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May 5, 2003 2:00 AM
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The Highs and Lows of Alfredo de Villa's "Washington Heights"

The Highs and Lows of Alfredo de Villa's "Washington Heights"

by Brandon Judell










Alfredo de Villa's "Washington Heights" opens Friday.

Courtesy of MAC Releasing

It's the best of times for Alfredo de Villa's "Washington Heights" to be hitting theaters. Along with the commercial "Chasing Papi" and the indies "Raising Victor Vargas" and "Manito," here's a sure sign that Hollywood and the film industry as a whole are waking up to the fact there's a Spanish-speaking populace in these Estatos Unitos which loves film as much as everyone else.

It's also possibly the worst of times for this raw, energetic flick to be opening. It just doesn't measure up to its competition. "Vargas" is a complete charmer on every level, while the upcoming "Manito" can barely contain Franky G's startling energy and charismatic appeal. "Heights" is definitely likable but just misses out on being a viewing necessity.

Taking place in the upper Manhattan neighborhood that once housed many German/Jewish immigrants and Dr. Ruth, Washington Heights has been going Latin for many a year. De Villa superbly captures the area's frenetic energy and distinctive flavor. A small problem arises, though, with his hero.

The film's focus is on cartoonist Carlos Ramirez (Manny Perez), 28, who sports six earrings on his left ear and has a tinge of color in his tresses. This young man dreams of creating his own comic book. His live-in galpal Maggie (Andrea Navedo), who's equally ambitious, is pursuing a career in fashion design by dressing up the local gals in their wedding gowns.

Well, each day Carlos inks comics in the East Village. At night he sweats over his own creations at a drawing board in his home. Fame just has to be around the corner, he assumes.

Yes, Carlos smells it until his widowed, highly promiscuous dad Eddie (Tomas Milian) gets shot in the bodega he owns. With Pops in a wheelchair, Carlos finds himself running the corner grocery store. Does selling cigarettes and bananas spell the end for a great talent who might have come up with the next X-Hombres?

Sadly, no. Sadly because all the artwork we're allowed to view is mediocre. Three artists (Tom Casey, Ruben D. Cordero, Jr., plus David Shagun) supplied the supernatural heroes and half-naked men and women that comprise Carlos' output, and their work is just a few notches above crapola for the most part.

It's like shooting a biography on Diego Rivera, and having all the murals completed by sixth-graders. What the hell were these people thinking? This Carlos isn't being held back because of his race or his class or his bad luck. He's just untalented.

Another problem that arises is Manny Perez's performance. Perez, who came up with the story and consequently got the part, is stiff as a board and has apparently one facial expression. Additionally, whoever plucked his eyebrows (possibly make-up designer Maya Hardinge) and hair (Hector Vargas) should not be allowed onto a set again unless the film is a sequel to "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar."

In fact, Roberto Sanchez who has a small part here as Tito, a young immigrant working as an assistant in the bodega, blows away Perez in every scene they have together. The camera adores him. With him as Carlos, no one would care how out of proportion his superheroes were.

The rest of the cast, including Danny Hoch as a brain-dead, bowling superintendent, are terrific, too. Extra bravos are in hand for Milian, Navedo, and all the folks who walk into the bodega for their daily essentials.

Considering the money this film cost to make, its short shooting schedule, and its unpandering ethnic content, it's a triumph. De Villa certainly knows how to work a large cast, his dramatic scenes hit home, and he's created an all-enveloping, enrapturing ambience. So let's give the guy a few million and let's see him fly. He's paid his dues. Harvey?

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