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IN SHORT: A busted diamond. [Rated R for language, sexuality, brief violence and drug use. 88 minutes]
Our uncle worked in the diamond business and had the unique talent of being able to look at a raw stone and know if it could be cut into a multimillion dollar gem. Such a stone, if cut badly, could be rendered utterly worthless. As proof, he once poured a million dollars worth of "crap, barely fit for phonograph needles" into our hands-- the million dollars is what the stone would have been worth if properly cut. The movie business is not all that different from the diamond business. The stakes can be just as high. And this is the kind of review we hate to write.
Washington Heights is the perfect example of why film festivals are a necessary part of the movie business and why we usually stay the hell away from 'em. The real reason we stay away is that at least half of the product screened for the public will never be seen anywhere outside of the festival circuit, and is thus of no interest to the general public, because it is that "bad" (in many possible senses of the word). The material that isn't strictly "bad" (in many possible senses of the word) sometimes catches the eye of a producer or director or writer and deals for future movie projects, or jobs for actors seen for the first time in these films, are germinated. Washington Heights will fall into that category -- it's already pulled down a number of awards from a number of festivals that we've never heard of. That latter diss is irrelevant because Washington Heights is worthy of whatever it can lay its hands on, and that's a shame.
The screenplay, by Nat Moss and Alfredo de Villa with additional writing by Junot Diaz (we don't know who to properly give props to) is a beautiful piece of work. Set in a lower class section of New York CityWashington Heights avoids all the Hispanic clichés of drug runners and gangs versus evil, corrupt cops and delivers a flat out American dream story.
Immigrant Eddie Ramirez (Tomas Milían) owns a bodega up on West 184th Street. He works hard and has done well. He misses his wife, who died before this story begins, and is about as faithful to her now as he was when she was still walking this mortal coil, which is not very. Eddie's son, Carlos (Manny Perez) is 28 years old. He is an artist who dreams of a big career creating comic books -- Think Todd MacFarlane and Spawn -- though Carlos' ideas tend to restrict themselves to stories about big breasted alien women from Jupiter. His girlfriend, Maggie (Andrea Navedo), designs dresses, working out of her apartment. She loves Carlos but isn't thrilled about his other dream, to leave the barrio and take an apartment a figurative zillion miles away in downtown Manhattan. Maggie's brother Angel (Bobby Cannavale) is the only bad egg; a thug (drug running is implied) who hides huge amounts of cash in his apartment. Maggie has refused Angel's offers to set her up in her own shop. Instead, he carefully counts his loot like Scrooge, waiting for the day that he has enough to open a motorcycle shop of some kind of his own.
When Eddie is shot and paralyzed in a holdup, Carlos' world comes down around his ears. With a father to be cared for and a career stalled for want of a muse, Carlos is forced to run the store, kicking and screaming NO NO NO all the way and making the life of the bodega's only other employee, a Cuban immigrant named Tito (Roberto Sanchez) miserable. Carlos' main man is Mickey Kilpatrick (Danny Hoch), the son of the building superintendent, who needs $5000 to get to Nevada to pursue a whack dream of becoming a professional bowler. Mickey's father Sean (Jude Ciccolella) thinks his son is nuts. Mickey's father also has his own substantial stash -- $25,000 of which is invested "as a loan" in the bodega. Carlos' decision to run the bodega is not, obviously, one full of love and devotion to the family business. There's a strong current of loan shark threats running through this story.
Respectful of its origins, the story occasionally slips into Spanish dialog, with English subtitles set way too low on the screen to comfortably read. All the characters are clearly defined, with good backgrounds and fine individual story arcs. All are terrifically portrayed by actors we've never heard of, all of whom should use these performances on their reels. Director Alfredo de Villa keeps the story well paced and suffered, we first thought, with the usual problems faced by low budget productions that have to buy mismatched film stock. Colors and exposure setting between individual scenes don't match and are a visual distraction, again a problem symptomatic of low budget productions.
But that's not the problem and that's why we're going to slam down on Alfredo de Villa. When we read the fine print of the technical credits, we found that Washington Heights was shot on video. That means no mismatched stock excuse can cover for miserable cinematography (credited to Claudio Chea) whose utter inability to keep a consistent tone in his exposures should have gotten him fired early on. Ultimately, it is the director who has the ability to look at a shot and say, 'hey, put a filter on that lens and we'll do it again'. Ultimately, it is the director who must go to the producer and say 'get me a cameraman who knows how to shoot with a video camera'.
A terrific project that could have been a major surprise,bursting out of nowhere to become a word of mouth phenomenon -- it happens every few years -- is utterly made unwatchable by lousy visual production. It's a damned shame.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Washington Heights, he would have paid . . .
Rent it. Washington Heights could have been a monster, in the best sense of the word. We, who have absolutely no pull in this universe whatsoever, can only hope that an angel with deep pockets takes one look at the film as it now stands, and kicks in the bucks to reshoot the entire movie on film with competent technical personnel -- there are some sound problems, too, but nothing that would be noticed by anyone who wasn't a sound guy as we were. Washington Heights is a great script with great performances by actors who should be seen again
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