Friday, 11 October 2019

Gemini Man (Movie Review)


Not many films end up spending 20 years in development hell. But that is precisely what had happened with Gemini Man, a technothriller that was originally conceptualized way back in 1997. The main reason for this delay was the fact that it has taken that long for the technology required to bring the story to life to come into its own. I am of course referring to the film's main elevator pitch of an actor being pitted against a younger version of himself, a feat only made possible through recent advancements in CGI rendering. So how does the finished product stack up you ask? Well, not so good, but definitely not as bad as I had feared.

Directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the film stars Will Smith as an aging assassin called Henry Brogan. After barely managing to kill his latest mark without incurring some collateral damage, Henry decides to retire from life as a marksman for a government agency. His decision is met with some aversion from his superiors though, which prompts them to send one of their agents, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), undercover in order to keep an eye on him. But after Henry learns that his last target had been an innocent man, they decide to take more drastic measures to contain the situation.

This culminates in the villanious Clayton Varis (Clive Owen), director of the eponymous GEMINI, sending in his ultimate weapon, a cloned version of Henry dubbed Junior (also played by Will Smith). Having raised and trained Junior as his adopted son, Clayton tasks him with killing Henry. But when both assassins butt heads, it quickly becomes apparent that they were equally matched. And after Henry learns the true nature of his latest foe, he takes it upon himself to set things right as he tries to save his younger self from following in his footsteps.

Much of the hype surrounding the release of Gemini Man is about its use of 3D and a high-frame rate, neither of which I was able to experience as I'd seen the film on a regular 2D screen. But even in that standard format, it was still possible to tell just how ambitious Ang Lee's vision was. The action scenes were impeccably shot and choreographed, giving it a lifelike quality that was nothing short of captivating. It is just a shame that those setpieces felt like they deserved to be in a better movie, one with a less generic plot and a villain that wasn't so laughably bad.

The CGI used to create the character of Junior also needs to be commended, even though it did start to create an uncanny valley effect by the end of the movie, especially in those scenes where both characters were shown side-by-side under direct sunlight. Movies like Rogue One have already shown us what is possible with fully CGI characters, but Gemini Man somehow manages to move the needle even closer towards photorealism, thanks to some great performance capture from Will Smith in conjunction with the magic of the visual effects team.

Overall, the movie is not the unwatchable mess I'd feared it would be when I'd first caught wind of its impending release, even though its story does fall short of the high standards of its director's previous efforts.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Joker (Movie Review)


I can still remember my initial skepticism when I'd learnt that Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the title role in a standalone Joker movie. And I guess you could say that this was understandable; after all, the late Heath Ledger had already given us a nigh-on-perfect performance as the Clown Prince of Crime in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. But in retrospect, I was mainly concerned that the movie would be nothing more than a villain-centric cash grab in the same vein as last year's Venom. Well, it turns out I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier as a result.

What sets Joker apart then? Is it the film's mature take on a character whose origin is often glossed over or left to mystery in other film adaptations? Or Joaquin Phoenix's nuanced portrayal of that character in what is sure to get him a Best Actor nod at next year's Academy Awards at the very least? Or perhaps it is the fact that director Todd Phillips attempts to take comic book adaptations into previously unexplored territory and succeeds? I think it is a mix of all three factors, and much more.

Set in 1981, the film depicts a version of Gotham City on the verge of collapse. The people are increasingly unhappy with an ineffective government. An ongoing worker's union strikes means that the city streets are practically overflowing with garbage. And in the midst of all that filth and unrest lives Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who just can't seem to catch a break. He is routinely bullied and made fun of for a medical condition that sends him into uncontrollable bouts of laughter.

He is forced to work as a clown-for-hire just to make barely enough money to continue caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). But in spite of all that, he still dreams of one day appearing on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), an aging comedian he views as a father figure and the pinnacle of his aspirations. But when Arthur is attacked by a group of drunk businessmen one night after losing his job, he finally reaches breaking point and decides to fight back, an action that sets in motion a chain of events that would shake the entire city to its very core.

There is quite a lot to unpack in Joker, from its cautionary tale of how society is oftentimes responsible for giving birth to our most fearsome villains, to the way it manages to make the viewer feel actual empathy towards such people. I won't even attempt to get into such discussions here though. I would instead just state how utterly mind blowing the experience of seeing the events of this movie play out was.

Joker is another shining example of what can be done with comic book material when placed in capable hands. It is a character study that is not only thought-provoking, but also beautiful to look at. Every single scene is meticulously shot and scored to mirror the emotional rollercoaster its title character is on. And what a wild ride it was as well. Unburdened from all the overarching world-building that the typical connected universe movie has to do, Todd Phillips has crafted an origin story that would go down in history as one of the very best in filmmaking.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Rambo: Last Blood (Movie Review)


The 80s were ripe with several genre-defining movies, but as far as B-grade action movies were concerned, First Blood was easily one of the most memorable. Released in 1982, the film introduced moviegoers to the character of John Rambo, a veteran from the Vietnam War struggling with PTSD who is forced to put his wartime skills to use when he is caught in a fight for survival against the police in a small town. The film was so successful that it spawned an entire franchise. Rambo: Last Blood is the fifth and potentially final installment in the series.

In Rambo: Last Blood, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has since left his days of bloodshed behind, and taken up residence in an old family horse ranch he'd inherited from his late father. He lives there with an old friend called Maria (Adriana Barraza), who helps him care for the aging property. They also care for Maria's granddaughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), whose mother had died while she was very young. With the help of her friend, Jezel (Fenessa Pineda), Gabrielle is able to track down her estranged father, Miguel (Marco de la O), who now lives in Mexico.

Gabrielle expresses her desire to visit and reconnect with her father, a desire that both John and Maria warn her against. She proceeds to do so anyway, but while in Mexico, she is abducted by members of a Mexican cartel, who run a sex trafficking ring that is led by the two Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Menchata) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada). John learns about her disappearance and goes to Mexico to find her. Except what he finds there instead is enough to make him become unhinged once again, and he finds himself in the middle of a full-on war with the Mexican cartel.

There is very little to love about Rambo: Last Blood, from its cookie-cutter, revenge-driven storyline, to its over reliance on excessive, gratuitous amounts of blood and gore. The fact that the whole film takes a fair amount of time to kick into gear, despite its relatively short runtime, doesn't exactly help matters. You get the sense that somewhere between the jumbled mess of an uneven pacing and over-the-top violence the filmmakers were actually trying to make something thought provoking, which only serves to highlight the movie's shortcomings even more.

The best thing about Rambo: Last Blood was the montage of past films that plays over the end credits, a section that effectively charts the title character's journey from lonely Vietnam War veteran to full-blown, B-grade action hero. And that says a lot about the overall quality of a movie, when the best part is watching the end credits roll. Still, if you happen to like B-movies or like me, you grew up watching the series, then this latest (and as the title suggests, final) installment is worth checking out on the strength of its nostalgia alone.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Parasite (Movie Review)


Anyone who's been following my annual Year in Review series of posts long enough might remember that I had named Snowpiercer my favorite movie for 2014. There was just so much to love about that movie, from its mind-bending tale of the last surviving remnants of the human race being confined to an unstoppable train encircling the globe, to the way the inhabitants of the titular train were segregated according to class. It was a visually-striking action movie that proved that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho was nothing short of a visionary. And that vision is once again on full display in Parasite, a dark comedy he'd also co-written.

The film explores classism, a recurring theme in several of his works. But this time around, he does so through the lenses of two families living on opposite sides of the great economic divide in South Korea: the first are the Kims, a family of four living in a basement apartment in a rundown neighborhood, and the second are the Parks, another family of four living in a lavish mansion. The lives of both families intersect when the Kims' son, Ki-woo, gets a job as an English tutor for the Parks' daughter, Da-hye, after he is recommended by his good friend and former tutor, Min-hyuk.

Discovering that the Parks were also in search of an art tutor for their son, Da-song, Ki-woo manages to convince (read: con) the extremely gullible Mrs. Park into hiring his sister, Ki-jeong. And using similar underhanded tactics, the Kim children also secure jobs for both their parents with the wealthy family, to the detriment of the people formerly holding those jobs (like the titular Parasite). While the Parks are on a camping trip with their son, the Kims use the opportunity to take up full residence in their house. But things change one rainy night when they receive an unexpected guest who reveals a very dark secret about the Parks' luxury home.

Parasite is currently my favorite film for 2019. I know it might be too early to call it, with movies like Ad Astra, Joker and The Rise of Skywalker still on the horizon. But it is hard to imagine any of the aforementioned films managing to outshine this one. At the very least it is the current movie to beat. The movie grips you from the very beginning, with its quirky sense of humor, before taking you on a full-blown journey into the dark recesses of the director's mind. And all the while, it treats you to some truly breathtaking cinematography that effectively captures the plights of the two families at its core.

I don't think I can recommend watching Parasite highly enough. It is every bit as mind-bending as Snowpiercer, despite being anchored in a contemporary setting while exploring identical themes. It is definitely a shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, and depending on how well it performs at the US box office when it releases next month, might even score Best Picture and Best Director nods. It truly deserves the highest honors it can get, and should stand as a masterclass of film-making for many years to come.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

It Chapter Two (Movie Review)


It is very rare to see a horror film play like a Hollywood blockbuster, but that was precisely what happened with It Chapter One in 2017. The Stephen King adaptation was fueled by the love of fans of the source material, a strong sense of nostalgia for Tim Curry's portrayal of the eponymous clown in the 1990 miniseries, great reviews and good word-of-mouth, all of which would come together to propel it to become the highest grossing horror film of all time, with more than $700 million made worldwide. But that was just half of the story of what is effectively another two-part adaptation.

Set 27 years after the events of the first movie, It Chapter Two finds the seven members of the Losers' Club all grown up and living out their adult lives. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful writer that struggles to write good endings to his stories. Ritchie (Bill Hader) is a successful standup comedian. Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk assessor with an overprotective wife. Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect and has since shed all of his boyhood fat. Stanley (Andy Bean) is an accountant. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer caught in an abusive relationship with her husband.

Of the seven members, only Mike (Isiah Mustafa) had stayed behind in their hometown of Derry, Maine, after their initial defeat of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård), where he serves as the town librarian. But when the eponymous shape-shifting entity returns to terrorize the children of the town in another one of its 27-year feeding cycles, he is forced to reach out to the others, whose memories of their first encounter with Pennywise has been dulled by time and their distance away from the town, asking them to honor the blood oath they'd made as children, by returning to kill It once and for all.

It Chapter Two succeeds as an adequate followup to Chapter One, but doesn't aspire to do much else. It is helped along by some truly stellar performances by its adult cast, with Bill Hader being the obvious standout. But something about their on-screen chemistry doesn't quite gel as well as that of the child actors from the first film. Thankfully, there were quite a few flashback sequences where we got to see the kids again, which helped flesh out the narrative from the first film.

There is no denying the fact that It Chapter Two is the weaker half of director Andy Muschietti's two-part adaptation. It lacks much of the heart that made the first movie so special and tries to compensate for that with an over reliance on jump scares and spectacle. The fact that it stretches to almost three hours in length doesn't exactly help as well. Perhaps these are problems inherited from its source material. But since I never did manage to finish reading the novel, I can't really speak about how faithfully its overall narrative has been adapted here.

There are rumors of a supercut of both movies being considered for release with a narrative structure that more closely mirrors that of the book, with the action jumping back and forth between the kid and adult versions of the Losers' Club. I imagine this would run into well over 5 hours in length, but it is something I'd be interested in checking out. That said, I still believe that It Chapter Two, in its present form, is definitely worth the watch, especially if you're a fan of Stephen King and his works

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Good Boys (Movie Review)


It might come as a bit of a surprise, but till today, Superbad remains one of my favorite movies of all time. There was just something timeless about the unabashedly comical antics of its two leads. Most of that comedy gold can be attributed to the writing duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of course, the two of whom would go on to work on the equally raunchy Pineapple Express, This is the End, and Sausage Party. So from the moment I'd heard that they were producers on Good Boys, I was sold.

The film centers on the misadventures of three sixth graders who have been friends since kindergarten, Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon). Max has been harboring a crush on a classmate named Brixlee (Millie Davis), so when he is invited to his first ever "kissing party" by popular kid, Soren (Izaac Wang), he sees it as an opportunity to finally make his move. But first, he needs to learn, with some help from his friends, precisely how to kiss a girl.

His friends have got problems of their own though, with Lucas just learning that his parents are about to get a divorce, and Thor struggling to get the acceptance of the cool kids in their grade. But they put all that aside to come to Max's aid, and they of course turn to the first place anyone their age would go to for answers about the opposite sex: porn. Except this proves too much for the young boys, and they instead resort to spying on the teenage girl that lives next door with Max's dad's prized drone.

Things do not go according to plan of course, and the drone is captured by the girl, Hannah (Molly Gordon), and her good friend, Lily (Midori Francis). And when the girls refuse to return the captured drone, the boys are forced to steal one of their bags as leverage. Unbeknownst to them, the bag contains some ecstasy, and they soon find themselves being pursued by the two girls, skipping school to meet with a presumed pedophile, and more, all in a bid to set things right before the kissing party.

Good Boys is easily the funniest movie I have seen all year. Its crude humor might tether on the very edge of being overbearing, but what saves it from going that route is its powerful themes centered around friendship; the movie depicts how even long-time friendships might change and evolve over time, and how that is not only inevitable but also a welcome part of this journey we call life. The fact that it manages to do that in its relatively short runtime is also worthy of praise.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of the film would depend on how much tolerance you have for watching a group of potty-mouthed middle-schoolers thrust into increasingly inappropriate situations. But the fun comes from watching how these boys choose to navigate those situations, with their boyish naivety and overall good intentions still managing to shine through at the end of the day.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood (Movie Review)


Quentin Tarantino is easily 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 filmmaking.

The movie tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor 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 (Rafał 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 Quentin 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 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 that Quentin 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.