Friday, 7 August 2020

The Tax Collector (Movie Review)

I know we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I'd be lying if I said anything about The Tax Collector looked remotely appealing to me when I first spotted its trailer all those months ago. Everything about the movie just felt decidedly cheap, like a low-budget B-movie or one of those made-for-TV films. The sole factor that kept the movie on my radar was learning it was being helmed by David Ayer. 

So a part of me hoped this could be his next End of Watch, a film that was not only gritty and down to Earth, but also told a heartfelt story about duty and family. Well, The Tax Collector is neither of those things. It is instead an exercise in how much tolerance you have for excessive gang-related violence, and a story that ultimately goes nowhere.

That story center upon a pair of tax collectors, David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), who both work for a crime lord that goes by the name, Wizard. Their job is to collect money owed by the various criminals under their jurisdiction, in exchange for protection and their right to carryout their criminal activities undisturbed.

David is a family man, with a wife and two kids and a very large extended family. Creeper on the other hand, doesn't believe in all that familial baggage, or much else for that matter. He is a stone-cold enforcer, and together, the pair have grown to be feared by all the criminals under their watch. 

But when a rival gang leader, Conejo, comes into town, Bobby is forced to do everything he can to protect not only his territory, but his family as well as.

The Tax Collector is yet another misfire from David Ayer, and possibly the most aggravating one in his current body of work. It takes forever before anything really happens in the movie, and when it finally does, it does nothing to save the movie's further descent into unwatchable territory. 

The film isn't exactly helped by the fact that neither of its two leads are particularly likeable. These are men that engage in some of the most despicable criminal activities imaginable. So when their carefully built criminal empire starts crumbling like a house of cards, I couldn't help but feel zero sympathy for their plight.

I appreciate movies that attempt to blur the lines between good and evil. But in this film, there is simply nothing happening onscreen at any given time that can be considered a good deed, and the people we are expected to root for turn out to be irredeemable as a result. The script is also paper-thin, and its weird pacing doesn't leave any room for any kind of character development.

Avoid The Tax Collector at all cost, unless you're morbidly curious and in need of a David Ayer fix. Or you have money to burn. And even then, you'd be better served just watching the far superior End of Watch. I really hope he makes another film that delivers like that did, and soon.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

An American Pickle (Movie Review)

I've never been that big of a fan of movies where one of its main selling points is the fact that its principal actors are playing dual or multiple roles. Aside from Multiplicity, which I really enjoyed back in the day, I've always found the concept to be more of a gimmick than any else. Even in movies like Cloud Atlas that take the concept to a whole new level, I still find that it adds very little to the overall narrative.

So of course when I first heard about An American Pickle, I half expected it to be bad. But I was pleasantly surprised by this new Seth Rogen comedy, and its not-so-subtle commentaries on the world we live in today.

Released exclusively on HBO Max, the movie has Seth playing Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant that comes to America with his wife in 1919, in search of the American dream. Struggling to earn an honest living at a pickle factory, he falls into a vat of pickles during a freak accident, just as the factory was shutdown, and there he would remain, perfectly preserved, until he is discovered 100 years later.

Seth Rogen also plays his great grandson, Ben Greeunbaum, who Herschel learns is his last remaining relative. Ben is a timid mobile app developer who appears to have turned his back on his roots and Jewish beliefs. When the two men are brought together, Ben attempts to help Herschel understand the strange new world he now found himself in, while Herschels tries to help Ben rediscover his roots.

An American Pickle is a self-aware comedy that serves as a showcase for Seth Rogen. He plays the dual roles of Herschel and Ben convincingly, even if the movie itself doesn't do much with its fish-out-of-water tale, beyond using it as a lens to examine how we've chosen to live our lives today. It touches upon everything from cancel culture to how industrialization continues to drive our encroachment on nature, but doesn't do much else other than point its finger at it and laugh.

At least that's one area where the movie excels, in its gags. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, and not in the way you'd typically expect. I've always been a fan of Seth Rogen, since the days of Superbad and Knocked Up. But I was very much surprised by how tame An American Pickle felt compared to his other work, which were more often than not very crude. This is either a good or a bad thing, depending on where you stand on the presence of such jokes in these types of movies. But I personally found it refreshing that he didn't have to resort to crass humor to garner laughs here.

An American Pickle was a delight to watch and it earns an easy recommendation from me, especially if you're a Seth Rogen fan, or a fan of comedies in general.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Black is King (Movie Review)

As anyone who'd read my review for the movie might remember, I wasn't the biggest fan of the 2019 The Lion King remake. I felt the movie paled in comparison to the 1994 original, and lost something vital to its narrative in its pursuit of hyperrealism. The one aspect of the movie I remembered liking though was its soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift. The album served as a showcase for a broad spectrum of musical styles that represented contemporary African music as a whole.

So I always felt it was a bit of a shame and a waste that the actual movie never quite managed to live up to the music it inspired. Well, it seems Beyoncé must have felt that way as well because she has gone and made Black is King, a movie that is both a musical film and a visual album of sorts, serving as a worthier companion to the music she'd curated for The Lion King: The Gift.

Her movie is effectively a retelling of the same fall-from-grace story we saw in The Lion King, but this time it is told in a contemporary African setting, with a dash of surrealism thrown in. So instead of Simba the lion, we have a young African prince, who is forced out of his ancestral home and must journey through a strangely foreign land in search of answers and himself. He is guided by the spirits of his ancestors, and on the road to redemption, he discovers love and a greater purpose.

All that sounds simple enough on paper, but it is in the execution of its story that the movie truly shines. Every single frame of this movie is stunning to look at, with costumes and sets that showcase the richness of African culture, and breathtaking cinematography that manages to capture all of it in jaw-dropping detail. Beyoncé has already proven that she has an eye for such things in her past work, but never has that talent felt as remarkable as it does here.

Then there's the music accompanying all those shiny visuals. The movie contains a good number of songs from the soundtrack album, including fan favorites like Brown Skin Girl and Already. It features appearances from the likes of Jay-Z and Pharrel, and Nigerian acts like Mr. Eazi, Yemi Alade and Wizkid, to name a few. Each artist brings something fresh to the table during their performances, ensuring that the film never starts to feel stale as we move from scene to scene.

The choreography is of course as you would expect it, with Beyoncé bringing all that high energy she has come to be known for. There were so many great performances on display, that I find it hard to pick a favorite one to highlight. I guess I have to at least mention Find Your Way Back, with its sweeping dessert backdrop and celestial overtones. The song was already great to begin with, but paired with the stunning visuals, it somehow manages to breathe new life and meaning into it.

And that is the best way to describe the movie as a whole. It elevates the music in the best way possible, and the fact that it also functions as a celebration of African culture and what it means to be black and proud is just icing on an already delicious cake. Go and watch Black is King, if you haven't already. It doesn't matter if you're a Beyoncé fan or not. There's plenty to love here and I couldn't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, 24 July 2020

The Rental (Movie Review)

Have you ever felt like you're being watched? A feeling of unease and heaviness that manifests sometimes, when you are out in an open space or in the privacy of your own home. Perhaps there is someone staring at you from the window of a neighboring house, or a creature lurking somewhere in the shadows. Well, that primal fear is what Dave Franco tries to explore in his directorial debut, The Rental.

The movie tells the story of two couples that rent an idyllic vacation home for a weekend getaway. Located in the middle of nowhere (aren't they always?), the house appears to be just what the close-knit friends need, an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. So the group leaves in search of that escape, and get there to find the house is everything the Airbnb listing claimed it to be.

The one thing that was carefully left off the listing though was any mention of its creepy caretaker. Aside from his openly racist treatment of one of the group's members, Mina Mohammadi (Sheila Vand), he does very little to mask his disdain for the group as a whole. But they came there to have a good time, so of course they weren't going to let his attitude ruin their weekend plans.

Except everything isn't all peachy among the members of the group itself. First there is Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Mina's boyfriend who is fearful of having her walk out on him someday. Then we have Charlie (Dan Stevens), his older brother and Mina's business partner, whose closeness to Mina is a bit of a sore spot for his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie). It is clear that there are many unspoken truths between the friends, and it is only a matter of time before they start to unravel.

As far as directorial debuts go, The Rental is a solid effort from Dave Franco, a man that clearly has a lot of love for horror movies of old. As such, his film serves as a sort of homage to that golden era of slasher films, with its similarities to movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. If only it had been more clear with its intentions from the onset, perhaps its execution would have been more focused.

The Rental is far from perfect. It has a very slow buildup, and some tonal shifts that make it hard to label it a proper horror film. It is closer to a relationship drama, with its focus on the slowly building tensions between its four protagonists. But when the tensions eventually boil over, it is not in the way we'd been led to believe that they would. It comes in the form of our first glimpse at the slasher film Dave and crew had set out to make from the beginning.

Unfortunately, that bait and switch doesn't happen until well into the third act of the movie. And unlike a typical Quentin Tarantino movie that follows the same formula, the movie doesn't have nearly enough foreshadowing to make its eventual shift feel like any kind of a payoff. Its writing also doesn't quite hit those same lofty heights that keeps Tarantino fans hanging on every word and spoken line of dialogue.

Negatives aside, The Rental still marks a promising debut from a director that is still clearly honing his craft. So it is only a matter of time before he follows his brother's footsteps and churns out his own masterpiece, ala The Disaster Artist. And I am more than willing to see how long it takes for him to get there.

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)

It has become commonplace in today's current climate for events to get delayed or outright canceled. Everything from film festivals like SXSW to international sporting events like the Olympic Games have been affected one way or another. In the realm of Hollywood movies, we've had films like TENET and Mulan playing hopscotch together with their release date changes, so yeah, everything is kind of influx at the moment.

Greyhound is just the latest 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.

I wish I could say more about the plot of the movie, but that's about all there was to it. The movie has very little story, and this contributes to the documentary-like approach its filmmakers have opted for. The film goes from one event onto another, so that by the time the credits start rolling, you can't help but feel a little short changed.

At best, Greyhound plays like a high-budget made for TV film, and at worst, a middle-of-the-road war movie. It is fast paced, 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.