June 2021 Roundup

Raya and the Last Dragon

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada // Starring Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh

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It suffered various production issues but Raya and the Last Dragon has now hit Disney+. Boasting an impressive voice cast including Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as the titular characters respectively as well as Sandra Oh and Gemma Chan, Raya offered the chance for some serious representation for the Asian culture that has been, well, underrepresented in Disney animation. The movie follows Raya as she embarks on a search for the last dragon, hoping its power and gem can rid her land of Kumatra of the evil that has overcome it. It goes without saying that the animation itself is fabulous, possibly the least surprising aspect of the movie - there’s a real crispness and clarity to the movements and landscapes that provide a feast for the senses alongside the vibrant colours and sumptuous score. The voice talent are well-suited to their characters, Raya’s fierceness and balanced vulnerability are captured well by Tran and Awkwafina channels both her comedic and dramatic skill as Sisu the last dragon. The collection of characters are well-rounded and enjoyable to be around - even those scheming baddies. Throughout the movie are themes and messages of hope, trust, and the need for forgiveness in the face of dispute, though, there is nothing entirely groundbreaking here in terms of what the audience will come away with. It may go on for slightly too long, but Raya and the Last Dragon is never anything but captivating. A visual beauty and a new kick-ass princess for fans of Disney too.

 
 

In the Heights

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Jon M. Chu // Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega

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Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton took the world by storm, however, his ‘other’ musical, In the Heights, was performed prior to that musical’s release but finds itself receiving a cinematic/big screen makeover in the wake of the phenomenal success of Hamilton. Set in Washington Heights (a predominantly Dominican area), In the Heights tells the story of a community that dreams of more whilst being inextricably tied to their neighborhood. - there’s love, success, heartbreak, struggles, and a boatload of songs too. In the Heights also allows for greater representation for people of different cultures, however, that sadly isn’t enough to deliver a captivating story. The visual pizazz strains to cover up the thin and uninteresting narrative outside of the songs and dancing and the non-existent chemistry between the two main characters, Usnavi (Ramos) and Vanessa (Barrera) fails to set the screen alight (Usnavi as a character is fine, however, Vanessa isn’t the most...likable) - for me, the romance between Benny (Hawkins) and Nina (Grace) was far more interesting. For an energetic musical, the songs lack a memorable touch despite the choreography being excellent. In the Heights is a beautiful looking movie, Alice Brooks’ cinematography is great as is the overall costume design. Frustratingly, the movie is far too long, it really began to drag by the halfway point and the attempts at injecting drama and emotion into the second half weren’t enough to elevate the story and craft an engaging narrative. A more concise movie may have been a more enjoyable watch, as it is, In the Heights is all spark and no fire.

 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Michael Chaves // Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O'Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard

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We’re eight movies into the Conjuring-verse and the franchise shows no signs of abating as stalwarts Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are back as Lorraine and Ed Warren once again in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. This latest ‘case file’ sees them investigating the famous “The Devil Made Me Do It” case of 1981 that saw Arne Johnson murder his landlord in a rage whilst claiming he was possessed by a demon. Initial thoughts were that we could be seeing a ‘legal horror’ in the vein of The Exorcism of Emily Rose but that notion is very quickly thrown aside, however, this entry is certainly stronger than most in the franchise (certainly since the original The Conjuring). The expected tropes are littered throughout, there are few surprises to be found and there are some highly questionable moments involving Lorraine’s clairvoyance, however, there are also some very decent sequences mixed in - a hospital religious ‘duel’ and any scene with John Noble come to mind. Farmiga and Wilson are so tuned in to their characters now that their already great chemistry is sealed but maybe not enough to sell the flashbacks that this movie forces in - flashbacks that become annoyingly integral - in order to stitch together a narrative that threatens to fall apart by the slightly-ridiculous third act. Fans of the franchise will enjoy this competent slice of modern horror but it’s hard not to want more scares from these movies.