Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Craft: Legacy (Movie Review)

Keeping with Hollywood's fetish for resurrecting old properties, Blumhouse serves up its latest release, The Craft: Legacy. The film is itself a sequel to the 1996 film, The Craft, though one could argue that it also functions as a soft reboot. The original film told the story of four teenager girls who dabble in some witchcraft, but end up biting on more than they could chew. And this time around, we have a new group of four teenager girls who, you guessed it, also dabble in some witchcraft.

The movie begins with a girl named Lily (Cailee Spaeny) moving to a new town with her single mum (Michelle Monaghan), to live with her soon-to-be stepfather, Adam (David Duchovny), who has three sons of his own. After suffering a rather embarrassing first day at her new school, Lily is approached by three girls, Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lourdes (Zoey Luna), who come to her aid.

The three girls soon grow to discover that Lily has certain innate abilities, and they immediately move to indoctrinate her into their coven, being gifted witches as well. But as the four of them begin to explore the full extent of their powers, it isn't without some dire consequences for those around them.

Calling The Craft: Legacy a horror film is like calling a bowl of cereal a home-cooked meal. Sure, you can probably get by for a few hours on that one bowl, but it would only get you so far. The same principle applies here, as the movie simply lacks any kind of scares or enough thrills to sustain you through its thankfully short runtime. At best, it is a teen drama with supernatural horror elements. 

And this is in no way an inherently bad thing. I mean, even the first movie tended to focus on the growing tensions between the four girls more than anything else. But my problem with the movie stems from the fact that I didn't find any of the girls in this one that likeable to begin with. We barely get to know them in any meaningful way, and the little we got in the way of fleshing out their back stories was just not enough to give the characters any kind of depth.

But what bothered me the most about The Craft: Legacy is the fact that the film as a whole failed to intrigue in any way, shape or form. It started well enough, adhering to the same basic setup we got in the original film. And some of the teen drama that filled its first half wasn't all that bad as well. But the film quickly veered into unwatchable territory by the time it arrives at the final act, which culminated in a finale that was so underwhelming that it was almost laughable.

I really did try to enjoy The Craft: Legacy, a lot more than I ended up doing. And I was fully prepared to overlook many of its shortcomings too, if only it had managed to justify its existence in any meaningful way, by the time the credits started to roll. But the movie ultimately left me wondering what the point of the overarching narrative was, outside of trying to setup yet another sequel.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Bad Hair (Movie Review)

Justin Simien is perhaps best known as the talent behind the critically-acclaimed movie and TV show, Dear White People. But in his latest film, Bad Hair, he applies some of the social commentary and dry wit that other film was known for, into what is essentially a supernatural horror film about a killer weave. I'm sure we've all had or heard stories of particularly bad hair days, but trust me when I say it doesn't get much worse than this.

Set in 1989, the film follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), a young woman working as a production assistant at a music television station. She has always longed for the opportunity to get to host and produce her own show, but her goal remains well out of arms reach. This has something to do with her nappy hair, which she has left untreated ever since a childhood hair relaxer burn left her scarred.

But when the TV station receives a new executive producer named Zora (Vanessa Williams), Anna finally gets a chance to go up the corporate ladder amidst a major rebranding. And when she gets cautioned by the new boss about the state of her hair, she decides to face her fears and get a weave. But following a very excruciating appointment at a fancy salon, she gets more than she'd bargained for when the hair starts to take on a life of its own.

Bad Hair is at its best when it fully leans into the ridiculousness of its premise. The film exudes a low-budget horror movie style that is further enhanced by its late 80s setting. If only it had done so more often, especially during the earlier portions of the film, which was marred by pacing issues. There were also times when it was unclear whether the events unfolding in the movie were meant to be taken at face value.

There was no doubt a lot of social commentary under the depiction of the literally horrors black women have to go through just to look acceptable in our various societies. But I feel the movie could have done a better job at presenting those ideas without the connection being either too vague or telegraphed too heavily. This is a delicate balance that some of the best horror directors are able to maintain in their works, and that is the yardstick I am using to measure this particular one.

Bad Hair ultimately offers enough laughs and cheap scares for me to recommend it to anyone looking for a horror comedy to watch during the lead up to Halloween. Just don't go in expecting it to be the next Get Out or Night of the Living Dead.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Movie Review)

Back in 2006, a certain mockumentary was released with the sole intention of making fun of the seedier side of American culture. I am of course referring to the Sacha Baron Cohen creation, Borat, a film that was just as funny as it was offensive. The movie was not only a critical and commercial success, it also catapulted the character of Borat into the upper echelons of comedy, not to mention the public consciousness. 

So one of the biggest challenges with attempting to do a sequel, even all these years later, was how to deal with the character's current celebrity status. A lot of the gags in the first movie were unscripted, and they worked because no one knew who Borat was at the time. It seems that Sacha Baron Cohen has figured out just the right way to get around the problem, because his new movie is just as funny and offensive as ever.

We are taken back to the "once glorious nation of Kazakhstan" at the start of the film, and the film immediately sets off by retconning the first one's ending, where Borat had received a hero's welcome after finishing his documentary. It turns out that he had in fact brought shame upon the entire country, and was currently rotting away in prison for his actions. At least until he is once again called upon by his government for another mission.

This time around, he is to deliver a gift (read: bribe) to the US president, Donald Trump, through the vice president, Michael Pence, all in a bid to get Kazakhstan back into the good graces of the current US government. So he journeys to the US once again, with a lone cameraman to document his mission (apparently, his producer from the last film hadn't received a punishment as lenient as the one he'd gotten). 

It doesn't take long before things go off the rails though, after he loses the gift he was supposed to be delivering, and discovers that his daughter had stowed away with him in a bid to accompany him on his mission. Now he is forced to improvise, or risk getting executed in the most gruesome way imaginable.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is Sacha Baron Cohen doing what he does best. The film is just as funny as the first one, even though a lot of that first film's novelty has been lost in the 14 years since 2006. This is not to say that this new one doesn't manage to do a few things better than its predecessor.

The biggest improvement came in the form of a fully-developed story, which in turn allowed for way more character development than the first movie could accommodate. Unlike the first movie, which was effectively just a series of gags that were edited into something resembling a narrative after the fact, this one felt more like an actual film.

Also worthy of praise is the inclusion of Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat's daughter, Tutar, in the movie. She's put in a star-making turn with her performance, and I am eager to see her take on even more comedic roles in the future. Hopefully we don't have to wait another 14 years for another sequel before that happens.

Sacha Baron Cohen once again succeeds at poking fun at various American values and belief systems, from the new to the less trendy and archaic. The fact that his latest film still manages to tell a heartfelt story, with one of the best twist endings I've seen in a while, only further strengthens the case for why this movie is as effective in its social commentary today as the first movie was in the midst of the war on terror, and why we are all better for it.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Witches (Movie Review)

The spooky season festivities move over to HBO Max this week, with its release of The Witches, an adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl children's book. Originally slated for a global theatrical release, the movie is instead debuting on the streaming service because... COVID.

This is actually the second time the book is being adapted into a feature film, since its publication in 1983, the first being a film released in 1990. I have neither read the book nor seen that previous movie, so consider this my unbiased assessment of the new film, which is being helmed by Robert Zemeckis.

The movie is set in Alabama during the 1960s, where a young boy named Charlie (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is forced to go and live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), after his parents die in a car accident. And there she would help him to overcome his grief as best as she could. But after Charlie has an encounter with a strange woman one day, he'd learn from his grandmother that the strange woman was in fact a witch, and that they hated children. 

In a bid to protect him from the clutches of this particular witch, they both go to stay at a fancy hotel. But unbeknownst to them, that very hotel was to be the meeting ground for a coven of witches led by The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). Charlie uncovers their nefarious plan to turn all the kids in the world into mice, but not before he is turned into one himself. Now it is up to him and his newfound friends to foil the witches.

Robert Zemeckis has been accused of being infatuated by special-effects in his past works, and The Witches isn't much different. The effects themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, with most of it coming across as unconvincing, despite an obvious effort to make them pop. At least the designs for the witches look creepy enough to be fascinating, and I imagine younger kids might even find some of it frightening.

Anne Hathaway also brings the Grand High Witch to life with an electrifying performance that, while it might not win her any awards, was still a delight to see. Likewise Octavia Spencer continues to shine, even though this is a role for which she continually gets typecast. At least she didn't give a phoned in performance like I'd feared she would.

Overall, The Witches is a middle-of-the-road dark fantasy film that might manage to please younger kids. Parents shouldn't be too bored during its proceedings either, especially if they have some level of nostalgia for its source material. And while I can't speak to how well it compares to the book or its 1990 adaptation, I can still see this version offering some kid-friendly fun this Halloween.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Clouds (Movie Review)

One of the most powerful things about movies is their ability to inspire us. And let's face it, we all could use a good inspirational story from time to time, with the world being in the present state that it is in, and most of us having to deal with our own personal struggles on top of that. This is one of the reasons why I consider movies like Wonder and The Fault in our Stars to be required viewing. Clouds is another movie I would add to that category, a musical drama that recently debuted on Disney+.

Clouds is a true-life drama about a teenager named Zach Sobiech (Fin Argus). He is doing his best to live a normal life while also dealing with cancer, a burden that is also borne by his entire family and best friend, Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter), with whom he performs in a cover band. Zach refuses to let his condition dictate how he views the world, always being quick to make light of heavy situations. But after his condition becomes terminal, its full gravity starts to weigh on him.

Having run out of other options, his mother discovers a certain cave in France with water that is claimed to have healing properties. So she convinces the entire family to go on a vacation that would at the very least give Zach an opportunity to see the world. But during his visit to those caves, Zach experiences an epiphany that would reignite his love for music, a love that would eventually lead him to pen the inspirational indie folk song, Clouds.

After Sammy uploads a video of them performing the song to YouTube, they start to garner a following. This would eventually attract the attention of the press, who were eager to tell Zach's story and his unwillingness to let his illness stop him from chasing his dreams. They would go on to land a deal with a major record label, after which the song begins to get airplay on the radio. And Zach is perfectly happy to continue writing music. Except it is only a matter of time before his illness catches up with him.

I'll confess that I'd never heard the song, Clouds, prior to seeing this movie, nor heard anything about the story behind its composition. In fact, the only two things I knew about the film going into it was that it was based on a true-life story, and that it was a potential tearjerker, neither of which could have really prepared me for just how heart-wrenching it was.

But beyond the inherent sadness of the story the movie sets out to tell lies a very strong message. Granted, this is a message that is heavily telegraphed in the song from which the movie takes its title, but it was still refreshing to see it get beautifully realized over the course of the movie. Which is my way of saying you'll most likely cry during this movie, but not for the reasons you might be thinking.

It is easy for us to get so wrapped up in our day-to-day struggles that we neglect to chase after our dreams, or to enjoy the journey on our way to achieving those dreams. To quote a line directly from the movie, "You don't have to find out you are dying before you start living." And there is nothing more excruciating than having to watch a loved one die. But I was happy to see that Clouds handled its subject matter with all the sensitivity and nuance it deserved.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Love and Monsters (Movie Review)

If there is one thing Hollywood writers are good at, its thinking up increasingly imaginative ways our world could come to an end. We've had scenarios involving aliens, viral outbreaks, nuclear winters, and just about every other nasty thing under the sun. Well, now we can add giant insects and amphibians to that list, because that is precisely what happens in the new post-apocalyptic adventure film, Love and Monsters.

In the film, humans have been forced to live in underground bunkers after mutated monstrosities rise to the top of the food chain. Dylan O'brien stars as Joel, a young man struggling to adjust to life with his colony. It's been seven years since he got separated from his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), during the extinction level event that started it all. But he hasn't given up hope of reuniting with her one day.

His days aren't made any less unpleasant by the fact that he is the only one in the colony that doesn't have a romantic partner, or the fact that he is considered the runt of the pack, with his tendency to freeze up whenever a monster shows up. But when he reestablishes contact with Aimee through a radio one day, and learns that she is in a colony just 85 miles from his current location, he decides to face his fears and embark on the perilous journey across the surface to get to her.

Love and Monsters is a fun post-apocalyptic action-adventure film with horror-comedy elements. I especially loved the world-building and creature designs, two things I typically keep an eye out for in these types of movies. And this one definitely didn't disappoint in those departments. The cities and towns are overgrown with foliage, with vestiges of the civilizations that once thrived there still visible. None of it felt cheap or unconvincing either, and the creatures themselves were terrifying in a goofy sort of way.

The movie was also lighthearted without losing any of its emotional intensity. Most of that could be attributed to Dylan O'brien, who proves to be a more than capable lead. He is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fare either, having starred in all three Maze Runner films. But he gets to shine in this movie in a way that he wasn't able to in those other movies. There was something very inspiring about his hero's journey, and I found myself rooting for him every step of the way.

Love and Monsters should offer enough to please fans of post-apocalyptic movies. Sure, we've had similar movies that hit the same general beats, with Zombieland and Warm Bodies being the most recent ones that come to mind. But there's just something about this one that makes it another easy recommendation from me.

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Movie Review)

Aaron Sorkin returns to the director's chair for The Trial of the Chicago 7, the highly-anticipated legal drama he'd written all the way back in 2007. The movie is based on the true-life story of the men that were prosecuted for inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Already considered by some to be a top contender at next year's Academy Awards, the movie has just landed on Netflix and I'm here to tell you whether or not it is worthy of all that praise.

The movie features an ensemble that includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton and others. Its events take place after the 1968 riot between Anti-Vietnam War protesters and the Chicago police, chronicling what took place during the trial of the eight men accused of inciting that riot, while taking certain liberties for dramatization purposes of course. And like any good courtroom drama, we get to see events unfold from both sides of the case.

The prosecution is being led by Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man introduced as one of the best prosecutors of the time. And he appears to have the full backing of the U.S. Government. From the very first day of trial, it is clear that the appointed judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langelia), has nothing but disdain for all eight defendants. Except one cannot deny the noble cause behind the actions of the men. So it is left to their defense counsel, led by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), to convince the jury of their collective innocence.

Expectations were high heading into The Trial of the Chicago 7, and I am pleased to report that the film did not disappoint. The movie is not only a top contender at next year's Oscars, it is the current frontrunner in several categories. Aaron Sorkin once again proves his mastery for crafting incredible dialogue that is funny when it needs to be, but never anything other than real or heartfelt.

The movie is carried along by strong performances across the board, but it was Sacha Baron Cohen that gave the most showstopping performance of the bunch. He embodied the free-spirited nature of Abbie Hoffman, while still bringing to life his undeniable intelligence. Mark Rylance is also worthy of an honorable mention, for his laidback delivery and frustrated outbursts.

There's an undeniable timeliness about The Trial of the Chicago 7 that can be related to much of what is happening in the world today. Whether it is in the ongoing #EndPoliceBrutality protests being held by Nigerians all over the world, or in the #BlackLivesMatter movement that inspired them.

It is our right to protest any perceived injustices in our collective societies, whether they are being perpetrated by government-run institutions like the police, or by the government itself through unfair decisions, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 serves as a celebration of that right, and beautifully so.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting (Movie Review)

Netflix continues to dole out some kid-friendly Halloween entertainment with today's release of A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting. Not to be confused with that other Monster Hunter movie currently slated for a late December release, this one comes off the heels of both Vampires vs. The Bronx, which I liked, and Hubie Halloween, which I didn't care for. It sits somewhere in-between both movies, while taking heavy inspiration from a certain Wizarding World that must not be named.

Based on a children's book series of the same name, the film follows the misadventures of a babysitter named Kelly Ferguson (Tamara Smart). She is stuck babysitting a kid named Jacob (Ian Ho) on Halloween night, when he gets kidnapped by the Boogeyman (Tom Felton). She soon discovers that an underworld full of monsters exists, after she is saved from the Boogeyman's minions by a fellow babysitter named Liz (Oona Laurence), a member of an ancient order of monster hunters. 

She also learns that the Boogeyman is out to create an army of nightmarish monsters, and that he plans on doing so by harvesting the many nighttime fears of Jacob, who has something called The Gift of Dreams. And in order to save him before the Boogeyman gets his way, Kelly must take a crash course through the pages of the eponymous Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, a book that chronicles hundreds of years worth of knowledge from monster-hunting babysitters like Cleopatra and Merlin.

From the very first frames of A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, you can sense the heavy Harry Potter influence. This includes everything from the font used for its title cards, to the score that plays in the background. The fact that Draco Malfoy himself (Tom Felton) stars in the movie only goes further to strengthen that connection. Most of the above is being carried over from its literary origins of course, but thankfully, the filmmakers didn't waste much time before the movie tries to forge its own identity.

While I've heard about the books, I never read any, so I can't speak to how faithfully they have been adapted. What I can comment on is how well this particular story translates onto the big screen. Or in this case, into a smaller-scale Netflix production. And the story is about as by-the-numbers as these kid movies can get, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film does a decent enough job with its world-building, and its acting ensemble does what it can to sell most of it.

It's biggest shortcoming is in the effects department. Some of the monster effects were so cartoony that a part of me wonders why they simply hadn't opted to make this a CGI movie instead. Probably because those are generally more expensive to make, but I feel the story loses some of its charm as a result of taking the live-action route. The low-grade special effects that were used did have its own made-for-TV appeal I guess, so it at least has that going for it.

A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting is another fun adventure story from Netflix that is sure to appeal to kids this Halloween. Adults should be able to glean some enjoyment out of the movie as well, provided they can overlook the cartoony monsters and buy into the kid-friendly antics on display.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Nocturne (Movie Review)

Blumhouse and Amazon Studios continue to offer up some Halloween-inspired frights with their latest release, Nocturne. This is the second one of the films under their Welcome to the Blumhouse banner that I'll be reviewing, following my review of Black Box last week. And much like that movie, this one also seems to be content with living in the shadows of its much-better forebears, while still managing to tell a somewhat intriguing story that isn't without some glaring problems.

The film centers upon the twin sisters, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman). Both girls are students in a prestigious art school, having been groomed to play the piano since early childhood. Vivian appears to be the more successful of the two, exuding a level of skill and confidence that her sister seems incapable of. But after the most talented student in school commits suicide, the school decides to open up its much-coveted position of concerto soloist.

This sparks a rivalry between the two sisters, with Juliet seeing it as the perfect opportunity to finally prove that she is capable of surpassing her sister. Except things take a turn for the otherworldly after Juliet discovers the notebook once owned by their dead classmate, with detailed instructions on how to play one of the most complicated arrangements, along with what looks like a pagan ritual. Now she must decide just how far she is willing to go to get what she wants.

I definitely got Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince vibes while watching Nocturne. But even more than that, the movie owes a lot to the likes of the brilliant Black Swan. And there is nothing wrong with a movie that borrows heavily from works that came before, provided it is ready to do enough to distinguish itself from those prior works. Which is kinda where Nocturne starts to falter in my opinion.

My biggest problem with Nocturne is that it just wasn't all that scary to begin with. I didn't feel the same overriding sense of dread I felt in Black Swan, nor did it have the sense of wonder and mystery I got from Half-Blood Prince. At several points during the movie, I had to actively remind myself that this had been billed as a supernatural horror film. But what we got instead was closer to psychological horror. This is not to say that nothing supernatural happens during the movie. It was just that whenever it did, it was too underwhelming to have any kind of impact or leave any lasting impression.

This wasn't exactly helped by its wholly-unconvincing special effects. There were a few VFX shots sprinkled throughout the movie that threatened to pull me out of any sense of immersion I had felt leading up to those scenes. I guess I have to consider that these movies are being made under the television division of Blumhouse, and as such shouldn't be held up to the same standards as their theatrical releases. That knowledge didn't make seeing them any less jarring though.

Overall, the movie was just okay and a bit of a disappointment considering it never fully committed to its supernatural horror premise. For anyone looking for a solid psychological horror film with an art house vibe, I'd suggest they watch the far superior Black Swan instead. But if you are intent on giving this one a shot, then at least go in with your expectations tempered.

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Forty-Year-Old Version (Movie Review)

Chances are you haven't heard about the comedy film, The Forty-Year-Old Version. It was one of those under-the-radar films that made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award for first-time director, Radha Blank. This was before 2020 devolved into what it is today, and moviegoing became a dangerous proposition. But its showing at Sundance was strong enough to attract the attention of Netflix, where it debuted earlier today.

Radha Blank not only directs The Forty-Year-Old Version, a semi-autobiographical film about a New York City playwright named Radha, she also wrote the screenplay and stars in the movie. In the film, she has been struggling to catch her big break, ever since she was featured on a 30 under 30 list of upcoming playwrights. As she quickly approaches 40 years of age, she starts to question her dedication and life choices.

She currently works as a teacher in a public school, to help pay the bills while trying to write a play that would be good enough to get her on Broadway. During one particular night of introspection, she experiences an epiphany that reignites her childhood love for rap and rhyming. And that love would lead her on a path to self discovery, as she sets out to record a mixtape under the stage name, RadhaMus Prime.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is possibly the funniest thing I have seen this year. There is something about Radha Blank and her self-deprecating humor that just hits you on so many levels. Which is not to say that she wasn't backed by some equally talented co-stars. But the fact that she pulls double duty behind the camera just goes further to highlight her incredible talent. I would definitely love to see her take on even more roles and projects in the future.

The movie isn't all about jokes and gags though, as it still manages to tell a compelling story about a woman trying to find her place while going against the odds. The choice to film most of the movie in black and white is an interesting one that never gets in the way of the movie's ability to paint a vivid picture of New York City life. Perhaps it was done to further highlight the divide between blacks and whites living in the city. Whatever the case, the film was never anything less than stunning to look at.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is another rare gem that has managed to find the spotlight in a year where most other movies have fled to 2021. It joins the ranks of Da 5 Bloods as one of the best films of the year, and should be required viewing for anyone with access to a Netflix account.