Anthony Ramos

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

Honest Thief

12/05/21

Amazon Prime

A Liam Neeson thriller is, by usual standards, an all too familiar commodity. We know what to expect, don’t we? Big Liam will play a nice, easygoing sort of feller who is calm and controlled until somebody causes harm to his wife/daughter/grandma/kitten (tick as appropriate), whereupon he calls upon the various talents he’s learned in his past – lock-picking/mountain climbing/paragliding (tick as appropriate) to exact a brutal and wince-inducing revenge upon those who have angered him.

Blood flows, teeth fly in many directions and the end credits roll. Job done.

To give Honest Thief all due credit, it does its level best to vary up the established formula, offering more nuance and characterisation than we’ve seen in previous efforts. Here, Big Liam plays Tom Dolan, the ‘honest thief’ of the title. Better known as the ‘in and out bandit’ (a monicker he loathes) he’s been responsible for robbing a whole string of banks over the past six years and has amassed a fortune of nine million dollars, which he keeps tucked away in a storage facility. But his life changes when he meets Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh) and it isn’t too long before he’s pledged his adoration and asked her to marry him. However, those ill-gotten gains don’t sit too comfortably with his plans for the future, so he determines to approach the FBI and offer them a deal – he’ll return all the money – that’s right, he hasn’t spent a penny of it – in return for a lighter sentence with visiting rights. In just a year or so, he and Annie can be together as man and wife. Lovely.

But, of course, the prospect of being handed a cool nine million bucks in a cardboard box is enough to tempt even an FBI agent into straying off the path of law and order – and how easy would it be to simply pin all the blame on Tom, who isn’t denying the fact that he stole the money in the first place? Therein lies the rub.

For the film’s first half, there’s barely a glimpse of the Big Liam of old. Tom’s relationship with Annie is actually rather charming and there’s also a measured performance by Jeffrey Donovan as FBI agent Sean Meyers, a man whose recent marital breakup has caused him to reassess his life. He’s also accompanied by a ridiculously cute dog. Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos are two junior FBI men, who are tempted by the prospect of easy millions and who are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their objective.

In the second half, we’re back in more generic territory, as somebody is foolish enough to harm Annie and Tom calls upon his talents (as an accomplished thief) to bring down the necessary retribution – but even here, the shootings, beatings and explosions are reined back to a respectable level and the various plot twists are ingenious enough to keep me thoroughly entertained.

This was never going to be a cinematic masterpiece, but as a slice of solid, fast-paced action, it’ll do nicely until the next one comes along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney