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.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Movie Review)


Long before singing competitions started to spring up everywhere like weeds, The Eurovision Song Contest was the main platform for European musicians hoping to jump start their careers. Over the years, it helped put superstar acts like ABBA and Celine Dion in the public eye. But with the coronavirus throwing a wrench in pretty much everyone's plans this year, the closest thing we'll be getting to the competition in 2020 is the romantic comedy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

The movie stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, the duo making up the titular Icelandic band, Fire Saga. The pair have been friends since early childhood, sharing a love for music that drives their dream of one day representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest. This is despite the fact that they are considered terrible by pretty much everyone in their small town, most especially Lars' father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan).

But following an unlikely chain of events, the singers are given the opportunity to live out that dream. The question though is will they be able to handle the pressures of being on the world stage, with its bright lights, theatrics and overproduced dance routines? Or more importantly, would their 15 minutes of fame affect their long-time friendship as well as their growing romance?

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is funny more often than not, and unsurprisingly, has a lot of heart. And a lot of that has to do with its two leads. Will Ferrell is no stranger to playing a man child, having done so in such comedies like Elf and Step Brothers. So his performance here is more or less what you would expect from him at this point, and whether you find some of his gags funny or not might depend on your tolerance for penis jokes.

Rachel McAdams on the other hand shows some serious singing chops, bringing a level of believeability to the various performances. I would even go as far as say she could stand a chance in an actual Eurovision Song Contest. That said, the movie itself is far from perfect.

My main issue stems from its uncertain tone; you can never truly tell if the filmmakers had set out to make a parody of the Eurovision Song Contest, or a homage, making it hard to decide if we should be laughing at the performances, or singing along. The movie probably sits somewhere in-between. And while I would have preferred if it was just a smidgen shorter than its two-hour-plus runtime, it never truly overstays its welcome or slows to a crawl like some other comedies tend to do.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Wasp Network (Movie Review)


Wasp Network is the latest Netflix acquisition to debut on the streaming platform. It was written and directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and is based on the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, which was itself based on the true life story of the eponymous spy organization whose members were sent to Miami to gather intel during the tail end of the Cold War.

Back in the early 90s, the communist nation of Cuba was under a lot of pressure from anti-Castro groups working out of Miami. Some of those groups went as far as coordinating terrorist attacks on the nation in a bid to discourage and destabilize its tourism industry. To counter their activities, the Cuban government sanctions and sends a number of spies to infiltrate those groups and report back on their operations.

René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez) was one of those spies, an airplane pilot who is leaving behind his wife (Penélope Cruz) and young daughter under the guise of defecting to the US. He is joined by Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a Cuban officer who had surrendered at Guantanamo Bay, and together with their leader, Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), they must navigate an intricate web of lies and double crosses as they try to bring down "the revolution."

Wasp Network explores an interesting slice of history and does so from a point of view that is seldom given this much attention. The movie is beautiful to look at, and boasts strong performances by its casts. I especially loved Ana de Armas, who I have loved since her star-making turn in Blade Runner 2049, and more recently in Knives Out, a performance that had earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier in the year.

But apart from some great cinematography and strong acting, Wasp Network doesn't have much else going for it. At least nothing in the way of actual suspense. The movie attempts to juggle too many things at the same time with its plot, and as a result, doesn't come across as strongly as it could have. Still, if you fancy a history lesson, then you can be rest assured that it is at least watchable on those terms.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

You Should Have Left (Movie Review)


Blumhouse has earned a reputation for delivering the goods when it comes to low-budget horror films. And with the recent success of The Invisible Man, it is clear that theirs is a formula that works more often than not. You Should Have Left is just the latest in a long string of such titles, and when it was announced that the film would be skipping theaters in favor of a VOD release, I was simply happy we wouldn't have to wait for theaters to reopen before we got to see it.

Written and directed by David Koepp, the film stars Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried as a married couple with a lot of secrets and emotional baggage. In a bid to save their relationship, they both decide to book a vacation with their daughter at a house located in a remote Welsh village. But as they soon find out upon getting there, there is more to that house than its beauty reveals.

You Should Have Left is a psychological horror film that borrows a little too heavily from others that came before it. The premise of the film is intriguing enough, and I especially thought the way it manipulated our perception of space and time during its narrative was neat. But the fact remains that this is merely another haunted house movie, and we've already gotten quite a few of those.

The movie thankfully doesn't rely on too many jump scares, but then again, we didn't get any quality scares of any kind either. And therein lies the film's biggest problem, that jaded feeling of knowing everything that is about to happen before it does. I won't go as far as calling it underwhelming, but I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat either.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of You Should Have Left hinges on what you're expecting to get out of it going in. If you're looking for something cerebral and deeply unsettling, then you'll most likely come out disappointed. But if you're merely looking for something to pass the time, I was definitely captivated enough by the story to see it through to its end, but just barely so.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

The King of Staten Island (Movie Review)


Comedy, like all other art forms, can be highly subjective. The same material can hit different people in different ways, depending on everything from their personal experiences, their beliefs and ideologies, or even how they happen to be feeling that day. So when I'd heard The King of Staten Island being labelled as "unfunny" in early reviews, I went into the movie with my expectations tempered. Which probably explains why I ended up laughing so hard during its over 2 hours runtime.

Directed by Judd Apatow, the film serves as an autobiography of sorts for star, Pete Davidson, much in the same way that 8 Mile mirrored Eminem's life prior to achieving superstardom. Pete plays Scott, a young aspiring tattoo artist with ADD. His father was a firefighter who died when he was 7, and ever since, Scott has been struggling to find a sense of purpose in life, and now spends his days hanging out with his stoner friends.

But after his younger sister goes off to college, his mum (Marisa Tomei) starts to crave companionship. This leads her to start dating Ray (Bill Burr), a man who Scott finds out is also a firefighter like his dad. Devastated by the prospect of his mum ending up with Ray, Scott is determined to do everything in his power to ensure their relationship ends badly. Except things don't exactly play out as planned.

Judd Apatow has worked on some of my favorite comedies in recent memory, but The King of Staten Island is possibly his most heartwarming one till date. It balances the heaviness of its subject matter with just the right amount of dark humor, and a lot of that can be attributed to its star. Pete Davidson really carries this movie with an effortless charisma that is both relatable and alien at the same time.

A lot of his actual DNA can be seen throughout the film, like the fact that his real-life father had been a firefighter who died during 9/11, or that he also suffers from Crohn's disease and partakes in the use of recreational drugs, or his real-life love for the music of Kid Cudi. The movie might feel a bit long as a result of exploring these things with this level of depth, but it never ceases to be captivating.

The King of Staten Island might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like dramatic comedies or Judd Apatow movies specifically, then it is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Artemis Fowl (Movie Review)


Disney is no stranger to putting out the occasional dud, so it might come as no surprise that their latest release is one of them. The warning signs were all there after all, from the many years it spent in development hell, to the uninspiring trailers that eventually started to materialize, to the fact that it was being put on Disney+ and foregoing a theatrical release. Except none of that was enough to prepare me for the king of duds that Artemis Fowl has turned out to be.

I'd be lying if I said the plot of the movie made any lick of sense to me, but there is at least enough to come up with a general synopsis. From the little I could gather, the film centers on a boy genius named Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw making his acting debut). He is a kid that routinely gets into trouble at school for his lack of respect and empathy for his teachers and peers. So, yeah, he is kind of a schmuck and a brat to boot.

Well, that kid is eventually drawn into an underworld of sorts, where fairies and magic exists, when his father (also named Artemis Fowl and played by Collin Farrel), a famous antiques collector, disappears after being accused of stealing several priceless relics. Apparently, Artemis Fowl Snr. has been kidnapped by a mysterious figure from the fairy world and is being held ransom in exchange for a magical artifact called the Aculos, so it is up to Artemis Fowl Jnr. to save him.

I am not too familiar with the source material, so I can't really speak to how well it has been adapted here. What I can comment on however is how well the basic elements that are supposed to make up a movie come together, or in this case, fail to. Everything from its unlikable lead, to its messy plot and hideous special effects, to the cheesy dialogue and just as cheesy delivery. The whole thing comes together in a way that is sure to generate enough laughs and internet memes to last us many years.

It is hard to imagine how this movie was actually expected to kickstart an entire franchise, when all it has going for it is the involvement of a few A-list Hollywood stars. You've got to feel sorry for an actress as talented as Judi Dench though, starring in two back-to-back duds like Cats and Artemis Fowl within the space of six months. This was clearly nothing more than a paycheck for her. And if not, then I sincerely hope she gravitates back towards the kind of roles that endeared her to so many fans.

For a movie that is populated by magical creatures doing magical things, it amazes me just how much Artemis Fowl seems to lack magic of the cinematic kind. This was something that the Harry Potter movies always had in spades, so it is a bit of a shame to see just how much this one misses the mark.

As for the prospects of a sequel happening anytime in the future? Only time would tell I guess. It could very well end up finding some kind of cult following amongst its target demographic on Disney+, or receive the reboot treatment and get adapted into a TV show instead. Let's just hope that it doesn't get botched this badly if that happens.

Da 5 Bloods (Movie Review)


The Oscars might still be a good couple of months away, but boy does it feel like things are heating up already. First we had Elisabeth Moss giving a career-best performance in Shirley, now its Delroy Lindo stealing every scene in Da 5 Bloods. But the latest Spike Lee joint has a lot more to offer than just great performances. It also boasts the director's unique vision as well as a heartfelt story.

That story is of course about Da 5 Bloods, a group of soul brothers that fought together through the horrors of the Vietnam War. Several decades after the war has ended, the men decide to reunite in Vietnam. Their mission is two fold: bring back the remains of their fallen comrade, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and recover a shipment of gold they had found in a downed plane and left buried in the jungle.

At two and a half hours in length, the movie feels long enough for its subject matter, but never overstays its welcome. Its first act is carried along by the depictions of the bond and camaraderie between the Bloods. Delroy Lindo's performance as Paul, the self-appointed leader of the group, needs to be acknowledged at this point. He captures the fear and anger, the kind that can only be born through the pain and anguish of warfare, and does it so accurately that his acting elevates the material.

In many ways, Da 5 Bloods feels like an apology by Netflix for The Last Days of American Crime. It is just as timely and emotional as the latter was tone deaf and soulless. It tackles social issues that are just as relevant today as they were back when these men fought in Vietnam, but it never ceases to be bold, funny and/or thrilling while doing so, which is more than we can say about that other film.

The fact that the movie is also beautifully shot, tightly edited and well scripted only goes further to elevate the experience. Flash backs are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with film grain effect to simulate old-time war footage. This works well enough to differentiate the multiple time jumps that dot the movie, and the decision to not digitally de-age the principal actors in these scenes is an interesting choice.

Spike Lee has proven once again why he is still considered one of the visionary directors working today. That Da 5 Bloods is coming right off the heels of BlacKkKlasman is proof that we haven't seen everything he has to offer yet. You can definitely expect to see the movie on my list of favorites by the end of this year, as it is easily one of the best movies I have seen so far.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Shirley (Movie Review)


After that poor excuse for entertainment I reviewed yesterday, I was in need of some good-natured palate cleansing. Lucky for me, Shirley had also been released on video-on-demand (VOD). The movie made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won its director, Josephine Decker, a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Autuer Filmmaking. So, yes, it sounded like just what I needed right now.

The film stars Elisabeth Moss as the eponymous writer, Shirley Jackson. Like most writers of renown, Shirley is considered by many to be very eccentric. She barely steps out of her home, preferring to spend most of days trying to complete her latest work. But after she and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), welcome a young couple into their home, their arrival turns out to be just the spark she needed to get her creative juices flowing again.

On the flip side of the equation are Rose and Fred Nemser, the young couple played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman respectively. They move in with the wide-eyed ambition of starting a life together in someplace new, with Fred hoping to get tenure at Stanley's university. But things take an unexpected turn after Stanley requests that Rose help look after their home, and by extension, his wife, Shirley.

As far as autobiographical dramas go, Shirley is an unconventional take that succeeds in ways that recent efforts like Capone just couldn't. Much like that other film, it attempts to blur the lines between fact and fiction, even employing literary devices that mirror the kind of stories its protagonist was renowned for. The fact that viewers are never left scratching their heads is a testament to its direction and screenplay, areas where that other movie fell flat.

But none of that would have come across as strongly as it did if it wasn't for the mesmerizing performance at the heart of the movie. Elisabeth Moss might have already proven her acting chops in The Invisible Man, but her performance here is very much deserving of an Academy Award consideration. And she isn't even the only standout, not with Michael Stuhlbarg and Odessa Young serving as capable foils.

It's too early to talk Oscar considerations, especially now that the movie industry is in a state of uncertainty with most theaters still being closed. But when that time comes, I'll be surprised if Elisabeth Moss isn't at least mentioned as one of the frontrunners for Best Actress. But come what may, Shirley contains one of the year's most buzz-worthy performances so far, and it is worth experiencing for that reason alone.