REVIEW: “The Ice Road” (2021)

Most of us have had no problem buying into Liam Neeson as an ex-special forces tough guy with a particular set of bone-cracking and head-shotting skills. So seeing the 69-year-old Irishman as a crusty North Dakota truck driver is easy-peasy. The new Netflix action thriller “The Ice Road” taps into much of what makes Neeson such a fun and engaging action star while also reminding us of that often used formula that makes many of his movies feel like more of the same.

“The Ice Road” thrusts Neeson into the real world of ice road trucking where drivers take 65,000 lb. vehicles over stretches of frozen lakes and rivers where ice is often less than 30 inches thick. Considered by some to be suicide missions, the truck drivers make essential cargo runs across these treacherous routes known as ice roads often with fatal outcomes. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, “The Ice Road” plugs Neeson into a story that’s set in this real and dangerous environment but full of familiar genre tropes.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Neeson plays a seasoned trucker named Mike McCann who loses his job after standing up for his challenged PTSD suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Needing work, he gets wind of a call for ice road drivers in Winnipeg. A serious methane explosion has caused a mine to collapse and the only hope for the miners trapped inside is if a wellhead can be delivered before they run out of oxygen. He’s hired by Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) who scrambles to find capable drivers to accompany him on the “rescue mission” to Northern Manitoba.

Mike, Gurty who happens to be an ace mechanic, Jim, and an unruly local named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) are joined by the mine company’s smarmy insurance rep Varnay (Benjamin Walker) and set out in a three-truck convoy. They’re employing what’s called “technical redundancy” which in this scenario means three trucks carrying the same cargo leave in hopes that at least one makes it to their destination. Told you this was dangerous business.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The first half deals with the practical dangers of their journey both mechanically and environmentally. I makes for some pretty fascinating stuff. It’s the second half where things come unglued. A cartoonishly cold company scumbag played by Matt McCoy will go to great lengths to hide his indiscretions including sabotaging the convoy and leaving his miners to suffocate. So we end up with a back-end full of half-baked action that’s only entertaining in its absurdity. Meanwhile none of the characters are given much depth. We get a taste of Mike and Gurty but everyone else is just story filler. Even the always dependable Holt McCallany can’t make his mine supervisor character interesting.

“The Ice Road” is very much a middle-of-the-road thriller in Neeson’s catalog. It starts off teasing an interesting disaster flick but devolves into a sub-par action movie that can’t quite stay on the road. At the same time it can’t steer clear of predictability. You’ll see everything coming a mile away and from its earliest scenes you’ll figure out how it all ends. Still, even a middling Neeson film has its entertainment value and this one is no different. But there are so many ways this could have been better. “The Ice Road” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

Revisiting the Indiana Jones trilogy has been like hopping into a time machine and traveling back to my youth. Yes, I know there was an awful fourth movie, but what ardent Indy lover actually embraces that train wreck? But the three original films are so deeply connected to my childhood. They led to me trying my hand at cracking a whip (a toy one, but a whip nonetheless) and desperately wanted a brown fedora. For a brief time they even had me wanting to be an archeologist because everybody knows those movies were accurate depictions of archeology, right?

The third film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, is a near perfect picture of blockbuster moviemaking done right. It’s wildly entertaining from start to finish, plump full of big action and infused with a steady stream of humor. All three Indiana Jones films have their witty and playful moments but this one has the most laughs by far. The gags are so well written and delivered through Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s seamless chemistry and the impeccable comic timing of supporting players Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies. I had forgotten how funny this movie is.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Written by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam from a story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes, “The Last Crusade” opens by introducing us to a young Indiana Jones (played by the late River Phoenix). Set in 1912, the fun high-energy prologue plays like a legend’s origin story of sorts. It reveals how Indy developed his fear of snakes; how he got his signature brown fedora, the whip, even Harrison Ford’s real-life scar on his chin. And at a young age he already has that very Indy-like conviction that every archaeological treasure belongs in a museum.

Jump ahead to 1938 and we meet Ford’s Indy, fighting off pirates near the Portuguese Coast and still teaching archaeology to starry-eyed college girls. He’s reunited with his university colleague Marcus (Elliott – hysterical throughout) who connects him with a wealthy collector named Walter Donovan (Julian Glover). Donovan has unearthed part of a sandstone tablet believed to reveal the resting place of the Holy Grail, Christ’s cup from the Last Supper. Authurian legend states that whoever drinks from the Grail is granted eternal life.

Indy agrees to help Donovan find the other half of the tablet only after hearing that his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) was part of a team that recently went missing while searching for the Grail. His adventure starts in Venice where he meets up with Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an associate of his father’s, then it’s off to Austria, Berlin, and Hatay. Soon Nazis are hot on their heels, we meet a secret society of Holy Grail protectors, and fan-favorite Sallah (Rhys-Davies) pops up to help his friends. Toss in some great action including a boat chase, a terrific motorcycle sequence, a daring escape on a German bi-plane, and a thrilling fight in and around a moving German tank. It’s such a blast.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Following some mixed reviews for the second film “The Temple of Doom” (a really good movie but the weaker of the three) Spielberg lightened the tone of this third Indy outing and looked to recapture the spirit of the 1981 original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. While the third installment has a feel all its own, it definitely rekindles the magic that made the first film such a delight. It’s not as good as “Raiders”, but that’s an incredibly high bar.

While rewatching the Indiana Jones films I was struck by how remarkably well the three movies hold up. There are a couple of moments in “The Last Crusade” where you can see the blemishes in the early digital effects. But overall the movie looks great thanks to the fantastic cinematography, stunt work, and Spielberg’s big-budget touch. And of course it’s led by Harrison Ford whose natural charisma and hero’s charm turned Indy into a household name. And now he’s putting on his fedora for one more Indiana Jones adventure. I pray it leans into what made the original three movies great and gives us a proper send off to one of cinema’s most fun and iconic characters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Infinite” (2021)

Antione Fuqua has a filmography marked by an interesting assortment of action thrillers. Not all of them are hits, but even his misses are reasonably entertaining and have a particular level of grit and verve. His new film “Infinite” stands out from his other movies and not in the way you would hope. It essentially lacks all of the aforementioned grit and verve he’s known for. After seeing it it’s clear why the movie’s theater release was scrapped and it was sent straight to Paramount+ streaming platform with practically no promotion whatsoever.

In terms of concept, “Infinite” borrows from a number of other science-fiction thrillers including “Inception” and “The Matrix”, but never comes remotely close their level. I can only guess it’s a case of a film’s script (written by Ian Shorr) sounding a lot better on paper. The movie stars Mark Wahlberg, an actor not exactly known as the most emotive. Here he’s at his most emotionless, never showing an ounce of feeling other than occasionally raising his voice a pinch out of irritation. I still haven’t figured out if this was how Wahlberg was directed or if he is just bored out of his mind.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Wahlberg plays Evan McCauley, a diagnosed schizophrenic with a history of violence who is in desperate need of a job to pay his rent and to get his meds (in some early narration we’re warned that things can go bad if he doesn’t get his meds). On the stranger side of things we learn he possesses a number of peculiar skills yet he has no idea where he learned them. For example, one second we watch Evan getting turned down in a job interview and then the next he’s forging a samurai sword. He has no idea where he learned how to do it. It’s just something he’s always known how to do. It sounds ludicrous, but along with dreams that feel like memories and a strange exhaustive knowledge of history, it really gets into one of the cooler elements of the story.

But that’s about as close as we get to exploring the the human implications or the emotional struggle that would come with such an unusual condition. Instead we get a story that is essentially drab and endless world-building bookended by an action-packed opening and ending. There are some cool car chases to start the movie and it has some preposterous yet amusing showdowns to finish. But the tedious and thoroughly uninteresting middle is hard to endure.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

The movie tries to sell us on a world full of reincarnated warriors called Infinites. We hear about how they have split up in to two warring sides, the Believers (the good guys) and the Nihilists (the baddies). The Believers feel it is their duty to protect humanity, much like they have done throughout time. The Nihilists…well you know. They’re led by Bathurst, a centuries old Infinite now running around in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s body. He has “lost faith” in the Infinite’s mission and is after a world-ending “egg” that will wipe out all life (trust me, it’s better not to ask too many questions). But the egg’s location is buried somewhere in Evan’s head making him the target of both the Believers and the Nihilists.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest shortcoming is that it spends a lot of time talking about relationships from the past rather than building any meaningful new ones on screen. So we end up following a bunch of hollow characters as they slowly move towards the inevitable bombastic finish. The compelling idea of a man haunted by other people’s memories has all the ingredients for a fun movie. But the lack of interesting characters, the relentless exposition, and the bland world-building make “Infinite” a humorless and soulless slog that a few well-shot action scenes can’t cover up. “Infinite” is now streaming on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “In the Heights” (2021)

In 2016 Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz brought some much-needed spice to the movie musical with “La La Land”. The film was a hit with critics and audiences alike and offered proof that the movie musical was still very much alive. And then you have Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, a Broadway musical that went from Tony Award winner to full-blown cultural phenomenon. Those two productions helped pave the way for a film like “In the Heights”, a new musical that borrows from both “La La Land” and “Hamilton” yet for the most part still manages to make something uniquely its own.

There had been talks of an “In the Heights” film adaptation for at least ten years, but it was the success of “Hamilton” that really got things moving forward. Based on a stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Miranda, “In the Heights” is directed by Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame from a script written by Hudes and music by Miranda. It’s set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, a tight-knit and mostly Latino community pulsing with pride, music and culture.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Much like “Hamilton”, Miranda’s music speaks its own unique language, often using rap, singing, and something in between in place a straight dialogue. It’s a skill no doubt, but one that can at times be frustrating and a little exhausting. The movie shines brightest in its big musical numbers where everyone is on their feet and the block bursts with energy and local flavor. It’s that hard-to-define lyrical style (not quite rap, not quite song, not quite spoken word) which turns out to be hit-or-miss. The good scenes crackle with fun free-flowing rhythm. But there are times when you wish Miranda would dial it back and just let his characters just speak.

While Miranda’s lyrics do most of the talking, Hudes gives us some welcomed moments of conversation that help form the backbone of the story. But her writing can be a little shaky, jumping from emotionally rich and moving to on-the-nose and even a bit cloying. Meanwhile the story as a whole struggles to find the right balance of tone. The first half is the best as we hang out with the characters, listen to their stories, and soak in the neighborhood through their eyes, ears, and voices. The final third is all over the place both narratively and tonally. It has several good moments, but much of it feels pasted together and lacks flow. And both Miranda and Hudes fumble their opportunities at political commentary by sloppily wedging in a couple of attempts that couldn’t feel any less organic. One ends an otherwise sublime swimming pool number while the other comes out of the blue and feels completely manufactured.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

All that said, despite its hefty two-hour and 20-minute running time, there really isn’t that much story. But you barely notice because Miranda and Hudes do a great job of making us care about their characters and the deep communal bond that connects them. It’s what makes their individual stories both endearing and in some cases heartbreaking. And it’s the characters and our emotional commitment to them that brings Washington Heights to life. The characters ARE the story and everything from Miranda’s music to Hudes’ words to Chu’s camera emphasizes that. Meanwhile a top-to-bottom terrific cast elevate the script and Chu is smart enough to let them take the lead and carry the load.

The story unfolds over several hot summer days before, during, and after a blackout hits Washington Heights. We mostly follow two young couples, both obviously in love but poor at expressing it. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a bodega owner who has his eyes firmly on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who gives him every opportunity to finally ask her out. The problem is he has big dreams of leaving the Heights and going back to the Dominican Republic to run a beachside business like his late father. She is an aspiring fashion designer with plans to move uptown closer to the industry she loves. The other couple is Nina (Leslie Grace) who has just returned home following a difficult first year at Stanford and dreads telling her father that she is considering quitting. She’s in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works for Nina’s widowed father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and is caught between the daddy-daughter tension.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The stories of the two couples cross over and include many of the same neighborhood people. There’s the aforementioned Kevin who can’t fathom his daughter not going back to California for her sophomore year. We get Usnavi’s fiery teen cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). And the barrio’s matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) who raised Usnavi and almost every other kid on the block. There are the three high-energy gossips who run the local salon (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco). Even Miranda pops up now and then pushing a cart and peddling flavored shaved ice to the local kids. They all form the beating heart of the movie. And led by a star-making turn from Ramos and the eye-opening presence of Barrera, this is easily one of the best ensembles of the year.

While Chu struggles with some awkward pacing on the film’s back-end and his movie is around a half-hour too long, he has no problem pulling us into the titular neighborhood. Alongside his terrific DP Alice Brooks, the pair capture the effervescent spirit of a changing Washington Heights and give us a taste of the music, personality, and culture that is so deeply a part of its identity. At the same time Christopher Scott’s kinetic choreography pops off the screen, mixing with Miranda’s hip-hop and Salsa infused beats to give us the film’s most vibrant scenes (an absolutely electric nightclub fiesta may be my favorite). It all leads to an imperfect yet rousing crowdpleaser that may be the ideal movie for those looking to finally burst out of quarantine. “In the Heights” opens today (June 11th) in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “In the Earth” (2021)

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Filmed over the course of fifteen days during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Wheatley’s new film “In the Earth” is a micro-budget chiller with the anxieties of our current locked-down society sewn within its fabric. Coming off last year’s fun yet imperfect “Rebecca”, Wheatley returns to the dark and gnarly storytelling he cut his filmmaking teeth on. And at a time when so many are burned out from quarantining and itching to get out of the house, “In the Earth” may leave you second guessing that impulse.

Despite the obvious constraints of filming during a pandemic, “In the Earth” doesn’t deserve to be simply tagged as a ‘COVID movie’ the way some others do. None of the limitations show up on-screen which is quite an accomplishment. Even better, nothing about it feels like genre rehash. Wheatley takes several rather familiar horror ingredients (a creepy forest setting, ominous fog, etc.) and then twists them to fit into his unsettling and occasionally macabre mold.

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Image Courtesy of NEON

The film opens with science specialist Martin Lowery (Joel Frey) arriving at the Gantalow Lodge which has been turned into a research site. He’s there to check on a friend and former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). She came to the nature reserve to study the brain-like mycorrhizal network of roots believed to control the entire forest, but he hasn’t heard from her in months. As most of us are familiar with, Martin is immediately ushered through a series of safety and decontamination protocols. Blood tests and urine samples frame this is a much more severe pandemic than ours. But other touches (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) seem plucked right out of our current climate.

Everyone at the lodge comes across as exhausted and drained, worn down by the isolation and ready for some semblance of normalcy (sound familiar?). Martin is no different. In fact we learn this is his first time outside in four months. So they all go through their testing routines with a detached sense of obligation. They passionlessly discuss the pandemic, Martin’s work, and even a local folktale about about a creepy forest entity called Parnag Fegg. During these early scenes Martin is introduced to Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger who will guide him on the two-day walk to Olivia’s remote camp.

Early the next morning Martin and Alma begin their long and soon-to-be terrifying trek. Wheatley sets his audience up as an observant tag-along, listening in on their small-talk and shadowing the two as they make their way through the woods. Sometimes DP Nick Gillespie’s camera lurks several yards away, taking in more of their surroundings and slyly creating a sense of dread for what’s to come. Wheatley’s crafty visuals bring a subtly sinister quality to the forest especially when they set up camp after the first day’s walk. Tall trees creaking in the wind like old bones, indiscernible howls in the night – it’s all really effective. And the suspense ramps up even more once Martin and Alma meet a mysterious park squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith).

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Image Courtesy of NEON

It would be a major disservice to go much further and not because there is a lot of plot to spoil. It’s more about experiencing what the characters experience and the murky revelations we get once Wheatley’s loose-fitting puzzle pieces start coming together. It all plays out like a wicked blend of horror sub-genres, from the sadistic splashes of gruesome body horror to the wild psychedelic mind-screw of the final 15 minutes. That’s where Wheatley starts mixing mysticism, technology, and science into one bizarre and somewhat macabre stew. And through it all Clint Mansell’s twisted synthesized score keeps things slightly off-kilter and us constantly on edge.

People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes.” That early line from a doctor back at the lodge turns out to be some pretty meaty foreshadowing. With “In the Earth” Ben Wheatley and his small but able cast and crew take that idea and run with it. The result is a movie full of unease; with moments that will make you squirm, and enough confidence to rely on its material rather than cheap scares. It doesn’t all come together in the clearest or cleanest way which manages to be both frustrating and strangely fascinating. Still the movie represents a fresh slice of horror which is something the well-traveled genre is always in need of. “In the Earth” premieres in theaters April 16th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “I’m Your Woman” (2020)

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2020 was quite a year for Amazon Studios. Take a quick gander at their catalog and you’ll find star-driven features, sharp-minded indies, ambitious anthologies, and some insightful documentaries. They have showcased a diverse selection of films and filmmakers while opening doors for some exciting new voices. And while all of those things are true, for some people it’s as simple as this – they’ve made some really entertaining movies. Now you can add “I’m Your Woman” to that list.

The movie is directed by Julia Hart who also co-wrote the script with her husband and co-producer Jordon Horowitz. The two are the minds behind 2018’s “Fast Color”, a wonderfully moving superhero drama that never quite got the audience it deserved. “I’m Your Woman” is a much different movie. It’s a neo-noir crime thriller that happens to have a lot to say about motherhood and carving out your own identity.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Rachel Brosnahan of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fame stars as Jean, a young wife living a comfortable life in the late 1970’s thanks to her husband Eddie (Bill Heck). He’s a small-time hood who keeps his activities to himself and Jean is content to ask no questions. In fact Eddie keeps his business so secretive that Jean is stunned when he suddenly brings home an infant baby. The couple has wanted children, but Jean hasn’t been able to get pregnant and they can’t adopt due to Eddie’s record. Yet a few minutes into the movie Jean finds herself a new mom.

But things take a dramatic turn when Jean is awoken in the middle of the night and informed that Eddie’s latest job went south and some really bad people are not only looking for him but for her. Eddie has went into hiding but one of his associates named Cal (Arinzé Kene) is tasked with getting Jean and her baby to safety. From there the story makes several stops and introduces several new people. None of them really want to tell Jean (or us) anything so she spends a lot of time in the dark wondering who to trust. Eventually she learns Eddie wasn’t so small-time and it’s ultimately up to her to save herself and most importantly her child. And she’ll have to parse friend from foe in the process.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film moves along at an interesting but unusual pace. There are scenes of high tension and suspense especially in the moments when Eddie’s rivals close in on Jean. But then you’ll get quieter scenes showing Jean struggling with the responsibilities of motherhood but learning from different people she encounters. One of the most intriguing of the supporting characters is Carl’s wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a tough-minded woman who is well versed in the life of a criminal’s wife. Like everyone else she has her secrets, but she also inspires Jean to toughen up and be ready for what’s to come.

Of course what’s coming is a violent final act where all of the consequences of Eddie’s actions come back to bite Jean. As someone who hasn’t seen “Mrs. Maisel” the performance from Brosnahan is an eye-opener. In addition we get strong supporting work, a good 70’s throwback vibe, and a surprisingly gritty finish. It can be a bit maddening waiting for the supporting characters to finally reveal to Jean what we already know, but it all adds up to a fun and satisfying female-led noir. “I’m Your Woman” is now streaming on Prime Video.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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