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 SkarsgÄrd), 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.