Saturday 26 June 2021

What I'm Watching: June 2021

A recap of my month in movies and media, featuring Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead, Pixar's Luca, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and Fast and Furious 9.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (In cinemas)

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are back and faced with another spooky case centred around two satanic muders in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. However, this time around it's Michael Chaves sitting in the director's chair instead of James Wan – and while the dip in quality isn't steep, this entry doesn't quite match up to the scares of the first two.

Set in leafy Connecticut, The Devil Made Me Do It sees the Warren's trying to prove in a court of law, as the title suggests, that Satan himself was the driving force behind a vicious killing – rather than the young man who was found with the knife in his hands and blood on his shirt. It's an interesting concept – what would a Conjuring legal thriller even look like? Unfortunately, we don't really get to find out – the courtroom drama is limited to a handful of brief scenes, if that. Instead, the plot constrains itself to familiar territory – haunted houses, spooky woods, dingy basements filled with terrifying knick-knacks. 

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are, once again, the best thing about this series – their chemistry and their relationship is a large part of what makes the story interesting and emotional outside of the scares and the central mystery. While it isn't a modern horror must like The Conjuring 2, The Devil Made Me Do It does serve up some seriously scary sequences – and is worth a watch for anyone who fancies something spooky on these long, dark winter nights.

Fast and Furious 9 (In cinemas)

Fast and Furious 9, or F9: The Fast Saga as it is known in some markets, sees Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew embark on yet another high-octane, fuel-injected mission across the globe – this time, squaring off against his long-lost brother and super spy Jacob (John Cena), who is seeking to find a powerful device called Project Aries, and exact revenge on Dom for a misdemeanour in their teens. 

The Fast and Furious franchise has seen its fair share of ups and downs; Fast Five and Furious 7 are easily the best of the bunch – and you can now consign Fast and Furious 9 to the bottom of the scrapheap, as returning director Justin Lin misses a gear and steers the series into a deep ravine of silliness and stupidity. 

I know, I know – this series has been jam-packed with death-defying action scenes and implausible feats of idiocy for years. Silliness is it's middle name, right? While that is true, the best Fast and Furious films still maintained some grip on reality, however slight. Fast and Furious 9 signals the moment that is left behind once and for all as Dom and the gang well and truly jump the shark. From weapons-grade magnets to rocket-powered Pontiacs capable of being fired into orbit (seriously), the action in this film relies on some of the most ludicrous concepts committed to celluloid. 

Any semblance of mortality has been dispensed with – characters who were killed and mourned for, like fan favourite Han (Sung Kang) are resurrected (the film goes to get lengths to explain this, causing the plot to grind to a halt), while other characters are tossed around like ragdolls, with nary a broken pinky finger to show for it. 

And don't get me started on the plot. For the third film running, the whole thing hinges on some whizzbang tech McGuffin that can do the impossible – like hack any computer, fire every nuclear missile or control any satellite. Didn't this franchise used to be and street culture? There are fragments of this sprinkled throughout F9 – a string of flashbacks to Dom's greasy teenage years at the stock car oval is genuinely good. 

But then we're snapped back to an out-of-control telenovela slash trainwreck that just rolls on and on. Fast and Furious 9 is the one that tipped me over the edge. I used to have a lot of time for these films; but I remain convinced that they should have gone out on a high as Dom and Brian poignantly went their seperate ways, as Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa belted out "See You Again". Everything since has been trending downward; this latest entry might be the worst of the lot. To paraphrase the immortal words of Tommy Lee Jones: "I cannot sanction this buffoonery."  

Luca (Disney+) 

A charming tale of two preadolescent fish who venture above 'the surface' of the sea and share an unforgettable summer in Porto Rosso, a quaint Italian fishing village, Luca is the latest coming-of-age yarn from Pixar. Featuring the voices of Jacob Tremblay as Luca and Jack Dylan Grazer as his friend Alberto, the film is awash with the lush animation that audiences have come to expect from Pixar.

Luca feels like a little slice of Italy that has been bottled and painted into the frame; tricking water fountains, gleaming Vespas, creamy gelato, ageing footballs and steaming bowls of pasta are all captured in vibrant colour and intricate detailing. Little grabs and phrases in Italian are sprinkled through the dialogue, lending more weight to the setting and vibe.

The story itself is slight; Luca's parents are cautious about their boy leaving the safety of the sea, but the boy's yearning for adventure causes him to cross paths with Alberto, an mischievous peer who is making a quaint little life for himself on the shore. They soon become friends and dream of winning the Porto Rosso Cup, a triathlon with an Italian twist, in order to win the money they need to buy their own Vespa. Along the way they befriend a local girl, Giula (Emma Berman), who teaches Luca all about life on the surface and beyond.

The film's simplicity is charming, but also disarming – this isn't another billion-dollar club botherer like Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2 or even Coco, which came close. It feels like Pixar offsetting its recent family-centric sequels with a quaint jaunt that is strictly for children. I enjoyed it (it's cute!), but there's definitely less here for adults than some of Pixar's recent stuff, like Soul or even Onward.

Army of the Dead (Netflix)

The second Zach Snyder film this year, Army of the Dead sees the filmmaker return to the undead arena for the first time since his directorial debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Despite the similar nomenclature, Army of the Dead isn't a sequel or in anyway narratively related to Dawn of the Dead – but the two films do share a lot of DNA, with a large ensemble cast, a shambling horde of undead and lots of hacking, slashing and headshots.

On paper, Army of the Dead has all the hallmarks of a zombie movie classic; a team of soldiers, mercs and crooks are tasked with stealing several hundred million dollars from the vault of a casino on Las Vegas' famed Sunset Strip. The catch, is that Vegas has long been walled off from the rest of the world after a zombie outbreak turned the city into a derelict wasteland. So Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his team of ragamuffins not only have to sneak into the city, but also past thousands of zombies if they're going to make off with the moolah. They'll also have to contend with a pseudo-zombie hierarchy, with smarter 'alpha' zombies who ride horseback and command the horde. 

After slugging away in the DC Comics universe for the better part of a decade, Snyder is unshackled from the superhero realm – and free to do as he pleases. Nowhere is this more evident than in visual aesthetic of Army of the Dead, which Snyder shot himself on a vintage camera with a very shallow depth of field. The result is a blurry dreamlike quality to his images, where characters and items swim in and out of focus with even the slightest of movement. It's an interesting creative choice that might have looked good on the big screen, but on Netflix, the compression and rendering of my stream left it looking a bit...well, shit if I'm honest. But that aside, I had more fun with Army of the Dead than I thought I would. 

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