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.