RāViewz: Film & TV | July 2021
With a focus on addiction, superheroes and stories of colour, here's what Rāwiri is watching this month...
Fast 9 (2021), Universal Pictures
There's something about the pandemic-era delays of beloved franchises that makes the 2021 summer release schedule even more anticipated than usual. The Fast Saga had humble beginnings when Part I was released 20 years ago and has grown to become one the biggest box office success in history.
Partly this is because it features an army of intensely charismatic men and women who appeal on an international scale (it is at least, the most racially diverse, which really is quite cool). It's also partly because it's recent disregard of logic and reason have made these movies comfortable - if not cacophonous - pieces of cinematic candy.
Similar to 2017's Fate of the Furious, the stunts, explosions and plot choices here in Justin Lin's F9 defy gravity both in the physical and metaphorical sense. Cars shoot through minefields, characters are fired upon by showers of bullets, trucks are catapulted through the air as if flying - and none of it is of consequence to our attractive heroes. Hell, Ludacris and Tyrese even find time to go to space (yes, actual space) and return safely despite the fact they're barely more than street drag racers.
In fact, more than any previous episode, F9 almost seems to dangle it's disbelief suspension in your face, daring you to criticise it, and its success. Which is pointless for a franchise like this. Even the departure of The Rock and Jason Statham (who got their own insane spin-off in 2019) takes nothing away from proceedings.
With a barely-there plot thread involving Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto reconciling a long-lost brother (John Cena) and the presently-devastating-but-never-before-commented-on death of his father (J.D. Pardo), Fast 9 brings back series regulars Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang and Nathalie Emmanuel as they run, drive, quip and pout for the camera with the kind of committed ridiculousness that only works in a franchise like this one.
Creative diminishing returns seems like a silly put down for a movie series so obviously OK with its own insanity. And maybe, with everything we've been through since Covid-19 hit planet Earth, a little insanity, courtesy of Diesel & Friends, is exactly what we need right now.
Out now in cinemas.
Black Widow (2021), Disney/Marvel
It's impossible to review Black Widow - the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first of Phase Four - without acknowledging the fate of Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Endgame. The writers and producers made the move to kill Natasha off in a brutal but sensical sacrifice that rounded out her decade-long story arc and propelled the remaining action of Endgame.
Almost immediately after release, the announcement was made that Marvel would be making a standalone Black Widow film - 10 years after her introduction in Iron Man 2. Almost exclusively, this was political: it was decided that up until recently, the only superhero audiences wanted were white men. It would take Black Panther blowing this theory out of the water for studio executives to change their mind.
This movie then, though deftly directed by indie director Cate Shortland, is a long overdue venture, one that would have felt apologetic under normal circumstances. Here, 2 years later, Marvel is asking us to reinvest in a character they themselves found no future in. It makes for a bittersweet viewing experience.
As a standalone film, it sits in the top third of MCU releases thanks in part to a snappy script by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and an interesting divergence to behind-the-scenes Romanoff family. It has a familial charm and warmth that hints at Natasha's eventual Infinity Saga fate and gives Scarlett Johansson plenty of opportunity to remind us why we loved her in the first place - all of which aids to make the experience a bit awkward. Like watching family videos of your deceased friend on Facebook.
Of course, this being Marvel, there is an ulterior motive to bringing back the dead, and in this case, not only do they get to tick off Black Widow's swansong from the wish list of its audience, it also serves to introduce Florence Pugh's Yelena to the universe. Pugh is fantastic, matching Johansson's energy and displaying great chemistry. Most likely she will take on the BW mantel from her sister, and luckily that mantel is in safe hands but it still all feels a bit odd. Unfair, even.
With so much coming up in Phase Four, it might be that before long, the bitter aftertaste experienced in Black Widow will dissipate, and what will be left is simply a great superhero action film. As a long-standing fan of Scarlett and Natasha, we can only hope so.
Out now in cinemas.
Loki (2021), Disney+
When we last saw Loki in Avengers: Endgame, he had evaded capture and taken off with the tesseract. This misuse of time travel sees him run afoul of the Time Variant Authority (TVA) and its here that this six-part series picks up the action.
Far from the evolved and reconciled version of Loki we found in Thor: Ragnarok (and who was coldly disposed of by Thanos in Infinity War), the series wisely chooses to home in on a duplicitous and mysterious character at the height of their duplicity and mystery.
Determined to escape for freedom, Loki must first convince TVA agent Mobius (comic foil Owen Wilson) of his innocence and help his case with the godlike Time-Keepers. From here, multiple timelines and multiple versions of Loki are discovered, threatening not only Loki's freedom, but the carefully-calculated concept of time itself.
Tom Hiddleston has been an asset to the MCU with his nuanced portrayal of Asgard's God of Mischief for nearly a decade despite always providing secondary support. He's a wise choice to centre a series on, especially while the MCU lays the foundation for Phase Four. Hiddleston is an absorbing screen presence and plays well opposite MCU newcomers Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wunmi Mosaku, Sophie Di Martino and Richard E. Grant.
Like WandaVision and Falcon & Winter Soldier before it, Loki is a series that tells its own story, while setting up for even bigger ones (in this case, Dr Strange 2 and the multiverse story threads) and it succeeds in both, barely a step of disengagement across the series run.
Available now on Disney+
Luca (2021), Disney+
At this point, it seems unimaginable that a Disney Pixar creation could be anything other than an exceptionally-crafted multi-levelled success story. Then, before its intended cinema release, Disney decided against it, opting for its streaming service instead. Animators who had worked long and hard were vocal about this choice, and it seemed like Disney lacked confidence in its latest outing.
It's promotional effort - conservative by Disney standards - also seemed muted. So what to make of the investment, and the release choices? Does Luca, the 24th film in Pixar's canon, hold up against its contemporaries?
Prior Pixar release Soul shared much in common with Inside Out - films that asked big, existential questions that worked on different levels. Luca by comparison is a much smaller story. Set on Italian Riviera during the 1960's, Luca is about friendship, fitting in, and coming of age.
A young sea monster, Luca discovers he can take human form while on dry land, and after meeting the adventurous Alberto, they head inland where their desire to fit in is conflicted by their secret true selves.
To that end, there's a strong allegory for any misfit or outcast who felt the social pressure to blunt their edges. Despite its eurocentric setting, there has been suggestions that Luca relates deeper existential themes of white-passing, and straight-passing. Director Enrico Casarosa disagrees, but regardless, the film works well whether you're looking on the surface or under the waves for subtext.
The landscape is exquisitely realised, the performances always engaging, the action is self-contained and simple yet always propelled by forward momentum. Another win for Pixar.
It's also very likely to make you hungry for pasta. Lots and lots of pasta. You've been warned.
Available now on Disney+