Friday, 18 September 2020

Antebellum (Movie Review)

The producer behind the Jordan Peele horror films, Get Out and Us, is back with his latest effort. That film is called Antebellum, and like the name suggests, it is set during that time before the American Civil War, a time when slavery and its associated horrors were still an accepted part of daily life. But rather than thread the same lines as many of the other films with such a backdrop, the new film uses it to tell its psychological horror tale, even though it doesn't quite stick the landing.

The film opens with a sweeping shot of a Southern plantation, where confederate soldiers have taken up residence. Janelle Monae plays Eden, a slave on this plantation. It is immediately clear that she doesn't belong there, even as she struggles to come to grips with the horrors that she and the other slaves are being forced to endure.

This isn't helped by the fact that the soldier in charge of the plantation (Eric Lange) takes up a keen interest in her. But she must work up the courage to help the other slaves, who look up to her as their only chance of escape to whatever sanctuary might lay beyond the borders of the plantation.

Antebellum is a prime example of a strong opening that doesn't led anywhere worthwhile. It is also a tough film to review, simply because most of the enjoyment I gleaned out of it stemmed from how little I knew about it going in. The film employs a non-linear storytelling technique, one that only really works to heighten the sense of unease and confusion the directors were going for, if you go into the film blind. But chances are you've seen trailers for the film already, or at least read a synopsis. And in the off chance that you haven't, I've done my best to avoid spoilers of any kind.

The film is especially frustrating because it boasts some very stunning cinematography, and solid production overall. It is clear that first time directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz definitely had their sights set on something great. But the biggest offense present in their movie is the fact that it isn't all that scary to begin with. At least not in the traditional sense. The ideas on display are quite horrific, for sure, but the fact that most of it never really amounts to anything undermines their impact. Ultimately, what we get is a revenge movie that doesn't offer nearly as much satisfaction as it thinks it does.

Antebellum never manages to justify its existence outside of its strangely unique premise. All the elements for a great movie are there, but they fail to connect in any meaningful way, thereby resulting in yet another film that is neither greater than the sum of its parts, nor solid enough for me to recommend.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

The Devil All the Time (Movie Review)

As we slowly enter into what is traditionally referred to as the film awards season, you can expect to see more dramatic movies with stellar performances coming out of the woodwork. But with 2020 being what it is, any sense of tradition should be approached with a measure of apprehension. Even awards like the Oscars have had to make adjustments to their eligibility period and requirements, to accommodate all the uncertainty surrounding movie releases at the moment.

So I was both happy and relieved when I found out The Devil All the Time would be making its debut on Netflix, which meant we wouldn't have to brave the great outdoors in order to see it. Not that our Lagos cinemas have managed to reopen, for whatever reason, two weeks after being given the go ahead to do so. But still, we've got to celebrate the little wins, and having a film of this caliber debut on Netflix is certainly one.

Set during the years following the second world war, the movie traces the lives of a number of people residing in a pair of interconnected backwood towns. First there is Willard (Bill Skarsgård), who has just returned from the war. Raised by a religious family, he struggles to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with the horrors he has witnessed on the battlefield. He still manages to find love and a renewed sense of hope when he meets and falls in love with a waitress named Charlotte (Haley Bennett), who he marries and starts a family with.

Then we have Carl and Sandy Henderson (played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough respectively), a couple with a disturbing fetish that involves picking up hitchhikers. Sandy is a part-time hooker, and her brother, Lee (Sebastian Stan), just happens to be the town sheriff, a corrupt police officer who is willing to do anything to secure his reelection. This includes taking bribes from the various criminal elements in their town, as well as covering up his sister's nefarious activities.

Finally we have Arvin (Tom Holland), Willard's son, who has lived through a childhood filled with pain and suffering. His old man's religious fanaticism has led him to question the very nature of good and evil. Still, he is willing to do anything to protect his family, especially his step sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). But after a new preacher named Preston (Robert Pattinson) moves into town to head the local parish, he finds himself pushed to the edge as all their lives begin to converge.

The Devil All the Time is not an easy watch. The movie shines a spotlight on the many evils it portrays, with a full blast cynicism nonetheless, all the while daring you to look away. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued throughout its over two hours runtime. This was mainly due to the talent being showcased by its ensemble cast, with each actor bringing his or her character to life with exceptional skill. The best part was watching how the lives of all those characters slowly started to intersect during the course of the movie, in wicked and wild ways.

The filmmaking prowess on display is also worthy of note. The film not only captures the time period in stunning detail, but the spirit of hardship of the times can almost be felt. It also juggles all its characters and their various subplots with surprising grace. I haven't read the book upon which it was based, but the fact that Tom Holland doesn't even make an appearance until nearly an hour into the film, despite receiving top billing, says a lot about the amount of material being covered.

It is all these things that make The Devil All the Time ultimately worth the watch, and one of the better Netflix releases we've gotten this year. So don't be surprised when you hear the names of one or two of its actors pop up when the conversation for awards consideration begins in earnest.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite! (Movie Review)

It's never a good sign when a new installment of an already-established franchise goes direct-to-video. But a part of me still hoped Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite! would offer something worthwhile. I mean, even the recent Disney+ exclusive, The One and Only Ivan, turned out better than I'd anticipated. And in a year where we've gotten big tentpole releases like Mulan choosing to skip theaters as well, the direct-to-video label doesn't seem to carry the same kind of stigma it once did. Except Cats & Dogs 3 is genuinely one of the worst films to claw its way into people's homes this year.

The movie continues the story of the long-waging war between cats and dogs. At the start of the film, both species have been enjoying a ten-year truce, a peace that is held together by the activities of a coverts operations agency called FART (Yep, you read that right). They basically monitor the activities of all cats and dogs around the world, making sure that none is caught breaking the law. But after a mysterious signal causes both species to become hostile to one another once again, the agency puts together a team to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This includes Gwen (voiced by Melissa Rauch), a house cat whose owners are going through a potential eviction from their apartment. And she is joined by Roger (voiced by Max Greenfield), a dog whose owner is an aspiring Tennis prodigy with an overcontrolling mother. Gwen considers Roger to be her biggest rival, but they are both forced to put aside their differences as they try to chase down the signal to its source, while also trying to keep their human masters happy and blissfully unaware.

The previous Cats & Dogs movies weren't exactly known for their quality. And the makers of this one seem to realize that as well, leaning into the fact for what I can only imagine was supposed to be comedic effect. Unfortunately, the movie just comes across as cheap and poorly made, and not self-aware as they'd clearly intended. Everything from the plot, to the acting, and the special effects, felt like a downgrade from the first two movies, making it the worst one of the bunch.

But chances are you aren't going into this movie excepting it to be brilliant. After all, even campy movies like this come with their own kind of appeal. I'd be lying if I said watching it wasn't utterly cringe-inducing though, as I found myself laughing for all the wrong reasons. The film also felt like it was in dire need of a proper villain, one in the same vein as Mr. Tinkles from the previous films. We instead get the talented George Lopez, relegated to voicing a parrot that never once felt imposing or anything but silly.

Cats & Dogs 3 is a direct-to-video release true and true. It might not be the worst film I have seen this year, but it is certainly a top contender, with too many leaps of logic, and characters arriving at certain conclusions simply because the script dictated they should. But I guess all that comes with the territory, and as such, it is very hard for me to recommend it to anyone but the most diehard fans of the previous films.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Rent-A-Pal (Movie Review)

Online dating is something I'll never be able to fully wrap my head around. But the popularity of services like Tinder means I must be in the minority here. Guess you can never really underestimate the very human desire to connect with someone else. And apparently, people once resorted to using video dating services to achieve the same thing, or at least that is the premise of the new psychological thriller, Rent-A-Pal.

In the movie, a man named David (Brian Landis Folkins) is growing weary of being unable to find the perfect match. He is a mild-mannered 40-year-old who has devoted much of his adult life to caring for his mother (Kathleen Brady), a 73-year-old widower who suffers from dementia. But after he discovers a tape titled Rent-A-Pal at his video dating services store, promising a friendship just like the one he has been craving for so long, he decides to give it a shot.

And so he meets Andy (Wil Wheaton), the star of the tape and his new self-appointed friend. His charm and overall charisma offers David a much-needed respite from the stresses of having to be a full-time caregiver to his mother, even though he is only able to interact with him through canned, prerecorded responses. Except those canned responses begin to seem more and more real to David the more he watches the tape. Soon, what started out as a simple friendship turns into an all-consuming desire to keep Andy happy at all costs.

Rent-A-Pal is a disturbing look at mental illness. I'll start by highlighting the things I liked about it. First off, the movie really nails the look and aesthetic of the early 90s time period during which it was set. So expect to see plenty of authentic looking CRT TVs, VHS tapes and recorders. The film also builds on a growing sense of dread, which culminates in a finale that is wild and almost too uncomfortable to watch, if also somewhat fairly predictable.

That said, it does tend to take its sweet time to get there, with a slow-burn pacing that I can see easily deterring anyone with a relatively short attention span from making it past its opening scenes. The ending as well, while wild and uncomfortable to watch like I said, is still a bit too open-ended for my liking, meaning that we never get any real resolution to the conflict at the center of the film, or at least one I consider a satisfying enough payoff to the events that led us there.

But those issues aside, I still think that Rent-A-Pal is worth a watch by fans of psychological thrillers with a hint of supernatural horror thrown in. Emphasis on the hint, because the movie never fully commits to either direction.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (Movie Review)

Let's try to overlook just how ridiculous the title Train to Busan presents Peninsula sounds for one moment, shall we? In the crowded zombie movie genre, it has become increasingly harder for new entries to stand out. But that was precisely what Train to Busan had managed to accomplish when it released in 2016, offering a sharp, fresh take on the genre that was both thrilling to watch and breathtaking to look at.

Fast forward to four years later and of course we were bound to get the inevitable sequel. Granted, the new movie is only related to the first one through prefix alone. And like most sequels of this kind, its filmmakers have tried to double down on those elements that made the first movie great. Unfortunately, that doesn't always translate into a movie that is better, or in this case, as good as the one that came before.

Set in the same universe as the first movie, namely a South Korea that has been ravaged by a full-blown zombie apocalypse, the film introduces a new cast of characters. This includes Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), a former Marine captain, and his brother-in-law, Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon). Both men were survivors of the zombie outbreak from the first film, but they still carry the guilt of failing to save those they love.

Struggling to make ends meet in the slums of Hong Kong where they now reside, the two men are given an opportunity to score big when they are recruited by a local gang leader. Their mission is to retrieve an abandoned truck loaded with $20 million, inside the quarantined South Korean peninsula. And so they set off along with two others, but what they find there is even more horrifying than anyone could've imagined.

Watching Train to Busan presents Peninsula, it is hard to imagine that the film was made by the same talent behind the original film. There is none of the intrigue that made that first film so compelling, or characters with arcs worth following, not to mention the social commentary for which the zombie horror genre has grown to be known over the years. Instead, we have a fairly predictable story that tries to elicit emotions from viewers that ultimately feel unearned.

The one area where the film attempts to compensate for its shortcomings is in the thrills department. The film is full of spectacle, and some of the most cartoony CGI to grace screens from a big budget production in a long while. There is certainly enough of it for action junkies to feel like they are getting their time and money's worth, but the first film never had to sacrifice thrills for a heartfelt story and characters you actually cared about, which is why I find it hard to give this one an overall pass.

But if you go in with lowered expectations, and approach the film as the popcorn action flick it is trying so hard to be, then perhaps you might be able to overlook some of its flaws. There's no getting past that ridiculous title though. Sorry.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Mulan (Movie Review)

A part of me is still kinda miffed that I didn't get to see Mulan in theaters. This was considering how close I had come to doing so, just before Nigerian cinemas got shutdown in early March. I mean, the movie had already had its Hollywood premiere and the cinemas I visited had standees and posters for the film everywhere you look. But alas, it wasn't meant to be, and we'd end up having to wait more than 6 months for a chance to see it again.

That wait is finally over, and the film is now streaming exclusively (read: legally) on Disney+. It comes with an additional $30 admissions fee though, and the question on many people's lips right now is whether or not it is actually worth that additional $30. My short answer is a resounding yes, but what follows is my case for why Mulan is one of the better Disney live-action adaptations we've gotten thus far.

The movie stars Liu Yifei as Mulan, a young woman with very powerful chi that manifests in the form of acrobatic grace and exceptional fighting skills. Groomed by her father (Tzi Ma) in the ways of a warrior from a very young age, she has a hard time conforming to the expectations of her village and family. But when the empire is threatened by an army of Rouran invaders, the emperor (Jet Li) decrees that all families must supply one man to fight in an army of their own.

The problem is her family is without any men of fighting age, and her father, although a former solider, is well passed his prime. He accepts the emperor's call all the same, not wanting to bring dishonor to their family name. But before he is shipped off to join the army the following day, Mulan wakes up early, stealing his sword and armor with the intent of taking his place by pretending to be a man herself. Now she must hope she doesn't get discovered, while trying to bring honor to their family name.

I'll be the first to admit that there seems to be something lost in Mulan's transition from theaters to streaming. I'm of course referring to the overall quality of the viewing experience, not the quality of the film itself. A part of me longs for an opportunity to see all these sweeping shots of ancient countrysides, and carefully-choreographed fights scenes and epic battles, on a theater screen where they belong. A home cinema setup just can't replicate the sheer scale of an IMAX screen, or the booming speakers of an auditorium, no matter how sweet that setup may seem.

As for the film itself, this version is more than serviceable, depending on your familiarity with the material being covered. Most of the fantastical elements the original was known for is gone though, as well as all of its songs, but I feel this is a stylistic choice that really works in this version's favor. Sure, you could argue that those very things were the heart and soul of the original film, but they would have undoubtedly held back the filmmakers from achieving what they've been able to achieve here. Sorry Mushu fans.

It's a shame that things turned out the way they did, with the coronavirus throwing a wrench in Mulan's original distribution plans. Because I could easily see the move making upwards of a billion dollars at the global box office, much like The Lion King and Aladdin before it. It would've played especially well in China and with Chinese audiences, with its heavy focus on Chinese folklore and its topnotch Asian cast. Not to mention all that kickass martial arts and wire stunts. The movie boasts the kind of spectacle you would expect from a full-blown Asian production, and I think this live-action version will appeal to fans of Asian cinema, and fans of action adventure stories in general. Is it as great as the 1998 animated version? No. But that doesn't make it any less great in its own right.

The movie will be getting a theatrical release in countries without Disney+, which includes China, so I am still curious to see how it would perform when it opens over there next weekend. And with our local cinemas also finally getting the go ahead to reopen after all these months, it looks like there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music (Movie Review)

Keanu Reeves continues to ride the wave of last year's Keanussance with Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third film in the long-dormant Bill & Ted franchise. It's been more than two decades since I last saw the previous movies, and I purposely didn't rewatch them prior to seeing this one, just so I could assess it on its own terms. And I've got to say, the new film was just as excellent as I'd hoped it would be.

The movie has Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reprising their roles as the titular duo. It's been 25 years since their last adventure, and now the pair of aging rockers are dealing with a new kind of dilemma: writer's block. Tasked with coming up with a song that is supposed to prevent the end of the world, the two of them must once again journey through time in a phone booth as they search for that song. This time around though, they receive some much-needed help from their daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving). 

Both girls manage to get their hands on a time machine of their own, and now they are busy trying to put together the most epic band imaginable, with a lineup that includes Louis Amstrong, Jimi Hendrix and even Mozart. But with a time-travelling robot sent to kill their dads, ala The Terminator (but much tackier), and a convergence of space and time taking place all around them, our heroes must race against time itself as they try to stay one step ahead of the apocalypse that is sure to follow.

Bill & Ted Face The Music was yet another solid entry in a franchise that turns out to have aged surprisingly well. Both Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter slip back into their roles so effortlessly that I found myself wondering why it has taken this long for them to do another sequel. I hadn't seen the previous films since I was a kid like I said, but I could tell that the greatest care had been taken to honor the legacy they'd established.

The rest of the cast managed to hold their own, with newcomers like Samara Weaving fitting quite nicely into the world. The film had surprise guest appearances from two of my favorite musicians as well, which I won't be spoiling here of course, so you'll just have to see the movie for yourself to find out who they were. Be sure to stick around until the very end though, because the film also had one of the best post-credits scenes I've seen in a while.

At just over 80 minutes long, the movie was just the right length it needed to be. There were plenty of laughs crammed into that short runtime, as well as several callbacks to the previous movies in the series. And as a long-time fan with the vaguest of memories, I thought the film was a righteous good time with a surprisingly poignant message about coming together as one, coming at a time when it is needed the most.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

The One and Only Ivan (Movie Review)

As a kid, I always loved movies with talking animals. From early classics like Babe, to over-the-top comedies like Cats & Dogs. Heck, I even managed to glean some enjoyment out of the critically-reviled Look Who's Talking Now. That's how deep my affinity for talking animals went. Therefore, I can easily see my 8-year-old self loving every bit of The One and Only Ivan, a film that is based on a children's book by K. A. Applegate, which was in turn based on a true-life story.

The movie tells the story of a silverback gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell). Saved from poachers at a very young age, he would grow up in the care of a man named Mack (Bryan Cranston), an animal lover and the ringleader of a circus inside a Big Top Mall. For many years, Ivan has been the headliner for the show. But when Mack decides to bring in a new act, a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklyn Prince), to help reverse their declining ticket sales, Ivan starts to feel threatened.

But when one of his closest friends, an aging Elephant named Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), expresses a desire for Ruby to not grow up in captivity like she did, Ivan is tasked with how to plot their escape from their little home inside the mall. He is helped out by his good friend, Bob (voiced by Danny Devito), a stray dog that likes to hangout in his cage. And after he receives some crayons from the young daughter of a stage hand, he takes up a keen interest in painting, a medium that would help them express their desire for a better home to their human masters.

The One and Only Ivan is a heartwarming tale that is brought to life with stunning visuals and a more-than-capable voice cast. All the animals on display were quite expressive, unlike a certain other recent Disney remake which I won't be mentioning by name here. The animation straddles the line between lively and believable, and I was never brought out of the experience. This was of course further helped by the fact that none of the actors gave phoned-in performances, which was something I'd feared would happen the first time I saw trailers for the movie.

All the actors on both sides of the fence brought their A-game to the table. Bryan Cranston in particular brings all the gravitas we've come to expect from him as an A-lister, selling both the energy of a circus ringleader, as well as the raw emotions of a man afraid to lose the thing he cares most about. Like some of the best villains out there, his performance is so nuanced that he ultimately comes across as relatable.

The One and Only Ivan is not without some flaws of course. Its pacing could've used some more tightening as the movie seems to lose some momentum during its second act. It also borrows quite heavily from other movies, and tries to hit you in the feels more times than I felt was really necessary. But these are small nitpicks in a package that is more than serviceable. The movie might not appeal to everyone, but it certainly appeals to the 8-year-old in me.

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Sleepover (Movie Review)

Is it just me, or does it feel like there's no shortage of kids' movies making the rounds on streaming platforms and VOD these days? This is a good thing of course, considering most kids are still stuck at home and in desperate need of entertainment and a distraction. Plus some of those movies have been quite good, like Onward or Trolls World Tour, while others are pretty much dead on arrival, like Artemis Fowl. Then we have movies like The Sleepover, which happen to fall somewhere in-between.

The film finds a group of kids caught in the middle of a mystery, after two of them, Clancy (Sadie Stanley) and Kevin (Maxwell Simkins), find out that their parents have been kidnapped one night during a sleepover. It turns out their mum, Margot (Malin Akerman), is not who she claims to be, but a deadly thief with special ops training. Or at least she used to be, before she'd cut a deal with the authorities and went into witness protection.

But after one of her old acquaintances manages to track her down, she is forced back into the world of fast cars and expensive jewels, for one final heist. She is to team up with her former partner in crime, Leo (Joe Manganiello), and together they must steal a prized jewel in order for her to protect her family and get out of the spy game for good. Except she'd also left her kids some clues, and now they are hot on her trail even as they struggle to come to terms with who she truly is.

The Sleepover is a middle-of-the-road action comedy geared towards families and kids. Similar to movies like Game Night, the film tracks the misadventures of a group of friends over the course of one night, except that other film's raunchy gags are replaced with some family-friendly fun and humor. The film has quite a few laughs in-between its action scenes, even though not all of its jokes land as strongly as you'd expect or hope for, but what do you expect from a G-rated comedy?

Parallels can also be drawn with other kids movies like Spy Kids, even though this is one angle the movie never fully explores, outside of one scene with an underground bunker full of gadgets and a cool self-driving car. The cast members were more than adequate in their roles, with no clear standouts to speak of. The film also doesn't overstay its welcome, though I would've preferred if it was just a smidgen shorter than its 1 hour 40 minutes runtime.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Sleepover hinges on how much of your inner child you're still in touch with. I can see kids eating this stuff up, and parents laughing along or at the family hi-jinx on display. But for everyone else, you'd just have to go in with the knowledge that the movie offers nothing special or something we haven't seen before and enjoy it for what it is.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Magic Camp (Movie Review)

It's never a good sign when a movie gets pushed or completely pulled from its scheduled release date. I mean, just look at what has been going on with The New Mutants, a film that finally looks like it would be making its way to theaters in two weeks time, after being originally scheduled to release more than 2 years ago. The same thing had happened with Magic Camp, before it was eventually announced that it would be making its debut exclusively on Disney+.

So, yes, I was going into the film with several helpings of skepticism, and with my expectations severely lowered. But then again, Disney had pretty much already hit rock bottom earlier this year with Artemis Fowl, so it goes to reason that things could only be looking up from that point onward. Well, I am pleased to report that I was pleasantly surprised by how wholesome Magic Camp turned out.

The film centers upon Theo (Nathaniel McIntyre), a young boy that recently lost his father and now performs card tricks in private as a coping mechanism. He is enrolled in the Institute of Magic by his mother, a summer camp for kids seeking to learn how to perform magic tricks. There he must not only learn how to perfect his skills, but also overcome his stage fright as he would be competing against other aspiring magicians for the camp's coveted golden wand and top hat honors.

Helping him and the other kids designated to his cabin is a man named Andy Tuckerman (Adam DeVine), a has-been magician struggling to make a living as a Las Vegas taxi driver. Andy was a former student of the camp and a three-times winner of the golden wand, but had since turned his back on magic tricks after failing to find success as a performing magician. But after he is confronted by his old and more successful rival, Kristina Darkwood (Gillian Jacobs), he begins to approach the competition as a last-ditch effort to prove his superiority. 

Magic Camp might not be particularly fresh or original, but none of that takes away from its undeniable charm. The film was fun and full of laughs, which is of course what you would hope for from a film geared towards kids. It never gets too sweet or cloying either, even though it does veer dangerously close sometimes. I was especially taken aback by its heartfelt message about believing in yourself, and with the way the movie addressed heavier themes such as dealing with grief and a death in the family. 

A part of me is indeed curious to know how the film would've fared in theaters, in a pre-COVID environment of course. It would have most likely gone the way of Pete's Dragon, garnering some positive reviews but ultimately getting lost in the late summer slate of blockbuster films vying for attention from moviegoers. So in a way, I am glad that Magic Camp would get a better chance to stand out and reach its intended audience on Disney+.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Project Power (Movie Review)

Netflix continues to impress with its constant output of things to watch on its streaming platform. Granted, most of them are barely watchable cringefests like The Last Days of American Crime and 365 DNI. But for every 10 of those bottom-of-the-barrel offerings, there's at least that one piece of content that helps you justify your continued subscription to the service. And Project Power just happens to be the latest one of those.

The film is set in New Orleans, where a new drug called power has just started to make the rounds. Unlike other drugs, power grants its users superhuman abilities, but only for a span of 5 minutes. Another catch is the fact that you can't predict what powers you'd get after using it, and those powers could very much end up killing you in the process. So, yes, any sensible human being would do well to avoid it. But of course, not everyone can resist the temptation of unlocking their full potential.

This includes NOPD officer, Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who routinely uses the drug to help "level the playing field" against the numerous superpowered criminals they now have to face in the line of duty. And helping feed his growing addiction is his dealer, Robin (Dominique Fishback), a young girl that juggles high school and a sick mum with dreams of becoming a successful rapper. But after a mysterious figure named Art (Jamie Foxx) comes into town in pursuit of the ones responsible for the drug, they both get drawn into a conspiracy that is several levels above their pay grade.

As far as Netflix Originals go, Project Power is one of the better ones. The film boasts high production values, with its $85 million reported cost being evident throughout. The special effects were convincing, and a step above what you'd typically find in these types of movies. It also offers a somewhat unique take on the superhero mythos, depicting a darker side of superpowers we hardly ever get to see outside of shows like The Boys.

It's three stars also gave decent performances. Both Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring their years of Hollywood experience into the mix, but it was actually Dominique Fishback who I considered the standout of the three. She was funny and expressive, and had most of the more memorable lines and moments in the movie. I look forward to seeing her in more roles in the future.

That said, the movie does have its share of problems. Its story, while intriguing, barely scratches the surface of what could've been done with such a high-concept premise. It also requires some suspension of disbelief for it to truly work, especially during its third act where our three heroes go against an entire criminal organization. The film is as well populated by several stereotypes, and isn't without a few cringe-inducing lines of dialog as a result.

But all things considered, Project Power is yet another fun diversion for movie lovers waiting for cinemas to reopen. And with TENET now firmly set for an August 26th international debut, things are looking up indeed.

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.

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.

Friday, 5 June 2020

The Last Days of American Crime (Movie Review)

In an alternate universe, this would've been my review of Wonder Woman 1984. Unfortunately, things in this one have pretty much gone to the dogs, and that highly-anticipated superhero tentpole was pushed back till August 14th in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving us with bottom-of-the-barrel Netflix productions like The Last Days of American Crime instead.

Set in a dystopian America that is nearly overrun by crime, the film centers on Graham Bricke (Édgar Ramírez), a renowned bank robber who is recruited for one final heist by an unusual couple, Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) and Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt). They'll need to act fast though, as the government is on the verge of rolling out its American Peace Initiative (API), which would take the form of a signal that would make all citizens incapable of taking part in criminal activities.

I won't even try to downplay it, The Last Days of American Crime is a cringefest. I can't remember the last time I saw this much bad acting and cringeworthy dialogue in one movie. It is a movie that has very little redeeming qualities, other than perhaps to show us how other Netflix productions like Extraction are at least ahead of the pack.

For a movie that is billed as an action thriller, it is amazing just how little action and thrills there were to be seen or had. The movie takes its sweet time in setting up the main heist at the center of its plot, which contributes to its two and a half hour runtime. This itself wouldn't be a problem if the characters it was spending most of that time introducing were relatable and had interesting backstories.

But the characters are so thinly developed that it would take all the patience you can muster just to resist turning the movie off before the bullets start flying. And even when they do start flying, the movie still can't mask that overall feeling of cheapness. It even manages to make its sex scenes look boring as well, boasting what is possibly the most unimaginative bathroom sex scene I have witnessed on screen.

If you like B-movies and don't mind several helpings of bad acting and cheesy dialogue, then you might be able to glean some enjoyment from The Last Days of American Crime. If not, then you'll be better served watching Money Heist or any of the better heist movies also available on Netflix.

Friday, 29 May 2020

The High Note (Movie Review)

As movie theaters around the world start revving up to reopen ahead of TENET this coming July, smaller titles affected by their current closure continue to find a home on video-on-demand (VOD). The High Note was originally slated for a May 8th release, but landed on VOD earlier today. I'll confess, I would have more than likely skipped this movie had it been released in theaters. But with the pickings being as slim as they are right now, I figured it was at least worth checking out.

The movie stars Dakota Johnson as Maggie Sherwoode, a personal assistant to an aging soul singer named Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). It is a job that she sort of excels in, even as she struggles to cater to the every demand of one of the music industry's biggest divas. But Maggie is also aspiring for more, through her overall love of music production, a love that drives her to secretly cobble together mixes of her boss's music during her off-work hours, much to her roommate's chagrin.

She is convinced that Grace needs to put out new music in order to stay relevant, a conviction that is not shared by Grace's long-time manager, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube). Jack believes that Grace is well past her prime, and is content with her continuing to live off the success of the music in her back catalogue. So when Grace is offered a residency at a Las Vegas nightclub, Jack sees it as the logical next step for a woman of her age, a sentiment that is also echoed by the executives at her record label.

But an opportunity would soon present itself for Maggie to realize her dream of becoming a producer, when she meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an upcoming R&B singer with whom she shares a love of music but who has no aspirations of taking his music to the next level. Maggie is determined to produce for both artists, except she would first have to convince each one to take that leap of faith with her, a risky venture as she could end up losing everything she'd worked for in the process.

The High Note is a comedy drama that sticks quite closely to the rom-com template. It is helped along by great performances across the board, but it never even attempts to thread new ground, and when it tries to throw a curveball, it takes the form of a twist that I feel required a little too much suspension of disbelief. I am not going to spoil what it was exactly here of course, but I found it a bit jarring (not to mention lazy) that the writers would actually go that route with the story.

But negatives aside, The High Note is a feel-good movie that doesn't offer much in the way of surprises. Is it entertaining enough to keep you occupied on a lazy weekend afternoon? Yes. Sure it is. But would it leave you with any kind of lasting impression afterwards? Nope. It didn't leave me with any. That's not to say that it isn't worth checking out though. At least until the TENETs start coming out once again.