Thursday, 22 July 2021

What I'm Watching: July 2021

A recap of my month in movies and media, featuring Disney Plus' Loki, Netflix's Fear Street trilogy and Amazon Prime's The Tomorrow War.

Loki (Disney Plus)

A six-part series centred around the God of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston), Loki is easily the strongest of Disney's big-budget Marvel shows so far. 

From the opening minutes of episode one, the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plot and setting evokes Doctor Who, if it had a budget. Loki sees the titular trickster make off with the Tesseract (as glimpsed in Avengers: Endgame) and encounter the wrath of the Time Variance Authority, an interdimensional agency who oversee all of time – and set things back on their 'proper course', if they stray from the so-called Sacred Timeline.

Along the way, Loki crosses paths with TVA agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), as well as characters played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Richard E Grant and Jonathan Majors. I'm not getting into spoiler territory here, largely because the best stuff in Loki arrives unexpectedly. The series weaves this way and that, with each episodes striking out in a new and interesting direction. 

Episode one, for example, feels like Marvel's tribute to the bureaucratic buffoonery in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while episode two is like a network buddy cop serial. By the end, you get the sense that Loki – both the character and the show – have shifted the trajectory of the broader Marvel universe and set the agenda for what's coming up next year and the year after. 

Rather than being an inconsequential offshoot (like those brilliant but self-contained Marvel shows over on Netflix), Loki is a key piece in Marvel's phase four puzzle. The only downside is that this show is probably not for newcomers; if you haven't seen the Marvel films that Loki appeared in – specifically, the three Thor films and The Avengers – then this won't make a lick of sense to you. The converted won't need convincing however – Loki is great and an unmissable entry in the Marvel canon. 

The Fear Street trilogy (Netflix)

Netflix released the Fear Street trilogy on consecutive weeks this month, but waited for all three to drop so I could watch them on consecutive nights. The films overlap and interlink more than I expected, like a three-part cinematic miniseries, so watching all of them in quick succession really works. 

The overarching story centres around a teenage girl, Deena, and her girlfriend Sam, who find themselves tangled up in a witches curse stretching back centuries. 

Set in 1994, Fear Street Part One opens with a kill that homages Drew Barrymore's cameo in Wes Craven's Scream – and the 90s teen slasher vibe continues throughout. The soundtrack is packed to the gills with moody grunge and alt rock – Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Pixies and The Prodigy, to name a few. This was the pick of the bunch for me; there's a nice mix of humour and horror, and a fun core cast to anchor the action. 

Meanwhile, picking up the story 20 years in the past, Part Two is a 70s camp slasher cut from the same cloth as Friday the 13th, with Sadie Sink (from Stranger Things) as the protagonist. It's grislier, nastier and hornier than the first, with a suitably guitar-driven soundtrack from the era – David Bowie, The Runaways and Cat Stevens. At just under two hours, it's a little long – but continues the trend of strong characters and compelling action, framed by a deft understanding of the format from the filmmakers.

Finally, Part Three winds back the clock to 1666, for a period piece that feels reminiscent of Robert Eggers' The Witch. The period setting is fun at first, but honestly runs out of steam really quickly. It comes as a relief when halfway through, we flit back to the 90s for the conclusion to tie together all three films. 

For fans of horror, the Fear Street trilogy will be familiar and fun – it doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, but the homages are cute in a Stranger Things kind of way and filmmaker Leigh Janiak places a queer relationship front and centre without making a big song and dance about it. I feel like Netflix missed a trick though, not putting these out in the run-up to Halloween...

The Tomorrow War (Prime Video)

The year is 2022 and humankind is startled by the arrival of soldiers from 30 years in the future. The soldiers relay a grave message: in the future, Earth is locked in a costly war with a man-eating alien race. The only solution, apparently, is to train up people from the present and transport them to the future, to fight and die in a losing war.

Chris Pratt stars as biology teacher and former special ops solider Dan, who is made to leave his family and is drafted into the future fighting force. Upon arriving in the future, Dan meets Muri (Yvonne Strahovski), a tough-as-nails colonel with whom he shares a personal connection. Together, they piece together a plan to kill all the aliens and end the war for good. 

The Tomorrow War is one of those movies that sucks not because the filmmaking is bad (although it ain't great, lemme tell ya). No, The Tomorrow War sucks because there is potential in its premise, a lot of it – but almost all of it is squandered through a derivate script, cookie-cutter characters and an overall lack of execution. 

The tone veers around wildly; sometimes, it's deadly serious and focused on being a punchy, crunchy action movie. Other times, characters will chatter and quip like it's a Marvel film. Look, it's not great, and it feels like a missed opportunity for sure, but it could also be a lot worse. Throw it on in the background while you're cooking, and just don't worry too much about the patchy plot or overlong runtime.

Those Who Wish Me Dead (VOD)

With its bankable lead, original screenplay and tight 100-minute runtime, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a pleasing throwback to 90s cinema, and also a decent return to the director's chair for Sheridan, who hasn't directed a movie since 2017's excellent Wind River.

Like Wind River, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a film that uses the American wilderness as a backdrop for its action-thriller plot to great effect. In this case, Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper in Montana, who finds herself battling the elements during a vicious forest fire, while caring for a young boy (Finn Little) who is being pursued by two ruthless assassins (Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen), after a hit on the boy's father goes awry.  The always dependable Jon Bernthal also features as the local sheriff and Hannah's ex-boyfriend. 

With a cast as big and as impressive as that, this movie has a lot going for it. Its neo-Western vibe and aesthetic will be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen and enjoyed Sheridan's back-catalogue, which includes writing credits on the excellent Sicario and Hell or High Water. I don't think Those Who Wish Me Dead hits as hard or is as impressive as either of those, but it is a good, three-and-a-half star watch. 

It's nice to see Jolie back in a leading role in what feels like forever; and a slice of rugged Bernthal never goes amiss. Hoult feels a little miscast, but it doesn't distract from the overall punchiness of the plot and Sheridan's no-nonsense approach to storytelling. If we can expect more of these in the future, count me as interested.

Nobody (VOD)

After a home invasion in which he fails to defend himself, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk), a mild-mannered pencil pusher, embraces his inner psycho and embarks on a string of fistfights and shootouts that leave bodies littered in his wake. 

The 'novelty', for want of a better word, with Nobody is the prospect of pairing Odenkirk with a role that requires an element of physicality and grittiness. Most of us know Odenkirk from a very different role, that of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul. 

So this attempt at transforming him into an action hero seems a little strange at first – and while the reviews have been good, this film really didn't vibe with me. Not sure what it was, but I didn't find the John Wick meets Joe Average schtick funny or compelling (not sure which they were going for?), and while Odenkirk gives a good performance, the plot itself is nothing special. The action is solid and there's a nice supporting role for Christopher Lloyd to goof around with, but overall this one barely scrapes three stars. 

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