Sunday, 12 July 2020

Relic (Movie Review)

Whenever a horror film starts to get mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Hereditary and The Babadook, you can be sure that it is only a matter of time before it gets on my radar. The problem with such comparisons though is they can function like a double-edged sword. It can serve to build up hype, but in so doing, also set a viewer up for disappointment should it fail to meet expectations.

Thankfully, Relic manages to live up to its hype, and doesn't squander its intriguing premise the way other horror films tend to. Not to be confused with the similarly-titled 1997 horror film, this 2020 film tells the story of three generations of women, and the family secret that ties them together.

The oldest of the three women is named Edna (Robyn Nevin), and she lives alone at her aging family home in a remote Australian village. The thing is Edna is at that age where others start to doubt she still has full control of her mental faculties. So when she is reported missing by the neighbors, her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), makes the long-overdue trip back home to find her.

Kay is joined by her own daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), a fiery young adult with a propensity to make brass decisions. Together with the local police, they launch a search party into the neighboring woods. And while taking up residence in the old house with her daughter, Kay starts to experience visions of an old man dying alone in a remote cabin. But when Edna suddenly reappears one morning, refusing to reveal where she had been, it slowly becomes clear that there is something dark and sinister at play.

Relic is an allegorical tale that explores the very human fear of dying of old age, and the effects that aging can have on both the mind and body. It also sheds light on the helplessness felt by those going through the physical and mental changes that go along with the process, as well as those that have to watch the ones they love continue to deteriorate. But it is the fact that the subject matter is explored with such mastery of the art of filmmaking that allows the movie to truly shine.

Tension is slowly built over the course of the movie's 90-minute runtime, and we watch as the house inhabited by the three women gradually changes into something old and otherworldly, mirroring the transformative effects of aging. Of the three women, Robyn Nevin gives the most noteworthy performance, perfectly capturing the essence of an old woman losing grip of reality. But it is actually Emily Mortimer's portrayal of her daughter that tugs at the heartstrings the most.

Relic is simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. But I must preface that high praise by also saying that the movie is not for everyone. It has a slow-burn buildup and a twist (or more appropriately, twisted) ending that might not sit right with everyone. But if you have the stomach for body horror, and you prefer your horror films taking the "less is more" approach, then there's plenty to love about what's on offer here.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Palm Springs (Movie Review)

For all the movie shortages we've been experiencing recently, it sure feels like there has been no shortage of romantic comedies. Within the span of just a few weeks, we've gotten entries like The Lovebirds, The High Note and Eurovision Song Contest. Even regular comedies like Irresistible and The King of Staten Island had a strong romantic element within their stories. But of all the romantic comedies we have gotten so far this year, Palm Springs is easily my favorite one.

The movie stars Adam Samberg and Cristin Millioti as our two leads, Nyles and Sarah, both of whom meet at a wedding in Palm Springs. But just before their fledgling romance can blossom into something special, the day is brought to an unusual and abrupt end, only for it to start again the following day. Sarah soon discovers that they are both stuck inside an infinite time loop, one from which neither is able to escape.

Nyles, who has been inside the time loop longer, takes it upon himself to explain to Sarah how the whole thing works: basically, the day resets for either one as soon as he or she dies or falls asleep. But Sarah, who blames Nyles for her predicament, refuses to accept its confinement, so she proceeds to test the boundaries of the time loop's rules, to increasingly comical results.

Time loop comedies have been done to death at this point. But rarely do we get one that puts a fresh spin on the familiar formula like Palm Spring does. The film serves as the directorial debut for Max Barbakow, a name that we would all do well to remember going forward, given how good a job he has done here, right out of the gate. The film is laugh-out-loud funny; the bar dance scene in particular had me in stitches throughout.

I also loved that it felt like there was genuine chemistry between its two leads. This is especially important in a romantic comedy and a requirement that should never be taken for granted. Both Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti proved that they were up to the task. J.K. Simmons also turns in a supporting performance that once again shows his versatility as an actor.

I understand that it is easier for comedies to thrive in the current movie landscape. They don't cost that much to produce and don't need to gross too much before they can be considered a success. Which I guess explains why studios are willing to take a risk with them on streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix. So expect to see even more in the months to come. And if they happen to be anywhere as good as Palm Springs, we shouldn't have much to complain about.

Greyhound (Movie Review)

Greyhound is yet another casualty of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Originally slated to come out on the 22nd of March before being delayed after theaters were closed, the film eventually found its new home on the Apple TV+ streaming service. But at a runtime of under 90 minutes, the movie feels like a perfect fit for online streaming, which is as much a comment on its overall quality as it is a compliment.

The movie stars Tom Hanks (who also wrote its screenplay) as Captain Ernest Krause, the captain of a World War II battleship leading a convoy of ships across the North Atlantic ocean. This is his first war-time mission, and as such the pressure to succeed is even greater. But his job becomes exponentially harder after they lose air cover and are pursued by a number of German U-boats.

At best, Greyhound plays like a high-budget made for TV film, and at worst, a middle-of-the-road war movie. It is a fast paced war thriller, whipping from one action setpiece to another with barely enough time for viewers to fully process all that is happening. Or care for that matter, which is the movie's greatest shortcoming. There is barely any time spent on character development, which makes it next to impossible to feel invested in their struggles when the torpedoes start flying.

Tom Hanks does what he can, but the next Saving Private Ryan this is not. And that is why it is hard for me to recommend Greyhound, especially coming off the heels of recent war movies like 1917, Dunkirk and Hacksaw Ridge. But if you like war movies in general, or more specifically naval warfare, then the movie definitely offers enough thrills and spectacle to keep you engaged from start to finish.

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Old Guard (Movie Review)

The summer blockbuster movie season is heating up folks, or at least it is still somehow managing to chug along, depending on how you choose to look at it. You would remember that the season began with the release of Extraction on Netflix way back in April, and since then we haven't really gotten any films on the scale of a full-blown tentpole release. Well, the ongoing draught ends today with the release of The Old Guard, a Netflix Original with all the trappings of a standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie stars Charlize Theron as Andromache of Scythia (aka. Andy), the leader of a group of ageless immortals that have fought through countless wars. They live a life of secrecy, even as their actions have helped shape the course of history through the ages. But when a shady pharmaceutical magnate called Merrick (Harry Melling) gets wind of their ability to heal from their wounds, he enlists the help of Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a CIA operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to apprehend them.

To complicate things further, a new immortal named Nile (KiKi Layne) has recently awakened, after being killed in action while serving a tour in Afghanistan. This prompts the others to seek her out and bring her into the fold. Except Nile is not ready to accept her newfound abilities and leave behind her old life, so it is up to Andy to show her the ropes, all while trying to escape from those seeking to unlock the secrets of their abilities and use it for personal gain.

The Old Guard offers both slick action as well as plenty of heart, which is not something you can say about other recent Netflix Originals. Watching Charlize Theron kick butt is always a sight to behold, even in otherwise cringeworthy affairs like Aeon Flux. The same is true of her performance here, a performance that helps elevate the entire enterprise from being just another superhero flick. She is helped along by KiKi Layne of course, who brings just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder into the mix.

Of all the Netflix Originals we've gotten thus far, The Old Guard is the first one I'm hoping finds enough success to warrant a sequel. There's just so much lore and backstory in the world the filmmakers have crafted here, that I can already see the potential for an entire franchise. I haven't read any of the comics the film is based on to know this for sure, but the fact that the film includes a mid-credits scene alluding to such only goes further to pique my interest.

There's no telling if movie theaters would reopen in time for films like TENET and Wonder Woman 1984 to arrive and salvage what is left of the summer blockbuster season. But as things currently stand, The Old Guard is the closest we have to a true summer blockbuster this season, and we have Netflix to thank for that.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Hamilton (Movie Review)

You might not know this about me, but I am a sucker for stage shows and musicals. There's just something about watching a narrative coming to life and taking shape in front of you. It creates a sense of immersion that even the biggest movie theater screens and formats like 4DX can't replicate. But in spite of that love and adoration for the art form, I haven't been opportune to see that many, with Harry Potter and The Cursed Child currently taking a slot on my ever-evolving bucket list.

So you can imagine my joy and elation when I'd learnt that a filming of one of the most talked about Broadway productions in recent years had not only been acquired by Disney (for a record sum of $75 million), but was also getting an earlier-than-planned release on their Disney+ streaming platform, just in time for the Fourth of July celebrations in the US. That show is of course Hamilton, and it is often described as a must-see event and a cultural phenomenon.

But prior to seeing the filmed performance on Disney+, I had very little exposure to the story of Hamilton. At least nothing beyond my basic understanding of American history. I hadn't heard any of the songs on its soundtrack, nor had I seen any bootleg recordings or read the book upon which its story was based. So in a way, you could say I was going in with a fresh pair of eyes and minimal bias. And I believe this has proven instrumental to how I have experienced the story.

I am not even going to attempt to mince words here: Hamilton is truly phenomenal. It not only lived up to the hype, but scattered my expectations as well. It is an inspirational tale of the men and women that were instrumental to the founding of the United States, told through music that was brought to life by an ensemble of truly talented actors. One of my favorites was Jonathan Groff as King George III, whose performance of the song You'll Be Back had me grinning from ear to ear. A great performance, in a film that is already teeming with great performances.

The film itself was stitched together from 3 separate performances of the Broadway show, but you'd be hard pressed to notice where one particular performance ends and another begins. This is a testament to both the direction of original stage show director, Thomas Kail, as well as the tight editing done by Jonah Moran. There were moments when I almost felt like I was actually there in the theater, watching the events unfold along with the audience, and that is not an easy feat to accomplish.

That said, I acknowledge that this filmed version can never serve as a replacement for the live show. Would I have loved to watch this in an actual theater? Sure. Would I be willing to go out and watch this with a live audience (in a post-COVID world of course), given the opportunity to do so? Hell yes. But while the experience of seeing this version of Hamilton might pale in comparison to the actual theater production, it remains the closest a lot of people would get to seeing the Broadway show, so I guess that I am just overjoyed that it exists to begin with.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Irresistible (Movie Review)

2020 hasn't exactly been a great year for movies. And now that we are at the halfway mark, perhaps it is worth accepting that there just might be no salvaging the situation. Everything is in a constant state of influx, with studios trying to adapt by pushing back their releases, or putting their smaller-scale productions on premium video-on-demand (VOD). Irresistible is the latest movie to make that jump, a political satire written and directed by Jon Stewart.

The film stars Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist still licking his wounds from their defeat at the 2016 US presidential election. But after he is shown a YouTube clip of a retired veteran, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), standing up for the rights of immigrants in his small town during a town-hall meeting, he is convinced that Jack is just the type of man they'd need to gain a foothold in the right-wing state.

So Gary flies down to Wisconsin and convinces Jack to run for mayor. But Jack only agrees on the condition that Gary oversees the campaign personally. However, the Republican National Committee soon get wind of Gary's activities in the traditionally Republican state, and they send their own strategist and Gary's archrival, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to run the campaign for existing town mayor, Braun (Brent Sexton). Soon they find themselves embroiled in a full-blown political campaign.

Irresistible is yet another by-the-numbers comedy that does very little to break new ground. Steve Carell carries the movie as best he could, and he is helped along by Rose Byrne and Mackenzie Davis (who plays the mayor's daughter and Gary's love interest). But the film proves to be too self aware for its own good, relying too heavily on stereotypes and trying too hard to telegraph its message of a flawed electoral system.

The film definitely has its moments, but ultimately feels like a letdown considering the talent involved. I guess we could say it is a product of the times we are in. And while we all long for a day when we might be able to return to theaters, at least we are still getting these movies being put on streaming and premium VOD, for better or worse.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Movie Review)

Long before singing competitions started to spring up everywhere like weeds, The Eurovision Song Contest was the main platform for European musicians hoping to jump start their careers. Over the years, it helped put superstar acts like ABBA and Celine Dion in the public eye. But with the coronavirus throwing a wrench in pretty much everyone's plans this year, the closest thing we'll be getting to the competition in 2020 is the romantic comedy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

The movie stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, the duo making up the titular Icelandic band, Fire Saga. The pair have been friends since early childhood, sharing a love for music that drives their dream of one day representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest. This is despite the fact that they are considered terrible by pretty much everyone in their small town, most especially Lars' father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan).

But following an unlikely chain of events, the singers are given the opportunity to live out that dream. The question though is will they be able to handle the pressures of being on the world stage, with its bright lights, theatrics and overproduced dance routines? Or more importantly, would their 15 minutes of fame affect their long-time friendship as well as their growing romance?

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is funny more often than not, and unsurprisingly, has a lot of heart. And a lot of that has to do with its two leads. Will Ferrell is no stranger to playing a man child, having done so in such comedies like Elf and Step Brothers. So his performance here is more or less what you would expect from him at this point, and whether you find some of his gags funny or not might depend on your tolerance for penis jokes.

Rachel McAdams on the other hand shows some serious singing chops, bringing a level of believeability to the various performances. I would even go as far as say she could stand a chance in an actual Eurovision Song Contest. That said, the movie itself is far from perfect.

My main issue stems from its uncertain tone; you can never truly tell if the filmmakers had set out to make a parody of the Eurovision Song Contest, or a homage, making it hard to decide if we should be laughing at the performances, or singing along. The movie probably sits somewhere in-between. And while I would have preferred if it was just a smidgen shorter than its two-hour-plus runtime, it never truly overstays its welcome or slows to a crawl like some other comedies tend to do.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Wasp Network (Movie Review)

Wasp Network is the latest Netflix acquisition to debut on the streaming platform. It was written and directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and is based on the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, which was itself based on the true life story of the eponymous spy organization whose members were sent to Miami to gather intel during the tail end of the Cold War.

Back in the early 90s, the communist nation of Cuba was under a lot of pressure from anti-Castro groups working out of Miami. Some of those groups went as far as coordinating terrorist attacks on the nation in a bid to discourage and destabilize its tourism industry. To counter their activities, the Cuban government sanctions and sends a number of spies to infiltrate those groups and report back on their operations.

René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez) was one of those spies, an airplane pilot who is leaving behind his wife (Penélope Cruz) and young daughter under the guise of defecting to the US. He is joined by Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a Cuban officer who had surrendered at Guantanamo Bay, and together with their leader, Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), they must navigate an intricate web of lies and double crosses as they try to bring down "the revolution."

Wasp Network explores an interesting slice of history and does so from a point of view that is seldom given this much attention. The movie is beautiful to look at, and boasts strong performances by its casts. I especially loved Ana de Armas, who I have loved since her star-making turn in Blade Runner 2049, and more recently in Knives Out, a performance that had earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier in the year.

But apart from some great cinematography and strong acting, Wasp Network doesn't have much else going for it. At least nothing in the way of actual suspense. The movie attempts to juggle too many things at the same time with its plot, and as a result, doesn't come across as strongly as it could have. Still, if you fancy a history lesson, then you can be rest assured that it is at least watchable on those terms.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

You Should Have Left (Movie Review)

Blumhouse has earned a reputation for delivering the goods when it comes to low-budget horror films. And with the recent success of The Invisible Man, it is clear that theirs is a formula that works more often than not. You Should Have Left is just the latest in a long string of such titles, and when it was announced that the film would be skipping theaters in favor of a VOD release, I was simply happy we wouldn't have to wait for theaters to reopen before we got to see it.

Written and directed by David Koepp, the film stars Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried as a married couple with a lot of secrets and emotional baggage. In a bid to save their relationship, they both decide to book a vacation with their daughter at a house located in a remote Welsh village. But as they soon find out upon getting there, there is more to that house than its beauty reveals.

You Should Have Left is a psychological horror film that borrows a little too heavily from others that came before it. The premise of the film is intriguing enough, and I especially thought the way it manipulated our perception of space and time during its narrative was neat. But the fact remains that this is merely another haunted house movie, and we've already gotten quite a few of those.

The movie thankfully doesn't rely on too many jump scares, but then again, we didn't get any quality scares of any kind either. And therein lies the film's biggest problem, that jaded feeling of knowing everything that is about to happen before it does. I won't go as far as calling it underwhelming, but I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat either.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of You Should Have Left hinges on what you're expecting to get out of it going in. If you're looking for something cerebral and deeply unsettling, then you'll most likely come out disappointed. But if you're merely looking for something to pass the time, I was definitely captivated enough by the story to see it through to its end, but just barely so.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

The King of Staten Island (Movie Review)

Comedy, like all other art forms, can be highly subjective. The same material can hit different people in different ways, depending on everything from their personal experiences, their beliefs and ideologies, or even how they happen to be feeling that day. So when I'd heard The King of Staten Island being labelled as "unfunny" in early reviews, I went into the movie with my expectations tempered. Which probably explains why I ended up laughing so hard during its over 2 hours runtime.

Directed by Judd Apatow, the film serves as an autobiography of sorts for star, Pete Davidson, much in the same way that 8 Mile mirrored Eminem's life prior to achieving superstardom. Pete plays Scott, a young aspiring tattoo artist with ADD. His father was a firefighter who died when he was 7, and ever since, Scott has been struggling to find a sense of purpose in life, and now spends his days hanging out with his stoner friends.

But after his younger sister goes off to college, his mum (Marisa Tomei) starts to crave companionship. This leads her to start dating Ray (Bill Burr), a man who Scott finds out is also a firefighter like his dad. Devastated by the prospect of his mum ending up with Ray, Scott is determined to do everything in his power to ensure their relationship ends badly. Except things don't exactly play out as planned.

Judd Apatow has worked on some of my favorite comedies in recent memory, but The King of Staten Island is possibly his most heartwarming one till date. It balances the heaviness of its subject matter with just the right amount of dark humor, and a lot of that can be attributed to its star. Pete Davidson really carries this movie with an effortless charisma that is both relatable and alien at the same time.

A lot of his actual DNA can be seen throughout the film, like the fact that his real-life father had been a firefighter who died during 9/11, or that he also suffers from Crohn's disease and partakes in the use of recreational drugs, or his real-life love for the music of Kid Cudi. The movie might feel a bit long as a result of exploring these things with this level of depth, but it never ceases to be captivating.

The King of Staten Island might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like dramatic comedies or Judd Apatow movies specifically, then it is definitely worth checking out.