Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Happiest Season (Movie Review)

It's almost Christmas and you can expect to see more holiday-themed movies popping up just in time for the holidays, ensuring that we should have no trouble finding that Christmas spirit come December 25th. I personally enjoy watching romance comedies like Love Actually, which has been a Christmas Day staple in my household for many years now. But it looks like it is in trouble of finally being dethroned by a new romantic comedy that is all but guaranteed to become another holiday classic.

The movie stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a lesbian couple living together in Pittsburgh. It's just days before Christmas and Harper invites Abby to come and spend it with her and her family back home. Abby plans on seizing the opportunity to pop the question, despite the objections of her best friend, John (Dan Levy). But things do not go according to plan when Abby finds out that Harper was yet to come out to her parents.

And so they arrive at Harper's parent's house, with Abby having to pretend to be Harper's orphaned friend and roommate. Her father (Victor Garber) is currently trying to secure some backing for his forthcoming campaign for mayor of their town, which puts additional pressure on the entire family to be on their best behavior. But when that pressure begins to reveal a side of Harper Abby didn't know existed, she begins to have second thoughts about her proposal plans.

Happiest Season is one of the better romantic comedies out there right now. It features a solid acting ensemble, with Dan Levy in particular being a standout for his dry wit. Kristen Stewart was also decent as Abby, even though she never quite managed to soar to the same heights as the other actors. It was always a joy to see these characters play off of one another, and those were the moments were the film shone the brightest.

My only problem with the movie was with the character of Harper. There was nothing inherently wrong with the character per say, and Mackenzie Davis did a solid job overall in the role. But in the context of a romance, it was hard to see how anyone could fall in love with her, much less stay in a relationship for that long. She came across as a douche bag half the time, by making selfish decision after selfish decision, so some suspension of disbelief might be required.

All that said, I'd still recommend Happiest Season on the strength of its ensemble alone. The movie was funny and heartwarming at the same time, and shows how the holidays and family in general can bring out the best and worst in people. If you're like me and you've been looking for a movie to put a much-needed smile on your face this holiday, then you don't need to look further than Happiest Season on Hulu.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Freaky (Movie Review)

With most major tentpole movies having been pushed forward to next year, it is no wonder that smaller-scale genre films are getting their moment in the sun. This is definitely the case with the horror genre in particular, which has seen the release of quite a number of noteworthy releases this past year, with films like The Invisible Man coming to mind. We can add Freaky to that conversation, the latest Blumhouse production from the director of Happy Death Day.

The movie stars Vince Vaughn as the Blissfield Butcher, a serial killer that inadvertently switches bodies with a teenage girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton), after he stabs her with a cursed dagger. Socially awkward and frequently bullied by the kids in her high school, Millie has a hard time convincing her best friends, Nyla and Josh, that she is not who she appears to be, while the Butcher continues his murderous spree with her body. And she has just 24 hours to reverse the curse, before the switch becomes permanent.

Freaky successfully marries two movie styles that have never been seen together before, the slasher and the body swap, and the result is glorious. The film has the most fun factor of all the Blumhouse productions we have gotten this year, and most of that can be attributed to how well the whole thing fits together. It borrows quite liberally from works that came before it, for sure, but it balances horror and comedy so effectively that it never starts to feel too derivative.

Vince Vaughn also helped sell the concept even further, by giving another one of his ace performances. He was especially hilarious as Millie, with his girlie mannerism standing in sharp contrast to his imposing frame. His appearance as Millie never failed to garner a laugh from the people in the theater where I'd seen the movie, and it was easy to see why.

My one main gripe with the movie was the fact that it didn't really kick into gear until after the body swap occurred roughly 30 minutes in. This led to those first 30 minutes following a rigid by-the-numbers approach typical of most slasher films, except this was not your typical slasher film.

Freaky is a horror-comedy that is just as gruesome as it is laugh-out-loud funny. The film has some of the most over-the-top kills I have seen in a horror film, so gorehounds should be pleased by all the carnage on display. It is currently showing in theaters, but would be available on the various video on demand platforms this Friday.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Riding with Sugar (Movie Review)

One of the downsides of Netflix having such a massive library of films is the sheer amount of bottom-of-the-barrel offerings viewers need to wade through to get to the good stuff. But every now and then, a gem pops up out of the muck, shining brighter than everything else around it. I'm talking about films like last year's The Irishman and Marriage Story, or The Trial of the Chicago 7 just a few weeks back. Well, we can add another one to that growing list of gems. 

Set in the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, the movie follows a Zimbabwean refugee named Joshua (Charles Mnene), who harbors dreams of becoming a professional BMX racer. But after he is involved in a hit-and-run accident just weeks before a major competition, those dreams come to a screeching halt as he is told he might never be able to ride again.

Broken in both body and spirit, Joshua is haunted by visions of the horrors of the past life he has tried so eagerly to get away from. But when he is taken in by a professor named Mambo (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), who runs a makeshift orphanage for young refugees, he slowly regains a sense of hope and belonging, as they work together to get his life back on track.

Things start to get complicated though, after Joshua meets and falls in love with a girl named Olivia (Simona Brown). Aside from the distraction that she could pose, he also has to deal with the fact that she is from a totally different world than his. Except things in his world are not as they seem, and he'll soon have to decide how far he is willing to go to protect what he cares about the most. 

There's plenty to love about Riding with Sugar. First off, the movie is beautifully shot and tightly edited, weaving surrealist imagery into its narrative so effortlessly that it was never anything short of breathtaking to look at. Much like City of God or Slumdog Millionaire before it, the movie paints a vivid picture of life in a shanty town, and this was accomplished using some of the best cinematography I've seen in an African production.

And that mastery extended to its sound mixing, which also helped to create that heightened sense of immersion the filmmakers were going for. Maybe it was because I had seen the movie with headphones on, but I really appreciated how the mix complimented the visuals, as it should. And while on the subject of sound, its soundtrack was filled with an eclectic mix of South African music, including one of my personal favorites, kwaito. 

Then there was of course the top-tier acting done by its three principal actors. Hakeem Kae-Kazim is no stranger to big productions, having starred in films like Hotel Rwanda, so it should come as no surprise that he gave the best performance in the movie. His acting was restrained and nuanced when it needed to be, and scenery-chewing when the material called for it. 

Likewise, Charles Mnene and Simona Brown did great as the star-crossed lovers. It was easy to buy into their romance, which was well developed over the course of the movie, so that by the time the tough decisions needed to be made, no suspension of disbelief was required. If only other movies with romantic subplots would adhere to this one rule. But, oh well. 

And all that high praise does not mean that the film didn't have any issues worth touching upon. The movie tended to go a bit overboard with its surrealist imagery. There were several flashbacks to the war-torn homeland of our protagonist, as well as xenophobic riots in South Africa, which were events that helped shape his worldview. But there are only so many flaming tires rolling down a dusty street you could look at before the whole thing starts to feel old. It is hard to complain about such nitpicks though, when everything else was as well executed as it was.

In case you haven't guessed it already, Riding with Sugar earns an easy recommendation from me. The movie delivered on all its early promises, while still managing to spring a few surprises along the way. I hear that the filmmakers had spent several years developing it, and I've got to say that it shows.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Superintelligence (Movie Review)

Nowadays, there aren't many comedic actresses as bankable as Melissa McCarthy. This is not to say that she hasn't been in a number of duds over the years. But with films likes Bridesmaids and Spy under her belt, one should understand why her name carries as much weight as it does. All that is to say that expectations were high going into Superintelligence, her latest film that just released today exclusively on HBO Max.

In Superintelligence, Melissa McCarthy plays Carol Peters, a distinctly average woman who is singled out by a sentient computer program as humanity's last hope for survival. Voiced by James Cordon, the program intends to conduct a test, at the end of which it would choose to either save, enslave or destroy humanity. And the basis for that decision rests upon Carol's ability to convince it by trying to win back the affections of her ex-boyfriend, George (Bobby Canavale).

Superintelligence is a romantic comedy with a science fiction twist. It takes the familiar trope of an old couple getting back together, and adds some end-of-the-world mayhem to help spice things up. And the combination works, mostly because the film never takes itself too seriously. The gags are delivered at a fairly consistent pace, and Melissa McCarthy slips into the role of Carol quite effortlessly. But then again, this is the same role she has played at least half a dozen times now.

James Cordon was also likable as her mostly disembodied sidekick, and their interactions were always a joy to see. Likewise, Bryan Tyree Henry was also fine as her best friend, Dennis, even though he was mostly relegated to providing comic relief. The one area where I felt the film was a bit lacking was the chemistry between its two leads.

Bobby Cannavale was up to task in his role as her ex-boyfriend, but I still found his scenes with Melissa to be rather bland and somewhat forced. The movie never spent enough time establishing their romance, nor did it convincingly tell us by its end why the fate of humanity had to rest on this fairly unremarkable couple.

Superintelligence might not be one of the better Melissa McCarthy vehicles out there, but it is certainly an enjoyable enough ride for anyone looking for a few laughs and some lighthearted romance. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Christmas Chronicles 2 (Movie Review)

Kurt Russell returns for another round of family-friendly adventuring in the Netflix Christmas film, The Christmas Chronicles 2. This time around, Christopher Columbus takes over the director's chair, and he brings with him some of that Home Alone experience and Harry Potter magic. But a bigger budget or a grander script doesn't always translate into a better sequel, as is often the case with these Netflix movies.

Set two years after the first movie, we once again catch up with the Pierce family, who are busy vacationing in Mexico with their mum's new boyfriend (Tyrese Gibsons). But Kate Pierce (Darby Camp) isn't having any of it, choosing to sulk and make her displeasure known at any given opportunity. She makes a silent wish to Santa Claus, to get whisked away from the unpleasantness of it all, but gets more than she'd bargained for when a disgruntled former elf (Julian Dennison) seizes her discontent as an opportunity to set in motion a plan that would ruin Christmas for everyone.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 is another surefire hit with families and kids this holiday. Kurt Russell continues to shine as Santa Claus, much like he did in the first one, proving that the endearing qualities he'd displayed were far from a fluke. And Goldie Hawn proved to be his on-screen equal as Mrs. Claus, with the true-life couple sharing a chemistry that never once felt unnatural, even though they'd spent the bulk of the movie on separate adventures of their own.

Other additions to the cast include Jazhir Kadeem Bruno, who we recently saw in the Robert Zemeckis The Witches remake, and Tyrese Gibbons, who was looking all tall, black and muscly. The former blended quite nicely with proceedings, while the latter stuck out like a sore thumb. Blame it on the ubiquity of The Fast and Furious franchise these past few years, but I just couldn't separate his appearance here from that other role.

And with that, I transition into my biggest issue with The Christmas Chronicles 2, which was its over-reliance on CGI and spectacle. The movie leaned more heavily into its high fantasy through line, but in so doing, it loses most of the human drama at the heart of the first movie. The first film was more grounded in reality, so that by the time the magic started to happen, it felt even more magical. But here, a significant portion of the film looked like it must've been shot against a green screen, with the actor's performances and my emotional involvement suffering as a result.

The first film also had some edge to it, not being afraid to populate its tale with criminals and prostitutes, and an overall darker-than-usual approach that made it feel like it was not your typical Christmas story, which was one of the things that had surprised me at first and endeared me to it the most. This one by comparison feels like it has been scrubbed clean of all that edge, leaving yet another generic adventure story that would no doubt appeal more to the little ones.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 might be what most families need this holiday, a much-needed escape from the various horrors of 2020. Except it fails to improve on its predecessor in any significant way, while also losing much of what made that first movie so great to begin with. The result is a film that feels more like a Chronicles of Narnia knockoff than an actual The Christmas Chronicles sequel.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Hillbilly Elegy (Movie Review)

The Oscars might still be some ways out from today, but the competition continues heating up as more and more contenders start showing up for the big fight. And the latest movie that will be duking it out with the rest is the drama, Hillbilly Elegy, which released earlier today on Netflix, following a limited theatrical release earlier this month. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who is himself no stranger to the Oscars, but it is perhaps its two leading stars who will be generating the most Oscar buzz. 

Based on the 2016 bestselling book of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy explores the experiences of a young man named J.D (Gabriel Basso), a struggling Yale student on the verge of a much-needed career and financial breakthrough. But after he gets a disturbing phone call from his older sister back home, he is forced to make an impromptu trip to the backwater town where he'd been raised. And there he will be reminded of the life he had tried so hard to get away from, as he reflects on the three generations of family members that helped shape his upbringing.

Hillbilly Elegy was one of the dramatic movies I was most looking forward to this awards season. This was based solely off the strength of its marketing, and the talent involved in the movie, with both Amy Adams and Glenn Close being past Academy Awards nominees themselves. And I'm glad to report that the film didn't disappoint, at least in the acting department. Both actresses gave a pair of truly stellar performances, which helped bring their characters to life, so I'm indeed curious to see if they'll be able to make the cut at next year's Oscars.

There was also something about the movie itself that seemed to hit me on a deeply emotional level. I know that all art is subjective, and sometimes your experiences with a particular movie hinges on how relatable you find its story or characters. But something about this particular one just worked. Maybe it was its heartfelt take on family, or the way it depicted its story without the whole thing becoming too sentimental or manipulative, even though it touches upon some sensitive subject matter.

The film isn't without problems of course, and the biggest one I had was with its narrative structure. The film relied too heavily on flashbacks in my opinion, but I'm guessing this was being carried over from its source material, where such a structure would no doubt work better. But at least it was never hard to place what time any particular scene was taking place in, so there's that. It is worth noting as well that I haven't read the book the movie is based upon, so I can't speak to how well it has been adapted, or what details might have been glossed over.

Your enjoyment of Hillbilly Elegy rests upon how much you enjoy family dramas with a deep emotional core. The film is elevated by solid performances, but its execution might also be a little too muddled for most. And while you might not relate with it on the same level I did, I still think it is worthy of a watch.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Vanguard (Movie Review)

In the realm of martial arts-driven action movies, few actors are as beloved as Jackie Chan. And if there's one thing the Asian actor was known for back in his heyday, it was his outrageous stunts and the fact that he performed most of them himself. His output of late has been anything but stellar though, so for his latest film, he once again joins forces with frequent collaborator Stanley Tong, the director behind such classics like Rumble in the Bronx, as they attempt to recapture some of that old magic.

The film centers upon the titular Vanguard, a private security agency ran by Mr. Jackie Chan himself. With offices and agents in several countries around the world, his team is one of the most respected of its kind. But when a high-value client gets in trouble with a terrorist group known as Artic Wolves, it is left to the men and women of Vanguard to do everything in their power to protect him and ensure the safety of his family.

Anyone going into Vanguard expecting a globe-trotting adventure sprinkled with Jackie Chan's signature mixture of action and comedy would be pleased to know that those elements are represented in the film. Unfortunately though, their presence does little to save the film from its generic plot, or more importantly, its shoddy execution. The film simply lacked the spark it needed to keep me invested, despite having quite a few action set pieces throughout its runtime.

There is no doubt that the movie would have fared much better, had it been released 25 years ago. But action movies have quite frankly evolved since the days of the brilliant Rumble in the Bronx, and not just in the effects department. Speaking of which, the film boasts some truly questionable CGI, from lions and hyenas that look like they must've been plucked out of a bootleg version of the recent Lion King, to one of the most cartoony car chase sequences I've seen in any film till date. 

And most of that could've been overlooked, had the film managed to engage the senses in other less visceral ways. Which I guess is its greatest shortcoming, its inability to make you care about any of it. The film had none of the heart of those earlier Jackie Chan films, choosing instead to supplant that with sheer kinetic spectacle.

Vanguard is clearly a product of a bygone era of filmmaking, right down to the way it still treats Africa as a single country, rather than a continent made up of several prominent countries and cities. The film is often beautiful to look at, showcasing the beauty of its various locales, with Dubai in particular looking about as good as it would had the film been made by its Department of Tourism. But all of that beauty rings hollow in a film that is ultimately less than captivating.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Fatman (Movie Review)

Christmas movies are typically known for their wholesome qualities. Except every now and then, we get a movie that takes those qualities, and turns the whole thing over on its head. I'm talking about movies like Bad Santa or Black Christmas, movies that explore the darker side of traditional holiday practices. But I doubt if they come any stranger than Fatman, a new holiday-themed action thriller.

In the film, Mel Gibson plays Chris Cringle, or Santa Claus as he is more popularly known. Except his version of Santa Claus is unlike the typical jolly, bearded old man we've all come to know. He still goes around delivering presents on Christmas eve, but he is also a cynical drunk who has lost most of his faith in people and their ability to do good. He also happens to have some serious special ops training.

Having fallen upon tough times in his workshop due to the dwindling number of kids deserving Christmas presents, he is forced to accept a contract from the US government. But after he offends a spoiled rich kid with some shady criminal connections, by gifting him a lump of coal for Christmas, the boy sends a trained assassin (Walton Goggins) after him. 

Fatman is a satirical take on traditional Christmas beliefs. The movie is also part character study, choosing to focus its lens on a Santa Claus that struggles to bear the weight of the declining morality of the children he is supposed to reward or punish every year. And Mel Gibson puts his full weight into the performance, so that the movie never started to feel cheesy or too self-aware.

But even though the movie retains most of the fantastical elements surrounding the Santa Claus legend, none of that is fully explored as it chooses to sidestep most of it with an approach that is more grounded in reality. This could either please or annoy you, but it just makes the movie's scope feel a lot smaller than it really was.

For all of its holiday-inspired ambitions, Fatman still plays like a typical revenge-driven action thriller. The movie is devoid of any kind of Christmas cheer, nor is it funny enough to be considered a true comedy. But it offers an interesting enough spin on Christmas movies that make it worth checking out on the strength of its premise alone.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

The Princess Switch: Switched Again (Movie Review)

Vanessa Hudgens returns for another round of holiday-inspired romance in The Princess Switch: Switched Again, the sequel to the 2018 Netflix original film, The Princess Switch. And once again, she plays the dual roles of Stacy and Margaret, much like she'd done in the previous film. Only this time around, things are taken up a notch with the introduction of a third lookalike for her to play. But more doesn't necessarily equate to better, especially when that more is more of the same.

The movie is set about a year after the events of the previous film. A lot has happened since that first movie apparently. Margaret Delacourt had lost her father, the King of Montenaro, and her cousin has chosen to abdicate his rightful position as ruler, meaning that she was now the heir to the throne. She'd also ended her relationship with Kevin (Nick Sagar), who had chosen to focus on running the bakery rather than support and embrace her return to royalty.

Then there's Stacy DeNovo, who juggles most of her time between her new duties as Princess of Belgravia and her continued love for baking. This is coming at the expense of quality time with her husband, Prince Edward (Sam Palladio), who has started to feel like he might be running the risk of losing her.

But arguably the biggest change since the first movie was Kevin's daughter, Olivia, who has been recast. I'm not sure why that was, but I'd immediately felt Alexa Adeosun absence. The new girl lacked most of the spunk the former actress had shown in the first movie, even though she did manage to do a decent enough job.

Anyways, back to the story, which centers upon Margaret's forthcoming coronation. She invites all her friends to attend the ceremony in Montenaro, including Kevin, who still harbors feelings for her. Stacy and Olivia makes it their mission to help the two of them patch things up. But among the guests attending the coronation is one Lady Fiona Pembroke (also played by Vanessa Hudgens), Margaret's rather eccentric cousin, who just happens to have a mission of her own, a rather nefarious one.

I know this is only the second film in the series, but you can already start to feel the law of diminishing returns set in while watching The Princess Switch: Switched Again. The jokes were nowhere as funny as they were in the first movie (not that the jokes in that movie were particularly funny either). Same goes for the chemistry between our four leads, which had none of the spark from before. What we have left then is another holiday-themed romantic comedy with a rather flimsy premise.

The movie shows us that Stacy and Margaret had agreed to switch places once again to allow Margaret spend some quality time with Kevin. But it also revealed that all Margaret had planned for that day was to attend a Christmas concert. If her schedule for the day was so light to begin with, then why make the Switch in the first place? These kinds of plot holes are what you can expect from a Netflix romantic comedy, I know, but still...

Flimsy premise aside, The Princess Switch: Switched Again is a rehash of an overly familiar formula, which can either be a good or a bad thing, depending on what your feelings were about the first movie. So if you weren't a fan of that film's by-the-numbers approach to romance and comedy, then I'm afraid there's nothing here that could help win you over. But if you happen to buy into all of that, then this new one just might offer you some half decent Christmas-themed entertainment.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Jiu Jitsu (Movie Review)

I can usually tell if a film is a B movie just by taking a glance at some of its promotional material, be that a poster or a full-blown trailer for the film. And from the first moment I saw Jiu Jitsu, it had B movie written all over it. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course. I've seen my share of B movies that turned out decent for what they were. So I was going to give Jiu Jitsu a fair shot. But as I quickly found out while watching the film, some movies just shouldn't be touched, even with a stick.

This particular one opens with a chase between a man (Alain Moussi) and an invisible foe, at the end of which the man is mortally wounded. He passes out only to wake up later, patched up, but with no memory of who he is or what his mission was. The typical setup for these types of films. Anyways, our hero has to deal with a bad case of amnesia, while we the audience are left just as clueless. The truth is the film's story barely makes any sense, so I'll try to do my best to cough out a summary.

Basically, there's this comet that passes the Earth every six years, and when it does it tears open a portal from which a jiu jitsu fighting alien emerges. Yep. You heard that right. A jiu jitsu fighting alien. And in true Predator style, the alien would do battle with 9 chosen human warriors, until it is satisfied it has gotten a good fight. And our hero just happens to be one of the 9 warriors chosen for the alien to do battle with, during its current visit. At least I think that's the basic gist of it.

I'm not sure what I was expecting precisely, when I'd decided to watch Jiu Jitsu. Definitely not something that looked like it was shot in someone's backyard though. The effects were about as good as you can expect from any B movie, which is another way of saying not very good, but it was in fact the nonstop action and wooden acting that made it feel like I was watching something made by a bunch of 13 year olds. After about 30 minutes into the movie, I sincerely felt like I was watching martial arts porn. That's how relentless and over-stylized the fight scenes were.

This was made worse by the fact that the editing in-between those fight scenes was so choppy that it almost felt like significant portions of the film were missing. But I suspect it is just the story itself that wasn't making any lick of sense. The movie employees a comic-book-inspired style to smooth out the transitions from scene to scene, but that didn't really help in the way the filmmakers must have imagined they would.

The movie's one saving grace then was the inclusion of Nicolas Cage (which in retrospect was probably the only reason why I wanted to see the movie in the first place), even though he didn't make an appearance until about halfway into it. He isn't exactly a stranger to these low-budget action flicks, so he was able to fully embrace the silliness of the role, plus you've got to respect an actor that can deliver that much cheesy dialogue with a straight face.

If it wasn't apparent already, Jiu Jitsu is a film that is best avoided by anyone other than the most devoted of action junkies. But if you can switch your brain off for an hour and forty minutes, and just revel in all the B-movie glory on display, then you might be able to glean some enjoyment out of it.