Reel Opinions


Friday, June 25, 2021

F9: The Fast Saga


I know the appeal of a movie like F9 is to just check your brain at the door, and escape into the over the top action and car-based mayhem.  But, there comes a point when a summer blockbuster asks me to check too much of my brain, and I start fighting back.  This happened early on in the film, and as it got intentionally dumber with each passing minute, I began to think that a total abandonment of any kind of coherent thought would be the only way I could take pleasure from it.

It's funny to think that the Fast and Furious franchise (or "The Fast Saga", as the movies are apparently now billing themselves) started out way back in 2001 as a simple little summer movie about illegal street racing.  I don't think anyone could have predicted that 20 years later, we'd still be watching it, and it would have morphed into something that resembles James Bond if the super spy were dreamed up by a hyperactive idiot.  The increasingly convoluted plot now makes a regular habit out of bringing characters back from the dead, shocking revelations on a routine basis, forced flashbacks and backstories for the main characters that feel like they're crammed into the narrative, and stunts so preposterous that there's no way we can believe that they are actually happening.  The characters in these movies have stopped being human, and are now as indestructible as Daffy Duck after he gets blasted by the hunter's gun, and just adjusts his beak back into its proper place.

Even judging this film as a live-action cartoon does not help, because I just did not believe a single second of this.  Not one frame is plausible, not one stunt (vehicle of human) looks like it was performed physically, and by the time the characters are literally launching themselves past Earth's orbit and firing automatic weapons at each other in broad daylight in public spaces without anyone noticing for the climax, I had long stopped caring, because I knew the movie simply didn't care either.  It just wants to throw a lot of big, stupid stuff at us.  And you know, I've been able to enjoy movies like that.  Heck, a couple years ago, this series spawned a spinoff called Hobbs and Shaw that was just as ridiculous as this, and I was able to have a lot of fun with it.  But that movie had some interesting performances and a sense of humor in order to ground itself just a little.  

This is a movie that gives us nothing but stupidity, and asks us to be entertained by it.  There is no genuine humor, no sense of fun and mischief, and not a single shred of character to be found here.  The heroes are flat, the villains are instantly forgettable, and the plot is so overstuffed that I think I stopped trying to follow it before the half hour mark of this nearly two and a half hour film.  Why is any of this thrilling?  Why are we supposed to care about these people if they apparently can't die, since they just come back to life if they do?  Where is the investment if these films have now become so impossible that there's just not a single second here that doesn't look like it was added in post production?  What do these actors even do anymore in these movies, except show up and get paid if the special effects are now doing all the work?

And there are some good actors here, even a couple amazing ones.  When you have the likes of Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell and Charlize Theron showing up in small roles, you expect them to do more than they do here.  In the middle of it all again is Vin Diesel, droning on about the importance of family in a voice that sounds just barely invested, as if he's taking a paycheck in a movie he knows is crap, but what the hey if the fans show up.  John Cena is here as Diesel's long-lost younger brother (who's never been mentioned before this), and even though he gets to drive the plot, he makes absolutely no impact without a single memorable scene, line, or character trait.  This time, everybody's after some kind of super high-tech weapon that could create a new world order.  Somehow, the movie is able to take this concept, stretch it to the breaking point, and beat it senseless to the point that not only can it not be followed, but there's no point in following it.


F9
was directed by Justin Lin.  This is his fifth time at the helm of this series.  Back in 2002, when this series had just started, he made a brilliant little independent movie called Better Luck Tomorrow.  I'm sure he's made a fortune off of these movies, more than he could have ever dreamed some 20 years ago.  But you also have to wonder if after doing these for so long if he's starting to feel like he's trapped in some kind of personal hell.  I know that's how I felt watching this.

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Fatherhood


Fatherhood
wants to be a heartfelt and touching film about raising a child as a single parent after a personal tragedy, but for whatever reason, director and co-writer Paul Weitz (About a Boy) has decided to set the story in world where apparently single fathers don't exist outside of the main character, the hero's best friends act like they stepped out of a sitcom or a completely different movie, and emotions and honesty are replaced with contrivance.  This is a movie with its heart in the right place, but it lacks the strength to be brave about the topics it covers.

The movie is based on the true story of Matt Logelin, who wrote a successful blog dealing with grief and single parenthood after his wife died a day after giving birth to their first daughter.  That blog became a best-selling book, and now here is the cinematic version, with Kevin Hart in the role of Matt.  Hart is playing against type here, as he doesn't rely on his trademark motor-mouth comedy style, and gets some more dramatic moments than usual.  He tried this before a few years ago with The Upside, and like then, he definitely shows a talent for it.  He's giving a good performance, it's the script that betrays him.  This is a film that calls out for hard truths, and instead we get pat resolutions, situations and problems that are brought up and then resolved half heartedly, and just an overall mechanical and precise approach to a messy issue.

Aside from Matt, the other two main characters are his daughter Maddy (talented newcomer Melody Hurd), and Marion (Alfre Woodard), who is the mother of Matt's late wife, and apparently does not fully trust him to raise the child on his own.  The movie hints at their complex relationship and the problems they have had with one another in the past, but it never really gets to the core of it, and so Marion often seems to come and go from the narrative when necessary.  She shows up to be critical of him once in a while, maybe be begrudgingly supportive when he needs it, but she never builds into a genuine character with a lot of depth.  Woodard is fine with the performance she gives, again, it's simply the way the character has been written.  The movie also takes a bizarre stance on single parenthood.  Instead of truly diving into the subject, it kind of casts Matt as an outsider.  Apparently, there are no support groups for grieving and single dads.  The one time he does go to a group, it's for mothers only, and he never goes back again.  He's entirely on his own, except for his best friends Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan) who show up for poker night, and genuinely are one-liner spewing sitcom clones who behave like they belong in a different movie.

Fatherhood is a movie that keeps on hinting at honesty, but instead turns to crowd-pleasing methods.  There's a subplot about Matt meeting a woman named Swan (DeWanda Wise), and how he slowly starts welcoming her into Maddy's and his life.  This is a subject that a lot of people have to go through, but instead of looking for truth, the movie is simply cute, with the three of them spending a lot of time together with music montages.  There's another issue with Maddy getting in trouble at school, because instead of the traditional uniform skirt that girls are required to wear, she prefers to wear pants, and is teased by the other kids for wearing "boys" clothes.  Again, the movie could really dig into some issues here that certain parents may have to face, and again it fumbles by not really treating it with any realism.  Instead, it sort of creates a running gag about having Kevin Hart having to dodge a teacher who keeps on trying to bring it up with him.  The fact that the movie closes things out with a gag having him show up to school wearing a skirt tells you that the filmmakers don't care about being honest, and just want to be cute.

It's frustrating, because you can see the movie that the filmmakers are trying to make.  Paul Weitz has made some good, emotional movies that I have enjoyed in the past, but here, he is speaking through Hollywood comedy formula instead of the heart.  And again, Kevin Hart shows off some impressive acting here, but you can tell that it's all what he brings to the performance, and not credit to the script or the dialogue.  There's simply a hollowness that I felt here.  For whatever reason, the filmmakers have failed to make a movie that is truly about moving on from grief and loss, and instead just plug in a lot of tired cliches.  Do we really need more jokes about dads not being able to change diapers?  Instead of plugging in these automatic elements, why not really go to the heart of the matter, and explore how these characters are feeling?  Why not give the audience something to chew on?  All this wants to do is make sure we feel good, and I think that's the wrong approach.


Because of this, Fatherhood feels largely like a missed opportunity.  The filmmakers had a great chance to make something emotional here, it's too bad they lost their nerve, and instead made something safe and somewhat disposable.  Maybe this is an example of studio interference, but all I know is that I felt a bit short-changed watching this.

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Friday, June 18, 2021

Luca


As an adult animation fan, I greatly preferred Pixar's film from six months ago, Soul, to their latest offering now on Disney Plus, Luca.  However, I have a strong hunch that if I were 30 years younger, this would be the one I would have gravitated to.  This is a bright and colorful film with a big heart and strong voice acting, but the plot is simply not engaging, and a bit thinner than the norm from the studio.  It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it can seem awfully derivative at times.

For example, it takes a superhuman effort not to think of Disney's animated take on The Little Mermaid during the film's opening moments.  Young Luca Paguro (voice by Jacob Tremblay) may be a sea monster, but he talks and thinks like your average preteen boy, and has a strong fascination with the world above where humans (or "land monsters", as the denizens of the ocean refer to them) live.  Luca has started collecting small artifacts from the human world, unknown to his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan), who are becoming increasingly concerned with his fascination with the upper world.  It's this curiosity that leads Luca to having a fateful encounter with Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster who has pretty much left underwater life behind, and now lives on land full-time, as it turns out when a sea monster walks on land, they shed their scales, and appear like humans.  Any contact with water, however, and they revert to their "monster" form.

Spending time on land with Alberto, Luca becomes more fascinated in human culture than before, especially with an Italian city that is nearby.  The two friends dream of seeing the whole world on a Vespa motor scooter, and hear about a big race that is held every year within the city with a cash prize that could lead to them buying one.  Said race includes a swimming competition (no problem for a sea monster), a pasta eating contest (a bit more trouble there, seeing they don't understand human eating utensils like a fork), and finally a bike race.  In training for the race, they befriend a tomboyish girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) who teaches Luca about the infinite possibilities of the universe beyond their world, and anger a local bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) who shows up now and then to taunt them and their efforts.  There are a lot of gorgeous shots of Italian-inspired scenery, a great use of color, and a brief pit stop for a tragic backstory behind one of the kids, but that's really all there is to find here.

In making Luca, director Enrico Casarosa (a long-time animator making his directorial debut) drew heavily upon his own childhood in Italy, as well as his relationship with his best friend, which inspired the relationship between Luca and Alberto.  This does have the feeling of a deeply personal film with a heavy sense of nostalgia, and I'm sure it was a lot of fun to make for him.  The movie is also stunningly beautiful at times, and not just in its unique settings of a quaint Italian village that seems to be out of the 1950s.  The animation is vivid and flawless, but one interesting thing I noticed is the mouths of the characters.  When they are just talking, their mouths are small and round, but when they are excited for any reasons, their mouths suddenly grow and lengthen, almost taking up the entire bottom of their face.  This is a technique frequently used by the Aardman Animation Studio (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and it works well here, giving the child characters an appropriately lively feature that makes their character design stand out.

So, yes, the movie is certainly beautiful to look at, but I kept on waiting for the story to hook me, and it never quite got to that point.  I was never bored, but I never felt fully engrossed.  The kid characters are kind of stock, with Luca being the shy one, Alberto being more brash and brave, and their new friend Giulia being an "underdog".  Outside of that, and a two minute sequence where we learn one of them has a sad past concerning their father, that's really all we learn about them.  As a villain, the local bully Ercole is as generic and one-note as a bully character can get, right down to the two little underlings who constantly follow behind him and put up with his abuse until he is humiliated, and they learn to stand up for themselves.  We've seen these character types before, and while they work on a basic level, the screenplay simply does nothing new.

Since the movie never quite finds a new angle for anything it's showing us, it constantly comes across as pleasant, but not exactly involving.  I'm thinking kids will respond to this more than adults will.  There are no heavy themes, and except for the bully, everyone generally gets along with everyone else.  It's a simple story about friendship, and I get that.  I just wanted these friends to have a bit more personality that goes beyond their simple types that I explained above.  And yet, I did find some elements to enjoy, as there are some truly funny moments here.  I especially like how Luca's parents go up on land to look for their runaway son, and the methods they use on the local children to try to find out if they are actually sea monsters in disguise.  Giulia's pet cat gets some big laughs also in how it is suspicious of her two new friends and their heavy fish smell.  And Sacha Baron Cohen gets a brief but funny cameo as Luca's uncle.  


I guess what I'm saying is that I enjoyed Luca enough, but I also find it hard to drum up much enthusiasm for it, as most of its joys are on the surface, or in brief moments of wit.  Compared to Soul, this just doesn't have quite the same staying power.  However, it is pleasant, sharply drawn, and the kids are all excellent in the lead roles.  Maybe I would be more enthused if I was closer to the age of the characters in this film.  In fact, I'm certain I would be.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard


If 2017's The Hitman's Bodyguard was an affectionate and funny tribute to mismatched buddy action comedies of the 80s and early 90s, then the awkwardly-titled Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (Yes, there's no "The" in the title.) is an all too modern day cash-in where the original made a lot of money, and the original director, writer, and main cast have returned for the encore, but are embarrassed to discover that they have nothing to say or do for their unexpected and obviously unplanned follow up.

The first movie mainly worked on the dynamic chemistry that Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Selma Hayek shared together.  Here they are once again, only they've been plugged into a generic plot that no one in the audience could ever care about, and the connection these actors had with each other and to their characters is now completely absent.  Antonio Banderas is here too in the villain role, as is Morgan Freeman in an extended cameo, but they're given little if anything to do as well.  So, what are we left with?  A bunch of over the top action that is hyper edited and too fast for the mind to sometimes comprehend what is going on, and jokes that simply don't land like before.  This feels like an early January release that somehow got bumped into a prime summer release date, because the studio needed something to try to lure in people back to theaters, and are playing on the memories people have from before.  Don't buy it.

Reynolds and Jackson once again play former AAA-rated bodyguard Michael Bryce, and deadly hitman Darius Kincaid, respectively.  They're reunited when Kincaid's wife, Sonia (Hayek), forcefully interrupts Michael's vacation, and pulls him into a mission to save her husband from some generic bad guys.  The characters they're playing are just as foul-mouthed as before, almost as if the screenwriters were getting paid extra for each obscenity they slipped in the dialogue.  What's missing is the connection, and a reason for us to care about them and what's going on.  They soon get wrapped up in a plot where they have to stop a Greek villain named Aristotle Papadopolous (Banderas) whose scheme is to use a giant diamond drill that will wipe out all of the energy throughout Europe, thus making Greece the center of civilization again, or some such nonsense.  The motives of the villain, the reasons why these characters have to stop him, and why anyone even cares is thin at best.

The movie throws in one endless and unmemorable action sequence after another, while it blasts old pop music on the soundtrack, but it's all a lot of sound and fury.  What the movie never does is give us a reason to be engaged or entertained.  Reynolds is basically giving his usual sarcastic nice guy act here, combined with some physical comedy where he gets hit by a car twice, shot in the chest, drugged, and basically knocked around like he's a human rag doll for most of his laughs.  Jackson and Hayek basically constantly swear and scream, but never come close to saying anything funny.  This is a movie where you simply watch in silent puzzlement.  What did the filmmakers think they were making here?  Was this really the best script they could come up with?


Maybe the real answer here is that The Hitman's Bodyguard worked just fine as a stand-alone movie, and did not need a follow up, let alone one as uninspired as this.  The one saving grace is that the movie is so fast and rapidly edited that it seems to fly by in less than an hour, almost as if the director was as anxious to get this over with as I was.  Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard gives you a bad feeling from the title, and only gets worse from there.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway


Unlike last weekend's Spirit Untamed, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway is smart enough to speak to children and occasionally to adults.  For the kids, there's plenty of the slapstick humor they love, while accompanying adults might find themselves chuckling at some of the one-liners and knowing humor that pokes fun at movie franchises, and beloved children's books that get modernized into blockbuster material.  This kind of humor can get tiresome quickly, but returning co-writer and director Will Gluck knows when to be sarcastic and satirical, and when to be sweet.

You might remember that 2018's Peter Rabbit caused a bit of controversy, particularly a scene where the rambunctious rabbit triggered an allergy attack on a human foe.  This new film finds Peter (once again voiced by James Corden) trying to mend his ways with his former adversary, the gardener Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson).  The two have reached a truce of sorts, and Peter has even allowed Thomas to marry his human protector Bea (Rose Byrne).  Of course, Peter still can't help but escape into fantasies where he causes chaos like the old days, and Thomas doesn't exactly fully trust Peter around his prized tomatoes.  As for Bea, she has begun writing children's books about Peter, cousin Benjamin (voice by Colin Moody), and sisters Flopsy (voice by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (voice by Aimee Horne).  

Said book catches the attention of a slick publisher with the very British name of Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who not only has visions of elaborate sequels in mind where Peter and the other rabbits go surfing and into outer space, but enormous franchise potential with movies.  This is where the film's knowing sense of humor comes into play, as Bea is initially afraid that her sweet and simple little book is going to be turned into a franchise she doesn't even recognize anymore with a blockbuster movie attached. ("Most likely by an American director", she adds.) As for Peter, he is shocked when Nigel's plans for the book series seem to paint the rabbit as a "bad seed".  This, combined with Thomas not fully trusting him, makes Peter wonder just how people see him because of his past deeds.  It's about this time that he encounters a city rabbit named Barnabas (voice by Lennie James), who leads a gang of animal thieves that are targeting a local Farmer's Market, and rope Peter and his friends into their plans.

Peter Rabbit 2 is about as energetic as a kid's movie could and should be, and no doubt it will delight them with the scenes built around painful comedic slapstick.  There are even some clever physical gags on display, such as the subplot concerning little Cottontail becoming obsessed with jelly beans and going on the ultimate sugar rush.  However, just like before, the movie is just as gifted with its verbal and word humor that can hold the interest of adults.  There are some clever nods here not just to Hollywood taking beloved children's franchises and modernizing them, but even at the expense of lead voice actor James Corden, and the polarizing effect he seems to have on a lot of audiences.  Like I said in my review of the first, Peter is basically Corden as a CG rabbit, so much so that you almost expect Peter to engage in some carpool karaoke.  At least this movie has fun with that thought, and it shows the actor is a good sport when it comes to his own image.

The first movie was nothing great, but it had enough charm and laughs to carry me through, and this sequel is very much the same.  The blending of CG animals and live action is once again expertly done, and the special effects never veer into the "uncanny valley" realm.  I did miss some of the more picturesque countryside settings of the first movie (this one takes place in more urban environments), but this is still an attractive movie.  And once again, Gleeson and Byrne have some very sweet and funny chemistry here, and probably get more to do this time.  I also enjoyed the film's climactic chase, which manages to be a typical Hollywood ending, while also a knowing satire of one without being irritating.  This is the rare sequel that knows the first one had its share of critics, and acknowledges that, but in a way that is not obnoxious.


It takes a certain kind of cleverness to poke fun at yourself, and not make it seem desperate, so I have to applaud Peter Rabbit 2 for pulling off such a difficult feat.  Of course, kids won't pick up on that much, but there's plenty here for them to enjoy.  I had fun with this, but I'd probably have even more fun if I was under 10.

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

In the Heights


At long last, the first truly great movie of 2021 is here.  After over a year of pandemic weariness, In the Heights is a jolt of life and energy that audiences badly need.  It is showing in both theaters and streaming on HBO Max, and I truly hope people will opt to see this in a theater setting.  Not only is this the way the movie is meant to be seen, but in a theatrical environment, this is a film where you can just let the songs, the choreography, and the joy wash over you.

Based on the 2008 Tony-Winning Broadway Musical that introduced the world to Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is the rare film that is worthy of repeat viewings, and one that you want to not only watch again as soon as possible, but show it to as many people as quickly as possible.  Some have complained that there is too little plot here in order to sustain a film that runs for nearly two and a half hours.  No one is more critical of how movies have gotten unnecessarily long in recent years than me, and let me say that I never once noticed the passing of time.  I was too engaged and wrapped up in the musical story of New York's Washington Heights, and the individual people and their stories that make up the film.

In the original stage production, Miranda played the lead role of Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner store and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic where his family originated before they came to America.  In the film, Anthony Ramos gives a truly star-making turn in the role, while Miranda himself gets a memorable cameo as a guy who pushes a cart selling shaved ice, and his eternal struggle with the ice cream man competition.  In the film's opening moments, Usnavi introduces us to himself, the regulars at his store, and the neighborhood in general in a musical number that is all at once kinetic, lively, and performed to perfection.  Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) has expanded the story from beyond its limited stage roots, giving it moments of flash that simply would not be possible on Broadway, and creating some truly unforgettable dance sequences that I won't spoil here, but flawlessly blend masterful choreography with dream-like Hollywood images.

The film as a whole is really a bunch of smaller stories that make up a larger and layered piece.  There are the gossipy ladies at the beauty parlor, the girl who went to a prestige college and was supposed to make everyone on her block feel proud, but comes home feeling like a failure after one year, and a mystery surrounding a winning lotto ticket that was apparently purchased from Usnavi's store.  Themes of dreams, heritage, and where we originally came from are also frequently brought up.  There are also a lot of relationships being juggled here, such as the one between Usnavi and Vanessa (Melissa Barrerra), who works at the local beauty parlor, and dreams of going into fashion, while Usnavi wonders if his dream of leaving his street behind and his dream of being with her can work.  

With a movie like In the Heights, it's hard to know where to start praising, because there is just so much that is wonderful here.  I guess the performances would be the best place to begin, so let me say that there is some Award-caliber work on display.  Leslie Grace as Nina, the girl who went to Stanford and was supposed to make everyone proud, is sublime, as is Corey Hawkins as Benny, a dispatch worker who works under her father (Jimmy Smits).  Their relationship creates a compelling triangle with both Benny and her father trying to guide and encourage her.  Benny and Nina also get to share the film's most magical musical number, "When the Sun Goes Down", which choreographer Christopher Scott has turned into a thrilling and gravity-defying feat in ways that won't be revealed here.  This is a movie that perfectly blends the small and honest hopes and dreams of people with elaborate and gorgeously mounted musical numbers that feel epic in scope, but never once feel out of place, or make us lose the feeling of intimacy that the film is trying to create.

I would also be remiss not to bring up Olga Merediz, who is the only cast member from the original stage production who recreates her role here as Usnavi's surrogate Cuban grandmother.  She too gets one of the film's most memorable musical sequences in a number that is simultaneously tender, heartbreaking, and awe-inspiring in how it has been visualized.  Just like on the stage, this production is awash with thoughts, ideas, dreams, and experiences that feel lived-in.  It's a musical that feels like it comes from a place deep within the writer's past or personal experiences.  That is where the power of this particular work comes from, in my opinion.  True, there is very little conflict and no real antagonist here, but it doesn't need those kind of story gimmicks to be engaging.  The musical stands on its own with the stories it tells, and the visual flair that this cinematic vision adds only enhances instead of distracting from what made the original so lauded.


In the Heights
is the perfect blend of form and function, and is one of the very best entertainments I can think of playing right now.  Please don't pass up the opportunity to see this on the largest screen possible.  It's worth the drive, it's worth the admission price, and it's worth seeing multiple times.  I might be doing just that very soon.

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Monday, June 07, 2021

Spirit Untamed


Were it not for the fact that the voice cast includes some top tier voice talent like Isabela Merced (who just a couple years ago made a hilarious star-making turn in Dora and the Lost City of Gold), Jake Gyllenhaal and Julianne Moore, Spirit Untamed would probably be an innocuous animated film taking up space on Netflix.  Instead, it's getting a full theatrical run right as the summer is kicking off in the hope of roping in some very little kids looking for something to do.  Given how thin and unsatisfying the film is, kids would probably be better off doing something else, as would their accompanying parents.

The film is an adaptation of a streaming series (now in its 8th season) called Spirit: Riding Free, which itself is based on the 2002 Dreamworks animated feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.  I have never watched the show, and only have vague memories of the original movie, other than Matt Damon supplied the voice of the main horse, Spirit, and that there were a lot of forgettable songs by Bryan Adams in it.  Neither Damon nor Adams returned for this, as the horse doesn't talk this time, and Taylor Swift and other artists have taken over the pop soundtrack duties this time around.  The music remains forgettable, however, as does the movie itself.  It tells the story of a rebellious preteen girl named Lucky Prescott (voice by Isabela Merced) who causes some slapstick shenanigans with a squirrel during an upscale event, and is sent by her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) to live with Lucky's estranged father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), out West in the small town of Miradero.  

Father and daughter have not seen one another since Lucky's mother, a stunt horse rider named Milagro (Eiza Gonzalez), died in an accident during a performance some ten years ago.  Since Jim hasn't been in touch with Lucky for years, he openly admits to Cora that he doesn't know what he's doing. (He remembers that Lucky liked strawberries when she was younger, so he decorates her room all in a strawberry-related theme.) As for the young girl, she at first wonders how she's going to get through this summer, when she happens to befriend two other girls her age, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who happen to know a lot about horses.  They help Lucky gain the trust of Spirit, a wild mustang who seems to share Lucky's independent and adventurous streak.  Together, the three friends will unravel the plot of an evil horse wrangler (Walton Goggins), who wants to capture Spirit and his herd, and sell them into forced hard labor.

Spirit Untamed is a very basic "girl power" story about a girl who comes to accept who she is, learns how much she is like her mother, hangs out with her new friends, and stops some bad guys in the process.  I'm aware that not much else is required for a movie aimed at the youngest viewers, but a little bit of genuine wit or some interesting characters would have gone a long way to helping any adults who might be watching get through this.  What we get here is pretty much straight-up fluff, and not even of the good variety.  Despite the top-flight cast (which also includes Andre Braugher as Pru's dad and Jim's best friend), they all seem to pretty much be treating this as a paycheck, and bring none of their genuine talents to their line readings.  Even the animation (which was not done by Dreamworks, but rather by an outside studio) seems a bit jerky and simplistic at times.


Movies like this serve a purpose, and help distract young children.  But even films with this goal should be better than what this gives.  There's no sense in the film's story or artistic style that the filmmakers were trying to make anything than a time-waster here.  It's cinematic junk food that yes, keeps kids preoccupied, but gives them no inspiration like great animation can.

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Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It


If this third entry in the main franchise of The Conjuring (not counting the spinoffs its inspired) is not quite as strong as the previous two films, that's probably because the previous head of the series, James Wan, took a back seat this time around, and serves as a producer.  Stepping into the director's chair is Michael Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona), who understands Wan's love for atmosphere and recreating a time period, but also steps up the violence and the shock imagery.  

Luckily, he also understands what made the earlier movies work so well, which is the central relationship at the middle of all the spooky goings-on between real-life paranormal investigator couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren (once again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).  Like before, The Devil Made Me Do It is loosely based on one of their famous plunges into the world of the supernatural, this time built around the 1981 murder trial of Arne Johnson, who claimed that he was not guilty of murder by reason of demonic possession.  Using this real-life situation, the movie plunges into some pretty unbelievable territory where the Warrens are pulled into a world of evil, crawlspaces crawling with rats, and demonic entities roaming about the local morgue.  I may not believe that most of the stuff this movie is trying to pass off really happened, but I believed in the performances of Wilson and Farmiga, and their love for each other, which has always been at the heart of these movies.  

Just like in the actual court case, Arne (played here by Ruairi O'Connor) cannot deny that he murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins).  He was even found wandering the road alone, his clothes and hands covered in the blood of his victim.  However, he claims that he was under the control of a demonic entity at the time.  The Warrens are quick to believe him.  In an opening prologue, we witness the Warrens helping to perform an exorcism of an eight-year-old boy (Julian Hilliard) in which Arne was present.  At some point, when the boy was under full control of the demon tormenting him and his family, Arne grabs the child and speaks directly to the demon, saying "take me instead".  Whatever evil force is at work decides to do just that, and now Arne is the one being targeted.

Ed Warren tells a lawyer at one point, "The Court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth.  I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the devil".  Easier said than done.  In order to prove that Arne's claims are true, the couple will have to dig deeper into the underworld than they ever have, eventually uncovering a secret Satanic cult that is represented by a ghostly woman in black (Eugenie Bondurant) who keeps on appearing in Lorraine's psychic visions, and eventually starts appearing before Ed as well.  As they search for clues behind the cult, dark secrets come to light, complete with creepy demonic totems that may have a connection to a completely different unsolved murder case.  

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It ups the ante when it comes to the blood, on-screen violence, and the disturbing images.  While the other films in the franchise were rated-R as well, they were more about creating suspense in a slow-burn kind of way, and focusing on the atmosphere for its frights.  This time, pretty much as soon as the studio logos fade, we are smacked in the face with some pretty graphic depictions of unholy evil, and the movie only builds from there.  The movie is definitely intense, I can't fault it for that.  But, it also makes the film feel a little different from the earlier entries.  There's a bigger draw on shocks, jump scares, creepy hands almost dragging the heroine off the side of a cliff, bloated corpses coming to life, and grisly murder scenes.  It doesn't quite feel like a betrayal of what came before, but it does feel like Chaves is trying to put his own spin on things by upping the violence and carnage.  Again, it works, and he's quite skilled at it.  But there were moments when I missed Wan's slightly more atmospheric approach.

Still, the fundamental strength of these films is in tact, and that is Wilson and Farmiga.  They are as charismatic and strong as ever as the Warrens, and this time, Lorraine gets to be a bit of a bad-ass, venturing head-first into places and areas most people probably wouldn't dare.  If the real-life Lorraine Warren was anything like the way she is depicted here, then I have to say that she had to put up with some pretty harsh visions and experiences.  The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the love these characters share for each other, and how audiences have fallen in love with them through these movies, and it is smart to once again use that as the central focus.  Ed suffers a heart attack early in the film, and not only does he just keep on diving into the paranormal as soon as he's out of the hospital, but Lorraine is right there every step of the way.


It's this strong character angle that has always set The Conjuring series apart from most horror franchises, and I'm glad to see it continue.  Combined with some genuine thrills (and more than a few cheap ones), it makes this one worth watching.  Besides, even if it's not quite up to the high standards as before, it's still better than 90% of the other mainstream horror films we get every year.

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