Sunday, 21 February 2021

I Care a Lot (Movie Review)

Rosamund Pikes steps back into familiar territory in the new dark comedy, I Care a Lot, a film for which she recently received a Best Actress nomination at the forthcoming Golden Globes. The movie was written and directed by J Blakeson, an English filmmaker best remembered for helming the YA sci-fi adaptation, The 5th Wave. Following a strong showing at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, his latest film makes its debut on both Netflix and Amazon Prime this weekend.

The film stars Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a woman who runs an elaborate scam where she gets the court to appoint her as guardian to wealthy senior citizens deemed no longer capable of taking care of themselves. She then proceeds to put them up in a retirement home where they have no contact with the outside world, while she profits by liquidating their assets.

But unbeknownst to Marla, her latest target is the mother of a Russian mobster (played by Peter Dinklage), and the woman had been in possession of some diamonds worth millions of dollars. And now her son is willing to go to any lengths to get both of them back, as Marla finds herself entangled in a battle of wits.

I Care a Lot is an exhilarating story about ruthless ambition and its consequences. The film is populated with characters operating within the dark side of a clearly flawed legal system, and as such, it was almost impossible for me to root for any single one of them. But I still found myself wanting to see the story through to its ending, just to see whether or not some due justice was going to get served.

The real highlight of course was Rosamond Pike, who once again channels a cold, diabolical side that is sure to leave viewers shaking in their seats, be that from fear or righteous anger. I still get chills when thinking of her performance from Gone Girl, and her performance here was every bit as strong and memorable. That said, Peter Dinklage also manages to hold his own, plus it was nice seeing the Game of Thrones alum after that show had left fans with a sour taste in their mouth.

The film was also stylishly put together, from its smooth editing to its synth-heavy soundtrack. My main gripe with the movie then stems from its overall identity crisis. I'm a fan of dark comedies, but this particular one was devoid of any real jokes, at least ones that landed or that I would consider memorable. As such, it settles into this awkward middle ground between a true comedy and a psychological thriller.

I Care a Lot skirts by off the strength of its lead star. Rosamund Pike has already proven herself to be an accomplished actress at this point, so whether or not she snags the Golden Globe this year shouldn't change any of that. Her latest film is just further proof of why she is one of the most talented actresses working in Hollywood today.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Namaste Wahala (Movie Review)

The Nigerian film industry, or Nollywood as it is more popularly referred to, produces more films on a yearly basis than the likes of Hollywood and China. It is in fact only bested by Bollywood, which produced just shy of 2,000 films in 2019 alone. Granted, most of those films were direct-to-video offerings made on a shoestring budget. But every now and then, we happen to get the occasional gem, or dare I say, guilty pleasure.

Now imagine what would happen if those two industries were to join forces. The answer, my friends, is Namaste Wahala, a cross-cultural romantic comedy debuting on Netflix this Valentine.

The movie stars Ini Dima-Okojie as Didi, a young lawyer who works at a family-owned law firm. Following a chance encounter with an attractive Indian man named Raj (Ruslaan Mumtaz), the two fall helplessly in love with one another. But in a classic case of forbidden love, Raj is rejected by Chidinma's parents when she brings him home to meet them, while Chidinma herself is given a similar treatment by Raj's mum. Now the two star-crossed lovers must find a way to convince their families they were meant to be together.

I'll confess that I am not the biggest fan of Bollywood movies, with the likes of Slumdog Millionaire and Lion being the closest I have gotten to enjoying the depiction of Indian culture in film. Same goes for Nollywood movies, many of which I find too insufferable to sit through. All that is to say that I was fairly skeptical heading into Namaste Wahala, despite all the social media buzz it has received in the lead up to its release.

So how exactly is the film then you ask? Well, not too bad. I could even go as far as saying I was pleasantly surprised by it. That it not to say that it was the best thing since sliced bread. And the film definitely had its fair share of problems, several of which I would touch upon now.

Those of you that read my Wedding Party review already know how I feel about Richard Mofe Damijo and his acting, and not much has changed since then, so the less said about his acting here the better. Other notable appearances include Broda Shaggi, who played a hot-tempered cabdriver, as well as M.I., who played himself.

Prior to the movie's release, we heard a lot of news about the Chocolate City rapper handling the soundtrack of the movie. And if all that translated into was the rapper's song playing over a montage while he makes a tacked-on cameo appearance, then color me disappointed. At least the scene didn't overstay its welcome, so that's a plus.

The strength of any good romantic comedy though rests upon the chemistry between its two leads. And while both Ruslaan and Ini were competent enough in their roles, I still had a hard time buying into their love for one another. This wasn't exactly help by the fact that the romance between the two had escalated so quickly that some suspension of disbelief was required in order to fully buy into the whole thing.

I mean, Raj himself had alluded to the fact that he had charmed his way into her heart. It would have been nice to see how exactly.

The film definitely follows most of the tropes you'd expect to find in a romantic comedy, like the the best friend who provides most of the comic relief. Sadly, it also had all the classic Nollywood trappings as well, from overacted melodramatic scenes, to cheesy lines of dialogue and deliveries that have you laughing for all the wrong reasons.

I also had issues with how the film had managed its runtime. There was a sexual assault subplot that took up a large chunk of the movie's 1 hour 46 minutes length, and I felt this could have been used to better develop the core story and characters, or trimmed out completely, as it didn't really tie into the overall plot in any meaningful way. It did at least give us some of the most comically bad line deliveries when it arrived at its climax though. You'll know it when you hear it, and I guess this could count as another plus.

Namaste Wahala works best when viewed as a homage to the films of Nollywood and Bollywood, zits and all. The cheese factor was definitely stronger than I would have liked, but therein lies most of the film's appeal. That the film also has a strong overall message about cultures coming together, and true love transcending cultural barriers, makes it easy for me to recommend to anyone that enjoys feel-good romances. It's definitely worth checking out on Netflix.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah (Movie Review)

There seems to be no shortage of timely historical dramas of late, and the newest one to be gracing screens big and small is Judas and the Black Messiah. Produced by Ryan Coogler, the film is a dramatization of the events that took place in the late 1960s, in which the FBI managed to infiltrate the ranks of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party. Released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, the film is the latest one from the Warner Bros. 2021 slate to receive a same day premiere.

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O'Neal, a man caught trying to steal a car while impersonating an FBI agent. But rather than spend the next few years in prison for his crimes, he is given a choice to work with the actual FBI as an informant. His assignment is to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, by getting close to its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), an offer Bill accepts.

He slowly begins to work his way into his target's good graces, even rising to become his chief security officer. But as he becomes a greater part of the Black Panther family, he starts to feel conflicted about relaying their every move to his handler (Jesse Plemons). Now Bill must choose between fulfilling his promise to the FBI or going to prison for his crimes, or worse, risk getting exposed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a captivating look back in history. It lays bare all the facts surrounding the events depicted with a razor-sharp accuracy seldom seen outside of the best documentaries. Like The Trial of the Chicago 7 before it, the movie also manages to capture the racially-charged atmosphere of late 1960s America. That many of the themes it explores are still relevant today points to its timeliness and timelessness, and the director Shaka King's attention to detail.

His film is populated with characters operating within a moral grey area. But rather than try to demonize any of those characters or the institutions involved, the film goes for a far more nuanced approach. And most of that was made possible by some truly remarkable performances from both Kaluuya and Stanfield. The former might be getting most of the praise right now, but it was actually Lakeith Stanfield's turn as Bill that left a greater impression in my opinion.

Everything from his troubled mannerisms to his quiet delivery spoke of a man that was being eaten up from the inside by the consequences of his actions. I was also happy to see Domique Fishback once again at the top of her acting game. We last saw her in the Netflix film, Project Power, and she once again proves herself to be quite a capable actress.

Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a movie that needs to be experienced one way or another. So whether you choose to do so in theaters or at home on HBO Max, you're guaranteed to be a met with some truly top-tier storytelling.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Minari (Movie Review)

In my quest for complete Oscars readiness, I finally managed to see Minari, one of the last remaining movies for me to watch before the big ceremony in April. The film has been generating a lot of awards season buzz, not to mention some outcry after it was relegated to the foreign language category of the forthcoming Golden Globes Awards. So, of course, I just had to see what all the noise was about. What follows are my unbiased thoughts about the film.

Set in the 1980s, the movie tells the story of a family of Koreans trying to make a place for themselves in rural Arkansas. The patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has just bought the acres of land they now call home, where he intends to start a farm, much to the displeasure of his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri). Her objection mainly stems from their new home's distance to the newest hospital, which is a major concern as they have a 5-year-old son with a heart condition to consider.

But the family slowly settles into their new life on the farm, with both Jacob and Monica taking up jobs at a nearby chicken hatchery. To help with the kids while they are away, Jacob arranges to have Monica's mum (Youn Yuh-jung) come over from Korea to live with them. Despite that, Monica becomes increasingly concerned as Jacob seems to be investing all their money into the farm, rather than the core needs of the family. And with things on the farm failing to go according to plan, Jacob soon finds himself having to decide which was most important to him.

To answer the question I know you've been asking yourself since the start of this review: Yes, Minari is worthy of every bit of praise it has gotten since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival one year ago. But even more than that, it is a film worth experiencing. The story is relatable in a way you don't often find in smaller-scale dramas, with its focus on each member of the Yi family, and their day-to-day struggles in the less-than-ideal, new environment they find themselves in.

Because of this, the film is several things at several points during its runtime: it is a family drama, a comedy, a cautionary tale, and a coming-of-age story. And that all those aspects of the film manage to stay rolled into one cohesive whole is testament to the writing and direction of Lee Isaac Chung. The film also boasts some truly memorable performances, from Steven Yeun as Jacob (who has definitely come a long way since his stint as Glen on The Walking Dead), to Will Patton, who plays a farm hand and was responsible for most of the film's comic relief.

Minari is ultimately a movie about doing whatever it takes to succeed. The film paints a beautiful portrait of the life of hardship many foreigners often face in their pursuit of the American dream. It is currently the frontrunner to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes in my opinion, and I can also see it managing to score a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, amongst other nominations.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Malcolm & Marie (Movie Review)

Netflix seems to be really doubling down on its love for black and white movies lately. Just last year, we got both The Forty-Year-Old Version and Mank, two very different yet equally brilliant films about struggling artists navigating their way through their respective industries. The latter would even go on to score some big nominations at the forthcoming Golden Globes. And now we have Malcolm & Marie, an emotional rollercoaster of a film starring Zendaya and John David Washington.

The latter plays Malcolm, an up-and-coming film director whose latest movie just had its Hollywood premiere, while the former plays Marie, his girlfriend. Having just returned from what was an otherwise successful first showing for his film, the couple intend to spend the rest of the evening together, waiting for the first reviews to show up online. But what was meant to be a night of celebration quickly turns tempestuous when bottled up feelings are let loose, threatening to derail their plans.

Anyone going into Malcolm & Marie expecting a feel-good romance would most likely come out of it feeling sorely disappointed. Despite being billed as such, the film threads the lines of something closer to a psychological drama than a romantic one, despite having romance elements. Basically, if your idea of a good time is watching a couple get into back-to-back arguments over the course of one night, then boy are you in for a treat. But chances are that is not the case, which is why the movie might feel like a bit of a drag for most.

Both John David Washington and Zendaya prove to be charismatic leads though, with the actors holding their own and ensuring that the movie never became less than intriguing. But they were ultimately letdown by a story that couldn't seem to decide what it was trying to say for much of its run-time. One moment the film could be attempting to dissect the core issues at the heart of the couple's relationship, the next it turns its focus on Hollywood and its need for political correctness in this day and age.

This lent the movie a rather jumbled up message that never became any clearer as the movie went along. That said, I did really enjoy whenever it touched upon the disparities between an artist's vision and a reviewer's interpretation of that work. I just wish those discussions had been had in a much better context, and not in the shadow of a relationship that seemed to be heading for the rocks.

Another aspect of the movie I really enjoyed was its cinematography, from smooth tracking shots that always ensured both actors were in frame when they needed to be, to closeups that really served to heighten their emotions as their arguments heated up. The movie itself was shot during the coronavirus lockdowns, and it shows, with its single-location setting and dialogue-heavy screenplay. But the way it was presented, in stunning black and white, made certain that it was never anything short of captivating.

Malcolm & Marie is far from what I would call essential viewing. It is certainly not a feel-good romance. But that is not an inherently bad thing as it paints a picture of a more realistic romance that was oftentimes relatable. The movie is definitely worth checking out on the strength of its two leads alone. Just don't expect the kind of gratification you'd get from your typical romantic fare.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

The Little Things (Movie Review)

Warner Bros. continues to make good on its promise to release all its tentpoles for the next year simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. And while we all await the impending release of Godzilla vs Kong in March, the first movie to be coming out off its highly-publicized slate is The Little Things, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, the film offers a throwback mystery that might prove to be more style than substance for most.

Set in the 1990s, Denzel Washington plays Joe Deacon, a Kern County Deputy Sheriff who is sent back to his former LA district to retrieve some evidence that would help with an ongoing case. And while he is there, he comes across a hotshot detective named Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who is currently working a case with a serial killer that has an MO quite similar to an unsolved murder case Deacon had worked on in the past. 

Both men immediately appear to have a shared respect and disdain for one another, with each one trying to one-up the other. But with more victims turning up dead by the day, and a prime suspect (played by Jared Leto) that always seems to be one step ahead of the authorities, they must learn to put aside their differences and work together if they hope on closing the case once and for all.

The Little Things is one of those films that sounds great on paper, but falls flat in its execution. It had all the intrigue and mystery you'd expect to find in a crime thriller, but none of the payoff or satisfaction offered by the better films in the genre. This is not to say that the film offers no thrills at all, as I was at the very least mildly engaged while following along.

It was just that the whole thing somehow managed to lose most of its steam by the time it arrived at its third act, where in an attempt to circumvent expectations, it presented a twist that most viewers would find head-scratching to say the least. There were no gaping plot holes to speak of, just a feeling that you've arrived at a destination that wasn't all that meaningful in the grand scheme of things.

What The Little Things does offer is a somewhat promising start to the packed slate of movies Warner Bros. plans on releasing this year. But while it definitely benefitted from its strong cast and a solid overall atmosphere, those elements were ultimately letdown by a story that was by the numbers, and a resolution that was unsatisfying. The movie is hardly worth going out to see at the cinema, but it is still worth checking out if you happen to have HBO Max.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Nomadland (Movie Review)

As we get closer to this year's Golden Globes and Oscars, one film that keeps coming up in discussions about potential hopefuls is Nomadland. The movie made a splash last year when it received top honors at both the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, besting other critical darlings like One Night in Miami. It would go on to appear on several year-end lists of best films of 2020, even managing to come out on top on quite a few of them.

So all through the praise and accolades, I'd patiently waited for an opportunity to see Nomadland, wondering if it could ever live up to my incredibly high expectations. I finally got to do so this past weekend, which raises the question of why I am only just putting out this review now. There's a very strong reason for that, which I'll be addressing in the latter portion of this review, along with my overall thoughts about the movie.

Written and directed by ChloĆ© Zhao, the movie stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman that adopts a nomad lifestyle by selling all her belongings and using the money to buy an RV, after she loses both her job and husband. She gets a temporary job at an Amazon fulfillment center, where she meets and befriends Linda, and from whom she learns about a gathering of nomads that meet in the Arizona desert every winter. 

Much of the film is spent following Fern around the empty highways of the American West, as she slowly contemplates her life and the choices that led to where she is. But on those highways is where she'd encounter several characters that would help shape her journey of acceptance and self-discovery.

Nomadland is both a character study and a window into the lives of those that uproot themselves from already established lives with the singular hope of starting out fresh. Frances McDormand, who has given quite a number of stellar performances over the years, gives one of her best ones till date. But it is the characters she encounters in the movie, and how she interacts with them, that truly stands out in my opinion. 

The fact that most of these characters were played by real-life nomads lends the movie a certain level of authenticity seldom seen in such films. We've had similar techniques used in movies like City of God and Up in the Air, where much of the cast is made up of real-life people, and the technique pays off in spades here. The latter in particular has a stronger thematic connection with this one, since both films are set in the aftermath of the American recession.

Like I said at the start of the review, I've been sitting on this review for Nomadland for a couple of days now. This is news because I typically try to review movies right after seeing them, but something about Nomadland was different. The film almost demands that you spend some time ruminating on its story, themes and larger-than-life characters, which is something I've found myself doing this last couple of days. The movie definitely sticks with you well past the credits.

There are other things to love about Nomadland, from its beautiful cinematography to ChloƩ Zhao's capable hands as a director. But I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that the movie might not be for everyone. It doesn't offer the kind of instant gratification that most films provide these days, with its leisurely-paced narrative and strong character focus. But if you're willing to accept that going in, then what you'll discover is something wholly captivating.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

News of the World (Movie Review)

As I continue to play catch up with the films released over the weekend, the next one on my review list is News of the World, a western co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass. The Academy Award-nominated director once again teams up with Tom Hanks for the movie, following their previous collaboration in the brilliant Captain Phillips. And this time around, they swap the pirate-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean for the rolling hills and valleys of the American frontier.

In News of the World, Tom Hank stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid, a former confederate soldier who now travels from town to town reading the news for a living. Basically he does so for the benefit of those not learned enough to read the newspapers for themselves, or those whose lives have proven too busy to afford them the time during a typical work day. So in a way, you can think of him as the Wild West equivalent of a modern day newscaster.

During one of his trips, he comes across a young girl whose horse and carriage had been attacked. The girl is immediately reluctant to accept his help. This isn't helped by the fact that she didn't appear to speak a single word of English. He soon discovers that the girl was being transported to her last surviving relatives prior to the attack. But all attempts to leave the girl in the hands of relevant authorities prove futile, and now he is left with no choice other than to embark on a perilous journey across Texas in an attempt to reunite the young girl with her family.

Chances are that anyone planning to see the News of the World is doing so solely because of its bankable lead, so it should come as no surprise that Tom Hanks once again proves to be more than capable in the role. So the real breakout then was his co-star Helena Zengel, who plays Johanna Leonberger. She perfectly captures the spirit of a young feral child caught between two worlds, and the fact that she managed to convey such a broad spectrum of emotions with barely any spoken dialogue is worthy of praise. 

Also worthy of praise was the cinematography on display, which effectively captured both the beauty and horrors of the American frontier. This was no doubt helped by the film's director, Paul Greengrass, who has proven to have an eye for such details. There were plenty sweeping shots of beautiful landscapes, as well as tight closeups of the character's faces, whenever the action called for that. And the transitions between the two was always smooth and seamless.

With all that said, my one area of criticism was the movie's pacing. The movie takes a somewhat leisurely approach with the unraveling of its plot, and for large stretches of time, all we really get to go with are the aforementioned sweeping shots and landscapes. I understand that this is meant to help build a sense of atmosphere, which is especially useful in such a character-driven narrative. But I'm also concerned that this could be considered off-putting for some viewers.

News of the World is a western that might prove a little too familiar to fans of the genre. The comparisons with True Grit are inevitable, with both movies centering upon a road trip of sorts, wherein an older, seasoned gunslinger accompanies a young girl across the Old West on a singular mission. Except unlike that other movie, the characters in this one aren't driven by a thirst for revenge, but rather an opportunity to move on and heal from past traumas.

Monday, 18 January 2021

One Night in Miami (Movie Review)

Regina King makes her feature film directorial debut in One Night in Miami, a film that seemed to be garnering nothing but praise ever since it made its debut at the Venice Film Festival last September. Based on a stage play written by Kemp Powers, the movie was noted for being the first one in the festival's history to be helmed by an African-American woman, where it eventually got named the runner up for its People's Choice Award. 

All that is to say that the movie had been on my radar for quite some time now. I even flirted with the idea of waiting to see it before compiling my list of Top 10 Movies of 2020, but decided I might as well consider it for my 2021 list instead. And despite getting a limited release in theaters last Christmas, I didn't get an opportunity to see the movie until it got released on Amazon Prime Video this past weekend.

Set on the historic night of Muhammad Ali's heavyweight title victory against Sonny Liston, the film explores a celebratory meeting between him and three other African-American legends of the time: Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X. But rather than spend the night drinking and cavorting with women, he soon discovers that Malcolm had other more important plans.

It was to be a night of reflection, with each man expected to look back on their accomplishments up until that point. And by so doing, gain some insight about their place in the present day struggle of African Americans. But tensions soon begin to rise amongst the men when Malcolm accuses Sam of not using his influence and power to help that struggle, even as he grows increasingly paranoid that there were people out to get him.

One Night in Miami is a beautiful slice of alternative history that is brought to life by some powerhouse performances. All four actors got to shine in their respective roles, but it was perhaps Leslie Odom Jnr. that could be regarded the standout. His portrayal of Sam Cooke was every bit as electrifying as his role in Hamilton, and he had his full acting and singing chops on display.

I'll be remiss if I fail to also mention Regina King's direction. The woman has been in quite a few critically acclaimed movies over the years, and was most recently seen in the brilliant Watchmen TV show on HBO. But here she proves that her talent extends behind the camera as well. And the fact that her movie was so grounded in history lends it a sense of authenticity seldom seen in such films.

One Night in Miami is a must-watch for history buffs. The movie definitely had all the trappings of a stage play adaptation, with its dialogue heavy screenplay and sparse location changes. But it never truly felt confined by those origins. The movie is a definite shoo-in for one of the Best Picture nominations at the Oscar's later this year, and it stands as one of the best films of the year thus far. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Outside the Wire (Movie Review)

As the new year slowly kicks into gear, Netflix continues to strengthen its commitment to provide quality at-home entertainment during these unprecedented times we still find ourselves in. And that commitment was made public after the company had announced that it would be releasing more than 70 movies over the course of this year. Outside the Wire is just one of those 70 films, a science fiction war movie starring Anthony Mackie.

Set in the near future in the middle of a Soviet civil war, the movie follows Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a US drone pilot that is sent into the field after he'd initiated an unauthorized drone strike that resulted in the deaths of two fellow soldiers. Expected to find a renewed value for life after his exposure to on-the-ground warfare, Thomas is assigned to a commanding officer named Leo (Anthony Mackie), a man he quickly finds out is not a man at all.

Leo is an android designed by the US Army to help with the ongoing efforts to win back the war-torn region of Ukraine. Unlike the other robots being used in the war, he is distinctly human in appearance, and has an uncanny ability to feel human emotions. It is that ability that drives his mission, and together with Thomas, they must go behind enemy lines as they attempt to track down a local warlord before he gets his hands on enough nuclear missiles to start World War III.

The best thing about Outside the Wire was easily Anthony Mackie, who is no stranger to Netflix productions of this kind, having starred in the lead role of the second season of the now-cancelled sci-fi show, Altered Carbon. Here he brings most of the charisma and charm he'd displayed in that show, as well as the physicality required for such an action heavy role. But he also never failed to display the level of emotion needed to keep the action grounded in reality.

And that's another area where the movie excels, in its action scenes. There was no shortage of hand-to-hand combat and gunfights to be had, some of which involved robots and future tech, all of which looked convincing enough. So action junkies will definitely want to check out the movie for that reason alone, even though I fear that more casual audiences might become a bit desensitized towards all the fancy explosions after a while.

And speaking of becoming desensitized, the one area where I felt the movie could've used some improvement was its story, or more precisely its resolution. We've had countless movies about future wars at this point, and I was really hoping that this one would at least bring something new to the table. But what we got instead was a barely serviceable story with a final act that was a bit too twisty for my tastes.

Regardless of this, I still think Outside the Wire can serve as a mild diversion for anyone looking for something to check out on Netflix. It might be nowhere as brilliant as the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, but should still offer enough entertainment value for anyone that happens to enjoy such movies.