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Friday, June 4, 2021

Movie Reviews: New Releases for June 4

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Undine, Spirit Untamed and more

Posted By on June 4, 2021, 8:54 AM

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click to enlarge Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It - WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It **1/2
It takes a Costco-size pair of cojones to make a visual nod to The Exorcist in your movie about demonic possession, as this third "official" Conjuring installment does when we get a shot from behind of a fedora-wearing priest arriving at night at a house where a child—young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard)—is being tormented by a demon. During the ensuing ritual, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister, invites the dark spirit to take him instead, and Arne subsequently commits a murder where demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) attempt to prove that … well, it’s right there in the subtitle. Director Michael Chaves (the Conjuring universe spinoff The Curse of La Llorona) has a different visual style from James Wan, but has a solid sense for slow-burn tension in his set pieces. And Wilson and Farmiga remain earnestly committed to their characters’ sense of divine mission. Unfortunately, by turning the narrative into something more akin to a whodunnit/slasher movie than a haunted house chiller, The Devil Made Me Do It lacks the power to be truly unsettling. Except for that opening sequence, that is, when it’s obvious that if you’re gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best. Available June 4 in theaters and via HBO Max. (PG-13)

Gully *1/2
A part of me thinks I missed something while watching, since the alternative is a movie that’s as irresponsible as it is clumsy. The primary story focuses on three East Los Angeles teens—Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Calvin (Jacob Latimore) and Nicky (Charlie Plummer)—whose days and nights consist mostly of acting out the impact of their individually miserable lives by beating people, stealing their cars and generally causing mayhem. The wrench in the works is that the flashbacks to their respective childhoods shows us the violence that shaped them, which somehow suggests that we should be sympathetic towards these dangerous kids, like A Clockwork Orange if we also got scenes showing Alex being whipped in a British orphanage. Muddling things even more is the indication that Calvin also has untreated mental health issues, so giving him even more tragic backstory feels like putting a hat on a hat. And more frustrating still is a subplot involving recently-released ex-con/ex-gang member Greg (Jonathan Majors) trying to go straight. There’s some potential in that story for him to be more of a mentor trying to guide our three protagonists out of their criminal path, but Greg mostly stays entirely parallel to that main plot, leaving something that generally feels like exploitation and rationalization. Available June 4 in theater and via VOD. (R)

click to enlarge Spirit Untamed - DREAMWORKS ANIMATION
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Spirit Untamed
Spirit Untamed **1/2
If you’re wondering, “Why in the world is DreamWorks suddenly making a sequel to a mostly-forgotten 20-year-old animated feature,” the answer is “Actually, they’re doing a remake of a television series loosely based on that 20-year-old animated feature.” The 2017 Netflix original series Spirit Riding Free provides the foundation for this story set in the 1880s American Southwest, where adolescent Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced)—after years spent being raised by her aunt (Julianne Moore)—reconnects with her widowed father (Jake Gyllenhaal). And when she arrives, she becomes concerned with the fate with a wild mustang she calls Spirit, trying to protect him from the shady horse trader (Walton Goggins) trying to break him. The ensuing story beats feel fairly by-the-numbers, what with the plucky, motherless animated-feature heroine, and decently-choreographed but not particularly distinctive action beats. There’s a nice montage about the building of trust between Lucky and Spirit, and the narrative remains engaging without ever getting too dumb or crude. It simply feels generally uninspired, with the kind of flat voice performances that make you think, “Really, that was Julianne Moore?” Other than an upgrade in the quality of the animation, it doesn’t feel like there was a good reason to remake a Netflix original series. Available June 4 in theaters. (PG)

Undine ***
See feature review. Available June 4 in theaters and via VOD. (NR)

Witnesses **
There’s at least a little bit of risk-taking going on here for a faith-based feature—just not enough to make up for a clunky structure. In a framing sequence set in 1881, a reporter (Ted Charette) interviews David Whitmer (Paul Kandarian), the last surviving witness to the golden plates of The Book of Mormon. From there we flash back to 1827, following young Joseph Smith (Paul Wuthrich) as he works with the three men—Whitmer (Michael Zuccola), Martin Harris (Lincoln Hoppe) and Oliver Cowdery (Caleb J. Spivak)—whose testimony to The Book of Mormon’s authenticity becomes a foundation of the newly-founded church. The third act is in many ways the most interesting, not shying away from the early church’s financial troubles, or the frustrations and doubts about Smith’s leadership that led all three witnesses away from Smith’s church for some period of time. But the bottom line is always reassuring the faithful, and screenwriter Mitch Davis bounces between characters and time periods so haphazardly that there’s never really a chance for real character complexity to emerge—and the less said about the portrayal of Harris’s conniving wife, the better. An earnest, beautifully mounted production avoids drama by being more concerned with providing pat answers than wrestling with questions. Available June 4 in theaters. (PG)

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