Film reviews: In the Earth | Luca | In the Heights

In Ben Wheatley’s pandemic-set folk horror movie In the Earth, a research scientist gets more than he bargained for when he starts exploring some very unusual woods, writes Alistair Harkness

In the Earth

In the Earth (15) ****

Luca (6+) ***

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In the Heights (U) ****

Luca

After failing to put much of a stamp on last year’s Netflix adaptation of Rebecca, Ben Wheatley returns with his wildest film for a while courtesy of In the Earth, a low-budget, pandemic-set folk horror movie that was written and shot during lockdown last year. Taking place sometime after the third-wave of an unspecified viral outbreak, the film follows a research scientist called Dr Malcolm Lowery (Joel Fry) and a park ranger called Alma (Ellora Torchia) as they try to reach a colleague of Malcolm’s (played by Hayley Squire) who is conducting experiments to improve crop yields deep within some “unusually fertile” woods on the outskirts of Bristol.

Despite ominous warnings about people getting “a bit funny in these woods,” the out-of-shape Malcolm insists he’s up for the two-day hike necessary to reach his colleague, but soon finds himself on the receiving end of a sharp lesson in folkloric etiquette courtesy of a wood-dwelling hermit (Reece Shearsmith) who comes to his and Alma’s aid after a nocturnal attack leaves them battered and shoeless. What’s actually going on is best left somewhat unspoiled, though it’s no spoiler to say that even with the allusions to Covid-19 it’s not really about our current ongoing health crisis. Instead the film’s pandemic imagery is deployed sparingly as a relatable backdrop for a psychotronic freak-out that explores in more abstract ways the madness and fear that can set in when isolation and grief distort our ability to rationally respond to things we don’t fully understand.

But the film also feels like a spiritual sequel to Wheatley’s own English Civil War wig-out A Field in England, with the magic mushrooms of that film replaced here with a fungal matrix that appears to have transformed the forest into a kind botanical brain with a ruthless attitude to its own survival. As such, Wheatley seems to be riffing on the idea of “Earth’s natural internet,” the mycorrhizal network that microbiologists and mycologists now believe links up plant life. It’s an idea that’s been creeping into pop culture in recent years via movies such as Avatar and M Night Shyamalan’s intensely silly The Happening, as well as Peter Wohlleben’s popular science best-seller The Hidden Life of Trees and Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning eco-fable The Overstory. But in Wheatley’s hands it’s exploited for some macabre midnight movie madness, with his strobing visuals and the sonic overload of Clint Mansell’s score adding to the foreboding atmosphere.

With the Italian-set Luca, Pixar follows the conceptual leaps of its Oscar-winning Soul with a slight delight for summer holiday viewing. Its eponymous protagonist (voiced by Room star Jacob Tremblay) is an adolescent sea monster living off the Ligurian coast where his family, overcome with Finding Nemo-style parental anxiety, have filled his head with horror stories about the world beyond the sea to ensure he never ventures into danger. But when a chance encounter with a Huck Finn-style teenage sea monster called Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) reveals he can go on land and look like a normal human kid, he runs away from his overprotective parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) to nearby Portorosso, where he and Alberto team up with local girl Giulia (Emma Berman) to participate in a race that will enable them to buy a scooter and have lots more adventures.

In the Heights

Combining the hazy, lazy sense of freedom found in summertime coming-of-age stories with the fear-of-the-unknown tropes of a classic monster movie, Luca, the debut feature from long-term Pixar artist Enrico Casarosa, is perhaps more derivative than we’ve come to expect from the studio (narratively speaking, it can sometimes feel a little underdeveloped too). But it’s still pretty charming as a kids’ adventure movie, one complicated – in what may be a little nod to Splash – by its heroes having to keep themselves dry at all costs or risk scaring the locals for whom hunting sea monsters has become an integral part of the town’s mythology. It also looks gorgeous, with the fictional Portorosso basically a fantasy amalgam of Monterosso, Vernazza and the other fishing villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre.

Adapted from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, In the Heights feels like the perfect movie for a balmy summer evening. Set against the backdrop of creeping gentrification in Manhattan’s Latin American-dominated Washington Heights neighbourhood, it’s an exuberant, hip-hop inflected celebration of the power of community and the value of following your dreams, whether they’re big or small.

Hamilton star Anthony Ramos takes the lead as Usnavi, the young, comically named manager of a local bodega/grocery store whose fantasy about returning to his father’s Dominican Republic homeland frames a late-coming-of-age story about a group of college-age neighbourhood friends whose lives intersect over the course of a pivotal summer. All of which is standard cheesy musical fare, but what’s not standard these days is the respect John M Chu’s film accords the format. Eschewing the have-a-go amateurism of both the movie-star-stuffed jukebox musical (hello Mamma Mia!) and the movie-star-stuffed blockbuster musical (yes, you Les Misérables), In the Heights understands the thrill of capturing brilliant young performers delivering dazzling routines and letting their skills, not their celebrity profiles, carry the story.

In the Earth is in cinemas from 18 June, with previews from 17 June; Luca streams on Disney+ from 18 June; In the Heights is in cinemas from 18 June

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