Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Movie Review)

Quentin Tarantino is beyond a doubt one of the greatest directors of contemporary times, with a distinct voice and vision that has produced instant classics like Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, and one of my all-time faves, Inglourious Basterds. That vision was in turn shaped by a love of movies from his childhood, the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that inspired his last few efforts being a prime example. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood serves as his love letter to that era of film-making.

The movie tells the story of an aging actor called Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, along with his close friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), struggles to come to terms with his fading acting career. His luck seems to change when the famous director, Roman Polanski (RafaƂ Zawierucha), moves into the house next to his, along with his wife and rising movie star, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Rick longs to one day meet the power couple, with hopes of landing a role in one of their movies.

Meanwhile, a large group of hippies have also taken up residence at Spahn Ranch, the location where Rick and Cliff used to shoot a TV western called Bounty Law. The group is led by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), a man that has a grudge with the former residents of the Polanski's new home. Anyone familiar with the true-life events around which this movie are based would know that name of course, and the heinous acts for which he rose to fame, so the real thrill of the movie comes from watching events unfold as the group crosses paths with the two leads.

In true Tarantino style, the movie takes its sweet time before truly kicking into gear. But even as you wait for all the narrative beats to fall into place, you'll be hard pressed to look away, not when every single scene and frame is so masterfully shot and put together like this. The director builds up so much tension and conflict within its almost three hour runtime, before letting all hell break loose in its gory climax.

It's a formula Tarantino fans are already familiar with by now, so it should come as no surprise that it is expertly executed here. He is clearly a director at the top of his game, and we as fans are merely here along for the ride. But oh boy, was this one ever a wild one, with so many great character moments, excellent performances across the board and so much attention to detail. All of which come together to show his undeniable mastery and love for the craft.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Movie Review)

As far as movie titles go, I don't believe they can get more silly than Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the first official spin-off in the ever-popular series about fast cars and the people who like racing them. And silly is a word that can be used to describe this movie (and the entire series as a whole), as it embraces the comedic firepower of its two leads, while also fully veering into the realm of science fiction with its outlandish plot and action sequences.

That plot involves a rogue MI6 agent called Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), who is tasked by a terrorist organization (Eteon) to retrieve a weaponized virus (Snowflake). But Lore is no mere rogue agent, having had his body augmented by cybernetic implants that allow him to perform superhuman feats like punching through walls and generally being badass. To prevent him from getting the virus, a female MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby) injects the virus into her own body. But she is framed for the theft of the virus and the murder of her entire team, forcing her to go on the run.

This prompts the authorities to bring in their greatest assets for just such a situation, the titular heroes Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). And almost immediately, both men find themselves at loggerheads with one another, even as they are forced to put aside their differences in a race against time to find the virus and its carrier before the bad guys do. Or worse, before it goes airborne and threatens to wipe out the entire human race.

I'll admit, I'm not the biggest fan of the Fast & Furious films, even though I absolutely adored the first one as a kid for the mere fact that it starred my two favorite action movie stars at the time, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. Both actors are missing from this installment but the on-screen chemistry of its two leads make up for that, with their constant bantering and one-upmanship. Some of the jokes are hit or miss, but the dynamic between the two is always a joy to behold.

As for the action sequences and stunts themselves (because let's face it, that is the only reason why most people would be considering seeing this movie), they more than live up to the franchise's name, with their complete lack of respect for the basic laws of physics. Especially egregious in this one was a particular scene towards the end involving a helicopter and a number of cars and trucks hooked up to it. Not only was the action logic-defying, but the scene manages to shift from night time, to day time, to full-blown thunderstorm, all within the span of a few minutes!

There's a certain B-movie appeal to movies like Hobbs & Shaw, with their leave-your-brain-at-the-door sensibilities and the reckless abandon with which they present their events. So if you happen to subscribe to such, then sure, you'll get your money's worth from watching this one. But if you never liked the Fast & Furious franchise or you're hoping this one might be the one to win you over, then prepare to be somewhat disappointed because this is as cheesy as they come.

Friday, 19 July 2019

The Lion King (Movie Review)

The Lion King was without a doubt the best animated film produced during the Disney renaissance and it remains one of the greatest animated films of all time till this day. This was not only due to its powerful story with themes of redemption and accepting ones destiny, but the realization of that story through some beautiful, hand-drawn animation, memorable dialogue (brought to life by amazing voice acting), and some truly awesome music. Simply put, it was always going to be tricky, remaking such a beloved classic.

But Disney had already proven that they could pull this off with their 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, a movie that not only updated its classic tale for a modern audience, but even managed to improve upon it in several ways. So when it was announced that that movie's director (Jon Favreau) would be tackling a classic as timeless as The Lion King next, we accepted the news with high hopes and a measured dash of skepticism. Unfortunately, his latest effort lacks much of what made his other remake so great, even though (or perhaps because) it follows its source material so faithfully.

The 2019 version of The Lion King sticks to its forebear so closely that it is almost pointless for me to recap its plot for this review. I mean, this is a movie we all saw back in its day as kids (or kids at heart). And even if you haven't revisited the original since then like I did before seeing the movie, chances are you would still be able to recite much of its dialogue or sing along to its memorable songs. So I'll focus instead on what I did happen to like about this version, and what I think went wrong with the remake.

First off, this new Lion King looks absolutely stunning and it should rightfully stand as a benchmark and indicator of just how far computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come over the years, much like The Jungle Book remake before it. The movie looked almost photo-realistic and was filled with so many breathtaking details that it often felt like I was watching a live-action recording of animals in the wild. But in their pursuit of realism, the animators have lost much of what made the original film so magical: the expressiveness of its animated cast of characters.

A prime example of this would be the character of Scar, who is ably voiced in this version of the movie by Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the original, Jeremy Irons' voice-over was perfectly matched by the animation, with exaggerated gestures like the arching of his eyebrow or the curling of his lips in a sneer helping to bring the performance to life. Here, the integration of the voice-overs felt like it came in after the fact, like the voices were simply overlaid over the too-real-for-its-own-good animation.

I really don't understand why it had to come across that way though, especially after The Jungle Book remake had already proven you could populate a movie with photo-realistic animals and still have them convey the full gamut of human emotions. Perhaps it was because that movie was anchored by an actual live-action performance (namely Neel Sethi as Mowgli), or maybe the animators simply had more time to put in details like subtle ear twitches or furrowed brows, which really goes a long way to make the performances that much more expressive. Or maybe lions are simply not as expressive as wolves, tigers and bears. Who knows at this point.

In terms of the actual vocal performances, the new cast does an admirable job while putting their own spin on the beloved characters. This includes Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, and to a lesser extent, Beyonce as Nala. James Earl Jones also returns as Mufasa, even though one has to wonder why they simply did not pull his recordings from the previous version, since he was effectively reading the same lines. The obvious standouts here are Billy Eichner as Timon and Seth Rogen as Pumba, whose comedy dynamic help elevate the movie during its latter half. Their rendition of Hakuna Matata in particular is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

The 2019 version of The Lion King should serve as an example for why newer does not necessarily equate to better. But the fact that it can't hold a candle to the 1994 version does not take away from the mammoth achievement the filmmakers have made in bringing the movie to life. It is impossible to improve on what is already effectively perfect in any case. But as a modern refresh, the movie falls way short of its full potential. That said, it is still effectively the same story we all fell in love with back in the day. And sometimes, a faithful retelling is the best we can hope for.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Yesterday (Movie Review)

It should come as no surprise that I think The Beatles are one of the greatest rock bands of all time. I mean, no other band has left the world with such a huge collection of great songs, ranging from the instantly catchy (I Feel Fine, I Want to Hold Your Hand) to masterpieces layered with meaning (Hey Jude, The Long and Winding Road). So when I'd heard that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Love Actually) would be making a film that would serve as a tribute of sorts to those songs, I was instantly sold.

The premise of the movie is simple and interesting enough: following an accident that takes place amidst a global blackout, a struggling musician named Jack (Himesh Patel) wakes up to find that he is the only man left in the world with any memory of The Beatles and their music. He eventually decides to capitalize on this strange development by passing off some of their music as compositions of his own.

The film proceeds to chart his meteoric rise to superstardom, a rise that forces him to leave his current manager/love interest, Ellie (Lily James), in favor of Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), a cold, calculating woman who manages the likes of Ed Sheeran and sees her clients as nothing more than products to be packaged and sold to the masses. He is joined by childhood friend and roadie, Rocky (Joel Fry). But as Jack would soon find out, there are some things in life more important than money and fame.

Yesterday is a fun romantic comedy with enough reverence for the music of The Beatles to satisfy most of their fans. But anyone expecting anything deeper than that might come out of it feeling sorely disappointed. My main gripe with the movie is the fact that it doesn't even try to explain the reason behind its (almost) sci-fi premise. But I was too busy tapping my feet and singing along to the music on display to care too much about that, which I guess was the point of the whole endeavor.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home (Movie Review)

Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) comes to an end with Spider-Man: Far From Home, and what a wild ride it has been. It has proven to be the longest of all the phases thus far, with eleven films in total, but also the one with the most consistently great output of films. We were first introduced to the MCU's version of the webslinger in Captain America: Civil War at the start of the phase, where he stole the show with his fanboyish naivety and overall charm, so it sort of makes sense that he would close out the entire chapter in this film.

Serving as both a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming and follow-up to the amazing Avengers: Endgame, the movie finds the self-proclaimed "friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man" (Tom Holland) stepping outside his comfort zone and embracing his newly-appointed role as one of Earth's mightiest heroes. It's been eight months since the Avengers defeated Thanos, undoing much of the mad titan's work from five years prior. But it was a victory that came at a great cost, and Spider-Man: Far From Home wastes no time in addressing the effects of that loss.

I am of course referring to the death of Tony Stark, who you'd remember was both a mentor and father figure to Peter Parker in the preceding films, albeit a reluctant one. It was both touching and funny to see how the kids from Peter's high school are coping with the loss and its aftermath, as they struggle to deal with the sudden reappearance of half of the world's population, an event that they have since dubbed the Blip.

Peter is hit the hardest by all of this though, who aside from mourning Tony's death must also contend with his growing affections for MJ (Zendaya). He eventually decides to tell her how he feels about her during a two-week European field trip with the rest of his class, and the help of best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), except things don't go according to plan when the Italian city of Venice, which they had been visiting at the time, is attacked by a giant water-based monster.

The attack is eventually quelled by a figure dubbed Mysterio, who is actually a man named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllehaal) working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to stop a global threat. Both men try to recruit Peter in their fight against the Elementals, but Peter is conflicted between stepping into the giant shoes left behind by Tony Stark and just being the regular teenage boy he desperately wants to be.

If Avengers: Endgame was a celebration of all the awesome movies we've had so far in the MCU, then Spider-Man: Far From Home is our first glimpse at its shining future. The movie further traces Peter's journey towards becoming the Spider-Man fans all know and love, which is bolstered by tremendous performances from its talented ensemble, with Tom Holland and Jake Gyllehaal being the immediate standouts. The story also had enough twists and turns to keep casual moviegoers on their toes, even though veteran comicbook fans would've seen most of those twists coming a mile ahead.

The greatest compliment I can pay the movie though is the fact that it works as a teen/romantic comedy as much as it does a full-fledged superhero film, and I found myself laughing more times than I could control during its runtime. It is also one of the MCU's most technically accomplished offerings till date; I caught the movie in 3D/4DX, so the visuals and experience were that much more impressive and immersive. We really felt like we were up there with Spider-Man, swinging through buildings and generally trying not to take too much of a beating.

As a huge Spider-Man fan, I am still trying to decide if Far From Home is better than Homecoming, or even my all-time favorite, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2. I don't quite have a definitive answer to that yet. There were definitely aspects in this movie that were better handled, and aspects in the last one that I absolutely adored. Perhaps a second viewing would lend more clarity to the debate, but for now, the movie is definitely up there with the aforementioned films.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Toy Story 4 (Movie Review)

I was concerned from the very moment I'd heard that a fourth Toy Story movie was in development. I mean, the third movie had already been sold as the last one in the series upon its release, and it had ended so beautifully that it was always going to be impossible to match or surpass it. Well, leave it to the masterminds at Disney and Pixar to prove us wrong, as they've not only managed to craft a worthy successor, but one that also stands as a beautiful conclusion to the entire series in its own right.

Set two years after the events of the previous film, the movie finds Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the other toys from Andy's room already settled into life in Bonnie's room, the little girl who had taken ownership of them as Andy went off to college at the end of that film. It also opens by shedding some light on the circumstances surrounding Bo Beep (Annie Potts) and her departure from the group.

At the start of the movie, Bonnie is just about to start kindergarten and is struggling to deal with first-day jitters. This is not helped by the fact that she wasn't allowed to bring any of her toys with her. To cope with this, she creates a new toy in class, fashioned out of a disposable spork, some sticks and gum, and immediately grows to love and cherish this new toy, Forky (Tony Hale), above all others. But the toy itself struggles to deal with its newfound role, believing its place is inside the nearest available trashcan.

During a family road trip, Forky ceases the opportunity to act upon his suicidal tendencies, jumping out of their moving RV, and thus leaving Woody with no choice but to go after him. This leads them on an adventure where they come across an assortment of "lost" toys that include the imaginative duo Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), the sweet but sinister doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendrix), the stunt-crazed biker, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and a certain old flame whose reappearance has Woody reconsidering his place as one of Bonnie's often forgotten toys.

If Toy Story 3 was about accepting the inevitability of growing up and moving on from childish ways, then 4 is about rediscovering your inner child while embracing life and living it to its fullest potential.This is exemplified by its two main leads, Woody and Forky, and the fact that they have so much to learn from one another, despite being at different points in their respective lives. The ending of the movie didn't quite destroy me as much as the preceding one had, but the journey it took to get there was filled with more than enough heart, laughs and visual splendor to please children and adults alike.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Movie Review)

Every other summer, there seems to be that one movie that manages to stay under the radar until just before it releases to rave reviews and strong word-of-mouth, and by so doing becomes a must-see movie event. In 2015, that was Mad Max: Fury Road. Last year, it was Mission: Impossible - Fallout.  For some reason, I really thought Godzilla: King of the Monsters would be that movie for 2019. Sadly, it is not. What we have instead is what is sure to be one of its biggest guilty pleasures.

The movie takes place 5 years after the events of the 2014 reboot to the franchise, in which the titular Titan from prehistoric times proved its place as mankind's greatest defender against others of its kind (but not before leveling both Las Vegas and San Francisco of course). It also pulls double duty by planting the first true seeds for next year's crossover with King Kong from Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla vs. Kong. But don't expect any kind of a strong connection to that movie in this one, other than a few oblique references here and there.

In the aftermath of both films, Monarch, the top-secret organization dedicated to tracking and studying Titans, has managed to develop a device called the Orca, which emits sound frequencies that can be used to control the giant monsters. It doesn't take long into the movie before that device falls into the hands of an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance) who plans on using it to control King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon-like Titan who would in turn awaken all the other Titans and bring about a much-needed cleanse of the human race from the world.

In order to stop that from happening, Monarch recruits the help of Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), co-creator of the Orca, whose ex-wife, Emma (Vera Farmiga), and daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), have been kidnapped by the eco-terrorists. He'd lost his son during the attack on San Francisco during the events of the previous movie. But now he must put aside his aversion for the Titans and work together with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) to find Godzilla, who is once again mankind's only hope and defense against the incoming Titan threat.

If none of that sounds like it makes much sense, then don't sweat it. The story is more or less an excuse to have skyscraper-sized monsters have a go at one another while wrecking everything in their path. And on those very grounds, the movie succeeds, delivering enough jaw-dropping spectacle to satisfy even the most jaded moviegoers. The problem though is that we've already gotten movies like Pacific Rim that prove that spectacle doesn't have to come at the expense of a good story.

Also lacking are the underdeveloped characters, whose motivations remain unclear or improperly realized for the most part. But it is obvious that the true stars of this movie are the giant monsters themselves, and the fact that each one looks so stunning and has been imbued with its own sense of personality needs to be applauded. I was especially wowed by Rodan, the birdlike Titan whose mere flight overhead is strong enough to cause shockwaves capable of leveling buildings.

Overall, I'd rate 2014's Godzilla higher than this sequel, despite the criticisms leveled against it for spending too much time teasing the fights between its Titans. This is simply because it gave us human characters you could actually invest in, as well as did a better job of balancing their plight with the conflict between the Titans. That said, Godzilla: King of the Monsters did feel like a logical progression from that movie, and one I might come to appreciate even more with a second viewing.