THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Outsiders may look at New York as a singular city filled with diverse "New Yorkers" but in fact it's a collection of densely packed communities that often share a common background or origin. Manhattan's Washington Heights (and the movie that takes the neighborhood as its title) is populated almost entirely by immigrants from the Dominican Republic and their descendants. Alfredo De Villa's Washington Heights finds the neighborhood on the cusp of changing from an older generation still carrying the community lifestyle of the old country and the first generation of adult children, looking to move downtown and more closely integrate into mainstream American society. The brunt of this evolution falls on the shoulders of Carlos (Manny Perez) who wants to move to the Lower East Side and work on his comic book illustrations. Just as he's finally making plans, however, his father Eddie (played by veteran Cuban actor Tomas Milian) is shot during a hold-up of his bodega.
While this plot turn may be nothing new, the frustration that Carlos feels at being tethered to his neighborhood resonates. This is thanks in part to a script that isn't overcrowded with overly dramatic dialog and real, honest performances from the cast, particularly Peres and Milian. Many of the other characters are just sketched out but these two manage to draw very believable and rich portraits of their flawed but decent characters. Carlos loves his girlfriend Maggie (Andrea Navedo) but is uncertain where she fits in with his goals. His comic book art (a weird erotic space saga that will probably sound and look stupid to most audience members) doesn't meet success and, when he's advised to try to inject some soul into his work he faces a tough choice. He switches styles a couple of times during the film as his work gets more and more personal. Some scenes show De Villa allowing Carlos' impassioned drawing taking on a frantic, inspired quality and Perez has the right feel of determination and intensity of a hungry artist.
Eddie, on the other hand, is set in his ways and with no interest in changing anything. Widowed for years, he continues his neighborhood gigolo ways endlessly. In one of the several unusual character elements, Eddie talks about how Carlos' mother understood and forgave his philandering - every time. Milian's performance as Eddie has a lived-in quality that helps make Eddie a sad, hurt but proud and lively person. When he finds himself immobilized from his gunshot wound, needing his son to change his diaper in the middle of the night, then you see a man reduced to his wounded worst.
Ultimately the film doesn't offer a standard wrap-up, which is good, although the dramatic climax is a little less than satisfying: The main characters find themselves passive observers as the conflict becomes primarily between two supporting players: Carlos' longtime friend Mickey (Danny Hoch) and Maggie's thug brother Angel (Bobby Cannavale). Even here there's something interesting going on, as Mickey, who is a likeable guy, steals from Angel, whose brute tactics and illicit means make him more of a bad element. Still, Mickey's thievery is still played as being a stupid move and Angel's anger comes off as surprisingly understandable.
Still, the film's real ending is much less final than the inevitable confrontation between Angel and Mickey. Instead it shows both Eddie and Carlos taking the next steps in their lives, which leaves the characters open, heading into the unknown. The ambiguity is smart and hopeful and allows the characters to live on after the last fade-out.
The movie was shot on digital video but thankfully the transfer here comes from a film print. While resolution is lost in the process it looks much more cinematic. The non-anamorphic transfer here is gummy with detail in more densely composed shots looking lackluster. Also, colors are sometimes dull, which seems standard for this format. But all that having been said, considering the humble technical origins of the film it does look more cinematic than other DV-shot pieces I've seen, even with the additional loss of resolution to the DV compression.
The Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is fine. At times voices are a bit tough to make out, thanks to likely low-budget techniques, but there's a lively quality to the location recording and the music sounds punchy and good.
Just trailers for Washington Heights, the upcoming Greg Kinnear / Robert De Niro thriller Godsend and ... I don't know quite how to say this... Leprechaun 6: Back 2 tha Hood.
Washington Heights is a simple story with a few smartly developed characters and an open ending. Fans of urban stories will enjoy a peek into this tight-knit community and some of the conflicts that can come up when someone wants to leave.