Friday 27 November 2020

Riding with Sugar (Movie Review)

One of the downsides of Netflix having such a massive library of films is the sheer amount of bottom-of-the-barrel offerings viewers need to wade through to get to the good stuff. But every now and then, a gem pops up out of the muck, shining brighter than everything else around it. I'm talking about films like last year's The Irishman and Marriage Story, or The Trial of the Chicago 7 just a few weeks back. Well, we can add another one to that growing list of gems. 

Set in the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, the movie follows a Zimbabwean refugee named Joshua (Charles Mnene), who harbors dreams of becoming a professional BMX racer. But after he is involved in a hit-and-run accident just weeks before a major competition, those dreams come to a screeching halt as he is told he might never be able to ride again.

Broken in both body and spirit, Joshua is haunted by visions of the horrors of the past life he has tried so eagerly to get away from. But when he is taken in by a professor named Mambo (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), who runs a makeshift orphanage for young refugees, he slowly regains a sense of hope and belonging, as they work together to get his life back on track.

Things start to get complicated though, after Joshua meets and falls in love with a girl named Olivia (Simona Brown). Aside from the distraction that she could pose, he also has to deal with the fact that she is from a totally different world than his. Except things in his world are not as they seem, and he'll soon have to decide how far he is willing to go to protect what he cares about the most. 

There's plenty to love about Riding with Sugar. First off, the movie is beautifully shot and tightly edited, weaving surrealist imagery into its narrative so effortlessly that it was never anything short of breathtaking to look at. Much like City of God or Slumdog Millionaire before it, the movie paints a vivid picture of life in a shanty town, and this was accomplished using some of the best cinematography I've seen in an African production.

And that mastery extended to its sound mixing, which also helped to create that heightened sense of immersion the filmmakers were going for. Maybe it was because I had seen the movie with headphones on, but I really appreciated how the mix complimented the visuals, as it should. And while on the subject of sound, its soundtrack was filled with an eclectic mix of South African music, including one of my personal favorites, kwaito. 

Then there was of course the top-tier acting done by its three principal actors. Hakeem Kae-Kazim is no stranger to big productions, having starred in films like Hotel Rwanda, so it should come as no surprise that he gave the best performance in the movie. His acting was restrained and nuanced when it needed to be, and scenery-chewing when the material called for it. 

Likewise, Charles Mnene and Simona Brown did great as the star-crossed lovers. It was easy to buy into their romance, which was well developed over the course of the movie, so that by the time the tough decisions needed to be made, no suspension of disbelief was required. If only other movies with romantic subplots would adhere to this one rule. But, oh well. 

And all that high praise does not mean that the film didn't have any issues worth touching upon. The movie tended to go a bit overboard with its surrealist imagery. There were several flashbacks to the war-torn homeland of our protagonist, as well as xenophobic riots in South Africa, which were events that helped shape his worldview. But there are only so many flaming tires rolling down a dusty street you could look at before the whole thing starts to feel old. It is hard to complain about such nitpicks though, when everything else was as well executed as it was.

In case you haven't guessed it already, Riding with Sugar earns an easy recommendation from me. The movie delivered on all its early promises, while still managing to spring a few surprises along the way. I hear that the filmmakers had spent several years developing it, and I've got to say that it shows.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Superintelligence (Movie Review)

Nowadays, there aren't many comedic actresses as bankable as Melissa McCarthy. This is not to say that she hasn't been in a number of duds over the years. But with films likes Bridesmaids and Spy under her belt, one should understand why her name carries as much weight as it does. All that is to say that expectations were high going into Superintelligence, her latest film that just released today exclusively on HBO Max.

In Superintelligence, Melissa McCarthy plays Carol Peters, a distinctly average woman who is singled out by a sentient computer program as humanity's last hope for survival. Voiced by James Cordon, the program intends to conduct a test, at the end of which it would choose to either save, enslave or destroy humanity. And the basis for that decision rests upon Carol's ability to convince it by trying to win back the affections of her ex-boyfriend, George (Bobby Canavale).

Superintelligence is a romantic comedy with a science fiction twist. It takes the familiar trope of an old couple getting back together, and adds some end-of-the-world mayhem to help spice things up. And the combination works, mostly because the film never takes itself too seriously. The gags are delivered at a fairly consistent pace, and Melissa McCarthy slips into the role of Carol quite effortlessly. But then again, this is the same role she has played at least half a dozen times now.

James Cordon was also likable as her mostly disembodied sidekick, and their interactions were always a joy to see. Likewise, Bryan Tyree Henry was also fine as her best friend, Dennis, even though he was mostly relegated to providing comic relief. The one area where I felt the film was a bit lacking was the chemistry between its two leads.

Bobby Cannavale was up to task in his role as her ex-boyfriend, but I still found his scenes with Melissa to be rather bland and somewhat forced. The movie never spent enough time establishing their romance, nor did it convincingly tell us by its end why the fate of humanity had to rest on this fairly unremarkable couple.

Superintelligence might not be one of the better Melissa McCarthy vehicles out there, but it is certainly an enjoyable enough ride for anyone looking for a few laughs and some lighthearted romance. 

Wednesday 25 November 2020

The Christmas Chronicles 2 (Movie Review)

Kurt Russell returns for another round of family-friendly adventuring in the Netflix Christmas film, The Christmas Chronicles 2. This time around, Christopher Columbus takes over the director's chair, and he brings with him some of that Home Alone experience and Harry Potter magic. But a bigger budget or a grander script doesn't always translate into a better sequel, as is often the case with these Netflix movies.

Set two years after the first movie, we once again catch up with the Pierce family, who are busy vacationing in Mexico with their mum's new boyfriend (Tyrese Gibsons). But Kate Pierce (Darby Camp) isn't having any of it, choosing to sulk and make her displeasure known at any given opportunity. She makes a silent wish to Santa Claus, to get whisked away from the unpleasantness of it all, but gets more than she'd bargained for when a disgruntled former elf (Julian Dennison) seizes her discontent as an opportunity to set in motion a plan that would ruin Christmas for everyone.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 is another surefire hit with families and kids this holiday. Kurt Russell continues to shine as Santa Claus, much like he did in the first one, proving that the endearing qualities he'd displayed were far from a fluke. And Goldie Hawn proved to be his on-screen equal as Mrs. Claus, with the true-life couple sharing a chemistry that never once felt unnatural, even though they'd spent the bulk of the movie on separate adventures of their own.

Other additions to the cast include Jazhir Kadeem Bruno, who we recently saw in the Robert Zemeckis The Witches remake, and Tyrese Gibbons, who was looking all tall, black and muscly. The former blended quite nicely with proceedings, while the latter stuck out like a sore thumb. Blame it on the ubiquity of The Fast and Furious franchise these past few years, but I just couldn't separate his appearance here from that other role.

And with that, I transition into my biggest issue with The Christmas Chronicles 2, which was its over-reliance on CGI and spectacle. The movie leaned more heavily into its high fantasy through line, but in so doing, it loses most of the human drama at the heart of the first movie. The first film was more grounded in reality, so that by the time the magic started to happen, it felt even more magical. But here, a significant portion of the film looked like it must've been shot against a green screen, with the actor's performances and my emotional involvement suffering as a result.

The first film also had some edge to it, not being afraid to populate its tale with criminals and prostitutes, and an overall darker-than-usual approach that made it feel like it was not your typical Christmas story, which was one of the things that had surprised me at first and endeared me to it the most. This one by comparison feels like it has been scrubbed clean of all that edge, leaving yet another generic adventure story that would no doubt appeal more to the little ones.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 might be what most families need this holiday, a much-needed escape from the various horrors of 2020. Except it fails to improve on its predecessor in any significant way, while also losing much of what made that first movie so great to begin with. The result is a film that feels more like a Chronicles of Narnia knockoff than an actual The Christmas Chronicles sequel.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Hillbilly Elegy (Movie Review)

The Oscars might still be some ways out from today, but the competition continues heating up as more and more contenders start showing up for the big fight. And the latest movie that will be duking it out with the rest is the drama, Hillbilly Elegy, which released earlier today on Netflix, following a limited theatrical release earlier this month. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who is himself no stranger to the Oscars, but it is perhaps its two leading stars who will be generating the most Oscar buzz. 

Based on the 2016 bestselling book of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy explores the experiences of a young man named J.D (Gabriel Basso), a struggling Yale student on the verge of a much-needed career and financial breakthrough. But after he gets a disturbing phone call from his older sister back home, he is forced to make an impromptu trip to the backwater town where he'd been raised. And there he will be reminded of the life he had tried so hard to get away from, as he reflects on the three generations of family members that helped shape his upbringing.

Hillbilly Elegy was one of the dramatic movies I was most looking forward to this awards season. This was based solely off the strength of its marketing, and the talent involved in the movie, with both Amy Adams and Glenn Close being past Academy Awards nominees themselves. And I'm glad to report that the film didn't disappoint, at least in the acting department. Both actresses gave a pair of truly stellar performances, which helped bring their characters to life, so I'm indeed curious to see if they'll be able to make the cut at next year's Oscars.

There was also something about the movie itself that seemed to hit me on a deeply emotional level. I know that all art is subjective, and sometimes your experiences with a particular movie hinges on how relatable you find its story or characters. But something about this particular one just worked. Maybe it was its heartfelt take on family, or the way it depicted its story without the whole thing becoming too sentimental or manipulative, even though it touches upon some sensitive subject matter.

The film isn't without problems of course, and the biggest one I had was with its narrative structure. The film relied too heavily on flashbacks in my opinion, but I'm guessing this was being carried over from its source material, where such a structure would no doubt work better. But at least it was never hard to place what time any particular scene was taking place in, so there's that. It is worth noting as well that I haven't read the book the movie is based upon, so I can't speak to how well it has been adapted, or what details might have been glossed over.

Your enjoyment of Hillbilly Elegy rests upon how much you enjoy family dramas with a deep emotional core. The film is elevated by solid performances, but its execution might also be a little too muddled for most. And while you might not relate with it on the same level I did, I still think it is worthy of a watch.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Vanguard (Movie Review)

In the realm of martial arts-driven action movies, few actors are as beloved as Jackie Chan. And if there's one thing the Asian actor was known for back in his heyday, it was his outrageous stunts and the fact that he performed most of them himself. His output of late has been anything but stellar though, so for his latest film, he once again joins forces with frequent collaborator Stanley Tong, the director behind such classics like Rumble in the Bronx, as they attempt to recapture some of that old magic.

The film centers upon the titular Vanguard, a private security agency ran by Mr. Jackie Chan himself. With offices and agents in several countries around the world, his team is one of the most respected of its kind. But when a high-value client gets in trouble with a terrorist group known as Artic Wolves, it is left to the men and women of Vanguard to do everything in their power to protect him and ensure the safety of his family.

Anyone going into Vanguard expecting a globe-trotting adventure sprinkled with Jackie Chan's signature mixture of action and comedy would be pleased to know that those elements are represented in the film. Unfortunately though, their presence does little to save the film from its generic plot, or more importantly, its shoddy execution. The film simply lacked the spark it needed to keep me invested, despite having quite a few action set pieces throughout its runtime.

There is no doubt that the movie would have fared much better, had it been released 25 years ago. But action movies have quite frankly evolved since the days of the brilliant Rumble in the Bronx, and not just in the effects department. Speaking of which, the film boasts some truly questionable CGI, from lions and hyenas that look like they must've been plucked out of a bootleg version of the recent Lion King, to one of the most cartoony car chase sequences I've seen in any film till date. 

And most of that could've been overlooked, had the film managed to engage the senses in other less visceral ways. Which I guess is its greatest shortcoming, its inability to make you care about any of it. The film had none of the heart of those earlier Jackie Chan films, choosing instead to supplant that with sheer kinetic spectacle.

Vanguard is clearly a product of a bygone era of filmmaking, right down to the way it still treats Africa as a single country, rather than a continent made up of several prominent countries and cities. The film is often beautiful to look at, showcasing the beauty of its various locales, with Dubai in particular looking about as good as it would had the film been made by its Department of Tourism. But all of that beauty rings hollow in a film that is ultimately less than captivating.

Friday 20 November 2020

Fatman (Movie Review)

Christmas movies are typically known for their wholesome qualities. Except every now and then, we get a movie that takes those qualities, and turns the whole thing over on its head. I'm talking about movies like Bad Santa or Black Christmas, movies that explore the darker side of traditional holiday practices. But I doubt if they come any stranger than Fatman, a new holiday-themed action thriller.

In the film, Mel Gibson plays Chris Cringle, or Santa Claus as he is more popularly known. Except his version of Santa Claus is unlike the typical jolly, bearded old man we've all come to know. He still goes around delivering presents on Christmas eve, but he is also a cynical drunk who has lost most of his faith in people and their ability to do good. He also happens to have some serious special ops training.

Having fallen upon tough times in his workshop due to the dwindling number of kids deserving Christmas presents, he is forced to accept a contract from the US government. But after he offends a spoiled rich kid with some shady criminal connections, by gifting him a lump of coal for Christmas, the boy sends a trained assassin (Walton Goggins) after him. 

Fatman is a satirical take on traditional Christmas beliefs. The movie is also part character study, choosing to focus its lens on a Santa Claus that struggles to bear the weight of the declining morality of the children he is supposed to reward or punish every year. And Mel Gibson puts his full weight into the performance, so that the movie never started to feel cheesy or too self-aware.

But even though the movie retains most of the fantastical elements surrounding the Santa Claus legend, none of that is fully explored as it chooses to sidestep most of it with an approach that is more grounded in reality. This could either please or annoy you, but it just makes the movie's scope feel a lot smaller than it really was.

For all of its holiday-inspired ambitions, Fatman still plays like a typical revenge-driven action thriller. The movie is devoid of any kind of Christmas cheer, nor is it funny enough to be considered a true comedy. But it offers an interesting enough spin on Christmas movies that make it worth checking out on the strength of its premise alone.

Thursday 19 November 2020

The Princess Switch: Switched Again (Movie Review)

Vanessa Hudgens returns for another round of holiday-inspired romance in The Princess Switch: Switched Again, the sequel to the 2018 Netflix original film, The Princess Switch. And once again, she plays the dual roles of Stacy and Margaret, much like she'd done in the previous film. Only this time around, things are taken up a notch with the introduction of a third lookalike for her to play. But more doesn't necessarily equate to better, especially when that more is more of the same.

The movie is set about a year after the events of the previous film. A lot has happened since that first movie apparently. Margaret Delacourt had lost her father, the King of Montenaro, and her cousin has chosen to abdicate his rightful position as ruler, meaning that she was now the heir to the throne. She'd also ended her relationship with Kevin (Nick Sagar), who had chosen to focus on running the bakery rather than support and embrace her return to royalty.

Then there's Stacy DeNovo, who juggles most of her time between her new duties as Princess of Belgravia and her continued love for baking. This is coming at the expense of quality time with her husband, Prince Edward (Sam Palladio), who has started to feel like he might be running the risk of losing her.

But arguably the biggest change since the first movie was Kevin's daughter, Olivia, who has been recast. I'm not sure why that was, but I'd immediately felt Alexa Adeosun absence. The new girl lacked most of the spunk the former actress had shown in the first movie, even though she did manage to do a decent enough job.

Anyways, back to the story, which centers upon Margaret's forthcoming coronation. She invites all her friends to attend the ceremony in Montenaro, including Kevin, who still harbors feelings for her. Stacy and Olivia makes it their mission to help the two of them patch things up. But among the guests attending the coronation is one Lady Fiona Pembroke (also played by Vanessa Hudgens), Margaret's rather eccentric cousin, who just happens to have a mission of her own, a rather nefarious one.

I know this is only the second film in the series, but you can already start to feel the law of diminishing returns set in while watching The Princess Switch: Switched Again. The jokes were nowhere as funny as they were in the first movie (not that the jokes in that movie were particularly funny either). Same goes for the chemistry between our four leads, which had none of the spark from before. What we have left then is another holiday-themed romantic comedy with a rather flimsy premise.

The movie shows us that Stacy and Margaret had agreed to switch places once again to allow Margaret spend some quality time with Kevin. But it also revealed that all Margaret had planned for that day was to attend a Christmas concert. If her schedule for the day was so light to begin with, then why make the Switch in the first place? These kinds of plot holes are what you can expect from a Netflix romantic comedy, I know, but still...

Flimsy premise aside, The Princess Switch: Switched Again is a rehash of an overly familiar formula, which can either be a good or a bad thing, depending on what your feelings were about the first movie. So if you weren't a fan of that film's by-the-numbers approach to romance and comedy, then I'm afraid there's nothing here that could help win you over. But if you happen to buy into all of that, then this new one just might offer you some half decent Christmas-themed entertainment.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Jiu Jitsu (Movie Review)

I can usually tell if a film is a B movie just by taking a glance at some of its promotional material, be that a poster or a full-blown trailer for the film. And from the first moment I saw Jiu Jitsu, it had B movie written all over it. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course. I've seen my share of B movies that turned out decent for what they were. So I was going to give Jiu Jitsu a fair shot. But as I quickly found out while watching the film, some movies just shouldn't be touched, even with a stick.

This particular one opens with a chase between a man (Alain Moussi) and an invisible foe, at the end of which the man is mortally wounded. He passes out only to wake up later, patched up, but with no memory of who he is or what his mission was. The typical setup for these types of films. Anyways, our hero has to deal with a bad case of amnesia, while we the audience are left just as clueless. The truth is the film's story barely makes any sense, so I'll try to do my best to cough out a summary.

Basically, there's this comet that passes the Earth every six years, and when it does it tears open a portal from which a jiu jitsu fighting alien emerges. Yep. You heard that right. A jiu jitsu fighting alien. And in true Predator style, the alien would do battle with 9 chosen human warriors, until it is satisfied it has gotten a good fight. And our hero just happens to be one of the 9 warriors chosen for the alien to do battle with, during its current visit. At least I think that's the basic gist of it.

I'm not sure what I was expecting precisely, when I'd decided to watch Jiu Jitsu. Definitely not something that looked like it was shot in someone's backyard though. The effects were about as good as you can expect from any B movie, which is another way of saying not very good, but it was in fact the nonstop action and wooden acting that made it feel like I was watching something made by a bunch of 13 year olds. After about 30 minutes into the movie, I sincerely felt like I was watching martial arts porn. That's how relentless and over-stylized the fight scenes were.

This was made worse by the fact that the editing in-between those fight scenes was so choppy that it almost felt like significant portions of the film were missing. But I suspect it is just the story itself that wasn't making any lick of sense. The movie employees a comic-book-inspired style to smooth out the transitions from scene to scene, but that didn't really help in the way the filmmakers must have imagined they would.

The movie's one saving grace then was the inclusion of Nicolas Cage (which in retrospect was probably the only reason why I wanted to see the movie in the first place), even though he didn't make an appearance until about halfway into it. He isn't exactly a stranger to these low-budget action flicks, so he was able to fully embrace the silliness of the role, plus you've got to respect an actor that can deliver that much cheesy dialogue with a straight face.

If it wasn't apparent already, Jiu Jitsu is a film that is best avoided by anyone other than the most devoted of action junkies. But if you can switch your brain off for an hour and forty minutes, and just revel in all the B-movie glory on display, then you might be able to glean some enjoyment out of it.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special (Movie Review)

The holidays are fast approaching, meaning that we'll only continue to get even more holiday-themed movies vying for attention. Disney+ is just the latest streamer to jump into the fray, delivering its own dose of Christmas cheer with what is arguably its biggest property. And regardless of what you felt about the conclusion to the Skywalker saga in The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars franchise still remains beloved by fans all over the world, especially with the current success of shows like The Mandalorian.

The last time the franchise had received a holiday special though, it hadn't gone down particularly well. That original 1978 film has only grown in infamy since then, with even George Lucas and the cast and crew themselves acknowledging just how bad it had turned out. So when a sequel was announced, all these years later, eyebrows were no doubt raised. But thankfully, the new animated film is just self-aware enough to make it a joyous adventure in its own right.

The film is set after the events of the sequel trilogy, where what remains of the rebel alliance is preparing for the forthcoming Life Day ceremony, the in-universe equivalent of what we call Christmas. In the midst of all that, Rey has been having a hard time with Finn's Jedi training. But after she discovers some ancient Jedi text that make mention of a temple that contains "a key to the galaxy's past," she becomes convinced that this was what she needed to improve her training techniques.

The catch is the key is only available on Life Day, which happens once a year. So she sets off in pursuit of that temple, accompanied by her favorite droid, BB-8, while the others are left to sort out preparations for the ceremony. Except the key turns out to be more power than she was ready to wield, setting off a chain of events that threaten to change the entire Star Wars timeline, with often hilarious results.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is a movie that is clearly geared towards Star Wars fans. The movie explores the Skywalker saga's storied history by revisiting many of its landmark moments, and it subverts expectations by putting a comedic spin on those familiar scenes, with enough in-jokes and gags to ensure that I was never once not laughing my lungs out. As such, I worry about how much all of that would resonate, if at all, with someone that isn't as clued-in as I am.

I was also a bit bummed out to see that none of the actors from the movies were reprising their roles, in the same way the original cast had done for the 1978 movie. This took away some of the authenticity, but I quickly got accustomed to the new voices, most of whom sounded good enough. I especially liked Tom Kane, who'd put in a rather convincing turn as Master Yoda. And "Participation trophies for Jedi, there are not" needs to be indoctrinated into the official library of awesome Yoda quotes.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is as much a celebration of the entire Star Wars franchise as it is a celebration of the forthcoming holidays. It had so many laughs crammed into its short 45-minute runtime, and enough self-referential nods that it should easily please old and new fans alike.

Saturday 14 November 2020

Greenland (Movie Review)

Remember when disaster movies were all the rage? Well, nowadays, it seems the news contains enough disasters to overwhelm even the wildest of imaginations. But back in the genre's heyday, disaster movie fans were all but guaranteed to get at least two high-profile disaster films each year. We had Twister and Independence Day in 1996; Volcano and Dante's Peak in 97; Armageddon and Deep Impact in 98, and so on. 

But with 2020 itself looking like one big disaster movie in the making, one would imagine that the genre would no longer offer the kind of escapism fans look for in those movies. Except it seems Gerard Butler and Ric Roman Waugh must've not gotten that particular memo, because their latest film is so gloriously reminiscent of the genre's heyday, that you might be fooled into thinking the film was plucked straight out of the late 90s or early 2000s.

The movie stars Gerald Butler as John Garrity, a civil engineer whose family is selected for transportation to an undisclosed underground bunker in the lead up to an impending extinction level event. Basically, a comet big enough to end all life on Earth is on a collision course, and the US government is in a race against time to secure some of the high-profile citizens it would need to rebuild, should they happen to survive the impact. But chaos ensues and things do not go according to plan, so that John must find another way to get his family up to Greenland, where the bunker is believed to be located.

So a part of me can't help but wonder how Greenland would've fared at the global box office, had the coronavirus not forced movie theaters to close down earlier in the year. I suspect it would have done decent enough, but now we'll never know for sure. The movie itself was decent for what it was, accomplishing most of what it sets out to do. That doesn't mean it didn't have some glaring problems though.

There were some head-scratching turn of events about halfway into the film, that seemed shoehorned into the script just to keep things interesting. But that is par for the course with most disaster films I guess, where everything that could possibly go wrong typically does.

Some questions were also left unanswered. Like for how long had the government actually known about the imminent comet strike? Earlier in the movie, it was suggested that it wasn't discovered until weeks prior, but that hardly seems like enough time to come up with an evacuation plan as elaborate as the one depicted in the movie. Granted, most of it did go to the dogs, but still.

Some of the special effects were also a little on the cheap side, adding to the movie's B-movie look and feel. Thankfully, there weren't as many VFX shots as you would anticipate in this type of movie, and most of the film was in fact carried along by the family drama at its heart. The music did tend to get a little overly sentimental though, as the movie tries really hard towards the end to evoke emotions out of viewers, while it flashbacks to the family at their happiest. Gerald Butler was convincing as a troubled man trying to win back the trust of his estranged wife, so there isn't much to complain about there.

Overall, Greenland should please fans of the disaster film genre, while offering enough escape from the actual disasters of 2020. Or at least inspiring some level of hope that they too would pass and be looked back on in the future.

Friday 13 November 2020

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Movie Review)

The holidays have gradually become a good time for musicals, with films like La La Land and The Greatest Showman managing to find considerable success over the course of their respective holidays, barring of course last year's Cats, which was... different. And the only thing surer than a musical released in the lead up to the holidays these days is an actual holiday-themed musical.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is one such musical, a film that seems tailored-made for the needs of the forthcoming holidays, in a year that has been largely devoid of any kind of cheers. It is actually the third holiday-themed film by writer and director, David E. Talbert, following his work on both Almost Christmas and El Camino Christmas. His latest film joins the latter on Netflix, where it made its debut earlier today.

The movie centers upon a genius toy maker named Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), whose inventions were once the talk of the town, bringing joy to all the children and their parents alike every Christmas. But after his latest invention, a talking doll named Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin) gets stolen by his apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key), along with his book of ideas, Jeronicus loses everything he'd worked for.

Thirty years later, he is now a joyless recluse working as a pawnbroker, having lost all desire to invent anything new. When the bank that has been financing his business threatens to close it down due to the lack of new inventions, he is forced to either come up with the money he owes them before Christmas, or invent something new. But after his granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), shows up out of the blue to spend the days leading up to Christmas with him at the pawn shop, she'd help reignite his love of invention as they uncover what is possibly his greatest invention yet.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has all the essential ingredients for a solid Christmas musical. It is filled with musical numbers, most of which are instantly memorable and singalong-worthy. The choreography in these sequences were well done and the overall production shines above what you would expect from a mid-tier Netflix movie. The special effects were a bit of a mixed bag though, with some of it being quite impressive while others were far from so.

That said, the movie is clearly geared more towards kids, but adults shouldn't be left out of the fun either. Some measure of suspension of disbelief is required of course, in order to fully buy into its tale of magic and wonder. I can easily see kids eating this stuff up over the holidays, so brace yourself for some repeat viewings if you're an adult that happens to have little ones of your own.

As far as the acting is concerned, Forest Whitaker delivers another stellar performance, and even Keegan-Michael Key was more than adequate as the bumbling villain of the film. Likewise, the child actors in the film were remarkable, helping to sell the onscreen magic without the movie ever becoming too cloying or saccharine. The songs in the movie also offer a nice mix of genres that incorporates everything from pop, urban and even world music. 

All that is to say that Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey should be able to please all but the most stonehearted of viewers, with all its Christmas cheer and magical wonder. And should you happen to need even more of that this holiday, then you can be rest assured that it is just one of several holiday-themed movies I would be reviewing in the lead up to Christmas.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Jungleland (Movie Review)

Awards season is officially in full swing, even as movie studios continue to lick their wounds from all the damage wrought by 2020. So you can expect to see more of these smaller-scale dramas film pundits refer to as Oscar bait. These are the critical darlings that target this time of year for theatrical release, after making the rounds at the various film festivals. Jungleland had made its own debut back in 2019, at the Toronto International Film Festival, but is only now hitting video on demand, after receiving a limited theatrical release this past weekend.

The movie stars Charlie Hunnam and Jack O'Connell as Stanley and Lion Kaminski, a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers living on the very edge. Lion is a bare-knuckles boxer struggling to make it in the underground boxing league, while Stanley serves as his coach. When both of them fail to pay back a loan taken from a small-time gangster (Jonathan Majors), they are forced to run an errand for him that involves transporting a young girl (Jessica Barden) across the country, as they journey to San Francisco to take part in the Jungleland boxing competition.

There's plenty to love about Jungleland, but the thing I loved the most was the depiction of the camaraderie between the two brothers. They had a co-dependent relationship borne as much out of love as it was necessity. The movie makes it clear that they'd spent a lifetime of hardship together, so it made sense that all they'd ever had to rely on was each other. And it was this that made watching their bond get tested over the course of the movie all the more heartbreaking.

The film is anchored by solid performances from its three leads, and Charlie Hunnam continues to showcase his acting chops, much like he did in The Gentlemen earlier this year. It is also beautifully shot and tightly edited, ensuring that hardly any of its one hour and thirty minutes runtime is wasted. And while it might have similarities to other sports dramas like Warrior, calling it a ripoff would be a disservice to its character-driven narrative. In fact, I wouldn't even call it a sports drama, since it is as much a road movie and a character study, with the sport serving as more of a plot device.

My only real complaint about Jungleland is how the movie sort of just fizzles out at the very end, with the ending itself being cliched and highly derivative. But like most great movies, the enjoyment is in the journey, not the destination. And as far as journeys go, Jungleland is one of the better ones I have had this year.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Dark and the Wicked (Movie Review)

Spooky season might be over, with Halloween now behind us, but that doesn't mean we won't continue to get some horror films crawling out of the woodwork, between now and the genre's traditional dumping ground of January. Studios have typically reserved the interim months between the two as a good time to put out some of their more cerebral horror offerings, with past November horror releases like Doctor Sleep coming to mind. And The Dark and the Wicked just happens to be another one of those.

Set on a farm in the middle of nowhere (itself a recipe for disaster in these types of films), the film centers upon a family of four after they are forced to come together as its patriarch (Michael Zagst) slowly dies on his deathbed. These include the adult siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), who are both there despite their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) expressly asking them not to come. But they soon understand why when they begin to experience disturbing visions that seem to herald the arrival of something truly dark and wicked.

The Dark and the Wicked is a slow-burn horror film that offers very little reward for enduring its blissfully short haunted house (family?) tale. Unless you consider feeling completely repulsed or dreary its own kind of reward, in which case you're in for a treat. None of that is to say that the film is a bad movie, not when it is so masterfully crafted and brilliantly realized. The film creates a feeling of dread through effective camera work and sound design, like any solid horror film should. But what really elevates the movie is the family drama at its center.

Throughout the movie, you can feel the pain the family members are going through as they watch helplessly as their patriarch succumbs to his illness. This is communicated through solid performances, with Marin Ireland in particular deserving of praise. All the horror movie staples come secondary to that family drama, which helps to humanize their experiences even when the chairs in the house start to move on their own.

While I enjoyed watching The Dark and the Wicked, I find it hard to recommend it. The film leans too heavily into the bleakness of its premise, that it neglects to provide any form of catharsis from all of it. I guess it is so effective in evoking the emotions it's sets out to evoke, that it leaves you emotionally drained by the time the credits roll, and that is neither a good thing or a bad thing.

Saturday 7 November 2020

The New Mutants (Movie Review)

The X-Men movies might have fizzled out with the less than stellar X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but for many fans, there still existed that hope that The New Mutants would serve as a better sendoff to the Fox era of the franchise. A proper swansong if you will. Except the movie would have some problems of its own, and it was in fact in danger of never seeing the light of day following the Disney-Fox acquisition. 

But after suffering through a troubled production and several delays, the movie finally made its way into theaters back in August. This was back when Nigerian cinemas were still closed down though, so I wasn't able to see it until now, just ahead of its forthcoming release on Blu-ray and premium VOD.

Set in the X-Men universe, the film takes place in a secluded mansion located "20 miles away from the nearest town," where a group of five mutants are being held captive. These include Rahne (Maisie Williams), Sam (Charlie Heaton), Illyana (Ana Taylor-Joy), Bobby (Henry Zaga) and the newest arrival, Dani (Blu Hunt). They are being studied and monitored by a doctor named Cecillia (Alice Braga), under the guise of helping them learn to control their abilities. But things are obviously not as the woman claims, and the five mutants must learn to work together if they hope to escape.

One of the biggest selling points that was highlighted during the marketing for The New Mutants was the fact that it would be taking a much darker approach than any of the previous X-Men movies. In other words, it was to be the first horror film in the franchise. But while the film definitely had horror film elements, I wouldn't go as far as calling it a true horror film. Perhaps I have just become too jaded by horror films lately, but I never once felt our heroes were in any kind of real, life-threatening danger.

This is not to say that the movie didn't give them any threats to go against. There was definitely no shortage of otherworldly fiends for them to do battle with during the film's climax. The problem though was the fact that for much of the movie they didn't even get to use any of their powers. The first two-thirds of the movie were so light on action that you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching a teen drama, not to talk of a horror film set in the X-Men Universe.

On a more positive note, the movie at least did have some really interesting superpowers on display. I especially loved Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana, who had the coolest-looking powers of the bunch. It was also nice seeing Maisie Williams again, after her stint on Game of Thrones, even though it was a bit freaky seeing her looking as young as she did in the movie, which speaks to all the delays and production troubles the film has had since filming was completed in 2017.

All in all, The New Mutants was a different take on superheroes. And while it might not be the swansong fans were hoping for, it still offers a decent enough superhero adventure story that fits into the overall X-Men universe.

Friday 6 November 2020

Citation (Movie Review)

The sex-for-grades culture that exists in many African universities today is a very real problem that was recently brought to light by the brilliant BBC documentary, Sex for Grades. And just in case you are unfamiliar with the term, "sex for grades," this is when someone in a position of authority at a university (let's say a professor) requests sexual favors from a student in return for good grades. Highly despicable stuff, but sadly the reality that many students still find themselves in.

So it is a good thing then that the issue is getting more exposure in the new Netflix film, Citation. And who better to handle such a delicate subject matter than Kunle Afolayan, one of the most respected Nigerian directors working today. Except I quickly found out while watching Citation that something sounding great on paper doesn't necessarily translate to it being all that great in its execution.

Right off the bat, the movie opens with two decidedly cheap-looking production logos, all but setting the tone for what was to come. But I'm not here to judge the Powerpoint skills of the person responsible for slapping those logos together. I am here to talk about the actual movie. Based on a true-life story, the movie depicts the story of a Masters level student named Moremi, who catches the fancy of a foreign-exchange teacher, Professor Lucien.

Moremi quickly rises to become his star student, but what began as some well-intentioned interactions between the two slowly veers into dangerous territory when Lucien starts to make sexual advances towards her. This would culminate in a rape attempt that Lucien tries to spin as Moremi being the one making moves on him. Now Moremi must do her best to convince the school's disciplinary committee of her innocence, or risk getting expelled from the school.

Now that we're caught up on what the movie is about, let's start by diving into some positives. The best thing about Citation was Jimmy Jean-Louis, who plays the character of Professor Lucien. He was clearly the most accomplished actor on set, and his acting helped elevate the material. I especially loved the depictions of his early interactions with Moremi. Most of the dialogue in those scenes were spoken in a fluent mix of English and French, which felt organic.

And by extension, Temi Otedola also deserves an honorable mention for her portrayal of Moremi. She proved to be a capable lead, despite this being her first acting gig. Her Yoruba lines were a little too wooden for my liking though, especially in contrast with that of Gabriel Afolayan, who played her boyfriend, Koyejo, but I'm guessing (read: hoping) that had more to do with her trying to exaggerate her character's mixed upbringing.

And with that I'll fully transition into the criticism I have about Citation, and there are quite a few. While the acting from the two leads was more than adequate, the same cannot be said for the remainder of the cast. There were just too many ham-fisted deliveries, which always threatened to pull me out of the experience the movie was trying to create. I won't name any names, but you'll know the culprits when you see them.

Then there's the movie's tone, which was all over the place as it skirted between melodrama, comedy, and even romance, with little to no warning before making those switches. There is nothing inherently wrong with works that jump between disparate styles, but the problem here was that none of it seemed to gel particularly well together, resulting in a hodgepodge that never flowed smoothly from scene to scene.

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that the film also employs a nonlinear narrative structure, with the disciplinary hearing serving as a framing device for several flashbacks that fleshed out the backstory. But the movie never really did a good job of marking its many time jumps outside of those sequences, making it harder than necessary to piece together the sequence of events making up its overall narrative.

There were also some questionable casting choices, including Ini Edo who plays Gloria, Moremi's best friend in the movie. The movie establishes that Moremi was young for her class, but the age difference between her and Gloria was even more pronounced than that explanation accounted for. Seun Kuti also makes a head-scratching appearance as a cake delivery man, before launching into a performance of one of his afrobeat songs that lasted way too long in my opinion.

And this is another area where the movie falls short, in its pacing and editing. Several scenes felt like they should have been trimmed down in editing, or left out entirely as they only seemed to slow down the film's sense of momentum. And at two and a half hours in length, the final cut of the movie feels way longer than it needed to be.

Overall, the movie was just too hammy for my liking, from camera shots that lingered too long on their subjects, to the subjects themselves reading their lines with wooden deliveries. While it is admirable that the movie tries to tackle the highly sensitive subject matter of the sex-for-grades cultures in our higher education systems, the film does so with barely any of the subtlety the subject matter deserves. This is why I can't really recommend it to anyone but the staunchest of Kunle Afolayan fans.

Thursday 5 November 2020

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (Movie Review)

I've been a fan of SpongeBob SquarePants for as long as I can remember, from its early days on Nickelodeon, to its previous two forays onto the big screen. So you should understand my excitement for its third feature film, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. The movie was originally slated for a global theatrical debut earlier this year, but then COVID happened and international distribution rights were sold off to Netflix, where it finally debuted earlier today.

In Sponge on the Run, life is going great for the eponymous SpongeBob, who is up to his usual shenanigans working at The Krusty Krab. But after his pet snail, Gary, goes missing, he and his good friend Patrick are forced to journey to the Lost City of Atlantic City, where Gary is being held prisoner. Lucky for them, they get some help from a sentient tumbleweed named Sage (Keanu Reeves), except his wise words are not enough to prevent them from getting distracted by the glitz and glamor of the city.

There is plenty to love about Sponge on the Run. First there's the beautiful 3D animation, which employed a stop-motion animation style that manages to capture the look and feel of the cartoon show while still looking fresh and modern. This is actually the first SpongeBob movie to be completely rendered in CGI and I can easily see why they'd opted to forgo the traditional hand-drawn 2D art style for this one.

But aside from looking great, the movie also had a lot to offer in the comedy department. The show is known for its over-the-top gags, and all of that is well represented in this new movie. The jokes were some of the funniest I'd seen in a while, and I found myself laughing more times than I could count. The film also serves as an origin story of sorts, with several flashbacks to a younger SpongeBob, which learnt the movie most of its emotional core. 

With all that out of the way, I must admit that the movie is clearly geared towards existing fans of the show, as it doesn't really do anything that might draw in casuals, aside from including a number of celebrity cameos. But even that is not enough to prevent me from recommending Sponge on the Run, another solid entry in a franchise that never seems to get old.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Holidate (Movie Review)

Now that spooky season is behind us, we can start looking ahead to the next major holiday down the conveyor belt of seasonal content. I am of course referring to Christmas, that time of year that has become synonymous with carol singers and snowball fights. And Netflix is once again the first studio to jump into the fray, with the release of its holiday-themed romantic comedy, Holidate. 

The film follows a pair of singletons, Sloane (Emma Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey), who just can't seem to catch a break in their individual love lives. Sloane is just coming off a difficult breakup with a long-time boyfriend, and must now endure the many questions and concerns of her family members during the Christmas holidays. Jackson on the other hand barely manages to escape the clutches of an over-possessive girlfriend and her equally disturbing parents.

But following a chance meeting between the two of them at a shopping mall, they both come to acknowledge their mutual need for a commitment-free relationship with a partner that would help them get through the formalities of holidays. And thus begins an unusual friendship that is forged around the concept of "non-sexual holidates." Except the whole thing gets threatened after they start to develop feeling for one another.

I went into Holidate expecting a typical, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with a holiday theme, and that was precisely what I had gotten. What I didn't expect was just how hard it was going to try to subvert the genre's tropes, employing an approach that I found a little too on the nose. The gags were also hit or miss, depending on your tolerance for toilet humor, a la the far superior 2011 comedy, Bridesmaids.

But this was still a romantic comedy at the end of the day, and those normally live off of the strength of the chemistry between their two leads. This is one area where Holidate excels, as it was never difficult to buy into the blossoming relationship between Sloane and Jackson. And despite trying to poke fun at the well-known conventions of the genre, the film still slots neatly under the rom-com designation, for better or worse.

Holidate is an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film that should please fans of romantic comedies. And while I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it, it should still serve as an adequate distraction on a slow day with nothing better to do or watch.