Wednesday 23 June 2021

Luca (Movie Review)

The spirit of summer is brought to life beautifully in the latest Pixar animated feature, Luca. Helmed by first-time director, Enrico Casarosa, the movie marks the studio's second film to debut exclusively on Disney+, following Soul's move to the streaming platform last December. And much like that other film, it also received a theatrical release in those territories where Disney+ is currently unavailable.

Set on the bright shores of the Italian Riviera, the film centers upon Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea creature who has spent most of his life in fear of leaving his underwater home. But after he crosses paths with a fellow sea creature named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), he comes to discover that they actually harbored the ability to transform into humans once they leave the water. 

This opens up a world of possibility for Luca, except he is torn between his curiosity and the warnings of his overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph). With Alberto's help, he learns to overcome his fears as they set off on an adventure to explore a neighboring human town together. But as they soon come to find out, not everything above water is as welcoming as it seems.

Luca is a coming-of-age story with plenty of heart. The film is beautifully animated, as is typically the case with these Pixar animated films. But what really sets this one apart is how perfectly it captures the spirit of summer. From the deep blues of the sky and ocean, to the cobblestone terrain of the Italian town, the movie looks like a postcard brought to life.

The voice cast is also deserving of praise, with Jacob Tremblay once again delivering another heartfelt performance. And speaking of heartfelt, the film is all but guaranteed to hit you in the feels, but in a positive way that the studio seems to know how to do so well. It might not quite rise to the same level of brilliance as their older classics like Wall-E or Up, but that shouldn't take away from the overall quality of its execution.

Luca joins both Onward and Soul as yet another win from Pixar Animation Studios during the so-called pandemic era. That all three aforementioned films are original productions points to the sheer level of creativity still alive at the studio today. Their latest film deserves to be on any list of must-see summer movies. And whether you choose to see it in theaters or at home, the movie is sure to fill you with all the warmth and magic that only the wizards at Pixar know how to conjure.

Saturday 19 June 2021

F9 (Movie Review)

The ninth main entry in the never-ending Fast Saga, F9 (or Fast & Furious 9), is almost finally here. At least for those of us not living in China and other select Asian territories, where it had made its debut three weeks ago. I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening for the film here in Nigeria, where it is currently set to debut this Friday, along with the US and much of the wider world. 

The film had made the news in the lead up to the summer movie season last year, when it was one of the first major tentpoles to move its release date in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, choosing to jump a full year into 2021. So the question on most fan's lips is undoubtedly whether or not it was worth the additional one-year wait. The answer, I guess, depends on your tolerance for the outlandish and utterly implausible.

In F9, or Fast 9, or whatever you want to call it, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and crew return to do what they do best: drive fast cars while its filmmakers think up increasingly ridiculous ways to outdo themselves. In terms of actual story and plot though, the latest film finds them on yet another high stakes mission that would have them traveling locations around the world in pursuit of yet another villain that seemingly materialized out of nowhere.

Only this time around the villain in question is Jakob (John Cena), Toretto's younger brother, and much of the film is spent exploring the dynamic of their relationship. So expect to see a lot of flashbacks and the now-standard redemptive arch that almost always feels unearned. And if you consider that a spoiler then it means you've basically never seen any of the recent Fast Saga movies, because if you had then you should know the drill by now.

My main problem with F9 is not that it tries too hard to deliver the type of spectacle fans have come to expect from these movies. I mean, I've pretty much come to accept that as part of their DNA, so believe me when I say my brain was firmly left at the door before I'd plopped into my seat to watch this one. It is the fact that in their pursuit of jaw-dropping spectacle, the film has made it harder than ever to invest in the struggles of any of its characters.

To its credit, the movie does at least attempt to address their near Superhero-like invincibility, but none of that really amounted to anything beyond some self-deprecating humor and a knowing wink. And if you stop caring about who lives or dies, or who is brought back to life after being MIA for several movies, then the whole thing simply ceases to hold any kind of appeal beyond the purely visceral.

So how is the action then? At least that's one area where they've never failed to serve up the goods, right? Well, I'd say it was serviceable and you pretty much get what you pay for. Cars are driven across exploding mine fields, flown over impossibly wide chasms, and even flipped around like burgers on a hot grill. All standard fare for the series by this point really. Except the movie attempts to up the ante by taking the action into a whole new frontier. But the less said about space the better.

Chances are if you're a hardcore fan of The Fast Saga, then nothing I can say would be enough to dissuade you from wanting to see F9. And that was never the intention of this review to be honest. Because for all of its ridiculous stunts and narrative shortcomings, you've still got to respect a movie that manages to entertain without taking itself too seriously. And while I would have preferred if it had dialed back some of the mayhem in favor of characters you actually cared about, those characters have been with us so long at this point that I am willing to forgive their excesses.

Friday 11 June 2021

In The Heights (Movie Review)

Disney+ had scored a huge hit last summer when Hamilton was added to its ever-growing library of family content. But now it seems that HBO Max is the one about to score a big summer hit, with today's simultaneous release of In The Heights. And unlike that other film, which was merely a high-quality recording of one of its earlier stage play performances, this one is a ground-up adaptation of yet another Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, lovingly made for the big screen.

Directed by Jon M. Chu of Step Up and Crazy Rich Asians fame, the film tells the interweaving stories of several people living in the titular Washington Heights in New York City. First there's Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man that runs the neighborhood bodega. Then there's his love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer. And then there's Nina (Leslie Grace), a young woman that recently came home from Standford University.

All three, like much of the cast, are of Dominican descent. And their ethnicity is not the only thing that connects them. The one thing they all have in common is their pursuit of a better life, a dream that often feels out of reach due to financial hardships. But as they all prepare for their community's forthcoming Fiesta ceremony, they'll soon come to learn the role a community plays in overcoming all sorts of obstacles.

In The Heights is a love letter to the larger-than-life cultures that color our respective neighborhoods. It is not only a celebration of Latin culture in particular, but also an examination of the challenges and experiences of Latinos living in the US. But rather than merely settle for shining a spotlight on those experiences, it goes one step ahead by humanizing their struggles. This is mainly achieved through fully fleshed-out characters that were instantly likable.

The musical numbers were also singalong worthy, and the choreography that accompanied them were just as memorable. All of which was captured through some stunning cinematography that almost demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. There was this one performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda that felt tacked on though, and a few other moments during the film where it seems to lose some momentum. Also, the film did tend to run a little bit longer than I had anticipated, clocking in at almost two and a half hours, so keep that in mind and plan your own intermissions accordingly.

In The Heights seems almost tailor-made for the summer movie season. The movie boasts a number of memorable songs and performances, as well as a heartfelt story that was brought to life by an all-round stellar cast. Most importantly, it excels in much the same way Hamilton had done when it made the jump from stage to streaming. But whether you choose to see it in theaters or at home, the film is guaranteed to leave you walking away with a spring in your step.

Friday 4 June 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Movie Review)

The Warrens return for another round of paranormal investigation in the third film in The Conjuring series, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. This is actually the eighth overall entry in the wider Conjuring Universe, following spinoffs like Annabelle, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona. That last movie's director assumes directing duties for this one (taking over from James Wan), and his movie receives a simultaneous release in both theaters and on HBO Max this weekend.

The film has Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life husband and wife team of paranormal investigators. Set in 1981, the movie centers upon the infamous "the Devil made me do it" case, the first-ever US murder investigation in which the defendant had pleaded not guilty under the grounds of demonic possession.

So rather than have the Warrens go up against the ghosts in yet another haunted house, the film instead functions as a murder mystery. The murder in question was done by a young man named Arne Johnson, who had spontaneously stabbed another man to death. Convinced that he was acting under demonic influence, the Warrens must now work to find the evidence needed to convince the courtroom as well.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It takes the popular horror series into strange new territory. Unfortunately though, its chosen destination isn't one that was necessarily worth visiting to begin with. The movie lacks much of the spark that made those first two movies great, and I found that it relied too heavily on cheap jump scares that you could see coming a mile away.

The movie also wears its influences a little too openly on its sleeves, and one of the more recognizable ones was the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Everything from the way certain shots were framed, to the way the set was lit during its climactic exorcism scene, mirrored that other film. But there is a thin line between paying homage to something and plain ripping it off, and it was not always clear what the filmmakers were going for in this particular case.

The movie's sole saving grace then comes from its two leads. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson once again prove to have great on-screen chemistry. But even more than that, their characters are given greater depth than ever before, reflecting the toll all the ghost hunting has had on them as individuals and as a couple. I'll always have a soft spot for Vera Farmiga, and both she and Patrick Wilson do their best to elevate what was essentially an uninteresting script.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the latest victim of the laws of diminishing returns. The movie runs on fumes for much of its runtime, before finally arriving at a fairly predictable conclusion. And while it might still do enough to please fans of the wider Conjuring Universe, it simply doesn't offer nearly as many thrills as the two movies that came before it