as an aside; the plight of DREAMers only briefly touched upon. These are urgent, interesting topics, and there’s space here, I think, for a little more depth, more heft. As it is, In the Heights is lovely, but ephemeral. I can’t see it lingering in my mind, or having a lasting impact.

Still, if what you’re seeking is escapism, this movie more than ticks the box.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield